A Veteran's Story....Part Two

Courtesy: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand
Courtesy: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand
Courtesy: Museen der stat Numberg
Courtesy: Museen der stat Numberg

(Editor's note: This is part two of three about the experiences of retired Carmi school principal Ted Matsel during World War II and during his part in a ceremony held earlier this year in Belgium)

The game is up. What might have been possible with two good engines on the Flying Fortress is fading as quickly as the oil leaking from the number three engine. They are not going to make it home today. Lieutenants Lowell and Matsel look for a place to land the crippled bomber.

The map shows they are near the village of Grand Leez. As they line up on the plowed field next to the road, the crew only knows that they are behind enemy lines, and except for each other, very much alone. As they drop lower, Matsel notices two boys on bicycles who have stopped along the road to watch the crash.

They hit the plowed field at somewhere around 100 miles an hour. Later, others would marvel at the young pilots' aeronautical skill in bringing the B-17 down so smoothly. But now, all their training is out the window and chance takes over. As they hit the field, dirt and dust fill the airplane, choking the crew and blinding them. The sound of metal scraping the earth is deafening. Matsel is hoping that the bomber will stop before it hits the line of trees ahead. In the dusty fog, there is no way to know how far they've skidded across the field.

Then, the screeching stops, the dust settles, and they are alive. After suffering such crippling damage, the huge aircraft has protected them one last time. Miraculously, all ten crew members walk away from being shot out of the sky and crash landing in a Belgian farm field.

There is much to do now. Their training takes over, and the crew hurries out into the warm sunshine. Their orders are to burn the aircraft that has kept them safe today. Matsel and radioman Staff Sergeant Jay Sterrett head for the nearby road where the two boys are being joined by other curious onlookers.

It doesn't take long for German soldiers from the anti-aircraft battery to show up. The airmen are unarmed, their sidearms left behind in England on orders of the high command. The crew starts to run, but shots ring out and they quickly decide there's nowhere to go. They are warriors who become prisoners of war.

The crew members are forced to lie face down in some weeds next to the road. More shots. Hardened by three days of combat, Matsel is certain they are being executed. His only thought, "This is going to be tough on the folks back home."

Instead of executing the crew, the Germans are firing into the air to scare away civilians. Only the two boys remain to watch the crew being taken away. After the Germans leave, one of the boys scribbles something on a scrap of paper before heading home on his bicycle.

For the crew of B-17G L-297808, the war is over. The officers and enlisted men are split up. The officers are marched and loaded onto a train for a trip to one of the most famous prisoner of war camps, Stalag Luft 3, near Sagan in Poland (Luft 3 would later be immortalized in the movie, "The Great Escape"). They arrive there on June 7, 1944 and are told by their captors of the D-Day invasion. The Germans predict the war will be over in six months.

That prediction proves to be wrong. It would be almost a year, with a forced march to another prison camp in January of 1945. Some men don't survive the march. Matsel watches a man sit down by a tree and freeze to death.

Lt. Lowell is Jewish. He credits other airmen with saving his life. Frequently during their time at Luft 3, guards go around and ask the prisoners if they know anyone who is Jewish. Lowell escapes because he has a duplicate set of dog tags that he wears only on bombing missions. The fake dog tags are stamped with a "P" for Protestant as his faith, instead of "H" for Hebrew.

Life in the prison camps is hard, but the mood is generally upbeat.  Matsel says, "We knew the war was almost over and all we had to do was make it through."

On April 29, 1945, Matsel witnesses another bit of history as his prison camp is liberated by none other than General George Patton. "He looked just like in the movies, pearl handled pistols, shiny helmet and all. He thanked us for our service and made sure we had food to eat."

After arriving back in southern Illinois, Lieutenant Ted Matsel becomes civilian Ted Matsel, eventually raising a family and serving as principal of Carmi Junior High for over 30 years.

But the story doesn't end there......