The longest mission
Bruce L. Lowe '48 interrupted his education to serve in the Air Force during World War II and wound up a prisoner of war on his first mission. This is the story of his experience.
When Bruce L. Lowe joined the Air Force during World War II, he didn't know the interruption to his education at then GMI, now Kettering University, would be a 10-month hiatus in a prisoner of war camp. Here is his story, one of several on alumni WWII veterans published this year.
June 26, 1944—The training was complete. Everything they’d learned was now essential to survival in the bombing campaign against Germany. But this was their first mission, one that Bruce L. Lowe ‘48 of Flint had never anticipating lasting almost a year.
Lowe—a B-24 co-pilot assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force Division, 459th Bomb Group based in Cerginola, Italy—took off with his crew on his first mission that June 26 with 36 other bombers to attack the oil refineries in Vienna that supplied Hitler’s army. But as soon as the bomber became air born, one engine started acting up. Shortly thereafter, a second engine on the left wing developed a run-away prop, which meant the pilot and Lowe had to shut it down and feather both props.
Unfortunately, they were unable to maintain flight and received orders from their base to abandon the bomber. Twenty minutes before reaching the target, the crew bailed out over enemy territory at more than 16,000 feet at 9:30 am. Lowe landed in a field in western Hungary and no one was within the vicinity. Around the time that he landed, a dog fight between an American P-38 and German ME-109 took place. The ME was shot down, which distracted the local towns people from searching for Lowe and his crew.
“I ducked and could envision the horrible sight of one of the .50 caliber shells hitting me,” Lowe said. “About 100 yards from me, the ME’s nose was buried in the ground, which was a lucky break because I was able to hide out in the wheat field,” he added.
Lowe would learn later that of the 36 bombers that approached the target that day, 10 were lost.
During that first night, he hid and tried to determine his next move. But the next morning the townsmen were up early searching for his crew and they caught Lowe at 6:30 am. After taking him to a small town and feeding him coffee and bread, they handcuffed the tall American and marched him to the Hungarian Army Headquarters in another town.
After a month in a Budapest jail, he was placed on a train with other prisoners and transported to Stalag Luft III 100 miles southeast of Berlin in Sagan, Germany. There were more than 10,000 officers in the camp and four months earlier, 76 POWs attempted a massive escape through a 287-foot tunnel they dug out over a seven-month period. This became the subject of the movie The Great Escape; Hitler was enraged at this mass escape attempt that when the German Army captured 50 of these prisoners, he immediately ordered their execution.
Lowe’s time in Stalag Luft III comprised working to eat, staying warm and planning for evacuation. He also kept a chronology of important dates and events written on wrapper papers from the inside of Lucky Strike cigarette packages. To protect his chronology, Lowe fashioned an outer cover from a flattened Spam can.
Like other prisoners, life in camp was difficult for Lowe, but he found ways to survive. He ate off Spam cans that had been cleaned out and flattened as plates. He and other prisoners used powdered milk cans to dig out tree stumps, which they used for fire kindling. And upon his first day of arrival in camp, officers told him to be ready to leave immediately on foot, since Hitler often used the prisoners as pawns to prevent the Allies from certain attacks when prisoners were in transit.
In January of 1945 as the Russians advanced toward Sagan, the German Army feared that the highly trained airmen would be freed and thus forced the 10,000 prisoners in Stalag Luft III to march some 62 miles in five days to Spremberg. The prisoners were then put aboard a train and transferred to Stalag Luft XIII in Moosburg in mid April, 1945, which was just outside of Nuremberg
Life at this camp was even worse: the food was inedible and more than 30,000 POWs crowded the grounds. Outside the prison fence, bombs dropped from Allie planes. Eventually, the prisoners were forced to march again to another prison—Stalag Luft VII-A, some 100 miles from Nuremburg, a small camp designed to house only 10,000 prisoners.
But when Lowe and his group arrived, the prison swelled to more than 130,000 prisoners from all over the world, most of which slept on the ground or in make-shift tents. Soon, word spread that liberation was approaching—Patton’s troops were on their way to Munich, which was close to the camp.
The morning of April 29, 1945, the German Army continued to fight in an attempt to defend Moosburg against Patton’s approaching troops. Bullets whizzed through the camp and the prisoners hugged the ground. Suddenly, the camp grew quiet. The German soldiers disappeared. Minutes later General Patton came through the camp gates in a jeep and his 14th Armored Division liberated the prisoners.
Within a month, Lowe was home in Flint, greeted at the train station by his mother and fiancée, Betty Jane. His first and only mission during WWII lasted 10 months.
“I was SO happy to be home,” Lowe said.
Bruce and Betty Jane married. He returned to GMI and graduated in 1948, then went on to a successful GM career at Buick, retiring in 1980. Today, he and Betty Jane are 86. They have three married children and live in Jacksonville, Fla., near their grandchildren.
Written by Gary J. Erwin
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Peggy L. Shippen, daughter of Bruce Lowe, and to Bruce Lowe for material provided for this story.