WWII Veteran Oral History Interview
Dates: 28 April & 7 July 2009
Veteran: Herman Frank
Ex POW, 15th Air Force, 460th Bomb Gp., 762nd Bomb Squadron
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Irving Bauman
Herman Frank was born in New York City in March 1920. On September 23, 1942, Frank, who was working at the time for the General Dynamics Corporation, enlisted in the US Army Air Corps. He entered the service at Camp Upton, New York and was sent to Keesler Air Base, near Biloxi, Mississippi, for basic training. At the time of his oral history interviews he recalled that his military experience introduced him to a new and previously unimagined world.
In Mississippi, Frank witnessed blatant racial discrimination for the first time in his life. There were separate bathrooms for white and black soldiers, and when white people walked on the town’s sidewalks, black men, soldiers or civilians, were expected to step into the street to allow them to pass. Despite discrimination and segregation, and advice from fellow white soldiers not to talk to African-Americans, Frank was drawn to black Biloxi on Sundays. A music lover, he sat on the steps of a local church to listen to the choir harmonizing within.
Following basic training Frank was transferred to Randolph Air Base, at Harlingen, Texas, where he received advanced flight crew instruction. Trained as an aerial machine gunner at Randolph, he became skilled at disassembling and assembling a .50 caliber Browning machine gun and recognizing the silhouettes of enemy aircraft, and was subsequently assigned to a B-24 bomber crew as a nose-gunner and flight engineer. As the only Jewish soldier in his crew Frank recalled that he had to endure casual anti-Semitic remarks from some other crew members, as well as sarcastic comments on his preference for reading books in his spare time rather than drinking with them.
The B24 had a ten man crew composed of four officers and six enlisted men. The pilot and commander of Frank’s plane was a career officer, who insisted that enlisted crewmen salute the officers on every possible occasion, and denied his request for a recommendation to attend officer candidate school. Frank, a staff sergeant by then, got along well with the B24’s navigator, however, whom he found to be a demanding yet intelligent and capable officer with less interest in military formalities than the pilot.
Frank’s crew made a number of training flights and then proceeded overseas in stages, flying from Mitchell Field, New York to Jacksonville, Florida and then on to Brazil, where he saw his first pineapple grove. The plane then crossed the Atlantic to Dakar, in French West Africa, where he encountered “beautiful people,” some of whom spoke English. From Dakar the B-24 flew north, to Morocco and then Algeria. After several days in Africa, the plane took off for its final destination, an airfield in Spinoza, Italy.
Once established in Spinoza, Frank’s crew began its tour of combat duty, which was defined as completing twenty-five bombing missions. He recalled that the first mission was a “milk run,” and easily accomplished. Subsequent missions were far tougher and included attacking heavily defended enemy marshalling yards, the Ploesti oil fields, storage facilities, ball bearing factories, industrial areas, and other predetermined targets in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria and Rumania. Frank recalled that if you could see the black clouds of “flak” around you as the B-24 flew through antiaircraft fire, you were relatively safe, but if you heard an explosion, you were in big trouble.
That trouble came to Herman Frank on May 10, 1944, during his thirteenth mission. His aircraft dropped its bomb load and was returning to Spinoza, flying at 8,000 feet over Yugoslavia when it was hit by antiaircraft fire. One of the B-24’s two rear stabilizers was blown off, its bomb bay doors flopped open, and the plane’s interior was quickly engulfed in smoke and flames. The pilot ordered his crew to bail out and Frank exited through a floor escape hatch in the plane’s nose. He had never received formal parachute training, but jumped into space and pulled the ripcord, hoping for the best. The parachute opened and he began to descend. As Frank drifted away from the chaos and fire, he felt detached, and became transfixed by the beautiful landscape below him as he approached the ground. He landed abruptly, his right foot wedged in a rotted tree stump, and the shock knocked him unconscious. He awoke to the laughter of children running down the hill on a nearby path.
On recovering consciousness Frank felt a stabbing pain in his right leg. He unsheathed his knife and cut himself free from the stump. Concluding that his swollen leg was broken, he then cut a primitive splint, secured it with parachute cord, found a piece of wood he could use as a staff and then made his way down the hill on the lane the children had used. When he stopped to look around he saw a man and woman working on a farm a short distance away, and hobbled over to the couple, who offered him chicken to eat and wine to drink. His hosts spoke no English, so Frank used drawings in the dirt and sign language to communicate, asking them to help him escape any nearby Germans. They placed him in a two-wheeled cart, covered him with straw to avoid detection and headed for the nearest town. On the way, Frank disassembled his .45 caliber automatic pistol and tossed the parts away, since he realized he was not about to shoot his way out of German occupied Yugoslavia with a handgun and thought he might fare worse if he was found with a firearm on him by trigger happy enemy soldiers. Unfortunately, on the way to town the wagon was stopped and he was captured by local allies of the Germans. They carried him into a house and threw him onto a bed, where he passed out. He learned much later that his pilot and navigator had been rescued by the local Underground movement and made it back to Allied lines.
Frank was abruptly awakened by his radio man and tail gunner, who had also been captured, yelling ‘Frank, get up.” The following day he was placed aboard a flat bed truck and brought to a hospital at a German airfield in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. There were other injured American airmen there, but no German military doctors to care for them. A German speaking nun stripped and washed him, wrapped his injured leg in a plaster half-cast and fed him a bowl of soup. He was initially interrogated by an English speaking German officer who claimed he had served with General Rommel in North Africa and then later by another German who said he had once lived in Detroit. During his second interrogation he was smacked around a bit by a burly German officer.
Frank remained in the German air base hospital from May 11 to June 2, 1944 and never saw a doctor, although the nun checked his cast periodically. He was fed soup and bread, but sleeping was difficult, since the lights were kept on twenty-four hours a day. While he was there, a fellow American prisoner in the next bed who had lost a leg developed a high fever and deliriously called out for his mother. The man eventually died, quite literally in Frank’s arms, and the memory stirs deep emotion in him to this day.
As he became more mobile, Frank was given a crutch. On one occasion he ate in a cafeteria with hundreds of other prisoners, where the meal was potato and carrot soup, which he thought delicious at the time. He was eventually provided with a wheelchair and moved to a cell located in a nearby building. The cell had a bed and a pail to use as a toilet, and he was issued a blanket but no pillow. On June 4, 1944, he was placed aboard a train heading north. There was little food and the train had no bathroom, and he heard bombs exploding nearby all along the route to his new home, Stalag Luft III. Stalag Luft III was a POW camp for air crews and officers located in Sagan, Silesia, then in eastern Germany, but part of today’s Poland. In March 1944 the camp was the scene of the events later portrayed in the film “The Great Escape.”
Frank became the cook for twelve men in his room at Stalag Luft III. He had to improvise on the job, using wood and straw from beds for fuel to prepare soup. German issued bread looked and tasted like sawdust, but Frank cut it into small pieces and toasted it on the stovetop to make it a bit more palatable. Occasional Red Cross parcels shared among the prisoners supplemented the German issue rations for each room, which included food, cigarettes and soap.
With Russian troops closing in from the east, Stalag Luft III was evacuated on January 27, 1945, when Frank and his comrades were awakened at 4:00 AM by their guards and marched out of the camp in the coldest month of the year. In preparation for what he expected would be a long march, he wrapped a blanket and spare socks around his body and stuffed a box of Del Monte prunes and a small folding stove wrapped in an undershirt in a backpack fashioned from an undershirt. The more than 10,000 Allied prisoners at Stalag Luft III endured a series of brutal winter forced marches west to various camps in Germany. With British and American bombs falling all around, day and night, the prisoners staggered on. Some were shot by guards and others just collapsed and died from exposure. They ate whatever they could find and Frank used a sardine tin discarded by another soldier as a miniature frying pan to heat meager rations on his folding stove. Eventually, after several stops along the way, he arrived at Stalag VII-A in Moosburg, Bavaria. The Moosburg camp was liberated on April 29, 1945 by troops from the 14th Armored Division of General Patton’s Third Army.
During the course of his imprisonment, Frank sketched his prison barracks, guard towers and other features of Stalag Luft III. A non-smoker, he traded some cigarettes for a camera with film in it, and photographed the last days of his confinement and eventual liberation at Stalag VII-A. He has kept the sketches and photographs, which provide a rare record of an American soldier’s World War II POW experience, to the present day.
With the end of the war in Europe, Frank was flown to Camp Lucky Strike, near LeHavre, France, a medical camp for POWs being treated for various ailments before returning to the United States. Although he developed colitis while at Lucky Strike, he was issued a canvas back brace and an elastic bandage for his ankle and was able to enjoy clean hot showers for the first time in over a year. Frank returned to America via the hospital ship John Ericson, aboard which the most popular diversion seemed to be playing craps. On arrival in America, he was bussed to Fort Dix, where he witnessed the ironic sight of German POW’s eating in an American army mess hall that was also feeding Americans who were former POWs of the Germans. Frank was subsequently transferred from Fort Dix to a convalescent hospital in Macon, Georgia, where he was offered the option of staying in the US Army Air Forces and returning to Europe as a master sergeant, even though he was handicapped. He declined, and was discharged on October 17, 1945.
Herman Frank returned to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a knapsack over his shoulder and war souvenir German sword and dagger in hand. He subsequently applied to the Eastern Airlines office at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport for a job but was told that former World War I ace and Eastern owner Eddie Rickenbacker wasn’t interested in hiring “a Hebrew.”
On discharge Frank was rated with a 50% disability, later raised to 100%. Although his initial treatment by Veterans Administration doctors was less than satisfactory, it improved dramatically.
Frank married in December 1947, and has a son, daughter, and two grandchildren.
For his service, Herman Frank received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, and European African Middle Eastern Service Medal, WWII Victory Medal, POW Medal and the New York State Medal of Honor.