Robert Garvey was born August 5, 1923. He lived in west St. Louis, graduated from Soldan High school in June 1941. After graduation, Robert went to work for Curtiss-Wright in St. Louis. Curtiss Wright has own of the most renowned legacy in the aerospace industry. In 1929 Curtiss-Wright was formed by the merger of companies formed by Glen Curtiss – the father of naval aviation – and the Wright Brothers. Robert while at Curtiss-Wright was building airplane parts for the Lend Lease program. America was supplying aid and military equipment to allied nations to help win the war.
Robert was drafted at 19 and sent to Sheppard Field Texas for basic training. Since he had been building airplanes in civilian life, it was decided Robert would be in the Army Air Force (or Army Air Corp). After basic Robert was sent to mechanic school at Fort Leavenworth where he took a flight physical.
Anyone who passed the flight physical was immediately sent to gunnery school in Fort Myers Florida. There in Fort Myers, they received plenty of target practice. They would shoot at moving targets in the sky, on the group and including trap and skeet. Gunnery school last about two months. Robert said, “I was about an average shot.” After gunnery school in 1943, Robert went home for Thanksgiving. The only time he ever went on leave during his service.
From gunnery school Robert was off to Salt Lake City Utah where he was assigned to a crew with a B-24. The B-24 crew consisted of six enlisted men (sergeants) and four officers. training group of ten planes. There were 4 turret gunners, 2 waist gunners, pilot, copilot, navigator and bombardier. The pilot assigned gunnery positions and Robert was assigned to the nose gun. Robert became very close to his fellow crew members.
From Harvard Nebraska, the squadron flew to Caretta Italy. At the time, Germany still held much of North Italy. In May 1944, Robert and his crew began missions to the North and East. Targets consisted mostly of railroads, bridges and factories. A typical mission would begin at 7:00 AM and often there were thousands of planes in the sky. There were B-24’s, B-17’s and later escort fighters would join them as they neared their targets.
A typical schedule was to fly 2-3 days in a row, then an off day. Weather had to be good, or there would be no mission. Robert played a lot of cribbage back then. The other crew members played poker and Bridge but he wasn’t very good at either.
Robert had flown 29 missions with his regular crew. On June 13, 1944 Robert “was volunteered” to be a substitute nose gunner with another crew. A heavy smoke screen prevented the group from bombing railroad marshalling yards at Munich. On their way to the alternative target at Innsbruck Austria, they were jumped by German planes and their B-24 was disabled. The group suffered severe damage to their aircraft from flak and interceptor aircraft. Despite heavy gunfire encountered at the alternate target the group bombed the marshalling yards at Innsbruck and received a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for its persistent action. The June 13th mission was the costliest mission in the 484th Group’s history.
Robert’s plane wouldn’t make it to their target. When asked if Robert had ever bailed out of a plane, he said no, they had never practiced. But with the plane damaged and going to crash, there was no hesitation. He just wanted to get out. He waited until he had cleared the plane and pulled the rip cord. The parachute went between his legs and he then realized he was upside down. Robert said, he was just glad to get out of the plane. Floating down was quiet, pleasant and peaceful until he hit the ground with a big whap! It was about noon time and he landed in an open field. The landing knocked the wind out of him for a short while. They were trained to gather their chute and run to the nearest cover or woods to hid. When he was running for the woods, something that felt like a slap, hit him on the right, back and knocked him down. Confused, he started to unbutton his flight suit uniform discovered blood and realized he was shot. He was trying orient himself, when another bullet struck him in his right arm. Robert says today, “when someone asked him his level of pain on a scale of one to ten, he knows what ten feels like. The shot in the back was like a slap. The in the arm, was very painful.”
His captors was a German Home Guard (older man) and a civilian. Bleeding, they walked Robert into a nearby town. Tired from the walk and loss of blood, he laid down on the side of the road. A Catholic priest walked by but didn’t speak English. He gave Robert a crucifix which he still has today. He was taken to a nearby regular Catholic Hospital run by nuns in habit. One nun who spoke a little English told him, don’t worry, we’ll take good care of him.” While he was in the hospital, he found another member of the crew who had been shot by the fighters in the attack on their plane. He was in the civilian hospital for a week before being transferred to German Military hospital in a POW ward on the top floor. There were about twenty of them there. While there, they were being cared for and fed well. Their only worry was the Americans would bomb the hospital not knowing there were POW’s there.
After three weeks, they were taken by train wearing their American uniforms (no insignias) to a POW camp. German Civilians saw them, but they were unsure they knew we were POW’s. While on the train, they stopped in Nuremberg. There were lots of bombed out buildings in the city. They continued on to Frankfort and an interrogation center where all POW’s were sent.
Robert was placed in a cell by himself. The next morning a German officer came in to interrogate him. He asked him where he was the last month. The officer told him they knew more than he did and had no more questions. The officer informed Robert the rest of his crew had made it out and was okay.
Robert then boarded a train to go to his permanent POW camp. The train car was fairly crowded, and everyone could not lie down at once to sleep. So, they had to take turns sleeping. They were in the boxcar for a week. They all were worried an American plane would strafe the train during the trip. They finally ended up in Poland at Stalag Luft IV in Gross Tychow Pomerania (now Tychowo Poland). Most of the occupants were American Air Force NCO’s.
The camp was opened in May of 1944. A military report was released which described problems such as inadequate shower facilities, unfit distribution of Red Cross parcels. Prisoners were permitted two letters and four postcards per month. The letters were harshly censored with prisoners forced to tell their families they were being treated well.
They were housed in wooden barracks about three feet off the group. Each barrack had ten rooms and ten men in a room. There was a pot belly stove and a bag of straw for a mattress. We had two buckets. One for washing, one for food. Robert said, “This was in August of 1944. I knew because I had my twenty-first birthday on the train. Our diet consisted mostly of unseasoned potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Sometimes we had bread with sawdust added for bulk. We never had any meat. Although the International Red Cross supplied a food supplement package for each week, the Germans wouldn’t give you one each week.
We played a lot of cards. They tried to teach me bridge, but he couldn’t learn it.”
Since they were NCO’s (sergeants), they were not required to work. Every morning and every night, the guards counted prisoners and then locked them in the barracks. Robert said, “If the count was right, everything went smoothly. Outside there was a tall barbed wire fence. Inside the fence was a shorter (one foot tall) wire. You could walk up to the short wire. If you crossed it, the guard would shoot you.” Robert did not know of anyone who tried to escape. Robert was in this camp from August to February of 1945.
During the first part of February, the Russians were approaching from the East and the Germans began moving their prisoners West in Germany. The Germans marched them on backroads and a circuitous route for nearly three months. History would later refer to as the Black March. Eight thousand men in the camp were given the remaining Red Cross parcels. They marched under guard about 15-20 miles per day. There was much zigzagging to escape the Soviet Red Army. Treatment was very bad. The sick was mistreated. Some prisoners were bayoneted. Shelters at night might be a barn or under the stars. Robert had his boots stolen. He was forced to march the next 5-6 days wearing only several pairs of socks on his feet. His feet became badly blistered.
One night the Germans told them they were going to walk the prisoners into the American lines the next day. They entered a small town with bunches of white flags flying. As they walked up to the Americans, their guards laid down their weapons and surrendered. Robert said, “the two GI’s in a jeep greeting the prisoners got beat up from all of us hugging and patting them.” The Americans walked them to an air base, deloused them and gave them mess. There were there about a week and ate about six meals a day. There was also movies and snacks. They learned where the best food mess was available. “Food was on their minds all the time,” Robert said.
Robert wrote home saying they were safe. Eisenhower came to the base where they were awaiting to leave for home. They departed for London for a week and then to Liverpool to board a ship for home. Five days later, they arrived in New York Harbor. They went to Camp Kilmer NJ for a few days. They were given shots and checked over and then told they would be sent to a base near their home. For Robert Garvey, the base was Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis his home town.
Robert was given a sixty day leave and told him in 45 days, have the doctor say he still needed more rest. The doctor’s note gave him another 30 days of leave. After his leave, Robert reported to Miami Florida and was there when Japan surrendered. With the war ending. Robert had enough points to be discharged.
Robert came home, married in 1947 and graduated from an engineering school in 1949. He went on to work for McDonnell Aircraft in St. Charles.
Looking back, Robert said, his captors treated him good throughout the ordeal. “Nobody ever though we wouldn’t win the war or wouldn’t get home.”
Robert’s Message to Future Generations:
German Nazism and Japanese Imperialism threatened the freedom of people all over the world in the early 40’s. Those us that enlisted or was drafted went to fight for our country. Although this was not a pleasant experience and wars continue to rage in the world, I would not want my children or grandchildren to be involved in conflict. However, I would say to them there are some things worth fighting for. I would tell them to stay in school, continue their education, choose their friends wisely, and keep their faith in God. The United States of America must be protected for each succeeding generation. Therefore it is important to be informed about world events and to take an active role in one’s government. By taking advantage of the privilege of voting. It is necessary to educate future generations about the wars America has fought on foreign soils to keep not only Americans free, but those oppressed by tyrants who seek to force their will on others. Many lives have been lost in all the wars fought by Americans beginning with the revolutionary war, then the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam and Desert Storm. By becoming aware of the causes of these wars, perhaps future generations, will be able to prevent other conflicts that would take the lives of America’s young people. May peace on earth, good will towards men be the words by which we live in the future.
Robert returned home, married in 1947, got his engineering degree and worked at McDonnell Aircraft in St. Charles.
Want to know about Robert’s story? Come visit the St Charles County Veterans Museum.