What is the Price of Freedom

by Delbert Lambson

In World War II, America lost 414,000 killed and another 100, 000 still missing in action and unaccounted for and assumed dead. That’s over half a million of our choicest young Americans who gave their lives so that you and I can walk free in this free land. We lost 400 ships in the first year of the war We lost over half of the 25,000 heavy bombers that we sent into combat. The Eighth Air Force, of which I was a part, lost 80,000 American fliers in the air war over Germany. But we fought back and we won because we made the sacrifice. We won because we supported our troops on the battlefield. We won because we were right.

My mother had six of her nine sons in the service, four of them in harm’s way, but she never stayed home and felt sorry for herself, she took a defense job working away from the home for the first time in her life, so that her sons could come home soon and safe. It was a time of great sacrifice when everything was rationed, from soap to sugar, from tires to toilet paper.

When I was called into the service, a gun was put in my hands and I was taught how to use it. I learned how to kill people. The people that were trying to kill me and they almost succeeded. My wife and I were expecting our first child, and when I told my wife and family goodbye, it was the hardest thing that I ever did, and when I saw the statue of liberty fade out of sight in New York harbor, I felt as though my world was coming to an end.

I was a ball turret gunner on a B-17, flying bombing missions over Germany. Our plane was armed with 12 fifty caliber machine guns, each capable of firing 750 rounds of ammunition per minute. The B-17 had a crew of ten, a pilot, a co-pilot, a bombardier, a navigator, an engineer, a radio operator, two waist gunners, a tail gunner and myself the ball turret gunner, but ours was not just a B-17, ours was “Betty Boop, The Pistol Packing Mama” and she was our pride and joy.

My turret was suspended beneath the belly of the plane. Because my turret was so small, I couldn’t wear my parachute. I had to leave it up in the waist of the plane. The only way I could get to my parachute and put it on was to lower my guns to a straight down and forward position, open the hatch door above my head and crawl up inside the plane and clip the parachute onto my chest. If the turret was damaged in combat and would not operate, I would go down with the plane.

From my position, down there underneath, I could watch the bombs go down, explode and the smoke and dust rise into the air. I thought about the innocent, old me and women and children on the ground, and this was the hell of war for me.

Besides the German fighter planes, shells from the anti-aircraft guns on the ground would come up and burst all around us with long red, dirty fingers of death. There was no place to hide, and you never knew which one was going to have your name on it. We flew our missions at an altitude of 30,000 feet, where the temperature dips to 60 degrees below zero and the oxygen is so thin that it will not sustain life.

Our crew flew nineteen long hard missions, but I only have time to tell you about the most dangerous one. After a pre-dawn breakfast, we gathered in the briefing room to learn that our target for the day was Regensburg, an industrial city deep in the heart of Germany that had cost many American lives on previous missions.

After the briefing, we went out to where the “Pistol Packing Mama” shivered in the pre-dawn cold. We cleaned and oiled our guns and went up into the waist of the plane to wait for takeoff. After take off we joined the greatest fighting force the world has ever known and headed east towards Regensburg. We had crossed France and were approaching the German boarder when our plane began to lag in the formation. This really bothered me. The German fighter planes would watch for stragglers and pounce on them and bring them down almost at their leisure.

As we continued to lag, there was a call from the pilot. “Abandoning operations, returning to base” Fear penetrated every fiber of my being “Abandoning operations, returning to base” this was the same as a death knell. A lone bomber deep in enemy territory, a sitting duck is what we now became.

We had barely left the formation when there was a call from the bombardier. “Fighters, 3:00 O’Clock low” I swung my turret around and saw two German fighter planes off our right wing, just out of range, sizing us up, deciding where to strike. They soon decided and darted around in front and came in directly on our nose.

Gritting my teeth and praying like mad, I opened fire as they came into range. I was using every skill of gunnery that I possessed but they kept coming, firing as they came. There was a blinding flash, like lightning striking close. Streaks of fire shot through my brain. My hands shot up to my face. Blood trickled through my fingers and down my chest. My left leg was numb and my left shoulder felt like a hot iron had been thrust into it. My flying suit was soaking up the blood that was pouring from my wounds. I stared, in horror, at the shatter proof window just in front of my face. There was a four-inch hole directly in the center of it. I should be dead. God in heaven only knows why my head had not been blown off.

Though I was badly wounded my mind was clear. I knew I had to get out and get out fast. I struggled to raise my good right hand up to the controls, above my head. The turret responded to my touch. With a sigh of relief, and a prayer of thanksgiving, I lowered the guns to a straight down and forward position, so that I could open the hatch door above my head. I struggled with the hatch door and finally got it open. I dragged myself up into the waist, clipped the parachute onto my chest and looked around. The waist of the plane was empty. The two waist gunners had received orders to bail out and they were gone.

I went to the open door and looked out. The right wing of the plane was a mass of flame from one end to the other. It was time to go. But, for some reason, I didn’t jump. I looked up into the radio room and saw the radio operator standing in the center of the room firing into space. I dragged myself up to his position and yelled, “let’s get out of here, she’s gonna blow.” He just kept on firing. I pulled his hands from the trigger of his machine gun and pointed him towards the open door and pushed him out and followed. As I jumped the concussion literally blew me away from the plane as it exploded behind us.

We were at 30,000 feet when we jumped. It was 60 degrees below zero, and no enough oxygen at that attitude to keep me alive if I didn’t freeze to death, and my life’s blood was flowing out of my body, so I didn’t open my parachute. I fell for over four miles. When the time was right, I pulled the ripcord and my parachute opened out in front of me and I began swinging back and forth like a baby in its mother’s arms. I closed my eyes and drifted into unconsciousness.

I don’t know how long I lay there on the ground. But when I awoke I was staring into the business end of a dozen enemy rifles. A squad of Hitler’s finest stood there staring down at me, watching me bleed to death. I was so weak from the loss of blood that I really didn’t care whether I lived or died. But someone cared.

A little dark haired lady pushed her way through the ring of German soldiers, came to my side and tenderly dressed my wounds. I don’t know where the little dark haired lady came from, or how she had the courage to defy the German soldiers, but this I do know, she was an angel sent from heaven. She literally saved my life.

I drifted into unconsciousness again. Much later I awoke in a room that glowed with whiteness. And there was an angel clad in a strange gray uniform standing over me. Was I in heaven? I certainly didn’t feel like it. The pain in my head was unbearable. I tried to raise my head to get a better look. The angel quickly placed her hand on my shoulder, and in perfect English said, “Lie still American, you are a very sick boy.”

Realizing that she could speak my language, I burst forth with all of the questions that had been piling up inside of me. “Who are you?” I asked. “Where am I” “How long have I been unconscious?” “How bad am I hurt?” “Am I going to die?”

She touched my lips to quiet my rattling tongue. “I am your nurse, Marie” She said. “You are in a hospital. You have been here for seven days. You nearly bled to death.” My wounded leg was elevated on a rack and I lay flat on my back for 30 days. A piece of shrapnel had gone directly into my eye and the pain was so bad that the only sleep I got was from sheer exhaustion. One morning the sun came up but I remained in darkness. My nurse, Marie came in. She could tell that there was something wrong. She took my hand to check my pulse. I said, “I’m going blind.” She dropped my hand then quickly picked it up again. “Don’t worry Sgt. Lambson” she said, “We will not let you go blind.”

In a little while I was wheeled away for a closer examination. Then I was left alone to ponder my fate. After awhile my nurse, Marie came over to my bed, and I could tell that it was not good news that she was bringing. She told me that my injured eye was effecting my good eye and I could lose sight in both of them “We want permission to remove your injured eye,” she said. After recovering from the shock and regaining my composure, I gave my permission and the procedure was performed with only local anesthesia. I was awake during the entire operation. When it was over the terrible pain in my head was gone. I went to sleep and slept the only restful sleep that I had received in six weeks. They had bandaged both eyes and I had to wait for five days to know if I would ever see again. After five days the bandages were removed and the sight in my right eye gradually returned. Now all you can see in my left eye is a touch of human kindness.

My nurse, Marie, who had been my guardian angel, went home to visit her mother whose home had been destroyed by American bombers. One day, my doctor came into my room. He looked as though he had come to kill me and I wondered what I’d done.

He said, “We bring you here and we give you the very best that we have. We treat you as our own, and then this happens. I could not imagine what he was talking about. I said, “What happened?” “Our nurse, Marie is dead. Her train was strafed by American fighter planes and she was killed.” And because I was the only American around he was blaming me. I said, “I’m sorry, very sorry, she was my friend, too” And I meant it. She had been my one ray of sunshine in a bloody world of war. And now she was gone I left the hospital and traveled by freight train, across Germany, to our prison camp, with a bunch of other prisoners. I saw the terrible destruction I had helped to create and I was not proud of what I saw.

Traveling across Germany, in a boxcar on a German freight train, with American fighter planes roving the skies, looking for anything that resembled a military target, was not a good place to be, but there we were. One morning our train came to a sudden stop. I could hear the sound of aircraft in the distance. The guards shouted something in German and headed for the door and I was right behind them. I found a ditch, beside the track, and lay as flat as I could and watched as a squadron of American P-47 Thunderbolts swooped from the sky. They came so close that I could look out and see the pilots in the cockpit. How I wished that I could have hitched a ride with them back to England, but they were not there to pick up passengers.

We reached our destination, Stalag Luft IV prison camp, way up on the Baltic Sea. In a setting of lovely pines, I could see guard towers hovering over lines of ugly barracks surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. Tears of anguish fell down and washed my dirty, unshaven face, but they could not wash away the pain, “a prisoner of war, a prison camp is my home.”

The worst part of prison life was the long, and lonely nights behind barred doors and shuttered windows, with hunger gnawing at our stomachs, with nothing to do but think of food, family and freedom. We slept on wooden bunks with a burlap sack partially filled with straw. The straw mattress and our semi-warm bodies made a perfect haven for hoards of lice and bedbugs that sapped every ounce of strength from our weakened bodies. What did we eat? For breakfast, we had a cup of ersatz coffee made from burned barley and a slice of German black bread made from 50 percent rye, 20 percent, sugar beats, 20 percent, sawdust and 10 percent straw. Our only other meal of the day was a canteen cup of soup made from turnips, carrots, barley, sauerkraut, and potatoes. We were supposed to get regular food packages from the American Red Cross, but the German guards got them instead. I went from 185 down to 120 pounds.

Mail? I got one letter in fourteen months. It was from my mother. What a blessing knowing that the family were all well and that they knew I was alive. My wife had written but the Germans must have kept her love letters for their own entertainment. We got a Red Cross food package for Christmas. It contained a can of spam, a bar of tropical chocolate, a box of raisins, a can of powdered milk, a small container of powdered coffee, a box of sugar cubes, a small can of liver pate, a bar of soap and three packs of cigarettes, nothing that a normal person would be too excited about but for a starving prisoner of war it was literally the difference between life and death.

On February 5, 1945, one year after I had been shot down, just as the sun went down, on the evening air there came the far off rumble of distant guns. The Russians were coming. The war would soon be over and I would be going home.

The German officers in the prison camp weren’t about to be taken by the Russians, and they wanted to hold us prisoners for barter to trade for their own freedom, when we reached the American lines, we would be their ticket to freedom. So the next morning, February 6, 1945, 6,000 American prisoners of war turned our backs on a place that was as near to hell as any place that I would ever want to be. I had lived to walk away from a nightmare that had pressed me down and crushed me nigh to death. I looked back on the foreboding scene to see the snow begin to cover the empty camp with a shroud of white and erase it forever from my view. We were going home, but we didn’t know that we were to be part of one of the saddest untold tragedies of World War II.

The report of the march as it has been presented by the Veterans of Foreign Wars tells the virtually unknown story of American prisoners of war, who marched 600 miles, across Germany, in 87 days, the dead of winter, on a starvation diet, sleeping on the open ground and in hay barns. The sick and the dying fell by the wayside, their fate unknown by those who struggled on. It was only by the grace of God that any were able to survive the march of death.

The Germans provided little to eat, we had to scrounge our own food, and the firewood to cook it – often having no more than a single potato to boil. Some men resorted to stealing the food that had been thrown to the pigs. The only meat came from a farmer’s cat or dog or chicken, and was sometimes eaten raw because of a shortage of firewood. Some men were even driven to eating rats. We often marched all day with no mid-day meal, water or rest. Adding to the misery was the bitter cold. All grew gaunt and weak, straggling prisoners were sometimes escorted into the woods and shot. Medical care was non-existent. Pneumonia, diphtheria, pellagra, typhus, trench foot, tuberculosis ran rampant. Dysentery was the worst menace.

Prisoners would go to the bathroom in their clothes and be forced to march all day in their own filth. At night there was no way to clean themselves. We sometimes unknowingly drank from ditches that other prisoners had used as a toilet. We were often forced to sleep on ground covered with the crap left by those who had passed before us. I could tell you much more, but I think you get the picture.

The roads west would be full of thousands of prisoners of war and thousands of German refugees. All trying to get away from the Russians. Along the road a horse would fall dead, its bones would be picked clean by starving prisoners, and I could only wish that I had been the lucky one.

87 days after we left the prison camp, I awoke one morning to the sound of a small, American aircraft dropping leaflets on the town near where we had spent the night. I picked one up and read, “This will give you safe passage through the allied lines.” signed; Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding General. It was a message from heaven. We were going to be free.

The entire camp rolled up their packs and walked out into the road and headed west. Two miles down the highway we were approached by a squad of British soldiers. We dropped our filthy gear and ran to meet them. We fell upon their neck and wet their uniforms with tears of joy and listened as they told us we were free.

We waited in France for more than two months for a ship to take us home. When, after fourteen days at sea, we walked down the gangplank at Newport News, Virginia to the sounds of a small band playing, “Don’t Fence Me In.” There was a midnight call to a little town in Arizona, and a sweet voice answered, saying, “Darling hurry home, we love you, we miss you, we need you.”

I was to meet my wife in El Paso, Texas, where I would received a convalescent furlough. When our train arrived I searched the happy faces of the loved ones there to meet their soldiers home from the war. There were shouts of joy as those long separated met and embraced. But there was no embrace for me. My wife was nowhere to be found.

I reported to the base, received my convalescent furlough and hurried back to town to wait for the next bus from Arizona. I wandered aimlessly along the streets of El Paso not knowing what to do next. I looked down the sidewalk, almost deserted at this late hour. Half way down the block, across the intersection, I saw what seemed to be a familiar figure approaching. I concentrated my vision. Could my imagination be playing tricks on me? Was it an apparition?

She was nearer now and there was no mistake. I began to run. She saw me and began to hurry as fast as her dignity would allow. We met in the middle of one of El Paso’s busiest intersections, unaware of passing cars, honking horns and cheering people. I drew her to me, our hearts were one and close. Darling, you are home, she whispered. Yes, thank God I’m home, I replied. We left the cheering people and walked into the night.