Salute to Service: WWII POW Stanford Lewis

Salute to Service is a new series where the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance shares the untold stories of veterans from the Mountain State. It is never too late to honor the sacrifice that Veterans have made for America, our way of life and our allies. This story has been adapted from a first-hand account. The document was found several decades later in a yard sale in Florida. It was purchased by someone who recognized its importance and sent it to us at the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance.

Stanford Lewis was a student at West Virginia University in 1943 when he was drafted into U.S. Army service in World War II. He left Charleston from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station, then located on Broad and Lewis, with a high school friend who had also been called up. They were inducted at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. 

Following three months of Basic Training at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, Lewis was assigned to Nellis Army Air Force Bombing and Gunnery School outside of Las Vegas, where he learned how to disassemble a Browning M2 .50-caliber machine gun and reassemble it blindfolded. Afterward, he reported for further training at Rapid City, South Dakota. There, he trained to be a tail gunner on B-17 Bombers. During the last training day, a B-17 collided with a smaller aircraft. All hands from both crews were lost. He knew them all and considered many of them his friends. Early in his military career, he discovered that losses in military service are not limited to enemy action.

After training, Lewis reported to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, to await transportation to Europe. His family traveled a short distance away to New York to say goodbye, but he could not get a pass to visit them. So, he and a friend, John Baughman, a nephew of Governor Neeley of West Virginia, decided to go anyway. They slipped out of a hole in the fence and traveled to New York by bus. 

After a family dinner at Momma Leone’s and saying goodbye, they took a taxi back to base. Since gasoline was rationed, taxis would only travel short distances. They eventually found a driver willing to take them, but the trip through the Holland Tunnel cost them $50. They returned to their barracks through the same hole in the fence they slipped out. No one noticed that they’d been AWOL for several hours. 

Lewis was transferred to the 8th Air Force, 398th Bomb Group in Stone, England, following five days of seasickness on a troop transport crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the seasickness, the voyage wasn’t all bad for Lewis; he won nearly $700 playing blackjack with fellow passengers. 

The first five missions were the most dangerous for a bomber crew. Newer crews were positioned at the rear of the formation. This gave anti-aircraft crews more time to adjust their sites for accuracy when firing at the formation. 

The first mission that Lewis went on was without mishap, but on the second mission, they were engaged by enemy aircraft. Enemy fire damaged the aircraft, and a round nearly amputated the Navigator’s hand, but they made it back to base. 

His third mission was on August 4, 1944. His aircraft was part of a formation tasked to fly to Peenemunde, Germany, near the Baltic Sea. There, they were to bomb factories that were producing the V-2 rockets that were battering England. They dropped their bombs successfully and turned back toward England, flying at 25,000 feet. The left wing of their aircraft took a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire and immediately burst into flames. The aircraft’s fuel tanks are in the wing, so the pilot ordered an evacuation, fearing that the tanks would explode. They had to move fast.

Lewis donned his parachute and pulled the red emergency handle on the escape hatch, which was supposed to release automatically but did not open. He then used the regular latch, applying as much strength as he could to overcome the propeller’s wash. He was only able to open the door about halfway. He started to climb out but got pinned by the door, unable to get out or back in. After hanging there for seconds that seemed like minutes, the door released, freeing him from the plane. 

He landed in a wheat field and was surrounded by local citizens and police. Capturing an American Airman was a significant event in the small village nearby. After his capture, he was stripped to make sure he had no weapons and loaded onto a horse-drawn carriage. The locals were anything but friendly, with some making gestures that implied that he should be killed. 

He was turned over to officials with the German Luftwaffe in the Eastern German city of Barth, where he was interrogated. His dog tags, wallet, watch, and ring were confiscated, along with the money he had won playing blackjack on the way to England, which he hadn’t yet found the opportunity to spend. 

After two nights in a small jail cell in Barth, with a straw mattress sitting atop a wooden bunk, he was transferred to a Luftwaffe Training Center and incarcerated in one of the cells in the basement of the largest building. Here, he stayed for two days and was eventually reunited with the rest of the enlisted members of his crew. 

Eventually, they were taken by train to Frankfurt, Germany, the site of an interrogation center. As they passed through Berlin, they were marched from one train station to another, where they boarded a different train because of tracks that Allied bombs had damaged. The townspeople gathered to jeer at and threaten them as they went. 

When they arrived at the next train station, they were lined up against an exterior wall. A member of the Gestapo shoved some of the prisoners. The radio operator for Lewis’ plane responded by swinging at the Gestapo. The German guards quickly separated them and hurried them through the gate into the station. Lewis was sure that the guards saved them from bloodshed. Lewis saw several injured Allied prisoners along the way. 

Lewis, along with the other prisoners, was fingerprinted and photographed. When asked questions, he responded only with his name, rank, and serial number per the terms of the Geneva Convention. He was eventually told that they wouldn’t be asking him any further questions because his dog tags showed that he was Jewish. He was told that he would be turned over to the Gestapo. Eventually, he got word to another member of the crew to tell his family if this happened that the reason he was killed was because he was Jewish.

He was then placed in a small solitary confinement cell with a wooden bunk, straw mattress, and a flag to signal for a guard when he needed to use the restroom. Guards would bring tea at daybreak, tea, and a small hunk of black bread some hours later and again at night. On the seventh day, he was interrogated again, this time by a high-ranking German officer who claimed that they had found their flight plan and information about the crew at the site of the plane wreck so that no further interrogations would be necessary. When he was reunited with the rest of his crew, he found they had all been treated equally. He had feared that he had been singled out because of his heritage. 

Following a stop at a camp where the Red Cross inspected the prisoners, they were sent by train to Luxembourg, on the border of Belgium and France, where they reported to a large prison camp. Walking was their only exercise, and their rations were meager, consisting of a potato, a slice of dark bread, and tea. They would occasionally get Red Cross parcels that contained a can of Spam, a chocolate bar, and hygiene supplies. These parcels arrived infrequently, and Lewis believed that the Germans were confiscating most of them. Lewis lost a lot of weight and felt weak after only a few weeks. Most of the prisoner’s conversations were about food and the lack of it. 

After six weeks in Luxembourg, they were evacuated to another camp because Allied forces were getting closer. They could hear artillery fire continually. After walking for two days, they arrived at a train station and were loaded into boxcars. They were packed so tightly that half could sit while the other half stood. Then they’d switch. There was no food, only water, and no toilet facilities. They had no idea how long they’d be kept like this. 

When finally they got off the train after several days, they were made to run the nearly two miles to their final destination, Stalag Luft #4, with the threat of being killed by bayonet-wielding Germans if they fell behind. This would be Lewis’ home from October 1944 until January 1945. 

The camp was divided into four compounds, surrounded by a barbed wire fence and a warning rail about six feet from the fence. Anyone entering the area between the rail and the fence was to be shot. Each compound had two guard towers, one at each end, manned by Germans armed with machine guns. There were several barracks in each of the compounds. Each room had ten double-deck bunk beds, straw mattresses, and a coal stove in the center. There was one outhouse facility for each of the barracks. There was no running water, only a well and a bucket outside. The barracks were routinely inspected by German guards who would look for escape tunnels, handmade radios and other contraband. 

The Germans installed showers in the compound in January 1945. Different barracks would take turns lining up for a chance to shower. This was the first time Lewis had had the opportunity to shower in more than six months. 

On February 6, 1945, they were moved out of the camp, and Russian prisoners were moved in. The Russians arrived after a forced march from Poland. Their feet were wrapped in rags, and many had frostbite. Some had wounds from police dogs and bayonets. The American prisoners were so moved by the poor shape the starving Russians were in that they left whatever meager rations they had for them.

When they left Stalag 4, they began a more than 600-mile forced march through the German countryside. They marched daily in the worst possible winter weather with little food or rest. Lack of food was always a problem. Lewis traded his watch and Charleston High School class ring to guards for bread. Most of their rations consisted of raw potatoes and kohlrabi, which had an unpalatable texture and were customarily fed to livestock. They would sleep in open fields or in barns along the way. Prisoners who became very ill on the march and couldn’t continue were taken away and never heard from again. 

On April 26, 1945, U.S. forces liberated them, the Timberwolf Unit at Bitterfield, Germany. Lewis felt what he characterized as an indescribably joyful but strange feeling to be free again. He found it hard to comprehend that food would be plentiful. His weight had dropped from 185 pounds when he enlisted to 119 during his captivity. 

Infested with lice and suffering from pneumonia and malnutrition, he was transported to a hospital in England. After being hospitalized for a month, he left London on a hospital ship to Charleston, South Carolina, and eventually to Ashford General Hospital in White Sulphur Springs. He was discharged from the Army Air Force on October 23, 1945, and returned home to Charleston, West Virginia. 

“I feel very fortunate that I lived to tell of my experiences, as many airmen, soldiers and sailors who served their country were killed,” Lewis wrote at the end of his memoir. “It is my hope that my children, and grandchildren and all mankind will never have to suffer through a war.”