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MACR: 1036





B-17 Pilot, ETO, with the "Mighty Eighth" 
351st Bombardment Group, 508th Bombardment Squadron 
Based at Polebrook, Northhamptonshire, ENGLAND 
Shot down October 14th, 1943 on the Schweinfurt Raid II, "Black Thursday"! 
Mission # 49 for the 351stBG/ 508thBS 
POW from October 14th, 1943 to May 10th, 1945 
Dulag Luft, Stalag Luft III, Stalag VII-A 
WWII from June 1941 to November 1945 

Malcolm Herschel “Herk” Higgins is an Oklahome native who became a pilot in the 351st Bomb Group, 508th Bomb Squadron, based in Holbrook, England. He flew a B-17 on the Schweinfurt raid of October 14, 1943, that became known as Black Thursday. He was shot down and captured, and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Luftwaffe. After the war, Higgins was with the Air Force Reserves and flew T-33s. He was discharged in June, 1946. Higgins went on to a career with IBM, as he says, learning the business from the bottom up doing repairs and maintenance. The following is a transcription of his talk at the July Golden gate Wing meeting. 

This old Oakie boy wandered a long way from home when he went over to Europe. And when I got over there, they threw my tail in the jug and kept me in there for about a year and a half. Born in 1921, I joined the air force for a one year hitch. At that time, we could join for a year then go back to school. The Federal government threw in a nice signing bonus of another three and a half years. I got in as a grease monkey for about six months or so just after WWII happened. Just after Pearl Harbor happened, while laying in the barracks in his bunk listening to Glen Miller music, someone came on and said Pearl Harbor was being bombed. Well I knew that had to be a lie because I had a two-week furlough coming up for Christmas and I knew no one would mess that up. I was put on guard duty and did not like the four hours on, eight hours off, seven days a week. So I decided I would have to do something else. 

I did not have enough education, with one year of college, to become an aviation cadet. The requirement was two years. So I entered flight training as an aviation student, we graduated as staff sergeant pilots. Went to the hill at Kelly Field for flight training in Quarrel, Texas. I flew PT19As, with a Lycoming engine… and then went to Brady Texas for basic training flying ... I flew first the AT-6, which we used for air-to-air and air-to- ground gunnery training. Then flew AT-9’s and AT-11’s, AT-17’s - - none of which I liked. I wanted to be a fighter pilot. 

I was ordered to Salt Lake City for multi-engine training. There went my P-38 dreams. But before we graduated, we were made the first group to graduate from Ellington Field as Flight Officers, the equivalent of a third lieutenant. Spent all of 8 hours at a distribution center then to Boise Idaho flying four hours on, four hours off, seven days a week. But there I was introduced for the first time to a combat aircraft, the B-17E. 

I was assigned to another garden spot of the United States, Sioux City, Iowa. From there we were supposed to go overseas, but the government changed its mind, as it was prone to do. Put on a train, I was sent to Alamogordo, New Mexico, another garden spot. Then to another garden spot - - Blythe, California. I had gone through training as part of the 100th Bomb Group as a co-pilot. When I got to Blythe, I was assigned to be an instructor pilot. Meanwhile, the 100th bomb group had been shipped off to Europe, without me. I was assigned to another crew, went through phase training in Texas then to Kearney, Nebraska for our jump off. That was the first indication of where we were going

We were assigned a brand new aircraft, a B-17F, which we flew around for six or eight hours just to make sure it held together.

With a jet today, you can jump off from Kearney NE flying one day then and be in England. I flew to Fort Wayne, Indiana, spent the night, Bangor Maine, spent two days, and flew to Goose Bay Labrador, spent one night. Then to Bluey West One, Greenland.

You had to fly up this fiord with mountains on each side are 3,000 to 4,000 feet. We flew in at 1,500 feet. There is one place big enough to make a 270 degree turn, line up with the steel mat runway that went up hill right into the glacier, if you didn’t make the landing, you had better be prepared to chop up a lot of ice, you were going into the glacier. So you made sure you hit the ground. 

We spent three days there. The take off to leave is downhill. The wind direction does not matter, they don’t even know about wind direction there. It’s just take off downhill. So even after you take off the ground, you’re still going down toward the water. It’s thrilling. So after we took off, we had to spiral around up to 12,000 feet and flew over to Keflavik, Iceland where we landed and were told we would stay until the weather cleared in England. From what I heard, the last time the weather cleared in England was 1903. We were there for about six or seven days. Finally, the weather was broken up so we could fly to Prescott, Scotland, where we were put in a replacement pool, for about three weeks. Then the … demanded me in, so I took my crew with me. My luck was running just like it always was.

First two weeks in October. The first three missions we flew in October, we lost over 100 planes. Then came the Ankling raid over Poland. We went out over 4000 feet across the North Sea then dropped in to visit the folks in Ankling. When we lined up and turned to line up with our IP, our Initial Point, at quarter IP we were headed toward Berlin and all of a sudden the sky was black with ME109’s and flak. 

We started our bombing run, the most terrible time in the world. You’ve got six to nine minutes in which the bombardier has control of the aircraft, which flies straight and level at constant speed, constant altitude. Now you can imagine how much fun those flak gunners were having down there. Man, it was just like a turkey shoot. 

We got through that and they said that for three and a half hours we were under fighter attack after we went off the target. I don’t know, I was quite busy. We were about forty-five minutes from England and I had every red light on in the airplane, which meant I was supposed to have a thirty-minute supply of gasoline left. I was worried about overheating the engines. We threw out anything we could. I told the guys, if you see any place at all where we can land, I mean if we get there, tell me immediately. 

It just so happened that we hit the coast and there was a runway, right there. I didn’t care what direction the wind was coming from. As I hit the ground, the first engine coughed and died. As we reached the end of the runway, the second engine coughed and died. Soon the third engine coughed and died. We refueled and the commander there told me I could not take off because the airplane was shot up so badly. All the fabric was gone off the left elevator, the right elevator was in shreds and you could recognize the vertical elevator by the fact that it had some ribs up there. The tail gunner was sitting back there and he did not have a scratch on him.

By the way, on October 14th, my crew was shot down. I saw my own crew get shot down. At the last minute, I was transferred to another aircraft and another pilot was assigned to my crew. I was sitting out there and I watched my crew get it. I could tell by the way parts were flying off that they were hard hit. I saw my top gunner in prison camp later on and two of them got out alive. That still sticks with me; I can still see that picture. I guess I still feel responsible, even though I wasn’t with them.

Then came that very eventful day of October the 14th, 1943, a red-letter day of my day. In the first place, my squadron was standing down that day--we weren’t supposed to fly. But at 4:30 a.m., the CO came over and shook my shoulder and said, “They want you in the briefing room”. I said, “Well wait a minute, my squadron is standing down”. 

He said, “Yes sir, your squadron is standing down, they want you in the briefing room right away.” I figured that meant that somebody with a little bit of authority had sent for me and I had better get my clothes on and get down to the briefing room. Colonel Hatcher, our CO of the 351st, said, “I realize you lost your crew just the other day, but we need a co-pilot. I need you to fill in on this crew. It’s a maximum effort and we’re going to run short anyway.” 

I figured I need to get in 25 missions anyway so, “Ok, I’ll go”. That was the wrong decision. So this was the only time I ever saw these fellows that I flew with. I flew as Oliver Chrisman’s co-pilot. I met them at the car pool where they took us out to trucks then to our airplanes in the dispersal area. We checked over the planes. We had about an hour to kill so we checked over the airplanes times after time after time to make sure everything is all right. Then comes the time when it is almost time to take off and everyone walks around the plane and relieves all the water pressure that they have. 

We got on the plane, and it was a typical, nice English morning, zero-zero conditions. We couldn’t even see the plane in the dispersal area in front of us and we were supposed to follow him out. So we figured that the only way we could do it was to open the window. I stuck my head out and we listened for when he started his engine, at which time we started ours. Once he started his engine, we could see the glow of the engine and follow him out. We fell into line and started taxing out. This was the first time I had flown co-pilot in ten months and we did not use our checklist, another mistake. Take-off’s in that kind of weather were at one-minute intervals. When it was our turn, and I felt the plane come off the ground and it was time for the co-pilot to retract the wheels and what flaps we had down, and I am sitting there twiddling my thumbs, wondering what I would do next, and I was checking over the instruments, and something did not feel right. I looked over at the rate of climb indicator, it was going down and we were supposed to be climbing. The gyrocompass.

I shook the wheel and… he had enough sense to let go. We pulled up with enough G’s that all four engines cut out whump-whump-whump-whump, the gasoline could not get to them. We came close enough to the ground that I could see the rows of crop, and the top of trees at the end of a field. I finally leveled it up and reached over and unlocked the artificial horizon indicator, which was locked in place. Geez, that damn near killed ten of us and lost the airplane by not reading the checklist.

We climbed up and rendezvoused with our group then climbed up to about 15,000 over the Channel before we started to cross. We picked up our fighter escort, P-47’s with the belly tanks - - that was the only kind of escort we had then. But the German’s had learned a little trick. They would attack our planes, the P-47’s would kick off their auxiliary tanks and then the German’s would back off and just wait for about half an hour. When the P-47’s turned back, the German’s would come in and flog us real good.

We had something like 200 planes up against our wing, it was estimated. Planes were raining out of the sky, I couldn’t believe it. Both the German planes, and ours were going down. Flak was heavy when the planes were not attacking. We fought our way in to the IP and just as we hit the IP and were ready to turn, a German plane come in and popped us with 20 mm cannon shells and knocked out the #1 and #2 engines. I feathered the #1 prop immediately and shut it down. The #2 engine was losing an awful lot of oil, very fast. The pilot and I talked this over. I said, “If we shut this engine off, we will not be able to stay with the formation. I’ll keep my hand on the feathering button and the minute the bombs go I’ll feather the engine.” He said, “I think that’s a good idea, I would hate to fight my way all the way in here then drop my bomb on some farmer’s farm lot.”

With that decision, we went on. When the bombs are jettisoned, the plane jumps in the air about 20 or 50 feet, I have no idea how far, I always stayed in the airplane and never did get out to check it. I hit the feathering button and there was nothing left. So now we had the #1 engine feathered and the #2 engine in runaway position.

Immediately the formation started running off and leaving us for England. We made a right turn and figured we could learn to ski and schuss in Switzerland. Well, the only problem was 150 miles per hour was all we could do, or that runaway prop would tear the wing off the airplane. We had five fighters after us. After a while, three broke away. They probably ran out of ammunition. Someone started getting excited and calling for action, so Chrisman pulled up, popped that thing into a stall and we were through. There was no way we could get through with those two dead engines. We had already alerted the crew, they were supposed to have their parachutes on. I said to Chrisman, “I’m going to go check on the enlisted men in back”, because we could not get them on the intercom. He checked with the officers in front. I went all the way through and I stepped across the bomb bay. As you know, with those chest type chutes, it is too narrow to get through the racks, so I stepped all the way across the bomb bay and walked all the way through the radio room to the back end of the plane. And sure enough there was one of those guys sitting there in the doorway, held down by centrifugal force. He couldn’t get out and the other guys were stacked up behind him. So I went up and grabbed the first one on my side, checked the fellow that was sitting down. He had his chute on, so I nodded to the guy on my side, we grabbed an arm a piece and threw him out. When he went out, he sucked all the rest of us out. 

When I hit the airstream, it yanked my right flying boot and shoe off, so that I had nothing but a sock on. I had been advised to free-fall as far as possible to keep anyone from strafing us, if any one was tempted. I think I bailed out at about 22,000 feet. I think I free fell then pulled the ripcord at about 15,000 feet, nothing happened. Luckily it was a chest chute, so I just reached in there and pulled the pilot chute out. I figure it opened at about 5,000. 

Now you’ve got the sensation that you are going up. Before you felt like you were just lying out there on a blast of air. I figured “Well, I’ve got a lot of time here before I hit the ground, I think I’ll just smoke a cigarette.” That was another mistake. But this one I caught before it happened. I had that cigarette in my mouth and that Zippo lighter out, you know it just takes one, and I looked up at those nylon lines and thought, “I think I’ll pass”. 

So then I looked down to see where I was going to land. I was heading for a huge, plowed field, with nothing around it, not even a bush. Just before I hit the ground, right in the middle, I saw two German soldiers, one of them holding a rifle. There was no sense trying to outrun that thing in an open field about a mile square, so I destroyed my parachute. You know how you do that: you urinate on it, and I had no trouble with that whatsoever.

By that time, the Germans were there. The young German boy, who I figured was a Hitler youth, had a 9mm Luger. I don’t know whether you guys have looked into a 150mm howitzer. It looked just about the same, and he kept shoving it up under my nose and yelling something. I don’t know what he was yelling.

All I could say was “Kein Trink Wasser” and he didn’t know what I was talking about. Luckily the old man kept the kid under control and they marched me off. We picked up another crewmember and walked into a small mountain town. All ten of our crew got out, no one was hurt. The home guard set us down, while he youth went off to report and get transportation. While we were there I had the most touching thing happen to me that has ever happened. While we were sitting there, this little German woman, an old lady just barely getting around, came over with a pitcher of water and two glasses and gave us a drink of water. Here we had been bombing the heck out of her country and she still had a feeling enough for human beings to come over there and give us a drink of water. It still touches me to this today, every time that I think about it. 

It wasn’t long before the transportation came and they took us into the jail and the Rott Haus, the city hall, to spend the night. The only thing I had to sleep on was a wooden bench, but I’ll tell you what, that hard bench felt so good, I slept hours. I was pooped physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s quite an emotional thing, to realize that you’ve been shot down and you’re a prisoner. 

The next day, we went by train to Frankfurt, where we were put in solitary confinement. I was in solitary confinement for eight days.

Interrogation is not the business where they are handling you brutally or anything else. The interrogator me spoke English better than I did. He spoke English; I spoke American, that’s the difference. He was very kind and I am sure he got information out of me even though I tried keep from telling him anything at all. Those guys are adept at phrasing their questions. From there, I went to Gulag Luft, and waited to be assigned to the permanent POW camps. After being there about a week, maybe 10 days, we were put on a train. They stopped and unloaded us, at nighttime about 9 or 10 at night and took us to Stalag Luft Three.

When I was unloaded from that truck, the first guy that I saw was the navigator from the 101st bomb group that I had been on. He had been there for about a month, and was well indoctrinated with all the procedures, and took me by the hand and showed me stuff like how to take that old straw tick and how much stuff to put in it and so forth.

We were there, supposedly for the duration. I was there from the first of November of 1943 until January 1945. There are some good stories to come out of that. I’ll tell you about my first Christmas there. 

The guys were getting ready to celebrate for Christmas. The first thing they had done was put down some “krieggey brew.” Krieggy was short for kriegsgefallen, we were all prisoners of war. Krieggy Brew was a raisin and prune wine. They would save raisins, prunes, and a little sugar from their rations. 

Our rooms had great big spheres, which covered the lights, perfect for making the brew. So they would lay down their brew in those things. Finally, the Germans confiscated all the brew, I think some of them had alcohol poisoning, but anyway, they got all drunked up. I tried one taste of it and said, “This is not for me”. 

So anyway, they got all drunked up and decided they would go over to the British compound. The British were in the north compound, we were in the south, and the only thing between us was a small fence, a double barbed wire fence with rolled barbed wire between the fences. They figured out a way to get up and crush that thing and into the north compound, a whole bunch of guys poured over. Well, there were no guards there real close, the guards were down at the end of the fence, a hundred yards away, or so. And the guards were shining their lights and shooting over their heads and these guys were just pouring over and about that time, the British saw what was going on and they started coming over to our compound. 

The next day there was just mass confusion. The commandant said, “We’re going to get everybody straightened out.” So he sent his troops over to the British compound and everybody that had on American uniforms was sent to the American compound and all the guys in the American compound with British uniforms were sent back to the British side. Well, you know what happened, the guys all traded uniforms. It took them almost six months to get it straightened out. They finally did it by going back to the pictures they had of everyone. While I was in there, I read over 300 books. We could get book and cigarette parcels from home. We were allowed so many cartons a month. We took what we needed, which was a minimal thing, and the remainder was stored for bartering purposes. We had one man in the whole compound that did any trading at all with cigarettes. And we could get some pretty good types of things. We could get cameras, and this type thing, while we were there.

Our compound had about 2,000 fliers. The guards would wander around and look under the crawl space. The barracks were constructed of rows of rooms on stilts with a crawl space underneath and another one up in the attic… we stationed sentries at all times at each end of the barracks to let us known where the guards, who were affectionately known as “goons”. I say affectionately, because we got the name from Popeye, who had goons. There was even one who was known as Alice the Goon, and he answered to that, quite readily.

These guys were there for two reasons - - to see if they could pick up any information and to see if we were digging tunnels. The north compound, the British compound, was where “The Great Escape” took place. The word got over to us that they were just about ready to spring some people. The tunnel was just about finished and they needed to have the attention drawn to us. So we started various activities, digging, and we would always set things up to be discovered. 

All it takes is an air hole. An air hole would be discovered by a dog then they would take a hose, put it down there and the whole thing would collapse. There wasn’t much holding it up any way, it was all sand. So we covered for them as long as we could. Then we got a message that they had gotten 75 of them out of there and two or three made it all the way back. Then Mr. Hitler had 50 of them shot and the rest were walked back to camp. There was a constant goal to get rid of dirt when digging a tunnel. When we arrived, there was no insulation in the walls of the barracks. By the time we left; they were all full of sand. They gave us pressed coal, when it was finished burning, it looked just like sand so we mixed in the sand and let them haul it off for us. Another way was to take two or three socks and sew them together, with the foot left out. Then take a string and tie it around your neck. Then take an old GI coat, with the pockets cut out, and walk around the perimeter and shake the sand out. I don’t know whether they got onto it or not, but while we were there, that perimeter walking area must have gone up two feet.

On January 27, 1945, we had a play going on in our theatre, a theatre we had designed and built with our own hands. The Germans gave us tools to build the theatre with the promise that the tools were not to be used for escape purposes, which we adhered to strictly. During the middle of the play, Col. Goodlich, the senior officer, went on stage and said, “The goons have given us 30 minutes to get our stuff together and get out of here”. We ran out of the theatre, gathered our possessions and divided the food between us. We were in combines, our combine had eight people. We rolled up things in blankets, put on all the clothes we could because it was cold and snowing out side. We used what rope we had to tie the blankets onto our backs, and stood outside the barracks in the driving snow for two hours. By that time, all the shoes had frozen, all the men had frozen, just about, and we left just about midnight. There was over six inches of snow, almost blizzard condition, but we had the honor of breaking the trail for everybody else. 

They marched us from midnight until about 8 or 9:00 pm the next night. We had been on the road for almost 36 hours when they put us in a tile factory to rest. It must have been 199 degrees in there, and we had all these clothes on, but we just flopped and went to sleep. The next day, they said we were moving out today. Our commander said, “No, we are not moving out, you can shoot us, if you want, but these men need to rest”. 

So we stayed and rested for a day. The following day we were Marched to Strembourg, where we placed on 40-and-8 box cars, so called because they are designed to hold forty men or eight horses. They put 60 of us in each one, but there was no room to sit. We figured out a way to have half of us sit, half stand, then we would alternate. In the meantime, we were locked up in those things for three days and two nights. They let us out twice. You can image what those boxcars smelled like. We got out and were placed in Gulag, a camp designed for 20,000 French soldiers. There were 60,000 in there, Allies like our selves. The barracks I went into had water in the middle. The bunks were four or five long and three deep. We had a lot more fleas and lice there than we had prisoners. I guarantee you, because I am sure I had 30,000 myself. This was the first time we had been subjected to conditions like this and it was tough. They were cutting down to where we had no rations at all; we figured we could exist on 300 calories a day if we did nothing at all. We had a dietician in our compound. Food was doled out, 300 calories a day and we had to lie in the bunks. You get to the point where you don’t have enough strength to fight them off. After a little bit of that, I decided it was better off to go off and sleep on the ground. 

Several of us moved out and that is where we were when the lines moved over us on April 29, 1945. I remember that very clearly because I was taken out for a hot shower, the first one I had had in six months. Cleaned up, I was coming back and just about the time I got to the gate, a P-51 flew over. He came right over the camp, did one slow roll and just about the time he came out of the roll, all hell broke loose from shouting. Thank goodness there was a concrete abutment there, and I jumped in behind that, then went running back into the camp. Fighting went on for maybe an hour, then Patton’s tanks, part of the 3rd Armored Division, moved in. We were so glad to see those guys. Cheered them and just raised hell. They took one of the tanks and just rolled in there. Guys were swarming all over the tanks so they couldn’t even move. They finally had to run them off. 

But now we had another problem. There was nobody to feed us. So we sat there for about four or five days without any food whatsoever. I weighted about 165 pounds when I went into POW camp and 142 when I came out. Now I am not condemning the German people for that. I think they did the best they could with what they had. But with our bombing and with the restrictions on transportation and so forth, they could not get the food to us. 

One of our greatest commandants, Commandant Lindeiner, of Stalag Luft 3 was finally arrested for standing up for us. He was a great believer in the Geneva Convention, and expected us to live by it. He was a Prussian German officer. On May 10, twelve days after being liberated, I was flown to France, to a rehabilitation center. The first guys who came in ate so much that they overloaded their hearts and two died. Thereafter, our portions were measured in the mess hall. There was only one way out, the back door, where we dropped our trays off. If we were still hungry, a second mess hall was available, also with measured portions, very light. When we were through with that one, that was all, we were through. The only thing they had for us was eggnog, 24 hours a day. They were trying to get all the eggs and milk and protein in us they could. 

After that I was put on a Liberty boat and sent back to the United States. I spent almost as much time on the Liberty boat as I did in the POW camp. We finally reached Camp Miles Standish in Boston. When we got there, the CO said, “we’ve got two things for you, and it’s late and we can’t do both. So you have to make a choice: we have steaks ready for you in the mess hall or you can call home for free.” I think they sold two steaks that night. I called my now bride - - we’ve been married 57 years now - - and told her to “Get ready, we are getting married immediately”. Which we did.

I got my 30-day furlough before I had to report to a rehabilitation center in Miami. So we had a whole month to get married, honeymoon and get to know each other once again. After being away for so long, it was hard to get to know each other again, especially for her. It’s been the greatest influence on my life, when I married that woman. I went back to school on the GI Bill and started to work for IBM maintaining a bunch of our equipment. I spent 16 years doing that then was transferred to San Jose, where I was a development engineer for twenty some odd years. 

For me it has been a great life. I have had experiences I would not want to go through again. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for them. I have had experiences that I wish I could go through again. At sessions such as this where I can have a chance to talk to people, and I was telling Phil Schasker, I talk to junior high groups every year and try to tell them my story and how we feel about war. It’s a warning, a warning for us to stay out of them. I thank you very much





ID: 2335