by Monica Mendoza
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — In his 14th flying mission over France during World War II, Lt. Col. William Sheaves’ B-17 crew encountered five German fighter planes. The Germans made the mistake of trying to attack the B-17 from the rear.
“We shot down four of them,” Colonel Sheaves said.
The fifth plane, likely an instructor out with the four-plane formation, left without a fight.
Still, the American B-17 took a hit and the oxygen system was jeopardized. The plane could not maintain altitude and it went down in the middle of a construction site where German soldiers were building the “western wall” to keep Allied troops out. Two crew members died. The rest of the crew found themselves surrounded by about 500 German soldiers and they were taken prisoner on Sept. 9, 1943.
Colonel Sheaves, who at that time was an enlisted flight engineer with the 337th Bomb Squadron in England, survived 21 months as a prisoner of war. He told his story to Airmen on Sept. 17 at Peterson Air Force Base to commemorate the national Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Remembrance Week. Peterson Airmen held a candlelight vigil and a 24-hour commemorative run, led by Airmen from the Forrest L. Vosler NCO Academy. Airmen ended their run by placing the POW/MIA flag at the culminating ceremony where Colonel Sheaves spoke.
In a story that made the audience both gasp and laugh, Colonel Sheaves recalled the nearly two years he spent in captivity.
When the colonel’s crew was captured, they were taken out of France to Dulag Luft interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany. Nearly 195,000 American troops were taken prisoner or were considered missing in action during World War II.
“I spent 10 days there in solitary confinement being interrogated every day,” Colonel Sheaves said. “The Germans wanted to know about the B-29.”
The B-29 aircraft – one of the largest aircraft in service during World War II — was being tested in the U.S., Colonel Sheaves said.
“As far as I was concerned, I refused to tell them anything I knew about the B-29,” he said.
The enlisted prisoners were then moved to Stalag A7 in Austria. Colonel Sheaves was pistol whipped and hit with rifle butts, but that was the worst of it, he said. The more life threatening issue was lack of food. When he was captured, Colonel Sheaves weighed 180 pounds. When he was liberated, he weighed just 90 pounds. At that slight weight, the Germans marched the prisoners out of Stalag A7, 550 kilometers toward Germany. Before they made it to their next post, the POWs were liberated in 1945.
The commanders wanted the POWs to sail home in style on the Queens Mary or Elizabeth ocean liners, but the POWs wanted none of that, Colonel Sheaves said.
“We wanted to get home,” he said. Instead, they boarded a cargo ship and made the 10-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Just 200 miles off the coast of New York, the ship encountered a German submarine. Everyone got prepared to fight.
“But, when the sub surfaced, they ran up a white flag,” Colonel Sheaves said.
The sub was out of fuel.
“We put a line out and we went into New York Harbor towing a German submarine in back of us,” Colonel Sheaves said. “We got quite a welcome.”
Colonel Sheaves’ mother took one look at the skinny man and said, “no way”. She was going to put some weight back on her boy. Colonel Sheaves was discharged as a master sergeant in 1945.
In 1949, he enlisted in the Army, mainly because he wanted an opportunity to attend school in White Sands, N.M., under the direction of Dr. Wernher von Braun, rocket scientist, engineer and space architect. He received a commission in 1950 and served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Colonel Sheaves retired in 1975 in Colorado Springs.
Prisoners of war were ill treated, sometimes called “traitor,” Colonel Sheaves said. It wasn’t until America got to see American prisoners of war on television during the Vietnam War that their attitudes toward the captured military changed, he said. Now, POWs are presented a medal and given thanks for their service. Today, 23 American troops have been taken prisoner or are considered missing in action in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Of those, 11 troops remain unaccounted for.
Col. Nina Armagno, 21st Operations Group commander, presented Colonel Sheaves with a gift and thanked him for his more than 30 years of service.
“We can never repay you for all that you have done for this nation,” she said. “You are a true American hero and an inspiration to us all.”