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as told to his daughter Linda Hill
Flight Engineer, 358th BS Oran T. O'Connor Crew
Shot down on Mission #11, 23 January 1943 to Lorient, France
Merle Mullendore flew five missions with his own crew and three missions with other crews. He was trying to fly as many missions as possible because Betty was expecting their first child in the end of February, and the crews were sent home after twenty-five missions.
Before the eighth mission, the fifth with his crew, his pilot, Oran T. O'Connor got into an argument with then Colonel Wallace. He was upset that Colonel Wallace had him always flying as second pilot when he should be flying first pilot. So on that fateful day of January 23, 1943, Colonel Wallace put them in the last position of the formation. That's the one position that received most of the flack.
The officers that flew with him that day were first pilot 1Lt Oran T. O'Connor, and the co-pilot was 2Lt Eldon T. Ruppe. The bombardier was 2Lt Earle J. Dumont, who operated the nose gun. The navigator was 2Lt Bruce W. Gordon. The other crew men were Sgt Norman Hughes, the radio operator, and S/Sgt Frank L. Batterson the Tail-gunner. Sgt Clifton E. Fincher was the Ball-Turret gunner and the Waist-gunners was Sgt Jack Lucus and Sgt Lester M. Robuck.
Merle was the Top-Turret gunner. He was known as the crew chief, besides working the Top-turret, which had twin 50 mm. guns, he would also transfer fuel from one wing to another if needed. He was also the medic on board and would administer first aid to the other crew members if they got hurt. If the pilot or copilot was injured, he would to take over.
They left that day from Molesworth and were flying over the Brest Peninsula of France. They were bombing the sub pens at Alsace Lorraine and were hit by flak. Dumont got his arm hit badly and Merle bandaged his arm and put a tourniquet on it. It was bleeding so badly, that he knew his only chance to make it was by being captured, so Merle put a parachute on him and threw him out of the plane. Merle found out latter that he had been picked up and was later repatriated. That meant he was exchanged for other wounded German soldiers.
After he threw out Dumont, they were hit by a 20 mm shell which blew up inside the plane. The bomb blast was so great it blew Merle out of the Top-Turret position and into the back of the pilots seat. The blow ruptured two discs in his back. When he came to, he grabbed for the emergency oxygen and reached for a parachute. He found that the parachute had completely come unpacked and was riddled with holes. So he quickly packed it by rolling up in his arms. He left the pilot his chute and jumped out the bomb bay door along with his other crew members.
The little pilot chute slip streamed and opened the chute with quite a jerk. He felt like he was being pulled apart like a wish bone. He was fading in and out due to the pain in his back and he was throwing up because he was afraid and in shock. He slumped over just in the nick time when a German fighter plane was coming right at him. The fighter didn't fire on him because he thought he was dead.
When he hit the ground, he hit hard and pain shot threw him. Immediately a group of Frenchmen came to see how he was. One motioned for him to follow him to his house. He went to his house in friendship, the Frenchmen, offered him a drink. Merle was surprised that when he drank it, It made his toes curl. It was the first time he had tasted cognac. Then a neighbor came and told him that his tail-gunner was down and hurt. When Merle found him, his leg had almost been completely shot off, only the muscle was hanging on. Batterson told him that his door had been stuck and he had used the partially severed leg to bang on his exit door to get it opened. Merle put a tourniquet on his leg. He left him there for the Frenchmen to take care of. Another man came to show him where his radio operator was. Norman Hughes had a particularly difficult landing. When he came down, he happened to land on top of a cow, straddling it which caused much pain. Beside that, his arm had been shot. He wanted to go with Merle but, he was in to much pain. So, he left him there in care of the Frenchmen.
Another man came to show him where his waist-gunner Jack was. He had landed so hard that he sprained both of his ankles. Jack and Merle went to a house, and got some civilian clothes. Now, Jack got rid of everything, his uniform and dog-tags, but Merle didn't, They later turned out to be a good thing because Merle was asked by the Germans to sign a paper to fact that Jack was an American. They knew they had been shot down together, but Jack had no American identification on him. Just as they were lying down a young girl came yelling "Bosh! Bosh!" this meant the Germans were coming. So they fashioned some crutches for Jack out of two broom sticks and ran over to the near by fields. They laid in the tall grass hoping that the Germans wouldn't see them and the Frenchmen wouldn't give them away. They stayed there until eleven o'clock. Then some Frenchmen came and brought some bread and butter, wine and more cognac.
About one o'clock a young girl came to them and told him that his co-pilot and navigator were about six kilometers away. They didn't think they could make it, but they drank the cognac which dulled their pain. To this day he can't remember how they got there. That was the first time Merle had gotten drunk.
He found Ruppe and Gordon in good shape. The four stayed there in the French countryside recuperating tor a week. Then a girl came and said the Germans were making a house-to-house search. Merle asked her if she could buy them some tickets for the train as they had their escape money, which was in their flight suit, to buy ticket.
They went at night to the train station to wait for the girl. As in most stations, they only checked identification on the way out. Merle and Jack were at one end of the train, standing by the door watching for the girl and Ruppe and Gordon at the other end. Merle never saw the girl and the train began to pull away from the station. Knowing that they couldn't leave, they hopped on the train, hoping for a miracle They sat down on the first chair and they were right across from some German soldiers. A German asked Lucas for a match and Merle gave him both a match and a cigarette. They looked up the aisle and saw that Ruppe and Gordon had gotten on. The conductor came by and asked for the tickets and Merle motioned that Ruppe might have them. Merle and the conductor walked up to Ruppe and much to Merle's relief, he did have the tickets. The conductor could tell by the way they were acting. that they were Americans but didn't give them away to the Germans.
They stayed on the train until the next day till about noon. They could tell that it was noon because the Americans were on their daily bombing runs. They waited for the girl to come by to show them where to get off. They got off at a train station and were waiting for the girl to show them which train they should take. The girl then came up to Merle and said she would show him the way to Parsimony if he would marry her and make babies. Merle declined and thus blowing his chances of getting out of France safely. She did, however, show them which train to take, but after that she left them on their own.
The train they took had compartments and so they were out of sight of any Germans. The train suddenly stopped about four o'clock right outside of the station at Saint Nazaire. Those made them think that the Germans were going to search the train so they got off. Merle and Luke stayed together and Ruppe and Gordon teamed up. Each group took their own way into town.
Later on, Merle did see the other two with some Frenchmen but they didn't acknowledge them. That was sort of an unwritten rule that if you saw a fellow countryman that you wouldn't acknowledge them so that it wouldn't harm their chance of escape. Later on, Merle found out that Ruppe and Gordon did get safely out of France through the underground.
They started walking south toward Spain. They would walk at night and rest during the day. To start with, they walked about 12 kilometers a day, and got to where they could walk up to 20 km a day. That would be about 40 miles a day. They would eat whatever they found along the way. The Frenchmen would have helped them if they could.
They by passed Toulouse and got down as far as Tarascon where they were picked up by the wrong kind of police. They were French police. They put them into prison and held them for a couple of week and then took them back to Tarn to the prison St. Sulpice.
In the St. Sulpice prison there were French, Hungarian, and Italian freedom fighters. It took Merle only couple of days to come up with a plan of escape. He had found out that each prisoner had been instructed that, when they were about to be captured to place a bullet up their rectum so that it wouldn’t be found when searched. The prisoners then kept it hidden in case they would need it. He had also noticed that the guards weren't too watchful when the prisoners went outside the compound gate to go to the latrine. He then came up with the escape plan. He asked that each prisoner give him their bullet. He broke opened each bullet and put the gunpowder into a mason jar. On the third day he tested out his theory. He went to the latrine with two other prisoners and dropped down the hole. The other two returned without him. The guards didn't notice that one prisoner was missing. He then left with the next two prisoners who had visited the latrine.
He then waited for the cover of darkness. He made it a point to be in the last group to visit the latrine for the night. He then dropped down in the hole, and waited for the prison camp to quite down. Then he pulled himself out of the hole and got out. He then crawled over to the prison gates and laced the make-shift gunpowder bomb by front gate. He lit the fuse and ran. The front grate blew open. Over 2.000 prisoners escaped the prison but the bomb blast killed three or four guards which the Frenchmen would punish Merle for later.
Merle spent some time with the freedom fighters showing them how to make bombs. He basically taught them how to be terrorist. They blew up trucks and ammo dumps and generally made the Germans life miserable.
After awhile Jack and Merle took off for Spain again and got picked up outside Toulouse. They were going to execute them right there because they weren't to happy about Merle killing the guards. but a general came forward and stopped them. He said that the French weren't at war with the United States so they had better take him prisoner.
They put them in prison in Castres, France but registered them as Belgium prisoners. They put Merle in solitary confinement but not Lucus because Merle was the one responsible for blowing the gates and killing the guards.
The room in which he was in for solitary confinement consisted of a small 6x8 room, it was rather small for a person who was 6’1’’. He knew this because he only could lay diagonally. He had a mattress on the floor and pot for excrement. There was a boarded up window in one wall.
When he entered prison he weighed 203 pounds. He was given only a cup of cow beet soup twice daily to eat. Two weeks later when he was taking his daily walk to empty his pot, his legs gave way and he just about passed out. So they put him in the hospital. While he was there recuperating, a visiting Visiting Red Cross Commissioner came over to him and inquired why he had dropped so much weight in such short time. He could see by Merits chart that when he came to the prison he had weighed about 200 lbs. and in two weeks time he was down to 130 lbs. Merle told him what he had to eat. When the chief who was the warden of the prison heard that Merle was talking to the commissioner, he pulled him out of the hospital and put him back into solitary confinement. He ordered one of the prisoners. who was a doctor. to keep Merle sedated with morphine. If he woke up and began to make any noise he was to be given more morphine. The next six months flew by fast.
Merle began to realize what they were doing. and decided he would get off the morphine himself. So he would avoid making any noise, even when the hallucinations would come. He would grit his teeth and bare the frightening images silently.
He then set up a daily routine for himself. He knew he had to keep himself mentally alert. He would exercise for an hour, then would sing for an hour. And then he would hold gray back races for an hour and the last hour he would rest. Then he would start all over again. He kept time by the near by bell tower in the neighboring town.
The way he held gray back races was to pick the lice or gray backs off of himself and then he would draw a circle with the heal of his shoe in the dirt. He then would place the gray backs in the middle and would see which one would make it to the edge the fastest. He would then try to isolate the winner and then pit it against newly pick gray backs. There were some thoroughbreds. He had one for two days.
The infestation of insects on him was tremendous. His cloths got so badly infested that he would take off his flight suit and hang it out the window at night so as to freeze the bugs but by the afternoon they would be hatching again.
One day he asked for a second excrement pot and the guard smiled the wrong way and the frustration came to blow on the guards face. Soon there was a small army of guards on him. They placed him in another solitary confinement This one was coffin like and was underground. He couldn't sit up in it, all he could do is turn over. He was given no food or water. Usually men went out of their minds in three days. After three days, they lifted the lid and Merle came out swinging, (he was really out of his head) but the guards thought he still had some fight left in him so they left him in there for another three days. This time when they lifted the lid he gave them no resistance.
For his birthday he planned a celebration. He had gotten the guard to bring him a liter bottle. When Merle got his ration of a cup of wine, he would pour part of it into the bottle. The guard noticed he was doing this and gave him just a little extra each day. For his birthday he had himself a fine celebration and got quite drunk.
One day an order came down for all prisoners to turn in their scissors, needles and personal pictures. This made Merle mad because it was against the Geneva Convention. So he asked the Yugoslav who came each day to cleaned his cell to get him some personal pictures. He didn't care who they were of. The Yugoslav found some family pictures and gave them to him.
Merle knew that his cell was going to be the first one searched because his cell was the closest one to the main gate. They had put him there because they wanted to keep a close eye one him . He thought that if he would take a stand that it might help his fellow prisoners. When the guard come to inspect the next day, he saw the pictures along the side of the wall and the needle and scissors on the floor laying next to the pictures. When the guard saw the articles, he made a move to confiscate them. Merle reach for the bottle that had held his birthday wine and broke it off. He made a threatening gesture and the guard turned around and left and got the Warden.
Merle emphatically told the warden that it was against the Geneva Convention to take away the prisoners personal pictures and things. The Warden couldn't understand him very well but he got the message. From then on he was known as "Crazy Al Capone". Every 15 minutes they would peep in on him. Even at night. they would turn on the lights to check on him because he was "Crazy Al Capone".
The Yugoslav that cleaned up his cell at first couldn't speak any English, but after awhile he spoke it well. He was Merles informant. He told him of things that were happening around camp. Through his informant he learned that the commissioner had finally caught up with the Warden and his wife. He had found out that the wife was making French pastry to sell back to the prisoners out of their own rations. They also found out that the potatoes that were suppose to be for their soup, were being sold on the black market. The warden and his wife were taken off to prison and the prisoners at Castres began to eat much better.
One day after Merle was out of solitary, the Yugoslav brought to Merle a dish of fresh meat. It looked and tasted like chicken or rabbit. Merle asked him what it was and why had he brought it to him. The Yugoslav told him it was the warden's cat that had gotten left behind. He thought it would be appropriate for him to get the cat because it was Merle who got the Commissioner to investigate the Warden.
When he was out of solitaire, he made contact with the underground in prison. They had ways of getting him to Barcelona. But an English prisoner named James T. R. Taylor screwed up their escape plans. He told Merle that he was going to escape with a French prisoner and a French guard. The French guard was a guard from the prison and wanted to escape also. Merle told him to wait because he had arranged with the underground to catch a truck and go down to Barcelona. But before Taylor could make good his escape the Gestapo came to pick him up because it was his time to leave prison. But the French prisoner and guard left anyway. Because they got away the Warden changed all the locks on the doors. This stopped Merle's escape plans because they changed all the locks on the gates. Before they could get new keys made, the Gestapo came for Merle. He suspected that Taylor told them that he was in that prison.
When the Gestapo came for Merle and Jack, they took them to a prison in Toulouse. There the doctor saw that they were badly in need of sunshine. Their skin was gray from the lack of sunshine. Merle and Jack were separated, but, they got to talk when they went up to sun themselves in the "Bull pen". They stayed there for two or three weeks.
Then they took them to La Fame Prison, outside of Paris. When he first arrived they shaved him from head to toe with a straight razor in an effort to get rid of the lice. They then directed him into a shower which had four spigots and glass door all around and turned on the shower. But instead of showering water, kerosene came out. The kerosene stung his skin terribly, and he did a little jig to the female guards delight.
Merle and Jack were separated again and Merle was put in with some French prisoners. There was a French general, Jugano, who taught him to play chess, even though neither could understand each other. They made a chess board out of a piece of cardboard box and the pieces were just pictures drawn on pieces of paper.
The Gestapo then took Merle to the Gestapo headquarters inside Paris. They first took him into a room where they beat a women to a bloody pulp to show him what would happen to him if he didn't give them the information that they wanted. They then took him to another room where they were shoving a water hose down a man's stomach and bloating him as a form of torture. Then they took him to another group and he had to watch them get executed.
Then thinking he had been sufficiently terrorized, they began to question him about his travels through France and who had helped him. But, he couldn't give them any information because he really couldn't remember the towns he had been in, or the names because they were all foreign names to him.
Then they came to ask him to sign a paper to attest that Jack was really an American, but. Merle said he wouldn't because it was written in German and for all he knew he would be signing his own death warrant. So then ,they did bring the papers back in English. From there they took him to Dulag Luft for about ten days for more interrogation and from there he was transferred to Stalag 7 A.
Stalag 7A was located in Moosburg, Germany. He was put in with other American flight personal. South of the compound there were Russians, Yugoslavians and other French prisoners. Within a week he had thought up an escape plan. He noticed that the Germans had put the wood pile right by the fence, and he and one other prisoner decided to escape over the compound gates during the night. They crept out of their barrack and used the boards from the wood pile to get over the barbed wire fence. They were loose for five or six days but some young kids spotted them and turned them in. The kids had been trained to spot prisoners by their different walk and their different clothes.
They were caught and taken back to the prison. The commandant asked Merle how he escaped and Merle thought it might come in handy to tell him the truth this time so, he told him they had escaped over the woodpile. He got twenty-one days in solitary confinement. But, it was nothing compared to Casters prison. He only got bread and water. The bread was German Black Bread that was made out of sawdust.
A few days after he got out of solitary confinement, the guards sent in the usual dog to arouse the sleeping prisoners out of their barracks. The dog started to charge at Merle, and Merle threw the dog into the frame of the bed and broke his back. They quickly skinned the dog and hid it and ate it for supper. They had fresh meat, compliments of the Germans. The Germans came looking for the dog but none of the prisoners had seen him. Nothing happened for a week or so. Then one day Merle started to check on the toilet. He had noticed that it was an old one and he began to wonder where the sewers were. He inquired about the old sewer system and found out where the pipe was. He had to do a lot of digging to find the pipe. When he found it, he found it was three and a half feet high. Tall enough for a man to walk through if they didn't stand up straight. He also noticed that there was a slime in the bottom of the pipes so he told the other two prisoners that were going with him that they had better bind up their feet with old uniform scrapes to protect their feet. One of the fellows didn't follow him instructions and had to go back because the lime was eating his feet so bad.
They followed the pipe and were able to get out by a drainage ditch. They enjoyed their freedom for about a week and it was a nice diversion from prison life. They were turned in by some kids again and were taken back to Stalag 7 A.
The commandant again asked Merle how he got out and he told him that they had escaped over the woodpile. The commandant was so mad, that he placed a guard to watch the guard watching the woodpile. Merle got another twenty-one days in solitary.
About three weeks after he had gotten out of solitary he came up with another escape plan. They got some polish guard uniforms and proceeded to sweep down the streets and down by the guard tower. They would go into the guard tower and clean the ash trays and straighten up and then they would go outside and sweep down the other side of the street.
They did this for three days so the guard would get use to seeing them and wouldn't take notice of them. So on the third day, they swept down by a large flume and dropped down, it was about a six foot drop. They went head over heals, not realizing how fast the water was running. Merle went first and then when he got passed the camp, he found a brace to hold on to and caught his companion coming down. When they were far enough, the water started to slow down because it made a curve. They got out there and ran in to the French labors who had been forced to work for the Germans. They asked them how they could get across to Switzerland. They told them that Lake Constance was smaller at one end but there were Germans at both ends. They would have to cross the lake near the smaller end but far enough so the Germans wouldn't see them.
They found two logs, (Merle couldn't swim) and floated to the other side. They got about 10 kl inside Switzerland when they were picked up by a pro German squad. Their dog had caught the escapes scent and lead the squad to them. Had they just made it 5 more kilometers they would have made it to safety.
When he returned to Stalag 7 A, the Commandant asked him again how he got out and Merle gave him the standard answer, "Over the woodpile." In fact, that became the standard answer for everybody who tried escaping. The Commandant just couldn't figure how the prisoners kept getting over the woodpile. He had guards, watching the guards, watching the guards of the woodpile. It was quite a big joke to the prisoners. Before Merle could complete this twenty-one days in solitary, they came to take him to another prison. When he went before the Commandant to get the transfer, the Commandant remarked that he was glad to get rid of him.
They took all the enlisted prisoners which included Merle and put them in a box car that was to take them to Krems, Austria. They were so packed that they had to take turns sitting. If they had to relieve themselves, that had to do it in their pants.
When they got to Krems, they marched them to Stalag 17B. As they were marching pass the Russians compound, one American prisoner threw a pack of cigarettes over the fence. They latter found out that there had been quite a fight over that pack of cigarettes and one fellow was quite badly beaten.
They settled in and Merle then began to look for a way to escape and to get food. The Russian compound wasn't to far away so, he began to dig a tunnel, thinking it would be easier to escape from there than their own compound.
After a week of tunneling with two other guys, they broke through at the Russian compound. The Russians were scared when they saw them and didn't know what to think. They tried to communicate with them and asked them to take them to their leader. By drawing a lot of pictures in the dirt, they were able to get Russians to take them to their leader.
Merle had learned the prisoner of war language "Yak-tom Broca", sort of a combination of all the European languages. He was able the talk to the Russian leader. At first the Russian leader was quite irritated and asked adamantly that the Americans not throw any more cigarettes over the fence because of what happened to one of his soldiers. Once Merle reassured him that it wouldn't happen again, they got to talking trade. The Russian told him he would trade food for cigarettes. The Russians were allowed outside to do work for the Germans and were able to steal food. They would steal potatoes, onions, vegetables, and fruit. The American were never allowed outside. They then set up the exchange rate. A potato was worth a pack of cigarettes or a large one was worth two. An apple was worth one pack and so on. They were able to trade through the tunnel until some dogs found it and then they had to make other arrangements.
The way they exchanged commodities was that when Russians returned to camp they would throw over the thirty foot high fence the items that they were able to get a hold of. The next day, Merle would be sunning himself by the fence and throw over the cigarettes that he thought the food was worth. He was always fair with them, so each side was happy with their arrangement.
Merle was always thinking and planning ahead. He wanted a radio so he could listen to news of the war so he would know what to plan for. This is how he finally got a radio. First he made a box out of a Red Cross package. It took him two months to carve little notches on the gears so it would turn inside. He knew he needed some copper wire to make it convincing. So he traded with the guard for some copper wire for some cigarettes. After he had installed the wire on the gears, he called back the guard and asked him to get him some earphones for his crystal radio. The guard didn't want to because he was afraid of being shot. But, Merle said that if he didn't get the wire that he would take the radio to the Commandant and tell him that the guard had given him the copper wire to make the radio. So, the guard would get shot anyway for giving him the wire. The guard could see that he was trapped, so somehow he got him the earphone. Merle then made himself a crystal radio and was able to hear a little of the news but the reception wasn't good enough so he began planning on how to get a bigger one.
In the meantime, Christmas of 1944 had come and they received their Christmas Red Cross packages which contained two cartons of cigarettes, condensed milk, powdered coffee, D bars (chocolate bar), liver paste, taxi comb and lots of ping pong balls. Merle decided he'd either smoke a lot the next year or not at all. He began to gamble for cigarettes, and he was quite successful. He won over 4,000 packs of cigarettes.
After Christmas he pursued his desire for a real radio. He called in the same guard who had gotten him the items for the last radio and told him he wanted him to bring him a radio that he could put in between the walls in the barracks. The guard protested but Merle again told him he would go to the commandant and tell him about the radio. The guard relented and said he would do it for ten packs of cigarettes, because he would have to payoff others to get the radio on the black market. Merle said he would give him nine packs if he got the radio. The guard agreed and got him the radio. Merle then put it between the walls of the barracks and put nails in where the knobs would be. He would then hang cloths on the nail to disguise them. The speakers were to big to be put in the wall so he hooked the speakers into the loud system speaker in the barrack so when the guards weren't around they would all listen to the news. However, the guard knew they were getting the news and came to them and asked them how the war was going.
The prisoners were only allowed to have one day supply of ration of food and cigarettes so Merle would payoff the guards in cigarettes not to check his area. He had the walls stuffed full with provisions. They didn't bother him because they were afraid that he might turn them in for taking payoffs
There was a Major that came into the enlisted men's compound. Why he was there Merle didn't it know but, he took the position of being spokesman for the American prisoners. He thought that by trading with the Germans it was helping the Germans out. Merle told him that if he could upset the economy of the Germans, he would do it. Actually, Merle thought that the Major wanted to control the trading and fix the prices Because Merle wouldn't co-operate with the Major, the Major sent a group of men down to ruff up Merle and his group. They started fighting each other, over the trade goods. But Merle had a big back-up group that came in and scared of the Majors group. Merle had a lot of friends because he controlled the cigarettes.
Merle then went over to see the Major. He told him that they were playing right into the Germans hand because they loved to see the Americans fighting each other. Merle told the Major that if he wouldn't bother his men, he wouldn't come after him. After that, the Major left him alone and they got along .just fine.
Merle had quite a network of prisoners working for him. The Russians, the Italians, and the French workers in the hospital would steal whatever they could get their hands on and trade it for cigarettes. He gave a better deal than the Major so he did better business. Germans called him the luff gangster.
Merle actually began putting on weight due to all of his food trading When he had been in Castor prison, he had spent all of his time in planning what he would do when he got out, and how he would get food to survive. He never wanted to be that hungry again. Besides trading with the foreign prisoners, he traded with his fellow prisoners. He traded two packs of cigarettes for a D Bar, 2 1/2 packs for a can of powdered milk, 1 pack of cigarettes for liver paste, and 2 packs for a block of cheese. Also, when he first got there he asked for a male cat and two females, just in case the food situation got worse. He was always thinking and planning ahead. in December of 1944 they started to dig a tunnel. This project included about twenty men and took three months. Merle didn't like to work with large groups because of the security problems. This was the largest group he involved in an escape attempt. The tunnel was to be about 100 feet long going from the barracks by the air raid trenches and out hopefully coming up outside the compound fence. They way they built the tunnel was to first weld the round tins of liver paste together thus making a tube. They then would pump air into the tube so that the men could breath at the other end of tunnel. They added section by section as they dug. The dirt they took out and threw it in the trenches or in the ground around their barracks. If the guard noticed the fresh dirt they would always tell the guards they were tilling the earth for a garden. They used the timber from the barracks to shore up walls of the tunnel. It was a wonder that the barracks were still standing by the end of the war.
On the night of the escape, when they come up they were a little short, they punched a hole right underneath the barbed wire fence. It made a rattling noise which alerted the guards and they began spraying machine gun fire. The tunnel was full of men panicking, trying to get out and it was getting plugged. Merle had planned for this turn of events, he had marked where the air raid trenches were and he punched his way to the top. Two men followed him. One of them ran with Merle over to the air raid trenches. The bullets barely missed them.
The second guy that was behind Merle stood up and signaled surrender but a German guard came up and riddled the soldier with bullets. It was the best friend of a fellow that was with Merle. From that time on he said every day that he would nail the guard to floor and burn his house. He was a man possessed in reaping revenge on that guard. Not only did they shoot him down when he was trying to surrender but they left the prisoners body laying in the snow for three days as a warning to the other prisoners.
The man did get his revenge on the guard. After they were liberated, he caught up with the guard and tied him to a tree, set a fire underneath him and ran an knife through his testicles and penis. He then gave him a bayonet to cut himself down. But the guard was in so much pain, that he stabbed himself. After that the fellow was completely happy. He had done what he had said he would do.
On a lighter side, for entertainment, Merle put on a show for the guys. It was the only show he produced but they said it was the best one. Merle made a cardboard theater which had peep-holes in it. He then told one of the most gullible service men that he had smuggled in a girl and she would do as hula dance for him. Merle suggested that he take a couple of packs of cigarettes, a D bar and a can of evaporated milk for her. When he saw him go down, he was carrying a whole Red Cross package. The hula dancer really was an Austrian prisoner who had shaved his legs and put on a grass skirt and falsies. He was a beautiful girl. They had set the theater up with a phonograph and the hula dancer, danced away. Unknown, to the service man, the other men were watching the show behind the cardboard theater through the peep-holes. The service man was a normal man and he kept making advances at the hula dancer, teasing him, but the dancer keep putting him off. Then in desperation he lunged at the dancer and pulled the grass skirt down. Boy was he shocked to see what was underneath! The soldiers behind the cardboard had quite a show and enjoyed a good laugh. They said it was the best show ever.
Merle's days were pretty routine. There was roll call at eight o'clock and then they might attend classes in English, German, or a class in clerical work. For lunch the cooks would bring a large wooden tub and scoop out their ration or soup. This soup was usually made out of the reconstituted vegetables that were full of weevils. The Germans had stored the vegetables before the war in the event of war.
In the afternoon, Merle usually played bridge, gambled or dug a tunnel or traded. Supper was the same old soup. However, Merles long-range planning came in handy. In February of 1945, the rations were getting low and the Germans didn't have much themselves. They brought the prisoners horse meat that had been lying in the field for days. It was green and had maggots and the Germans expected them to eat it. That was the only meat they got except the boiled weevils in the soup. This is when Merles cats came in handy. By this time he had some kittens running around and he skinned and fried it up with the margarine they got in the red cross parcels. So Merles group was enjoying the fresh meat and one fellow said "You aren't hungry enough to eat a cat are you?". Merle said "You don't have to be hungry to eat cat." Another asked if he could taste it and Merle gave him a bite. That was the wrong thing to do because all the cats suddenly disappeared.
Toward the end of the war they could see the bombers and the clouds of bombs that were being released. The Americans were bombing Krines, Austria, and the railroads. The bombers would fly right over them in order to reach their destination. A lot of their time was spent watching the war in the sky when U.S. planes came to bomb Vienna or Krines. They would see our planes being blown up by their big guns or hit their mark by the smoke. One time a fellow who was in a P-38 Airplane, got shot down and landed at the base of the hill. The prison camp was located at the top of the hill.
The prisoners all watched as another P-38 came down and picked him up and they rode piggy back (P-38's only held one person in its cockpit, so it was pretty cramped quarters.) The prisoners were glad for the pilot but they all wished it was them flying out.
The significance of the incident was that when Merle was stationed back in Portland Air Base, he saw a photographer taking picture of a soldier next to a P-47. Merle asked why they were taking pictures. The photographer said that it was a soldier who had picked up a pilot in France. Merle asked him if he was the pilot who had picked up a pilot in Kremes and he said yes. Then Merle told him what he had seen and he knew he had been shot down in a P-38 not a P-47. They explained that was the only plane they had available.
The Russians were advancing on Vienna and the Prison Guard and German soldiers didn't want to be captured by the Russians so they marched the prisoners out of prison and headed them toward the western front. They would rather be captured by the Americans that the Russians. This was in the middle of April of 1945.
When Merle packed up to leave he distributed all of his wealth between his companions and then he handed the surplus to anyone who came by. He had planned to be there in the prison for long time and had collected quite a bit. He had overloaded himself on soap because of the his experience in Castors Prison. The soap was too heavy too carry so he gave it all away except for six bars.
They started on the march. Merle marched with them for about five days. Then they decided to start up North to Checsa but Merle didn't want to go so he paid off the guard and four of the prisoners left the group. They rested there for three days and then they saw the group coming back. They came back because General Patten was making a spearhead attack in to Chesza and so they had turned back. Now they wanted to go west, the same way as Merle wanted to go so they joined up with them again. When they were on the march the Russian airplanes would shoot at anything that moved so they would have to scatter along the road. At night they stopped in an open field. Once you laid down you didn't get up because if you did you would get shot. They would fire warning shot over their head about waist high.
When they were on the march the Germans were making the Jews march toward the Russian front. They figured that they would make a stumbling block for the Russians by putting the Jew in front. On the way for about 20 Kilometers there was nothing but Jewish bodies along the roadside. If a Jew fell behind they would just bayonet him and leave him along side the road. Merle said he can still remember the horrible stink along the road.
They were liberated by an advance US tank but they had no food to give them. The former prisoners took the guards guns and went searching for food their own self. While they were waiting for the rear troops to catch up to them they went out scouting for food. They came to one farm house and told them to make up as much bread as they possibly could and they would be back to pick it up. Another place they liberated some potatoes from a field and from another farm house they liberated a hog and butchered it. When they were killing time, they went down to a near-by town to check out a bank. They thought they might liberate so money from the bank by blowing it up. But when they broke down the door there was an military policeman guarding it. The group quickly retreated and went back and picked up their shopping list from the houses they ordered food from. They distributed the food among the sick prisoners.
On the way back Merle's group was stopped by a group of Russian prisoners who were behind the American prisoners. They demanded the wagon full of goods and started to threatening them. But before they could make good on the demands the Russian spokesman who Merle had traded with in camp came up and stopped them. He asked if they could just have horse that was pulling wagon. Merle told them that after he had taken the food into their camp he would bring back the horse. When he brought them the horse, the horse never even had a chance to lay down as it was immediately butchered and eaten.
When the rear echelon caught up they sent them to Branau. On the way to town, they passed under an overpass that went into the German Airfield. The German people were up on top spitting and throwing stuff at them. This made Merle and Ed Seaborn mad so they went to the nearby airfield and liberated guns, watches and medals. They took as much stuff as they could carry.
When Ed saw a German general who has some beautiful high riding boots on he told him to take them off. The German officer motioned to his aid to take off his boot. but Ed fired some shots from the hip and the bullet glazed over the generals head. That got the generals attention and he took both of them off in midair.
From Branau, they were flown to Nancy, France, where he got his first medical examination. He was asked where he was hurting. He told them his back was bothering him. So they asked him to drop his drawers and were astounded at the condition of his hemorrhoids. His back problem was never addressed. Eight times he was operated on for the same problem but it never did his back any good.
Later they saw a gall stone in his gall bladder so they took it out. But it still didn't do his back any good. He didn't have much faith in the army doctors. When he was getting ready for his gall stone operation, he drew on his stomach where the gall bladder was so the doctor would know where to operate.
They operated on his hemorrhoids so he was the only one who didn't go on to Camp Lucky Strike. They flew him to Paris. He looked around for three days and also traded some liberated guns for money. He then went on to Camp Lucky Strike.
When he arrived in Lucky Strike, he was in line at the mess hall and asked for more food but the German prisoner said "nix" and that was one too many nixes and he went right across the table and took him down and hit him. Then the MP's came and pulled Merle off the prisoner and took him to the CO.
The CO said he couldn't go around losing his cool. Merle said he had Germans telling him "nix" for two and a half years and couldn't take it anymore. He then asked the CO if he could have a seven day pass to get to England. The CO said there was no way he could get to England. There were at least three months of people stacked up waiting to get to England. Merle asked him just to give him the leave papers and let him worry about the rest.
Merle went down to the landing strip and approached a crew chief of one of the airplanes there and asked him if he had liberated any souvenirs. He said he had gotten there too late and hadn't gotten any. Merle then pulled out one of his liberated German P-38 revolvers and the crew chief drooled with envy. The crew chief said he sure would like to have one like that. Merle said he could have it. if he didn't check his tail (he meant the tail of plane). The guy really didn't want to do it but he wanted the gun. Merle slipped on undiscovered when the chiefs attention had been momentarily diverted. When they were over England. the point of no return. he casually walked up to the cock pit and introduced himself to the pilot. He explained that he was an ex-P.O.W. and had slipped on to the plane. The pilot asked where he had been stationed before he got shot down. When Merle told him that it was Molesworth. the pilot said he would be landing about nine mile from there.
When they landed the pilot had a jeep waiting there to take him to Molesworth. When he got to Molesworth. he went to the CO. He found out that the CO was Robert Nye, he had been a low ranking officer before Merle got shot down. Now he was the CO of the 358th Squadron. Nye asked the head cook to fix him up a great dinner. The cook brought him a couple of steaks and a lot of liquor. (all he could drink). In the course of the celebration Merle found out that they were leaving Molesworth the next day for Africa. Merle wanted to go with them but they said he couldn't because he had to be processed as a POW.
Merle got very drunk and passed out and he woke up the next day about two-thirty in the afternoon. To his surprise he found himself alone in the middle of the barracks. There was not one thing there except the four walls and his lone cot. The barrack had been completely stripped. 358th had all ready pulled out and they left him there. Had he returned a day later he would have missed them all. He went outside and he found a jeep with a note on it. It said that when he got through with it, to return it to the motor pool. He took the jeep to see if any of the other squadrons were left but there was not a soul around.
Merle was one of the first to get to Molesworth and he was the very last man of the 303rd to leave.
He took off with the jeep and went to the motor pool and traded goods for gas and toured England. Finally his seven days were up and he turned himself in. They asked him if had any money and if he could wait to turn himself when he ran out of money because they didn't have time to process him right then. The CO extended his pass so he toured more of England and Scotland.
He was a little anxious to get home because he had heard from Betty's letters that they had a little girl who was named Sheran. She had been born the 28th of February of 1943. He got home just after his birthday in July. That was his 23rd birthday.
To get home he had to ride on a L5T which was a flat bottom boat. Before setting to sea he stashed some cognac in a lifeboat, so he could have something to drink on the way home.
In the hold of the boat, was where all the men slept and it stunk badly. Merle refused to sleep down there and made his bed on deck by the lifeboat. The shore police found him and told him he had to go below and sleep. Merle refused to go down there so they took him to the captain of the boat. The captain said he would have to go down there to sleep or he would throw him in the brig. Merle asked him how many men were there and the captain replied none. Merle said "then throw me in the brig, at least it won't be crowded or smelly". But the captain couldn't believe he really wanted to go there so he had the Shore Police escort him to he hold. Merle knew of another way to get topside and he slipped out and back up top side. When the Shore Police went by he acknowledged them and they were surprised to see him sitting there, for they hadn't seen him come up topside. So they took him back to the captain and told him he was washing his hands of him. If he fell off and got washed overboard it would be his own fault.
The voyage took him sixteen days and he had planed that each bottle of cognac would have to last him two days. The days in prison had taught him to always plan ahead and he was never was without a stash of food no
They landed in Northfork. Virgina. Then he went by train through Boise, saw Betty and Sheran and then went on up to Fort Lewis. He got a ninety-day furlough and went back to Boise. Then he was to report to Santa Anna for re-induction but when he went to re-enlist. They said his records weren't right and they didn't know what was wrong so they gave him another ninety-day furlough After that one was over, they still couldn't figure out what was wrong and so they gave him another ninety days. They finally figured out that he that he owed money that had been paid to Betty because they had started paying off his insurance because he was thought to be dead. However, Merle felt he had gotten it back because all his nine months of leave pay.
He re-enlisted and there he was sent to Portland. He was transferred to McCord field and then down to Hamilton Field.
Merle was a Tech Sergeant when he was shot down and when he was liberated he was advanced to a Master Sergeant. When he re-enlisted they had to promote him one more rank and that was to be a permanent Master Sergeant. It would take an act of congress to break his rank. Colonel Wallace had became a General and worked in the Pentagon and pulled strings for Merle when he needed them. His crew had all survived the war. The pilot O.T. O'Conner had landed the plane on its belly and had broken both ankles. He was hospitalized and repatriated. The co-pilot. Ruppe along with Gordon went out of France through the underground. Dumont who was thrown off the plane was repatriated. Hughes, the radio operator along with Lucus, the Waist-Gunner and Fincher, Ball-Turret were all in Stalag 7A and then on to Stalag 17B with Merle. Batterson, the Tail-gunner was hospitalized and then joined them at Stalag 17B.
Merle resigned his commission in 1950. Merle and Betty were invited to the Premier of the movie "Stalag 17" because the William Holden's character was based on Merle's resourcefulness and character.