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by Julius E. Bass
358th BS Pilot - Shot down 06 February 1944
Bass Crew Photo
It's 1300 Hours, Sunday, 06 February 1944, sixty miles-south of Paris, over Bricey, France and having just sold a brand spanking new B-17G (Burning, I might add) back to the taxpayers; I found myself floating down into the middle of the German airfield my squadron had bombed very successfully the day before. It was pretty evident that I had picked a lousy spot to kiss my big bird goodbye and that "For me the war was over." Not being in too good condition with a busted left shoulder and facial bums, I was trying to make as soft a landing as possible and miss landing on a paved runway. With only one arm functional, I wasn't having a lot of luck in selecting my point of contact with the ground.
As I got closer, I could see my reception committee of two German soldiers awaiting my arrival. It occurred to me that I wasn't going to be overly popular with those people, especially if they had friends killed or injured in our raid the day before. Here the story takes its first odd turn and I will explain later in this epistle.
My landing was not what would be taught at a first class jump school. Coming in backwards in a strong wind is not a highly recommended technique. With a resounding thud my participation in the combat operations in the ETO came to an abrupt end. Almost instantly, the muzzles of a Luger and a Mauser were aiming at vital parts of my anatomy. A strip search was conducted right on the spot. At this point in time, up roars a command car occupied by three very unfriendly SS types and a loud shouting match began. My meager knowledge of German gave me a hint that the SS boys wanted me and the two Luftwaffe types were strongly insisting that I was a flyer and, thusly, their property. This confrontation lasted about three heated minutes when, lo and behold, the individual who was the ranking Luftwaffe enlisted man hauls out his Luger and insists that, indeed, I was their prisoner. At this very appropriate moment, another staff car arrives and from it stepped an individual of some authority who, with a few pointed and well directed words caused the departure of the SS troops.
At this point, I was beginning to think maybe I had a protector. WRONG!!! Now it was my turn to experience the wrath of a Commander whose base had been violated. Enough English was interspersed in his verbiage to let me know that he held me personally responsible for the damage to his facility. He repeatedly emphasized that fact by forcefully turning my head in the, direction of numerous badly damaged buildings and hangars. Had he known that, in actuality, my plane had dumped twelve 500 pounders on his precious base the day before, he probably would have called the SS types back and made me a gift to them.
About this time, it all caught up with me and I folded like a tent. My next moment of consciousness came when the gun pointing Luftwaffe sergeant leaned down over me as I lay on the flat bed of a truck, returning a small canvas bound New Testament to my flying suit left breast pocket. Then occurred a moment, that for the next fifteen months as a POW plus a few months back in the States, gave me cause to reflect and wonder. After placing Testament in my pocket and noticing that I was conscious, he leaned down close to my ear and said, "I will write you after the war." For the next eighteen months I wondered if that was really what he said, or something in German that sounded similar. Unknown to me at the time, the beginnings of a very unusual story had started to take shape.
After a visit to a Luftwaffe field hospital for some repair work, I had a short reunion with the survivors of my crew in a hotel lobby in Orleans, France where a couple of my crew members got suckered. As we sat in a small ante room off the lobby of a hotel, this individual in a tan trenchcoat and hat casually stepped into the room and nonchalantly asked, "Who's the pilot?" Without hesitation, two of my crew pointed at me. Both were absolutely stunned when they realized what had happened. I was very shortly removed from the room and that was the last my Enlisted Men saw of me until Camp Lucky Strike after we were released from POW Camp.
The Germans immediately moved me to Frenes Prison on the southern outskirts of Paris where I was held for about a week. A two-night train trip to Frankfurt and a two week stay in Stalag Luft 2 Interrogation Camp. Then by train to the plains of Pomerania and Stalag Luft 1 at Barth, Germany on the Baltic Sea. Our camp was liberated by three drunken Russian soldiers and two French slave laborers on a confiscated truck the night of May 1, 1945. The German personnel had evacuated the camp during the wee hours of that morning, leaving us to await the arrival of General Rokosovsky's Army Corps sweeping west toward a linkup with Marshal Montgomery's British Army. Await we did, and about two weeks later were elated with the appearance of the first of hundreds of B-17s which, over the period of about 10 days, evacuated over 10,000 men back to POW processing camps in France. A joyful reunion with the Enlisted Men of our crew (The two surviving officers had been in Stalag Luft 1 with me) at Camp Lucky Strike and we were all headed home.
My return to the States was uneventful and after a 30 day recuperation leave, a week at a Miami Beach hotel while being processed back into the AAF, checking out in B-17s at Sebring, Florida, I ended up as Operations Officer for the Air Force Photographic School at Lowery Field, Colorado. There in September of 1945, my story began to unfold.
A letter size brown envelope arrived from my home address in Mississippi containing a letter from one Hubert Winklmaier from Munich, Germany. Came the sudden realization that what had been whispered in my ear in the flatbed of a truck on 06 February 1944 had indeed been "I will write you after the war." Opening the large gray envelope which hid been dutifully censored, a well written letter in fair English wrapped around a 14" x 6" piece of parachute silk appeared. The letter introduced Herr Winklmaier as the individual who had taken me prisoner and proceeded to explain that he had taken my home address from the little New Testament taken from me when I was searched after capture. After carrying my address with him for the remainder of the war, he was making good on his, promise to write me.
Interestingly, he was part of a communications maintenance unit located at nearby Chateaudun Flying Field and was at the field at Bricey repairing damages to the communications inflicted by our raid on 05 February, thus his presence when I made my inauspicious arrival in France. The piece of parachute silk was torn from my chute by Hubert, and before mailing it to me he had inscribed: "Feb 6,1944 Bricey, 1Lt J E Bass, Laurel Miss." This was his way of positively identifying himself to me.
Over the next several years, there was a regular exchange of letters and I had CARE packages delivered to he and his family until he informed me that he had a good job with Volkswagen, thanking me profusely for the help extended to him. He also informed me that he would be going to Kampala, Uganda to run the VW workshop there. At this point, with my travels with the Air Force and the Korean ffracaswe lost touch for several years until one day in Kampala he had a conversation with an Air Force C-124 pilot who was involved in an airlift operation in Uganda and happened to know me and where I was stationed. Our correspondence resumed and continued henceforth. He had married a German girl from Munich and they had a son and a daughter.
My Air Force career ended with retirement in 1964 and employment by Delta Air Lines in early 1965. Strangely, about the same time, Hubert's wife Sonja was employed by Lufthansa in their air freight accounting department in Kampala. Now, happily, with airline pass privileges available to us, visits between our families became possible. In December 1968, Hubert and Sonja arrived at Tampa IInternationalAirport and began the first of a series of visits in each others homes. The Winklmaiers returned to Germany when Idi Amin began expelling whites from Uganda and Hubert was employed at the VW / Audi plant in Stuttgart, living in a lovely village named Neuenhaus where we enjoyed several marvelous visits.
To me, it is quite remarkable that a chance encounter in the middle of a German air field between two young men of different nationalities and political philosophies could, over many years, develop into a close friendship. A friendship based on the separately endured experiences of a terrible war and its aftermath, a mutual respect for the role played by the other in that conflict; and speaking for myself, the recognition that Hubert Winklmaier's courage in confronting three SS troopers on my behalf might have been instrumental in my being able to put this story into writing. He was a man of character and conviction and my ffriendshipwith him and his family has been and always will be a treasured experience. Sadly, Hubert Winklmaier departed this life at home on 02 December 1991. Lost, a good and respected friend.