Two Years at Stalag Luft III: The Story of an Ohio POW
By Kieran Robertson
This man is Willard Lee Heckman of Williams County, Ohio.
From late 1941 until April 13, 1943, Heckman served with the United States Air Force as a navigator in the 97th Bombardment Group in North Africa.
From April 13, 1943, until April 29, 1945, Willard Lee Heckman was a prisoner of war in the German prison camp, Stalag Luft III. (Unfortunately, in an unrelated event, Heckman’s cousin, Ercil Eyster, also a pilot, was killed in action in April 1943).
Heckman’s POW identification papers, in German.
Throughout 1943, Heckman kept a diary. On January 1st, he announced that his “previous plane was destroyed by Bombs dropped on Dec 23 1942,” so “we are to get a new airplane B17F (named Sad Sack).” The plane arrived quickly, as by January 2nd, Heckman wrote, “In going over [the plane] we find many defects of mass production.”
Heckman’s diary ends with an entry on April 13, 1943, written in a different handwriting, and signed by a man named J.W. Hardwick. Hardwick begins by saying “Today we lost Buddy [a nickname for Heckman].” He ensures that Heckman is likely alive, but “that is small consolation.”
On the far left of the front row of this photograph, wearing glasses, is Hardwick. Heckman stands next to him in the center of the photograph.
Hardwick goes on to describe the day’s bombing of St. Milo Airdrome at Trapani, Sicily, including the details of Heckman’s fate:
“The “Sad Sac” was hit and lost both left engines. To make matters worse the right landing gear dropped down and they couldn’t get it up. The Sad Sac made it half way back before going in the drink. The ship stayed afloat a minute and a half giving everyone ample time to get out. Lt. Sammons circled the ship and saw five men in one life raft and five others in the water and contended that they were in the process of inflating the other raft.
There were 3 ships steaming North only a few miles from them and Sammons was forced to leave the spot for his own safety as the boats were undoubtedly, Axis.
However, they immediately radioed the Air Sea Rescue Service at Malta, and that night a boat conducted an unsuccessful search for the crew. It was thought that the three ships observed had picked the boys up.”
In fact, these three ships were likely not the ones that captured Heckman, as he remembers that he was afloat in his raft for three days before capture.
Once in Stalag Luft III, Heckman spent the next two years in less than comfortable conditions. Many men shared the same living space, and the prisoners slept on hard and threadbare bunks. Some activities like card playing were available to pass the time, but with so many prisoners in one building, those who did not want to play cards were helplessly swept up into the noise. Men had to assemble outside every day to be counted, and, especially soon after arriving in camp, very little food was made available to the prisoners.
A photograph of Heckman’s pilot, Alexander Blair Jr., at Stalag VII A.
Once Heckman reached Stalag Luft III, his mother and father began receiving a flood of letters alerting them to his capture.
Only a small sampling of the letters the Heckman’s received.
The United States would eventually send an official letter, but many citizens were listening to German broadcasts on shortwave radio. Likely in an attempt to get Americans to listen to their political philosophies, German broadcasters would begin a broadcast by listing the names of various prisoners of war. People with shortwave radios around the United States immediately wrote to the Heckmans when they heard Willard’s name.
A woman in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote the Heckmans, informing them that she was trying to send a bible to each POW.
Postcards from Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
During Heckman’s time at Stalag Luft III the famous “Great Escape” occurred. Over the course of about a year, many prisoners helped dig a huge tunnel underneath the grounds of the camp.
Presumably a POW Reunion. Left to Right:
Wally Floody, a surviving organizer of the Great Escape.
Sgt. Glemnitz, a German guard and Luftwaffe Pilot. He maintained relationships with various POWs after the war, even though he had been responsible for keeping them behind bars.
Wings Day, a British prisoner who made various escape attempts at Stalag Luft III.
Many men got out during the Great Escape, but once the Germans discovered the tunnel they began recapturing many of the escapees. Defying the rules of the Geneva Convention, Adolf Hitler had 50 of these men executed as a warning to any other would be escapees.
Despite this inhumane treatment of escapees by top German leaders, some conveniences were provided for the prisoners at Stalag Luft III. It is likely that the commander of the prison had nothing to do with the execution of the 50 escapees- in fact he wrote in his own memoir of his dislike for Nazis and their thinking.
One of the conveniences that Heckman took advantage of was the chance to write letters home to his parents. He wrote in August of 1943, noting his attempts to read German newspapers so that he might tell when the war could end. He also asked for supplies, most specifically his glasses. However it seems that although Heckman’s letters were being sent, he had yet to receive any of the letters written back by his family.
In the beginning of 1945, as Allied forces drew near, the Germans began to evacuate many prisoner of war camps, including Stalag Luft III. Many of the prisoners were sent to the city of Spremburg, on foot, in the middle of the winter in an event that would become known as the Long Walk. Fortunately, Heckman was part of a group sent by train to a now overflowing camp, Stalag VII A in Mooseburg, Germany. On April 29, 1945, American forces arrived and Heckman was liberated.
Heckman and other members of the 97th Bomb Group at Camp Lucky Strike in France after being liberated.
Heckman attended many reunions with his fellow POW’s for years after the war. His collection now lives at the Ohio History Connection where researchers can read about his experiences for many years to come.
Likely a 1959 reunion. Left to Right: Alec Blair, Virgene Heckman, Jack Bennett, Willard Heckman.
An Interesting Note:
Included in this collection is an item that doesn’t quite fit into the story you read above, but nevertheless it’s pretty interesting. For some reason not explicit in the collection, Heckman had a German penpal in 1933. Of course neither young man knew that Heckman would end up in a German POW camp ten years later- World War II had not yet begun. The other young man sent Heckman a pretty typical letter with a description of his daily life and his family. However also included in this letter and many of the German newspaper articles that the penpal sent were the words “Heil Hitler!”