Braintree Man Describes Prisoners’ 500 Mile March

My father, Staff Sergeant Raymond E. Bence, Jr. gave this interview to the Quincy Patriot Ledger immediately after his return home to Braintree, Massachusetts on June 15, 1945. He enlisted after graduating from Braintree High School in 1943. He turned 18 on August 25, 1943.

He was nose-gunner on Lt. Fromm’s crew, 703rd Squadron, 445th BG, for the Kassel mission.

His nickname in the squadron was “The Kid”. He flew 14 missions with the 445th before his 19th birthday. The mission to Kassel was his 19th mission.

In the interview he identifies Lt. Fromm’s B-24 by the name “Special Delivery”.

Interview with Raymond E. Bence, Jr., published in the Quincy Patriot Ledger, June 20, 1945, page 1 (continued on page 14)

 

Braintree Man Describes Prisoners’ 500 Mile March

BRAINTREE, June 20 – A forced march nearly 500 miles over the roads of Europe as Germans attempted to keep hundreds of American and British prisoners out of reach of advancing Allied troops was today described by S. Sgt. Raymond E. Bence, Jr., 19, of 24 Atherton street, East Braintree, who is home on leave.

Carried to Hospital

With his legs so numb that they had no feeling and running a temperature of 105, Sergeant Bence, nose gunner on a B-24, finally collapsed near the end of his long trek and was carried to a hospital where he was liberated after being a prisoner for seven months.

The Braintree airman was a member of the crew of the bomber “Special Delivery,” based in England. His adventure started during his 19th mission to a tank factory in Germany.

“Near the target,” he said, “200 fighters attacked our formation of 36 planes. During the fight we lost 32 planes. Our plane was one of the first to go down.

“Two of our motors were on fire, the hydraulic system and the interphone systems were knocked out. As a result of the damage I didn’t hear the warning bell to bail out. The first I knew that the crew was starting to leave the crippled plane was when First Lt. Charles McCann beckoned to me to follow him.

“At the time we were at 17,000 to 18,000 when we bailed out of the nose-wheel hatch. My ‘chute opened all right and I floated down through the air, landing in a tree near a little town south of Kassel.

“A group of men, women and a couple of slave laborers approached me as I hung in the tree. One of them had a pitch-fork. Believe me, I didn’t know what they were going to do.

“But when I got to the ground, one of them threw his arms around me. He said he had relatives over in this country and started to ask me all sorts of questions. For a time I thought they were going to help me get away, but the mayor of the town came up and I was marched into town.

        Eight Landed Safely

“Later, I heard that of the nine men in the plane, eight landed safely.

“As I went through the town, the children started to yell ‘Chicago Gangster’ and ‘Terror-fligger’ AT ME. Many of them wore the Hitler youth uniform. But, some of the older men kept them away from me.

“After being questioned and sent to a transient camp, I was finally placed in Stalag Luft 4D in Pomerania, where I stayed from Oct. 7 to Feb. 6. We had a pretty good set-up there. But, as the Russians started to get closer they evacuated between four and five thousand of us.”

It was from her on that Sergeant Bence underwent many hardships as he and the others were forced to make the march of 700 kilometers, during which they slept in barns, fields and ate when and whatever they could. Food, he said, was exceptionally scarce.

For periods of three and four days, all they had to eat were a few potatoes. Along the road he swapped a cigarette case for a half-loaf of soggy black bread. Other members of the party swapped watches and other articles for food.

Finally the weary group reached Stalag 11A near Hanover. They were there only 12 days when news arrived that the Americans were only 30 kilometers away. Overhead they could see planes of the RAF flying. Once they saw a German plane shot down and let out a mighty cheer.

On April 12 the prisoners were again forced to march away from their liberators and were taken to Annaburg, which was formerly a repatriation center.

Along the route they could hear and see P-47’s and P-38’s flying overhead, strafing enemy trains. In the distance they could hear the roar of guns and the men, Sgt. Bence said, then knew that the hour of their liberation was hear.

“The day before we were scheduled to reach Annaburg” Sergeant Bence said, “my legs gave way. I managed to get up and struggle along to a small town where I waited about three hours and was picked up by a wagon.

“We had just got out of town when P-47’s came over and strafed and dive-bombed railroads and bridges. The place we were staying at 15 minutes before was destroyed, we heard.

“As the planes came near us, we made for ditches until they had passed by. Finally we reached a town. I was so weak that they had to carry me into a hospital. A British doctor, who had been captured, examined me and told me I had pneumonia. I was running a temperature of 105.

“News arrived that the Allied troops were near and the Nazi guards took off and left us on our own hook.

“The Russians arrived at the place on April 24. Three days later some American officers flew in. They told us the Americans and Russians hadn’t joined up, but that it wouldn’t be long.

“Then came the big day. I was in bed when I heard the roar of trucks and someone rushed in yelling, ‘The Americans are here.’ Hey took us in trucks and ambulances to a clearing station. It was here that I got my first taste of American food. It sure tasted good.

“I had been on the road for two-and-a-half months and had hiked more than 400 miles. During the march. During the march I lost 55 pounds.”

Sergeant Bence was taken to an evacuation hospital and then was flown to Camp Lucky Strike where he was under treatment for two weeks. He was then send home aboard a Navy transport, arriving in New York a week ago.

“You just can’t realize,” he said, “what it means to see American shore-lines again and to finally put your feet back on American soil.”

Taken to Fort Devens, he was given a 60-day leave and arrived at home Friday night.

Sergeant Bence is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Bence of the home address. A graduate of Jonas Perkins school and Braintree high school, class of 1943, where he was a member of the Glee club and the Rifle club. Sergeant Bence joined the air forces, Sept. 18, 1843 when he was 17. He received his gunners’ wings at Westover Field, Mass., and was sent overseas last June.

The Weymouth gunner has been awarded the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf cluster and the ETO ribbon with a battle star.

He will report back to Atlantic City for re-assignment at the end of his 60-day leave.

 

Braintree Man Describes Prisoners’ 500 Mile March.” Quincy Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Massachusetts, 20 June 1945. Pages 1, 14. Print.

 

 

Word of the Day – togglier

“The togglier was responsible for arming and dropping the bombs in lieu of a bombardier. As the war progressed, the bombing formations would drop when the lead aircraft dropped, and the need for skilled bombardiers decreased. Dropping bombs involved flipping (or toggling) the switch(es) that result in activating the bomb release mechanisms. This is the origin of the title “togglier”, a combination of toggle and bombardier. The lead aircraft crew would include a skilled “group” bombardier, and many of the other crews would utilize toggliers.”

Source: The 401st Bomb Group (H) Association web page http://401bg.org/forum/yaf_postst947_What-is-a-Togglier.aspx#post4314

Remembering the Kassel Mission – September 27, 1944

Interview and photo by Bill Hall for South Coast Today.

Interview and photo by Bill Hall for South Coast Today.

Newspaper Interview – 6/15/1994
By BILL HALL – Staff writer, South Coast Today

WESTPORT, MA

RAY BENCE served with the Air Force during World War II and completed 18 missions before being shot down over Germany, becoming a prisoner of war and being involved in a 600-mile forced march. (Bill Hall photo)

For individuals who may not have known much about World War II and watched the recent D-Day ceremonies, they might have concluded that the invasion ended the war. In fact, the war in Europe lasted 11 more grueling months with heavy losses on all sides.

Among those who saw all of this action following the invasion was current Westport resident Raymond Bence who flew 19 missions in a B24 against heavily fortified areas in France and Germany. Two months after his first mission his plane was shot down over Germany and he became a prisoner of war prior to being freed by the Russians at the close of the conflict.

This Sept. 27 will mark the 50th anniversary of his capture which came on the 19th mission over Bad Hersfeld.

He had come to the base of the 2nd Bomber Division of the 8th Air Force in Norwich, England by way of Westover Air Force Base. The then Sgt. Bence was in the nose turret of the 10 member B-24 when he flew his last mission on Sept. 27 heading for the Henschel plant in Kassel, Germany.

At that time, each crew flew 35 missions before it was allowed to go back home. This was his nineteenth mission and so far, all he had seen was flak and plenty of it but his first look at German fighter planes would be his last from the air.

“We had strayed off course by about 20 or 30 miles, ” said Mr. Bence. “We had dropped our bornb load off in some fields. I was later told we hit one cow.”
While they were returning, a wave of about 150 fighter planes including three groups of Messerschmitt 109’s attacked the 35 Liberators and within five to seven minutes the 2nd Bomb division had suffered its worse loss of the war.

“Only four planes got back to home base and three of them were so heavily damaged they could not fly again,” Mr. Bence said.

“It was the first time I had seen fighter planes,” he recalled, “up to that point we had seen a lot of flak and the German gunners were quite good. But up to that point we had never been in any real trouble.”

His plane was at about 20,000 feet when it was hit and within a few minutes, Mr. Bence was pulled from the turret by crew member Charlie McCann and they parachuted out.

“It was the first time I had parachuted,” he said. “At one point, I saw a German fighter coming at me. He just went right by. In the distance, I could see our plane go down.”

“There was light cloud cover below and once I went through that, I saw four or five ships (planes) burning on the ground,” he said. “I was heading to a field when a burst of wind took me into a tree. Some civilians rescued me from the tree and a couple of hunters came by and held me for the soldiers.”

Earlier in the war, bomber crews carried sidearms, however the military found that many of the airmen were being killed because they had guns. Because they were bombing in enemy territory, it was felt that if they were shot down, there was no use in trying to fight their way out of a jam and instead would submit to capture.

The crew members were spread out in the countryside and when Mr. Bence was captured, he was first taken for interrogation in Frankfurt where he was a cell mate of a British paratrooper captured in Arnheim.

“I have always wondered whether he was really a British paratrooper or not,” he said, noting that the Germans had been placing spies from various countries and mixed them with the military.

From Frankfurt, he was taken for a short time to another camp before being sent on to Pomerania in Poland where he was held from Oct. 7 of 1944 to Feb. 6 of 1945.
The camp had about 10,000 prisoners and except for the bad food, the prisoners were treated relatively well.

“Because we were enlisted men and officers we did not have to work,” Mr. Bcnce said, noting that they did regular cleaning but were not put into the labor camps. He added that the Red Cross provided parcels for the prisoners.

Many of the guards were older Germans. One who spoke very good English was found to be a man who had been a sewing machine salesman in Chicago prior to the war.

Two other soldiers were known as the “coal dust twins” because they provided coal to heat the barracks.

“There were a lot of roll calls, but the Germans could not count straight,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Adjutant had sent a message to Mr. Bence’s parents, Raymond and Bertha who lived in East Braintree. The message read in part “the Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son, Staff Sergeant Raymond 1. Bence, Jr., has been reported missing in action since 27 September over Germany.

“One of the first things you do once you are in a prisoner of war camp is try to find someone who was in your unit or from your Hometown,” Mr. Bence said. “I found out that a man from Braintree was in the hospital. He had been attacked by civilians when he landed and they broke both his legs and left him for dead. The German soldiers had to rescue him.

“Anyway, it turned out that he had a friend who lived across the street from my house Mr. Bence added. “He was about to be repatriated and so I had to get to him to give word to my parents that I was alright.”

“I sort of made a deal and went to the hospital and gave him the word. He got back to the states and gave the message that I was alright to my parents,” Mr. Bence added, noting they were told prior to Christmas of 1944.

On Feb. 6, the men in the camp were going to be moved because the Russian army had advanced to the south of the Stalag Luft IV camp in Poland. The soldiers were put on a forced march that would continue for the next two months and cover over 600 miles.

“We ended up on the first night sleeping in a field without any cover and having a sleet and snow storm,” he said.

Part way into the march, Mr. Bence took ill and that illness plagued him for the remainder of the march. The group was marched in areas along the Baltic Sea then south to an area beyond Berlin and then back to the east before finishing out in Annaburg.

“We were about seven miles northeast of Targau where the Russian and American soldiers first met,” Mr. Bcnce recalled. “By May 3, the Russians came to Annaburg and we were freed.”

Mr. Bence has only been on three flights over the last 50 years. “I don’t like to fly anymore,” said Mr. Bence. “The only three times I have been in a plane were all family emergencies.” Mr. Bence is planning at least one more plane ride later when he visits Germany for the first time since the war.

Note: My thanks to the Bill Hall and the South Coast Today for allowing me to repost this story.