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Veterans recall World War Two ordeal

By: Brandon Darnell
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They’re both retired now, spending their days in Sun City Lincoln Hills, living in the peace that, a little more than 60 years ago, they fought to preserve. Mervin Danielson and Leonard Lincoln both remember hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor over the radio, and knew what it would mean for them. Danielson was drafted into the Army in January 1942, and Lincoln enlisted in the Army Air Corps in February 1943. By the autumn of 1944, both men would find themselves in German POW camps. “I shipped overseas in August of ’42. We left Staten Island in New York and eventually landed in France at Cherbourg, in Normandy. It was after D-Day, thank goodness,” Danielson said. Danielson served with the 102nd Infantry Division, and after a week and a half camped in the infamous Normandy hedgerows, moved up and joined the fight across Holland and Belgium. “We fought skirmishes along the way, but we met stiff resistance near the Siegfried Line, on the French and German border,” he said. Having been promoted to Lieutenant, Danielson was tasked with leading a night patrol on Halloween, 1944, just north of the German city of Aachen. “We were supposed to go out and capture a couple of Germans for interrogation.” As they stalked through the night, the darkness was shattered when a German machine gun opened up, raking Danielson’s patrol. As the Americans hit the dirt, they found themselves partially surrounded by the enemy. Danielson was hit in the right foot and leg as he went down. Lying beside him, his radio operator was killed, and the radio shattered. “If you get hit and can’t get out, you’re trapped there. We certainly got trapped,” he said. Of the 12 men in his patrol, four were killed, a few managed to escape back to the American lines and the rest were captured. Unable to stand due to his wounds, Danielson was lifted by the Germans and taken to an interrogation center. His wounds were treated with sulfa powder and wrapped in a flimsy material like crepe paper. Since the Germans separated him from his men, he had no idea who was where. Danielson was transported to various prison camps in boxcars called “40 and eights,” meaning they could hold 40 men or eight mules. He eventually wound up in the prison camp Oflag 64 in Posen, Poland with approximately 1,500 other officers. The prisoners could tell the Russian Army was approaching as German refugees, who had gone to settle in Poland after it was conquered in 1939, streamed by, and they heard BBC reports over a radio some prisoners had hidden in the camp. Just before the Russians approached, the Germans rounded up all the prisoners who could walk and marched them west. Danielson remained with 90 other prisoners who couldn’t walk, and was liberated by the Red Army shortly thereafter. That wasn’t the end of Danielson’s troubles, as it was bitterly cold and he wrapped his feet in old newspapers while the Russians drove them to Odessa, in present-day Ukraine, in American-made trucks. From there, a British ship took him to Egypt, where he finally reconnected with the U.S. Army in Cairo before shipping back home to a hospital, where his wounds finally received much-needed attention. All told, Danielson spent 133 days as a captive, and he lost 50 pounds. “I think the Lord was looking after me the whole time. I really do,” Danielson said. While Danielson was slogging it out on the ground, Lincoln was flying bombing missions as a tail gunner in a B-24 Liberator as the Eighth Air Force pounded targets from France to Germany. Lincoln’s first mission was July 6, 1944, exactly one month after D-Day. He remembers seeing a mass of shipping and supplies offloading from the beaches as his squadron went to bomb German rocket sites in France. It was six days later, on his third mission, that fate caught up with him and his fellow crewmembers. The target was in Munich, Germany, and was near the extreme range that the bombers could fly. As they approached the city, heavy antiaircraft fire exploded among the tight formation, peppering the sky with black clouds, called flak. Sitting in the tail turret looking backwards, Lincoln’s only indication of the heavy fire came from the anxious voices of his crewmembers over the intercom. A short while later, explosions rocked the four-engine bomber, knocking out two of the motors. Unable to maintain formation, the pilot decided to drop out and try to make it to neutral Switzerland. The damaged aircraft was unable to maintain altitude, and the pilot had no choice but to set it down in a wheat field in occupied France. Once on the ground, the 10 crewmen split up and ran in different directions. Stopping at the edge of the woods to take off their bulky flight gear, Lincoln and a friend started taking rifle fire and, not having any weapons, were forced to surrender to German police. As the police drove him to jail, an officer kept a cocked pistol pointed at Lincoln’s head as they bounced over the rough road. Once he arrived at the police headquarters, he found that all of his crew, except the pilot and copilot, had been captured with him. The Germans told them they were murderers and that they would be executed. “That first night was a bad night, because we thought it would be our last night,” Lincoln said. The next morning, salvation came as the German air force took them into custody. There had been many reports of atrocities committed against Allied airmen by German police and civilians, but the military typically treated them better. Lincoln ended up in a POW camp on the Baltic Sea. “There was never enough to eat, of course,” he said. To make matters worse, as summer turned to winter, the temperature kept dropping. In February of 1945, with the sound of Russian guns to the east, the prisoners thought it would be days before their liberation. Instead, the Germans marched them west on Feb. 6, in what was the coldest winter in that region for more than 25 years. The forced march through snow, mud and sleet, with the prisoners often sleeping in the open woods at night and never having enough to eat, lasted 86 days, taking them more than 600 miles as they zigzagged across Germany. To keep each other going, the men formed themselves into groups of three, called combines. When one man flagged, the others kept him motivated. “We all got close and developed a camaraderie. I have a lot of fond memories of the people I met,” Lincoln said. They dealt with disease, lice, starvation and malnutrition on the march, which would later be referred to as “The Black March” and is a largely untold story. Sitting one day in the loft of a barn, Lincoln saw halftracks approaching. He thought they were Germans, but they turned out to be British, and he was finally liberated on May 2, 1945 – a mere six days before Germany surrendered. He rejoined the American forces in Brussels, where his frostbitten feet were treated before he was able to return to the States. Since the war, Lincoln has been able to do a couple of the things he’s always wanted to do. A couple of years ago, the Collings Foundation brought its restored B-24 bomber to the area, and Lincoln fulfilled his lifelong dream of taking a ride and once again sitting in the tail turret. A few months ago, he traveled to Normandy, seeing the D-Day invasion beaches from the ground – the same ones he saw from the air 64 years ago. Today, the beaches are silent, but the struggle of which Danielson and Lincoln were a part is forever remembered by monuments and the white crosses above Omaha Beach, marking the graves of those who never came home.