This narrative is by Staff Sgt. Roland V. Rakow, a crewmember of the 83rd Squadron, 12th Bomb Group of the United States Army Air Force. It describes the mission on September 1, 1942 when his plane was shot down.
The narrative also covers the events that followed—his capture, POW experience, escape from camp, and finally his return home.
In compiling this account, Sgt. Rakow drew on his personal experiences, as well as information from Capt. Croteau, as relayed in correspondence by the captain’s wife to Sgt. Rakow’s mother.
83rd Squadron, 12th Bomb Group (M), 9th United States Army Air Force
Attached to the British 8th Army—based at Ismailia, Egypt—El Alamein
Capt. Hubert P. Croteau—Prisoner of War in Germany
Army Serial No. 0-404012
2nd Lt. Irving Biers—Prisoner of War in Germany
Army Serial No. 0-659064
2nd Lt. Robert J. McPartlin—Killed in Action—El Alamein
Army Serial No. 0-659067
2nd Lt. Thomas F. Archer—Killed in Action—El Alamein
Army Serial No. 0-850959
Top Turret Gunner
Staff Sgt. Leonard George Andersen—Killed in Action—El Alamein
Army Serial No. 57030832
Radio Operator–Lower Turret Gunner
Staff Sgt. Roland V. Rakow—Prisoner of War in Italy
Army Serial No. 16004997
“On September 1, 1942, as our B-25 was returning from its second completed mission—dropping its bomb load on tanks, trucks and troops on the front line at El Alamein—it was struck by a German anti-aircraft 88 mm shell on the left side of the aircraft, adjacent to the top turret gun position. The shell made a gaping hole, which caused the aircraft to break open and go into a 30-or 40-degree dive.
[See further details of the crash on a later post, Roland Rakow’s Story—An Update.]
“After the aircraft was hit, I looked for a way of escape and found the gaping hole where the shell had hit. After some effort, since the aircraft was in a dive, I bailed out at the hole. Before exiting, I looked for Sergeant Andersen. He should have been adjacent to the hole, as this was the location of the top turret gun. I could only conjecture that he had been blown out of the aircraft when the shell hit.
“I bailed out and waited a few seconds, then felt for the ripcord—but I couldn’t find it. Frantically, I tried to locate it and finally found it, almost completely behind my back.
“With my last energy, I pulled the cord. The parachute opened with a jerk. My left arm became so entangled in the parachute’s lines I sustained a compound fracture of the left clavicle. I had no control of the chute before hitting the ground, my face down. There was a strong wind as I landed. The parachute ballooned and dragged me approximately 300 feet, until German soldiers came and stopped me from being dragged farther.
“Lt. Archer and Lt. McPartlin were unable to leave the aircraft and died in the crash. Capt. Croteau, Lt. Biers, and I parachuted to the ground. We landed in separate locations. Each of us sustained wounds and injuries.
“Within a short period of time, Capt. Croteau and Lt. Biers were each captured and subsequently transported to a German POW camp. They remained there for the duration of the war.
“Because of my injuries, the German soldiers placed me in an ambulance and took me to their field hospital tent. They attended to my injuries on an emergency temporary basis and then took me as a prisoner of war.
“I was interrogated by a German intelligence officer, who wanted the name and number of my squadron and group, plus any other information he could extract from me. I informed him that I could not give him that information and was required to give him only my name, rank and serial number according to the Geneva Convention. He did not press me any further. After several days in a hospital bed, the German Army turned me over to an Italian Army Hospital Corps ambulance.”
“Because of my injuries and my inability to walk, I was transported on a gurney by the Italian Hospital Corps in a truck from the area where I was shot down across the desert to various locations along the Mediterranean coast—stopping at Mersa Matruh, Egypt and Benghazi, and Tobruck in Libya.
“These cities were under German and Italian control, and they were bombed by British and American aircraft while I was lying on a gumey. I experienced some close encounters with these bombs. After a number of days, the Italian Hospital Corps reached a coastal city and I was boarded onto an Italian Red Cross Hospital ship for transport to Italy.
“After a week, the ship reached the port of Naples. From there I was transported to a POW Hospital in Caserta, Italy. I received therapy—which helped me regain my strength to walk again—and continued treatment for my other injuries. After a number of weeks of treatment and recuperation, the hospital’s doctors told me they wanted to perform surgery on the left clavicle. Since I saw the poor medical care being given to the other prisoners, I declined the surgery. I was given the choice of either having the surgery or being sent to a POW camp. I chose to go to the camp with a weak and partially disabled left arm.
“Several memories come to me regarding my experience in the hospital. While recuperating, I could hear German troops outside the hospital marching and singing. One song was the ballad of Lily Marlene, which bums in my memory, and another was their national anthem, Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles. Also, I heard Italian troops marching and singing, ‘Bella, Bella, Mussolini.’
“On November 26, 1942 I was sent to POW Camp 53. I left the POW hospital at Caserta with two Italian Army guards, who walked me from the hospital to a railroad station about a mile away. Due to my weakened condition, they allowed me to stop and rest several times on the way to the station.
“We boarded the train, which was a regular passenger train with civilians, and headed toward the east coast of Italy, then traveled north until we reached the city of Ascoli Piceno. We made the trip all in one day.
“From that point, we went by army truck to POW Camp 53. They told me there that I must be the first American prisoner in Italy, since I had been sent to this camp, which was for the British. There were no POW camps for Americans at the time. The camp housed approximately 200–300 POW’s from all countries of the British Empire. Most had been captured by the Germans and Italians in the deserts during campaigns in Egypt and Libya.
“My memories of life in this camp are mainly of the cold weather in November and December. There was no heat, food was sparse, the sanitary conditions in the lavatories and toilets were poor, and there was a lack of water during the day.
“Breakfast consisted mainly of a small loaf of bread—the size of a hamburger bun—with a one-inch block of goat cheese, a half-cup of coffee, and sometimes an onion or maybe an orange. The only other meal of the day consisted on one day of a bowl of rice with some vegetables—with the addition of a few insects—and then alternated on another day with a bowl of macaroni with some vegetable. Occasionally they would provide an apple or orange, but that was not often.
“The only respite came when we received a British Red Cross parcel once a month, which contained a candy bar and cigarettes, which everyone enjoyed.
“While in the British camp, I contracted a serious case of bronchitis, which bordered on pneumonia. I was sent to the POW’s local dispensary where I remained through Christmas of 1942, until I recovered enough to be sent back to the camp. While I was in the dispensary, there were two British soldiers on hospital beds next to me who had contracted pneumonia. Unfortunately, they passed away from a lack of proper medical treatment. While there I was given a Bible by a British Protestant chaplain who had been captured with troops in the desert and was ministering to the POW’s. Since I had lost my New Testament when I bailed out, I sure appreciated that gift. It was a great comfort to me.
“On January 12,1943, since American POWs started to arrive in Italy from North Africa and Sicily, the Italians opened a camp for Americans—Camp 59—and I was sent there. Camp 59 was located outside of Servigliano, about half way up the east coast of Italy, a number of miles inland from the Adriatic, and above the city of Ascoli Piceno. There I remained until our escape from the camp in September 1943.
“While in Camp 59, I ran into Frank Mikes, a GI from Roselle, Illinois about 20 miles from my hometown of Dundee, Illinois. Later, after our escape and return to the States, he saw an article in the Elgin Courier News that reported I was home. We had both gotten back at about the same time. He contacted me, and I was the best man at his wedding—on January 1, 1944.
Life in Camp 59 was similar to that in Camp 53, where there was scarcity of food and lack of water and bathing facilities. I remember going out in the rain—when it wasn’t too cold—to take a shower. Before I forget—there was one aggravating constant of camp life, and that was lice (chiggers). Everyone had them. They laid their eggs in the linings of our clothes. We used to sit with a cigarette and go up and down the seams and pop the eggs. We also picked off the live ones.
“I also remember another guy from the camp—Clinton Johnson. He was a gunner on another B-25 in the 82nd Squadron of the 12th Bomb Group. He was shot down on October 22, 1942 at El Alamein. The Germans shot at him after he bailed out and a bullet went through his cheek and out of his mouth before he hit the ground. He was with me when we escaped the camp on September 14. I remember him well as he was from Knoxville, Tennessee and was a great grandson of President Andrew Johnson, who was president after Lincoln during the Civil War.”
“We didn’t hear much news of the war while in the camp, other than from new arrivals who were taken prisoner either in North Africa or Sicily, or those who didn’t make it back from bombing the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania. We knew that the American 5th Army was coming up the west coast of Italy and the British were coming up on the east coast.
“In the days of early September 1943, we heard rumors that Italy was going to surrender. Then, on the 14th of September, the camp commandant announced that Italy had surrendered to the Allies and that the gates of the camp would be opened and we would be free to leave. This was around 6:00 p.m.
“The gates were opened and the prisoners started heading for the gates. But, as we approached there was a sound of machine gun fire and we saw that it was coming from the guards on the towers surrounding the camp. We heard later that the guards were Fascists and didn’t want Italy to surrender and they were trying to keep us from escaping.
“There was general confusion and everyone headed for the slit trenches surrounding the barracks, where we remained until dark. When it became dark, most of us again headed for the gates and took off running south. The terrain was mostly agricultural and after about an hour Clinton Johnson, another GI, and I laid down, exhausted, in the furrows of a field and rested until the next morning. For the life of me, I can’t remember who this other American GI was. His identity has completely blanked from my mind.
“During the next 40 days and 40 nights (which I relate to a number of periods and episodes of time in the Bible) we generally traveled south, sticking to the mountainous areas, staying away from main highways, and staying inland from the Adriatic coast. We traveled across agricultural areas and kept away from towns and cities. We begged our way as we headed south, and partook of the generosity of the people in small farms and homes who offered us bread and food.
“We were never confronted by any Italians, though they might have known we were ex-POWs by our clothes. The people had already heard that Italy had surrendered to the Allies, but the area we were in was still under German control, as the British 8th Army was still in southern Italy pushing north. We had to be cautious where we stopped as we headed south.
“A number of incidents come to mind as we headed south toward our own lines. We were never refused food at any house or farm except one. That one was a huge home in the country and you could see the people were well off. When we knocked on the door, a woman opened it and told us to leave, as she didn’t have any food to give us. It was always the poor ones who shared their food. Generally, when we asked for something to drink we were given wine, which we didn’t object to.
“We stayed at one farm for three days where there was a woman who had three daughters. She needed help in bringing in hay in from the field, as all the men were at war. So we helped her and she fed us. She let us sleep in the barn. As an aside, she told me I could marry her daughter, Maria, and take her to America when I returned home. Although she was a pretty girl, I wasn’t ready for that at the time.
“In another incident, we came to a small road and a horse-drawn house trailer stopped. Traveling in it was a family of Gypsies. They knew we were ex-POWs. They offered us food and wine and asked if we wanted to join them, which we graciously declined with many thanks.
“At one farm, the people were not living in the farmhouse, as an earthquake had made it unlivable to some extent. But they let us sleep in the house. When I woke up in the morning, there was a rooster sitting on my chest looking down at me. He didn’t stay there long though.
“At one other location we slept in an empty horse stall. I was awakened by something tugging at my feet. I looked down and saw that it was a mouse chewing on my sock.
“A final incident that I have memory of was as I walked in a valley with trees along the sides. Suddenly it became very quiet and then, within a few seconds, the leaves in the trees started rustling. Without warning there was a sharp shaking back and forth of the ground, one extra loud snap, and then I was lying on the ground. It was an instantaneous earthquake. A few minutes after that, we heard a man from a farm on the side of the hill. He was yelling, ‘Mio Dio, Mio Dio’ (‘My God, My God’). The side of his house had fallen off and his daughter had been under it and was killed. Needless to say, it was very tragic and felt so sorry for them, but there was nothing we could have done.
“A few days before finally getting out and back to our lines, we were still walking south, about a mile from the Adriatic coast, when we encountered a British commando. He had been dropped off behind the lines to contact POWs that they knew were circulating in the hills trying to get back to the Allied lines. He was letting us know that if they could, a boat would pick us up and take us back down the Adriatic and around the lines where the British and Germans were still fighting.
“He told us to be down on the beach at midnight on the 24th of October. A fast boat would be waiting to pick us up.
“We followed his instructions and headed for that location on the beach about 11:30 p.m. on the 24th. The three of us were happily talking and walking down a hill, through what had been a cornfield, toward the beach when all hell broke loose. Machine gun fire opened up about 50–60 feet in front and toward us. Fortunately, the field had been plowed and had furrows we could lie in.
“Apparently we had run into a German patrol camped along the road not far from the beach. We could hear a number of Germans talking. After hiding in the furrows for at least an hour—I don’t remember exactly for how long—we turned around and headed back up the hill, crawling on our bellies.
“Since we didn’t want to talk, we got separated. I went farther up the hill and headed north about a mile and then turned east toward the beach. As I got close to the beach, I could see a small boat off shore and a few men on the beach opposite it with a smaller rowboat. They were starting to get into it to head for the bigger boat.
“At that point I didn’t care anymore and I started yelling at them to wait. I just knew it was the British commando boat that had been sent to pick up the POWs that were wandering in the hills Since none showed up at the appointed time, they were ready to head back south.
“When I reached them, I identified myself, I told them that my buddies and I had became separated after we ran into the German patrol along the road. They didn’t want to wait any longer and they rowed out to the main boat. We boarded it and headed south along the Adriatic coast.
“After traveling the rest of the night down the Adriatic without incident, we finally reached Bari at daybreak on the October 25. Bari was by then taken over by the British 8th Army. Hallelujah! Praise God!
“I was turned over to the British military, interrogated, and then sent to a dispensary for a physical. They made a diagnosis that I had contracted malaria somewhere along the line, plus I was suffering from exhaustion. And so I spent the next 10 days in a military hospital and was treated with quinine during that period.
“I was also outfitted with a British uniform, which included a black tarn. I don’t know what army unit that represented.”
“A few things come to mind of the time after I was turned over to the American 5th Army from the British 8th Army. I had been released from the British hospital unit and was ready for my return home. I was issued a new set of Army uniforms and felt like an American Gl again. I was debriefed about the POW camp, awarded a Purple Heart in the field, and transported by DC-3 to Sicily and then to Casa Blanca, French Morocco in North Africa for a few days. This gave me a chance to tour the famous—or infamous—Casbah. (It was colorful, but there were no incidents.)
“At the port I boarded the American troop ship, the USS General A.E. Anderson, and headed for Newport News, Virginia.
“It was a memorable trip because of the terrible weather we ran into. For three days 30 foot waves crashed into the boat, then receded, leaving the bow up in the air to come crashing down into the ocean. This made the boat vibrate from bow to stern time after time. Needless to say, it felt as if we were in a battle zone. Our passage was in November, and the experience made us wonder if we were in a hurricane.
“After a week, we arrived at Newport News. I was sent to Fort Patrick Henry for orders and repatriation. The date—as close as I can remember—was November 16, 1943. I was provided a train ticket from Fort Patrick Henry to Chicago, which was close to my home in Dundee, Illinois.
“My orders gave me time to go home on leave until the first week of January 1944. From there I was to report to the repatriation center at Miami Beach, Florida.
“My train ride home was not a pleasant one. I received a better train ride while a POW than I did from my own government. The train was packed and there were no seats left. I ended up standing for the next 10 hours between passenger cars and had nothing to eat. The passengers were mostly civilians and I began wondering what I was fighting for.
“After arriving, pooped and hungry, I still had to take a commuter train for 40 more miles to a town close to mine and then a cab for another five miles to my home town. It was after midnight on the 18th of November when I arrived home.
“My parents had not received a letter I had sent saying I was out of the POW camp and on my way home, and neither had they been notified by the government. So when I knocked on the door at my home, I thought my mother and dad were going to die of shock. Needless to say, they were overjoyed to see me and thankful that they both had strong hearts to endure the shock. There wasn’t much sleeping that night, but when I did hit the hay, it sure was good to get into my own bed and between clean sheets again.
“I need to mention one happening while at home—I earlier mentioned an article that appeared in the local paper, the Elgin Courier News, about my return home. A buddy who was with me in Camp 59, Frank Mikes, also had returned home. He saw the article and called to ask me to be his best man at his wedding, which was planned for January 1, 1944. I was happy to do it. He had escaped the same day that I had and had taken a different route to get back to the
“American lines in Italy. Coincidentally, he returned to the lines the same day that I had returned to the British Lines. It was really ironic.
“Also, I need to mention that the Army played a dirty trick on Frank. When he returned to active duty, the Army sent him back into action and he was captured again—this time by the Germans. He was sent to a German POW camp for the duration of the war. This was unconscionable.
“To close this tale, I was sent to Miami for rehabilitation and surgery at the Biltmore Army Hospital in Coral Gables, Florida. I was diagnosed with: 1) fracture, non-union, left clavicle, 2) atrophy of muscle, upper extremity, post-traumatic, and 3) post-traumatic cerebral syndrome.
“In surgery my left shoulder was repaired with a bone graft, and I received further therapy. I returned to service and was stationed in Fort Myers, Florida for three months. I met a girl, Virginia Ruth Edwards, from Miami at the Lutheran Service Center on Miami Beach, and we were married on September 1, 1944.
“I was transferred to Madison, Wisconsin until discharge in November 1945. I was also promoted to Technical Sergeant in this last assignment. I have never been in contact with Capt. Croteau or Lt. Biers, the remaining survivors of my B-25 crew. However, I did hear from other members of our 83rd Squadron that Capt. Croteau had passed away.
“One last note to mention is that I retained all of the mail sent to me at the POW camps, plus all of the mail that was sent home from the camps. This is in addition to the mail my parents received from relatives of the other crewmembers who were looking for information on their condition and whereabouts.”
Epilogue and Acknowledgements
“I cannot conclude this recall of my experiences in World War II without making the statement about the care and protection that I have received from my Lord and Savior. All my life I have received God’s protection from harm and danger and I have never doubted that He has blessed me from the time I was born to this day in my 86th year on this earth. Praise God! I can’t conceive of life without Him.
“Included in this epilogue is an excerpt from what I had written in a pamphlet we all received from the Vatican during Christmas of 1942, plus an excerpt from a letter I received from my mother while I was still in prison camp. All of these still linger in my memory after these many years. Here they are and this closes the dialog of this period in my life.”
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. These words from the 23rd Psalm have gone through my mind numerous times during the past months, in my imprisonment. As I walked the valley in my suffering and pain, I thought of my saviour on the cross in his suffering and pain and humility, and it made mine negligible. Just to think that he died on the cross for me and what he went through made me ashamed that I gave any thought to my hurt at all. After that visioning it mattered not whether I lived or died for I knew that my Redeemer was waiting for me on high. In His great mercy and kindness He spared my life and many others like me.”
“The names below are of the Italian people who befriended us as we traveled through the countryside of Italy after leaving the POW camp in the 40 days journey to the Allied lines. They showed no animosity toward us and they willingly fed and housed us. God bless them for their kindness, for which we are thankful, as we were enemies only a few months before.
“This is to acknowledge their generosity and aid in our travels.”
In 2011, Roland Rakow sent an addition for this post:
The following information was brought to my attention about two years ago from a friend of my Co-Pilot, 2nd Lt. Irving Biers.
This friend, Ramesh Nyberg, a realtor with Coldwell Banker, lives in the town of Palmetto Bay, just north of my home in Cutler Bay, Florida. He contacted me after he learned I was the Radio Operator–Gunner on the same plane as his friend, Lt. Biers.
Ramesh told me that, unfortunately, Lt. Biers had died in 1996. At one time, unbelievably, Lt. Biers lived just a few blocks north of me in Coral Gables, Florida. This news was a shocker and a disappointment.
I had not kept track of the remaining crew members after the war. I later learned that Capt. Croteau passed away in Oregon in 2006.
Now, by God’s Grace, I am the only remaining crew member—for whatever it’s worth.
I thought that this information should end the story, until the Lord writes the final chapter in His time.
—Roland Rakow, January 13, 2011
As mentioned earlier in this post, you can find further details of the crash of Roland’s plane on a posted added to the site in June 2013, Roland Rakow’s Story—An Update.]