WWII POWs

POW John T. Blanchard, a life-long Winchester resident, except for his years in service, was photographed (standing far left) with the crew of the ill-fated Ulpy, whose survivors were taken to Stalag Luft I.

WINCHESTER – Eight of the 12 Winchester men taken as prisoners of war during World War II were members of the Army Air Corps.

The first to be shot down and captured was Lt. Richard F. Riley (1914-2000, WHS 1931 & Oberlin College 1936). Noted locally as a tennis champion, he enlisted in April 1941 and arrived in England in May of 1943. He was attached as a navigator to the 381st Bombardment Group.

Riley was captured after his plane was forced down during an Allied raid over Regensburg on Aug. 17, 1943. He was held first at Stalag Luft III but in February 1944 was marched 300 miles to Stalag VII-A at Moosburg in southern Bavaria, Germany's largest prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.

While in prison, in December of 1943, Riley, who already held an Air Medal, was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster “for exceptionally meritorious achievement, while participating in five separate bomber combat missions over enemy occupied Continental Europe. The courage, coolness and skill displayed by this officer upon these occasions reflects great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the U.S.”

Freed on April 29, 1945, he was taken to France and sailed home from LeHavre.

All of Winchester’s captured airmen were held in German camps, except Staff Sgt. Clifford Lindberg (1923-1990, WHS 1942).

“It wasn’t long ago that this tall, brown-haired youngster was one of the coke crowd with rolled trousers and a pork-pie hat,” The Winchester Star wrote in 1944.

As a senior, his yearbook said, he “aches for a fighter plan and a pilot’s commission.”

Four months after graduation, he was in the Air Corps. Two years later, the Star continued, “as a tail gunner on a B-24, he’s seen action during 50 missions over Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, and many other countries. On his 48th mission, his plane was hit by flak over Rumania and was forced down in Turkey.”

That was in late June, 1944, at which point Lindberg was interned for six weeks in Turkey. Back home in October, he did not talk about it to the Star, preferring to talk about pinup girls, the USO, and the United War Fund.

Stalag Luft 1

Three Winchester men were imprisoned at Stalag Luft I near Barth, Germany, where about 9,000 airmen were being held at the time it was liberated by Russian troops. First to arrive there was Lt. Amos Shepard (1916-2009, WHS 1935). Pilot of a B-17, he was assigned to the 457th Bombardment Group, 749th Bomb Squadron flying his missions out of England. Shot down on April 9, 1944 over Gdynia, Poland, he was a POW until the end of hostilities in May 1945.

Lt. John T Blanchard (1918-1976, WHS 1936 & Wentworth Institute), a bombardier in a Flying Fortress in the 483rd Bombardment Group of the 15th AF, was reported MIA about six months after arriving overseas and being stationed in Italy. After 30 missions, he set off on a big raid over Memmingen.

On July 18, 1944, a flight of Allied bombers was intercepted by approximately 150 Luftwaffe fighters blazing machine gun and 20mm cannon rounds which fatally struck Blanchard’s ship (among others). The engines quit, the right wing caught fire, and the cabin filled with smoke. With the ship aflame, the pilot gave the order to bail. (See http://www.danielsww2.com/page27.html for more detail.) Crew members were captured, interrogated, and sent to Stalag Luft 1.

Blanchard’s family first heard that he was alive in September due to a practice known as “Prisoner of War relay” or “POW monitoring." Shortwave listeners who routinely scanned German shortwave radio for short messages from prisoners of war read by studio announcers at stations in Germany would pass those messages on to families. In Blanchard’s case, a telegram from the Red Cross confirmed the shortwave messages.

One day after Blanchard’s plane went down, a bomber containing Lt. Lucius Smith (1919-2009, WHS 1937) suffered a similar fate during the first Munich raid. Smith was the navigator on a B-24 Liberator with the 460th Bombardment Group, which spent most of its time flying strategic bombing missions across Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the Balkans.

Last of the Winchester men to go into Stalag Luft I, Smith was the first home, able to report that he had seen the others and they were all right.

“Lt. Smith himself is in good shape in spite of a pretty rugged experience,” the Star reported in June.

Stalag Luft IV

The Prisoner of War relay told another Winchester family that Sgt. Borden Lindsay (1911-1998) was alive after being reported MIA over Germany on Feb. 24, 1944. Several shortwave listeners contacted his sister in Somerville, saying they heard him speak to her on April 3 saying he had bailed out of his plane, receiving a concussion, but was out of the hospital. A telegram from the War Department to his brother in Winchester carried the official word that he was a prisoner.

Born in Canada, Lindsay had been a U.S. resident since August 1927. He became a naturalized citizen, taking the Oath of Allegiance on July 6, 1943, in Amarillo TX (where there was an army air field) about a year after joining the Air Corps.

Lindsay was first held at Stalag IV, along with another Winchester man, William Vayo, but as the Russians advanced toward Berlin in early 1945, the Germans moved their prisoners westward on a deadly forced march in blizzard conditions. Lindsay and Vayo were moved to Wobbelin Bei Ludwigslust and then Usedom Bei Savenmunde. Both survived to be returned to U.S. military control at the end of hostilities in May 1945.

Staff Sgt. William Vayo (1912-1979) had worked at the Beggs and Cobb tannery and the town’s Highway Department before joining the Army Air Corps in March of 1943. Overseas he became a gunner on the B-17 Ulpy in the 493rd Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force. On Nov. 5, 1944, Ulpy was shot down near Ludwigshaven, Germany.

Nine men formed the crew. While over their target, a flak shell burst nearby wounding the pilot and damaging the plane between her first and second engines. The plane lost altitude, the left wing burst into flames, and Ulpy broke in half at the bomb bay.

The radio operator helped SSgt Robert Kurio out of the ball turret and then bailed out. Kurio rescued a dazed and wounded Vayo and the two leapt out together. The flight engineer headed for the nose, saw the pilot slumped in his seat and the co-pilot trying to open his escape window. Seeing the navigator unconscious but with his parachute on, he shoved him out of the nose hatch and bailed out seconds before Ulpy flipped and exploded.

The pilot, co-pilot, and bombardier never made it out. Two others who parachuted out also died, the navigator because his chute failed to open and the radio operator, as Vayo believed, possibly hit by flak.

The four men who survived the Ulpy’s destruction were all liberated at the end of the war with Germany. [The final conversations on board Ulpy, as Vayo reported them, are posted at https://lastcontact.tumblr.com/.]

Sole survivor

Lt. Robert Blackler (1918-1998, WHS 1937) was at dental school when he joined up with the Royal Canadian Air Force a month before Pearl Harbor. After first flying mosquitoes for the Canadians, he transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps and served with the 313th Air Transport Squadron which transported supplies and equipment to the front-line ground forces and evacuated casualties to rear areas. Since D-Day he had been flying a hospital plane between England, France, and Brussels.

On the night of Oct. 30, 1944, returning from France, the plane experienced some electrical problem and went off course. Shot down by flak, it crashed in the water in Bouley Bay on the north side of the Isle of Jersey.

There were five crewmen on board, along with six passengers. All perished except Blackler. He was held as a POW on Jersey until the end of hostilities in May 1945.

Understandably, the men did not give their stories to the reporters after the war.

“Like most of the kids that have come home on a furlough,” the Star wrote about Lindberg, “he doesn’t say much about what it’s like over there. After all, there’s not much you can say to folks who have never seen war. You can’t even believe it unless you’ve faced its thundering terror for days on end. You go hour after hour without rest, without letup. You see your buddies go down, but you’ve got to keep going through the blaze and blackness to a point of nightmarish exhaustion.”

Most of the returning men did not remain long in Winchester. The sole exception was Blanchard, a life-long resident. He went back to civilian life, getting an electronics degree and becoming a registered professional engineer. He served the community for 20 years as director of the local Civilian Defense Corps

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