Widow's discovery sheds light on WWII ordeal
By Rich Mckay
Courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel
Posted May 27, 2006It sounded like hail clattering on a tin roof.
Shrapnel from Nazi bombs and bullets riddled Bombardier Sergeant Charles Campbell's B-17 over Linz, Austria.
It was April 25, 1945. Campbell just dropped 4,000 pounds of bombs aimed at enemy truck and railway yards.
But his “flying fortress” wasn't fast enough to escape the enemy's revenge. The plane burst into flames. Campbell dove out a hole blasted through the side of the plane. He blacked out, plummeting more than 20,000 feet before waking in time to pull the parachute's cord.
He crashed to the ground amid the enemy, sealing his fate. He, along with a few other survivors, would spend harrowing months in a concentration camp.
Like other veterans, Campbell, of Orlando, seldom spoke about his ordeal. But he secretly scribbled the details in a short journal that his 78-year-old widow only recently discovered.
She came upon his papers a few months ago while cleaning through his things in their Lake Rowena home. He died in February 2005, a month shy of his 80th birthday, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
“It gave me the heebie-jeebies when I read it, Mary Hart Campbell said.
Now, as Memorial Day arrives, she would like to publish her husband's memoir or at least make it available to veterans groups who could use it to educate others.
“I always knew he was a hero, but like so many of the vets, he never would talk about it,” she said.
“He was always modest. I guess like a lot of them [soldiers], they felt if they came home alive that was so much more than their friends left behind.”
Into enemy hands
Campbell's life changed the day he boarded the B-17 to fly in a raid with the 483rd Bombardment Group for the Army Air Forces.
“We were up at 29,500 feet, but Jerry [Germans] still found our altitude despite all the chaff we had dumped,” his memoir reads. “The wall of flak [enemy fire] was dark blue like the leading edge of a summer storm.”
“We were hit.”
The plane slid in a steep, hard dive to the right.
Unable to make it to a hatch, Campbell dove out a hole torn in the plane. His radio operator, whom he knew only as Brock, was right behind him.
The plane exploded. The last thing Campbell saw was Brock's parachute in shreds.
When Campbell finally was able to open his chute, he was headed toward German-occupied farmlands. People were scurrying around. Then the shooting began. He hit the ground fast and was surrounded.
He knew by their uniforms that they were Storm Troopers, Hitler's elite army. He surrendered his pistol.
“It was a tense moment. I had miraculously escaped from a burning aircraft only to be on the verge of being shot,” Campbell penned.
He and another survivor, Samuel “Dusty” Rhodes, were ordered to march behind a horse-drawn wagon at gunpoint.
They were led to Mauthausen — a Gestapo-run concentration camp. While its name isn't as infamous as Dachau, Buchenwald or Auschwitz, more than 130,000 people died there.
Once inside, he and Rhodes were lined up with two more survivors of the 10-person crew, all facing a wall covered with nicks and craters made by bullets.
“I sneaked a look behind me and saw the SS Troopers, burp [machine] guns at the ready,” he wrote. “I was sure this was it. Dusty and I exchanged a so-long and waited.”
Just as they expected the bullets to rip into their flesh, they heard a commotion behind them. Then down the steps came some Luftwaffe officers, members of the German air force who considered all foreign airmen to be under their authority.
They were ordered away from the wall.
Some Luftwaffe officers felt camaraderie among fliers of other nations, and when they could, they spared the lives of airmen.
Campbell and the others were taken to small cells. Campbell and Rhodes shared No. 19 — little more than a 5-foot-by-6-foot hole. They took turns standing on each other's shoulders to glimpse daylight through a small hole.
They were right above the reeking crematorium. They had almost no food or water.
Shortly before the end of the war, Campbell and his fellow airmen were transferred to a stalag run by the Luftwaffe, a move that likely saved their lives. Prisoners in Mauthausen were still being executed at a fast pace well after the war ended and before being liberated by the Allies.
Campbell returned to Orlando in July 1945 on a Liberty ship.
He met his wife in a French class in 1946 and married her after a yearlong courtship. He joined the foreign service, where he worked as a diplomat — largely in Africa.
“We had a wonderful life together, and so many adventures,” Mary Campbell said.
During their 58 years of marriage, they attended reunions of the 483rd Bombardment Group. But even there, veterans didn't speak much about the war, and Mary Campbell never learned the details of her husband's experience.
Now a new picture of her husband has emerged. To her, he was braver than she ever thought and more of a hero than anyone ever knew.
“We called them fly-boys back then. They're all gone now. There's no one to tell the stories, but they did some breathtaking things. I say they helped save the world.”
CAMPBELL, CHARLES P
- SSGT US ARMY
- DATE OF BIRTH: 04/12/1925
- DATE OF DEATH: 02/16/2005
- BURIED AT: SECTION 8-BB ROW 13 SITE 2ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard