PERRY — As a young Army Air Force lieutenant, B-17 navigator Paul Levan wasn’t prepared to hurtle through the sky over France with only a few feet of silk parachute to save his life.
Levan didn’t know how to use his ripcord either, he said. It didn’t work the first time.
That’s where he found himself in March 1944 after a German Messerschmitt Me-109 exploded through his B-17’s radio room, ripped up the crew’s oxygen supply and smashed an engine.
“We were not trained for that sort of thing,” recalled Levan on Tuesday in his home. “At 2,800 feet you don’t have much time when you are falling out of the sky. I pulled my ripcord once, and it didn’t work. I hadn’t pulled it hard enough. I yanked it a second time, and my chute popped out.”
That started his yearlong ordeal of hiding from German troops on a dash to neutral Spain that ended with captivity in the German Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp.
Levan will be part of a 3 p.m. ceremony Thursday commemorating American prisoners of war and those missing in action of all wars at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins.
“It is one of those occasions that we have to memorialize those who have sacrificed for our country and those who have not returned,” said Don Davis, an event organizer. “We never want them to be forgotten.”
For Levan the commemorative day is meaningful not so much for what happened to him, but the sacrifices made by all the men and women who have been taken captive and those whose fate remains unknown, he said.
Levan was on his seventh mission as a B-17 navigator with the England-based 447th Bomb Group and on his way to bomb Berlin when the bomber was set upon by Luftwaffe fighters.
The pilot tried to coax the damaged Flying Fortress back to England, but without oxygen “we had to drop altitude. ... There was just not enough space to glide, and we ended up having to bail out,” Levan said.
After hitting the ground in France, Levan joined up with eight of his crew members; two others did not meet up with the crew because they had bailed out earlier.
They split into smaller groups, and Levan was part of a three-man party that began making their way to Spain, which was neutral in World War II and would allow Allied air crews to be sent back to their home countries.
After a week, the downed crew came across a member of the French resistance and eventually were taken to a rural farm house about 70 miles south of Paris, Levan said.
“We hid there, and were waiting for an Allied C-47 to touch down in a nearby field and take us back to England,” he said.
But the three fell prey to a German trap. Turncoat members of the French resistance came to them with the story that the American aviators were going to be taken to a landing site.
“When we got there, a German officer was coming down the steps of a building. We were taken to be interrogated, and I was slapped in solitary confinement for two weeks,” Levan said. “We had been running and hiding for almost three months. It was June 1, 1944.”
Eventually, Levan ended up at a Stalag prison in Sagan, Germany, near the Polish border.
“It was relative freedom compared to being in solitary. We were treated properly, for the most part, but there was never enough to eat. Germany couldn’t feed its own people, let alone us. We relied on food sent to us from the Red Cross,” Levan said.
In January 1945, during one of the coldest winters in European history, the Red Army started to roll across Poland, pushing the German army back. Levan said they were ordered to pick up and move three times as the war ground to an end.
“We were shoved, 52 of us, into a train boxcar built for 40 people with no bathroom facilities, but our biggest worry was being strafed by our own Air Force,” Levan said. “The Luftwaffe had pretty much been destroyed, and our guys had free run of the sky, but they were hitting every train and column out in the open.
“That’s when I got nervous. Wasn’t scared, but a little nervous.”
During a forced march, Levan had to help his out-of-shape guard make it.
“Those guards were 45 to 50 years old. The young ones had gone to the fighting in the front. My buddy and I had to carry one of them, and I shouldered his weapon for a while,” he said. “As funny as it sounds, there was no thought of escape. That would have been just silly. There was nowhere to go but woods, and it was so cold the weather would have killed us. We just kept walking.”
Eventually, on April 28, 1945 — a date Levan said he won’t forget — tanks from Gen. George Patton’s Third Army rolled down the road leading to the Moosburg, Germany, camp Levan was in.
“It was morning, and I was sitting there (in the barracks) and I hear this ‘zing zing zing.’ It was the sound of bullets whizzing over me through the wood. I got out of there quick. Well, what happened was our guards had started firing on the tanks, and those Shermans started shooting back.
“I was so happy to see those Shermans running down that road,” he said.
Levan mustered out of the Army Air Force in the fall of 1945, but a year or so later he had a surprise in a summons from the IRS.
“They wanted me to pay taxes on that year I was a POW. I got a letter saying I had to file a return. I paid them. I still have the return in a file. Never threw it away,” Levan said.
To contact writer Shelby G. Spires, call 744-4494.