Retired Staff Sgt. Waldrop, now 91 years old and living in St. Helena Island, S.C., vividly remembers details of his experience during World War II.
“Have you ever seen airliners go across with their condensation trails? Can you picture half a thousand four-engine aircraft all leaving a condensation trail?” said retired Staff Sgt. Robert Waldrop, speaking of the aircraft of his former unit, the Eighth Air Force of the Army Air Corps. “It’s an awesome sight; one of the most awesome sights there was.”
Such a sight wasn’t rare in those early months of 1944. World War II was in full swing.
Eight different days in January and early February saw more than 500 B-17s and B-24s taking off into European skies, with the most being 863 on January 29 leaving for Frankfurt, Germany.
A B-17 waist gunner from Fort Wayne, Ind., he climbed into the plane for his fifth mission headed toward Frankfurt, Germany. He’d been in the Army Air Corps for two years.
At the time, the service members were expected to carry out 25 missions before being relieved, with the option to do more.
“When you returned from a mission – if you returned – you could have ice cream or a shot of whiskey,” said Waldrop. He said he would get ice cream with some light teasing from his peers.
He deliberately left his service pistol behind. Getting shot down with a firearm was an immediate death sentence by German soldiers.
“The guys that’d been flying, they said don’t take that on a mission,” said Waldrop. “You’d think you’d carry it on a mission.”
“One of the biggest hazards of flying those missions was the anti-aircraft [weapons] and, of course, the German pilots. They had some good, good pilots and good airplanes,” said Waldrop.
The plane is hit, Feb. 4, 1944.
“I’ll never forget that date. My boots came off when my chute opened. We couldn’t wear laced-up boots, because your feet would freeze up there,” he said. “[The Germans] probably had binoculars on me the whole way down. They had time to watch me and wait for me.”
He landed in German-occupied France, bootless with a sprained ankle. German soldiers quickly found him and detained him as a prisoner of war.
“When I first came down, I sprained my left leg real bad,” said Waldrop. “I didn’t break it, thank goodness. But they had to help me, or carry me, or push me.”
He was taken to a jail where he said German soldiers would stop by simply to stare at him.
“They’d come up to the strong door and look through the window,” he said. “[They must have been thinking] ‘He’s something else, we got a guy, we got an American!’”
During his experience as a prisoner of war, he was transferred from camp to camp on coal ships and trucks, marched for hundreds of miles, and kept in various prison camps. Hygiene conditions were poor, and prisoners were counted daily.
“It was a normal routine to take a head count twice a day,” said Waldrop. A German sergeant, previously wounded on the Russian front, would take down the count with pencil and paper. He said they called him ‘Big Stoop. “Guys in the back row would shift around, so he’d never get the same count twice.”
The German soldiers guarding the prisoners would put a stop to the shuffling around and miscounting by fixing bayonets as a threat.
During the night, prisoners were locked in with a bar across the door. In the morning, the prisoners would hear the bar being removed.
“One morning, one of the guys a couple barracks down pushed on the door and it was open, so he thinks it’s okay to go out. We had one main latrine clear down at the end of the compound. He went clear across to the end of the compound and on the way back, one of the guards shot him,” said Waldrop. “He bled to death is really what happened because nobody could get to him.”
The Germans allowed a funeral detail, and despite the lack of an American flag the prisoners made do with what they had.
“Through the Red Cross we had some boxes of colored chalk and some of the guys took the colored chalk and put some rags together and made a flag as best as they could for his funeral,” he said. “It was sad.”
Toward the end of the war, the prisoners were moved far and often, marching hundreds of miles.
“Some places we stopped close to villages, the civilians would put water out along the street,” said Waldrop. “We couldn’t stop, but as we walked past we would scoop some up in our tins.”
Waldrop fell behind with several other prisoners, and was taken to yet another prison camp.
They were liberated by British commandos that he said looked like they’d slit your throat if you blinked. The sort you wouldn’t want to see fighting against you.
“I was glad they were on our side,” he said.
He was given a physical and returned to the United States in a hospital ship. He arrived in New York, and later returned to his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind.
After leaving military service, Waldrop served in and retired from the police force.
Waldrop’s experience and his attitude toward his past are a strong example of perseverance, inner strength and, perhaps most of all, carrying tragedies of the past lightly.
“I’ve been so fortunate over the years, really lucky,” he said.
Story by Cpl. Sarah Cherry