World War II veteran recalls experiences as a German POW
LURAY — Until he was held as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, Bill Paschal never thought the time he spent watching his grandmother crochet would come in handy.
Paschal, a nose gunner on a B-24 bomber, parachuted into the Danube River after his plane was shot down over Vienna, Austria, on Sept. 10, 1944 — the day after his 21st birthday.
Now he was in Stalag IV-B, a German POW camp in the far northern city of Stettin, Germany. During his nine months at the camp, much of it during a fiercely cold winter, Paschal and his fellow prisoners experienced frigid temperatures in uninsulated cabins with nothing but a small heating stove for warmth.
The Red Cross had supplied the prisoners with sweaters to help keep them warm, but that didn’t help their half-frozen hands and bare heads. That’s when Paschal had an idea. They would rip the sleeves off their sweaters, unravel them into strings of yarn, and Paschal would crochet them into gloves and caps.
“Me and another prisoner, Rex, a kid from Missouri, remembered watching our grandmothers crochet while we were growing up,” said Paschal, now 93. “We made some crochet needles from tree branches and fiddled around until we made gloves and caps that looked like little hunter hats with flaps.”
Paschal was happy to do this service for his fellow prisoners, crocheting nearly 50 hats and gloves during his nine months at the camp.
“It was something to do in the camp,” he said.
On the eve of Veterans Day, Paschal recalled his service during World War II, where he not only flew 10 missions on a B-24 and spent months in a German POW camp but was part of a German “Black March,” where thousands of POWs marched countless miles in northern Europe to avoid the advancing American and Allied forces from the west and Russia from the east.
The Germans wanted to keep the prisoners to use as bargaining tools as the war came to an end, but the arduous march cost the lives of 6,000 of their starved and exhausted captives.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Paschal said.
It was a situation Paschal never envisioned for himself while growing up the middle child of five on a Luray farm family. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the U.S. entered World War II, Paschal and a few of his buddies went to Kansas City to enlist in October 1942. Paschal was just 18 at the time, a recent graduate of Luray High School.
“I signed up for the Army Air Corps and went off that day because I didn’t want to have to come back later,” he said.
Paschal went through basic training at Tyndall Field, Fla., near Panama City and became an instructor for ground and aerial gunnery beginning at age 19. In 1944, he was deployed to Europe, eventually ending up at an air base in southern Italy.
Paschal became a nose gunner on a B-24, operating a .50 caliber machine gun and manning a gun turret. He flew 10 missions over northern Europe before the September day when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid into Austria and began spiraling into a crash dive.
“The captain held onto the controls as the plane spun around, and he jumped out just before it crashed into the Danube River,” Paschal said. “I parachuted into the river and crawled up the bank. We were being hunted by local farmers who had a police dog, and the dog found me. They turned me in.”
At home in Luray, Paschal’s sister Maurita, then just 7, remembered her parents receiving a telegram saying their son was “missing in action.”
“My brother Robert and I were walking home from school, and we saw our parents coming down the road towards us,” she said. “We knew something was wrong from the looks on their faces. They told us Bill had been shot down and they didn’t know where he was.”
It took another two months before the Paschal family was informed that Bill was in a POW camp in Germany.
“Dad would sit with his ear against the radio every night to hear the war news and find out anything he could about the POWs,” she said.
At the stalag, or prison camp, about 26 prisoners were crammed into rooms of about 15-by-15 feet. They slept on triple-deck bunk beds and ate rutabaga, kohlrabi and boiled potatoes, with the occasional luxury of horse meat.
Cigarettes also were a luxury at the camp. Paschal, who didn’t smoke, traded the crocheted caps and gloves he had made for cigarettes, then traded the cigarettes for food to nicotine-addicted prisoners who would rather smoke than eat.
Paschal said he wasn’t the only crafty operator in the camp. There were prisoners who made radios out of wires ripped out of their insulated air uniforms. With these wires and other scrap items, they were able to fashion a crystal radio set to receive war news coming over the airwaves.
“Every night, there was a guy who would sneak around to different cabins and give us news reports of war activities,” he said. “The Germans never knew.”
After the American and Allied armies began pushing into Europe, the Germans decided to move their POWs to another stalag. They marched to different locations in northern Europe for three months in what became known as the “Black March.”
“They were losing the war, so they just started marching us in circles,” Paschal said. “We slept on the ground and were not fed well. It was constantly moving, moving.”
Paschal estimated the march covered about 800 miles before they were liberated by Scottish Highlander troops.
“We were marching north with the Americans coming one way and the Russians coming the other,” Paschal said. “After awhile, we noticed there weren’t any guards around anymore. They knew the war was coming to an end, so they disappeared one day. We continued to march and ended up in Holland.”
After being liberated, Paschal was sent back to the U.S. He took a train to Kansas, stopping in Russell, where he was met by his father and brother Wallace.
“He weighed about 100 pounds by the time he got home,” sister Maurita said. “His eyes were so sunken, it didn’t look like him at all.”
Paschal was honorably discharged from the Army and went to college, earning a agricultural economics degree from Kansas State University. On New Year’s Day 1947, he married Joyce Johnson, his childhood sweetheart in Luray, who had worked as a secretary for the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C.
Paschal spent his life farming in the Luray and Russell County areas. Joyce became a teacher and had three children, Mark, Martha and Meredith.
For years, Paschal didn’t talk about his war experiences and kept all of his war memorabilia in a trunk, including uniforms, his POW dog tag, a German backpack with a wooden block reading “Destination Home” and his medals, which include a POW medal and two Purple Hearts.
What people in his hometown did discover about Paschal’s war years was his crocheting ability, which led to many requests for caps and gloves.
“After I got home, everybody wanted caps and gloves,” he said. “But they had to be orange and black. Those were our school colors.”