WWII veteran proudly recalls memories of battle, POW camp
Lewis Hendricks of Edwardsville calls the time he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II “a great opportunity.” It’s a time in his life he recalls with pride.
But that’s not to say he would want to go back and live those years, from 1943 to 1945, over again — especially not the 10 months he spent as a prisoner of war.
“I feel like it was a great experience that I really wouldn’t want to go through again,” Hendricks said with a laugh. “But I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it; was the right age and everything so that I could do it.”
Hendricks, who is originally from Wisconsin, enlisted in 1943 at the age of 19 because he, like many at that time, thought it was simply what he was supposed to do.
“Well, I guess I just thought it was my duty … and a big opportunity for something,” Hendricks said. “I always felt like it was a great opportunity for me because I really didn’t have any goals at that time. So I thought, if I could get in there … at least I’d have something to be proud of maybe.”
Hendricks originally thought he would become a glider pilot. But after seeing a movie about a tail gunner, his mind was made. As a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber plane, manning a machine gun from the tail-end of the plane, Hendricks was in the thick of the action.
It was on his 19th bombing mission in July of 1944 that the situation took a turn for the worse for Hendricks and his crew of 10. While flying over the area known at that time as Yugoslavia, Hendricks’ plane was hit by German fighter planes and the number one engine caught fire. Hendricks and seven other crew members managed to parachute out of the plane before it crashed.
“Two didn’t get out,” Hendricks recalled.
As luck would have it, however, Hendricks’ parachute landing wasn’t as painful as it might have been.
“I landed in the top of this tree and the tree just bent over toward the ground with my weight, and then I slid off of it,” Hendricks said. “So I didn’t get a bounce out of it hardly at all. It didn’t hurt me at all. Otherwise, you hit the ground (going) 20 miles an hour, I think.”
Hendricks’ luck would soon run out. He spent the night and the entire next day in a swamp near the Danube River. By the second morning, heavy mosquitoes and hunger had forced him out of the swamp and into the open. While he was making his way across an open field in search of something to eat, Hendricks was spotted by Germans officers who had been in a nearby guardhouse he had assumed was empty. He was arrested and became a prisoner of war for about 10 months.
The majority of that time was spent in a German stalag, or prisoner of war camp, near Szczecin, Poland. Despite the freezing temperatures and limited supply of food, Hendricks recalls that his time in the stalag was more calm and relaxed then one might imagine. He wasn’t treated poorly or forced into labor, so the biggest concern from day to day was finding something to do to fill the time. He says he spent most days playing games like cards or volleyball with the other prisoners.
“Because there was nothing we could change much. All we could do was trust in the Germans to leave us alive or not to kill us or anything, and trust God to get us out of there,” Hendricks said. “I just felt like, you know, what the heck; sit back and wait. We weren’t really in big danger.”
Hendricks, along with the other POW’s at the camp, would spend the remaining few months of their captivity walking from one POW camp to the next at the order of the Germans. This was to evade the approaching Russian and British armies, Hendricks said.
Hendricks was liberated by the British Army on May 6, 1945. He was sent to the Truax Field U.S. Air Force base in Madison, Wis., and was officially discharged Oct. 16, 1945.
Hendricks moved to Kansas City, Kan., with his wife, Marian, and got a job with the railroad. He moved to Edwardsville in 1961.
Hendricks, who is now 87 and a habitual patron of the Bonner Springs Senior Center, says he doesn’t know what would have become of his life if he hadn’t made the choice to enlist. But though he didn’t expect to end up in a POW camp, he has never regretted that choice.
“I was pretty proud. I was really proud of the fact that I was a gunner, and it put a lot different light on my life altogether because I felt I had a goal,” Hendricks said. “Before I just kind of, I didn’t have any goals or anything. This set me going straight … Actually, it was a great thing for me I think.”