Press-Republican

September 18, 2013

WWII POW recalls capture, German Stalag Luft 1

By AMY HEGGEN Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — CLIFF HAVEN — U.S. Army Air Corps navigator Robert Munn landed safely after parachuting from the stricken B-17 bomber.

But then an elderly German rode up on horseback and pointed his pistol at the American flier, who promptly put up his hands in surrender. 

Munn followed the man on a short walk to a farmyard. From there, he was taken to an interrogation center and then to Stalag Luft 1, a prison camp on the Baltic Sea where he would spend the next eight months.

Thursday night, the Cliff Haven man will sing “Taps” at the annual POW/MIA Remembrance Day Service at the Memorial Chapel in Plattsburgh, where veterans of all wars, among them prisoners of war and those missing in action, will be honored.

LEIPZIG RAID

Munn, who retired from the Air Force with the rank of lieutenant colonel, was born in Saranac Lake; he was deployed to England in August 1944.

“England was like a great big aircraft carrier,” he said of the vast number of planes there at the time.

Munn navigated B-17 bombers, a plane he describes as well-armed and quite successful, on three missions over Germany, but that fourth trip wasn’t as fortunate.

The plane was shot down on Sept. 12, 1944, just north of Berlin during a raid on Leipzig.

“I parachuted out of the airplane at 21,000 feet,” he said. “After the airplane was wounded, it was in a gentle glide. 

“It was a beautiful day; the sun was out.”

He was just 20 years old.

“All these things were exciting at the time, scary,” he said. “To this day, I don’t know if we lost anybody (in the Leipzig raid).”

DECENT TREATMENT

Although Munn, now 89, has heard bad stories about Nazi prisons, he counts his blessings he landed in one.

“I was very fortunate that I was a German prisoner rather than a Japanese prisoner,” he said. “The prisoners (in Japanese camps) suffered considerably more than we did. 

“The Germans left us pretty much alone.”

A small library filled with novels and room for exercise helped the prisoners pass the time.

“We had 10 or 11 people living in a small room,” Munn said.

FOOD GREW SCARCE

The men would get a weekly delivery of food that included a Red Cross box filled with five packs of cigarettes, bars of soap, and a can each of Spam, dried milk and cheese. 

The only vegetables were the occasional potatoes and cabbages the Germans provided. 

As the war drew to a close, the food came less often, and the box meant to feed one man had to be shared among three.

“Towards the end of the war, the train traffic had just about been destroyed,” Munn said.

A small stove fueled with coal bricks was tough to cook on, he said.

“We took turns as a cook. We’d be a cook a week at a time,” he said. “The guys would come up with these pretty outlandish recipes. 

“Some of them were pretty good. “

SLANTED WAR NEWS

The Germans would count the prisoners every morning and hand them a sheet describing the latest war news.

“It was always in the German favor,” Munn said.

But the prisoners listened to a hidden radio and got news from the BBC.

“It was fun to see the contrast in how the Germans reported the news,” he said. “They would put a victorious slant on the day’s activities.”

Released after the German surrender, the prisoners were flown to France and then home.

“I remember for years I carried the thought that no one’s going to escape the war,” Munn said, referring to all the scars and memories it created.

FAMILY TRADITION

Munn and his wife, Patricia, wed soon after he returned home, bringing up 11 children as they moved around the country to Hawaii, California and Texas. He attended college and, in 1949, rejoined the Air Force. 

His last assignment was in Plattsburgh.

He has made some of the recipes he learned while in prison for his family.

“We learned how to use Spam because he had learned it in prison camp,” Mrs. Munn said, “and we didn’t have much money.”

Three of the couple’s children served in the military, and four grandchildren are currently enlisted, including a grandson who’s a helicopter pilot.

“Our family has been well represented in the military,” Munn said. 

IF YOU GO The 10th-annual POW/MIA Remembrance Day Service is set for 5 p.m. Thursday at the Memorial Chapel, 100 U.S. Oval, Plattsburgh. Danny Kaifetz, the organizer of North Country Honor Flight, will be keynote speaker, and World War II veterans Napoleon Light and Rodney Wright will share their experience as guests of Honor Flight, visiting the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Local clergy will lead the interdenominational service honoring veterans of that war as well as prisoners of war and those missing in action in the Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan "and all U.S. troops and civilians in harm's way," a press release said. The Memorial Choir will be accompanied by organist George Cantin and conducted by Carl Kokes. All are welcome.