By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
UPPER SANDUSKY — Don Reinhart never said much about the 19 months he spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.
Nearly 75 years later, Don’s son, Rick Reinhart, is bringing his father’s story to light.
“He spoke about it very little,” said Rick, who began putting the pieces together in earnest about six months ago.
Don provided a fair amount of information in a 2003 interview with the Progressor Times newspaper, according to Rick, “but through the years, he rarely spoke about it, if at all.” Don died in 2010.
Rick, who now lives in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, presented a program on his dad’s experiences during the October meeting of the Wyandot County Retired Teachers Association.
He said his dad was born in 1921, the second child and second son of Linus and Esther Reinhart, who had a small farm near Carey. After Don, the couple had two more sons and four daughters, including Rita and Virginia, who attended the program.
Rick said his father was a “self-described average student” at Carey High School, who was more interested in playing basketball than studying. When he graduated in 1940, the United States had not yet entered the war, but preparations were being made. In September, the first peacetime draft in the history of the country was initiated.
Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and Don was drafted in 1942 into the Army Air Force. Don’s brother Bernie would write, “This left a large void in the Reinhart home. Everybody was worried about Don going off to the Air Force.”
‘In the big leagues’
After a year training as an engineer and gunner, Don was assigned to the crew of a B-17 flying fortress named the Patsy Ann III. Considered to be a “modern technological marvel,” said Rick, the heavy bombers were loud, cramped and neither pressurized or heated.
The plane had a thin aluminum outer skin that offered little protection from flak, which led a typical flier to wear heavy clothes for both warmth and protection. But because of the bulk, the men weren’t able to wear parachutes, said Rick. Instead, they had to pull a strap that would drop the flak suit, then put a parachute on their chest.
“So given the risks just from flying the B-17 and the fact these young men were going into battle against some of the most seasoned and arguably the best pilots in the world in 1943, it’s not surprising that pilots had a one in four chance of completing the required 25 missions required to return home,” said Rick.
On Sept. 11, 1943, Don wrote home: “We just finished our schooling over here, so we’ll probably be playing in the big leagues very soon.” Twelve days later, they were.
Their first mission on Sept. 23 was to an air field outside of Paris, Rick said. On their second mission, they actually flew the Patsy Ann III. They targeted a factory that manufactured German fighter planes on the sixth mission. The Patsy Ann III made it back to England, but another 28 bombers didn’t, said Rick.
On Oct. 10, their aiming point was the stairs of a medieval cathedral in Münster, Germany. The mission took them deep into enemy territory, said Rick, and their P-47 escort planes had to turn around prior to reaching the target because of fuel restrictions. As the escort planes left, 200 to 250 German airplanes swooped in on them. The Patsy Ann III made it to the target, dropped their bombs and turned for home. But about six minutes outside of Münster, the plane was hit, starting fire in both wings, the radio room and the area between the nose of the cockpit. A few minutes later, a direct hit broke off the entire tail assembly.
The plane was flying at about 23,000 feet when Don bailed out. He would later say he heard nothing but silence as he fell through the air.
“When the parachute opened, it jerked him violently and Don actually blacked out for a time. It also knocked off his boots and his socks, it jerked him so hard,” Rick said.
As Don was floating to the ground, two German fighter planes circled him, probably to ensure that the people on the ground would see him and capture him, said Rick.
A crowd of 30 to 40 men was waiting with pitchforks, shovels and guns. Once Don hit the ground and released the parachute, he tried running away. But the group caught him and was beating him when a German private arrived on a bicycle. Don would later say that man probably saved his life.
The soldier put Don on the bike’s handlebars and took him to a Russian work camp for the night. There, a woman said she’d seen one of his fellow crew members on the ground. The man had been shot multiple times and his parachute was unopened. Don concluded from her description that it was the crew’s radio operator.
On Dec. 9, 1943, Don wrote in a card to send back home, “I’m feeling fine, but in sort of a bad spot, someplace I never expected to be, but who am I to judge?”
A POW returns home
He was taken to Stalag 17B, the notorious German POW camp outside of Krems, Austria. His head was shaved, he was given a shower and treated for body lice. Don became prisoner number 99878.
American prisoners occupied five of the 12 compounds at the camp. The barracks were built to accommodate about 240 prisoners, said Rick, but routinely held 300-400. The barn-like structures had leaking roofs and gaps in the walls. Four men shared each bed that had a mattress filled with straw along with fleas, ticks and bedbugs.
Water was turned on two or three times a day for about 20 minutes for the entire barracks. The men were allowed to shower every three months or so, but each was only given a couple of minutes, Rick said.
The prisoners were required to line up at least twice a day for roll call, which sometimes lasted for hours. Mail was sporadic, and Red Cross packages had to be shared.
Hunger became a way of life for the prisoners who received a piece of hard German black bread and hot water in the morning. Other meals consisted of potatoes or a thin soup that often contained worms or boll weevils.
“The guys wouldn’t eat the worms in the beginning. But in the end they ate anything,” said Rick.
By the end of the war, Don had lost 40 pounds, weighing just 120 pounds.
In April 1945, with the Russians approaching, the Germans decided to march all of the prisoners who were able west toward the approaching American forces. Eighteen days and 281 miles later, they made camp in Leach Forest.
Liberation came on May 2 when a U.S. Army captain arrived and told them they were no longer prisoners. The official liberation followed the next day, said Rick, when three jeeps carrying six soldiers from Patton’s Third Army arrived and captured the remaining German soldiers.
“Don said he believed he’d always be free again,” said Rick. “He just knew it was in somebody else’s hands.”
The men were moved to an abandoned factory, where the Red Cross came in and gave them coffee and half a stick of gum.
“Don drank six cups of coffee and got so sick he couldn’t even hold his head up,” said Rick.
From there, they went to Camp Lucky Strike, a tent city in France, where they were treated until they were well enough to return home.
Of the 10 members of the Patsy Ann III’s crew, five were killed in the attack. The rest had been taken prisoner.
Don arrived in New York Harbor on June 4 and boarded a train bound for home as part of a 60-day recuperation furlough.
“He missed the stop for Carey,” Rick said. “The train went through and on to Fostoria, so he had to call his parents.”
Don arrived home June 9, a week before his brother Frank’s wedding. Don would meet his future wife, Anna Martin of Tiffin, there; they married almost two years later. The couple moved to a farm near Don’s parents and raised six children. Don spent the rest of his life on the farm, dying unexpectedly on April 21, 2010. He was 88. The couple had celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary just nine days earlier, said Rick.
Anna sold the farm and moved to Carey after her husband’s death. She died in 2016 at the age of 93.
Rick said his father suffered from the effects of frostbite he’d endured during the war for the rest of his life.
“After Don left the service, he never again flew in an airplane,” Rick added.
Don was one of four Wyandot County men who were taken prisoner during the war, said Roger Jenot, president of the Wyandot County Retired Teachers Association. The others were P.K. Courtad, Ted Elliott and Tom Swinehart.