By the time the Germans pulled U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Don Colvin out of the cold waters of the North Sea on July 21, 1943, Colvin was drifting in and out of consciousness. It had been three hours since Colvin’s B-17 had been shot down as they were returning from a bombing mission 75 miles from Berlin.
“Can any of you speak German?” A short German officer stood on the deck of a small boat, looking down at Colvin and the other five survivors of the crash.
“You’re doing pretty good in English,” the American radioman said.
“I was the pilot of the plane that shot you down. Which one of you was in the top turret?”
Colvin roused himself enough to remember what had just happened. One of their engines had taken a direct hit and the other was failing. Before going in the back to tell the crew to brace themselves, he had shot off a round at their attacker from his position in the top turret.
The German looked directly at Colvin. “Congratulations,” he said with what nearly looked like a smile. “You took us down with you.”
The next thing Colvin knew he was waking up in a German hospital in a leg cast purposely all the way to his thigh so he couldn’t walk. Three guards took turns keeping their guns pointed at him for eight-hour shifts.
One night the guard pointed to his own chest. “Me,” he said, in conspiratorial broken English. “When war end, go Canada.”
It would be nearly two years before the war would end. In the meantime, Colvin was shipped to Stalag 7A in Germany. Trapped behind rows of barbed wire, sleeping two men per flea-infested bunk, surviving on thin, watery soup, the American enlisted men knew they had it better than their Russian counterparts. The USSR had refused to sign the 1929 Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of POWs and the Germans both feared and detested Russian prisoners.
Colvin heard stories that the Germans systematically starved the Russians and refused them medical treatment. American prisoners would tell how Russian POWs propped up the bodies of their dead to fool the guards into giving rations to the corpses.
At one point in their interminable confinement, Colvin and his comrades were forced to leave Stalag 7 and march nearly 240 miles to the infamous Stalag 17 in Austria. There, more than 4,000 enlisted American soldiers huddled together with more than 25,000 English, French, Russian, Polish and Italian prisoners held nearby behind fences and wire.
“Can you use a slingshot?” One of Colvin’s bunkmates pulled him over toward the barbed wire one afternoon.
Colvin was confused. “Yeah, sure. Why?”
“See them Italians? They’re my paesonos from the old country. But they got it better than us Yanks.”
“Yeah? So what?”
“You don’t smoke, do you, Colvin? I seen all them cigarettes you got just going to waste. If you think you can sling some packs over the fence, I can talk them into getting’ us some food.”
It was how the POWs struggled to survive by finding small ways to circumvent the agonizing loss of control in the camp. It helped keep Colvin from falling into the hopelessness he could often see in the eyes of other prisoners.
News reached the prisoners through the illicit cobbled-together radio hidden in the rafters of the barracks. In April of 1945, when it was becoming clear the Russian army was heading their way, the Nazis decided they’d rather take their chances with the American army. They rounded up the prisoners to march west.
The night before leaving, the Germans set everything on fire. Colvin watched one of his fellow prisoners walking slowly around the blaze, the dancing flames reflecting in his vacant eyes. News that the war would end came too late for this young man to regain hope in life. The kid was hypnotized, drawn toward a fiery death that would offer an escape from unbearable suffering. It took several of his comrades to hold him back to keep him from throwing himself in the inferno.
Things began to unravel. The men were put into eight groups of 500 men each, forced along by the bayonets of the guards. After three torturous weeks, the guards halted the prisoners at the juncture of the Inn and Salzbach rivers near the border of Austria and Germany.
In the pouring rain, the prisoners were commanded to build shelters in the hills of the pine forest. By the next day, they could see American tanks rolling into the valley far below. A distant village was flying a white flag.
Colvin’s buddy, George, had wandered into the woods alone. There was always a possibility of finding something to eat. From behind him he heard a voice, speaking English through a thick German accent. “Take me to one of your officers,” he said. “We want to surrender.”
George stared back at the man—a Nazi who had treated him not much better than an animal. He put down the stick in his hand and grabbed the guard by his neck collar. “You’ll surrender to me, you son of a bitch!”
It was not much more than a few minutes later when Colvin saw George marching hundreds of German soldiers down the hill, their hands clasped behind their heads.
Colvin spent two horrendous years as a POW until they were liberated in April 1945.
Eight years later after Colvin had returned home and married his sweetheart, renowned Hollywood director Billy Wilder released the blockbuster movie, “Stalag 17,” starring William Holden. It portrayed feisty American prisoners plotting escape and trying to ferret out an informer. It was the very camp where Colvin had been held.
Colvin, now 94 and a resident of Southern Pines Gracious Retirement Living, shakes his head. “It was nothing like that,” he says. “Nothing at all.”