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WWII veteran recalls German prison camp

Tom Wilson of Milwaukee sits in a chair in his home at Newcastle Place in Mequon and recounts his POW experience in World War II on Friday.

Tom Wilson of Milwaukee sits in a chair in his home at Newcastle Place in Mequon and recounts his POW experience in World War II on Friday. Photo By Matt Unrau

July 23, 2014

Mequon — It was April 1943, and Tom Wilson was on his seventh bombing mission in Tunisia when his plane came under fire.

The Germans had blown the top turret clean off of their B-25 bomber, and the rest of the plane was headed downward. Wilson jumped out of the bailout hatch, pulled the rip cord on his parachute and sailed down into a cactus bush. He was surrounded by local women who couldn't speak English, but motioned for him to wash the blood off of his face with a bowl of water. His adrenaline was pumping so hard he didn't even realize that his neck had been hit by fragments of a shell.

"The whole top of the plane must have been blown away ... but the armor plate in the back of our seats must have stopped most of the force of the shell or shells," he later wrote. "Talk about someone from above watching us!"

Wilson's wounds healed without a bandage, but any cause for celebration was cut short when he found himself staring down the barrel of an Italian soldier's gun. About six Italian officers ordered him into a small truck to German headquarters, where he and his fellow American soldiers were lined up against a wall and asked their name, rank, birth date and serial number. After two nights in a barn in Tunisia, they were transported to Stalag Luft III, a prisoner of war camp where they stayed for two years.

It's been nearly 70 years since Wilson was released from that prison camp, but his recollection of the events is clear and detailed as if it all happened yesterday. Now, at the age of 94, he shares his stories from his independent living unit at Newcastle Place, where he has shared his World War II stories with the other residents.

The senior living facility is sponsoring fan appreciation night at the Lakeshore Chinooks game on Monday, Aug. 4, and they've chosen Wilson to throw out the first pitch, as he often played baseball while in the prison camp in Germany.

Wilson grew up in Milwaukee and was studying engineering at Cornell University when, at the end of his sophomore year, he decided to join the Air Force. After returning from the war, he found an engineering job at a manufacturing company in downtown Milwaukee. In his retirement, he has had time to write down all of his wartime memories in a book that he shares with others.

"At the age of 22, I was completely unaware of my vulnerability in being shipped off to battle," he writes retrospectively in the book.

Even though he spent two years of his life in a German prisoner camp, Wilson doesn't dwell on the negatives. He said the German Air Force treated his group well and according to the Geneva Convention. He said he was thankful he wasn't captured by Japanese troops, who he said tortured, beat and slaughtered their prisoners of war.

"I guess in some ways I was lucky," he said. "There wasn't much I could do about the situation, so I tried to make the best of it."

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