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Retired minister, pilot recalls days as POW

It was on Christmas day in 1944 when Don Chapman’s life did an about face.  He was on his 42nd mission for the U.S. Army Air Force during WWII aboard a B-17 bomber, otherwise known as the “Flying Fortress.” He was the captain and pilot of the lead plane of more than 200 aircraft on a mission to destroy the Brux Oil Refinery on the north side of Czechoslovakia. Chapman and his crew of 12 men would soon find themselves as targets of the German Nazi gunners. Chapman grew up on a farm in Dennison, Iowa with his mom, dad and two younger sisters. He was 18 years old when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army/Air Force. His goal was to become a pilot. His parents weren’t in favor of him enlisting because he would be in harm’s way but they understood his feelings. “I joined because I believed in our country. Really, I did.” Another reason he wanted to serve was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. “I thought that was a terrible, terrible thing and I had to do something. I just couldn’t let that go by,” he said.  President Roosevelt called it a “date which will live in infamy.” “I didn’t have to go in the service. I was 4F as far as the draft was concerned.”  Chapman had trouble with his feet and couldn’t march and was also underweight, therefore he was refused when he tried to join the service. The Air Force finally agreed he didn’t have to march but he had to solve his weight problem. On his third trip to Camp Fort Dodge in Iowa he filled up with bananas and drank a quart of milk to increase his body weight. The sergeant, who knew Chapman from previous visits, looked at him and said he would weigh him first. Chapman weighed in and he passed by three ounces. Chapman took basic training at Jefferson Barris in southeast Missouri and then went into the college training detachment in Cedar Falls, Iowa where he waited for training. Then he went to Santa Anna, California and saw a training technique that amazed him. The squad leaders heard some of the soldiers had partied the night before and were out of shape so they called the detachment together on a hot Sunday afternoon and had them stand at parade rest. The soldiers who keeled over were dismissed from the detachment automatically. Their tour of duty was done. Chapman passed all the tests and got his pilot’s license in January of 1944 at a base in north Texas. He then went through flight training for the B-17. That was his first job and it took three months to learn the process. He picked up the rest of the crew and they trained for another three months as a team. They flew from Nebraska to Manchester, NH, to Newfoundland, to the Azores in North Africa and then into Italy – their home base. On his first five missions he was the co-pilot on the B-17 and he learned the routine of short haul bombing missions. On short hauls they were credited for only a half a mission. The 42nd mission was a long haul – their furthest mission and 20 minutes beyond fighter cover. The crew didn’t know when they took off that the oil pump on the engines was removed to lighten their load. That would be a big problem for them later. Another snag was they didn’t have fighter planes flying ahead of them to drop a “window.” A window was shredded aluminum foil that would create an image similar to a plane on the German radars. The German’s then shot at the windows and not the real B-17s. Chapman’s plane, the lead aircraft on the mission, dropped its first bomb over the target on the oil refinery. The Germans returned fire and hit Chapman’s plane. They heard sounds like a sledgehammer pounding on the frame of the plane. The Germans knocked out an engine and a second engine had oil damage. That left them with two engines. He thought he could fly over the mountain with the two remaining engines and enough fuel to get them to friendly territory. That’s when they discovered they didn’t have a fuel pump to redirect the fuel from the damaged engines to the two remaining engines. Chapman then ordered the other planes on the mission to break formation and return to safety. Chapman’s plane was the only one hit and they had to make some quick decisions. They had two options: one was to land in the ocean and be rescued and the second option was to parachute out of the plane over Czechoslovakia and hope they could avoid the Germans. Landing the plane in the ocean was a tricky one because the plane would probably sink in about two minutes and that wasn’t enough time to set out the floats and be rescued. Chapman left it up to the rest of the crew which option they wanted to choose and they chose to fly over the land and jump to safety. “I would have preferred flying to the ocean but they didn’t like the idea of ditching. I don’t blame them,” Chapman said. Chapman instructed his crew to delay pulling the ripcord on their parachutes as long as they could to shorten the time they would be in the air and the chance to be spotted by the Germans. But they didn’t follow his suggestion. As captain, Chapman was the last one out of the plane. “If I had another person with me in the plane I would have ditched the plane in the ocean,” Chapman said. He flew the plane another two minutes before he jumped. This was the first and last time he ever used a parachute and paused for a minute at the door of the plane before he jumped. After he leaped from the plane he waited until he was about 800 feet from the ground before he pulled the cord. He was in the air for one minute and 30 seconds. As he was falling he could see his damaged plane crashing and the rest of his crew floating in the air with their parachutes. Chapman later found out the crew thought he died because they did not see his parachute. Two of the crew landed in a German encampment and were captured immediately. Everybody made it down and only one hurt his ankle when he landed. It took the Germans 42 days to capture the entire crew. Chapman landed in a grove of pine trees. He gathered up his parachute and hid under a tree. A farm family came out looking for him. “They looked friendly, so I finally revealed myself. I couldn’t run. They took me in and I drank their liquor and ate a Christmas feast.” They took him in with the intention to meet the head of the underground the next day that would lead to his liberation. The next morning he was to meet the group leader, but fifty German troops came in and were searching house to house. “I knew the gig was up and decided to have the family turn me in.” The Germans would have destroyed the town and killed everyone. “I want to distinguish the difference between the German people and the Nazis. The German people were very nice and friendly but the Nazis were cruel. There is a big difference there,” Chapman said. “I wanted to save the town and the people who would be held accountable for my presence.” Chapman was taken to the local prison in Ljubljana, Czechoslovakia. He stayed there for 42 days until they captured the rest of his crew. To occupy their time they designed a checkerboard, cut up paper for the chips, and played checkers and chess. From there they were transferred to a prisoner of war processing center in northern Germany. They spent the next four or five days at that center and were interrogated. “They tried to break us but we never gave them any information about our mission.” It really didn’t make much difference if they did give them information because the war was ending soon. But the Nazis never gave up. “They never, ever gave up,” Chapman said. “After we were processed, they shipped us by train to Nuremberg. We were worried because we thought the Americans or our allies would bomb the train.” They stayed in Nuremberg until the end of the war or about three months. At the POW camp the lack of food was a problem. “We shared our Red Cross boxes with the guards. We became very good friends with the guards. I never had a problem with the guards.” “They moved us from Nuremberg down to Moosburg and that was about ten days before the signing of the peace accord. That signing took place right near Moosburg.” “When we marched through Nuremberg there was this smell that I didn’t know what it was. The guard didn’t want to tell me at first but later he whispered to me the smell was from dead bodies. He was just ashamed of it as anyone would be.” It was at that moment that Chapman felt he was all by himself, alone, and thought there has to be another way to find peace other than fighting a war. “That is when I made my decision to go into ministry. Those kind of decisions are always lonely,” Chapman said. “After the peace treaty was signed and we were released, I and another prisoner ‘jumped camp.’  We got on a C3 plane and flew to Camp Lucky Strike. We were given a physical exam and went through a de-lousing process. We stayed at Camp Lucky Strike until the middle of June. We were put on a victory ship and sent back to America. Everybody on the ship got sick except me. The ship rocked back and forth as we sailed through rough weather.” Once back in America, Chapman realized the letters that he wrote weekly to his wife, Shirley, and mailed through the Red Cross, were never received until he got back to the United States. “She had a lot of letters to read,” Chapman said. Chapman went back to college at Upper Iowa University to get his degree. He went to Seminary at the University in Dubuque. He was there for about two years and went to Monticello, Iowa where he was ordained at a congregational church. He served there four years then he went to New Hampton, Iowa where his father-in-law was a minister. He served there for four years. In 1955 he took the call at the First Congregational Church in Glencoe where he was the minister for 29 years. He currently lives at Orchard Estates in Glencoe. Chapman and his wife went back to Germany in 1981 through the Black Forest and went on a ship down the Rhine River. They didn’t care to go back to see any of the POW encampments. Since his POW experience, Chapman has heard from only one of his former crewmembers. “I don’t know if they blame me for what happened,” Chapman said. The only one he heard from lives in St. Ansgar and is being treated for tuberculosis. Chapman has been in touch with his son but his son doesn’t talk about his dad’s POW experience. “It’s one of those things, I guess,” Chapman said. “I still believe to this day there is another way to achieve peace. I believe the final analysis of who God is and about is God’s love.” His favorite gospel lesson is from 1 John: 4:16, God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. “I think my ministry reflected that Bible verse.”

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