Retired Staff Sgt. Robert Waldrop, now 91 years old and living
in St. Helena Island, S.C., vividly remembers details of his
experience during World War II.
“Have you ever seen
airliners go across with their condensation trails? Can you
picture half a thousand four-engine aircraft all leaving a
condensation trail?” said retired Staff Sgt. Robert Waldrop,
speaking of the aircraft of his former unit, the Eighth Air
Force of the Army Air Corps. “It's an awesome sight; one of
the most awesome sights there was.”
Such a sight
wasn't rare in those early months of 1944. World War II was
in full swing.
March 26, 2014 - Retired Staff Sgt.
Robert Waldrop, now 91 years old and living in St. Helena Island, S.C.,
vividly remembers details of his experience during World War II.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Sarah Cherry)
Eight different days in January and
early February saw more than 500 B-17s and B-24s taking off
into European skies, with the most being 863 on January 29
leaving for Frankfurt, Germany.
A B-17 waist gunner
from Fort Wayne, Ind., he climbed into the plane for his
fifth mission headed toward Frankfurt, Germany. He'd been in
the Army Air Corps for two years.
At the time, the
service members were expected to carry out 25 missions
before being relieved, with the option to do more.
“When you returned from a mission – if you returned – you
could have ice cream or a shot of whiskey,” said Waldrop. He
said he would get ice cream with some light teasing from his
He deliberately left his service pistol
behind. Getting shot down with a firearm was an immediate
death sentence by German soldiers.
“The guys that'd
been flying, they said don't take that on a mission,” said
Waldrop. “You'd think you'd carry it on a mission.”
“One of the biggest hazards of flying those missions was the
anti-aircraft [weapons] and, of course, the German pilots.
They had some good, good pilots and good airplanes,” said
The plane is hit, Feb. 4, 1944.
never forget that date. My boots came off when my chute
opened. We couldn't wear laced-up boots, because your feet
would freeze up there,” he said. “[The Germans] probably had
binoculars on me the whole way down. They had time to watch
me and wait for me.”
He landed in German-occupied
France, bootless with a sprained ankle. German soldiers
quickly found him and detained him as a prisoner of war.
“When I first came down, I sprained my left leg real
bad,” said Waldrop. “I didn't break it, thank goodness. But
they had to help me, or carry me, or push me.”
taken to a jail where he said German soldiers would stop by
simply to stare at him.
“They'd come up to the strong
door and look through the window,” he said. “[They must have
been thinking] ‘He's something else, we got a guy, we got an
During his experience as a prisoner of
war, he was transferred from camp to camp on coal ships and
trucks, marched for hundreds of miles, and kept in various
prison camps. Hygiene conditions were poor, and prisoners
were counted daily.
“It was a normal routine to take
a head count twice a day,” said Waldrop. A German sergeant,
previously wounded on the Russian front, would take down the
count with pencil and paper. He said they called him ‘Big
Stoop. “Guys in the back row would shift around, so he'd
never get the same count twice.”
The German soldiers
guarding the prisoners would put a stop to the shuffling
around and miscounting by fixing bayonets as a threat.
During the night, prisoners were locked in with a bar
across the door. In the morning, the prisoners would hear
the bar being removed.
“One morning, one of the guys
a couple barracks down pushed on the door and it was open,
so he thinks it's okay to go out. We had one main latrine
clear down at the end of the compound. He went clear across
to the end of the compound and on the way back, one of the
guards shot him,” said Waldrop. “He bled to death is really
what happened because nobody could get to him.”
Germans allowed a funeral detail, and despite the lack of an
American flag the prisoners made do with what they had.
“Through the Red Cross we had some boxes of colored
chalk and some of the guys took the colored chalk and put
some rags together and made a flag as best as they could for
his funeral,” he said. “It was sad.”
Toward the end
of the war, the prisoners were moved far and often, marching
hundreds of miles.
“Some places we stopped close to
villages, the civilians would put water out along the
street,” said Waldrop. “We couldn't stop, but as we walked
past we would scoop some up in our tins.”
fell behind with several other prisoners, and was taken to
yet another prison camp.
They were liberated by
British commandos that he said looked like they'd slit your
throat if you blinked. The sort you wouldn't want to see
fighting against you.
“I was glad they were on our
side,” he said.
He was given a physical and returned
to the United States in a hospital ship. He arrived in New
York, and later returned to his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind.
After leaving military service, Waldrop served in and
retired from the police force.
and his attitude toward his past are a strong example of
perseverance, inner strength and, perhaps most of all,
carrying tragedies of the past lightly.
“I've been so
fortunate over the years, really lucky,” he said.
By U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Sarah Cherry
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