POW experience forever changed Idaho WWII veteran
TWIN FALLS, Idaho — There’s a black and white photo in Paul Kelly’s basement of nine men.
Standing and kneeling in front of their B-24 bomber, they are smiling.
All, but two, are now dead.
Three of them were claimed when their plane was shot down after dropping its bombs over Germany in 1944.
The rest, save for Kelly, a gunner, and another who happened to not be flying that particular mission, have been claimed by old age.
But Kelly, an 88-year-old Twin Falls man, said the memory of that day — Aug. 4 — and those men lives on in his mind. He said he doesn’t much talk about his experiences in World War II these days.
But when he does, he lights up remembering the good times and grows somber when he retells the horrors.
What he survived after the plane crash is hard to imagine: he and thousands of other World War II prisoners of war were forced to marched 600 miles over 86 days through Poland and Germany by Nazis hoping to skirt invading British and Russian forces.
Many names describe the journey — “The March,” “The Black March,” and, among others, “The Death March.” But Kelly has his own: “The March to Nowhere,” he said, pointing to a map highlighting the wintertime path that killed hundreds of young men in the allied forces and changed his life forever.
“You can’t be a combat soldier and then on top of that be a prisoner of war without it changing your life,” he said. “You just can not come back the same person that went in.“
Kelly joined the Army Air Corps shortly after he turned 18. He had always wanted to be a pilot.
Although he passed his mental tests, he failed his physical. In those days, football was played without helmets and a kick to the head limited the movement in his left eye.
“They found that right away and that took care of becoming a pilot,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me go to navigators school or bombardier school.“
So, Kelly became a gunner.
On June 21, 1944, the West Virginia native turned 19. He was the youngest on his crew when their plane was shot down over Rostock, Germany.
German artillery fire blew a hole in Kelly’s plane. Inside, the emergency flares caught on fire. The pilot hoped to land the ship on Swedish soil. But, at 3,000 feet, the pilot barked: “Bail.”
He knew the pilot was killed in the crash, Kelly said. He wasn’t sure about the fate of the other two, including his best friend, until after the war. At the time, he was left wondering — they never showed up at any of the POW camps, he said.
Kelly assumed his friend was killed by civilians.
“We were in an area where they killed our crew members when they came down if they didn’t get picked up by the military,” he said.
Bullets flew past his head as he parachuted to the ground. He was immediately captured by a German soldier.
“I was scared to death,” he said. “I’m sure we kept our wits about us. Sometimes I use the word ‘apprehensive,’ but I’m sure we were all scared of what was going on.
“Flight crews, they didn’t take any parachute training, they were just told what to do when they went out and that was it.
“And, you only had one parachute.”
Kelly still wonders if one of the men who was never found accidentally jumped without his parachute.
Disease, Exhaustion, Exposure
At a German military base, Kelly was interrogated. He only gave them all that was required — name, rank and serial number.
He said, “Paul Levi Kelly.”
“I never used my middle name and … as soon as I said that, I thought, ’Oh, God. They are going to think I’m Jewish,’” he said, laughing.
From there, Kelly was shipped between different German prison camps and eventually spent several days riding in a box car to Poland.
“You’ve seen footage of the Jews on box cars? This was similar to that,” he said.
About 10,000 airmen were held at Stalag Luft IV and Kelly arrived there in late September.
Twenty four men shared one room in the barracks. For a long time, they slept on the floor. Eventually the Germans built bunks — the men were divided among the four bunks — beds stacked two-high — three men to a mattress.
To keep warm, they were issued lumps of coal for their pot bellied stove. Many of the men burned their soap to keep warm, too.
He stayed at the camp until Feb. 6, 1945. As the Russians pushed in from the east, the Nazis marched their prisoners west. It was one of the worst European winters to date. Soldiers were forced to sleep outside or in barns — “they’d kick the livestock out and make us go in.”
“Outside of totally losing your freedom, that’s the worst part of my experience,” he said of the march. “We were almost starved to death and several hundred men died. The food we had? I don’t know. A lot of prisoners died from disease, some from exhaustion, some from exposure from the cold weather.“
Kelly met a man named James Kelley and the two became fast friends, marching side-by-side for a while. But, Kelley became sick.
“He couldn’t walk and he went on what they call the sick wagon,” he said. “He was gone for quite a while.“
Then one day some time later, as Kelly sat with one of Kelley’s crew along the bank of a river, the sick wagon rolled by. Kelley jumped off and rejoined them.
The two spent the rest of the march together and even returned home together after they were liberated by British forces on May 2. That day, Kelly said he remembers watching several German officers leave the camp and come back with British soldiers.
He was so ecstatic to be free that he climbed the prison’s fence and jumped to free ground, landing in a big pile of cow dung. Kelly said the British gave them all the food they could eat.
“That was a bad thing,” he said grinning.
After the war, Kelly said he returned to college, but wasn’t ready. He was sent to a hospital on Miami Beach and snuck out each night with his roommate to get drunk.
Through the years, he lost track of Kelley, finished his geology degree, started a family and began working as a petroleum geologist.
Eventually he did reunite with Kelley, who died a few years ago — a complete surprise, Kelly said.
Over the years, Kelly has examined his life and wondered how the war affected him. What he can put his finger on is a tendency to avoid authority — getting away from those looking over his shoulder.
“That’s what I can see. Other things? I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure how all it’s affected me. Probably in ways I don’t even know.”
Several years ago, he was being checked for disability by a psychiatrist for post traumatic stress disorder. Kelly was asked if he still has nightmares about his experiences. “Maybe a half dozen a year,” he said.
He told that to his wife, Peggy. She said he was “out my mind.”
“She said I have nightmares all the time. She said, ‘You just raise up in bed,’” he said. “I don’t have nightmares like I used to, but they are not about the war anymore. Once and a while they are, but that’s been almost 70 years.“
He and a fellow POW friend in Filer had been going to group therapy in Boise to treat their PTSD. For 20 years, they went every two weeks, but eventually they slowed to once a month.
“Just in the last few months we have finally quit going because all the members of that group — and they were all Second World War veterans — we were the only ones left,” he said.
The meetings were helpful, he said. There he could talk to people who understand what he means when he talks about the war — “If you hadn’t been there, you may sympathize, but you can’t empathize.”
That’s important for veterans of all ages, he said.
A few years ago, he made it his mission to “check up” on the crew. He reconnected with many of them before they died and still talks to one regularly.
In his basement “man cave,” Kelly has hung pictures of bombers and leaves war memorabilia scattered about. He recently opened a veteran’s magazine and saw the picture of his crew — someone who knew the ninth crewman who wasn’t on the downed flight must have sent it in to be published.
Kelly was shocked — “I just said, ‘Holy Cow.’”
Taking a moment, sitting in his large chair, he considered again the lasting effects of his experiences.
Perhaps they made him more easily angered.
Perhaps they made him a more compassionate person.
The latter is what he hopes.
“I saw the horrors of war and hell of the prison camps,” he said. “So if there is a positive thing about it, I suppose that may be one of them.”