Vets shared WWII fate, POW camp
What are the chances?
Both men served on bombers during World War II and flew dangerous missions from airfields in Italy. Both had planes shot out from under them during bomb runs. And both were taken prisoner by the Germans and held in the same POW camp - Stalag Luft 1.
Now, nearly 70 years after they were liberated by the Russians, the two veterans will be united at 4 p.m. next Tuesday at the Millville Army Airfield Museum at Millville (N.J.) Airport, where they'll also recount their experiences for visitors at 6 p.m.
Bill Hogan, 93, a museum tour guide who lives in Millville, and Dan Theokas, 90, of Vineland, N.J., briefly met each other during a chance encounter at the museum in August.
"He was captured like I was, and we had the same experience and were in the same stalag," said Hogan, who was leading a tour group at the time of the meeting. "The stalag is a big place, so I never met him.
"But it's nice to meet someone like that now," he said. "It's a big surprise . . . strange."
Theokas was equally amazed, after seven decades, to meet a fellow bomber crew member who had survived the same perils.
"He [Hogan] told me he was there, and now I'm anxious to get more of the story," Theokas said. "I want to learn more."
The veterans were drawn to the museum by the history and artifacts so familiar to them when they were young, and have since found out that they live not far from one another.
The reunion might not have happened without the help of Bob Trivellini, vice president of the museum board, who learned - while Theokas was visiting - that he was a World War II veteran.
"He said he was a B-17 [bomber] navigator who flew out of Foggia, Italy," said Trivellini, who has headed up the museum's Veteran Interview Project to capture history from those who lived through it. "When he told me he was shot down and was in Stalag Luft 1, I got excited."
He knew Hogan had also been shot down and was in the same POW camp, so he took Theokas to meet him.
"I said, 'This gentleman was in Stalag Luft 1 with you,' and [Hogan] said, 'Really?' "
The two men picked up where events had left off 70 years earlier. "They said, 'Remember when the Russians came? They were crazy,' and they laughed," said Trivellini, who snapped a photo of the two. "They didn't have much time to talk then, so we planned the reunion.".
Hogan was a tail gunner on a B-24 bomber during his 16th and final mission on May 29, 1944. His plane was flying in a formation to bomb a German fighter-plane factory in a suburb of Vienna, Austria.
"The Germans knew where we were going, they knew our altitude and speed, and when we approached, there was all kinds of flak," he said. "You couldn't go over it, under it or around it; you had to go through it.
"We had just dropped our bombs when we were hit by flak," Hogan said. "The plane went into a steep dive, but the pilot straightened it out."
That pilot was wounded, though, and the copilot and top gunner were killed.
"We were beat up," Hogan said. "On the intercom, all of us could hear what was going on.
"The copilot's body was removed," he said, "and the navigator took over."
But the crew had bigger problem now that their plane was separated from the protection of the formation. German fighters hit the bomber with fire from 30-caliber machine guns and 20mm cannons.
Hogan fired back, but the outlook looked more grim with each passing second. The tail rudders were knocked out, and parts of the planes were ablaze.
The crew bailed out over Austria. Hogan had to pull the lines of his parachute to avoid landing on top of a woman and instead hit the roof of a two-story farmhouse, then fell, breaking two bones in his right leg.
After time in Austrian and German hospitals, an interrogation, and a stint at a POW camp in Poland, he was transferred to Stalag Luft 1, where he spent 11 months. The camp housed thousands of POWs, mostly American and British service members.
What stood out?
"Starvation," Hogan said. "We didn't get much food."
Theokas would join him soon. He was the navigator on a B-17 on a bombing mission over an oil refinery at Rhuland, Germany in March 1945, when the plane came under heavy attack by enemy fighters that included jets, the first of the war.
"It was rough," he said. "You can talk about the experience, but there are a lot of feelings involved.
"I said 150 times, 'I'm alive; they're not going to kill me.' "
His bomber was shot down, but Theokas survived, was captured, interrogated, beaten, and eventually held at Stalag Luft 1.
"There were four compounds, with barracks for the 10,000 Kriegsgefangenen or 'kriegies,' as we referred to ourselves," Theokas said. "Except for the early-morning roll calls, life was tolerable.
"The only work we self-imposed was to keep clean - both our bodies and living quarters," he said. "The wooden barracks held an average of 300 men."
The meals included potatoes, horse meat, rutabagas, cabbage, and powdered skim milk provided by the International Red Cross.
In May 1945, the Germans left when they heard the Russians were approaching.
Theokas and Hogan were flown to France, where they received physical exams and uniforms.
Theokas married, had seven daughters, and recently sold his billboard company.
Hogan married, had no children, and worked at the now-defunct Airwork Corp. at Millville Airport, where he was a mechanic, inspector, and manager of the technical service and warranty department. He retired in 1991 and has been a tour guide at the museum for nine years.
Though not aware of each other, the two veterans were drawn by their past war service to the museum, where they will share their stories and photos - and jog each other's memory.
The movie Stalag 17 will be shown at 6:30 p.m.
"I meet many veterans," Hogan said. But not usually ones "that have had the same experience."