Russell Hulsey holds the photos taken by the Germans when he was taken prisoner of war in1943.
Saved by Loyalty, Photo and Luck
By Charlotte Kyle
(Feature originally ran in The Lake News 5-9-12.)
Russell “Bob” Hulsey sat in his home in Calvert City, his wife Imogene at his side. He was reflecting on the date – May 4, 2012 – and the significance it played in his life 67 years ago. It was the date when Hulsey, now 89, was liberated after being held captive as a prisoner of war in World War II.
Hulsey said a group of survivors have been meeting around the country for 50 or 60 years during this week, but he did not feel like he could get up to St. Louis this year. He said there are about 200 still living, all between 85 and 90 years old. This year there were not as many signed up for the trip.
“We can’t travel,” Hulsey said. “We can’t get through airports and stuff anymore.” Hulsey said people do ask him about his time as a P.O.W. “I can talk about it sometimes,” Hulsey said. “Sometimes I can’t.”
He has shared his story in the book “From Wake Island to Berlin” by Harry Spiller and that helps him remember the details he has difficulty recalling.
Hulsey joined the army on August 6, 1940. At 19 Hulsey became the youngest Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army. In July 1942, Hulsey went to Europe as a replacement crew for the 8th Air Force 93rd Bomb Group of the 409th Squadron.
A year later a policy was implemented for air crews. Those men who completed 25 bombing missions were sent back to the United States. Unfortunately, very few men or crews completed that many missions. Hulsey’s crew reached the magic number, but unfortunately Hulsey was sick during one bombing raid and had only completed 24 missions. He volunteered to go bombing with another crew in order to reach number 25.
Hulsey had never gone through training on how to bail out of a plane, but he figured out how to do it when the moment called for it. On December 1, 1943, their plane was shot down by German fighter planes. It was snowing and Hulsey said he could not see the ground until he landed on it. He hid his parachute then walked until he found a church.
He knew he needed to get out of the cold, so Hulsey went into the church and hid. An elderly lady found him and motioned for him to follow her to her house, where she let him stay in her basement. Unfortunately, his time spent there was short. “Someone had spotted her helping me and reported it to the Germans,” Hulsey said.
The woman who had helped him was shot, and Hulsey was taken to be interrogated. Hulsey was asked about training and where other planes were stationed. Hulsey, however, would only give them his name, rank and serial number. He kept his loyalty intact, along with a picture of his girlfriend, Imogene.
“I had put a picture of (Imogene) in my billfold to carry with me,” Hulsey said. “One of the guards going through it found the picture and asked me who it was. I told him that it was my girlfriend and that if I made it back to the states I was going to marry her.”
The guard stamped the back of the picture and gave it back to Hulsey, stating that if he had someone that pretty waiting on him he would want to keep the picture. Hulsey said that was how it went everywhere he was sent in Germany – the guards would stamp the picture and give it back. He said he still has it to this day.
Hulsey and the other prisoners were put on a train, interrogated and then sent to Stalag 17B P.O.W. camp. When they arrived at the camp they were ran through a delousing area where they were run through the showers and their heads were shaved. Things only got worse from there.
The barracks were freezing, with only thin cotton blankets issued to the men. Hulsey, along with many soldiers, suffered from frost bite. There was very little food, with sometimes as many as 17 men sharing a loaf of bread. Sometimes they got rutabaga soup or dehydrated cabbage – both of which often had bugs and worms in it.
One thing that gave the soldiers hope was writing to his family and his girlfriend. The soldiers were able to write two letters and four cards a month, but could receive all that was sent. In a letter dated December 15, 1943, Hulsey wrote to Imogene: “After what I have went through all ready [sic], I guess I will live through this also. You always said I was lucky and I guess I am.”
Imogene said it was difficult while he was gone.
“Of course we wanted him out,” she said. “It was a hard time. His mother really took it so bad – she never really got over it. At first she received a telegram saying he was missing, and didn’t know whether he was dead or what. Then we got word that he’d been put in prison. That was better than being dead or not knowing.”
In April 1945 the prisoners were told by the Nazis that they were leaving camp, as the Russians were moving in. The prisoners were forced to march 281 miles in 18 days. During the march, Hulsey said they saw hundreds of Jewish prisoners marching the opposite way.
“If they fell out of line, the Germans just shot them like cattle,” Hulsey said. “I saw them shoot several of them. The Americans didn’t drop out. We had groups of five hundred and if someone got in trouble everyone else stepped in and helped.”
When they reached Braunau, Austria, the groups could not move any further. The Russians were coming up on their rear and American troops were in front. The Germans took the groups into nearby woods and left them. On May 4 Patton’s Army came through and liberated them. He returned home in June of 1945 and married Imogene in July.
Hulsey said he was fortunate to have only suffered from frost bite to his hands and a weight loss of about ten pounds. Later he would lose his teeth because of the vitamin deficiency caused by a poor diet in prison camp.
“Many of the prisoners never made it back and many of those that did suffered much worse than I did,” he said. This was why, when he received an order from the government sent to all ex-POWs to report to the VA hospital for medical screening, he knew he did not need it.
“As I sat there I looked around and there were men there with arms and legs missing,” he said. “Others couldn’t walk. I thought about it and I got up and left. Those fellows needed help, not me. I felt good and I was healthy.”
Just as he wrote in his letters to Imogene, he felt lucky and he was.