Former POW recalls deprivation, endurance

Retired Master Sgt. Marion Earl Painter recalls the brutality that he and other prisoners of war endured at the hands of the Germans during World War II during a POW/MIA observance at the Falcon Club Sept. 18, 2009. Sergeant Painter was kept at the Stalag Luft VI and Stalag Luft IV prison camps during his years in German custody. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Patton)

Retired Master Sgt. Marion Earl Painter recalls the brutality that he and other prisoners of war endured at the hands of the Germans during World War II during a POW/MIA observance at the Falcon Club Sept. 18, 2009. Sergeant Painter was kept at the Stalag Luft VI and Stalag Luft IV prison camps during his years in German custody. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Patton)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- We shall never forget. We will always remember. 

Servicemembers and civilians gathered Sept. 18 at the Falcon Club to remember the 88,000 U.S. servicemembers recorded as missing or unaccounted for since World War II during the POW/MIA Observance traditionally held the third Friday of September. 

Ceremonies began with recognition of the empty table at the front of the room adorned with a white tablecloth as a symbol for purity of motive, a rose for waiting families, a yellow ribbon to remember those absent, a lemon slice for bitter fate, a place of salt for tears shed and a Bible for strength of spirit. Glasses were inverted, chairs left empty as members of the Academy Color Guard placed five wheel hats representing all branches of service on the table. 

Retired Master Sgt. Marion Earl Painter recalled his ordeals as a German prisoner of war during World War II. 

"We were hungry all the time," he said. 

Ten days after marrying his wife, Florence, in 1942, he entered the Army and after training was sent to England, where he was assigned as a flight engineer/top turret gunner on the B-17 "Buccaneer." 

On the crew's last mission targeting an aircraft factory, the B-17 caught flak, and the crew bailed out, was captured and imprisoned in Stalag Luft VI. There, men were housed in long brick buildings, with 70 to 80 men in each room. Bunks were three beds high, and bedding was nothing more than straw and burlap with German "ersatz," meaning fake blankets, which disintegrated if they got wet. 

Sergeant Painter and his fellow prisoners were eventually moved to Stalag Luft IV in eastern Prussia. The camp held an estimated 9,000 - 10,000 prisoners of war. 

While in Stalag Luft VI, the prisoners received an occasional Red Cross package to ward off the constant hunger. In Stalag Luft IV, their diet became hot water, boiled potatoes, cabbage soup and boiled barley. In Stalag VI, the prisoners were guarded by the German Luftwaffe. In Stalag IV, they were guarded by the Gestapo, resulting in harsher treatment. 

Sergeant Painter said he believes the cause for the change in treatment was the result of the earlier escape attempt by Allies from Stalag Luft III, made famous by the movie "The Great Escape" released in the early 1960s. Only three of 50 men eventually made it to freedom. 

"Things changed for the worse," he said. 

However, the prisoners were not without their own resources to irritate the Germans. Roll call required both an American and German counting prisoners, which could result in frequent miscounts. Also, during transport to one camp, prisoners were handcuffed by twos, until they discovered the can opening device on powdered milk containers could be easily modified as keys to the handcuffs. The Allied prisoners were also in possession of a radio, smuggled in to the camp inside a softball. 

"We knew what was going on before the Germans did," Sergeant Painter said with a smile. 

As the war worsened for the Germans, there was an apparent need for them to move POWs west. An estimated 6,000 prisoners from Stalag IV began what became known as the "Black March." 

"I walked for 80 days," he recalled. 

Along the way prisoners were forced to scrounge for food in one of German's coldest winters ever. Virtually all had lice and suffered from dysentery. They also incurred diphtheria, pneumonia, abscesses and frostbite. 

During the hunger, disease and injuries of his captivity, Sergeant Painter had only one thought. "I never lost faith," he said. "You can't give up. Those who did give up are still there."

After being rescued by the Allies, Sergeant Painter spent months recovering, first in England and later in the United States. He served in the Air Force Reserves and in various missile readiness capacities after the war. He retired after 30 years of service and now lives in Plumville, Pa., where he has been involved in activities with other former POWs. 

He and his wife have six children, including a daughter who is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and a son, a U.S. Naval Academy grad, who is retired from the Navy. The couple also has 10 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.