Irwin mayor recalls life as a World War II prisoner
Like many young men in the United States, Dan Rose considered enlisting in the military as a patriotic duty following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan.
But getting a chance to train to be a pilot for the Army Air Corps also fulfilled the Hahntown native’s lifelong dream of learning to fly.
“Growing up, I used to make model airplanes from my own plans and always thought it would be great to fly, but I really never thought it was something I’d get a chance to do,” said Rose, 93, who has been the mayor of Irwin for 27 years.
After training in San Antonio, Texas, and other U.S. bases, Rose was assigned to the 459th Bombardment Group in the European Theater as a second lieutenant.
As part of a B-24 bomber crew, he returned unscathed from his first 18 assignments. That string of good fortune ended on the morning of July 3, 1944.
The bomber that Rose copiloted was returning to a base in Italy after completing his 19th mission when the plane jerked and started to dive from an altitude of 25,000 feet.
“We just finished bombing railroad yards in Hungary and were making a left turn to scoot back to base when all hell broke loose,” Rose said. “We had been fired at during previous missions — I can still remember the sound of the shrapnel raining back down on the plane after it missed us — but this time it was different.”
When Rose looked out the side window, he saw the engine was gone.
“I told the pilot there was a lake up ahead where we might be able to land, but he said, ‘We’re not going into the water, we’ve got to get out of here.’”
Thanks to their parachutes, the 10-man crew did just that. Rose estimates that he and the pilot were only 5,000 feet above ground by the time they jumped. Moments later, the plane crashed just shy of a farmhouse.
“I started to panic a little because the first time I pulled the rip cord to open my parachute it didn’t work,” Rose said. “When it finally did open and I began to get closer to landing I saw a crowd of about 50 people — including some soldiers with guns — that had gathered, and I thought: I’m going to get shot before I even make it to the ground.”
After he and the pilot landed unharmed, they were stripped of their valuables — Rose lost his watch, class ring and dog tags — and escorted through a field toward a nearby wooded area.
“A few of the men had a rope and indicated that we were going to be hanged,” Rose said. “So I told the pilot, ‘We’re not going to let them do that. Not all of these people have guns, so when we get close to the trees, let’s make a run for it.’ I said it’ll be better to get shot in the back then be hanged, and he agreed.”
But instead of following through with their execution, Rose and the pilot were forced to walk toward a home through a gauntlet of civilians who kicked and spit on them. At the home, the pair were reunited with the plane’s navigator, who had suffered a broken leg while parachuting. They remained there until soldiers transported them and other prisoners by truck to a series of jails in Hungary.
“Whenever the truck arrived in a town, the people wanted to pull us off and take justice into their own hands,” Rose said. “But the guards wouldn’t let them. They basically protected us from who knows what those people might have done.”
About three weeks after his capture, Rose ended up in a prison in Budapest where he and 14 other prisoners were housed in a single cell.
It was in that prison that Rose had another brush with death.
“One day we heard a commotion outside the building, and I asked some of the guys to give me a boost up so I could look out a window and see what’s going on,” Rose said. “I looked out and saw a group of Jewish prisoners in their striped uniforms walking in a circle. A couple minutes later, two guards came in our cell and pointed to the window wanting to know who was looking out.
“I told them it was me because we knew that they gassed people pretty quickly and if somebody didn’t admit to looking out that window, we’d all be dead. I wanted to save the other guys,” he said.
Rose was escorted at gunpoint down a hall past several cells and pushed up against a wall.
“The guards pulled out their guns, and I thought: This is it, this is the end for me.
“But they didn’t shoot me. Instead, one of them slapped me in the face a few times, and then they brought me back in the cell. I felt pretty lucky to be alive.”
Stalag Luft III
Rose and other prisoners of war eventually were moved by boxcar from Budapest to Stalag Luft III in Germany, which became famous for two prison escapes that were depicted in the 1950 film “The Wooden Horse” and the 1963 film “The Great Escape.”
Rose said life in the prison camp — which was run by the German air force and contained captured air force servicemen— was harsh but bearable.
The Spartan barracks housed 15 prisoners each. Compared to the prisons in Budapest, they were clean.
When prisoners arrived they were issued a fabric sack that they had to fill with straw and use as a bed.
“If I’d known how quickly the straw would compress, I would have filled it more because it didn’t take long for it to flatten out and make it very uncomfortable to sleep,” Rose said. “And of course, you never got a second chance to fill it up.”
A wood-burning stove supplied the heat and a way to warm the rations of raw potatoes, kohlrabi and blood sausage that the guards dropped off. But the lack of fuel meant it was cold inside the barracks and food often was eaten raw.
The prisoners also received small parcels from the Salvation Army that contained items such as crackers, butter, jelly and other foods.
“We didn’t really know what to do with these little bits of food, so we assigned a couple of guys to figure it out, and they decided to push it all together and cook it up,” Rose said. “My job was ‘tin basher,’ which meant I took the metal containers that the powdered milk came in, flattened them out and formed them into a pan so we could do that.”
Among the things written in a small journal that Rose kept at the camp are lists of foods that he missed.
“When you’re hungry, you tend to dream about food,” said Rose, who dropped about 25 pounds while in captivity. “Things like peanut butter and the chicken and soup my mother used to make started to become real important. They didn’t starve us, but there was never enough to eat.”
To pass the time between the multiple roll calls during the day in which guards ordered prisoners outside to line up, the airmen played cards or passed around the few books that were sent by relief agencies.
And they schemed of ways to break out.
“The place was very secure, but we always talked about escaping,” Rose said, adding that tunneling was believed to be the only feasible way to get out because dogs were released to roam the grounds at night and the machine-gun towers always were manned.
“I remember thinking, even if you could escape, where the heck would you go? You don’t speak the language and nobody in the nearby towns was going to help you. And everywhere you went in Germany you had to present identification papers.”
Road to freedom
While the Germans were quick to gloat about Allied defeats, they provided no outward indication of how Axis forces were faring.
“Based on the little food they gave us, we had a sense that things were going pretty bad for the Germans by this time,” Rose said. “Then, at one point at the very end of winter (in 1945), we woke up to a commotion of German guards who ordered us out of the barracks. So I grabbed what little clothing I had and went out into the snow.”
As Soviet troops advanced on the compound, Rose and other prisoners were lined up and forced to march “for miles and miles in the snow” to a rail line where they were transported by boxcar to Stalag VII-A near Moosburg, Germany.
Rose said he and other prisoners were housed in tents in that camp until it was liberated on April 29, 1945.
“I remember that we woke up that morning to gunfire and went out to see what was happening,” Rose said. “The first thing we noticed was that the guards were gone. Then in the distance we saw the German flag going down and up on a hill there was an (American) tank and troops heading our way. That’s when we fully realized what was happening. As the tank came up to the camp, it had to stop because our guys were swarming all over the tank to the point where you couldn’t even see it.”
A veteran reflects
As Rose marks the 70th anniversary this year of his capture during World War II, he rarely talks about those experiences unless prodded to do so. Over the years he has made it a habit to attend veterans events such as Tuesday’s ceremony at the VFW in North Huntingdon to pay homage to those troops.
“Lots of soldiers never made it home, or came home with terrible injuries that affected their entire lives,” Rose said. “I was able to get married, have a successful business, raise a family and even get involved in my community by serving on council for 10 years and as mayor for 27 years. So I consider myself one of the lucky ones, for sure.”
Rose said the lack of job opportunities for troops who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade — especially those who have suffered injuries — “is a big worry” to him.
“These young men and women have given up a lot to go over and fight for us,” Rose said. “It’s not fair for them to come home and not be able to find work and raise a family like those of us who served in World War II were able to do. I think we owe these younger veterans whatever opportunities we can give them.”
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at [email protected].