MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — World War II veteran Harrison Roach Jr. is a survivor among the survivors.
Roach, 90, who lives at Garden Lake Park in Cape May Court House, is one of only a handful of World War II prisoners of war from Cape May County still alive. He parachuted out of a burning B-17 bomber in 1944 and ended up in a German prison camp.
A monument was dedicated in Wildwood last week to former POW from the area. Most of the names on the stone are veterans who have passed on.
“They had the names of the ones who died and the ones who are living. There are only four left living, and I’m one of them,” Roach said a few days before today's 67th anniversary of D-Day, when about 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of French coastline to battle Nazi Germany on June 6, 1944.
Roach was honored by his inclusion on the monument, but said nobody should be envious of the experience he went through 67 years ago.
“It was no picnic. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody unless you want to lose weight,” said Roach, noting they sometimes went days without food before being given rutabagas, potatoes and, “once and a while,” a dead horse the Germans would give them to make soup.
Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany, held 8,939 Allied airmen during the war. Roach’s nine-man crew from the B-17 all survived the crashing plane and ended up there. Roach said only four of them are still alive. He still keeps in touch with them, including the pilot, who lives in Independence, Mo.
Roach said World War II veterans are dying off quickly and hopes people do not forget what they did.
“There’s not too many of us around, and POWs are getting fewer every day. We’re all disappearing. You ask college kids, and they don’t even know there was a war. Don’t they teach history in school anymore? We made history and lived history, and yet the kids aren’t learning history,” he said.
Roach only recently started talking about the war, said his son, Harrison Roach III.
“For years and years, he didn’t want to talk about it. He just started opening up about it the last few years,” his son said, although Roach Jr. kept a diary of every bombing mission with notes on the bomb load, the flack taken, the gas used, the number of planes and other details.
Roach, then a staff sergeant with the 384th Bomb Group in the U.S. Army Air Corps, was training in Tampa, Fla., when D-Day changed the war. Five weeks after the invasion, he was at an air base in England getting ready for his first bombing mission.
“D-Day was the turning point as far as we were concerned, though Hitler’s biggest mistake was taking on Russia. Then he had two fronts and his own generals knew he was going to lose,” Roach said.
It may have been the turning point, but the war still had to play itself out. Roach was sent to England to serve as a tail gunner on B-17 bombing missions over Germany.
“We were supposed to put in 25 missions. We did our 25, and we thought we were going home. They said, ‘Surprise, you have 10 more missions to put in,’ I went down on my 28th.”
Up until then, they had always returned to base, although they had two crash landings returning to England after suffering heavy damage. One time, a bomb got hung up in the bomb bay, with a tailfin stuck to a shackle. Landing like that could have set off the bomb and killed them all.
“We climbed into the bomb bay, lifted it up and put that bomb on our lap and hugged that son of a gun until we landed,” Roach said.
Unloading the bombs was a relief in some ways, but not in others. Although the explosive cargo was gone, Roach said they then had to return through German fighters waiting for the Americans just outside the flack from the anti-aircraft guns. He remembers lining up his first German jet in the sight of one of his twin 50-caliber guns.
“I didn’t know what it was. Nobody had ever seen one before. It was too far away, and I missed it,” Roach said.
On Dec. 12, 1944, “We got hit with flack. It knocked out three engines. Our plane was on fire, and we had to bail out,” Roach said.
At first, they threw everything heavy out of the B-17, including guns and ammunition, hoping to make it across the Rhine River, where Allied forces were stationed. But the plane was losing altitude too fast. The crew told Roach to go first because he was the only one who was married.
“When you jump out, you don’t know what to expect. I couldn’t see the ground through the clouds. It was so quiet. There was no sound except the wind whistling through the shrouds,” Roach said.
He landed in a large evergreen tree, suffering a blow to the back of his head, probably from a branch, which knocked him unconscious. He would have headaches for months. He also lost a chunk of his left leg and busted his knee cap, injuries that would affect him the rest of his life, although he went on to run a construction company for decades in North Wildwood.
When Roach regained consciousness, he got out of the tree and saw townsfolk from a nearby German village coming toward him. They did not look happy to see him.
“You’re in a foreign country. You don’t know exactly where you’re at. You don’t know what to do. There’s no place to run, and all these people are coming at you. You’re lost. It’s a very lonely, sick feeling,” Roach said.
Roach said local police officers prevented the crowd from getting to him. They left him in a jail cell until German officers arrived and put him through three days of interrogation. Then he was put in a train boxcar with about 40 other prisoners and spent three days traveling to Barth.
The Russians are coming
Roach, already a slim man, lost about 50 pounds as a POW.
“We looked like skeletons when we left,” he remembered.
He passed the time playing cards. He started smoking cigarettes supplied by the Red Cross.
“I didn’t smoke until I became a prisoner of war. We played cards and used cigarettes for money. We traded cigarettes for food with the German guards,” Roach said.
One night, the prisoners heard huge explosions and wondered what was going on. The next morning, the Germans were mysteriously gone. They found out later that the Russians had blown up a nearby airfield and the German Army had fled. Roach said there were dead German civilians everywhere.
“German families were so scared of the Russians, they shot their own families, babies and all,” Roach said.
Roach found out later that Hitler put out an order to kill all prisoners. He was glad the Germans running Stalag Luft I ignored the order, knowing full well the war was over. The Russians liberated them on May 1, 1945 — Roach’s 23rd birthday.
He remembers the Russian soldiers, including a surprising number of women, making bonfires, cooking and drinking vodka to celebrate.
“One soldier came to me with vodka and said, ‘You drink.’ I said, ‘I’d rather have food.’ He put a gun to my head and said, ‘You drink.’ I drank. I found out if you don’t accept a drink you insult them.”
After the war
It took a month to repair the airfield and get the prisoners out of Germany. Roach was eventually flown to France, where there were camps set up for POW. The camps were all named for cigarettes. He was with buddies walking across an open field at Camp Lucky Strike when they saw “a bunch of brass” walking toward them, including Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. The future president stopped, shook hands with the POW and asked how they were doing.
“He was just checking things out. I liked him. He didn’t act like he was in command of the whole shooting match. He was just like one of the guys,” Roach said.
He was hospitalized in Atlantic City after the war. The Philadelphia native originally moved to North Wildwood with his wife, Betty, to recuperate from his injuries at the shore, but he ended up starting a construction business there and raising three sons on the island.
The headaches eventually went away. The limp never quite did.
Roach lives alone now. Betty died in 2008. His eyesight is not too good, having lost it in one eye while driving with Betty in 2003. She had to guide him home.
“I went blind that fast. I said, ‘When I get in the driveway, that’s the last time I’ll ever drive,’” Roach said. He never started the car again.
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