The Advance Reporter (West Unity, Stryker & Fayette Hometown News)
March 2003 (COMMUNITY FEATURE)
Richard “Dick” Oberlin was born on June 20, 1924 to Jacob and Luella (Knapp) Oberlin in a house on E. Jackson St. in West Unity. Dick’s younger brother, Jack, came into his life on May 1st 1932, when he was 8 years old. Dick went to West Unity high school and graduated in 1942. In December of 1942 Richard married Elizabeth Harker who was also from West Unity. The couple had gone to high school together. Dick went on to Akron after high school and worked at Goodyear Aircraft, building B-26 bombers.
In February of 1943, Dick was drafted into the service, with Elizabeth being pregnant at the time. Upon his departure, Dick traveled to Camp Perry to begin training with the Air Corps. Basic training took place in Clearwater, Florida, where Oberlin and recruits stayed in a tent on a golf course for the first few days until they became situated. Oberlin next travel to Gulfport, Mississippi, where he participated in Air Mechanics School. Dick was trained as a flight engineer, later expanding his training and airplane gunnery in Las Vegas, Nevada.
From Las Vegas, Dick was sent to Salt Lake City, Utah for his crew assignment. Dick and his crewmembers had a 10-day delay enroute and were able to go home and visit with family.
After his 10-day leave, Dick was shipped off to Alexandria, Louisiana, where the crew assignments were finalized and the group was able to learn to fly together.
They went through mock missions to prepare for war flight and became familiar with flying and maintaining a B-17.
Dick and his crew went to Grand Island, Nebraska to pick up a new B-17, which they flew in to Goose Bay, Labrador in Europe. From there they went on to Iceland and Scotland; leaving the plane there for another crew to use.
The crew flew out of a small tow about 100 miles north of London, England and about 25 miles from Cambridge. The plan that was assigned to them there was an old B-17 with no heat. The windows were cut out holes with no glass in them, so needless to say it was a very cold ride. The temperature fell to -56 degrees in the air and they had to wear oxygen masks. Dick even received some frostbite from the cold.
Dick and his crew were assigned a newer, more modern B-17. They wore heated flying suits and flew 23 missions together in a 5-month period. The secret missions were never less than 4 hours each. The group didn’t know where they were going until just before they left. It took the planes an hour, after takeoff, to get into their desired circle information.
Dick received a telegram in late May of 1944, informing him that his father had passed away. He found out about 10-12 days after his father’s death. Dick was offered leave from the service based on the hardship of his loss, but he rescinded. He decided to stay and serve his country and to this day he is still glad he made that decision.
Dick recalls the day that is known as D-day, which happened on June 6, 1944. He remembers the invasion of France. He said “everything was in the air, planes, gliders and it was hard to dodge them. We dropped cluster bombs on the beaches where the Germans were. We would either carry 12–500-pound bombs or 6-1000-pound bombs when we went out on our missions.”
When the crew dropped bombs on Berlin, Germany, they hit railroads, ammunition storage facilities and any place that would disable the German Army.
June 22, 1944 was the last day that Dick and his crew flew together. They were the first plane over their target, bombing a railroad yard in Abbeville, France. The rest of the planes followed dropping their bombs. Dick remembers hearing, “bombs away” and felt the plane lift a little right before their plane was shot.
A shell hit the Bombay and it hit so hard it knocked him down. He fell on a parachute and somehow was able to put it on. The plane started rolling and the wings caught fire. The plane went into a flash spin, and he wasn’t able to move. His oxygen was knocked off of him and the plane exploded. The force of the explosion ejected him out of the plane, just as he was trying to open the escape hatch.
“It was about 30-60 seconds, and you pray for your wife and kids. Nobody had a chance to get out, but me and I did,” stated Mr. Oberlin.
This experience terrified Dick so much that, for a short time, he had forgotten about opening his parachute. Once he was able to think, he tried to pull on the cord, but his parachute was already open. He went down 25,000 feet and landed in a hay field. It was at this point that Dick realized he was the only survivor of the mission and he would never see his crewmembers alive again. As he began to deal with the emotional pain of what had just happened, he also started to feel physical pain as well. He hadn’t realized, up until this point, that his left side had been hit by shrapnel.
As he was in the hay field, he saw a couple of French girls and thought that maybe they would get him to a safe place. He spoke to them; they answered and then just froze. What he didn’t realize at first was that there were a bunch of German Soldiers coming behind him. The Germans captured Dick and took him a house that they had confiscated from the French. They put him in a corner on the floor and just left him there with no medical attention, food or water. In the morning the put him in the back of a truck on top of the boxes that contained the dead bodies of his crewmembers. They transported him to a jail and he resided in a small cell for a few days.
Dick’s leg started to get infected so a German medic poured Iodine on his shrapnel wounds and tried to extract the shrapnel pieces from his leg. The Germans eventually took Dick to Brussels, Belgium where he stayed in a sparsely lit old building with cells and a wooden floor. German officers took him for interrogation.
Dick said the officers were relentless, so he finally told them a lie, but they caught him in it. The German Soldiers were livid because Dick had lied to them. They told him that he would be facing a firing squad in the morning.
Mr. Oberlin remembers the sound that the hobnails on the bottom of the German Soldiers’ shoes made, as they walked the hard wood floors. Every time they came down the corridor he could hear them. They would walk down the corridor, stop at his cell door and rattle the door just to intimidate him. Dick did not face the firing squad and it was only by the grace of God that he didn’t. “To this day, I don’t think that anyone knows for sure why the Germans changed their minds,” stated Dick.
Frankfurt, Germany was the next stop for Dick on the Germans’ agenda. They took him to an interrogation prison and placed him in a small cell with no light. He would get bread and water slipped through a slit in the door. The Germans made promises to him to try and get him to tell them things. They also told him that if he didn’t talk they would lock him in a room for 21 days.
“It was really amazing how much they knew about my life at home,” said Mr. Oberlin. The Germans told him that they had spies everywhere and the ability to track anyone.
Dick was moved again during his time as a Prisoner of War. He, along with many others, were locked in a boxcar all night. On that night the Royal Air Force, from England, bombed Berlin. In the morning, the train started on its way Stalagluft 4-B in the Northeast corner of Germany.
The POW camp was made up of 4 compounds, A through D. There were approximately 2,500 prisoners in 4-B, where Dick resided. There were a total of 10,000 airmen housed in this prison camp. The fence had barbed wire at the top and with towers around the fence that had German Soldiers armed with machine guns around the clock.
While Dick was in Stalagluft, a very astounding thing happened. Someone said to him one day, “hey ob, some guy in the other compound wants to see you.” He didn’t think a thing of it until the second and then third guy told him that there is someone who really wants to talk to him. The man who wanted to talk to Dick told one of the guys to say, “tell Mini to get out here and see me.” When Dick heard the name “Mini,” he knew that whoever this person was did know him from the past, because that was his nickname in high school.
The man who was trying to communicate with Dick was Vic Klofenstein, from good old West Unity, Ohio USA! Vic graduated with Dick and here they were halfway across the world in adjoining prison camps. Dick stated that later on in life he hired Vic as a rural postal carrier and they now play golf together.
Dick spent 7 months (July-Feb.) in 4-B. On Feb. 6th the Germans forced a group of prisoners, including Dick, to march to 86 days straight. From Feb. 6 to May 2, they marched every day. The weather was very cold and they slept in barns or fields at night. They had one overcoat, long johns, boots, wool pants and one wool blanket through the entire 86 days. They were never allowed to change clothes, wash, or shave for the duration of the march.
The prisoners marching were not given very much to eat and many developed dysentery. They would march from early in the morning until it got dark. They had to drink out of mud holes and go to the bathroom wherever they could.
They were made to march through villages and the local residents would throw stones at them and club them. Dick holds one memory of these days dear in his hear. They were marching through a village and a woman ran into him. He thought he was really in trouble and that she was going to hurt him. To his surprise she slipped him a loaf of bread and she moved on. He said that the loaf of bread lasted him and a buddy a couple of days.
After the 86-day march the English 2nd Army liberated them. The English fed them well and they ate too much, which caused some discomfort.
Once they were with the American troops, he was taken to a big armory, where he showered and was deloused. They had to take off their clothes and the clothes were burned. He had sores on his body from not being able to shower or change clothes for over 86 days.
Dick and some of the others were taken to Camp Luck Strike for a couple of weeks to get healthy and nourished. He weighed 155 pounds before his plane was shot down and 98 pounds after his time at the POW camp.
Dick and other POWs were brought back to the states by ship, arriving at Boston Harbor. They were transported to Camp Waterbury in Indianapolis, Indiana.
When Dick was finally able to come home, he saw his daughter for the very first time. Her name was Betsy and she was 10 and a half months old. After a couple of months, Dick and his family were sent to Miami Beach, Florida to a convalescence camp for a period of three weeks.
They were housed in nice hotels, given good food, and had dances held in their honor. The POWs were given candy bars to fatten them up. This was a time of relaxation and recouperation. Dick was officially discharged on September 22, 1945 and sent home permanently.
Dick went to work at the A&P stores until 1955. On October 1, 1955 he became the Post Master in West Unity, staying there until 1983. He has 31 and a half years of Federal service.
Dick and Elizabeth have spent a little over 60 married years together. They have had 3 children. Their first child, Betsy, had MS and is no longer living. One of their sons was lost at birth, and their son Jim is a West Unity resident.
After 60 years, they have had good and bad times, but their love has always seen them through. They have had some interesting years together, but none have been as eventful as their first few years of marriage.
-Editor’s Note: Story by newspaper staff – this historic story reprinted as originally published.