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Peterson museum’s POW artifacts: A reminder of Airman resilience

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

In the month of September, when our military honors our prisoners of war and missing in action, I always reflect on the Peterson Air and Space Museum’s collection of items brought to us from surviving World War II Airmen. Even though the use of airpower helped the Allied forces secure victory, this became the war in which more American Airmen were captured than any conflict before or since. Some brought back reminders of their imprisonment, and we’re fortunate to be able to share those reminders with our visitors.

U.S. Army Air Corps Lieutenant R.J. “Bud” Gaston from Los Angeles, California made his “Kriegie” [prisoner] cap while he was a POW in Luft II in Sagan, Lower Silesia, which is now modern day southwestern Poland. His sewing talents came from watching his grandmother and an “old country” tailor who altered clothing. Bud pieced together his cap using materials from his own worn out uniform slacks, GI wool socks, and leather from flying boots cut to create the front bill. He pulled gold thread from a sweater and embroidered the officer’s cap insignia on the front. Gaston was liberated in 1945, after spending almost three years in the Nazi POW camp, still wearing that cap. He donated it to us in 1991.

Lieutenant Elmer “Swede” Olson, a Peterson Field alumnus, flew 39 combat missions with the 23rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron before he left Valence, France, on Sept. 21, 1944, to photograph German defenses along the Rhine River. While flying over his first target, his instrument panel was completely destroyed by anti-aircraft weapons. Halfway through his mission, he received more hits to his left engine. Now flying with only his right engine powering the plane, he approached the end of his target run. A direct hit exploded the hydraulic tank behind his head, spreading fire through the cockpit, burning his right arm, neck, and face. He bailed out of his burning plane and the Germans immediately captured him. He was imprisoned in Stalag Luft I, in Barth, Germany, until liberated May 5, 1945. He lost 80 pounds in captivity. For his mission, Olson was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. His family donated his decorations, official military photo, and prisoner personnel record. Today, you can witness the courage of that defiant Airman from Cripple Creek, Colorado.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Bill Sheaves spent seven years building an exact scale model of a B-17F bomber, called “the Tar Fly,” and donated it to the Museum in 2003. It commemorates the crew of the bomber he was shot down in over France on Sept. 9, 1943. “Tar Fly” was hit by 88 mm anti-aircraft fire and had to leave the formation to return to England. They were jumped by German fighters, but Tar Fly shot down four of them before crash landing in an open field. A French boy, Rene Psarolis, watched the attack unfold.He spent years researching everything he could about that incident, and in 1999, Rene contacted Bill and sent him all he had found: the gun camera footage showing the shoot down, photographs of the crew, and film showing the crew being marched through a French town as they were taken to Stalag Luft I, where then Tech. Sgt. Bill Sheave was imprisoned for the next two years. Both men donated everything to our museum.

In July 1942, Capt. Albert Clark was second in command of the 31st Fighter Group, the first American fighter unit in the European Theater. He was shot down over Abbeville, France. As a POW at Stalag Luft III, he helped 76 Airmen escape on a moonless night in March 1944. A book and later movie titled “The Great Escape” documented the breakout. He wrote his own memoir, “33 Months as a POW in Stalag Luft III.” When he became the sixth superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1973, Lieutenant General Clark ensured cadet curriculum included the lessons of leadership and survival common to POWs of all our armed conflicts. He started the POW special collection at the Academy. We have his hand built Stalag Luft III model here.

At the Peterson Air and Space Museum, these artifacts have become honored displays of our heritage, and a testimony to the resilience of American Airmen.