By Di Freeze
As a docent at the Museum of Flight, James “Jim” Paul Kittleson, 81, is used to talking about aviation history. But on one particular day, the Issaquah resident talks about his own history, including being shot down, captured, and his involuntary stay at Stalag Luft I.
“You talk about a bunch of people who were skin and bones; that was us!” said Kittleson.
Born in 1921 in Greybull, Wyo., he became enchanted with aviation at about five years old, when a barnstormer came through town. He didn’t forget that fascination as he moved between Wyoming and Bellflower, Calif., where his grandparents lived, then to San Francisco, back to Southern California, and to Portland, where he graduated from high school, before heading back to Pasadena, Calif., to attend college.
By 1939, he was in Washington, where he found work welding for the Boeing Company. About a year later, he began taking flying lessons from Jim Galvin at Boeing Field. He soloed in a Piper J-3 Cub and earned his private pilot’s license, in August 1940.
He enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after the United States entered World War II. He went to Thunderbird Field (Thunderbird One) in Glendale, Ariz., for primary training, before heading to Taft, Calif., for basic, and then Marfa, Texas, for advanced training. From there, he went to Hobbs, N.M., for B-17 transitioning, and then to Pyote, Texas, for crew training.
Commissioned in January 1944 (class 44A), in August, he traveled overseas, where he was assigned to the 493rd Bomb Group out of Debach, England. His first mission was on Sept. 9, 1944, to Dusseldorf, Germany. A second, to Magdeburg on Sept. 12, would be his last. That day, as part of three groups of 12 aircraft, he piloted an aircraft carrying nine crewmembers.
“We were flying in formation off to the right wing of the group,” he said. “Our squadron leader ignored the rest of the group turning to the west; everybody was hollering at him to turn, but he drove on for three more minutes, which put us way into Germany. We were the last bomber stream coming out of the continent, with no fighter escort.”
Out of the sky came 30 to 36 airplanes, “depending on who’s counting.”
“We fought off three passes of FW190s (Focke-Wulf) escorting Me109s,” he said. “They were picking us off, six fighters to one airplane.”
Flying wingtip clearance, Kittleson was flying on another B-17’s wing, when it suddenly reared up in front of him, and turned broadside to him.
“Fire was pouring out of the right wing,” he said. “I slammed it around and dropped under. I came back up hunting for the formation, and then a fighter set me on fire. The airplane rolled over on its back, and we started down. I gave the bail out order at that point. The ball turret gunner opened his turret; just as he reached back, he took three bullets across his back.”
William Lamkin, the ball turret gunner, left the airplane at about 26,000 feet, as did the copilot and the navigator, as Kittleson tried to hold the airplane level for the rest of the crew to get out.
“It was spinning,” he said. “I was trying to do spin recovery, but it wouldn’t respond.”
At 4,000 feet, there was a “blast.”
“I thought we’d hit the ground, because I could smell dirt,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘No, maybe you’re falling,’ so I pulled my ripcord; sure enough, I was falling. The dirt or dust smell was from whatever had exploded. I still don’t know what it was; it wasn’t bombs, because we got rid of them.”
Once on the ground, Kittleson rid himself of his chute, and began to walk. Tripping, he looked down at his feet.
“I discovered I still had my seat hanging on my legs!” he said.
Freeing himself from the seat, he was soon in the company of his surviving crewmembers—Maxwell Kattef, the navigator, and Homer Duncan, the copilot, unhurt by the explosion or landing, and the wounded Lamkin.
The men pondered which way to head, immediately eliminating east, since they could see smoke curling up from the oil refinery that had just been bombed. Just then, a fighter swung down low.
“We thought he was going to strafe, so the four of us dropped to the ground and hugged it,” he said. “We were trying to hide underneath turnip greens that were about three inches high. It’s kind of hard to pull them over you.”
As the fighter vanished, the men began climbing a hill. At that point, they saw villagers coming down the road from the west, and another group coming from the east.
Thinking of tales he’d heard of downed airmen that had been clubbed, stabbed by pitchforks, or otherwise brutalized by villagers, Kittleson hurriedly took his Colt 45 out of its shoulder holster and stealthily dropped it into the field. But, the men didn’t escape without injury.
“This one civilian had a cane, like those Hollywood canes that pop out a sharp sword,” he said. “He was jabbing us with it, to move us along.”
As the men were being loaded onto a tractor, villagers, indignant that those captured wouldn’t be walking, increased the beating they had been giving the men.
“We gathered in a little circle and put the ball turret gunner in the center, and put our arms over him,” he said. “What saved us from the beating was a German policeman, in the old green outfit, with the green Keystone comedy hat, who broke up the guys that were beating on us. Then, he marched us into town properly.”
Kittleson and the others were herded into Hornhausen, a “collection point.”
“An SS corporal was giving the orders, which was bad news,” he said. At one point, the corporal ordered them to the ground. When he ordered Kittleson to get back up, the airman didn’t know what he was asking.
“I don’t understand German, so he kicked me in the spine to emphasize that he was in a hurry for me to get up,” he said. “After that, I could hardly walk.”
Once at Hornhausen, after being searched, they were placed in the stable of the police station, where they were at least protected from villagers who had found the 45 and came in “waving it around.” There, Kittleson dressed Lamkin’s wounds.
The following morning, they were loaded into a truck, then onto a train. The group would stop at several train stations. Kittleson laughs as he recalls a stop at Halberstadt.
There, Kittleson and the others sat with their backs against the station wall. Their guard, whom he says didn’t care if they “lived or died,” was nowhere to be found.
“The civilians started closing in on us,” he said. “The navigator was kind of a joker. As I mentioned to you earlier, when our aircraft exploded, I went through the roof of the aircraft, so I had this big red eye; it was pretty well bloodied up. My face was blue, black, yellow and all the colors you get. The bullets did something to the lungs of the ball turret gunner; he could cough up pure blood.
“Well, we were looking up at these unfriendly faces. Max says, ‘Jim, roll your eye; Bill, cough blood.’ He sprayed blood all over about a five-foot radius, and I looked up at them and rolled my eye. They started backing up; you could almost hear them muttering, ‘Unclean. Unclean.'”
At Oberursel, they went through a preliminary interrogation, and Kittleson handed over his footgear in exchange for impractical, inexpensive shoes.
“There is no chance of escaping without good shoes,” he said. “Actually, I wasn’t wearing shoes. In England, they gave you sheepskin booties to wear over your shoes, but my feet were a bigger size. I was just flying in the booties.”
There, they were thrown into a dungeon. At that time, “solitary confinement” wasn’t quite the norm.
“The Luftwaffe had been very busy,” he said. “There were 16 of us in there. It was darker than the inside of a cow. If you moved, there was somebody under foot.”
During Kittleson’s stay of two or three days, interrogation revealed that his capturers were acquainted with some of his history.
“Well, I landed about 150 feet from my airplane,” he said. “It had distinctive markings on it, and there’s paperwork in the airplane, so it didn’t take von Braun to figure it out.”
Kittleson had the usual answer ready when he was asked what group he was part of, etc.: “James Paul Kittleson. 0764699. Second lieutenant. U.S. Air Force.”
“At one point, (the interrogator) said, ‘I show you where you are from,'” Kittleson said. “I knew he was going to be right because they don’t show you something if there is a chance of being wrong. I wasn’t going to show surprise. He flips through some pages and points to the 493rd Bomb Group. I look at it. ‘Kittleson. 0764…'”
After departing Oberursel, Kittleson and the others traveled through Frankfurt am Main, to Wetzlar, at the time the site of “Dulag Luft,” where captured Allied airmen were again interrogated before being assigned to a permanent prison camp.
“We stayed there a couple of days getting our little fiberboard Red Cross suitcase, which had in it a pair of pants, a shirt, and I think two pairs of stockings, a shaving kit, and a few items like that,” he said.
Then it was back on the road; a group of about 100 passed through Berlin, to Stalag Luft 1, which at the time held, in four compounds, approximately 6,000 Allied prisoners.
“It was at Barth, which we jokingly referred to as the ‘Beautiful Barth on the Baltic, just off of the Rostock Turnpike,'” he said in a lilting tone.
Once there, Kittleson and the other kriegsgefangen, or “prisoners of war,” heard the greeting that American airmen who had fallen into German enemy’s hands often heard.
“For you, the war is over,” he quoted.
Then, he was introduced to Col. Henry Russell Spicer, the senior officer of his new home, North Compound 2. However, Kittleson would see little of Spicer. Soon after, the man who repeatedly challenged his capturers was thrown into solitary confinement, where he remained for six months, after giving a speech, loudly, within hearing distance of the German guards, in which he accused them of being “murderous, no-good liars” that were not to be trusted.
One thing Kittleson learned quickly was where and when to speak.
“When I went in, a lot of guards spoke English,” he said. “Mysteriously, about a month or so later, none of them could speak a word of it. They’d circulate and listen in on your conversations. After lights out, nobody talked about anything military because they ran ‘ferrets’ underneath the barracks to listen. Some of the fellows got even with them by making a crack in the floorboard and pouring hot water down on them.”
Soon after arriving at Stalag Luft I, Kittleson became aware of the camp’s secret newspaper, POW-WOW (Prisoners Of War – Waiting On Winning), which was hand printed daily on a sheet of 8 1/2 by 11 paper that a stealthy POW working in the office obtained. Mimeograph sheets were made out of gelatin.
“We only had to make a couple of copies because it went from barracks to barracks and from compound to compound,” Kittleson said. The newspaper, burned at the end of each day, told “camp news,” such as where the Allies were and latest pushes.
“We knew things before the Jerries did,” he said. “We knew President Roosevelt had died before they told us. They were surprised when the black armbands came up a minute after they had announced it.”
The newspaper also tried to keep the men notified of the much-anticipated arrival of new Red Cross parcels, which supplemented sporadic German allocations.
“The Jerries were supposed to give us a pound of potatoes a day but they seldom did,” he said. “They were supposed to give us four ounces of meat a week; I think we got it three times that I was there. Some of the kriegies didn’t like horsemeat, so they wouldn’t eat the canned meat; it was edible. We’d occasionally get a bowl of barley divided up. However, some of the guys resented eating weevils.”
A standard Red Cross parcel, Kittleson said, provided a 12-oz. can of corn beef, a 12-oz. can of Spam, salmon or sardines, liver pate, a pound of margarine, cheese, a box of raisins or prunes, one or two D-ration chocolate bars, sugar cubes, K-2 crackers, soap and cigarettes, a tin of powdered milk (Klim), and ascorbic acid pills. Sometimes they contained a tiny can of powdered coffee, said Kittleson, which had about four tablespoons in it. Occasionally, they received orange concentrate.
One parcel, he said, during “non-famine,” was to last one man a week. However, during the famine, from about the first week of November until about mid-April, when parcels weren’t getting through, one parcel fed eight men.
Years later, when his stomach isn’t growling, he thinks of a humorous moment. One morning, a fellow “kriegie” woke up and said he knew they were starving. When asked why, he responded, “Last night I dreamed I had a whole loaf of krieg brot (war bread) all to myself!”
The stuff of his dreams was thought to be mainly sawdust mixed with some black flour.
“It gave you gas and cramps like you could not believe,” Kittleson said. “And, it had to be about four or five days old before you could eat it. Cutting it took a very good knife.”
Kittleson says he had a good recipe for a topping for the bread that they toasted. It called for a can of meat pate, a can of corn beef, and a package of cheese, which were heated on a cook stove Kittleson made out of dozens of Klim cans.
“We got seven briquettes a day to heat a room and cook for 16 men,” he said.
The tin cans were also used to make pans and bowls, after the one allocated ceramic bowl was broken.
Kriegies developed a buddy system that got them through their stay emotionally and physically, and included “shower detail.”
“We were allowed a shower every two or three weeks,” he said. “There were probably 50 in the shower at a time. There was a sprinkler head for everyone. The Jerries turned the water on for a few seconds and you lathered up. Then, you got a shot of hot water. You could never get your back so you’d wash your buddy’s and he’d wash yours. Then you’d rinse off.”
One time, during a shower, Kittleson’s buddy made an observation.
“Joe said, ‘Golly, Jim, you’re nothing but skin and bones!’ I said, “Have you looked at yourself?'” he said.
Kittleson emphasized how far the food went through another story.
“One night, everybody’s sitting around the table playing cards and this one fellow lying over on his bunk says ‘Hey guys, I can touch my backbone!’ We said, ‘Ah, we can, too. Shut up.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but from the front?'”
To a man, everyone in the card game jumped up, rushed to their bunk, and flopped down to experiment.
“We all can!” was the amazed response. Keeping a sense of humor was vital.
“We’d have died without it,” he said.
In mid-April 1945, sounds of artillery from the advancing Russian Army grew louder. The Germans, he said, raided the warehouse and took selected items for their journey to the Allies’ lines to the west.
“Our ‘wheels’ issued us two parcels each,” he said. They were told to ration themselves accordingly; there would be no more parcels.
“Our room voted that we’d be free in two weeks; we were right on the money,” he said.
Every morning, said Kittleson, they’d look out to see who was in the guard tower.
“One morning, our men were,” he said. “The Germans had disappeared in the middle of the night. We’d been in command of….” His voice trails off as he realized the significance of the present date—April 25.
“This is almost our anniversary!” he said. On April 29, the German guards abandoned the camp. On May 1, the Russian troops arrived ceremoniously in trucks and lorries, bearing cattle and pigs. Sometime over the next several days, an American visited the camp.
“He had come from the fighting men in the west and broke through the German line,” Kittleson said. “He said, ‘Sit tight; we’re going to get you out of here.'”
On May 12, B-17s landed. The first day, they carried out the sick.
“When the call came for our barracks to move out the next day, everybody dropped what they were doing,” he said. “We just picked up and left the fire going in the stove, and the dishes on the table. We picked up our little Red Cross suitcase and got out of there. Going out to the airfield, we were marching in military order, singing our cadet songs.”
Although one German boy taunted them, Kittleson said that the villagers they marched past this time were docile.
“They weren’t spitting, throwing rocks or trying to beat us,” he said.
Kittleson was soon at Camp Lucky Strike, in France. About three weeks later, he recognized the markings of an incoming aircraft as that of his wing. He asked the commander if he could ride out with him when he departed, and was told to round up others from the group for departure the following day.
“I got a couple of fellows,” he said. “I couldn’t find the ball turret gunner. My navigator and copilot wanted to go into Paris. I gave them all the cigarettes that we’d collected so they could use them for bartering.”
The following day, when it was time to leave, the aircraft commander couldn’t locate his copilot.
“He saw I had wings on and asked what I flew,” said Kittleson. “I said 17s. He asked if I could fly copilot. I said, ‘You bet.’ He said, ‘Can you start this thing?’ I said, ‘You bet.’ I climbed up in the seat, cranked up the engines, and we took off. It was free and easy at that point.”
Once in England, he and three friends signed up to depart England. After a few days at the Recovered Allied Military Personnel camp, Kittleson joined others on a Grace liner that would dock at Camp Shanks, New York, about seven days later.
“From there, we were issued rail tickets to wherever our home of record was,” said Kittleson. For him, that was Santa Monica, Calif., but his family had moved to Nogales, Ariz.
“At the last minute, I just jumped on the other train and straightened the paperwork out as we went along,” he said. He didn’t stay in Arizona for long. He was soon back at Boeing welding; in all, he worked for Boeing for 50 years.
When he spoke to his former flight instructor about his passion to keep flying, Galvin suggested he join the Air Force Reserve so he could “fly for nothing.” Kittleson signed up in 1946.
“At first, we were all volunteers,” he said. “We didn’t get paid but we got to fly airplanes occasionally. Years later, they began paying us.”
Kittleson was recalled during the Korean Conflict, but stayed on American soil. Then, after the attack in January 1968, of the “USS Pueblo,” his group at McChord was recalled; he began flying C-124s on regular supply missions, transferring cargo and people, without mishap, over Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan. He was on active duty during the Vietnam Conflict for two years, before retiring from the Reserve in 1971. All totaled, he served in the Air Force for 28 years, with about eight years active.
Kittleson has been a docent at the Museum of Flight for several years. Dorothy, his wife of 25 years, also serves as a volunteer, but at the Bellevue Art Museum.
Five years ago, Kittleson and other volunteers began building a 1932 Heath Parasol monoplane from scratch, at the Museum of Flight’s restoration facility at Paine Field, in Everett, Wash. They are interpreting thousands of tiny details and diagrams from plans in vintage issues of “Popular Aviation.” As to when it will be finished, Kittleson is unsure.
“It’s going to take a while. We only work on it one day a week,” he says.
As Kittleson winds up his story, the din of voices once again becomes apparent in the background. He glances at his watch. It is once more time to get back out on the floor and do what he loves—talk about the museum’s aircraft and their place in history.