Ernest Thorp had two consuming passions when growing up on a farm outside Wapella – farming and flying. As a child of the Great Depression, he had plenty of opportunity to pursue both. Thorp was a college student at Illinois State University in 1941 when he earned his civilian pilot’s license. Two years later, he was training to fly B-17 Flying Fortresses.
By early 1944, Ernest was newly married and in England, serving as a copilot on missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. He felt very much like a target whenever he flew missions in the lumbering B-17, always part of a tight formation of aircraft headed to Germany and back. They were exposed and vulnerable in those formations, prey to German fighters, and fat targets to alert flak gunners.
“Average life of a B-17 – 231 days or 21 missions,” Thorp wrote in the diary he faithfully maintained throughout the war. Even so, it was safer to stay in the formation, protected by an intricate web of interlocking machine gun fire woven by scores of .50 caliber machine guns.
The target for Thorp’s 18th combat mission on Aug. 4, 1944, was an oil refinery in Bremen, Germany. Not until the morning mission briefing did he discover that he would be the copilot for a green crew in a beat up old aircraft; otherwise, it seemed like a routine mission. The formation was hugging the Baltic coastline when they ran into flak, with Thorp’s No. 1 engine taking a hit. He and the navigator were able to get things under control, and argued for staying in the formation, but the pilot insisted on turning back for England. That maneuver took them away from the safety of the formation and back into the sights of the flak gunners. Soon, his No. 4 engine was gone as well, and the resulting fire gave the crew no choice but to bail out over the Baltic Sea.
A thankful Thorp was eventually fished out of the water by a sympathetic German fisherman, himself a POW in England during World War I. For the next year, Thorp concentrated on surviving while being shuttled through a succession of POW camps. The first stop was Stalag Luft III (later to become famous as the Great Escape camp).
Unbeknownst to Thorp, the Red Cross had initially reported him dead to his wife and parents back in Illinois. Only when Ernest got a chance to mail a letter home did they discover the truth.
“Dear folks,” he wrote in that first letter. “By now you know I’m safe and well. I have been very lucky and grateful to God…Don’t forget to cover all the past home news. Please send me double-edged razor blades, shorts, wool socks, toothpaste and pajamas – and chocolate.”
When Soviet armies pressed into the German homeland, the prisoners were transferred from camp to camp, moving steadily deeper into the German interior. Chaos and uncertainty ruled the day, and through it all, a gnawing hunger was Thorp’s constant companion. Only the occasional Red Cross package kept the specter of starvation at bay, and those became scarcer as the German empire crumbled around them.
Despite the constant turmoil, Thorp managed to maintain his diary, chronicling his daily struggle to survive, carefully recording both the significant and mundane. By the spring of 1945, rumors of the war’s end and their own liberation swirled through the camps. Thorp was at Stalag VII-A near Mooseburg when he spotted several P-51s with red tails strafing the railroad that ran near the camp.
“We could see them circle into position, dive down and see the flash of fire from their machine guns,” he wrote.
April 29 was Thorp’s personal “liberation day,” the day when American troops finally reached the camp.
“We shook hands with all the G.I.s we could get a hold of… My feeling of elation gave me a funny feeling in the throat and stomach, as well as tears in my eyes.”
It was the first of many emotional moments for Thorp as he made the slow but inexorable journey home to Wapella, ever closer to realizing his dream of a reunion with his wife and family.
Thorp remembers well his arrival in New York City harbor.
“The biggest impression I had” he said, 64 years later, “was when we passed by the Statue of Liberty… There wasn’t one word – it was strictly silent as we passed by that Statue of Liberty. What we were fighting for was that statue – what it stood for…That was really a moment that I didn’t think would happen, but it did. We were home.”
Too many of us today take our veterans and their sacrifices for granted. Hearing stories like Thorp’s reminds us of the real price of freedom.
Mark DePue is the director of oral history at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. You can listen to Ernest Thorp’s entire story, and those of many other veterans, at the program’s web site, http://www.alplm.org/oral_history/projects.html.