Memories of going into and out of Stalag 17B

By Adam Jerome, I-O Reporter
Memories of going into and out of Stalag 17B
SERVICE MEDALS — These are some of the Service Medals that Frank Paliga earned during his service as a Staff Sergeant Engineer and top-turret gunner. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the POW medals to name a few. I-O Photo by Buck Traxler
   As Frank Paliga sits in his favorite recliner at the Pondera Medical Center Extended Care unit he reads a book on World War II.  With his wife Joan sitting comfortably at his side he has the look of a man at peace with the world.  At 88 years old he has a lifetime of memories to look back on and be proud of.
   What makes Paliga’s reading material all the more interesting to him is the fact that he shares a common bond with the people and places he reads about.  Paliga is by all accounts a war hero, even if you would never hear it from him.
   Like many other young men who grew up during the depression and the Second World War, Paliga joined the armed forces as soon as he could.  As Paliga pointed out, “I just felt like it was my duty to sign up and go over there.”
   After attending Aerial Gunnery School in Texas he joined the Army Air Force 44th Bomber Group.  He became an engineer and top-turret gunner on a B-24.  He eventually rose to the position of Staff Sergeant and in September of 1942 was stationed to overseas duty in England.
   His service was dangerous from the get go as he and 23 other bomber groups got set to fly to England from St. Johns, Newfoundland.  Before take off the cockpit crew noticed sparks coming from all four engines.  Upon inspection it seemed that someone had loosened the sparkplugs on the planes.
   It was determined later that some crews did not make it across the Atlantic, due to the sabotage at St. Johns.  From that point on no American bomber was left on an apron in England without a guard around each bomber day and night for the rest of the war.
   Paliga’s first bombing raid was over the French coast.  After encountering enemy fire on the way to their target his plane finally made it and did the job.  Paliga adds, “I think we lost a total of six planes from the group of 24 that went on the raid.  There were a lot of B-24s shot up with wounded and killed soldiers in the planes that made it back to our base.  We usually got back to our base, empty of ammunition and bombs, with lots of casualties.”
   After his first 15 raids, Paliga was sent on a low-level bombing raid to the oil fields of Ploesti.  For their bravery and valor during the mission the whole air crew received the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the highest honors an airman could receive.
   Air Raids were so tough in 1942-43 that an airman who completed 25 raids was sent back to the United States to sell bonds or teach for the rest of their service.  All airmen just counted down until that special number when they could go home.
   Paliga had finally made it.  He completed his 24th raid and had one left.  He packed his bags in anticipation of making that last raid.  What happened next sounds like a script for a movie, but in Paliga’s case it was the truth.
   His 25th raid involved bombing a Messerschmitt aircraft plant in Weiner Neustadt, Austria.  
   Paliga commented, “I was thrilled about the target.  Other missions had been there and they were milk runs, no flak, no fighters.  It was a surprise to the Germans that we could bomb that far into German territory.”
   His team headed out on Oct. 1, 1943.  They crossed the Mediterranean Sea and flew over Italy, the Adriatic Sea, Reieka, Yugoslavia, and then Austria.  When they crossed the Austrian border they were hit by heavy flak.  When they got within 30 miles of their target they were engrossed by ME-109 fighters.  Paliga believed that they were outnumbered four to one by the time they reached the target.
   His plane was shot up pretty bad with the number two and three engines on fire.  It was at this point that Paliga realized he had to evacuate.  He secured his parachute and jumped for it.  
   He adds, “I sadly watched what was left of our group going by and away from me.  I had no idea what my future would be in enemy territory.”
   Paliga steered his way to the trees where he noticed some enemy soldiers.  He got tangled up in a tree, 15 feet in the air.  He then hit his quick get-away button and hit the ground and started running.
   He soon found some sapling trees where he hid under some leaves.  The enemy soldiers surrounded the area and looked for him for hours.  At one point he recalls one German soldier standing 15 inches from his head with the gun barrel pointed directly at him. By the grace of God, Paliga was not captured at that time.
   He figured he was about 35 miles from the Yugoslavian border where he could get help from the partisans.  After the fourth day in German territory, Paliga had run out of food and fatigue was beginning to set in.  At that point he noticed a farm house.
   He approached the two men of the farm slowly and cautiously and pointed to his mouth and said the word hungry, hoping they would understand.  Luckily they did as hungry sounds a lot like the German word hungrig.  Paliga adds, “I was cautious, but the two men appeared to be in their seventies and if push came to shove I could take the men and escape.”
   The two men took him inside and told the woman of the house to feed him.  By the time he was finishing his meal, a Home Guard or some kind of officer entered and pointed his gun at Paliga.  He knew exactly what had happened.  As one man took him inside to get him food the other gentleman ran and retrieved an officer, and that was it, he had been captured.
   Two days later he was loaded onto a box car and taken to an interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany.  They put Paliga in a room known as a “cooler”.  They would leave him there for three weeks with barely any rations.  Paliga adds, “The third week is the worst; you want to hit your head against the concrete wall.  At this time the Germans know you’re ready.”
   After the interrogation Paliga and others were loaded on a train and shipped to Stalag 17B, a POW camp in Austria.  Paliga would spend the next two years of his life calling Stalag home.
   Paliga talks about the experience, “The next 20 months or so was a combination of frightening, starving, exisiting, praying, hoping, dreaming, scheming and wondering whether we would ever see freedom again.”
   In Stalag 17B there were over 4,000 American POWs, they were all airmen and all non-commissioned officers in that particular compound.  There was also a Russian compound holding 10,000 Russian prisoners and officers.
   The treatment of the Russians and Americans differed greatly.  The Germans and Americans both adhered to the Geneva Convention, which was signed after World War I.  The Geneva Convention set forth rules on how to treat POWs.  One of the rules stipulated that a government shall not work a POW who is ranked Sergeant and above.  The Russians never signed the Geneva Convention so the Russian prisoners were worked to death, literally.
   Paliga remembers, “In the wintertime you could count 30 or 40 dead prisoners carried out on stretchers each morning.  You could see them going by our compound and into a grove of trees that had an open pit, where they disposed of the prisoners.”
   In the barracks there was no heat at all.  “At times it seemed warmer outside than inside the barracks”, recalls Paliga.  For the first two months each POW received one Red Cross Parcel per week, after that the parcels were given out once a month and then later once every three months, before they quit coming at all for the rest of the war.
   The Germans said the lack of parcels were the Americans fault for bombing all their railroads and their warehouses.
   For the rest of the war the prisoners were given a small ration of a cup of soup, two small potatoes, a slice of bread and a cup of coffee each day.
   Escape was always on the minds of the prisoners.  There were many tunnel projects going on, and one thought that if they could reach the trees they could make it to Yugoslavia.  The tunnel projects were always uncovered the day of the planned escape which led Paliga to believe that the Germans had one of theirs in the barracks.
   As the Americans and Russians inched closer to Stalag the Germans in charge decided to move the POWs west.  They alerted the prisoners to be ready to march at 7 a.m. the next morning.  After hearing this Paliga and a fellow prisoner decided that if there was an opportunity they would escape.
   During a switchback on the trek while the guards were looking at the prisoners behind him, Paliga and his friend jumped into an ice-cold mountain water culvert where they stayed for three to four hours until the rest of the prisoners passed by.
   At that time the two men climbed a nearby mountain and made it to the timber.  The two men then approached the Danube River and headed in an easterly direction.
   After weeks of hiding out and foraging for food they made contact with a Russian farmer who by that time was sympathetic to their cause.  The Germans were losing ground every day and the civilians knew that.  This caused them to want security when the Americans came.  Paliga would tell them if they helped him and his friend out that he would write a note explaining that they helped an American soldier.
   For the most part this worked, and they were able to secure rations while they continued to hide out.
   One day they once again came into contact with the Russian farmer who told them that a small city relatively close had been taken by the Russians.
   This was the best news Paliga had ever heard.  He and his friend began telling jokes, slapping each other on the backs and generally rejoicing about the news.  They slowly and cautiously made their way to the village to see for themselves.  The story was true.  The town had been liberated.  Once in the village the two men found the Russian authorities and were informed that they had taken Stalag 17B and the Americans would be there in a matter of days.
   Paliga and his fellow POW decided to head back to the POW camp.  They made it back to the switchback where they originally escaped.  They were excited to see the place that they had left just one and a half months ago.  
   Two days later the men were picked up by the Americans and transported to an American airfield in Linz, Austria.  Finally they were saved.  From there they landed in France.  They had just missed the last boat back to the United States and would have to wait a little longer, but by that time they were grateful just to be in allied territory.
   Paliga eventually made it back to the USA where he married his wife Joan.  They spent most of their life in the Flathead area, before moving to Conrad to be closer to family.
   A story like Paliga’s is a sobering way for us to realize exactly what kind of dedication and sacrifice our service men and women make for our right to freedom.