Seventy years ago, Ernest Heidt risked his life as a member of a crew bombing targets in Europe and watched as comrades were shot down.
He met the same fate on Sept. 11, 1944, when his damaged plane went into a spin over Germany on his 32nd mission. Heidt parachuted to the ground, but three of the crew on his B-17 died. Heidt was taken as a prisoner of war to a German camp.
He survived. And on Memorial Day, he will remember those he served with who never came home from World War II.
“I think about those guys all the time,” Heidt, of Arden Park, said last week. “Two of them were killed on the plane and the German guards walked us right past the third laying in a field. It was hard.”
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Heidt’s memories are precious. The men and women who fought in World War II are mostly in their 90s. Heidt celebrated his 90th birthday this year with family and friends.
World War II veterans are dying at about 555 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. A total of 16 million Americans served in World War II. About 1 million survive, with 93,000 living in California. About 12,000 World War II veterans lived in the Sacramento region during 2012, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures. That’s down from about 36,000 in 2000. Put another way, about eight local World War II veterans died, on average, each day between 2000 and 2012.
With the passing of each veteran, the voices of courageous men and women who fought and won the war are stilled. And their first-person accounts of World War II – both the horrors and triumphs – are at risk of being lost. Efforts to record their memories include Capturing the Voices of WWII, a project by the Friends of the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Memorial Day may mean more to World War II veterans, said Bill Detweiler, military and veterans affairs consultant at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
“The older generation takes more interest in patriotic holidays than younger people,” he said. “But don’t undersell the younger veterans. You see a lot of flags flying on patriotic holidays.”
Heidt, who survived anti-aircraft shelling, imprisonment in the Luft IV POW camp, and a forced march under trying conditions of hundreds of miles, today is physically fit, his mind is sharp and sense of humor intact.
During a recent interview at the home he shares with his wife, Marge, he referred to one tiny Texas town where he received B-17 training as “a rump hole of creation.” The German soldier who captured him “took my pocket knife, the dirty crook.”
Heidt was born in Bismarck, N.D., but grew up in California. His family lived in Oak Park and he graduated from McClatchy High School.
For a while, the family went on what was then called county relief. Other times, his father had a car repair shop, and would sometimes forgive debts when people couldn’t pay.
His parents worked at McClellan Air Force Base during World War II. Young Ernest was drafted in 1943 into the U.S. Army Air Forces. He became a flight engineer in the top turret position of the B-17, a position just behind the pilot.
His role was twofold: have enough mechanical knowledge to maintain the aircraft’s systems and also man the guns in the top turret.
His crew joined the 92nd Bombardment Group in England on May 1, 1944. He remembers his knees shaking during his first bombing run to occupied France, where they attacked a German airfield.
His knees never shook again, not even on a mission to bomb Munich, when his damaged plane was hit and limped back to England on one engine. The tail gunner took some shrapnel in his knee that time.
“We were losing about a third of the men, a third of the planes,” he remembered.
Commanders raised the number of missions the men had to accomplish – from 25 to 35 – before they could transition to a less-dangerous job. On his 32nd mission, Heidt’s luck ran out.
On Sept. 11, 1944, on a mission to bomb an oil plant in Merseburg, Germany, anti-aircraft shelling broke off 6 feet of his B-17’s left wing. He and others on his plane parachuted to the ground, where they were taken prisoner.
At Stalag Luft IV, in what is now northwestern Poland, he remembers the black bread “with sawdust in it” and the barley mush for breakfast that was really quite good.
He also remembers that one man was shot and killed when he tried to climb the barbed-wire fence. Mostly, he remembers boredom.
On Feb. 6, 1945, Heidt and his fellow prisoners were taken at gunpoint from the prison and marched 600 miles in a circular route. They slept in the rain and in barns.
The Germans did not want to surrender to the Russians who were advancing, Heidt said.
“I weighed about 150 pounds when I was captured,” Heidt said. “On April 26, when we walked to the American lines, I didn’t weigh 100 pounds. Everyone had dysentery. If you ate anything, you might as well throw it over your shoulder because it dropped right through you.”
Once back in the United States, he took a train from New Jersey to Camp Beale in Marysville and then a bus to the Sacramento YMCA, where he met his parents.
Heidt married the former Margaret Burkhart, and they raised three children. He worked for 43 years for Southern Pacific Railroad.
On Memorial Day, he will fly the U.S. flag and a P.O.W. flag at his home.
And he will acknowledge the day’s importance, “because of those who were killed and wounded and family and friends who have died,” he said. “I have much respect for all of them.”