When Orville Lewis first met Les Beck, they were prisoners at a Nazi POW camp near Krems an der Donau, Austria.
The B-17 bomber that Lewis, an Oklahoma native, served in was shot down on July 30, 1943. Four days earlier, another B-17 carrying Beck had suffered the same fate. The two men were placed in the B 36 barracks of Stalag XVII, where they and hundreds of other prisoners from dozens of countries would remain for more than 21 months.
Nearly 72 years to the day after he first entered the POW camp, Lewis, now 95, met another Les Beck nearly 6,000 miles from Austria.
Les Beck Jr., a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran, spotted Lewis’ Army Air Corps hat while sitting in the Veterans Affairs hospital in Fresno earlier this month. The hat was identical to one owned by Beck’s father, who passed away in 1995, and the younger man struck up a conversation with Lewis.
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“It was just such a remarkable occurrence,” Beck said Saturday while sitting at Lewis’ dining room table in Orange Cove. “Not only were they in the same camp at the same time, but they were in the same barracks.”
Since their first meeting in early August, Beck has kept in contact with Lewis over the phone and driven twice from his home in Coarsegold to Lewis’ house in Orange Cove.
We all knew that if we tried to escape, we’d either get out or get shot. There was nothing else.
During Saturday’s visit, Beck set a heavily worn journal down on Lewis’ table. It belonged to his father, who had kept it throughout their imprisonment and until the day he died.
Inside, there were a few newspaper clippings and black and white photos. However, most of the journal was filled with hand-drawn portraits and pictures scrawled during Beck’s time at the prison.
The artistry ranged from professional-grade, beautiful pencil portraits of Beck and others drawn by soldiers who put their art careers on hold to serve their country, to quick sketches perhaps more suitable for a refrigerator door.
One drawing, however, carried a lot more weight than the thin, damaged journal page it rested on. It depicted, in what looked to be crayon, two soldiers in front of a large, brown guard tower and a barbed wire fence.
One soldier seemed caught on the fence, streaks of red pouring out of him. The other appeared to be standing on the ground with his arms raised. A German soldier stood primed on his perch, apparently firing a gun at the men.
The younger Beck said the drawing depicted a botched escape attempt. The man on the ground was urging his fellow soldier not to try to scale the fence.
Both men, Beck said, were shot and killed.
Lewis remembered the incident. When Beck flipped to the drawing, the WWII vet’s normally cheerful expression gave way to a slightly sullen stare toward the journal resting on his table.
“We all knew that if we tried to escape, we’d either get out or get shot,” Lewis said. “There was nothing else.”
21 months and five daysThe amount of time Orville Lewis spent in Stalag XVII prison camp in Austria.
Lewis remembered the elder Beck as a quiet man who always chose his words deliberately, which garnered a nod from his son.
He also remembered that Beck, which is how he knew Les’ father, was in the hospital for much of their time in the POW camp.
“Dad had 32 shrapnel and gunshot wounds after his plane was shot down,” Beck said. “He was literally holding his entrails when the Germans found him.”
Beck said his father passed out while being interrogated by German soldiers at the crash site and woke up later in a German morgue.
“Two doctors were arguing about whether they should save him or not,” Beck said. “And dad told one of them that if he (the doctor) operated, he would live. And he did.”
The doctor who saved his father visited the injured GI at the camp for a few weeks, Beck said, but he eventually stopped coming.
“Dad found out his (the doctor’s) wife and two kids were killed during an Allied bombing run,” Beck said. “I think it really affected him.”
Beck’s father didn’t remember much about the time between his crash and his entrance into the prison because he was in and out of consciousness.
But Lewis was there to fill in the blanks for the younger veteran.
“They probably took him to Frankfurt,” Lewis said. “That’s where they took me. They interrogated you – tried to scare you, but we were prepared.”
“I was more shocked by how much they knew about me,” he continued. “They knew what high school I went to – knew the names of my teachers.”
These somewhat serious exchanges were an anomaly during Saturday’s visit; most of the banter between the two men was lighthearted and peppered with laughter.
Both WWII vets, Beck said, had been very handsome in their youth. Beck’s mother, a British woman who met and married his father during the war, shared a popular saying about American GIs at the time.
“They were overpaid, oversexed and over here,” Beck said with a laugh.
“That’s true,” said a chuckling Lewis.
It was cold – very cold. It felt like there wasn’t anything between us and the North Pole.
Orville Lewis, describing the conditions at Stalag XVII prison camp
Both men moved to California shortly after the war. The Beck family settled in Southern California, while Lewis reunited with his parents, who moved to Reedley during the war.
Lewis quickly married.
“I met my wife at a dance in Dinuba,” he said. “We were married Oct. 11, 1945.”
The elder Beck worked as a contractor and building supervisor with the California Department of Corrections. Lewis worked many different jobs with the U.S. Forest and National Parks services. He also set up more than 2,500 of the central San Joaquin Valley’s first TV antennas while working in electronics at Montgomery Ward.
Lewis recently became a great-great-grandfather.
Les Beck Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the Army in 1965. He was deployed to Vietnam in 1967 and was shot in the foot on Jan. 31, 1968 during the Tet Offensive.
Had he not served and received military benefits after his injury, Beck might never have met Lewis, who did not keep in touch with many of his fellow prisoners after the war ended.
Beck said the thing he has most cherished about the new relationship so far has been getting answers to questions he never got to ask his father while he was alive.
“I’ve been able to ask Orville about things that happened back then,” he said. “It’s like having a second chance at it.”