Charles Holley Midgley oral history, 2007-09-09

Ulbrich: My name is David Ulbrich and today
is September 9, 2007. What is your full name, sir? Midgley: Charles Holley Midgley. Ulbrich: And when and where were you born,
sir? Midgley: I was born in Gadsden, Alabama, June
29, 1918. Ulbrich: And which squadron were you in? Midgley: I was in the 514th. Ulbrich: When did you join the military? Midgley: We had a draft in 1940 and I had
a poor draft number. Ulbrich: So you won the lottery you didn’t
want to win? Midgley: I won the lottery. [laughs] I had a good number. My boss called me in; I was working for CIT,
the finance people. [1:00]
And my boss called me in and said, “You’re doing a good job but you’ve got a poor draft
number.” Those numbers they were published, everybody
knew when you were going to get it. He said you’ve got a poor draft number and
I need to tell you that you can’t advance with our company because they are going to
get you. You are going to be drafted. Well, I had three years of college and I had
been told that was enough to get in the aviation—the cadet program. So I applied for that and sure enough, you
only needed two years of college to become an aviation cadet. So I went into the service in May of 1941,
about seven months before Pearl Harbor. 1
2 Ulbrich: Okay and I take it you wanted to
go aviation so you wouldn’t, so you had a choice, right? Midgley: I didn’t, I knew if you were drafted
most of the people went in the infantry. And I just didn’t have any fond hopes of
the infantry at all, so that’s when I decided to go into the army air corps. [2:00]
Ulbrich: And what was your specialty in the army air corps? Midgley: I went to flying school, a pilot
flying school, and this was in peace time. We still weren’t in war, and it was tough. I had forty seven hours and fifty minutes
of flying time and a lot of that solo. And I washed out. And all they said was flying deficiency. So I all of a sudden, the late summer of 1941
I’m a civilian again. Well, I knew my draft board in Birmingham
would be right after me because as soon as you were discharged, as soon as you washed
out they notified your draft board. So they’d be after you in a hurry. Before the draft board could get me, I got
a notice that they were forming a bombardier class and would I be interested in that. Well, I was very interested in that so my
specialty ended up as a bombardier. [3:00]
Ulbrich: Very good. Very good. Before we move on into the war years proper,
I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what your childhood was like in
the Great Depression. Midgley: It was tough. As you can see by the dates, I was born at
the end of World War I, and grew up through the Depression. My father had died in 1924, and my mother
remarried about three years later. And she married a banker. My home town of Gadsden, Alabama had three
banks. And his bank was the smaller of the three. He was an official in the bank. And there was a run on the bank and it folded. [4:00]
Unfortunately, this was before there was a bank holiday and very few of them failed after
that. I can’t remember the circumstances, but
there were some kinds of rules implemented that did lessen the number of banks that went
under. Anyway, there we were with no income. I was a high school kid by then and I had
hoped to go out for football again; this was going to be my senior year. And I told my mother that I was going to go
out for football and she said you can’t do that; you’ve got to keep your job. I was working at the picture show. I was
3 making a quarter an hour. But, a quarter was pretty big in the thirties. Ulbrich: It really was—that really was. Midgley: Anyway, I did get to go to college. I had distant relatives in California and
we had lived in Nevada for a year after my daddy died. [5:00]
So I went to UCLA my first two years and then went back home where I belonged and went the
third year at the University of Alabama. I ran out of money, couldn’t get a job. It was just hard. There were hundreds of kids in school that
were there because they had a job in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. Well, I couldn’t find a job so I dropped
out. That was in ‘39. I went to work for CIT and that pretty much
brings you up to date. I had a poor draft number. I wasn’t going to make any advancement with
CIT. So I ended up in the army air corps. Ulbrich: What did CIT stand for? Or what kind of a firm was it again? [6:00]
Midgley: It was financial. They financed things as small as a refrigerator. Ulbrich: All right. Midgley: Automobiles were there—it’s still
in business by the way. I don’t know what they do now but I’m
sure they are in some end of the financial game. Ulbrich: So then you ended up in bombardier
school? Going to school to be a bombardier? What was that training like? What was your, was it more book learning or
more practice? Midgley: More practice, very little book learning. More practice. We had the bomb site that was mounted on a
moveable platform and we were about twelve or fifteen feet above the floor of the—we
were in a hanger. And we, we literally bombed with the little
platform moving forward as we learned how to work the site. Ulbrich: And how did that site work? I mean, did you aim the bomb? [7:00]
Midgley: Oh, I couldn’t tell you that. That was our best secret. [laughs]
Ulbrich: Oh yes, very early on—did you have to—
4 Midgley: The [unintelligible] bomb site that
was it. We protected it with our very lives. Ulbrich: So you were early enough that you
did have to, did you like have to sign a waiver that you signed some statement that you would
protect it with your lives? That’s the legend I’ve heard. Midgley: I don’t remember, I don’t remember
us signing anything. I remember after I graduated and was commissioned
and was assigned to a team, a crew, I was the only one on the crew that carried a gun. This was in, this was in Tuscan, you ever
heard of Alamogordo, New Mexico? Ulbrich: Yes. Midgley: It is absolutely, I’m speaking
1942 era, the worst place on God’s green earth. It was just awful. [8:00]
Ulbrich: Huh. Probably it wasn’t green there? Midgley: No greenery, no warmer [laughs]. We didn’t stay there but a month or six
weeks and we went on to Topeka, Kansas which was bitter cold but a lot better than Alamogordo. Ulbrich: Wow, wow. Can you, as a bombardier, can you, you know,
you reached your initial point and then you really took over the plane. Midgley: The plane was turned over to the
bombardier and he actually, he directed the plane with his knobs. And the bombing secret, you had crosshairs
and you put them on the target. And you set the knobs so that they stayed
with the target. And when it got to the right place the bombs
were released. [9:00]
That part of it sounded simple. And they had, they had some pretty stupid
slogans in the army air corps. One of them was that we could drop a bomb
in a pickle barrel. Well, we really weren’t that accurate. Ulbrich: A pretty big pickle barrel. Midgley: It would have had to been an awful
big barrel. A lot of pickles. [laughter]
Ulbrich: A lot of pickles. What was the biggest challenge as a bombardier
that you faced? Was it the technology, or was it the patience? 5
Midgley: Well, in combat, I think it was the fear. Just the idea that people were shooting at
you. Ulbrich: As you’ve got your head down at
the head of the plane, there’s stuff bursting all over the place. [10:00]
Midgley: Yeah, and the plane jumps every now and then because a bomb has gone off, a projectile
has gone off, under you, near you, and you hear the rattle when the fragments hit the
bottom of the plane. I think the fear was probably the, it was
my— Ulbrich: biggest challenge. Midgley: —my biggest challenge. Ulbrich: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. So you were flying fairly early relative to
many of the other members of the— Midgley: Yes, yes. Ulbrich: When were your missions, approximately
when were you flying your combat missions? Midgley: We started in, we got there in March,
we started on I believe the 30th of March. Ulbrich: 1942? Midgley: No, ‘43. Ulbrich: 1943. Midgley: Yeah. HALPRO [Halverson Project], the original outfit
was, well they weren’t even there, and I think they were there in June of ‘42. That was our first entry into the African
theater. [11:00]
Ulbrich: The Halverson Project. Midgley: Right. I believe they had initially been scheduled
to go to India. And they stopped them and they ended up in
North Africa. Ulbrich: That’s kind of a change, India
versus North Africa. Anyway, so the, you were there, when you were
flying really, say early, mid 1943? 6
Midgley: Uh-huh. Ulbrich: Mid 1943? What was the biggest danger, was it fighters
or flak? Midgley: Fighters attacking from the front. See, I never saw a B-24 with a turret on the
front of it until I got home from the POW [Prisoner of War] camp. We had the B- 24D which had three flexible
fifty caliber machine guns in the nose. [12:00]
None of which we could shoot with any accuracy. The navigator and I were in the nose. Ulbrich: Right. Two cheeks and then one right up front. Correct? Midgley: Yeah. You couldn’t, there simply wasn’t enough
room up there if the navigator—if we could have gotten rid of him. [laughs] I could have gotten behind the gun
and maybe fired it at a plane. But they recognized pretty early that that’s
where a B-24 was most vulnerable, from the front. Because they had the two waist guns, they
had the tail turret, and the top turret. The top turret could fire about one hundred
eighty degrees this way, but he couldn’t fire much forward because of the four propellers. There were stops. If he swung that gun, if he was firing forward,
he had two fifty calibers. [13:00]
If he was firing forward and he went very far in either direction the gun cut off so
he didn’t hit the propellers. So they sorely needed protection from the
front. Which they later got, but I never saw one
of them until I got home. Ulbrich: Sure, sure, sure. So how many missions did you fly before you
I assume you got shot down or had to bail out? Midgley: We were on our twenty-sixth mission. They had [laughs] the military tends to lie
to its people. They had told us if we flew thirty missions
we could go home. Well, I think we found out pretty early in
the game that that simply wasn’t going to happen. There wasn’t any big reason for us to go
home to begin with. What are we going to do when we get home? Except maybe train for the Pacific. [14:00]
But anyway, we were on our twenty-sixth mission and this was on July the 16th, 1943. We were bombing Bari, Italy. Thank goodness an airport, not the city but
an airport. Intelligence told us that they had information
that the Germans 7
were flying planes into this airfield at Bari from Germany, modifying them in some manner,
and sending them on to Sicily. By the way, this was the first week of the
invasion of Sicily. I believe that invasion was on the tenth or
twelfth of July. And we were flying on the sixteenth. Ulbrich: That sounds about right. Midgley: And, so that was our mission to destroy
the airfield, the runways, and as many airplanes as possible. And it was supposed to be what we used to
refer to as a milk run. Ulbrich: Ah, yes. The easy mission. [15:00]
Midgley: Easy mission. Well they got two, we had twenty four airplanes
up and they got two of them. And I didn’t know it, but I talked to a
fellow yesterday who got back on two engines from the same mission. And he remembered seeing us go down. They got back; that’s a long flight for
two engines. I guess they threw overboard everything; your
orders were to get rid of everything, if you lost an engine. And particularly if you lost two engines. And if you lost two engines on the same side,
you know, if you lost one and two or three and four, it was—
Ulbrich: Being a pilot, you would have just had to—
Midgley: The copilot had to help you. He had to help you, a lot of rudder to keep
the plane going straight. Ulbrich: Sure, sure. So you were on this mission and was it flak
that got you? [16:00]
Midgley: We got hit by fighters going in and it set one engine on fire. I think it was number three engine. Well, our pilot’s name was Doc Rose. Doc tries to put the fire out with his extinguisher
and I don’t think he ever really got it out. And then when we got over the target we got
hit by flak. When we had the engine still burning when
we came off the target, we did kind of a dumb thing I thought. Bari is a coastal city. We bombed from inland, bombed the airfield,
and instead of getting out to sea, our orders were to turn back over the land. And you don’t question orders, but anyway
that’s— Ulbrich: Which subjected you to more potential
ground fire— 8
[17:00] Midgley: Yeah, the fighters were waiting for
us. See they wouldn’t follow you very far out
to sea, because I don’t think they had a very good air rescue system like we did. And if a pilot, you know, a German or Italian
pilot got fifty or sixty miles at sea and then we got him; I think his chances were
pretty slim. Ulbrich: And another factor many of those
fighters simply didn’t have the range or capability or anything of that nature also. Midgley: Yeah, yeah. At our altitudes I think we were bombing at
twenty four thousand feet. We jumped; Doc told me later we jumped at
about nineteen thousand. We had gone down that much. See, we couldn’t keep up. After we left the target, we began to drop
behind and we were smoking. And of course, that was just an invitation. Ulbrich: Sure, sure. Midgley: I did find out one thing. We had had a, we had a terrible discussion
at the base. We argued about everything. [laughs]
[18:00] I think it just may have relieved some of
the pressure. But we argued about everything. And one of the things we argued about was
what do you do when a guy jumps out of an airplane and is hanging up there. Do you just go on by him or do you try to
kill him? Well, it was pretty well divided. Part of them were just going to leave him
there and the rest were going to shoot him. But anyway, I pulled the ripcord entirely
too early. I was way, I was so high up I thought I was
climbing. I had no feel that I was going down. And of course, the plane just went right on
by me. Nobody shot at me. And the same with the other crew members. Now my pilot was smart. He made a delayed jump. He must have fallen fifteen, sixteen thousand
feet before he pulled the cord. Ulbrich: Did your whole crew make it out? [19:00]
Midgley: No. We had a squadron intelligence officer who
was a captain. He was a Greek. Named Cladactus [?]. And he was from Tarpon
Springs, Florida, which used to be a big sponge diving city. It was on the coast near Tampa. And the Greeks apparently made the best sponge
divers. Well, you know what happened to the sponges. DuPont came along and invented a sponge that
was better than the— 9
Ulbrich: Artificial sponge. Midgley: Artificial sponge was better than
the natural sponges. But anyway, Captain Cladactus [?] was of a
sponge diving family. He was so good at his job. He got himself checked out as a gunner so
he could go along on a few missions. And when the guys told him the flak was heavy,
he knew what they were talking about. [20:00]
Ulbrich: Sure. Midgley: Or if they told him it was a milk
run, nobody shot at them. He knew what they were talking about. Ulbrich: Sure. Midgley: Well, Cladactus [?] had taken the
place of one of our gunners who had been injured on a previous mission. And he was manning a waist gun. And the fellas said he got hit by a fifty
millimeter cannon shell. They said he never knew what hit him. So he went down in the plane. We were in the city jail in Bari, where we
stayed through the Palazzolo Mission. The famous Palazzolo Mission came fourteen
days later. I was lucky; I didn’t have to go on that. I was already in jail. [laughs]
Ulbrich: Oh, yeah. Lucky, huh? Midgley: Some luck. Anyway, the Italian guards came to us; they
were really interested in us in the city jail and barracks. [21:00]
They had never had any Allied prisoners and they were nice to us. They fed us from an officer’s mess somewhere
near the jail. And the food was great. Ulbrich: I’m sure. Midgley: And complete and adequate. The best spaghetti I have ever eaten. And not nearly enough of it. Anyway, they came to us and said to us, “Did
you have a black man flying on your crew?” And we said, “oh, no. They don’t fly with us.” He said that they found a man in the plane
and he was real dark, but we gave him a good Catholic funeral. And we figured he was probably Greek Orthodox
and I think Catholics and Greek Orthodox are pretty close, so we thanked them. We told
10 them we thought that was good. He was Greek and he was darker than the rest
of us. Had a dark complexion. [22:00]
But we spent, something over two weeks, in the barracks of the jail. They really didn’t know what to do with
us. Finally, they sent us to an interrogation
camp. It was—they told that the building had formerly
been a monastery. And the foundation itself was over three hundred
years old. The building was much younger than that. But I don’t know where it was. I never will, but of course we were trained
to tell them name, rank and serial number. They knew a lot about us. They knew where we came from which wasn’t
too hard to figure out because there were only two groups in the desert, the 376th and
the 98th. And they knew we flew 24’s so it wasn’t
hard for them to figure out we were from the Benghzi area. But we stayed there something less than two
weeks and they sent us to a prison camp in a little town of Cheiti. [23:00]
Ulbrich: Any idea of how to spell that? Midgley: C-h-e-i-t-i. Cheiti. Ulbrich: All right. Cheiti, and which nation was that? Midgley: It was in Italy. Ulbrich: In Italy? All right, you remained in Italy? Midgley: Yeah. Ulbrich: Did the Germans run that? Or did the Italians? Midgley: No. It was Italian. Ulbrich: It was Italian. Midgley: It was a nice looking place inside. It had been built for political prisoners,
for people that didn’t exactly agree with Mussolini. Ulbrich: That he didn’t kill, right? Midgley: That he didn’t kill; he just put
them in this—it was not bad looking at all. It didn’t compare with the Stalag Luft III,
which is where I spent most of my time in Germany. 11
Ulbrich: All right. Midgley: So we stayed in Cheiti until the
fall. [24:00]
I can’t remember the dates but we got up one morning and there were no guards on the
walls. And then we found out that Italy had capitulated. We had a newsman in there named Larry Allen
[Laurence Edmund “Larry” Allen, A.P. Correspondent]. Have you ever heard of Larry Allen? Ulbrich: No. Midgley: He was a writer. And I can’t remember where they got him
but he shouldn’t have been in there to begin with. And he was just pacing the floor like a caged
tiger. He said if I can get out of this place and
get to Rome, I can win the Pulitzer Prize. Well, he had a perfect entrée to get out
the place because there wasn’t anybody guarding us. The guards had left. We were trying to decide what to do; I think
there were two hundred twenty five Americans in the camp. And the camp has every nation that was fighting
the Axis. [25:00]
The highest ranking officer was a British colonel and he called us all together. He said, “Fellas, I don’t have any control
over you. You can do anything you want to because the
guards are gone and nobody’s guarding us. You’re free.” He said my advice is to stay here until they
come and get us. He said every Italian in the countryside has
got a shotgun. He said they are scared to death; they don’t
know what’s going on. They will think you are invading them and
they are going to shoot you. He says my advice and what I am going to do
is to stay right here until they come and get us. Some people took off anyway. But my buddies, we stayed there. I can’t remember how long, I know we got
awful hungry because there was nobody to prepare the food. [26:00]
We had plenty of fruits and vegetables, but you couldn’t eat most of the vegetables
raw. They had to be cooked. We didn’t have anything; there wasn’t
anything to cook with. And we were sitting there waiting for them
to come for us, our saviors to arrive and a ragtag bunch of Rommel’s boys who had
been driven out of Africa showed up at the camp. And they were elated when they found this
whole bunch of prisoners. They rounded up a box, an engine and fifteen,
twenty, 12
twenty-eight boxcars. Off we went to the third Reich. [laughs] So instead of being free, we were
prisoners again. [27:00]
And we ended up in first in Austria, and later in Silesia which is about the center of Germany. In Stalag Luft [Stammlager Luftwaffe] III. I’ll tell you a funny story about when Rommel’s
boys were rounding us up to make this nice train trip. A sergeant that spoke pretty good English
came by and he said I want you to get in groups of thirty six. He said these box cars are forty and eight,
but we’re only going to put thirty six of you in them. You ever seen a European box car? [laughs] They are little; tiny—you can put
two of them in one of ours. They are little tiny things. And they called them forty and eight because
they were supposed to hold forty humans or eight horses. Anyway, we got in groups of thirty six and
they said you can take anything you want with you. [28:00]
Well, fellows had lawn chairs and small pieces of furniture, all the clothes they owned,
and all kinds of things. Nobody seemed to care because you put it in
the box car. Anyway, this guy comes back and he says, “Who
is the senior officer here?” Well, a friend from my home town had been
shot down three weeks before me. Jack Bentley. Jack was a West Point man. He was a pilot, flying a B-17 outfit out of;
I guess they went out of Algiers, extreme northwest Africa. We looked around and I was a first lieutenant
and most of them were second lieutenants and here Jack was a captain. He says, “I guess I am.” “Comes with me.” So Jack goes with the guard and they go around
behind the railway station and everybody starts grumbling. [29:00]
“Damn, wouldn’t you know it? Here we are in the worst mess you can be in
and rank still has its privileges.” That’s an old—
Ulbrich: I understand. Midgley: That’s right. Rank has its privileges. The guard comes back, maybe a half an hour
later and he says come with me. So we all rounded the corner and here’s
a box car with the door wide open and white smoke billowing out of it. We get closer to it and here’s Captain Bentley
in there with a broom made out of sticks and he’s sweeping. This guard has Captain Bentley sweeping out
the box car for us. [laughs] The guard didn’t like officers
very much so he picked the senior 13
officer to clean out the car. We think it was, I’m pretty sure it was
flour. The box car had been used to haul a load of
flour and one of the bags must have broken. But anyway, we went to Germany in a train
load of box cars. [30:00]
Ulbrich: And which Stalags were you in? Midgley: This was Stalag Luft III. In Germany, they didn’t even bother to interrogate
us. They took our pictures and gave us numbers. My number was, I can’t think of it, twenty
seven fifty eight, but I used to know the German words for it. Zwei sieben funf acht. Twenty seven fifty eight. Ulbrich: Twenty seven fifty eight. Midgley: They took a picture which later went
on our records and we all got our records. The Germans were very methodical people. And when we moved out of Stalag Luft III,
they took all our records with them. So when we got down to VIIA, where we were
finally liberated, everybody went in and got their own records with their picture on it. [31:00]
And as far as I know, everybody still has theirs. Ulbrich: You said the German prisoner of war
camps were much worse in your experience— Midgley: Oh, yeah. Ulbrich: —than in Italy. Could you describe the conditions; the shelter,
the wash room facilities, the food, the weather? Could you speak to some of those conditions? Midgley: We were in the center camp of Stalag
Luft III. It had five compounds. North, south, east, west and center. And all together there were about ten thousand
officers in the camp; somewhere between nine and ten thousand officers we were told. Ulbrich: It was only for officers, though? Midgley: Yes, the Germans were very particular
about that. There was not an enlisted man in that camp. They wouldn’t permit it. Ulbrich: All right. 14
Midgley: If an enlisted man got in there by mistake, they shipped them out. [32:00]
Ulbrich: Well, they were efficient. Midgley: That’s just the way they were. Ulbrich: All right. Midgley: The enlisted men really had some
advantages over the officers. The Germans made them work and wouldn’t
let us work. Well, those working parties they had, they
had good contact with the civilian population. And they bought eggs, chickens, cigarettes
were priceless, American cigarettes, absolutely priceless because a lot of people, everybody
smoked then it seemed like. And those cigarettes the people could get
were terrible. American cigarettes would do it. So these fellows had cigarettes, they got
them. Ulbrich: Our fine North Carolina tobacco,
right? Midgley: Right. We got Red Cross parcels. And as you would expect, the best one of all
was the United States Red Cross parcels. [33:00]
They came from Britain, they came from the Argentines, from Brazil, South Africa, but
the best ones were the American parcels. And each parcel had five packs of cigarettes
in it. That was a half a carton, and two brands I
remember: Old Gold and Lucky Strike. I think Lucky Strike may still be in existence,
I don’t know. I haven’t smoked in thirty years. I think they are probably still in existence. But the enlisted men had that advantage over
us. They had to work, had to do all kinds of work,
but it was outside the camps and I guess the guards were pretty lenient with them because
they probably gave them a smoke or two. [34:00]
Ulbrich: I want to understand, part of that came from Hermann Goering being an aviator
himself for one, so he treated the officers as he thought officers should be treated so
they wouldn’t work. And then all your flight crew would be sergeants,
even if they were twenty years old, they would still be a sergeant because, he also treated
sergeants well. If they were anything less than a sergeant,
they would have been treated worse. Midgley: That is correct. 15
Ulbrich: So you have the five compounds. Tell me about the shelter, your washrooms,
what about the facilities? Midgley: I think the center camp was, I believe
it was the original of the five compounds. And it was bad. The buildings were wooden, one story, the
windows didn’t fit real good. And we depended mostly on body heat. We had pretty good clothes. We had pretty good uniforms. [35:00]
I was shot down in the summer in Italy and I was not properly clothed especially for
a harsh German winter. But we had clothes; we had a commissary. Also, my next door neighbor at home had asked
my mother to let her have one of the—I can’t remember exactly what they call them. It was a permit of some kind to send us a
package. Ulbrich: All right. Midgley: She said I want to send him some
warm clothes if you’ll give me one of his coupons. So she sent me an officer’s uniform. [laughs] I was awfully well dressed for Stalag
Luft III when I finally got them. [36:00]
Back to the conditions, the buildings in the center camp, I think some of them were better
in the other camps, but in the center camp the buildings didn’t fit together good,
the windows didn’t close good. And they had shutters on them which you closed
at night that helped a little bit. We didn’t have enough fuel; we cooked for
ourselves. They furnished us with hot water and once
in a while some soup which you can imagine it was—it was soup made out of barley and
it wasn’t very good. Ulbrich: No, no. Midgley: But at the outset we had the Red
Cross parcels and that’s what we lived on. And of course they finally played out completely. From our own troops, you know, we had such
air supremacy at the tail end of the war that I think those fighters—
[37:00] —were sent out every morning to just run
up and down the highways and shoot anything they could find to shoot at. Because the trucks came out of Switzerland
and they had canvas covers. They weren’t big eighteen wheelers like
we know; they were much smaller trucks. And they had big red crosses painted on the
side 16
and the top. But they finally quit running. The camp, one of the hardest things about
it was the soil was sandy. See there was always tunnel digging going
on. Ulbrich: Of course. Midgley: And it was clever the way the British,
they were smarter than we were about those things like tunnels. They were the ones who pulled off the Great
Escape, not, there were no Americans involved in the Great Escape. There were no Americans in that compound. Ulbrich: So Steve McQueen and I can’t remember
the other— [38:00]
Midgley: Well, the fellows were called Tom, Dick and Harry. Ulbrich: Right, right, right. Midgley: Yeah, and of course they found one
of them. Ulbrich: Right. Midgley: But that was the idea in digging
three of them. They felt the Germans would possibly find
one of them. And then they would say that’s it. Surely they don’t have anymore tunnels. Ulbrich: Sure. Midgley: But they did. Ulbrich: So you are talking about the sandy
soil, and the British cleverly digging in it. Midgley: We all had to give up a bed board
every now and then. Seems to me when we got there, seems like
we had eight, I think we had eight bed boards. Ulbrich: The cross slats that would hold your
mattress up? Midgley: Yeah. We didn’t have any springs. The mattress was made out of straw. Ulbrich: Right, right. Midgley: They were filled with bed bugs, bed
bugs. Ulbrich: Oh, yeah. I’m sure. [39:00]
17 Midgley: But every now and then we had to
give up a bed board because they used that to reinforce the tunnel. We had a tunnel going on in our barracks. And it was clever. I guess we learned that from the British. We had a little cook stove and when they were
going to dig on the tunnel they wouldn’t make a fire for cooking, say the evening meal. That was the only hot meal we had and we’d
prepare that ourselves. They had an arrangement where they would take
the stack off, the stack that ventilated, took out the smoke, picked the whole thing
up and moved it over and that was the entrance to the tunnel. And they went down so many feet and then headed
out. And the bed boards we had to give up were
for support so it didn’t cave in on them. I never was asked to work on the tunnel and
never did. That one they discovered. [40:00]
I think a guard came in the barracks unexpectedly. And they didn’t get the stove, my recollection
is hazy on this, but I believe they didn’t get the stove back in place in time. And that’s the way they found it. But it hadn’t gotten anywhere. But the barracks, the living quarters were
terrible. The Germans, we were told that the Germans
wouldn’t build any more prison camps. Just do with what they had [both talking at
once]. More and more pouring in there so the bunks
had been double deckers. So to increase the capacity, they triple deckered
the bunks. They came in a put a third bunk up there. And that was a great place to sleep because
it was warmest, you know, heat rises, it was warmest at the ceiling. [41:00]
Ulbrich: Still not very warm, I’d guess? Midgley: Still not very warm. Most people slept in their clothes. Ulbrich: Sure. Sure, sure. The, ah, what was the weather like there? So you were in Germany and—
Midgley: It was bitter, bitter cold. And of course with me only spending most of
my life in the deep south, I had never experienced a winter like that. Ulbrich: And was this the winter of ‘43
to ‘44? Or ‘44 to ‘45? Midgley: ‘44 to ‘45. Ulbrich: ‘44 to ‘45, all right. Midgley: Yeah. I was there two winters. The first one wasn’t as bad. 18
Ulbrich: So you must have spent pretty much twenty months? Midgley: No, almost two years. Ulbrich: Almost twenty four months. Midgley: I was shot down on the 16th of July,
‘43 and the ship I came home on landed in New York on June the 6th of ‘45. So I was the better part of two years. [42:00]
Ulbrich: Right, how did you pass the time to keep your sanity? Midgley: We had a library and the international
YMCA was in charge of recreation. And they brought in; they brought in ice skates,
hockey sticks, pucks, and the whole thing except all that protective armor a hockey
player wears. They didn’t have any of that. Well, I didn’t have any interest—I had
an interest in watching them but none in I didn’t want to get involved. I had played roller skate hockey in the street
as a kid with a broomstick and a tin can, but as far as ice hockey, I hadn’t even
seen a game. [43:00]
But, when they got all this hockey equipment all the boys that wanted to play hockey got
together and they humped up the snow. They patted it good and tight in I guess a
rectangle about the size of a hockey rink. Maybe a little bit bigger; I’m not sure. The Germans let them flood that and I’ll
tell you about our static water supply, our swimming pool, in a minute. But they let them put water in there. And they would run a bunch of water in, and
leave it overnight. The next morning they had ice. And they had a hose and ran more water in
there. And the next morning they had thicker ice. So pretty soon they could skate. [44:00]
The static water supply was what the Germans advertised to the world as our swimming pool. It was for fire protection. They didn’t have any fire plugs like we
know them in the camp. None at all. But they had a fire truck and they had a lot
of hose and they had built this, it looked like a small swimming pool, and they filled
it with water. And the idea was, if a fire broke out in one
of the barracks, drop a hose in the static water supply, pump it to the barracks, and
hope they got the fire out before they drained the pool. Ulbrich: [laughs]
19 Midgley: But they showed that in the propaganda
as the prisoner of war swimming pool. Of course you couldn’t go in it; it was
filthy. Ulbrich: I’m sure. Midgley: And they didn’t do anything to
it; it just sat there. Ulbrich: Sure, sure. What about your own personal activities, say
reading or whatever? What got you through was it thinking about
home? [45:00]
Was it guts; was it religious faith? Or a combination of those things? Your friends; your comrades? Midgley: Most everybody was optimistic. For one thing, we had a secret radio. I never did know where it was. And I didn’t want to know. Ulbrich: I guess not. Midgley: I had no desire to know where it
was. But just before they locked the barracks at
night, a guy would come around, a fellow who had entrée to the secret radio. And he would give us a briefing from the BBC
[British Broadcasting Corporation]. Then he would tell us what the German radio
had said about the different battles and what was going on at each front. And you know they say in war the first casualty
is truth. People brag about their victories and lie
about the defeats. The Germans just could not tell their people
how badly things were going. [46:00]
Although the people, most of them, probably knew just from relatives in the service and
hearsay. But that’s how we got our information and
things looked so good all the time I was in there. It looked like we were winning and it was
just a matter of staying alive and then you’d get home. Ulbrich: Sure, sure. Midgley: I never got depressed; a lot of people
did. I want to tell you about Tabor. Ulbrich: All right. Midgley: There was a guy in the center compound
named Tabor and he was from California. I don’t remember where. And he was kind of nutty. We could take a bath; we could take a shower
five days a week. There wasn’t any reason not to be clean. The body, you had dirty clothes but the body
could be clean. 20
[47:00] The only catch was you had to have twenty
four people in the bath party. And they formed up down at the main gate at
maybe nine o’clock in the morning, I don’t remember. And as long as there were twenty four of them,
they took us out to the Verlanger and there was a shower. And everybody got buck naked and showered
together. The sprinklers were up above your head and
it was fine. The water was hot and it was a good shower. You could stay clean. Well, one morning Tabor showed up in the bath
party. And the twenty four guys are standing there
waiting for the guy to come and get them, unlock the gate, and take them out. And old Tabor takes out a kitchen match and
he strikes it and holds it up and says, “Follow the light to freedom!” And he starts out the gate. Well, the guard’s got a gun there and he’s
going to shoot him. And one of the fellows in the party spoke
German and he stopped him. [48:00]
He said, “He’s loco. He’s crazy. Don’t shoot him.” And they grabbed him and pulled old Tabor
back in there. It went all through the camp. Crazy like Tabor. Ulbrich: Crazy like Tabor. Midgley: So the end of the story is the Germans
interviewed him. I guess a psychologist or psychiatrist interviewed
him and they decided he was nuttier than a fruitcake and they sent him home. They repatriated him. We find out a month or two later that Tabor’s
making speeches all over California about the POW circumstance. So that was the saying around camp. Crazy like Tabor. Ulbrich: Very good. That is an outstanding story. Midgley: That was a funny story, wasn’t
it? Ulbrich: Oh, yes, yes. Well, we’re coming down to the last few
minutes here and I have two more questions for you. One, I want to skip ahead to say, June of
1945. [49:00]
Can you give me in a few words what it was like coming back to the States? Getting home and being free. Or is there any way to do that? Midgley: No feeling like it. We came home on the troop ship, the William
S. Gordon. And luckily I was a first lieutenant so I
got a cabin with I think there were six of us. It was probably a cabin for two ship’s officers
and I believe there were six of us in there. 21
Ulbrich: Oh, you were used to close— Midgley: It was just like this, but much better
than most people faired. Ulbrich: Oh, yeah. Midgley: We got into New York harbor and it
just looked beautiful. They took us over to Fort Dix, New Jersey
and we were interrogated and given some clothes. And then they had a place where we could get
money. [50:00]
I got in the money line and when I got up to this young lady she said, “Lieutenant,
how much money would you like?” I said I want five hundred dollars and this
is 1945. That’s an awful lot of money. I think it would be like two thousand now
maybe. Ulbrich: All right. Midgley: She said, “Lieutenant, that’s
an awful lot of money.” And I said, “Yes, ma’am, and that’s
what I want.” So she gave me five hundred dollars. [laughter] We had a, see I was a first lieutenant
on flying pay and I had been overseas well over two years. I had a lot of money, a lot of money coming. Ulbrich: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Midgley: In fact I was hanging wall paper
in my home when the check arrived. And my mother wouldn’t even let me off the
stepladder. We were pretty sure that was what the mailman
had because he whistled as he came up the sidewalk. [51:00]
We were upstairs and we could see him coming up the sidewalk and he was waving an envelope
like this. My mother said “You stay right there. I’ll get it.” Ulbrich: All right, and I guess the last question
is a question I ask all veterans whether they are army, navy, marine corps, air force, and
something that I ask everyone of the World War II generation. Do you consider yourself to be a hero? Midgley: No. Ulbrich: Why not? Midgley: A hero does something above and beyond
the call of duty. We were doing what we were trained to do,
and what we were paid to do. And a first lieutenant on
22 flying pay in those days made good money. No, I didn’t do anything exceptional. I forgot to tell you—
Ulbrich: All right. Midgley: —that the plane that we took overseas
was the Lady Be Good. [52:00]
Ulbrich: Oh, really. Midgley: They had a rotten deal that they
did when you got to your base. We joined a group in Suluq, which was a little,
raggedy desert town about forty or fifty miles below Benghzi. And as soon as we got there, they said, “Have
you had any formation flying?” And we said no, we hadn’t. And they said, “Well, we’ve got to have
that airplane.” We found out right off the bat that they didn’t
need crews; they needed airplanes. We ended up with an old green, the Lady Be
Good was pink, and she was a beauty. We ended up with an old green airplane that
was worn out, wouldn’t even get the altitude. Ulbrich: Wow. Midgley: Our first mission we ended up on
the island of Malta. And stayed there two or three days while they
brought us an engine. [53:00]
Ulbrich: Wow, wow. Midgley: Anyway, hero [shakes head no]. Ulbrich: Well, your answer is very common
and I think it shows the humility of your generation. And one of the reasons why I ask that hero
question is that here today, in 2007, the word hero is thrown around, it’s almost
meaningless. Midgley: Yeah. Ulbrich: So I just want to make sure that
whoever is listening, watching you or listening to your words, whether it’s your family
or research by the American public, or a student or something understands what you think being
a hero is and isn’t. Because in 2007 when we are doing this interview,
it’s just thrown around. Midgley: Yeah. I didn’t do anything exceptional. The best thing I did was to stay alive. Ulbrich: Well, that’s awfully good. 23
Midgley: So here I am. Ulbrich: Yes, sir. Thank you very much for your time. It has been a pleasure. Midgley: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you. Ulbrich: Thank you.

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