As a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, Jerry Wolf wore the same pants and shirt for an entire year. His only showers took place when it rained. And if he didn’t have cigarettes to trade, then he had no soap.
“There were times you acted like an animal. How do you clean yourself? You roll in the grass,” the Springfield resident told about 75 people gathered at the Jan. 21 monthly Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 227 meeting in Vienna. The group hosts a military-oriented speaker every month; it will welcome Col. Ellen Haring, an advocate for women serving in combat, in February.
When Wolf was 18 and in college, students were told near Thanksgiving that if they enlisted then, they would receive full credit for that semester. He enlisted in what was then the Army Air Corps.
He wanted to fly, but his mother made him promise he wouldn’t volunteer to be a pilot. He became a flight engineer, learning how to fix airplanes, and then was chosen to be a top turret gunner in a B-17 bomber.
After one training flight, “if you returned and you weren’t airsick, you were guaranteed to pass the course,” the Brooklyn, N.Y., native recalled.
Realizing he was the only Jewish person in his crew gave Wolf more courage than he thought he had, even when flying near German planes and being shot at. “I wanted to do this,” he said, “for what they did to the Jews.”
However, he insisted during his talk, “I was treated no different than any other American.”
During his missions, each taking about 10 hours, Wolf wore a heated suit that he plugged in. The temperature where he flew, at 24,000 feet, was 52 degrees below zero. “You urinate,” he said, “it’s frozen in a second.”
He wore an unheated oxygen mask. The bitter cold created condensation and freezing problems, he said.
“You had to keep cracking your oxygen mask.”
On his 25th bombing mission, 10 days before the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, Wolf’s crew was targeting an oil refinery near Berlin when the plane was hit. Two engines shut down as Wolf felt pain in his inner thigh.
The crew grabbed parachutes and bailed out, falling “20,000 to 24,000 feet,” he said. As he was falling, he “saw a uniformed soldier with a rifle, pointed at me.” He landed, heels first, rolled and ended up “on my back flat” with three soldiers staring at him.
He was given a bottle of warm beer, and before long was traveling in “a beautiful Mercedes convertible” on his way to a Nazi prison.
That day, Wolf learned that Yiddish is not too different from German. The fact that he could understand much of what was going on was bewildering, he said. “I had no idea the German dialogue and Yiddish were so similar.”
After interrogation, his days were filled with solitary confinement and stints at several Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camps, including the one famously depicted in the 1963 movie, The Great Escape.
“To me, it was the land of no; no heat, no running water anywhere, no toilet paper,” he recalled. Meals consisted of “a slice of bread, moldy and wormy,” potatoes and chicken soup that tasted like water.
Thanks to the Geneva Convention and his rank as a staff sergeant, Wolf didn’t work during his imprisonment. He mostly slept. “You are dirty. You are itchy” all day long, he said.
One of the hardest parts for Wolf was his inability to let his family know that he was alive and well, something they learned about four or five weeks after his capture, he said.
When he was freed on April 29, 1945, his liberators “tore the clothes off me. They burnt them. I hadn’t taken off the shirts and pants in a whole year,” he said.
He was flown to France and took his first real shower in a long time. Then it was “malted milk and eggnog all day long.”
After the war, Wolf returned to New York and began a career with the federal government, working at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia and the Department of Army Material Command in Virginia. It wasn’t until 2004 that he begin telling his tale, something he now does at area schools.
He still has the Jewish prayer book and Bible he was given by the Army as a soldier, although each was stamped in German by his captors to show they were the property of the Luftwaffe.
When Wolf thinks about how he endured being a POW, he credits his ability to understand some German and his fellow prisoners of war. “We all helped each other,” he said. “We all had the will to live.”
As clarification you should add that the reason Jerry Wolf’s Jewish prayer book had a German Luftwaffe stamp in it was it provided AUTHORIZATION for him to have it in his possesion in the POW Camp!!! When he was captured he had it with him and they took it from him, but he asked that he be allowed to have it, and after checking with the commanding officer of the POW camp the German guards gave it back to him, with Luftwaffe authorization stamps, proving proof that he was permitted to have it!! Why? Because this was a prison camp for allied aviators in which German aviators were in control and treated their fellow aviators (even enemy POWs) like gentlemen!! In contrast, had he not been an aviator, and not been this camp for aviator prisoners, being Jewish, he probably would have been killed.
Further clarification, this was as told to me by Jerry Wolf himself, after he spoke at the Fort Belvoir Jewish Chapel on Veteran’s Day a few years ago. Jerry is a walking talking historical treasure and a wonderful couragious man. An example to us all!
I had the honor to sit down and speak with Jerry Wolf. I recorded him talking about what is was like serving as a Flight Engineer in World War 2 and about his time in a German prisoner of war camp. He is truly a hero and had an amazing story. If you would like to hear the episodes you can visit http://www.wefewpodcast.com and listen to episodes 006 and 007.
Mr Wolf was my neighbor from July 1997-July 2000 while I was stationed at the Pentagon. What a gift and education it was to chat with him from time to time and listen to his experiences. His lovely bride, Doris, also had some great stories to share. One story that he related to me was about his being promoted the day he was shot down and not finding out until he was released from captivity. He said he received his back pay in a lump sum and that it was the most money he had had at once in his life up to that time. When I asked what he did with it he gently took his wife’s hand, held it out towards me and said “I bought these”. Her engagement and wedding ring set. I thought that was truly awesome!