George W. Holdefer

Airman kept a detailed diary of his experiences in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany

  • George Holdefer
George Holdefer
March 16, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

George W. Holdefer, a retired civil engineer who during World War II flew Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, became a prisoner of war after his plane was damaged over Germany and recorded his experiences in a diary, died March 10 of multiple organ failure at the Edenwald retirement community.

The former Campus Hills and Mays Chapel resident was 87.

Mr. Holdefer, the son of an American Can Co. engineer and a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised near Patterson Park.

After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was trained as a B-17 pilot at an airbase in Bradenton, Fla. He joined the 8th Air Force 486th Heavy Bomb Group based at Sudbury, England, northeast of London.

Mr. Holdefer had completed 20 successful missions when on his 21st over Mannheim, Germany, on Jan. 21, 1945, his plane, The Fertile Turtle, began experiencing mechanical problems.

Official reports are somewhat varied. German reports said the plane was flying alone at 26,000 feet, and observers reported that the B-17 had lost an engine and was slowly losing altitude but was still under control.

Another engine caught fire, causing the crew, with the exception of Mr. Holdefer, to bail out of the crippled plane near Offenburg, Germany.

Ted Odell, his co-pilot, recalled that the B-17 was leading the squadron at the time of the incident and that they were unable to feather the second propeller. Vibrations from the damaged prop shook the plane violently.

The Fertile Turtle, named for an Ogden Nash poem, had also possibly been damaged by enemy flak or had been hit by fire from an enemy Messerschmitt fighter plane.

"Once the crew had bailed out, he landed the huge plane successfully on a German farm near Darmstadt," said his son, David W. Holdefer, who lives in Columbia.

Reunited with his crew, they hid in a barn overnight until being taken to the local Bund headquarters the next morning, where they were turned over to the Luftwaffe guardhouse in Offenburg.

Mr. Holdefer and his crewmen were finally sent to Stalag Luft 13, a POW camp at Langwasser, a district of Nuremberg.

Early after his arrival at the POW camp, Mr. Holdefer was given a book, "Jesus of Nazareth," by the Ecumenical Commission for the Chaplaincy Service to Prisoners of War.

In "Jesus of Nazareth," Mr. Holdefer began recording details of his incarceration such as "2-5-45 Arrived 3 AM at Wetzlar, Germany (Dulag Luft) Best food to date and first cigarettes … 2-9-45 Left Dulag at 6:30 PM — 1 parcel between 2 men … 2-11-45 Arrived Stalag 13 with no supplies to find there were no Red Cross parcels."

He recorded nighttime air raids on Nuremberg, the arrival of Red Cross parcels and his captors telling the POWs that the Allies had crossed the Rhine.

On March 25, 1945, he writes, "News very good Rhine crossed," and five days later, "Rumor has Patton driving on Nuremberg — should start hearing guns tonight."

On April 4, the POWs left Nuremberg and were marched to Mossburg, Germany, where they arrived at Stalag 7A nine days later.

Mr. Holdefer also kept a calendar, and on April 29 circled the date and wrote a single word: "Liberated."

Fifteen days later, Mr. Holdefer was in England, aboard the Liberty ship SS Charles Brantley Aycock, preparing to sail in a convoy for the U.S.

During the long voyage home, he wrote a fuller, detailed account of his four months as a POW, when he lost 30 pounds because of having relatively little food and suffered frostbite.

He began his diary with an index for readers explaining such common camp terms as "Kreigie" for a prisoner of war, "Goon" for German soldiers or "postun" for German guards. "Klim" was powdered milk, while "marge" was oleomargarine and "brodt" was bread.

Daily life in Stalag 13 meant bartering pooled food from Red Cross packages for other types of food such as powdered milk, cheese spread or tinned salmon, cooking in an oven prisoners had built and searching for wood, which was ripped from buildings under the cloak of darkness to fire the oven. Other goods included cigarettes and clothing.

"You may think that we had quite a few of the conveniences of home but they were all possible through the Kreigie art of tin-bashing. We made everything from tin cans. Grates, plates, baking dishes, pots, spatulas, strainers, and even stoves," he wrote.

Mr. Holdefer wrote that the shortage of decent food left the POWs looking less than "a million dollars."

"We got a shower twice in three weeks, and we would laugh at each other because we were so skinny. All the ribs showed through and everyone's stomach was sunken," he wrote. "The arms and legs were bony and you could notice all this without looking very hard. But we laughed, because that's typical of the American to cover up his trouble with a joke or the like."

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