United States Eight Army Air Corps, 94 th heavy bomber group 331 st squadron
1 May 1944 S/Sgt Theiss; James E was assigned as a ball turret gunner of a B-17 Flying Fortress in the United States Eight Army Air Corps, 94 th heavy bomber group 331 st squadron at Rougham airfield, Bury St. Edmunds, England.
On 6 August 1944, S/Sgt James E. Theiss along with his crewmembers, pilot Lt. Orville A. Spenst, co-pilot Lt. Lawrence F. Metzroth, navigator 2 nd Lt. Edward L. Pacek, bomber 2 nd Lt. Ira C. Dodd Jr., top turret gunner S/Sgt Charles H. Brown, radio operator T/Sgt Forest E. Crossman Jr, wing gunner T/Sgt Robert D. Hurd, tail gunner S/Sgt Frank H Tilling, flew their twenty third and final mission to bomb Berlin, Germany.
As the B-17 formation was reaching their objectives and targets over Berlin after dropping their payload of bombs and turning the aircraft to return to England, their B-17 engines started to fail due to mechanical trouble. Their B-17 flew with the formation for approximately thirty-one miles. With one out of four engines working the B-17 left the formation and started to go down. The crew started to throw out heavy objects in the plane to make their load lighter. 1st Lt. Claude L. Thomas reported that he observed from his B-17 and last saw their aircraft in the air at about 1352 hours going down and did not see any parachutes in the air and could not see if ditching was carried out because of it's distance from the formation.
Nome of the crewmembers bailed out of the ill-fated B-17. All followed the procedure of ditching a B-17 and met in the radio area. The crewmembers waiting for the aircraft to be ditched and S/Sgt Frank Tilling still was wearing his parachute that Charles Brown suggest he take off. The pilot Spenst and co-pilot Metzroth did a fine job and ditched the aircraft into the North Sea. The B-17 split on impact. The crewmembers threw their two life rafts into the sea and exited. Oil, fuel and smoke surrounded the aircraft. Lt. Pacek recovered one raft drifting away after he used his pants for a floatation device around his neck and returned to the floating crewmembers. With his parachute still on the tail gunner S/Sgt Frank Tilling who had every thing to live for a beautiful wife and girl child was holding onto the barrel of one of his fifty caliber guns when he let go he went under the water came up and then went under again never to be seen again. The rest of the crew unable to locate Tilling got into the rafts. Hours passed and the crew heard the sound of a planes engine.
On 7 August 1944 at 1827 hours the crew in the rafts again heard planes engines and fired several flares. They observed a lone B-17 flying towards Germany, which was unusual thinking it, might be a captured one by the Germans. A short time later another plane was heading towards the crew from the coast it was a German JU-88. The plane circled and the crew could tell that the pilot was calling someone on his radio. In a matter of minutes another German plane a BV-138, a three engine flying boat (Sea patrol # 4) dropped a smoke flare and landed in eight foot waves. As the plane taxied towards the crew in the rafts they could see a German airman holding a machine gun, the crew realizing their fate.
As the crew went aboard the seaplane the German aircrew for weapons searched them. When the crew of the ill-fated mission was aboard the German airmen slashed the rafts with bayonets to have them sink.
The BV-138 took off from the rough sea and flew to the Frisian Islands and landed on the water near a dock where a dolly was placed under the plane and the plane was pulled to the land. The crew was off loaded and was met by German soldiers and airmen who were saying to them in broken English “ For you the war is over”. The crew was taken to a base guardhouse and spent the night two to a cell. The next day 8 August 1944, the crew was taken by train to the Dulag Luft interrogation center in Oberursel, near Frankfurt Germany to be interviewed. On Aug 9,1944 at the interrogation center, a German officer interviewed the crew. When it was S/Sgt James E. Theiss's turn to be interviewed he walked into the room and radio operator T/Sgt Forrest E Crossman overheard Theiss give his name, rank and serial number and then the German officer say “ Hello Jim, how are you”. Theiss and the officer talked for a while and when Theiss walked out of the room and sat with the other crewmembers that asked what was the chatter with the German officer. Theiss said “the German officer and his family lived above him in the same building in Woodhaven Queens New York, where he grew up. The officers parents had a candy store on the corner of the block and that he and the German played and went to school together until high school. Then one day I never saw him again until today”.
After all of the interviews the crewmembers along with being shoeless because they took their booths off not to puncture the rafts, were striped of the money and watches. The Germans were fond of the military watches and took them for souvenirs.
The following day 9 August 1944 the crew was again put into train boxcars. Top Turret Gunner S/Sgt Charles Brown said it was one of the hairiest days of their capture because as they were in the marshalling yards, the air raid sirens started to howl. The train stopped and the Germans guards locked all the doors and ran for shelter. The crew was well aware that the railroad marshalling yards were prime targets for the heavy bombers. Fortunately there was another marshalling yard nearby that was the target for that day. After the all clear siren the train went on its way. When the train stopped they got off and marched to Stalag Luft 6. The crew's officers were taken to Stalag Luft 3.
About three weeks later the S/Sgt. James E. Theiss and the crews NCOs and other prisoners of war were put onto boxcars. The German boxcar is smaller then the American boxcars and it was crowded and uncomfortable. Also in the back of the crews minds was how the fighter “jocks' like to shoot at trains.
The trip was made without incident and the crew marched about a mile and a half along with the other POWs to Stalag Luft 4, which was still being built. For the first three weeks they slept in tents in the compound. When the construction was completed they were moved into barracks. The camp held up to 10,000 POWs of the allied services. The food was horrible, medical treatment was not the best and life was just bearable. Each airman was issued a coffee mug and a ceramic bowl, which was, used for a washbowl, washing machine and in an emergency a toilet.
With their time the POWs read books and chewed the fat with each other. Most the men walked around the camp looking for someone from their hometowns just to keep busy. They made cooking objects from the tin cans the Germans gave them in case they found something to cook and eat. Which was rarely the case. S/Sgt Jim Theiss drew a few in his diary he was keeping. Each barracks held two hundred and fifty airmen. Meals at Stalag Luft IV were as follows. Breakfast was a mug of hot water. The lucky airmen had something to put in it. Those who did not had hot water. Lunch, each barracks had to peel a ten quart pail of pig potatoes and if you did you would get your issued mug of potatoes. For supper they got a mug of what the Germans called soup. It contained grass, roots, and leaves. Never knowing what it was really made of the airmen called the soup whispering green death. It gave them the runs and kept their two-hole toilet busy all night long. Once they ate good and had meat. The ox the Germans used to move things drop dead. Hamburgers about the size of a silver dollar and just as thick, was issued to the airmen. Life in Stalag Luft IV was no Hogan’s Heroes.
In the beginning of February 1945, rumors began that the Russians were advancing and that we would be moving from the camp. On 6 February 1945 the POWs were marched out of the camp. Later to be called the Black March. On the way they went by a warehouse and received Red-Cross parcel and a blanket. During the march they marched through over eighty cities, towns and villages. Sleeping in locked barns, and in open fields. They marched for days being spat upon and having rocks thrown at them by the civilian population and on 26 April 1945 the POWs bedded down. The next morning a fellow told them that they would be liberated that day. No one believed him and then he produced a box of K-rations and said where do you think I got this. The crew and the POWs were on one side of the Elbe River and the American 104 th Infantry Division was on the other. That night G.I.s from the 104 th crossed the river and gave K-rations to some POWs.
The next day at noon the Germans told the POWs to fall in and there stood an American Infantry Major with his steel helmet and .45 on his hip. He was shouting orders at the Germans and POWs alike, and every one was obeying instantly. At his orders the Germans and POWs marched to the river. As the crew and POWs crossed the Elbe River they looked back and saw the Germans being disarmed and becoming POWs themselves by the Americans soldiers. The next few days the crew was fed and received medical treated. They were debriefed and taken to France. From France they arrived at New Port News, Virginia on 18 June 1945, and their war was finally over.
Ball Turret gunner S/Sgt. James E. Theiss went back to Woodhaven Queens, New York and married his sweetheart Hectorine Hendrickx. His wife passed away in 1970 and He passed away in 1990. Four children and thirteen grand children survive them.
Many thanks to the families of Norman Workman, Edward Pacek for their information. Also letters received from the crewmembers Forrest Crossman, Robert Hurd, concerning the story of the crew's last mission. Thank you to Charles Brown for his photos and story of the last mission. And to Chris Agent and Marc Benson armyairforces.com for their help in helping to gather information concerning S/Sgt. James E. Theiss.