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A debt of gratitude

World War II veteran recalls his experience as a prisoner of war

Created date

November 4th, 2015
Jim Silva holds war memorial from his time in POW camp

Jim Silva has a special file tucked away in his Brooksby apartment home. The nondescript manila folder holds memories far removed from his life at the Peabody, Mass., Erickson Living community. But time and distance haven’t diminished the file’s significance. For Jim, it’s a reminder of his freedom.

Jim was a prisoner of war during World War II, held with other Allied soldiers at a German prisoner of war camp in Saint-Nazaire, on France’s western coast. 

“I graduated from high school in 1942, and I knew the draft was coming,” says Jim. “I wanted to be either a PT [patrol torpedo] boat commander or a fighter pilot, and I thought I’d have a better chance at one of those positions if I had some undergraduate education.”

Jim enrolled at Northeastern University two weeks after his high school graduation. He joined the reserves in December 1942 and, after completing his freshman year at Northeastern, went into active duty in March 1943, signing up with the aviation cadet program to be a fighter pilot in the Army Air Force. He earned his wings in January 1944 and was sent to Europe that August.

“The D-Day invasion had already taken place, so we went right over to the continent,” says Jim. “Patton was advancing so rapidly through France, he didn’t leave many troops behind to guard his right flank.”

Jim, a second lieutenant with the 160th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 363rd, Tactical Reconnaissance Group, 9th Air Force, provided air reconnaissance for Allied troops on the ground.

Shot down

“I was flying with another pilot near Saint-Nazaire, France,” says Jim. “He was doing reconnaissance, and I was providing cover. I was about 5,000 feet up in my P-51 when I saw black puffs of anti-aircraft fire pop up around me. I felt the plane lift about five feet, then I saw black smoke coming from the engine.”

Emergency procedure called for Jim to pull a lever on his right side to release the bubble canopy, disconnect his seatbelt and shoulder harnesses, crawl out on the wing, and slide off the trailing edge of the wing.

“I was a cool 20-year-old, so instead of jettisoning the canopy, I cranked it open and inserted a pin to keep it in place,” says Jim. “I started to slide out and realized that I hadn’t disconnected my throat microphone and my headset. I slid back in, disconnected my microphone and headset, and started to crawl back out.”

As Jim crawled out of the plane a second time, his knee hit the pin holding the crank in place. The canopy closed with Jim half in, half out of the plane.

“By now, the plane was in a dive, and I knew I was in trouble,” says Jim. “I finally got enough of my body out that the airspeed dragged me right out of the plane. I was wearing a parachute and pulled the rip cord just as I passed the tree line.”

Jim heard gunfire as soon as he hit the ground. Scooping up his parachute, he ran for a hedgerow.

“About the time I was diving over the hedgerow, it dawned on me that the gunfire was ammunition from my own plane going off,” says Jim.

Danger was still close at hand.

“I buried my parachute in a pile of dead leaves,” says Jim. “When I looked up, a German was about 75 feet away with his rifle leveled at me. I had to make a quick decision. Do I run or do I give up? I knew he was close enough to make the shot, so I lifted my arms in surrender. It was a good call, because another German had snuck around behind me. He would have made the shot for sure.”

POW camp

The German soldiers took Jim to a two-story house where he was questioned by a German private who recognized Jim’s New England accent.

“This German private had worked for Cunard Steamship Lines and was familiar with America,” says Jim. “He tried to see what information about the war he could get from me, but I only gave my name, rank, and serial number. That was all I was required to give under the terms of the Geneva Convention.”

Jim was moved to the prisoner of war camp in Saint-Nazaire and placed in solitary confinement. 

“It wasn’t really solitary, because I could hear rats rustling under the straw,” says Jim. “They fed me through the door and questioned me once a day. After six days, I could tell they were getting impatient and threatened to shoot me. I gave them my home address, and they let me out of solitary the next day. I think they just wanted me to give up any scrap of information.”

Jim met the other Allied troops held captive, mostly Americans and a few British and French soldiers.

“I lost 15 pounds during the two and a half months I was there,” says Jim. “For lunch, they fed us soup so thin you could read a newspaper through it. For dinner, we had coarse bread with straw sticking out of it.”

Prisoner exchange

Jim and the other captives didn’t know it at the time, but a field director for the American Red Cross, A. Gerow Hodges, was crossing into Axis-held territory to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

Gerow was a college graduate from Alabama who wanted to support the war effort. A shoulder injury prevented him from active military service, so he joined the Red Cross. Initially tasked with taking relief supplies to Allied prisoners of war, Gerow recognized that it would be easier for both sides to take care of their own men. Throughout the war, he negotiated the exchange of 149 Allied prisoners for a like number of German prisoners of war.

“I didn’t meet Gerow until 2002, but I owe him a debt of gratitude,” says Jim. “His negotiations with the Germans secured our freedom.”

The two groups of soldiers converged at Pornic, France, on November 29, 1944, for the prisoner exchange. Army photographers were on hand to document the Allied troops as they marched toward freedom.

“Before the exchange, I had a 100 franc note that the Germans didn’t find when they captured and searched me,” says Jim. “All of us who were held at Saint-Nazaire wrote our names and addresses on the note. I still have it to this day.”

Still serving

The 100 franc note is tucked inside Jim’s file folder, along with a 1944 newspaper clipping displaying a photo of the prisoner exchange.

After World War II, Jim went on to fly 33 missions during the Korean War. He completed his degree in mechanical engineering at Northeastern and went to work for Sylvania, later GTE.

In July 2000, Jim and his wife Dot were among the first residents to move to Brooksby from their home in Lexington.

“Our move to Brooksby made life a lot easier,” says Jim. “I don’t worry about harsh winters or home maintenance anymore.”

Jim served on Brooksby’s Resident Advisory Council and was the first Brooksby resident appointed to the community’s Board of Directors.

“I have a full life at Brooksby,” he says. “But I’m still mindful of the price paid for freedom.”