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13 Months as a POW

by Bob Festa
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Lucky Louise the downed crew
"Lucky Louise"
"The downed crew (Bob Festa is at far left)"

Just 20 years old, I was about to fly my 48th combat mission during the Korean War in Lucky Louise. The crew was Capt. John P. Ahlers, Pilot, Capt. Robert C. Henry, Navigator, and myself. Since January 1952, I'd been flying as a gunner on a three-man B-26 crew at Kunsan Air Base, Korea. Two more missions and I could go home.

We left Kunsan Air Base at 22:50 hours on 9 August 1952. We were about five hours into a six-hour mission and had stopped some heavy traffic on our assigned mission, Blue Route, I believe. Our route was near the center of North Korea. We were low on ammo and had no bombs left. We had been picking up light flak as we made our last pass into the valley at about 1,500 feet. We were looking up at the hilltops when we were hit in the right main gas tank just behind the engine. With the right wing on fire, Capt. Ahlers called on the emergency channel, "Pintail one-four squawking Mayday." He repeated the call twice and gave the order to bail out

I hit the salvo switch to open the bomb-bay doors, put on the chest pack parachute and tightened the leg straps (how did I remember that?) and bailed out. The chute opened and before I had a chance to look down, I hit the ground. I made contact with Capt. Henry, who had dislocated his left elbow on bail-out and was in a lot of pain. I hid the parachutes. The aircraft had crashed about 200 yards away from us and was burning. I could hear the unspent ammo exploding.

We knew many North Koreans were milling around the aircraft because we saw flashlights and heard loud voices. We headed away from the aircraft in the opposite direction -- stumbling in the dark over heavy underbrush and across small streams. After moving for what seemed like a long time, we stopped and tried to contact aircraft above. About an hour after sunrise, we saw soldiers spread out about every five feet or so in a line across the valley and they quickly spotted us. They fired at us hitting all around. We did not return their fire. Eventually they came upon us and suggested we put up our hands, which we did. They took our dog tags and at this point I was afraid we would be killed.

The North Korean soldiers marched us through the center of a nearby village. Try to imagine being 20 years old, in a flight suit, walking through a town where people are looking at you, and you are imagining them saying, "These are the one's who were flying that plane last night, dropping bombs on us and shooting us." They must have been upset. I figured they'd march us right to the center of town and that would be the end of us. Instead, they took us to a local interrogator, who we assumed was from an Eastern Bloc Country. He could speak Korean but not English. A Korean, who could speak his language and English acted as an intermediator. As language was a big problem, our first interrogation was not very aggressive. They did tell us Capt. Ahlers was killed.

We left the village the following evening and traveled south. I learned a little from Capt. Henry about the North Star and its location in relationship to the Big Dipper. The journey took us through what I thought was a number of North Korean military areas under control of different North Korean officers. They all wanted to talk to us but it seemed mainly to harass us. The "Blood Chit" was especially amusing to them. They would taunt us and say an American plane would pick us up later.

The "Blood Chit" was an escape kit with a map, Pointe-talkie translater, money, maybe gold, and guidance on getting the local populace to help you escape and evade, promising a big reward to anyone who helped an aviator return to his lines.

Language was always a problem during that time so our interrogations were not bad. The North Koreans tried to set Capt. Henry's arm but all they did was hurt him more.

All the time we were being bombed and strafed by our own aircraft. Being on the other end of things, I was glad we weren't as accurate as we thought we were. We did run off the road once when the driver turned off the truck headlights to hide from the planes.

We arrived in Pyongyang about 20 August 1952 at a place called "Pok's Palace." It was a compound of mud huts with one exit and was guarded 24 hours a day. We were given two bowls of gray watery rice every day and slept on dried mud floors -- with many lice and fleas. At the guards' discretion, we were allowed to wash in the river once every other day or so. We had no electric lights, hot or cold water. We had to work every day, either honey dipping (take a pail, go to the latrines and scoop the waste which was then carried to the fields and used to fertilize the crops), or weeding winter cabbage or cotton.

About a week after being captured, I finally ate. One day while working in the fields, I stole a clove of garlic. Later, I rubbed it in my rice bowl which improved the flavor 100%. From then on, if I could steal anything I did.

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