Snohomish man’s WWII service included 9 months as POW

SNOHOMISH — Shortly after graduating from high school in 1939, Harold Wanamaker walked into town for a dentist appointment.

He saw a military recruiting poster — “one of those signs with the guy pointing his finger at me,” he said.

Wanamaker, then 18, asked the recruiter if he could fly planes.

“The next day, I was in Fort Slocum, New York, as a private in the Army Air Corps headed to Panama,” he said.

He got to Panama a month later. His first job was working on radios in P-26s, open-cockpit fighter planes.

Then the war started.

Wanamaker entered flying school in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He later was assigned to a base in Enid, Oklahoma. There, he met his bride, Belva Jean, at a U.S.O. music event.

“There was Belva standing by the post waiting for me,” he said.

“Waiting to dance, that’s what I was doing,” she said.

Big band music star Glenn Miller recently had disappeared while on a flight over the English Channel, but other members of his band were playing the No. 1 dance band of the time, Belva Jean Wanamaker said.

They had a wonderful dance. They’ve now been married 71 years.

Wanamaker was transferred again, to Kansas. He designed equipment to hold clothes in the barracks. He built shelves for the library.

He was promoted to technical sergeant and sent to officer candidate school, then bombardier school, then to Salt Lake City, then Italy, on a crew.

He started flying missions as a bombardier in May 1944, in B-24s.

“Some of them were rough, where a lot of people got shot down, stuff like that,” he said. “We were fortunate until the 10th mission.”

On that mission, the target was a German airplane-engine plant near Munich.

“We hit that target, and they hit us, too, put a lot of holes in the airplane,” he said.

The crews didn’t think they could make it back to base.

The pilot got the plane across the Alps and over the Adriatic Sea. Then he lost control.

The men were ordered to bail out. The plane whipped up, and Wanamaker was thrown free.

Wanamaker hit the water and tried to find the others. Their flight suits filled with water, making it hard to swim. Six people died. Four survived.

The survivors had trouble inflating their life jackets because of the way they’d looped the lanyards out of the way, on the plane.

Wanamaker went under. He finally got one side of his jacket inflated, and surfaced.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a breath of air that was as good as that one,” he said.

A two-man dinghy popped up out of the wreckage. Two of the survivors climbed in. Wanamaker and the fourth man lied on the side tubes.

The survivors were afloat for three hours with no paddles, no supplies.

They figured they’d have to hand-paddle to Yugoslavia.

Finally, a PBY flying boat showed up, escorted by P-38s. Rescuers collected the survivors, despite six-foot swells.

Wanamaker got a week of vacation on the island of Capri. Then he went back to flying.

Four missions later, his crew was shot down again.

They’d been bombing bridges in the area of Avignon, France.

Wanamaker and the pilot and some of the others bailed out. The co-pilot refused to jump. The plane crashed in a vineyard near Montpellier. Within three days, the Germans disassembled the wreckage.

Wanamaker was taken prisoner. He was interrogated.

His right foot had been broken when he bailed out. The Germans made him walk on it before setting the bone nine days later. A bullet also had nicked his left ring finger as he had floated down under a parachute.

Some of the guards were decent to him. One helped him hatch an escape plot, stashing guns, a German uniform and a motorcycle, but Wanamaker was transferred before he could try.

“When you talked to these different people, even the Germans, they didn’t want the war,” he said.

Wanamaker was taken to an interrogation center and various hospitals before the Stalag Luft III prison camp, south of Berlin.

Wanamaker wasn’t allowed to wash his hands for more than a week. The bullet wound became infected and he got blood poisoning. A red streak ran up his left arm.

A British doctor told him to take off the bandage.

“That finger was actually rotted, black, shredded. You could see the bone,” he said.

The doctor gave him a shot of sodium pentothal, an anesthetic drug sometimes called “truth serum.”

The doctor fixed up his finger while he was out.

Wanamaker woke up hours later, feeling hungry but without the pain in his arm. He was thankful.

When the Russians drew close, the Germans forced Wanamaker and others to march. It was the middle of the night, and cold, a long row of prisoners.

Nine of the prisoners were put in a horse-drawn wagon because their injuries made it hard to walk. Their guard, an older man, wasn’t allowed to ride along with them, and they lost him as he lagged behind.

Wanamaker’s broken foot swelled too much to fit in his shoe. One night in a barn, he fashioned a boot out of straw.

Eventually, the prisoners were put into train cars and taken to Moosburg, north of Munich.

“We were all sick, just absolutely sick, didn’t care if we lived or died,” he said. “It was absolutely miserable, but we finally got to take showers. We hadn’t had showers in quite a while.”

In the prison camp, there was little wood to make fires. The prisoners heated water in cans over stick fires.

One prisoner had been a disc jockey. On Saturdays, the man played records for the others.

During Christmastime, the prisoners sang Handel’s “Messiah”. They invited the German officers to watch.

“I wouldn’t have believed it, but there were tears in some of those guys’ eyes,” Wanamaker said. “I still enjoy the ‘Messiah.’”

On April 29, 1945, an American tank broke down the gate to the camp.

The prisoners were liberated by the 14th Armored Division, attached to Gen. George S. Patton’s troops.

Wanamaker remembers a young soldier on the tank playing a song on the radio: “Don’t Fence Me In.”

“You should have heard the cheer that went up when they heard that,” he said.

After they were liberated, they scrounged for food, bumming rations, sometimes using explosives to stun fish out of the river.

Wanamaker got home in June. He’d been a prisoner of war for nine months.

His wife, Belva Jean, had stayed with her folks in Oklahoma, working as a secretary for an oil company.

Wanamaker took two and a half years of college classes in engineering in Colorado but suffered from headaches and health problems and had to drop out. He worked as a mailman and as a meatcutter, among other jobs.

With one son born, the Wanamakers moved back to Oklahoma, looking for work.

Then his wife suggested he try Boeing in Wichita, Kansas. He went in on a Saturday. Belva and their son waited in the car.

Wanamaker took a job on second shift. It paid $1.37 an hour. He worked for Boeing more than three decades, retiring in 1983.

The Wanamakers raised three kids. He transferred to the Seattle area in 1968. Belva came a year later, because their kids were finishing up high school and college.

In 1970, they had their home built in Snohomish, overlooking Blackmans Lake. The house is warm and tidy, the lake view framed by turquoise curtains.

Wanamaker also spent time in the reserves and the Air National Guard, retiring from the military as a major.

This past Memorial Day, Wanamaker, 93, was asked to throw the first pitch at the Mariners game in Seattle. He and more than two dozen other veterans were invited to the game. They recently had taken an honor flight to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C.

That “first pitch” was more of a “first roll-in,” he said, but at least it rolled over the plate.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

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