MARYSVILLE — Frank Gadwa had two choices as his B-17 bomber was heading toward a crash landing near the Ruhr Valley during World War II.
Eject and become target practice for German gunners. Or go down with the plane.
To prepare for a rough touchdown, Gadwa crawled in to the radio room, one of the sturdiest places on the plane, he said.
This was Gadwa’s 15th mission after joining the 8th Air Force’s 95th Bomb Group stationed at a base in Horham, England.
He made it out alive, as did the rest of the 10-man crew, but this was just the start of a long journey.
The Marysville man spent nearly two years in a prisoner of war camp, liberated as the war ended. After returning home to Washington state, a car crash, which left him in a cast for more than a year, ended his plans of becoming a firefighter. Gadwa persisted, becoming a teacher, a profession he quickly came to adore.
“He is just that kind of person — you got to go forward not backward,” said Signe Gadwa, his wife of more than 72 years.
On Tuesday, Gadwa, now with a head full of white hair, celebrated his 99th birthday surrounded by most of his offspring of four children, six grandkids and 10 great-grandchildren. He is among the last of the Greatest Generation still alive.
Gadwa grew up in Cosmopolis, a small town on Washington’s central coast. He graduated from Aberdeen Jr. Sr. High School in 1938.
With a low draft number, at 21 he enlisted to be able to choose the branch of the military he would serve in. He wanted to be a pilot, but his colorblindness ended those dreams. Instead, Gadwa went to mechanic school and trained as an aerial gunner.
Once overseas, the target of his inaugural mission on a B-17 Flying Fortress was a submarine base in southwest France.
“They took a hell of a pounding. I have no idea how many times we got hit,” Gadwa said. “We were glad to get back over England.”
His 15th mission would be his last. The crew was sent to bomb a factory making synthetic oil from coal. The plane’s engines were damaged before they could get back to the base.
“After we landed, we got out of the plane as fast as we could,” Gadwa recalled 75 years later.
The group would eventually split up, some staying behind with a wounded man, others going east. Gadwa and one other airman headed west, back toward England.
“We were on our own for three days, sleeping in fields at night,” he said.
The pair eventually came upon a Catholic church. They knocked and a priest greeted them.
“At this time, some Catholic priests would help, some won’t,” Gadwa said.
This one turned out to be the latter, returning with two German officers.
The priest told Gadwa he had to inform the Gestapo of their presence or risk his entire congregation.
“I understood. We would rather be taken prisoner than have people we never knew killed,” Gadwa said. “I forgave him. He was sorry he had to do it; he had to do it his way.”
Gadwa was sent to Stalag 7A, a prisoner of war camp in southern Germany. He was later transferred to Stalag 17B in Austria.
“It was a paradise compared to 7A,” Gadwa said.
He was there for about two years, where he spent much of his time “figuring ways to dig tunnels.”
“The only way one escaped is they were shot and taken to the cemetery and buried,” Gadwa said.
His voice rarely wavered recollecting war stories. But tears formed at the edges of his eyes recalling the day he was forced to stand for 10 hours in four feet of snow after being caught trying to build a radio.
The crude punishment left him with frostbite in one of his legs, causing lasting nerve damage. A fellow prisoner, who was a doctor, cared for him, saving his leg. The prisoners of war all pitched in, such as a trained dentist who filled cavities with porcelain. Gadwa became the barber.
“I traded two packs of American cigarettes for the razor. I gave 40 shaves for five bucks.”
As the war was winding down, the POWs were forced to march west to France. The 300-mile journey was done in less than 20 days. Those too sick to continue were shot or left to die.
“We walked through the snow, rain, hail. You tried to keep your head covered,” Gadwa said.
At the end of the forced march, Allied forces were closing in and Gadwa was liberated in May 1945. He was back home in Cosmopolis two months later and married his wife, Signe, the following year.
He used the GI bill to go to school and study teaching.
He was hired by the Marysville School District in 1953. Later he served as the principal at Shoultes Elementary School, where he was also the sixth-grade teacher and janitor initially.
Lois Carlson, Gadwa’s oldest child, said growing up she didn’t hear her father talk much about the war.
“If we asked, he would tell the funny stories, he wouldn’t talk about his feelings,” Carlson said.
“In our kid trial and errors, there wasn’t a lot of sympathy. He knew what deprivation was,” she said. “He has known adversity in a way that most of us never will. When asked how he managed to persevere, on the forced march, after the devastating accident … he says I told myself, ‘Just keep going, just keep going’ and that’s what he has done to this day.”
Lizz Giordano: 425-374-4165; email@example.com; Twitter: @lizzgior.