Jeff Jardine

The Bonds of War

They were shot down over Hungary five days apart during World War II.

They both bailed out of their planes and were captured by some really mad Hungarians.

They were housed a floor ortwo apart in the same stone prison in Budapest, emerging with similar stories of bugs and bad culinary experiences.

They both endured long, forced marches from their respective German prison camps as the Russians surged in from the east.

And back home after the war, one worked for a company that made specialty bodies for trucks and the other became a truck mechanic.

Despite their parallel existences, Chuck Walker and Allen Sughrue didn't meet until Friday, when Sughrue moved into the Samaritan Village senior living complex in Hughson. Walker has lived there for the past 4½ years.

"I have one big question," said Walker, who flew a P-38 fighter plane assigned to protect B-17 bombers such as the one from which Sughrue bailed. "What day were you shot down?"

Sughrue's plane went down July2, 1944, another kill by a pack of German ME-109s five days before a 109 also sent Walker's crippled plane to the ground.

"We had mechanical problems and got all shot up," Sughrue said, then joked, "I was looking for you. Where were you?"

"This is going to take some time," Walker said, beaming.

They'll have plenty of it in the retirement complex — time to compare their stories and rekindle their memories.

Their kinship was immediate. The bonds of war supersede something so inconsequential as not really knowing each other. As they chatted, they learned their units both had been transferred from the North Africa campaign to an air base in Foggia, Italy, that had been captured from the Germans.

In his 11th mission in a B-17, Sughrue's plane had been damaged badly by the German planes while on a bombing run near Yugoslavia. He took shrapnel in his right leg.

"Three of them just shot us to pieces," he said.

Sughrue was the last of the crew to bail, staying behind to change his shoes and to make sure everyone else had gotten out.

"I free-fell at least 10,000 feet," Sughrue said. "I didn't want to get shot by the fighter planes while I was in a parachute."

He didn't pull the rip cord until he was about 5,000 from the ground, and landed in a grove of trees surrounded by a bog.

Five days later, Walker was shot down when his plane lost an engine, making him easy prey for an ME-109. He hit his head during the bailout, getting a concussion.

"I was knocked unconscious," Walker said. "I don't remember bailing out."

He somehow managed to pull the rip cord, and his parachute opened. As he hit the ground, he knew he wasn't much safer than he had been in the air.

"When I got my act together, I knew I had to get out of there," Walker said.

Unfriendly civilians

He came upon a Hungarian farmer and thought that might be a good thing. Many times, the rural people helped downed American pilots. Those days of goodwill were over, as he learned when other Hungarians showed up.

"They were angry with me," Walker said. "They beat me up and knocked me unconscious again."

The finishing blow came when the flat side of a shovel whacked the side of his head. He was turned over to Hungarian authorities and taken to an abandoned airfield near Lake Balaton in central Hungary. He soon was joined by the crew of the downed B-17. One crewman had been poked in the back by a pitchforkwielding farmer.

Finally, a Hungarian army captain explained the natives' hostility toward the Yanks: The Germans had convinced them that if the Americans won, they would kill the Hungarians' babies and rape their women.

"They believed them," he said.

Likewise, Sughrue incurred the wrath of the Hungarian locals.

"I tried to hide out until night, figuring I could work my way into Yugoslavia," he said. "The partisans were pretty good about helping us."

But the Hungarians combed the bog until they found him. Two of them were in-his-face screamers who wanted a lynching party.

"I missed being hung by about five minutes," Sughrue said. "Two Hungarian soldiers came and took me away from (the mob)."

After the village doctor cleaned his shrapnel wound, the soldiers took him to Budapest. There, the locals spat in his face and begged the soldiers to look the other way while they beat him to death, he said.

"I was thankful for those guards," Sughrue said.

He was taken to an old, four-story stone prison in Budapest and placed in a 6-by-10-foot cell on the second floor. His bed was a small wooden bench.

"The place was infested with bedbugs," Sughrue said. During the day, they hid in the brittle plaster on the walls.

"You could push on the loose stuff and blood would run out because you'd squished bedbugs," Sughrue said. "They were bloodsuckers."

He pulled the wooden bench away from the walls, making it tougher for the bugs to get to him at night.

"But you'd get a smart bedbug that would drop onto you from the ceiling," Sughrue said.

Walker was taken to the same prison and placed in a cell on the third or fourth floor. He said fleas were the problem there.

"They were horrendous," Walker said. "To pass the time, I'd count how many fleas I killed — or how many bites were on me."

Both men said they were interrogated frequently by German officers, then returned to their solitary confinement cells.

"We had private rooms," Walker quipped. "We didn't have to share."

Mystery food

They said the prison cuisine, if you could call it that, was pinch-your-nose edible at best.

Sughrue, Walker and the other POWs survived on a diet consisting of a can of "some kind of liquid" for breakfast and boiled sugar beet tops for lunch. The one-course dinner?

"A barley soup with some kind of livestock floating in it," Walker said. "At first, I refused to eat it. But it wasn't long before you just ate whatever they brought you."

Walker stayed there less than a month before being put into a boxcar for a train ride to Stalag Luft III, southeast of Berlin. The camp primarily housed officers who were airmen. Walker was a second lieutenant. Events at Stalag Luft III, before Walker's arrival, became the basis for the movie "The Great Escape."

Despite Hitler's crackdown after the great escape, the British and Americans continued to run a radio station under the Germans' noses.

"We listened to the BBC every night," Walker said.

One POW stole the commandant's pet dachshund, he said.

"He'd tied (the dog) outside the barracks, and when he came back out, the leash and the collar were there, but the dog wasn't," Walker said. "Somebody had him for dinner."

Sughrue's stay at the Budapest prison lasted about six weeks before he was shipped to Stalag Luft IV, along the Baltic Coast.

Marching orders

With the German military machine weakened by incessant pounding by Allied forces, the Russians moved west in February 1945. The Germans forced the POWs to march, trekking for 86 days in the harsh German winter. Sughrue figures he walked more than 600 miles, often backtracking as dictated by news of Allied troop movements. He crossed the Elbe River three times in a month.

Walker, meanwhile, went on an extended hike that took him into Vienna, Austria, where he briefly was held in a small prison.

"They put me in a cell, and I woke up with a rat on my face and a rat on my stomach," Walker said. "I'll bet that rat on my face is still in orbit."

From there, he marched to Frankfurt, sleeping in barns to stay out of the snow, and "liberating" whatever food he could find. He ultimately ended up in Stalag VII A in Moosburg, where tanks from Gen. Patton's 3rd Army came crashing through the fences to free the POWs.

Patton was never one to knock.

"Ten months almost to the day," Walker said, referring to the day he was captured.

Sughrue was in a village in northern Germany when a truck carrying British officers approached the POWs and told them the Allies had seized control of the area. They were now free.

Within weeks — after getting deloused, new clothes and decent food — both men were homeward bound on transport ships.

"There was never a day like the day we pulled into New York Harbor and there was that statue," Walker said.

Sughrue was disappointed that his ship went to Norfolk, Va., instead, depriving him of his own rendezvous with Lady Liberty.

That was a long, long time ago.

Friday, thanks to Samaritan Village officials who make it a point to know their residents, former POWs and coincidental prison mates Sughrue and Walker finally met.

They endured bullets and flak, the Hungarians, the Germans, vermin and malnutrition, and lived to tell about it.

"God was good to both of us," Walker said.

"I can't complain," Sughrue said. "We're here."

Jeff Jardine's column appearsSundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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