Joe Fodor bails out, then survives Stalag-17
On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Originally published on 2 January 2012
A Story of War
Joe Fodor is going on 90 now, but you would never know it when you see him move, listen to him talk and look into those bright blue eyes. Joe has been to places many of us may have heard of but would not want to be there, ourselves, under those circumstances. Joe Fodor used to live in Stalag-17. His story is so incredible that it seems almost impossible for anyone to grasp how many of the events in his life could happen to just one person. The Footloose Forester is humbled with the opportunity at hand to tell his tale, and he will try and do justice to Joe Fodor’s true story.
Joe Fodor is a native of Imperial, Pennsylvania where he grew up and now still lives with Alice, his wife of 60 years. On the day after Memorial Day, 2011 Joe agreed to sit down with the Footloose Forester and talk of the days when Joe was an airman with the US Army Air Force. He had tried to enlist as a volunteer in the spring of 1942, but the recruiters took one look at the place on his right hand where he was missing his middle finger, due to an industrial accident, and they immediately dismissed him. A few months later, however, his draft notice arrived in the mail and he was ordered to report for a physical exam at Bridgeville, Pennsylvania. The attitude this time was much different, as the interviewer motioned with his trigger finger that his missing middle finger would not be a problem.
After induction and the series of tests to determine where he would fit in, Joe and only two others inducted that day were sent to basic training in Clearwater, Florida. Except that he did not go to basic training; instead he was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi and then to Love Field near Dallas, Texas for aviation training. His assignment was going to be as a flight engineer in a B-17. All the others in his class were assigned as members of ground crews. Flight crew members were different in regards to the kind of advanced training they received. Joe learned how to fire and maintain the twin-mounted 50-caliber machine guns in the top turret, the twin fifties in the ball turret, and the waist guns. He was not trained as a gunner but as a flight mechanic, but they told him that he would soon learn on the job, and he quickly got the hang of the machine guns. Top turret gunnery practice was at towed gliders above the desert floor near Blythe, California; and belly turret gunnery was at targets on the ground.
Joe Foder (center) with his B-17 crew
Following just enough training to get his crew to the next stage for a combat assignment, Joe and his crew made ready for deployment to their advanced base in Chelveston, England. A colored photo of that entire crew hangs on the living room wall in Joe’s house in Imperial, PA; and Joe patiently pointed out each and every member to an amazed Footloose Forester who could not pick out the 22 year old Joe Fodor. After guessing wrong three times from among the six enlisted men squatting in front, Joe acknowledged that he was the blond-headed one, third from the left. Joe then identified the pilot, co-pilot, communications officer and the navigator; all of whom stood in the back line. The officers were all lieutenants who subsequently played into the grand story that spanned decades. Joe described his crew in such a way that anyone could tell that it was a family that would never be forgotten.
Joe Fodor's crew in 1943. Joe is the third from the left, front row
Joe’s first bombing mission out of Chelveston Air Base with the 305th Bomb Group was under the command of General Curtis LeMay. That relationship was short-lived; and although Curtis LeMay had started the 305th Bomb Group, he was soon thereafter re-assigned to command the USAF program of brand new B-29s that were destined to begin their combat history in the Pacific Theatre. As the incredible history of Joe Fodor continued to unfold, one brief story at a time, he then mentioned to an astonished Footloose Forester that he had witnessed the first flight of the prototype B-29 at Seattle, Washington. And it was the first crash of a B-29, killing all nine civilian Boeing test pilots/engineers as the pilot clipped the top of a meat packing plant near the runway. But because the B-29 as a military secret was still in the production phase at the time, the Pittsburgh newspaper reported that the plane that had crashed was a B-17. Joe’s family was very worried because they knew he was in Seattle undergoing training in B-17s.
B-17 with notches on its belt
That first bombing mission out of Chelveston was to attack enemy shipyards on the French coast near LeHavre. Some days later, the second was to hit an industrial complex at Emdom, on the North Sea near Bremen, Germany. A few days later, and on only his third mission, Joe Fodor and his B-17 were shot down over Cologne, Germany.
Earlier in the morning of 4 October 1943, Joe and his crew penetrated deep into Germany to conduct the first-ever daylight B-17 bombing raid on Frankfurt. Flak was heavy but in his group, only Joe’s plane was hit. He saw two other bombers in other formations go down. German fighter planes sensed the easy targets and zeroed in on Joe’s stricken bomber. Soon afterward, pilot Clyde Bailey motioned to Joe, who was occupying the top gun turret, to go to the back of the plane and notify the seven other crew members to bail out. Communication by inter-com radio was not possible because the intercom had been shredded. Returning back to the cockpit to report, Joe noticed that pilot Bailey had already jumped, but co-pilot Fred Maas had not. Lieutenant Maas announced forcefully that he was not going to jump, but intended to nurse the bomber back to England. Joe joined him in the cockpit in the pilot’s seat, so as to assist the co-pilot in flying the plane. They got as far north as Cologne.
In the time interval since their plane was hit by flak over Frankfurt and they had to bail out over Cologne, Joe’s B-17 was harassed by at least one Messerschmitt ME-109. Three of the crew members were killed: tail gunner Doskus; ball turret gunner Hall; and assistant radioman Sayles, apparently while still in the tail section and after Joe told them to bail out. A fourth crew member, the navigator Lt. Pickering, died outside the plane when his parachute failed to open. Assistant flight engineer Dapkowitz was badly wounded in the right arm but managed to parachute safely. He was later repatriated to the United States in a prisoner exchange. Joe Fodor and Frank Maas finally bailed out when their bomber burst into flames over Cologne.
Joe jumped first and looked back to see his plane swooping down in a slow wide arc, with fire in the tail section. As he floated down, he saw the face of the German ME-109 pilot who had finally done them in. The pilot circled nearby and waved. Joe waved back. Then the ME-109 pilot circled upward toward the parachute of Lt. Maas, who was the last person to abandon the crippled B-17. Again, the German pilot waved; this time to Lt. Maas. Joe watched from below as Lt. Frank Maas waved back. Finally, Joe Fodor watched as the B-17E nosed down and crashed into a fiery ball in the center of Cologne.
Some stories are so incredible that it becomes difficult to grasp all of the implications. Joe Fodor will never forget exactly where he was at 1:00PM on 4 October 1943. He was floating down in a parachute as it drifted toward the center of Cologne, Germany. And he was worried that his chute might snag on the towering 515-foot tall twin spires of the historic Cathedral of Cologne, begun in the year 1248. That magnificent gothic cathedral had been spared by the Allies and was, and still is, the civic pride of Cologne. Historical accounts may mention that it was heavily damaged during the war, but on that day it was intact except that the windows were boarded up to prevent from being shattered. As Joe and Lt. Maas floated to the ground, civilians on hand later commented that they thought that he or Lt. Maas, or both, would be impaled on one of the spires; or be swept into the Rhine River not far from the city center.
Both American airmen from their downed B-17 bomber landed safely but soon were captured and spent the next 19 months as prisoners of war. Joe remembers being sent to Bonn and then to Frankfurt for interrogation, where he was photographed and given a registration number before being sent to Stalag-17. The photo below was taken from ransacked files at Stalag-17 when the camp was being evacuated in 1945.
Interrogation photo of Joe Fodor, taken in Frankfurt, Germany in 1943
For Joe Fodor, being a prisoner of war and, as an enlisted man, meant being sent to a POW camp so infamous that many moviegoers will relate to it by name—Stalag 17. There was a special unit at Stalag-17B, the name by which Joe remembers it, that was reserved for enlisted American airmen; and Joe met other airmen there who confirmed to him that except for the three crew members who perished inside the bomber when it was strafed by the ME-109, and the navigator whose parachute failed to open, all the others who bailed out landed safely. But all six of them became prisoners of war. The three surviving officers were sent to a special officers POW camp for American aviators, and the enlisted men were sent to Stalag-17B in Krems, Austria. Sad to say, almost all of Joe Fodor’s old friends who he knew in the POW camps are dead now. There were three other men from the area around Imperial, Pennsylvania who were also in Stalag-17, but only Steve Korba from nearby Neville Island is still alive.
As the war began to wind down in the spring of 1945, things got a bit quieter around Stalag-17. The Germans knew by then that they would lose the war and they made plans to evacuate Stalag-17, and those plans also included marching the approximately 5,000 American prisoners toward Germany and the American lines. The Russians were advancing from the east and Joe Fodor was empathic as he related his story to the Footloose Forester, what he was told by the Germans themselves: that the Germans did not want to be captured by the Russians, whom they feared. So, in late March or early April, 1945 Joe Fodor and some 5,000 captured American airmen began a long march on foot toward the American lines.
They walked for many, many days. Joe doesn’t remember how many; but the evacuation route was over 200 miles long. Emaciated prisoners walked by day and they slept in the woods at night. Along the way, there were a few events that he does remember clearly. At one stage, an elderly German guard who was actually quite friendly, by Joe’s account, pointed to a small white house high on a hillside above the road and said that was the very house in which Adolf Hitler was born. The information proved to be false, however, but the Austrian Government has retained Hitler’s actual birthplace nearby in the little town of Braunau, Austria, for historical purposes.
At another time, as the columns of prisoners were taking a break near a functioning German Luftwaffe base, somewhere between Linz and Salzburg, several young German pilots came out from behind the gates and chatted with the Americans, in English. Some had studied in the United States, and quite a few of the younger Germans spoke good English. Joe had noticed several ME-109s and Focke-Wulf 190s on the tarmac, so when two American P-51 Mustangs swooped over them, nobody was alarmed. Out of curiosity, Joe asked why the pilots did not scramble to intercept the two lonely P-51s, since the Germans had plenty of pilots and plenty of planes available; and the war was still going on. The answer, the young pilots told him, was that they didn’t have any fuel; and besides when they did get some fuel, they always saved it for attacking the Russians to the east. If this story sounds like it was made up, that is part of the irony of war. Give full credit to Joe Fodor for telling a true story so forcefully and vividly that the incredulous Footloose Forester was astounded by how surreal the situation was.
One other story is worth noting, lest anyone doubt that the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. When Joe Fodor was on that long road to repatriation in Austria in the spring of 1945, he met up with a German soldier who lived in Cleveland, Ohio. He was an American citizen who was forced to join the German army as a young man when his family, then vacationing in Germany when the war broke out, was not permitted to leave. He approached the American prisoners and asked if anyone in the group came from Cleveland, Ohio. When one prisoner said that he was from Cleveland, the German/American soldier asked him what street he lived on. Both of them lived, or had lived, on the same street in Cleveland and went to the same school. In a final bit of irony, the American in a German uniform announced loudly that he would beat all of them back to Cleveland.
Four of the Fodor brothers from Imperial, Pennsylvania fought in World War II, all the way to the end. All survived to tell other tales.
Update: April 2018
The last time we passed by Joe Fodor's house in Imperial, Pennsylvania, there was no sign of activity. Chances are he and his wife passed on. He would have been 96 and that is precisely the reason why the Footloose Forester wanted to keep his memory alive. At the time when we were still polishing up the interview notes in 2012, the Footloose Forester knocked on the back door to get Joe's attention. There was no sound so after a few minutes he turned to go back to his car. Joe was in back of him, beads of perspiration on his brow. Without elaboration, he said he was out back mowing the lawn. It was a push mower that he navigated in cleats up and down his decidedly steep lawn. Footloose Forester may have been flabbergasted to know that a 90-year-old man would think nothing of it, but truth is stranger than fiction. Of all the mental images he retains of Joe Fodor, that quiet appearance of an unassuming man is the most overpowering.
Finally, in mid-2018 we learned that Joe had passed about three years ago. His beloved Alice, wife of 65 years, passed just two or three weeks ahead of him. Joe Fodor probably died of a broken heart.
Epilogue: 22 October 2020
After the passing of his beloved wife in May 2020, the Footloose Forester has become decidedly more emotional and weeps about many things. He is unashamed to know that he has feelings that are genuine and run deep. For that reason, he wanted to add yet another paragraph to the true story of Joe Fodor and his wife Alice. When they first met in the social hall of St. Columskille Catholic Church following Mass on fine Sunday, Joe introduced his wife Alice with the caution that the Footloose Forester would not get much out of her. By that, he meant that she does not talk much. During our subsequent interview sessions, Alice was present and sat quietly at the kitchen table. She never one talked except once to say during that last interview, "I love you." To this very day, many years later, those three words from Alice Fodor bring tears to his eyes. He is blessed to have known them and the inspiration they brought to his life.
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An amazing story Dick. And to finish it off with the German soldier from Cleveland who was American is off the charts. Extremely excellent writing!