By Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb, 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 17, 2017
COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss --
Children of three World War II prisoners of war gathered during a Base Community Council luncheon Aug. 11 at the Club on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi; and Justice Sharon Lee, from the Tennessee Supreme Court, shared her father’s story and how it intertwined with the other two POWs.
One of the other children of the POWs was Rufus Ward Jr., retired attorney and Columbus native, and he introduced Lee.
“I’m really honored to introduce the speaker today, and that is Justice Sharon Lee of the Tennessee Supreme Court,” Ward said. “Our paths crossed a few years ago, and that’s sort of what brought us here.”
Ward explained that Lee’s father, Staff Sgt. Charles Lee, was a waist gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber aircraft, “Smokey Stover Jr.,” during WWII, and his father, Staff Sgt. Rufus Ward Sr., was the tail gunner on the same aircraft, which would eventually be shot down over Frankfurt, Germany, on May 12, 1944.
After Lee came to the podium, she began talking about her father’s journey from the time he entered the U.S. Army Air Corp and began connecting the dots to May 12, 1944. It was a day her father and his crew were on a mission to bomb German fuel production facilities.
A total of 26 aircraft took off from a base south of London, and only 12 returned.
Just after midday on May 12, 1944, the fighter planes guarding the bombers were brought away from the formation by enemy aircraft, leaving the bombers vulnerable.
Lee saw vapor trails from an aircraft that then turned, and started firing upon the Smokey Stover Jr.
“[Their] plane was hit and was going down. During the attack my dad was shot in the head, shoulder, back, and wrist,” Lee said. “The pilot rang the bell for everyone to bail out, however, my dad had been knocked down to the floor of the plane and was not able to get up. A fellow Airmen saved his life that day by getting him up and getting him out of the plane.”
That Airman was Ward Sr., who was busy manning his gun when all of a sudden, he noticed his pilots parachuting past his window. As he prepared to jump himself, he noticed the incapacitated waist gunner and the ball turret gunner.
He aided each of them in putting on their parachutes and they all bailed out at around 1,500 feet above the ground.
After parachuting to the ground, they were captured and sent to a German POW camp, Stalag Luft IV.
“The conditions were very bad and the rules were strictly enforced,” Lee said. “The food was mostly a mixture of warm water and a few cabbage leaves, usually rotten, and bread was a very dark-brown bread made mostly of sawdust.”
On Feb. 5, 1945, many POWs were forced to march 500 miles, during one of coldest winter’s that century, to Bitterfeld, Germany, later known as the “Black March.”
Lee, along with other POWs who were too sick or wounded to make the march, were crowded into cattle cars, where spent the next 10 days traveling to Stalag Luft I.
First Lt. Julian Boggess, was one of five doctors able to help roughly 10,000 sick and injured POW’s at Stalag Luft I. Although Boggess never directly helped Lee, the sons and daughter of the two men became friends through their fathers’ stories.
The Stalag Luft I POW camp was liberated May 13, 1945, and Lee at 6 feet 3 inches tall had weighed roughly 90 pounds.
Ward Sr. was liberated from Bitterfeld on April 26, 1945, by the United States’ 104th Infantry Division. Ward Sr. moved back to Columbus after he was liberated, and was honored by Columbus AFB with a street named after him in 2007.
“From all the stories I’ve collected I’ve learned that once liberated these American Soldiers returned home very different but very much the same,” Lee said. “Most had physical problems caused by the war that stayed with them for the rest of their life, most had emotional and mental scarring that never left them, and while in prison camp they had all been cold, hungry, and homesick, and in the dark, lonely hours of the night they all wondered if they would ever get home to see their families again.”
With a story about three survivors connected by their hardships as POW’s, there’s a side that Lee wanted to make known, the side of the story her father carried with him for the rest of his life.
“To them the real heroes were the Soldiers who did not come home, the Soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Lee said. “I think there’s a life lesson we can all take away from this. As we face adversity on a much, much, much lesser scale we do need to remember each day as a gift and we should face each day with optimism, hope and a determination to succeed.”
Lee reminded the audience that the stories these men carried with them are important to remember, the sacrifices that all veterans have made and the sacrifices they continue to make are stories that in themselves help preserve and protect freedom and liberty.
To show just how important these men were retired Maj. Gen. Terrill Moffett, former Commanding General of the 104th ID handed Lee, Ward, and Dr. Boggess’s two sons a coin showing the appreciation the 104th Division carries to this day for the sacrifices the men made through their service during WWII.