As a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, Jerry Wolf wore the same pants and shirt for an entire year. His only showers took place when it rained. And if he didn’t have cigarettes to trade, then he had no soap.
“There were times you acted like an animal. How do you clean yourself? You roll in the grass,” the Springfield resident told about 75 people gathered at the Jan. 21 monthly Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 227 meeting in Vienna. The group hosts a military-oriented speaker every month; it will welcome Col. Ellen Haring, an advocate for women serving in combat, in February.
When Wolf was 18 and in college, students were told near Thanksgiving that if they enlisted then, they would receive full credit for that semester. He enlisted in what was then the Army Air Corps.
He wanted to fly, but his mother made him promise he wouldn’t volunteer to be a pilot. He became a flight engineer, learning how to fix airplanes, and then was chosen to be a top turret gunner in a B-17 bomber.
After one training flight, “if you returned and you weren’t airsick, you were guaranteed to pass the course,” the Brooklyn, N.Y., native recalled.
Realizing he was the only Jewish person in his crew gave Wolf more courage than he thought he had, even when flying near German planes and being shot at. “I wanted to do this,” he said, “for what they did to the Jews.”
However, he insisted during his talk, “I was treated no different than any other American.”
During his missions, each taking about 10 hours, Wolf wore a heated suit that he plugged in. The temperature where he flew, at 24,000 feet, was 52 degrees below zero. “You urinate,” he said, “it’s frozen in a second.”
He wore an unheated oxygen mask. The bitter cold created condensation and freezing problems, he said.
“You had to keep cracking your oxygen mask.”
On his 25th bombing mission, 10 days before the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, Wolf’s crew was targeting an oil refinery near Berlin when the plane was hit. Two engines shut down as Wolf felt pain in his inner thigh.
The crew grabbed parachutes and bailed out, falling “20,000 to 24,000 feet,” he said. As he was falling, he “saw a uniformed soldier with a rifle, pointed at me.” He landed, heels first, rolled and ended up “on my back flat” with three soldiers staring at him.
He was given a bottle of warm beer, and before long was traveling in “a beautiful Mercedes convertible” on his way to a Nazi prison.
That day, Wolf learned that Yiddish is not too different from German. The fact that he could understand much of what was going on was bewildering, he said. “I had no idea the German dialogue and Yiddish were so similar.”
After interrogation, his days were filled with solitary confinement and stints at several Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camps, including the one famously depicted in the 1963 movie, The Great Escape.
“To me, it was the land of no; no heat, no running water anywhere, no toilet paper,” he recalled. Meals consisted of “a slice of bread, moldy and wormy,” potatoes and chicken soup that tasted like water.
Thanks to the Geneva Convention and his rank as a staff sergeant, Wolf didn’t work during his imprisonment. He mostly slept. “You are dirty. You are itchy” all day long, he said.
One of the hardest parts for Wolf was his inability to let his family know that he was alive and well, something they learned about four or five weeks after his capture, he said.
When he was freed on April 29, 1945, his liberators “tore the clothes off me. They burnt them. I hadn’t taken off the shirts and pants in a whole year,” he said.
He was flown to France and took his first real shower in a long time. Then it was “malted milk and eggnog all day long.”
After the war, Wolf returned to New York and began a career with the federal government, working at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia and the Department of Army Material Command in Virginia. It wasn’t until 2004 that he begin telling his tale, something he now does at area schools.
He still has the Jewish prayer book and Bible he was given by the Army as a soldier, although each was stamped in German by his captors to show they were the property of the Luftwaffe.
When Wolf thinks about how he endured being a POW, he credits his ability to understand some German and his fellow prisoners of war. “We all helped each other,” he said. “We all had the will to live.”