This Began . . .

This work began in 1993 when Val Burgess was attending her Grandmother’s funeral. Her Uncle, Vernon Burda, a navigator on a B-24, “Tipton’s Crew”, was shot down over Yugoslavia and became a prisoner of war. At the funeral, he continually talked about his experience as a POW, and about how he wanted to go back to the prison camp. Burgess impatient with his stories finally asked him what was holding him back from returning to the camp.

He said he wanted to take a large group of former POWs and their families back for the 50th Anniversary of their liberation from the camp that they were interned in during the war, but didn’t have anyone to complete the marketing materials. Burgess offered to help. For her services, she received a free trip to Europe. Not one to turn down an opportunity to travel, especially a FREE trip to Europe, Burgess’ long journey began with the POWs.

Her design firm sent out over 3,000 letters to former POWs throughout the US. She began receiving phone calls from the men interested in the trip. Many shared with her remarkable stories of flying in the skies above German occupied Europe, and their horror at being shot down, captured and held in prison camps far from home.

It would be six months into the project when she asked her Uncle what camp he had been interned. He quickly replied, “The Great Escape Camp”, Stalag Luft III. That movie had been a favorite of hers when she was in junior high school. She had no idea this was Uncle Vernon’s prison camp. The stories were so compelling and interesting, she was compelled to record the men.

She completed her first oral history in the summer of 1994, with an interview of Lowell “Slats” Slayton of Buffalo, Wyoming. He had been a gunner on a B-17 and crash landed. Slayton was interned in two Luftwaffe, non-commissoned officers camps: Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug on the old Prussian-Lithuanian border, and later at Stalag Luft IV at Gros Tychow in Pomerania.

With the advance of the Russians, Slats was transported from Luft VI in a freezing transport ship across the Baltic Sea and cruelly forced-marched into Stalag Luft IV that had opened in May of 1944. Later with the further advancement of the Russians, these POWs and possibly some 100,000 other POWs in camps throughout Europe,  were forced marched throughout Germany to prevent their liberation by Allied Forces. Slats believed he had walked some 400 miles by his liberation and the end of the war.

In April of 1995, Burgess with 125 former prisoners and 200 of their familiy members returned to Stalag Luft III. They followed their forced march via bus to Spremberg, Germany where, during the war, the men were warmed in glass and ceramic factories until they were crammed into 40/8 train cars and moved south.

Some POWs were held at Nurnberg near Hitler’s Rally Grounds, at Stalag 13B, and the remainder of POWs were moved to Stalag VIIA. Both camps were disasters. Nurnberg was filthy with vermin everywhere. Fleas, lice and bed bugs were common pests besides the never-ending night-time british bombings of the rally grounds.

Stalag VIIA was located northeast of Munich, Germany. This was a filthy, poorly-run camp designed to hold some 40,000 prisoners. When the Luft III POWs entered, some 130,000 prisoners of all nationalities were held there. It was here that they were liberated on April 29, 1945 by elements of the 15th Armored Division of General George Patton’s 3rd Army.

The interviews that began in 1994 offered a journey that has not yet ended for Burgess. With some 130 oral histories completed, Burgess later connected with the 5th Air Base in 1989. These POWs were held on the island of Mindanao, Philippines and survived being held by the Japanese and the “Hell Ships” that would take them to forced labor camps throughout the “Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Burgess continued to attend the 5th Air Base reunions until they ceased some years ago.

Being fortunate, in 2013 Burgess was given a suitcase of letters and documents that were found when a Sheridan ranching family purchased a home in town. This suitcase contained some 300 letters from families of POWs held by the Japanese. (See Cora’s Legacy link on this website for more information.)

And so the journey continues with the men, women and families of World War II Prisoners of War. It has been a gift to understand how these men survived surmountable difficulties. They have been an inspiration to and have taught the writer of this site many life lessons. What she learned is that “the value of things is not about things but about the people we love and care for in our lifetimes. These men are my family and much loved by me”.

There were times when she wanted to give up the work. As she thought about the men she asked herself, “Will I be glad I stopped doing this work or will I be forever grateful for having come full circle and learning and honoring the men that literally saved the free world from the Nazis and the Japanese expansion during the 1930’s and 40’s” It was an obvious answer . . . she will be forever grateful for these people in her life.

And so the work continues . . . as she must honor their memories and actions so the young people today understand what it means to unconditionally give for another.