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 Fiftieth Anniversary of their liberation from the camp they were interned in during World War II. He needed someone to complete the marketing materials to make the trip a reality. Burgess offered her expertise. 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’ lifetime journey began with the POWs.

Her design firm sent out over 3,000 letters to former POWs throughout the US. She received phone calls from the men interested in the trip. Many shared their 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 men’s stories were compelling. She was determined to record the men.

Burgess 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 transport ship across the cold waters of the Baltic Sea and cruelly forced-marched to 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 others, held in camps throughout Europe,  were forced marched throughout Germany to prevent their liberation by Allied Forces. Slats believed he walked some 400 miles by the time of 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, the men were warmed in glass and ceramic factories until they were crammed into 40/8 train cars and moved south.

Some Luft III POWs were held at Nurnberg near Hitler’s Rally Grounds, at Stalag 13B, while the remainder of POWs were moved south to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg, northeast of Munich. Both camps were squalid, wretched camps where vermin grew rampant. Fleas, lice and bed bugs were common. 13B offered never-ending, night-time British bombings of the rally grounds.

Early in April, the Nurnberg POWs were again force marched to Moosburg to Stalag VIIA, a camp meant to hold 10,000 men. When the full compliment of the Luft III POWs entered, some 130,000 prisoners of all nationalities were held there. On April 29, 1945 elements of the 15th Armored Division of General George Patton’s 3rd Army liberated Stalag VIIA, but not without a fight with the SS.


Burgess connected with the 5th Air Base in 1989. These POWs were held on the island of Mindanao, Philippines, and survived the Davao Penal Colony, 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 and in 2013, Burgess was given a suitcase of letters and documents that were found by a Sheridan County ranching family that purchased a home in town. This suitcase contained some 327 letters from families and 5,000 messages from POWs held by the Japanese. (Click hers for Cora’s Legacy for more information.)

The interviews that began in 1994 offered a journey that has not yet ended. To date and with some 170 oral histories completed, this work continues with the War II Prisoners of War and other Veterans. The gift is understanding how these men survived formidable difficulties, and have been an inspiration that have taught many life lessons.

There were times when it would have been easy to give up this work.” However this question always rose to the surface, “Will I be glad I stopped doing this work, or will I be forever grateful for having come full circle in learning and honoring the men that literally saved our world from the Axis expansion during WWII“. It was an obvious answer . . . forever being grateful for these people in Burgess’ life was the answer.

And so the work continues . . . to honor these veteran’s memories, so young people today understand what it means to unconditionally give for another.