Prisoner of War Experiences
of Howard Thornley

Howard Thornley Prisoner of War Photo
Howard Thornley's prisoner of war photo.
The "XVII B" indicates that he was assigned
to Luft Stalag 17-B.

These are the memories and observations of Howard Thornley, who was a prisoner of war in Europe during World War II. Thornley responded to a questionnaire from Larry Scholl, who was gathering information for his book, Missing in Action: 8th Air Force Evaders, Internees, Prisoners of War, and Escapees in World War II.

Howard Thornley died of a heart attack on March 30, 1987 while vacationing with his wife in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia.

Howard R. Thornley
September 1, 1983

Check your status with an X.


Shot Down  X
Crash Landing
Forced Landing


If your wife or other relatives wish to add any comments they have on how they were notified, their efforts to send you food, or other matters, they may attach their comments to the form.
      My mother received word of my capture over a year after I was taken prisoner. She was sure that I had been killed.

Telegram to Howard Thornley's mom, informing her that Thornley was missing in action
Here is the telegram received by Esther Thornley, Howard Thornley’s mom, informing her that he had been reported missing in action.

1. Where were you based at the time of this mission? Also, list the date [of capture] and the name of your aircraft.
      Bassingbourn, England from September 1943 to December 22, 1943 (date of capture)
      B-17 (Miss America)

2. What was your unit?
      91st Bomb Group, 322nd Squadron

3. What type of aircraft?

4. Did you have long-range fighter escort on this mission?

5. If possible, list names and positions of the crew members.

6. Were you or any others wounded?
      I received small flak fragments in my back.

7. Was anyone killed?
      Ball turret gunner

8. What was the target, and was this the primary, secondary, or a target of opportunity?
      Osnabruck, Germany—primary target

9. Were you on the way to, from, or over the target?

10. How were you captured: By Army, Navy, Luftwaffe, SS, SA, SD, Civilians, Civil Police, Civilians of Country other than Germany, Troops of a country other than Germany?
      Parachuted into a small town in Holland. Dutch civilians held me prisoner while they phoned for a German soldier to come on his bicycle from another town. There were no Germans in the town that I landed in.

11. What was the date?
      December 22, 1943

12. Where were you taken prisoner/interned?
      Somewhere in Holland. Taken to solitary confinement for a week in Amsterdam. Went from there to Frankfurt, Germany. We spent two nites in a holding area and were marched to Dulag Luft, an interrogation center in Frankfurt. Had about six interrogations there by two German officers. One, a major, had lived in Denver for 18 years until the war started. The other officer had spent all or nearly all his life in Philadelphia. I would tell them only my name, rank, and serial #. At the last interrogation the major said they knew everything about me anyway. Then he told me my high school, when I graduated, air force base I had been at, dates, etc. It was obvious that they had a spy at our base in England as all the information they had on me could only have come from my military service record.

13. Name the camp(s) and the location(s).
      Stalag 17-B—Krems, Austria

14. Name of the camp commander and other primary personnel.

15. Please list and define any special terminology used.

16. What was the prisoner composition, i. e., all ranks, enlisted me only, officers only, Americans only, mixed nationals?
      At Stalag 17 the Americans were all enlisted men. The camp had many nationalities, all segregated by compounds. The Russians were in the compound next to ours.

17. If mixed nationals, did their treatment differ from that received by Americans and how so?
      The Russians received even less food than the Americans. As a result of the starvation and disease, everyone in the Russian compound would be dead in about two months. Then a new group would be sent in. We saw their burial parties each day. They carried out 15 to 20 dead in the morning and 3 to 5 in the afternoon. Once, looking through the fence, I witnessed a very loud ruckus from the Russian barracks. The Germans were afraid to enter and instead sent in one of their most vicious German shepherds. After a few minutes something came flying out and landed on the barbed-wire fence. It was the hide of the dog.

18. If mixed nationals, what was their attitude to the Americans?
      We didn't like the French or the Russians and they didn't like us.

19. Camp life/daily routine: self-directed, prisoner directed, U. S. War Department sponsored, International Agency directed (which agency?).
      We elected an Air Force Sgt. as our leader and each barracks elected a security man. They would deal with problems in the camp as well as escape attempts.

20. Escape attempts.
      No one escaped from Stalag 17. I helped out on a tunnel, but it was discovered when we got near the outer fence. Each tunnel was discovered near its completion. The Germans would have Russian prisoners pump the latrines into the tunnels. Of course, there would be no digging there again. All escape attempts had to be cleared with the escape committee. Some specialized in making forged documents, some tailored civilian clothing, others collected food for those attempting the escapes.

21. German civilian population: Describe any contact. Their attitude.
      My first contact was described in item 12. At the time and to this day I don't blame them. Their city was in ruins and loved ones lost. I saw many wounded civilians, freshly bandaged, including an elderly lady with an arm missing and a boy about 7 or 8, with a leg missing. It was sad to see what our bombs had done.

22. Were you or others questioned by, interned by, or in anyway involved with members of the following: SS, SD, SA, Gestapo, Civilian Agencies, or Individuals. If torture was used, describe as much as you wish.
      In addition to those I mentioned in item 12, a German in uniform with an International Red Cross arm band interrogated me in my cell at Dulag Luft. He said that he needed just the necessary information so that he could notify my parents that I was alive. Of course, I could only give him my rank, name, and serial number. He played the part of the kindly old father, but he threw a terrible tantrum when I would not tell him what he wanted. He screamed at me, "How can I notify your parents if you do not tell me your bomb load? My superiors will not be pleased."

23. Nazi propaganda: Were you allowed to listen to German radio propaganda? If so, please describe.
      Radios were forbidden. Some of our own men had homemade crystal sets, which they would listen to late at nite. They listened mostly to BBC newscasts, and the next morning news messengers would read the news to us in each of the barracks. The Germans knew that we had radios and often would chase us out into the compound while they tore the barracks apart searching. Usually this took all day, regardless of the weather.
      We were allowed German newspapers. Their propaganda was about like ours. If they lost a battle, they would often admit it. It may take them 2 or 3 weeks to do so. They exaggerated our losses and minimized theirs. Same as we did.

Were any kind of individual or group classes conducted to convince you of the Nazi way of life? If so, please go into detail.

Were questions or comments made about American treatment of minorities, especially Negroes or Jews. Also, if Negro or Jewish American prisoners were present, were they singled out for any kind of special treatment?
      We had no blacks and not many Jews. I don't think the Jews were treated any differently.

Was any attempt made to single out Americans with German last names?
      I don't believe so.

24. International Red Cross: Did you received Red Cross packages, and what value were they?
      Our Red Cross parcels were vital to us. Sometimes we didn't receive any for 2 or 3 months. Other times we might get one a week for a while. The gaps were because the Germans took so many for themselves. Later, on our forced march, we saw much evidence of this. Passing near homes, we would see canned items from American parcels in windows. Few of us would have lived through this had it not been for the Red Cross parcels.

Did they or a Geneva Representative inspect your camp, and were you able to talk with the representative? What were the results?
      We were not allowed to talk to the Geneva people. Each time they came, we were given a very nice blanket and as soon as the Geneva Rep. left, the German guards would gather up all the blankets and save them for the next visit. I think the Geneva Reps. were onto this as much later the American Red Cross was able to get a new American army blanket to each of us.

Was there ever an exchange of prisoners?

25. Names of Germans: List the Commandant, Adjutant, Senior NCO, or any individual names you can.

26. Resistence movements: Did you have contact with any? If so, please elaborate.

27. Concentration camps: Were you aware of these, and, if so, before or during internment? Did this affect your views of what your life would be like as a POW?
      We saw a concentration camp on our forced march. We saw the stacks of skeletons from the road. Any civilian walking by could see this.

28. Camp food. (Describe in your own words.)
      Each day we were given a small slab of bread or a piece of hardtack, which was full of small black insects. Often we had a barley soup for breakfast. Our other meal was almost always a very thin watery soup which was full of white cabbage worms. We learned never to look at what we were eating. Meat was always horsemeat. Because of the small amount of meat available, we took turns on this, receiving one horsemeat patty about every 4 months.
      On our forced march, the guards would take a cow away from a farmer each day. They ate the meat and would boil the bones into a thin broth for us. A cup a day of broth was the only food we were given. At nite we would sleep in open fields. One day, the Germans set up tables in the town square so that all the civilians could watch. These tables were laden with fine cheeses and meats. Women in white uniforms cut this into pieces. Each of us was given a small piece of cheese or meat, about one ounce. But the civilians thought that we were really eating well.
      The camp food was not enough to sustain life. The Red Cross parcels saved most of us. I weighed less than a hundred pounds when we went on the forced march. And then I lost more weight.

29. Did you work for a German business or farmer?

30. Barracks—Physical condition.
      Our barracks were built in WWI and looked it. They were pretty well built, though. Of course, they were unheated and winters became difficult. Because of the constant cold, we all developed chill blaines. This would cause our feet to swell and crack. At nite the fleas and lice would feed on the cracks in our swollen feet. Even now, my toe nails are cracked from the chill blaines back then.

31. Religious services. Please describe and by whom.
      The Germans let us have a condemned barracks for a church. I helped work on this. We worked hard on this as it was hardly standing. We had our first and last church service on Easter Sunday 1944. We had 500 at that service and with the weight of that many people the entire floor collapsed during the service. Shortly after, the Germans had it torn down as it was close to the outside fence and was easier to tunnel out.

32. Geneva Convention violations.

33. Medical/dental care: By whom, how good?
      No medical doctor. We had an American infantry dentist who had no equipment. I had a wisdom tooth pulled without any painkiller. The dentist had some other prisoners hold me down while he pulled it.

34. P. O. W. courts martial: By whom (American or German), results.

35. Your attitudes: How do you view our overall exemplary treatment of German POWs?
      I am glad that the Allies treated their prisoners in a humane way.

Have you visited or been based in Germany since the end of WWII?
      No. I visited the American cemetery in Cambridge, England, in 1980. I saw the wall of the missing, 5,000 names, mostly all American flyers.

How do you feel about Germans and Germany today?
      My attitude has softened greatly over the years.

36. Had you had any briefing or preparation of any kind to prepare you for the possibility of capture? If so, was it adequate or helpful?
      Almost none. In England, our briefing officers tried but they didn't have any information to give us.
      The stress in not knowing what the Germans would do to us when I was captured was very unsettling.

37. What do you think the U. S. should do in the future to prepare people for the possibility of capture?
      The need for information is very important. Perhaps classes in interrogation procedures.

38. Final release: By whom, when, where?
      On May 2, 1945. American Lieutenant (13th Armoured Division) and his jeep driver got across just before the Germans blew up the bridge. We were next to the point where the Inn and Salzach rivers meet, when the Lieutenant found us. The Allies were advancing rapidly then and had no food to give us. We stayed there in the woods until May 8 without any food during that time. On the 8th, the Americans finally gave us some food and flew us in C-47s to Nancy, France.

39. Pre-/post-war: What did you do before the war?

What do you do today? (If retired, list post-war activity and specify now retired.)
      Retired as supervisor, Main P. O., Minneapolis

Have you attended any P. O. W. reunions or are you aware of any?

Additional Experiences/Observations:
      A young Russian pilot had escaped from the Russian compound and stayed with us the entire time that I was imprisoned. He fled the Russian compound because he had been sentenced to be executed. He lived with us and we saw him all the time, even going with us on the forced march. The Germans suspected that he was with us and we were often chased out of our barracks and into the compound while they searched for him. During those day-long searches, our P. O. W. identification cards with our pictures attached were thoroughly checked against each prisoner. The Russian would be caught if he were with us, so he was hidden by our security people. This mean that he was always hidden during these searches as well as during our normal, everyday morning and evening roll calls. On our forced march there were no roll calls and the Germans no longer had the means to find him. As I saw him the day of our liberation, I knew that he had escaped the firing squad.
      Near the end of March 1945, the Germans marched us out. We could already see the Russian tanks in the valley below our camp. Only the most sick and wounded prisoners were allowed to stay. On the march, it seemed that we wandered aimlessly in all directions, but mostly west toward the American and British Armies. The Germans were terrified of the Russians and did not want to be captured by them. One day we marched into the village of New Market, Austria. Even on the march our radios were in use at nite, and we heard on BBC that New Market had been captured by the Russians. Actually, the Russian forces were many miles from there. We stood there for several hours while a German soldier on a bicycle rode ahead to find an open field for us to spend the nite in. While we were waiting, a very heavy woman bounded from her house, grabbed one of our fellow prisoners, and took him into her house. Her husband ripped up the floor boards and took out quantities of fine food. The prisoner kept stuffing food into his mouth and pockets. Although we were a scruffy ragtag lot, the couple thought that we were the victorious American Army. They finally asked him where was his gun and he replied, "Nix gun, Kriegsgefangener." They quickly threw him out of the house. I saw him come sailing out with his mouth, stomach, and pockets stuffed with food. He was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down his cheeks.
      After the war a successful stage play, "Stalag 17," portrayed our camp. This became a movie, starring William Holden. The writers were Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, who were fellow prisoners in our camp. In one scene, two prisoners obtained a bucket of white wash and brushes and proceeded to paint a white stripe down the center of the dirt road which ran through the entire length of the camp. Their object was to get in the Russian women's compound.
      The true story was even funnier. There, of course, were no women in our camp, but two of our prisoners did actually paint a stripe down the center of the camp. Their object was escape. The camp was about 3/4 of a mile long. There were four barracks in a compound, each with barbed-wire fences, a guard tower, and a large gate that went across the road. We were at the far end and the gate to the outside was on the opposite end of the camp. When our two prisoners got to the first gate, they motioned to the guard in the tower to open his gate. At each succeeding gate, the guard would open his gate, having seen the previous guard open his. Although we had no previous knowledge of an escape attempt, we knew that it had to be that. But painting a stripe down the center of a 8-foot wide dirt road seemed almost too ridiculous. I bet some food with another prisoner that even the Germans couldn't be that stupid and that they would be stopped before the halfway point. Our two heros did it, though, reaching the last gate, which the guard opened for them. They continued painting until the road disappeared behind a hill. They dropped their pails and began to run, but a German officer walking back from Krems saw them and shot at them. At once, they surrendered and were put in solitary confinement. As far as I know, they were the only prisoners, at least Americans, to ever have escaped from Stalag 17-B. Although their escape was short-lived, we were proud of them.

Howard Thornley Signature

Stalag 17-B
This is a sketch of the barracks at Luft Stalag 17-B, drawn by by Roy Butler of Hobbs, New Mexico. Butler was a prisoner with Howard Thornley in Barracks 38-B at Stalag 17-B.

Telegram to Howard Thornley's mom, informing her that Thornley was a prisoner of the Germans
Telegram to Howard Thornley's mom, informing her that Thornley had been liberated
Above are more telegrams received by Howard Thornley’s family. Below is a clipping from a newspaper in Aitkin, Minnesota, where Thornley’s mother was from.
Newspaper clipping from the Aitkin Independent Age

Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Section MD, Site 130

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Click here to read the letter from the Dutch man that accompanied his return of the bible as well as a Dutch magazine article on the plane being shot down

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