Ask John Watson how he survived as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, and he'll shake his head. "You never stopped and thought about dying,'' said Watson, 94. "If you did that, it would be all over, wouldn't it?'' For most of his life, he didn't share the story of what he suffered during World War II. And on days like Memorial Day, he swathed himself in quietness. But late in life, the stories began to pour out. On May 11, 1944, Staff Sgt. Watson, a 24-year-old front turret gunner in the 487th Bomb Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces, climbed into a B-24 Liberator nicknamed Our Baby. On that day in Lavenham, England, the plane was lead bomber on a mission to Germany and it was followed by dozens of Liberators.
Col. Beirne Lay Jr., who later wrote the novel Twelve O'Clock High, was in charge of the mission and a passenger in "Our Baby" that day, Watson said.
Somewhere above Chateaudun, France, the Germans launched a surprise attack from the ground.
"The sky went from sunshine to black,'' Watson recalled. "The Germans started firing at us with their ack-ack guns. Our plane got taken out with shrapnel. Col. Lay told us to bail out."
It was the first time Watson had used a parachute. Once on the ground, he located a crewmate, Lawrence Himmerman.
"We knew the Germans were to the north, so we wanted to run south,'' he said. "How'd we know which way was south? We'd look for moss on trees. Moss grows on the north side of the tree."
They walked for hours before they saw a man on a trail. "He told us to hide, and he brought us food, bread and wine. We figured out that he was part of the French Underground.''
The pair spent weeks walking in the countryside toward Paris.
"We even spent three nights in a cemetery,'' Watson said. "A man put a ladder down a deep hole and threw hay down for us to sleep on."
They were led to a train station and told "to get on a train and watch for people who made particular gestures. They'd be the point person to take us to the next stop,'' he said.
They made it to Paris, where they found that "Nazis were everywhere," Watson said. One day German soldiers stopped a truck he and Himmerman were in. The driver was shot to death and the two men were taken to Fresnes Prison south of Paris.
"That was the last time I saw my friend Himmerman, but I learned after the war that he made it out too,'' Watson said. "At Fresnes, prisoners were stuffed together in small cells. It was horrible."
In a month, Watson and others were moved to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where 50,000 prisoners perished between 1937 and 1945. The first night, he saw workers throwing bodies in a large oven.
"The oven was filled three-quarters high with bodies,'' he recalled. "I still picture it.''
After two months in Buchenwald, Watson and other prisoners endured forced marches to several other camps, including Stalag Luft III, a prisoner of war camp southeast of Berlin.
"At least there they followed the Geneva Conventions. The Red Cross came in and gave us food packets,'' he said.
By the time the frequent marches ended at the Moosburg camp in southern Bavaria in April 1945, Watson's feet were frostbitten. On April 29, 1945, when he heard gunfire.
"It was Patton and his Third Army," he said. "They stormed in and told us we were free.''
By then, Watson's weight had plummeted from 165 pounds to 95. He remembers little of his trip back to the United States, but he was sent to St. Pete Beach to recuperate at the Don CeSar, then a military hospital.
After discharge in October 1945, Watson went home to Blairsville, Pa., and started working at a Gulf gas station. But in 1953, he moved his family to Florida and started a new career in the construction industry. His wife, Mary Lou, raised their four children — Jeffrey, Cindy, Tracey and Melissa — in the same neighborhood off Rosery Road in Largo where Watson lives today.
Mary Lou died in 2001 from complications of diabetes. Watson's son, Jeffrey, was killed in a hunting accident in 1960.
"It is true that losing my child was harder on me than the war. Nobody gets over a thing like that,'' he said.
Watson always kept his emotions in check for the sake of his daughter, Tracey Vreelan, a self-proclaimed daddy's girl.
"My father never talked about the past,'' said Vreelan, 56. "That was the way it was about my brother's death and that was the way it was about the war.''
But in 1999, after Watson received compensation through the Holocaust Survivors Assistance Program, he started sharing his experiences. The program provided restitution to U.S. citizens who suffered Nazi persecution in recognized concentration camps.
Watson received $46,953.
"After he told me about the money, I said, 'Dad, why don't you tell me your story.' It all slowly came out,'' Vreelan said.
But memories can be painful. This Memorial Day, Watson plans to stay home. Maybe he'll tinker in his garage. Maybe he'll sit near his garden.
"It's a day where I like quiet,'' he said. "For me, I like to be home.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.