Sometimes, Sanford Walke wonders how he even survived. Maybe it was luck. Or grace. Whatever the reason, with the approach of Memorial Day, the 89-year-old World War II veteran is happy to still be around to relate his story as a prisoner of war nearly 68 years ago. From the patio of his Hernando Beach home, where he and his wife, Mary, have lived since 1988, Walke relayed his thoughts from the perspective of someone who shuns the hero moniker. Instead, he believes he survived a plane crash and the subsequent horror of an enemy concentration camp largely by self-determination and the sheer will to live.
"I'm a firm believer that there's a lot you can do to control your own fate, no matter what the circumstances are," he said. "That's what I did. It wasn't pleasant, but somehow I managed to get through it."
Sgt. Walke's experience began when he climbed aboard a B-17 at a British air base in the predawn hours of July 8, 1944. An Army Air Forces flight engineer with the 398th Bomb Group, he was just four days shy of his 22nd birthday.
He recalled joking with his nine fellow flight crew members. All were expecting that the bombing mission to destroy a German V-1 flying bomb installation in northern France would be fairly routine — a "milk run" in bomber crew parlance — that would last no more than a couple hours.
They were wrong.
As their squadron of B-17s approached the target area, the bomber formation was met with a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Walke's plane took four direct hits, knocking out its radio and hydraulic controls and severely wounding its pilot, Lt. George F. Wilson.
While the rest of crew was abandoning the plane, Walke moved toward the cockpit to help Wilson. But he was too late. Wilson died just as Walke reached him. As the plane began to spiral, Walke rushed to the rear and jumped.
Although his parachute opened, Walke soon realized that it had been damaged by flak, leaving gaping holes in the silk fabric. As he grasped the support lines together to try and slow his descent, he began to hear German machine gun fire from the ground.
"I saw tracers flying by all around me," Walke recalled. "I have no idea how they missed me, but they did."
Moments after he landed, Walke remembers that he was greeted by a French farmer who offered him a welcome shot of cognac. Then German soldiers moved in and captured him.
Days later, Walke was reunited with members of his flight crew who also had been captured. But with Allied forces rapidly advancing through France, the Germans were forced to quickly move the prisoners to concentration camps out of harm's way.
Sent to Stalag Luft 4 in Poland, Walke was later forced to march some 500 miles with 8,000 other men to another concentration camp in Germany. The trek, notoriously dubbed the "Black March," took place in brutal winter conditions and cost thousands of lives.
Determined to survive or at least die trying to do so, Walke and a British soldier made a desperate dash into the woods while their German guards were momentarily distracted.
For the next three months, the two men traveled through enemy territory only at night, staying as far as they could from roadways.
They hid in barns and abandoned buildings during the day, drank from streams, and ate mostly grass and berries. Their only comfort was the several packs of cigarettes that Walke had saved from his Red Cross packages.
By April, signs began to appear that the war was coming to a close and that the Allied forces were winning.
"We started seeing white sheets and pillowcases hanging from windows, and we knew that these people were ready to surrender," Walke said.
One morning in April 1945, Walke and his companion woke to the sound of Allied tanks coming down the road.
He remembers that the unit commander was astonished by his condition — he weighed a mere 80 pounds and had several months of beard growth — but nonetheless ordered Walke and his British companion to immediately take the responsibility of guarding several German prisoners.
After three weeks in a hospital, Walke was reassigned to another unit. For a time, he trained to join Army operations in the Pacific theater. But the surrender of Japan a few months later meant that Walke would be returning to his home in Detroit.
After 34 years working for Ford Motor Co.'s product development division, Walke and his wife retired to Spring Hill in 1980. Last week, the couple celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.
A guest of honor at a recent dinner hosted by the Brooksville Lions Club, Walke has received a number of commendations for his military service, and in 2005 was the belated recipient of a Purple Heart for valor.
Walke, who will turn 90 on July 12, remains close friends to this day with Gerald Dye, the waist gunner and the only other remaining survivor of the B-17 crew with which he served. The subject of numerous interviews over the years, he says he tries to avoid overglorifying his story.
That's just the way he is, Walke said.
"To me, war is just plain stupid. There's too much destruction, too much suffering," he said. "The people who fought were just guys that were doing their jobs. But a lot of them ended up paying a hell of a price."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]