Mercy Missions

By Sean Sims, Army Heritage and Education CenterMay 3, 2010

The final days of World War II did not immediately end the stress faced by all Allied soldiers. Despite the majority of German territory being securely in the hands of the Allies, many Allied soldiers anxiously awaited liberation in territory that had not been reached by ground forces. These Allied prisoners were in need of food and medical supplies to ensure their survival, which had become scarce due to the chaotic nature of the end of the war. Servicemen who found themselves in German hands, particularly Army Air Force officers interned by Luftwaffe personnel, were arguably better off than those who surrendered to other services of the German military. They certainly fared better than Prisoners of War (POW) in Japanese care. However, the conditions many servicemen faced after capture were both depressing and tedious. Becoming a prisoner of Germany began with a soldier hearing, Aca,!A"For you, the war is over.Aca,!A?

Before receiving a permanent camp assignment, the serviceman would be interrogated for a period of time which varied due to how much useful information the German military felt that it could extract. Enlisted soldiers were felt to have very little useful information compared to their officers, and they could expect to be on their way to internment faster than their commanders. Travelling to a camp was a trying and likely dangerous experience late in the war. Cramped conditions with little food were only made worse by the possibility of being strafed by aircraft of their own side. On many occasions Allied prisoners were unknowingly and mistakenly killed by friendly fire. As the Reich crumbled, acute shortages in food and materiel for the Wehrmacht placed the needs of POWs very low on the list of priorities. At the end of the war, many prisoners were left to fend for themselves as their captors abandoned their posts.

POWs were subjected to both physical and mental duress. Therefore, swift repatriation of these servicemen was a high priority. It was of such importance to General Dwight Eisenhower that he addressed the 40,000+ prisoners and told them that swift efforts were being made to ensure their repatriation.

Following Victory in Europe (VE) Day on May 8, many prisoners still awaited liberation in Austria. By May 9, two stalags, in southern Austria, Wolfsberg and Spittal, required aid to sustain Allied prisoners until they could be reached by land. The camps lay within range of the American Fifteenth Air Force operating out of Italy. A B-24 bomb group, the 461st, from the 49th Bombardment Wing stationed at Torretta Air Field southwest of Cerignola in southern Italy, was assigned the task of coming to aid the prisoners in these postwar missions. The 461st had flown 223 combat missions over the preceding twelve months. Now it would fly Aca,!A"Mercy Missions.Aca,!A? A call for volunteers went out to fly to Austria. On May 9, the supply missions began and would continue everyday through May 16.

One such volunteer, a pilot from the 767th Bomb Squadron (Sqn) of the 461st Group recalls making his drops, Aca,!A"We went in at 200 ft. below the ridge levels on each side, and had to throttle down to 145 mph to minimize bursting the bundles which were dropped onto paneled grass fields adjacent to the camp Aca,!" then we had to throttle up quickly to make a hairy turn at the end of a box canyon to get out.Aca,!A? Over the eight day period a total of 90 sorties were flown, in which 184 tons of food and medical supplies were dropped to Allied POWs. It must have truly been a wonderful sight to see. Aca,!A"One happy guy was sitting on top of the barracks roof, waving wildly,Aca,!A? recalled a navigator who served with the 765th Bomb Sqn., also part of the 46st Group. With no danger from enemy aircraft the B-24 crews successfully relieved the former prisoners until they could be met on the ground.

The alleviation of the suffering of military and civilian victims of the war in Europe was to become a major task for the Allies. Efforts to contact, sustain and repatriate Allied POWs received great attention. The American military tradition of Aca,!A"leave no Soldier behindAca,!A? is graphically represented in the actions and efforts of the Army Air Force during World War II. This tradition survives today in the U. S. Military, as evidenced by the extensive efforts to recover fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen from battlefields around the world.