Ed Roberts will never forget the day American tanks rolled into Moosburg, Germany – more specifically into “the hole” the Germans called Stalag 7-A, a prisoner of war camp where the Pennsylvania native spent nine months as a guest of the German government during World War II.
It was, as a fellow prisoner later penned in his memoirs, a day when he saw 10,000 men cry. “You just can’t imagine the joy we felt after almost a year of making do under all kinds of situations,” Roberts says.
When American tanks rolled into the compound and started distributing K-rations, Roberts – who at the time was down to a mere 135 pounds – and his fellow prisoners started gobbling them down like they were candy.
“But after all that time, nothing tasted good,” he remembers.
As a prisoner of war in Germany, Roberts and his fellow captives called themselves kriegies – short for the German word kriegsgefangenan, which appropriately translates to “prisoner of war.”
As a kriegie, Roberts essentially had no rights. But when the American flag was raised over Moosburg in April, 1945, he realized his time in “German hell” was over.
Decades ago, former kriegies started the “Kriegie Klarion,” a monthly newsletter for those who suffered in German prisoner of war camps during World War II. Vernon L. Burda, who was in Stalag 7-A with Roberts, penned the following passage after the camp was liberated by American soldiers on April 29, 1945.
It still rings true to Roberts today.
“…for no apparent reason, a hush fell over the compound and all eyes turned toward the town in which stood two high church steeples. [More than] 20,000 eyes saw machine gun bullets splatter against the steeples – a period of quiet – and then it occurred. [It was] a scene, the happening of which brought tears streaming down the face of every single American prisoner of war there, and a sob from every throat.”
The passage continues: “We saw the greatest sight – the most emotional minute that we would probably ever witness. Raised before our eyes and flying defiantly above one of the church steeples was the symbol of our beloved land. The American flag!”
It was an emotional end to a fantastic journey that saw Roberts leave Pennsylvania State University and transverse the American landscape while training to become a fighter pilot. Joining the U.S. Army Air Corps on Nov. 11, 1942, all he ever wanted to do was fly.
“That was always my interest,” he says simply. “I took all kinds of physical and mental tests and, after that period, people in charge would say if you should be a pilot or a bombardier, or whatever. My classification was a fighter pilot.”
Roberts spent time training across the South, including stops at military facilities in Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia and Florida. He even spent about a month flying P-47 Thunderbolts at Dover Army Airfield, now Dover Air Force Base. Finally, in the summer of 1944, he was sent to England and assigned to the 412th Squadron of the 373rd Fighter Group.
His unit was based on the beaches of Normandy following the D-Day invasion – Roberts says he’ll never forget the first time he flew over the famed beachhead.
“After the invasion, the Americans stayed in one place and they brought in all kinds of supplies,” says Roberts, who missed participating in the D-Day invasion by just two weeks. “Every free space on that beach was loaded down with supplies. It’s hard for people to understand the enormity of the whole thing. All we could see when flying over was hundreds of ships in the water and lots of supplies on the beaches.”
Taking off from Normandy to the south, Roberts says he would only be in the air for 400 to 500 yards before he was over enemy lines and, thus, taking enemy fire. He flew four missions before being shot down and taken prisoner – he still remembers it as if it was yesterday.