2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II; a war that took the lives of over 405,000 U.S. military personnel. This story written by Sarah Kercheval in 1999 was first published in the United Montezuma Methodist Church Connection. With the author’s permission we would like to share it with our readers.
“What are you going to do on the Fourth of July, John?” I ask. We are sitting at John and Doris Rabenold’s comfortable kitchen table sipping cranberry juice. It’s delicious. “And so good for you,” Doris says. I nod in agreement. “Well,” John answers my question, “I could do a lot of things. Maura will be singing the Star Spangled Banner at the Community Church service. We can’t miss that. Then maybe I’ll watch a game on television if it’s hot. Or we could have a picnic. Maybe I’ll take a nap. Maybe some of the family will come over?” And, if one of the grandchildren ask, John might, just might, perform his dog imitation.
John Rabenold knew what he would be doing on July, 4, 1944, 55 years ago. He would be doing exactly the same thing as he did every other day. There would no breakfast and lunch would consist of watery barley soup. Supper was more substantial: plain boiled potatoes John’s one allotted possession was a tin cup which served as his plate, cup, and, when he had a chance to clean up his wash basin. Day after day John got his exercise by plodding around the edge of the barbed wire fence that kept him and thousands of other American and British soldiers confined in the German prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft IV. The only difference between July Fourth and any other days was time of night the German guards might bring their police dogs around to make sure there hadn’t been any escapes.
Later, after the Red Cross and the YMCA were able to make deliveries to the Stalag, softball tournaments were played in the sites of German machine guns and bridge hands were dealt under the watchful eyes of trigger-happy guards. But for the early part of the summer of 1944, John Rabenold relied on his faith in God and his sense of humor to keep himself alert during the monotonous captivity.
“The guards never treated us badly,” John insists. “In fact, once a riot nearly broke out among the German civilians, and the guards had to protect us.”
“This was on the trip from the edge of the Baltic Sea where John’s plane went down to his final destination -- the prison camp near Frankfurt,” Doris explains.
John bears no grudges against the German people. “We’d been bombing them, their crops, their homes, their families. No wonder they wanted to kill us.”
After 14 successful missions, John’s final bombing took his aircraft, nicknamed the “‘Lil’ Peach” in honor of the four out of 10 crewmen who were Georgians, from the base at Rackheath Field in England, out over the coast of Holland, and to the northern shore of Germany where they bombarded an important ball bearing factory. On the return flight, his heavy artillery B-24 was plastered by enemy fire and Sergeant John E. Rabenold took his first – and last – parachute plunge heading straight for the Baltic Sea. John was twice lucky. On the drop all the German bullets missed him, and somehow he managed to negotiate his chute to a swamp area near the coast of Germany. He might have drowned in the Baltic. A couple of sleepless, ration less days later, John found himself on the top “bunk” – if you can call it a bunk; it was simply a slab of wood, no blanket, no pillow – in a stack of three nailed to the wall of a “dormitory,” a smallish room holding 23 other prisoners in seven more tiers of bunks.
Things got better for John. Things got worse. The Red Cross sent packages of chocolate, cigarettes, coffee, then books and musical instruments and sport equipment. But the cells filled up until there were almost 10 thousand prisoners in the Stalag. To feed the extra mouths, the Germans simply added more water to the already watered-down stew.
One night young John’s sense of humor got him into trouble. It was cloudy, dark as India ink, and John was on his top bunk as usual. A “smart-aleck kid,” John calls himself, but don’t let that fool you. I’ve seen pictures: John Rabenold was a hunk, and Doris was a knock-out herself. Anyway, the so-called smart-aleck decided to play a little joke on his friends in the Stalag. As soon as John was certain the guards and their dogs weren’t coming around for a surprise inspection, he growled his very convincing German police-dog snarl which sent the other 23 prisoners into a near panic. John chuckles about it now, “but they almost killed me when they found out it was me instead of the dogs. I had to do things like that to keep my sanity.”
In early 1945, as Germany lost territory to Russian troops, the commanding officer of Stalag IV decided a retreat was necessary, a long march through the winter German country-side to safer territory. “Surprisingly,” John said, “the Germans issued all of us new shoes.” Surprising because Hitler had ordered the murder of all the prisoners before they could reach their intended destination. But John was lucky once more. The Germans surrendered to the Allies, and the thousands of John’s comrades and companions were set free shortly before the killings were due to take place.
Doris pours me another swallow of cranberry juice and smiles. “I just couldn’t give up on him,” she says. “I prayed and worked in my garden that entire summer. My mother wanted me to come inside, but I had to keep working. It’s on the only I could survive.”
You don’t give up on John Rabenold. He lifts his glass of juice to me in a toast and says, “I know what I’ll do on the Fourth. I’m just going to glad I’m here. Amen.
Sarah Kercheval -- 1999
CREW MEMBERS (Top Photo): John Rabenold is pictured here, back row, second in from left, with his fellow crew members. Their B-24 Liberator was shot down over the Baltic Sea after a bombing raid on the Tutkow Fighters Work northwest of Berlin, Germany.
CATCHY NAME (Above Left): Four of the 10 crew members were from the state of Georgia, thus the name “Lil’ Peach.” Of the 10, two went down with the ship, two drowned in the Baltic, and six were captured by German guards becoming POWs for nearly 13 months.
GUNNER (Above Right): John Rabenold served as a ball turret gunner on a B-24 Liberator during World War II. On this particular mission he was the nose turret gunner and was unable to parachute out until the wounded pilot miraculously pulled the plane out of a downward spiral.