Lexington WWII POW tells his story after decades of silence

meads@herald-leader.comJune 18, 2013 

His mug shot from German World War II prison camp Stalag-17B. A piece of barbed wire from that Austrian detention center where he nearly died. A photo of him — tail gunner — and the nine other crew members of the B-17 bomber "Salvo Sa,l" which was shot down over Holland.

The unusual mementos from Paul G. Sears' exceptional 88 years were in an unassuming plastic tote in his Lexington home.

Decades passed before Sears began sharing the items and the memories they represent. Retired after more than 40 years as a University of Kentucky chemistry professor, Sears felt a new duty to tell others about his war experiences as the number of living World War II veterans dwindled and important pieces of history were lost.

He now gives presentations to Boy Scout troops, church groups and classes. He also researches to help others learn what happened to their loved ones in the war.

In his research, Sears discovered that he was not the first in his family to be a prisoner of war.

His great-grandfather, John Peter Gregory, was a Kentucky Union cavalry soldier and a POW during the Civil War.

Gregory was held in the Andersonville prison for 17 months, nearly the same length of time Sears spent in Stalag-17B.

"It must be in the genes or something," Sears said.

"The survivor gene, maybe," his daughter Elizabeth Brown said.

Sears was able to recall even minute details as he methodically retold his story last week to a Herald-Leader reporter.

In the fall of 1943, the 18-year-old Somerset native was assigned to the 100th Bomb Group, also known as the "bloody 100th," in the 8th Air Force, he said.

Half of the Salvo Sal's six-plane squadron was lost on Sears' first mission.

"It became a very real thing at that point," he said.

On its tenth and final mission, the Salvo Sal was hit with flak, or anti-aircraft fire, a few seconds after dropping its load over Germany. The crew managed to stay in the air for more than 100 miles before going down over northern Holland, Sears said.

Sears used a magazine picture from his historical collection to show the Salvo Sal moments before it was hit.

The picture showed two other planes, one of which exploded seconds after the picture was taken, Sears said.

Waist gunner Douglas H. Agee was killed before the Salvo Sal went down, and Carl Spicer, the plane's navigator, escaped capture and fled to Spain.

The other members of the crew got separated after bailing out and were eventually captured.

For Sears, there was no chance of escape. Waiting on the ground was a "reception committee" of two German military men, three farmers and an 8-year-old interpreter.

His family had been told he was missing in action after the Salvo Sal had gone down, and most thought him to be dead, Sears said.

"It didn't dawn on me for a while that that was the reason I didn't get much mail when I came back," he said.

A certificate of valor listed as a "posthumous commission" still causes him to chuckle.

"That one is a conversation-starter for sure," he said.

After capture, Sears spent 17 days in solitary confinement at the central interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany.

There, he promised himself he would get an education if he returned to the United States.

Sears left the interrogation center, but conditions didn't improve.

After a three-day ride in a packed cattle car, he arrived at Stalag-17B.

"Your main object was to survive," Sears said of his time at the camp.

The prisoners lived on small portions of black bread, about 20 percent of which was sawdust filler, and cabbage soup that often included more than a few worms, Sears said.

"You'd have a great distaste for it coming in, but you'd be eating it like cake within a week," Sears said. "You'd be surprised how well you can eat that kind of stuff if you get hungry enough."

The smell of certain foods still brings back bad memories for Sears.

"We could never have sauerkraut when he was home, so whenever he was out of town we would have hotdogs and sauerkraut," Brown said.

Sears lost 65 pounds during his imprisonment, which he says was an average weight loss for the camp's residents.

In spring 1944, Sears nearly died when he contracted a severe respiratory infection.

"They concluded that I was near enough to death that they would take me up the hill to the prisoner-of-war hospital," Sears said.

French interns at the hospital were able to save Sears despite a language barrier, he said.

While in the hospital, Sears was surprised to find someone from Science Hill.

Bernell Heaton, a Somerset High School football star, had seen a local newspaper article that told of Sears' plane going down.

"When he'd seen it, he'd said, 'That poor bastard,' but when I saw him in the hospital they were picking flak out of him," Sears said.

In April 1944, Sears and about 4,000 other prisoners of war started the 200-mile march to American lines; Americans cooked for the liberated soldiers.

"That was the first full meal I had had for 574 days," Sears said.

After going through an exit camp, Sears was shipped back to the United States.

"We passed right by the Statue of Liberty," Sears said. "It symbolized freedom."

He was back home in Somerset on June 3 and was honorably discharged soon after.

Decades later, people enjoy hearing about Sears' short yet significant time in the war.

"He's really flattered and honored," Brown said. "Sometimes people his age feel like they can't contribute to society anymore; this gives him a deep purpose."

Nine of the Salvo Sal's crew of 10 survived the war, but Sears is now the only living member.

"Time has taken its toll," Sears said. "You miss the camaraderie."

In four hours of discussing his harsh history, Sears repeatedly summed up his experiences in one sentence.

"It's been an interesting life, a good life."

His daughter said his story is inspiring.

"He really is my hero," Brown said. "He's just a role model for us all."

Morgan Eads: (859) 231-3335. Twitter: @heraldleader.

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