GEORGETOWN — Gayle Alexander remembered a cockpit filled with fire the day his plane was shot down over Germany during World War II.
Jay Coberly told of shuffling around, trying to discreetly dispose of yellow sand — unearthed by other POWs who were digging a tunnel — without attracting the notice of Nazi guards.
Don Kremper's memories were of eating boiled grass and cattle feed, sleeping in rain-soaked clothes and trading his coat to a German farm woman for food while being forced to march 600 miles in "cold, sleet, rain."
Joseph Houlihan recalled the "happy day" Gen. George S. Patton came into the tent where he was staying to congratulate him and fellow prisoners of war on their liberation.
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The four men, all of whom live in Lexington, shared stories of their time as prisoners of war during World War II Saturday, at a meeting of the Kentucky chapter of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society in Georgetown.
All four served in the Eighth Air Force. Though only two of them were together during their captivity, each told of not having enough to eat and never feeling warm.
All endured lengthy marches when they weren't being transported in railroad box cars.
"I was always cold or always hungry," said Coberly, 92. "We got about 700 calories a day to start with."
They said soup, black bread or a few potatoes were their meals, but they also got parcels from the Red Cross. Although those packages were intended to feed one man for a week, they said the Germans made two or even four soldiers share one.
Coberly said he and other American soldiers "spent almost all our time in bed trying to keep warm."
But they also spent time devising methods of escape.
Coberly said he was being held at the Nazi war camp made famous by the movie "The Great Escape" during the time of the break-out.
Although Coberly said he didn't help with the tunnelling or try to get away himself, he did help dispose of dirt, and he and fellow soldiers freely gave up their bed boards to help shore up the tunnels.
Houlihan and Alexander, who were captured at different times but ended up in the same camp, spent their time on less exciting pursuits.
"We played cribbage every day together," said Alexander, 88. "He beat me every day."
They also went to mass every week. Alexander, who is not Catholic, said he once asked his buddy Houlihan how the two skinny priests who always conducted the service had been captured.
Turned out, he said, they had bailed out of a plane on their own because they wanted to serve the POWs.
"What became of them after we evacuated camp, I don't know," Alexander said.
Alexander said he was captured on Nov. 2, 1944, while serving as the lead pilot in a fleet of 1,200 bombers and 800 fighter planes undertaking "one of the largest bomb raids in history."
His boots were blown off after he parachuted from his burning plane, and the night he was captured, he said he had to march for about seven hours in his sock feet, in temperatures near zero.
Every time he slowed down, Alexander said, the German soldier behind him "would punch me in the back with his bayonette."
Kremper, 85, said that at one point during the "Black March" that took him 600 miles across Germany, the soldiers were chained together, two by two, and beaten.
But overall, the men said brutality was rare.
"It wasn't what they did to us," said Houlihan, 89. "It was what they didn't do for us."
Coberly said that if he outranked a German soldier, the soldier would salute him, and vice versa.
After he returned from the war, Coberly said the government sent him a check for $300 as compensation for the time he spent as a POW.
Kremper said the experience changed him.
"Certain things I don't eat because they remind me," he said. "It was very hard to get people to understand what we went through. So a lot of us buttoned up and didn't say anything for a while."
Frank Cassidy, president of the Kentucky chapter of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society, said he organized the event because he thinks it's important for that to change.
"These guys are the most unpublicized," he said. "Their stories need to be told because of the privation and deprivation of what they went through."