On a September day in 1944, Bob Swinehart was herded aboard a cattle car with 100 other captured Americans for a three-day train ride to Nazi Germany’s notorious Stalag Luft III.
Ironic considering that right before the war, he drove a milk route for a dairy.
Now 95, the longtime Enon resident is literally part of a dying breed. The men and women who saved the world from tyranny during World War II are dying at a rate of 600 every day.
As he nears the century mark, Swinehart’s tales of holding his B-24 Liberator in tight formation over hostile territory — even once as a German Me-109 came barreling at him, its 30mm cannon blazing — are still best told in the first person, and he’s happy to oblige while he can.
That’s why he can’t figure out why multiple area high schools have all said they’re “kind of busy” when he’s offered to come pay a visit to their classes.
“I think the students would be interested in it,” Swinehart said recently. “I think I have a pretty good memory.”
Not only is Swinehart blessed with the kind of memory that can recall being liberated from a prisoner-of-war camp on a Sunday morning, he also still lives on his own and drives.
“I drive all over,” he bragged.
In October, the widower and retired postal service truck driver plans on driving himself to the next reunion of the 461st Bomb Group — 735 miles away in Omaha, Neb.
“I may go from Omaha to California,” Swinehart said.
“And,” he added, “I have a good buddy in Spokane, Wash.”
The only thing he doesn’t do anymore is fly. A pinwheel attached to the front of a power scooter is his only propeller these days.
During World War II, Swinehart had four mighty engines at his command as the pilot of a B-24.
As far back as 1938, Swinehart, who grew up on a farm near Upper Sandusky, spent any money he had on flying lessons.
When he was drafted into the infantry in 1942, he had to fill out the required form stating his occupation, religion and any hobbies.
“I put down truck driver as my occupation and hobby was flying,” he said.
That was enough for Swinehart to be pulled out of the infantry and put on a course to become a glider pilot.
“That was the best break I had,” he said.
However, a glut of glider students ultimately put Swinehart in charge of a 10-man B-24 crew based in Italy.
The flight from Palm Beach, Fla., to South America, at which point they headed toward North Africa and Italy, turned out to be more harrowing than actual combat.
“You heard of the Bermuda Triangle?” Swinehart asked. “We went right through that.”
A four-hour storm off the coast of Florida that was too big to fly around and too high to fly above threw his Liberator “up and down and all over,” he recalled.
“That was the most scared I ever was,” he said. “More so than flying combat.”
In fact, his first combat mission — a 7½-hour mission to strike a bridge in northern Italy on June 5, 1944 — didn’t even come close.
“The squadron commander went along with me to check me out, as co-pilot,” Swinehart said. “I’m not kidding you, I kept getting sleepy.”
Missions were conducted over Romania and Hungary before he piloted his Liberator to southern France on June 25, 1944, and was about done in by bomb bays that wouldn’t close.
“That made quite a drag on the aircraft,” Swinehart explained.
In other words, they got lousy gas mileage on the way back to Italy.
“That was kind of a scary one,” he said. “Just before we got to our field, one engine quit. The No. 4 engine quit. On the runway, No. 3 quit.
“They dipped the tank with a stick, they couldn’t get any reading at all. That was pretty close. I couldn’t have flown for another couple of minutes. Maybe not even that long.”
Flying in formation on bomb runs meant sticking together no matter what — be it flak or German fighters — and relying almost entirely on luck.
“I could hold it in there pretty tight,” Swinehart said.
That Me-109 that once flew directly at him over Blechhammer, Germany, he said, ended up killing the pilot in the Liberator next to him.
“You can’t turn because you’re right next to another airplane,” he said.
On Swinehart’s 15th mission, en route to strike an oil storage facility in Vienna, Austria, his own luck ran out when flak punctured his B-24’s fuel tank.
At 18,000 feet, all four engines came to a halt.
“At 8,000, I said we might as well get out,” Swinehart said.
He was the last man to escape out the plane’s bomb bay.
“I didn’t think about being afraid to jump,” he said. “I just let loose of the plane and dropped.”
Parachuting into a potato patch somewhere in Hungary, he was greeted by a group of civilians who were eager to give an American a warm, Hungarian welcome.
“They had pitchforks. They had clubs. I think they had some guns,” Swinehart said. “I was just at their mercy.”
Instead of striking him, though, they took most everything but his wings and insignia. In return, he was taken to a house and given a bowl of soup.
“I wasn’t even thinking about food,” Swinehart confessed.
Eventually, Swinehart spent the rest of the war between two German prison camps — Stalag Luft III in Poland, which would be immortalized in the Steve McQueen movie “The Great Escape,” and Stalag VII-A inside Germany.
Boredom was the worst part of being a German POW, he said.
To get from one camp to the other, however, required a four-day forced march through a foot of snow in January 1945.
But, it was all over on April 29, 1945, as one of Gen. George S. Patton’s tanks rolled through the gate of Stalag VII-A.
“That,” he said, “was a pretty nice day.”
Once a month, Springfield News-Sun military reporter Andrew McGinn profiles a local veteran for an in-depth look at what they experienced.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 937-328-0352.