Bound by memories
It’s a simple homemade cardbook book, no bigger than a normal size notebook, containing 21 constructed pages, containing a German language key, some addressees and a shopping list.
It’s bound by strings tied together and probably has passed through many hands throughout its 71 years in existence.
What this simple notebook represents is history which is disappearing as time goes on, claiming the soldiers of World War II, or better known as the “Greatest Generation” which has ever lived.
The homemade notebook was made by Graham “Hawk” Milner during his nine months as a Prisoner of War of the Nazi Germans. The notebook, along with other personal effects of Milner during his time as a B-17 Bomber pilot for the U.S. Air Force, will be on display at the Sanibel Historical Village, which is kicking off the Luminary Festival by honoring the World War II veterans Friday, Dec. 4, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
The Historical Museum and Village is doing this to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the holiday tribute will be, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
Milner’s daughter, Ann Wellauer (who lives on Sanibel and is a Historical Village volunteer), is borrowing her father’s World War II effects, which will be on display at the Historical Museum and Village.
“My dad talked about the survival instinct it took to be in the (POW camp) and some didn’t have it,” Wellauer said. “Some didn’t make it. He always though he had strong survival skills to make it.”
Also on hand at the Historical Village with Milner’s World War II memorabilia, will be his book he wrote about his war and POW experiences. A DVD will also be playing on a continuous loop of an interview with Milner (who has since passed away at the age of 85) talking about his experiences.
Although Wellauer didn’t get to know her father until he was older, she had to opportunity to do so in his later years, where she started appreciating what he accomplished throughout his life.
“I can’t fault him,” Wellauer said. “You don’t know someone until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you have no idea. To actually live it, it’s totally different.”
Milner’s book is entitled “23 and Down” and it tells of the day his B-17 and his crewmates were shot down over Nazi Germany on Sept. 12, 1944.
Milner was 23 years old and was partaking on his 23rd mission, which was the second to last one he had to go on before going home. But that wasn’t to be in the cards.
“We were over the target around noonThe flak was intense and accurateWe took a hit in our No. 2 engine,” Milner wrote in his book. “The co-pilot pointed to the No. 1 engineoil pressure gauge. It was falling rapidly, as were manifold pressure and RPM. I eased away from the lead ship and I now had two dead engines.”
The B-17 was hit several more times and Milner ordered the crew to bail out. With several of the crew already bailing out, Milner made his way to the bomb bay, where an explosion launched him out of the plane and briefly knocking him out.
He eventually came to and pulled the ripcord on his chute, thus making his first ever jump out of an airplane.
“Flight crews did not make practice jumps, because if you didn’t get it right the first time, forget it,” Milner wrote.
One of his crew mates landed in an ice-cold lake where he drowned, while others were shot out of the air while parachuting down to the land.
Milner landed on dry land, where he would ultimately have to shoot and kill one of two assailants tracking him.
The U.S. Air Force pilot was able to connect with a German family, who he found out was “staunchly” anti-Nazi. They gave him food and shelter. The man of the family, Alois, gave Milner a bike and some civilian clothes to wear over his uniform, as he made his way to Switzerland and potential freedom.
He kept his uniform on, because if he was caught, he could be shot on site as a spy.
Alois and Milner traveled for two days by bike. When they arrived to the only way to the border, a heavily-guarded bridge, Milner made his way across at 4 a.m. on Sept. 23, 1944, which was 11 days after his plane was shot down.
Unfortunately, the German guards became aware of Milner and took him prisoner, where he was held at Bregenz on the Bodensee, then taken by train to a prison deep in the German countryside.
“Because he was found in civilian clothes, he was treated as a spy,” Wellauer said. “When he was in the prison camp, the Germans were executing people in the yard outside his window.
“The way he eventually got out of that prison camp, when he decided to go to the bathroom and there was a group of British soldiers being shipped out to another camp and one asked my dad, ‘Where you going, Bloke?’
“My dad responded, ‘To hell, I guess.’ The British solider then said come along with them, and one gave him his jacket and another his hat and off he went and got out.”
Luckily, once Milner was recognized as a prisoner by the Red Cross, the Germans couldn’t shoot him, because he was recognized as a soldier, not a spy.
Milner never exposed the family which helped him in Germany, even after brutal interrogation by the Gestapo.
Eventually Milner’s new camp was located at Stalag Luft One, a POW camp near the town of Barth on the Baltic Sea.
Milner’s room at the POW camp was 15-feet square, along with 20 other prisoners. The biggest problem which festered as time went on was food rations, since the Germans were pilfering the Red Cross rations.
There were failed escape attempts, as well as Milner constructing his notebook, where he added names and addresses of fellow prisoners, as well as a German key to help translate to English.
There were dates of letters received from home, such as from “Mom” on Feb. 16, one from “Jinny” on March 1, and another from “Mom” on April 3.
Unfortunately for the prisoners, the winter of 1944-45 was the coldest on record for the past 50 years.
Finally, on April 30, 1945, the Germans were forced to abandon the camp, with the Russians ramming down the Nazi wall. It was proven in the next few weeks, that the Russians were almost as trustworthy as the Nazis and were forced to “escape” from their “ally” counterparts.
On May 12, 1945, a steady stream of B-17 Bombers of the U.S. Air Force came rushing through the German air. The Eighth Air Force came in with an armada of stripped down B-17s and had over 10,000 men out within two days.
“They started to arrive May 12, 1945, my 24th birthday!” Milner exclaimed in his book. “What a great present!”
The months after World War II ended, Milner went on several other different adventures through the European countryside, which can also be read in his book.
As for Wellauer, she spent 41 years in Illinois, before she and her husband picked up stakes and moved to Sanibel.
“I started coming down here 15 to 20 years ago and my husband retired 15 years ago,” Wellauer said. “We gave up our home of 41 years in Illinois. I’ve been to a lot of places in Florida, but there’s nothing like Sanibel, there’s no where else I would live in Florida.”
The “Greatest Generation” which ever lived will be honored at the Sanibel Historical Village, with a good representation from Milner and his amazing story of being a German POW.
For the holiday presentation, the buildings in the Village will be decorated outside and inside era-appropriate. The Community Choir Carolers will also be singing from 4-4:45 p.m. to start out the Luminary celebration.
For more information visit www.sanibelmuseum.org or call the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village at 239-472-4648.