During my life, I’ve been blessed to know many special people. Some are still alive, and some aren’t. But sometimes I just pause and remember those who have gone ahead into eternity. I’d like to introduce you to one such man. His name is Mike Billey, and he served as radio operator on a B-17 during World War II. I wrote about Mike a couple of times before his death, once for a newspaper article and a second time for a Christian publication. Below, I’m sharing that second article for you who would like to take a moment to learn about a great American guy who served his country over Europe in the Eighth Army Air Force.
During World War II, Mike Billey of Elkhart, Indiana, never imagined that he would have to walk 800 miles at gunpoint. He’s glad he only had to do it once.
Billey’s saga began in 1941. Before war broke out, he was planning to marry a Christian girl named Laura from his church. But then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the military was calling young men to service. Billey enlisted, completed basic training, then married his sweetheart before shipping out. Trained as a radio operator, he was assigned to a B-17 nicknamed Johnny Reb with the 452nd Bomb Group in England.
Within a month of arriving in England, Billey and the crew of Johnny Reb began participating in bombing missions over Hitler’s Third Reich. On each raid, Billey carried a pocket-sized New Testament. Inside its front cover was a metal plate that included President Roosevelt’s wishes for safety. Whenever he had some spare moments, Billey would read portions of God’s Word.
However, during Billey’s ninth mission, on August 9, 1944, enemy gunfire damaged Johnny Reb, knocking two of the plane’s four engines out of commission over Regensburg, Germany. The bomber limped away from the battle on its two remaining engines, but couldn’t keep up with the group. Worse, no fighter escort was available to watch over stragglers.
“It was a desolate feeling to see everyone leaving,” Billey recalls. “Everyone did a lot of praying.”
From bad to worse
The airmen heaved overboard everything that wasn’t bolted down, but the wounded bomber continued losing altitude. Over Holland, when the plane was down to 5,000 feet, German flak guns peppered it, and the remaining engines caught fire.
“I’m going to count to five,” the pilot announced by intercom, “and you guys better be out of here, because I’m leaving!”
Excited, Billey jumped up from his radioman’s station and headed rearward to bail out. Fortunately, one of the waist gunners shouted, “Hey, where’s your parachute?” Billey had left it atop his radioman’s post and hurried back to snap it onto his harness!
“We all got out safely,” he says, but as he drifted down, his problems weren’t over. He could see soldiers on the ground running toward the spot where he would land. They were carrying guns, knives, and one man even brandished a pitchfork. “I wondered what he was planning to do with that.”
“They took my pistol and slapped me around. Then they put me on a truck. One of them took out my New Testament, and they had a big laugh about Roosevelt’s wish for safety.” But then they handed back his only copy of the Scriptures.
In nearby Eindhoven, Holland, Billey’s captors locked him in a schoolhouse that had been converted into a jail. Seeing him at the window, Dutch children would risk flashing two fingers in a “V” for victory, which inspired the tech sergeant.
After ten or twelve days of interrogation, Billey and other captured airmen were crammed into train cars for transport. Of course, railroad yards were targets for Allied bombers. “At night they left us locked in the trains in the marshalling yards. When bombs started dropping around us, we bounced around pretty good inside those box cars.”
Eventually the airmen reached Stettin, Germany, where they were imprisoned in Stalag IV.
“I’ll never forget,” Billey says, “we had good chaplains who committed us to God before each mission. Even in prison camp at Stalag IV we had religious services. We knew that we had people praying for us. The Lord watched over us.” (Interestingly, Billey’s bride Laura didn’t receive word that he was missing until three months after he bailed out. It took another month for her to learn that he was a POW.)
Life as a prisoner in Stettin was dreary and depressing. But one day a particularly memorable event lifted the prisoners’ hearts. The sound of a struggling aircraft came over the compound. Looking up, the POWs spotted a shot-up German fighter. The Luftwaffe plane passed overhead and crashed in a ball of flames. Cheers erupted from thousands of voices, but the commandant was grim: “Keep it quiet!” he ordered. “They have their guns on you!” Evidently he feared a spontaneous uprising.
Frozen feet on frozen roads
In the frigid February of 1945, the German guards ordered the prisoners to prepare for a march. Allied troops were approaching, and the Germans weren’t going to surrender the prisoners, even if no trains or trucks were available. “We had to walk,” Billey recalls. “Eight or nine thousand of us. All airmen.”
Walk they did. For eighty-six days the German guards marched them south over frozen roads, veering first one way and then another to avoid Russians in the east and the Americans and British in the west. By the time the prisoners had tramped eight hundred miserable miles, Billey was too ill to go on. Rather than drag along sick prisoners, the guards left him and many others at a Czech hospital. Two days later, Russian tanks rumbled into town.
At last, Billey was free. The Russians promised to help the former prisoners. However, the Soviets’ plan was to send them home via the Black Sea, which sounded like the wrong direction. Talking over their options, Billey united with four Americans and three British airmen, two of whom spoke German. “We left and started walking. People [German citizens] begged us to stay with them because of the Russians.”
A close call
One night the little band asked a German couple if they could sleep in their barn. “Nein,” the lady insisted. “You must sleep in the house.”
The next morning the group was glad they had asked first: at dawn they noticed a squad of armed German soldiers exiting the barn. “The Lord was looking over us. We waited, then left a different way.”
Ironically, when Billey finally reached the last bridge that separated him from American lines, U.S. soldiers wouldn’t let him pass. “I had lost my dog tags, I was wearing Hitler Youth boots, and I had on a Soviet cap with a red star. They wanted to know who I was and why I was dressed that way.”
Finally, Billey persuaded his fellow Americans that he really was just an Allied POW. For two weeks he stayed at Camp Lucky Strike, where he rested and tried to regain some weight. From there he was sent to the States aboard the U.S.S. Billy Mitchell. He was home by the time Hiroshima was bombed.
For obvious reasons, “freedom” is no longer just a word for Mike Billey. He notes that back home, “People were not really aware of what war meant. There were drives for material, but life went on as usual. We were not being invaded ourselves.” On a brighter note, he is able to rejoice, saying, “A lot of believers came out of that situation. A lot of men turned to the Lord.”
That, too, is a form of freedom. After all, Jesus said, “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin…. If the Son, therefore, shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8: 34, 36).
See you again someday, Mike!