LEGACIES OF WWII: Wilbert L. Seibold – Huntington – B17 top turret gunner
One of the first things Wilbert Seibold of Huntington did after his B-17G bomber was shot down near Kersmecke, Germany, on Oct. 5, 1944, was to scuff his shoes.
“The Army Air Corps had issued us heated shoes that plugged into our flight suits to keep our feet warm at high altitudes,” he said. “I believed if I bailed out in new shoes, the Germany soldiers would have killed me for them.”
Perhaps Seibold’s efforts proved valuable — The ball turret gunner managed to escape injury and survive the war. Still, he was held prisoner under dismal conditions until nearly the end of the war in May 1945.
Seibold, born in 1923 in Zanesville, graduated from Lafayette Center High School in Allen County in 1941. He was drafted into the Army shortly after and sent to Camp Perry in Ohio for basic training.
Seibold had known a pair of brothers who served as a pilot and navigator with the Army Air Corps. Believing that serving as part of a flight crew sounded exciting, he had asked to be assigned to that service branch. At that time, the service branch was fairly new and openings were available, so Seibold was accepted as a gunner on a B-17.
After training at gunnery schools in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Las Vegas, Seibold was assigned to the 331st squadron, 94th bomb group, 8th Air Force.
In early 1945, Seibold and thousands of other soldiers sailed on the RMS Mauritania, one of the largest ships in the world. It was a former luxury liner converted to a troop ship. “We slept in hammocks on board,” he said.
Seibold and his crew flew 18 missions before they were shot down over Germany. “German women shot at us,” he said. “We were captured by German civilians.”
The German civilians turned the crew over to German military officials.
“They spoke to us in English during our interrogations,” he said. Unfortunately, what the German officials said was not good. “They claimed they found guns in our cockpit,” said Seibold.
“But the Army Air Corps had done away with that procedure so we knew it was not true.”
During the next several weeks, Seibold was sent to Frankfort and Berlin where he was imprisoned. “Berlin was the worst place to be a POW because the Americans and British bombed the city day and night,” he said.
He was threatened by the Germans with the use of bayonets and received little food.
“The only Red Cross package we received was taken away by the German guards,” he said.
During most of his imprisonment, Seibold was held at Stalag Luft III located in Poland. It was a prison for captured Western Allied air force personnel. Despite depressing conditions and lack of sufficient nutrition, Seibold attempted to escape on four occasions.
During one such escape, a burgomaster (a type of mayor) of a German village tried to lock up Seibold and the other escapees with him.
The problem was the burgomaster had the wrong keys for the cell.
“By the time he left to retrieve the right keys, we had run into the forest,” Seibold said. Unfortunately, he and the other POWs ran into another German POW camp and were re-captured.
During the fourth attempt at freedom, Seibold and the others with him were captured by Hungarian troops. Hungary and Germany were part of the Axis powers fighting the Allies, of which the U.S. and British were part.
By this time, it was spring 1945. It was obvious the Axis powers were declining in strength and numbers, and it was rumored they would surrender.
However, Seibold overheard information that alarmed him.
“Someone said the POW camp we were at was scheduled to be blown up soon!” he said.
He wrote a note containing the information and gave it to a Hungarian helper at the camp with instructions to deliver it to British soldiers.
“My goal was that we POWs at the camp would not be killed during the attack,” he said. The messenger, perhaps realizing Hungary would soon be in the hands of the enemy, delivered the message to the Allies. Seibold and the other POWs were rescued soon.
What was the first thing Staff Sgt. Wilbur Seibold did after being rescued? “I got a haircut,” he said.
After the war, Seibold visited with the family of a former crew member from Otis, Ind., who had been killed in action.
“Tom (he doesn’t recall the last name) and I were close buddies and it hit me hard when he died,” said Seibold. Tom’s family showed Seibold the Purple Heart issued posthumously to Tom. “The whole family stood when they brought it out,” Seibold said. “I’ve never seen anyone do that.”
Today, Seibold is the only living member of his flight crew. He occasionally meets with other area POWs. In 2015, a plaque with a piece of his downed aircraft was sent to him by an appreciative friend. He treasures his photo of his flight crew, as well as his dog tags, which he wore during his imprisonment.
“My time in the war was interesting, but I would not want to do it again,” he said.