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Information for Teachers | Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress

Tuesday, May 17, 2005



by Alyssa Morren
   Grade 10, Great Falls Central Catholic

Risk is an essential part of life. All people have heard their inner voice tell them to get up, get out, and break free. Unfortunately few people actually listen. The rewards of risk don’t seem worth the loss that would be sustained. The safer route is generally chosen. But what if the only choice presented is risk? That was the question facing James Fullerton. Mr. Fullerton served in the Air Force in World War II. He was a member of the 91st bomb group, 323rd squadron, achieving the rank of 2nd lieutenant. After being shot down, he was captured by the Germans. Then he was shipped to Stalag Luft III, along with 10,494 other prisoners. For Mr. Fullerton and his fellow officers, risk was their only option.
Stalag Luft III was located in Sagan, now Zagan, Upper Siliesia, Poland. It was first used in April of 1942. An officer’s only camp, it housed only Allied airmen. Among the imprisoned airmen there was a diverse mix of ages, ranks, education and background. However, a few similarities existed between them. All of the men had volunteered to be in the service. All flew airplanes in combat, and all had survived traumatic disasters while flying. These similarities united the men in brotherhood and gave them an unusual loyalty to each other. This camaraderie helped the men devise the unthinkable: an escape from a German prison.
Luft III housed several men experienced in the art of escape. Squadron Leader Roger Bushnell was captured during the battle of France. He had already escaped from the Germans once before, but was recaptured in Prague. Bushnell hated the Germans with a raw passion. Bushnell was the mastermind of the Luft III Escape Organization. Among the ranks of men in the Luft, he found expert forgers, tailors, tunnel engineers and surveillance men. He was determined to place 250 men outside of the camp warning wire. His main wish was to cause an enormous problem in German camp infrastructure. He did this all with the understanding that his next escape and capture would result in death at the hands of a German firing squad.
Tunneling was the key to the escape. Organization of the tunneling fell into the hands of Floody, a Canadian who had been a mining engineer before the war.  He masterminded the three tunnels “Tom, Dick, and Harry”. The entrances to the tunnels were genius works of deception. All huts in the barracks were elevated from the ground, but there was a concrete base for stoves. Both ‘Tom’ and ‘Harry’ in huts 105 and 104 respectively exit through the center of the base. The entrance to ‘Dick’ was perhaps the most cleverly disguised. It was hidden in the shower of Hut 122. When closed and sealed it was under several feet of water. It was never found by the Germans and still holds leftover escape materials.
Unexpected searches by “ferrets” (German guards specialized in escape detection) were always in the back of prisoners’ minds.  In one close call, the trap door to Harry was replaced and camouflaged in 20 seconds, leaving no trace of a tunnel entrance. However, the men were not always so lucky. When their tunnels were discovered, the Germans permitted construction to continue until the tunnel was almost done. Trucks would then be brought in to cave in the tunnel. “Penguins” (prisoners in charge getting rid of sand) disposed of the sand dug out to create the tunnels. Prisoners filled long bags and placed them inside of the legs of their pants and walked around the compound, dispelling the sand. If one penguin were careless, the ferrets would spot the sand and deduce where the tunnel was being constructed.
Tunneling was incredibly dangerous. Sand could cave in without warning. No one ever died in the construction of the tunnels, but many had to take days off to recover from their near suffocation.
The construction of the tunnels called for the men to give up many items they needed for their own comfort. For example, over 4,000 bed boards, 1,699 blankets, 3,424 towels and 69 lamps were used in the tunnels. The bed boards were employed as shoring for the tunnels, so the men slept on quasi hammocks. Freedom trumped immediate comfort everyday.
When Tom was nearly finished, the Germans discovered it and destroyed it all.The focus of the men swung to Harry. It was then that the men were divided into those who would escape and those who wouldn’t. Those getting top priority were as follows: those who had played a large part in the building of the tunnels; experienced escapers; and German speakers. They would travel by train and have highly developed identities and forged papers.  The rest of the men, the “hard arsers”, would have to lie in the tunnels all day and trudge hundreds of miles at night. These men had slim to no chance of surviving the escape, but tempted fate anyway.
When the night of the escape finally arrived on March 24/25, 1944, things did not go well for the prisoners who had worked so diligently. There was snow on the ground, making it impossible for the men to not leave a trail. There was also an air raid, which forced the Germans to turn off the electric lights, forcing the men to use fat lamps n the tunnels. By dawn only 76 men had gotten out. Eventually, that number was increased to 87. Due to miscommunication between two escapees, the Germans were made aware of the tunnel, and the escape attempt was foiled.
A national alert was issued. Hitler ordered that all men recaptured were to be shot. He later decided ‘more than half are to be shot and cremated’. The Gestapo then created a list of 50 men. Either alone or in little groups, then men were taken to remote locations, offered the chance to relieve themselves, and shot. The report issued by the Gestapo could claim that the men tried to escape while relieving themselves, thus making it seem as if the murder was justified. 
Of the 87 men that left Stalag, 50 of them were murdered, 17 were returned, and 4 sent to other camps. Only 3 men reached freedom.
In the end, Bushnell created the havoc he desired. This escape attempt created holes in the German infrastructure, and embarrassed Hitler. In time a memorial was built by British airmen to honor the 50 men murdered.
Why should the story of these men still matter? Their story originates from such a dark period in history it would seem better to forget and move on. However this is a story that must be told. Two sides of human nature are revealed, through the bravery of the prisoners, and the unnecessary cruelty of their captors. If this story ended up a footnote in history, the door would be left wide open for the same type of atrocity. Hopefully the story will open eyes. The greatest injustices of the world start with the mistreatment of one person. It is the duty of all people to stand up, take the risk, and correct the smallest misdeed. The gain is worth the risk.

Veteran's Data

Name of Veteran: James Alvin Fullerton
Date of Birth: 6/18/1922  Place of Birth: Mars, PA
Date of Induction: June 13,1942  Branch of Service: Army  Rank at Discharge: 
Location of Interview: 
Interviewed by: Mary Woelkers

Posted by Alyssa Morren on 05/17 at 11:37 AM
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