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October 25, 2012

A living legend: WW II veteran tells students about his time as a POW

JEFFERSONVILLE — One of the plane’s four engines caught fire after it was hit by flak. With the bomb bay doors open and a parachute ready, he bailed out with the rest of the crew, several thousand feet above the ground.

Bob Oakes, a World War II veteran, told a class of eighth-graders at Parkview Middle School recently about how his plane was shot down and the time he spent as a prisoner of war.

Oakes, a radio operator for B-17 bombers, has talked to students about his wartime experiences for years. He said he hopes they come away learning how terrible war can be.

“I didn’t want to talk about it for years,” Oakes said. “But as you grow older, you get more mellow. There’s not many of us left and you can read about it in a book, but it’s not like hearing it from us.”

It was his 32nd mission of the war. He said they were flying over oil refineries to bomb them, but even being in the plane was difficult. He said at the heights they flew, temperatures reached about -40 degrees. They had to wear electric suits to keep warm. But if they were flying through flak — anti-aircraft artillery fire — they had to wear body armor and helmets.

He said the air was so thin at those heights, they had to breathe through oxygen masks, which would occasionally freeze up. Banging them against the thin metal walls of the plane was the only way to shake off the ice.

After his plane was shot down, Oakes said he was captured by Germans and spent eight months in two different prison camps. He said sometimes, the food was miserable with bread that had sawdust cooked into it, and transport from one camp to another took 11 days in a crowded rail car.

But he said he never regretted signing up.

“It was the thing to do,” Oakes said. “The war was on, they needed people and I was the right age.”

Lynne Oakes, the teacher of the class and Bob’s daughter, said the challenges soldiers endure today are the same they went through all those years ago.

“I think it’s really important that they know not only about the sacrifices they made then, but what sacrifices soldiers make today,” she said.

Bryan Schaffer, a student in the class, asked Bob several questions. He said he’s been interested in World War II since he watched the film, “Glory,” and also has interest through video games like the “Call of Duty” series.

“In the games, you learn a lot about the equipment they used and how they dressed,” Schaffer said.

But he said he appreciated hearing it from a veteran more than a game.

“In the games, it’s not as accurate,” Schaffer said. “But when you hear about it from someone who was there, you know it was accurate. They saw it.”

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