Conversation with Robert Teichgraeber
This past weekend (September 5, 2005), I finally made contact with Robert Teichgraeber. As some of you may know, he was the right waist gunner on Lt. Suitch's B-24 (#42-100374). This bomber was one of the 13 lost by the 445th during the Gotha raid of February 24, 1944.
Mr. Teichgraeber is doing well, though he still suffers from the leg injury he sustained while bailing out of their crippled bomber 61 years ago. The morning I called, he was out dove hunting. I suspect that aerial gunnery training leaves you a fairly deadly shot with a .16 gauge shotgun!
Here are some notes from the conversation:
Hunting: Robert Teichgraeber hunted before war and enjoyed doing so afterwards. After the war ended, he took occasional trips down to Texas to hunt, and stopped in to visit my great-uncle, Jack Hurst, in Jennings, Louisiana, on those occasions. He mentioned that Jack was also a keen hunter. The morning I called, his wife told me that he was out dove hunting. He returned my call once he returned home. He also mentioned that he was 85 and contemplating driving down to Texas to do some hunting this Fall.
Bailing out: When the crew got the order to bail, the B-24 was starting down out of control. Jack Hurst (the left waist gunner) bailed out on the high side, but because of the centrifugal force, Mr. Teichgraeber had to go out the near window, which was on the low side. When he looked out, he could see the tail boom below him. "I thought to myself, 'that thing will cut me right in half'." But he had to get out or he was going down with the plane. "I jumped out as high as I could, but I still hit my foot on the boom." It ripped his boot off, tore his pants leg, and broke his ankle.
Prison Camps: When Luft VI was evacuated during the night of July 13/14, 1944, S/Sgt. Teichgraeber ended up in the hold of the ship for the horrific 60-hour crossing of the Baltic Sea. Because of his crippled ankle, he fell behind during the infamous run up the road to Stalag Luft IV, losing all his belongings, and was definitively separated from the other three enlisted men at that point. He was in a separate lager from them.
Jet fighters: From the camp, they'd occasionally see the Messerschmitt Me 262 fly overhead. It was the world's first operational jet fighter. "We would see that thing fly by twice as fast as any propeller driven plane and think, 'We'll never get out of here.'"
Forced March: When Luft IV was later evacuated in February, 1945, Mr. Teichgraeber was subjected to a forced march that lasted for the next three months. They were marched out in groups of 200. During that time, he was continually on foot with virtually no food, shelter, or medical supplies. Towards the end, they had been marched west over the Elbe and stopped for a few days. Then, suddenly, "Monty's boys" came near. The Germans started marching them back east again, toward the Elbe. Mr. Teichgraeber and his buddy, a guy from Texas, decided that they couldn't go back across that river, because the Germans would probably try to defend it to the last. They and a Canadian flyer snuck back into a hayloft after the morning nose count. The column marched away eastwards, and the Germans blew the bridge behind them. Unfortunately, the Canadian with them had pneumonia and was unable to keep himself from coughing. The German farmer whose hayloft they were hiding in heard this and called some soldiers in to recapture the three fugitives. The Germans put his buddy and him in a jail cell, but he doesn't know what happened to the Canadian boy. He and his buddy were in that jail cell when the British army moved through the area, liberating them as they advanced.
After the war: In his working life after the war, Mr. Teichgraeber never mentioned to people that he had been a PoW. He felt that there was some sort of stigma about it, as if he was supposed to have died rather than being captured. By his own account, he was always a quiet guy before the war, but afterwards he became something of an introvert. He never joined any veterans organizations until many years later, in 1986. He has received all of the decorations he earned during the war, including the PoW medal and the Purple Heart. On the family front, he got married in 1951. He and his wife have one son and two grandsons and have been married for 54 years.
I will be talking with Mr. Teichgraeber in the future and will share any notes that seem of general interest.