When Capt. Art Palmer, 103, talks about his war years, he leans forward in his chair, his voice intensifies, and his hands fidget, like he’s back in combat.
His memory seems uncommonly clear for his age. He can recall the specific time he rose each morning after being shipped to North Africa (3 a.m.). He remembers the entirety of what he ate during his eight days on the run after being shot down in enemy territory – a tablespoon’s worth of wild strawberries.
Art was born Sept. 21, 1919, in South Dakota, into a homesteading family with six children. Money was always tight, but during his boyhood they had plenty of food, plus a hundred head of cattle and two teams of horses. Then came five years of drought. The wind picked up. Dust blotted out the sun. Their farm became worthless. His father sold their machinery for scrap.
At 17, Art hopped a freight train and headed west, searching for work. He picked cherries and hops near Yakima. When the weather turned cold, he found work in a grocery store and returned to high school so he could graduate.
Pearl Harbor hit. Art enlisted in the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the U.S. Air Force. After 16 months’ training, he was sent overseas with the 98th Bombardment Group, first to Casablanca, then Southern Italy, where Art piloted the B-24 Liberator, a slow, drafty bomber nicknamed the Flying Coffin.
Fifty was the magic number. If a man flew 50 combat missions, he was sent home. Art survived 49, none easy. Once, over the Alps, an enemy shot out the rudder of Art’s plane. He slipped and edged the unsteerable aircraft back to base. Another time, Art witnessed three bombers collide under intense shelling. The middle plane “fell like a cigar,” Art recalled.
Art caught a cold, so his crew flew their 50th mission without him and shipped home. For Art’s 50th, he volunteered to be a waist gunner with an unfamiliar crew.
June 26, 1944, dawned sunny and bright. Art skipped breakfast due to his nerves. His was the lead plane, tasked with bombing a tightly defended factory in Vienna.
On a run through heavy anti-aircraft fire, an enemy shell tore through his plane’s nose and exploded. Art felt intense heat. He grabbed a fire extinguisher, but flames engulfed the plane “like a blast furnace,” Art said. He and two others parachuted into enemy territory. The rest of the crew didn’t make it.
The survivors met on the ground, intent upon walking to Yugoslavia. Eight days later they were captured, interrogated and sent to Stalag Luft 1, a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp near Barth, Germany.
Nearly 9,000 American, British and Canadian troops were crammed into a prison designed for half that number. The Luftwaffe were in charge. They were part of regular German armed forces and not as harsh as the Schutzstaffel (SS), who controlled the killing centers of Auschwitz and Dachau. Beatings were rare. Red Cross parcels were occasionally distributed. Prisoners could sometimes play softball.
Still, the food was never enough, and a guard could send a prisoner to solitary confinement on a whim.
In January 1945, all Red Cross parcels stopped. Months passed. Art, 5 feet, 8 inches tall, lost 50 pounds. Once, a heavy fog caused a brace of ducks to smash into a barracks wall. Prisoners scooped up the stunned waterfowl and ate them.
Late in April 1945, all guards mysteriously disappeared. Three days later, Soviet troops rolled into camp, “drinking vodka and waving their pistols around,” Art said.
He was finally free.
Art was one of the first POWs shipped back to the United States. But he battled tuberculosis and constant back pain due to eroded vertebrae, a result of malnutrition and a bacterial infection. He spent the next three years in military hospitals. Surgery and a Stryker frame helped.
He also struggled with bitterness, constantly asking “what if?” What if he hadn’t caught that cold and was sent home with his own crew? What if he hadn’t been captured? Instead of staying mired in frustration, he chose to get on with life.
In 1954, Art graduated from the University of Denver with a degree in chemistry. In 1960, he married his sweetheart, Darlene, and they reared three children. Art worked in pharmaceutical sales until retirement in 1986. Darlene passed in 2014.
Today, Art still lives in his own house. He gave up his driver’s license at 101 but stays active with Rotary Club and lunching with friends. Art gardens and still runs the rototiller himself. He limits fat, sugar and stress. He often tells jokes. What’s the secret of his joy today?
“For a long while after the war I was bitter and angry. But I learned to get the focus off myself. Instead of wallowing in self-pity or reciting grim details about my own experiences, I took a genuine interest in the people around me, my family and friends. They’re what’s most important.”