Sacco in his newly issued uniform in Miami Beach, 1943.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Pasquale "Pat" Sacco was cruising at 32,000 feet when he realized something was wrong.
It was May 1944 and the 457th Bomber Group was headed for Berlin when it came under attack by German Messerschmitts, Me-109s.
Sacco was under the belly of the bomber, manning the gun in the ball turret. He saw flames and smoke trailing from the back of the Flying Fortress and climbed out of the cramped ball to help the radio man but he would be the only crew member killed. Sacco and the pilot were about the last to jump.
"We no sooner left the plane when it blew up because the tail section was still coming down over my head," he said. "They tell you not to pull your chute until you see the tree tops and houses, and you're pretty conscious of all of this. When you see the ground coming up and you pull your ripcord it seems just a second that it doesn't open.
"It's the prettiest thing on earth when that baby does open up."
Sacco and his pilot landed in a plowed field, about a mile from the crashed plane. They were captured by a farmer and immediately arrested and handed over to the German military.
He would spend the next year in a prisoner of war camp. He survived on potatoes and carrots and the occasional Red Cross package until he was able to escape.
"How young he must have been, you know? He was ... Oh, my God. I can't imagine being that young," said his daughter, Patricia Sacco Prenguber.
Pasquale Nicholas Sacco died in 2008 at the age of 86. He survived a year of starvation and neglect as a prisoner of war and returned home to marry Josephine A. Girgenti and raise Patricia and her sister, Susan Aitken.
He was one of six Sacco boys — Anthony, Peter, Joseph, Ralph and Samuel — who went off to war. All but Samuel made it back.
Prenguber said her father had occasionally spoken about this experiences and she encouraged him to record his story more than 20 years ago.
His voice comes out of a tape player, calm and careful, the hiss of the cassette as background noise.
"I didn't know until the end he was really nervous about talking into it," she said.
"Well, Patty," he starts, "I was a senior in high school and Hitler was overrunning Europe. I was following the war pretty good in my senior year. Then came Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. I had already graduated in June of '41. My brothers Sam and Tony were already in. So I kept working until my number came up."
Sacco tried to get into the Coast Guard, but he was considered 1A for the Army. He was inducted on March 17, 1943, and did his basic training in Miami Beach, Fla.
A small black and white photograph shows him in his new uniform sitting outside, palm trees in the back. The date is April 1943 and he's in training for the Army Air Forces. "Clothes just issued," the note on the back says.
He was one of only 16 out of a flight of 64 who passed the physical and spent time in Colorado, Texas and Salt Lake City.
"I guess they needed some crews over in England and we left by ship. Fifty bomb crews went to England and I landed with the 457th group. It was a pretty new bomb group," he said. "We had our first mission I believe in May of '44."
The 457th would begin operations in February and fly 79 missions through the end of June. Sacco was on Mission 49, his third.
Sacco, by then a sergeant, met up with his brother Tony, who he hadn't seen in two years. They'd hoped to meet with Samuel, who was also in England at the time. Peter was in Hawaii, Ralph in Nashville, Tenn., and Joe was preparing to ship out.
That family gathering was cut short on May 19, 1944, when Sacco was shot down.
Sacco and his pilot landed with no shoes or socks because they had been ripped off by the slipstream. They were taken to Dulag Luft, a Luftwaffe interrogation center. American airmen were a dime a dozen there, he said, all from the 8th Air Force and "a couple of RAF boys that knocked off some big battleship in the fjords of Norway."
They were jampacked into railroad cars and taken a newly built prisoner of war camp.
"Like I was the 565th person to enter the camp. My prison number was 1565," he said. "And then 11 months later, when the camp was evacuated, there was over 10,000 of us enlisted men."
"Let me tell you a little about prison life. It's something like 'Hogan's Heroes' but it's something else. I don't know what," he said.
He arrived at Stalag Luft IV, Lager A. It was surrounded by barbed wire but prisoners could freely move throughout the camp as long as they stayed away from the perimeter line — a foot high wall. Anyone crossing would be considered attempting to escape and shot.
Sacco wasn't aware of any escape attempts but did hear about some others, including one in which 50 Royal Air Force personnel were shot. He did see one airman killed for "horsing around" and jumping out a window. He was shot on the spot.
The food "wasn't very good" and there were rumors the bread was adulterated with sawdust and other materials.
"I couldn't stomach it but then I says well, I better start eating this stuff," he said. Red Cross parcels showed up about six months later but there weren't many and the had to be shared. He recalled small tins of pineapple, Spam, chocolates and cigarettes. The Germans spiked the cans so they couldn't be hoarded.
Sacco, who was particular about dates, said it was Feb. 6, 1945, that rumors started about being liberated. Germany was getting smaller as the Allies pushed from the west and the Russians from the east.
But instead of liberation, the camps were broken up into small groups of about 100 and started marching. They marched down country roads and through small towns and villages. They slept in fields or were locked in barns. And they just kept walking.
"It seemed like we went in a big circle because the 67 days we were on the road, there was very little food to eat. They would throw you a potato now and then ... the young girls and boys would sell us a carrot now and then for anything we had," he said. "I can remember just eating carrots there one time, I like carrots anyway, but there were times we didn't eat at all."
They'd steal potatoes out of the fields and worst was watching men fighting over a potato. He recalled going without food for at least three days straight. Prenguber remembers him as a man who liked to eat but did it slowly and "seriously."
By the end of two months they "were pretty well laced up with bugs, fleas, it was pretty rough."
He and few others were told by a French laborer in one village that if they ran into the woods, the English were only five kilometers away.
"He said, I'll bring you some food and water, but we never did see him again," Sacco said. "We escaped from our column. We goofed it up for maybe two other guys who were in the woods. Maybe they had the same idea. And we run like heck to the edge."
But they heard two gunshots behind them. Sacco thought the other two men they ran across in the woods were shot at and possibly killed while they got away.
After four or five days in the woods, it was April 17, 1945, when they heard, "hand me the bucket, Johnny." It was an English armored division and they were the first POWs the group had run across.
They were flown to a hospital in Oxford, England. "They burnt our clothes and fed us," he said. "We were like heroes coming into England."
"I got discharged in November 1945. And after I met your mother, we went out for a year and got married Nov. 16, 1946, to the nicest girl I've ever known," Sacco said.
He went to work at Hunter Machine and then at Sprague Electric until retiring in 1985, attended St. Anthony's Church and joined several veterans organizations. He and his beloved Josephine would die within six weeks of each other.
He made his recording in 1996, not long after he and the late Michael Catrambone, a Navy veteran, were interviewed by the North Adams Transcript.
Prenguber said her father didn't like to say a lot about his experiences. The family would hear bits and pieces and when asked to speak to a school class, he declined at the last minute.
She thought it important to get his words down and his story remembered.
"At the time we made the tape I could remember but I knew there would be a point where he wouldn't be here, and I wouldn't remember everything," she said.
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