The Last P.O.W. in Becker County
It’s harder and harder to come by World War II veterans these days, and finding a POW from that war is like finding a rare gem.
Warren (Wayne) McCoy of Detroit Lakes is one of those 93-year-old gems that is now Becker County’s sole surviving prisoner of any war.
He tells the story like it was yesterday.
Sign me up, Captain
“It was July of 1942,” said McCoy, who was 22 years old and leaving a job helping his older brother with a bread delivery route in the Crosby, Minn. area for the battle fields of World War II.
McCoy was among many young men then who wanted to be a pilot in the war.
“Everybody wanted to fly,” he said, adding that although he started training for it, the Army Air Corps only took the top few in the pilot program, so he was washed back to his second choice — a bombardier.
“A bombardier sits in the nose of the plane, and between the time we take off and the target, I’m figuring out the weather reports for winds and everything,” said McCoy. “I control the movement of the plane so that when we’re at the right spot of the target, I open the bomb bay doors and drop the bomb.”
Being short on bombardiers, the Army Air Corps wasted no time in getting McCoy and his crew trained and on their way over to Punta, Italy in a brand new B-17.
A fresh-faced second lieutenant, McCoy was assigned to the 463rd bomb group, 772nd squadron.
Within the first few missions, McCoy’s squadron lost four planes out of seven over Romania, where refineries were being heavily defended.
But McCoy continued crawling into the front of that B-17 for one mission after another, as he and his crew pushed up into southern Germany and into France.
His final mission would be over Italy on October 12, 1944.
“We were bombing a bridge in Bologna, Italy to prevent the Germans from having direct access to retreat,” said McCoy, whose plane was leading their squadron of seven planes.
“We had just dropped the bombs at 21,000 feet when we got a direct hit in the right wing,” he said, adding that when the plane caught on fire, everyone bailed out.
But as McCoy and his crew began their free fall from 21,000 feet, there was a little problem.
“We used to fly with what we call a flak jacket, and I had that over my parachute,” said McCoy who says he was busy saying prayers and taking off that jacket as he fell.
“So I must have been down around 5,000 feet before I could release my parachute,” he said.
His landing might have been fine, had it not been for the German soldiers who were waiting right there for him.
“They were shooting at us as we came down — I remember hearing the bullets come whizzing by,” said McCoy.
When he landed, it was directly in the hands of the Germans.
“And one of the German soldiers says to me, ‘For you, the war is over.’”
The Germans put McCoy on a train with 20 other POW’s and they started off for Germany.
“But on the way up, the train we were on was knocked out by an American fighter, so they had to unload us and walk us up to another train,” said McCoy, “and along the way, there was a bunch of Italian farmers there with pitch forks.”
When the farmers realized that McCoy and the other POW’s were the Americans who were just bombing the area, things got intense.
“The German soldiers had to actually protect us from being attacked by the Italian farmers,” said McCoy, “but you can’t blame them.”
If McCoy or any of the POW’s had ever wondered what they were fighting for, the picture became very clear as he says during the four-day trip to Frankfurt, they passed a train going the opposite direction with passengers who likely made the POW’s feel like the lucky ones.
“It had Jewish captives… there were men, women, children reaching out,” said McCoy, who says they were being sent to the crematoriums. “They were being hauled like livestock,” he said.
German soldiers zeroed in on McCoy right way.
“Because I was flying in a new bomber with a bubble in the front for radar bombing, they thought I knew something about it,” he said, “but I didn’t. I hadn’t been trained on radar bombing.”
McCoy was sent to the German’s interrogation center in Oberursel, where he would endure 28 days of hard, unrelenting interrogation.
“They used a lot of different methods — they would turn the heat up so it was hot, then it was cold,” said McCoy. “They would leave the water dripping so that I couldn’t sleep… sleep deprivation was a big thing. They were experts.”
Without getting a thing out of him, McCoy says the Germans then transferred him to Germany’s Zagan POW camp near Poland, where he would live with 12 other American POWs in a small, 12-foot by 12-foot room.
Because he was an officer, the Geneva Convention and its rules of war prohibited German soldiers from making McCoy work.
But they had other ways of making him miserable.
“We were given just enough food so that we didn’t have the energy to cause any problems,” said McCoy, who says they were supposed to get Red Cross parcels once a week with food, but only got them every three weeks or so.
“I went from 165 pounds to 135,” he said.
Away from his family (two of his brothers were also fighting in the war at the same time as him), the prisoners of war did everything they could to keep each other’s spirits up.
“We had church service every Sunday… the Germans let us do that,” said McCoy, who says while the German soldiers were not sympathetic, he never believed they would kill him.
McCoy says they even put up a poster trying to recruit the POWs.
“It said anyone willing to fight on the Russian front for the Germans would be given their freedom because they said we (Americans) would be fighting the Russians eventually anyway,” said McCoy, who says to his knowledge, nobody took them up on that offer.
In January of 1945 — three months into his captivity —McCoy and his soldiers would be tested again.
“The Germans were worried the Russians were going to liberate us, so they wanted us moved further inland,” he said. “We marched about 40 kilometers (nearly 25 miles) and it was colder than the devil. I don’t know exactly, but being a Minnesotan, I guessed about 20 below.”
McCoy and the other POW’s were told that for every one of them that escaped during the march, three of them would be shot.
“And they meant it,” he said.
They were then loaded into a box car with 40 men inside and sent on a three day trip to the Munich area.
“When we got sleepy we would just lean up against another guy and sleep a little,” said McCoy.
The men joined up with other POW’s from all over at this camp, which had only a large hospital tent for housing.
McCoy and his comrades were kept abreast of what was happening in the war from a radio one of them had stolen and kept hidden.
“So every night he would come around and give us a report of what was being said on the BBC,” said McCoy.
Continually crowded and scarcely fed, the men would endure another three months of captivity before the shots would ring out.
It was around noon on April 29, 1945 when McCoy remembers hearing a lot of artillery fire.
“And all at once, the Germans just disappeared,” said McCoy, who says about five minutes later, American soldiers came rolling up in tanks. On the back of one of them, he says, was Gen. George Patton.
“He was standing only 10 feet away from me,” said McCoy, smiling. “And four hours later, he had a baker in there baking us bread.”
The war was over.
In fact, because the Germans left so fast, McCoy was able to go into the offices of the camp where he retrieved the records the Germans had on him, complete with his picture, fingerprint and what bunk he was in. He would take that home with him.
“I also found a bunch of Red Cross parcels in a warehouse,” he laughed.
But because there were so many U.S. soldiers that needed to get back to the U.S. and limited transportation, McCoy and other POWs ended up on the newly purchased German luxury liner the military commissioned as the USS Lejeune.
The ride home was… fattening.
“We got milkshakes whenever we wanted… they wanted to fatten us up,” laughed McCoy, who spent the next six months of furlough recouping, relaxing and eating.
“Still to this day, I really hate to see food wasted,” he said, adding that aside from some occasional dreams over the next few years, McCoy walked away from his time as a prisoner of war with no real physical or psychological damage.
In fact, the 25-year old man who came home from the war had a new perspective on life that would stay with him forever.
“I don’t want to go through it again, but I have learned to appreciate a lot of things,” said McCoy. “You really appreciate the fact that you can get up in the morning and do almost anything. It makes you appreciate what everyone in the U.S. has available if they want to make use of it.”
Both of McCoy’s brothers would also come back from the war intact.
McCoy would go on to work his own bread delivery route in Minnesota before moving to California where he finished out his working career in the insurance business.
He had three sons who also served in the military, two of whom fought in Vietnam and one that was a camera man on a B-29 in Guam.
The McCoy men have certainly fulfilled their patriotic duty, but it’s one he says was worth fighting for.
“People wonder why everybody tries to come to the United States, whether illegally across the border or other ways,” said McCoy, smiling proudly, “but I know why.”