It happened 65 years ago, but Ben Griffin still remembers every detail.
How the bullets glittered and popped like sparklers against the belly of the small planes his enemies were flying.
The face of the first enemy he made bail out of his failing plane.
And the terrible mistake he made on the day his own plane went down in Czechoslovakia during World War II.
But he doesn’t remember much of what he was thinking that day, as his single-engine plane landed in a field, its propellers slowing as they sliced through earth.
“I wasn’t afraid — I didn’t really think,” the 88-year-old retired lieutenant colonel said.
Sharing their story
Griffin, a Winter Park resident, and three other WWII POWs briefly shared their stories with a hushed crowd during Fantasy of Flight’s October Living History Symposium. The men discussed their most vivid memories, from the honor and eagerness they felt to be sent into combat, to the courage it took to get them through captivity. One described his role in The Great Escape, another the help the French Underground provided him. One more held back tears as he described how he watched D-Day happen from his airplane.
“It still amazes me after all these years — they are still emotional, it’s just as real,” said Bob Butchar, who brought his son to the symposium with a home school group.
Everyone in the crowd, including a few younger children, seemed to recognize the value in being able to hear history from people who experienced it first-hand.
“This is true, unfiltered history,” said Stephanie Conner, who organized the event. “You’re hearing it from the people who actually made history.”
Audience members agreed.
“In a very short period of time, these people are not going to be here anymore,” said Tom Davies. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
But Griffin is still here, and he described what happened the day he went down. The minute he turned his plane, he knew it was in the wrong direction. Flak, or anti-aircraft warfare, sprayed up at his aircraft. Coolant was leaking, so he had to land to keep his plane from catching on fire. Once on the ground, he tried to run, but German soldiers were on his heels.
“I could see their bayonets flashing in the sun,” he said.
Griffin can remember they spoke to him in English and mimics their voices when he tells the story. “Stop!” they said in German accents. Though Griffin was young, his captors were only teenagers — 16 and 17 years old.
“I was mad and they were scared.”
Griffin reunited with members of his squadron, who were also captured. They were then passed along to many different soldiers, and were taken by train, foot and truck to a prison camp in Germany. The ordeal lasted a month. There wasn’t much food, and while on the road, Griffin remembered the black bread they served him in the beginning, which was made with sawdust and tasted like sawdust. Now that sounded like “chocolate cake.”
“When you’re used to eating as much as you want, and then you have nothing to eat, you can get pretty hungry.”
Though the hunger couldn’t be ignored, or the guns, or the constant threat to his life, Griffin said he never thought about dying.
“I didn’t do a whole lot of thinking or feeling,” he said. “Everyone was numb.”
Coming back home
He didn’t even have much reaction to the day he was rescued. General George S. Patton himself rode up in a Jeep, one hand on the edge of the windshield, the other on his two ivory-handled guns, and announced their freedom.
“He said, ‘Well you boys can go home now,’” Griffin recalled.
And then it didn’t hit him, or anyone else. Griffin said there wasn’t cheering or crying. But he did have something to come home to — a fiancé he’d proposed to the previous summer. Because of the war they were apart much of their relationship — he proposed over the phone — but they wrote each other letters every day.
“I still have every one of them,” Marian Griffin said.
They have three sons, two grandchildren who are pilots, and a grandson at Winter Park High School aspiring to be a pilot, too, just like his grandfather.