YOUNTVILLE – Most mornings, Albert Freitas climbs aboard his “buggy” and motors down to the bus stop in front of the Veterans Home of California-Yountville.
The 98-year-old World War II veteran loads the electric chariot onto a bus and heads to a busy shopping center a few miles away in Napa. There, he sips a robust cup of coffee, spends hours watching the shoppers’ hustle and bustle, and he visits with friends he’s made over the years.
Freedom – including the freedom to come and go as he pleases — is a great thing, Freitas will tell you. And he would know. Freitas spent his final 2 ½ years in World War II as a prisoner of war, a captive of the Germans in camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.
Friday, September 20 is POW-MIA Recognition Day, designated to bring awareness to those held captive by enemy forces during wars, and those who never came home and remain unaccounted for.
Freitas, who came to live at the Yountville home eight years ago, considers himself to be one of the fortunate ones. He got to come home. His family wasn’t left to wonder.
He was imprisoned by the Germans, who, for the most part complied with the Geneva Convention guidelines for humane treatment of POWs. Of the 93,941 Americans captured by the Germans, 92,820 came home when the war ended. By comparison, 40 percent of the 27,465 prisoners taken by the Japanese – who did not sign onto the Geneva Convention terms — died in prison camps or in forced marches, many frequently beaten or tortured.
One of eight children in family living in Oakland, Freitas heeded the advice of his older brother by joining the military in 1940.
“My brother said, ‘We’re in a depression. Get into the service and learn a trade,’ ” Freitas said. “So, I joined the Army Air Corps when I was 18.”
Assigned to a B-17 crew, he stopped at Labrador, Iceland, and Scotland on his way to England, making part of the trip on the “Queen Mary” liner that had been converted into a troop carrier (and is now a floating hotel docked in Long Beach).
“There were 35 (bomber) crews transferred there (to England,” he said. “Within the first two to three months, most where shot down.”
He suffered a frostbitten hand that took him off of his crew, and he spent months on ground crews, hoping to return to the air. That finally happened, and he became a radioman and ball turret gunner in a B-17 in the 350th Bomb Squadron of the 100th Bombardment Group. The Germans shot down his plane over France in 1943, and he bailed out.
“I hit the ground so hard I couldn’t walk,” he said, unaware for years that he suffered a head injury when he landed. Captured by the Germans, he went to a hospital in France.
“They threatened us, saying we were spies,” Freitas said. “Then they put us in a box car and sent us to the Lithuanian border.”
He spent time in Stalag lufts, which were POW camps that held only downed airmen. The Germans operated separate camps for officers and enlisted men, like Freitas.
“We liked it that there weren’t any officers around,” he said.
He arrived at one camp to learn Germans had taken 17 POWs out into the woods and executed them.
“The guys were always escaping,” he said. They had tunneled their way out of the camps, scatting the excavated dirt onto other exposed ground outside of the fence. “The Germans loaded them into truck. The guys thought they were going to release them. The Germans shot them all.”
As Russian troops closed in, the Germans moved Freitas and other POWs into the Baltic. “They put us into a grain ship. There was no place to sit. We were all just in there. Then they marched us from Danzig (also known as Gdansk, in Poland) all the way down to Bavaria.”
Life as a POW mostly involved tedium and boredom. Food in the camps involved what the Germans claimed was horsemeat stew.
“You get hungry, you’ll eat anything,” Freitas said. They saved their rations of raisins to make wine for Christmas.
By the spring of 1945, the Allies from the west and the Russians from the east bore down on the Germans. As German cities were being obliterated from the relentless bombing, German memories grew short and their dislike of the American and British POWs intensified.
“They forgot they were the ones who started the war and bombed London,” Freitas said. “Now, we’re bombing them, and we’re the bad guys?”
When the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, he and other POWs were flown to France, where they went to camps named for cigarette brands. “Mine was ‘Camp Lucky Strike.’ We got showers and brand-new uniforms,” he said. “Then they put me on a Liberty ship and sent me to New York. I took the train to Oakland, and my family got everybody together. I got so emotional. I never expected anything that huge.”
They showed him stories that ran in the Oakland Tribune and his old high school newspaper, telling of how he’d shot down a German JU-88 plane from his tail gunner spot in a B-17 during a mission before the Germans shot down his plane and captured him.
Freitas married, became a father to four daughters and two sons, and ran a design business in San Francisco until his retirement. He’s been back to Europe many times, but never to any the places where he was imprisoned.
“Why would I want to see that again?” he said.
Now, at the Veterans Home in Yountville, he comes and goes as he pleases. No fences, no barbed wire, no German guards.
The short trip to Napa is his daily escape. A robust cup of coffee beckons.
ABOUT POW/MIA RECOGNITION DAY:
More than 82,000 Americans who fought in World War II, the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf wars, and all conflicts in between remain unaccounted for. Their families want answers. While the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has made inroads, 72,674 are still missing from World War II; 7,631 from the Korean War; 1,587 from the Vietnam War; and 132 combined from the Cold War and conflicts since 1991.
This day not only stands to remember them, but also to demand the search for answers does not end.