Following his footsteps
February 20, 2009 · Updated 7:42 PM
Bellevue man’s son will travel to Poland to honor his father’s journey as a POW
James H. Keeffe III, like a lot of men, plans to follow in his father’s footsteps.
There's only one catch: His dad, James H. Keeffe Jr. of Bellevue, was a B-24 co-pilot at the height of World War II, and his life was the stuff of movies.
James III will never go through most of what his father experienced – taking flak in a bomber, parachuting into enemy territory, hiding out with the Dutch underground, and living through the ordeals of a Nazi POW camp.
In this case, the son will have to take a more literal approach to the footstep following.
On Jan. 24, James III will join 12 other Kriegie Kids in tracing the steps of over 12,000 POWs who endured a forced march through Poland’s Silesia region.
The participants, whose collective nickname plays on the German word for war prisoner, will march 52 miles in five days between two former Nazi prison camps.
They’ll be paying tribute to the captured soldiers who made that trek while Allied forces were advancing toward Berlin in 1945.
“When they put this together, I couldn’t not go,” James III said. “I’ve got a desire to see what it’s like from my dad’s perspective.”
James III has heard all the stories. He and his brother captured over 40 hours of audio that features their father’s tales.
“His level of detail and his memory are just fantastic,” James III said.
Those recollections are now part of a book that documents his father’s war experiences. It’s been seven years in the making, and is due to be completed this winter.
James Jr. was flying through the heart of Germany on March 8, 1944 when his plane experienced engine failure. It was his fifth-ever combat mission.
The bomber fell out of formation and ran out of fuel, forcing the crew to evacuate over Holland.
He parachuted into a residential neighborhood and found himself in someone’s backyard, tangled up in a fruit tree. He eventually freed himself and hid in a nearby shed to avoid capture.
A German soldier barely missed spotting him as he lay under a table, covered with potato sacks. It wasn’t until the homeowner came to fetch food for his rabbits that James decided to reveal himself.
“He about had a hemorrhage,” James Jr. recalled.
The man put him in touch with members of the Dutch underground, who gave him a bicycle and helped him flee to Rotterdam.
He spent several months in that location, riding street cars and mapping Nazi installations.
“I had a good time,” he said. “My five months in Holland were the equivalent of four years of university. I learned the language, I learned about the people, I learned humility.”
James Jr. did everything he could to fit in, even tucking in his shoelaces to match the local custom.
There were times, however, when he pressed his luck, once by venturing into a barbershop full of German officers for a haircut. James Jr. pretended to be deaf so he wouldn’t have to speak.
“I’m a pretty confident guy,” he said. “Let’s face it, I was a pilot, and along with that goes some risk-taking and seizing opportunities when you see them.”
James Jr. was having the adventure of a lifetime, but the Allied invasion of France in June of 1944 made him suddenly restless. He became obsessed with the idea of meeting up with advancing troops in Northern France.
“Look, I’m an officer and a pilot, and there’s a war going on,” James Jr. recalls telling people. “I had a responsibility to get back.”
Members of the Dutch resistance helped him reach the Belgian border, where he was to connect with a separate network of fugitive smugglers. But two Nazi counter-intelligence agents posing as friendlies intercepted him after crossing the border.
He ended up at the Stalag Luft III POW camp, where the famous “Great Escape” took place earlier that year. He wouldn’t be there long.
Allied forces were pressing toward Berlin, and the Russian Red Army began its sweep through Poland on Jan. 27.
Hitler ordered an immediate evacuation of all POW camps in front of the onslaught, giving the ill-clothed prisoners at Stalag Luft III half an hour to prepare before marching in the region’s coldest winter on record in over 50 years.
A line of captives stretching nearly 20 miles trudged through the snow. The prisoners slept in churches, barns and factories on their way to Spremberg, Poland. There they boarded box cars headed for the Stalag VIIA POW camp in Moosburg, Germany.
“The train ride was miserable,” James Jr. said. “They were tiny little box cars – dirty, decrepit, and old. They leaked and they were filthy dirty, just packed with people.”
Gen. George Patton’s Army liberated the POWs at Stalag VIIA in April 1945.
“A tank knocked down the wire fences, and all hell broke loose,” James Jr. said. “We were free.”
James III will travel along the same roads his father did when he visits Poland this month. He’ll sleep in some of the same buildings, march the same roads and endure a bit of that same January cold.
“We’re really excited to do it,” the son said. “We want to do it at the time and in the conditions that our dads did. It’s a re-enactment to honor them and all the POWs who were forced out that night 64 years ago.”
Joshua Adam Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-453-4290.