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Wesley E. Courson, 2nd Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Force, WWII Prisoner of War, conclusion

Conclusion – Liberation and War’s End

Wesley Courson would spend 643 days as a prisoner of war before being liberated on April 29, 1945. It is hard to imagine the anticipation and excitement that Courson and his fellow POWS  felt as their imprisonment neared an end. In a letter home dated April 27, 1944, he said that “We have formed an Alabama POW Club and have meetings every two weeks. We plan to hold a reunion someday – if we can keep the club alive.”

Most of the information in the three articles detailing Wesley Courson’s WW II experiences comes from his wartime diary. On the dedication page at the beginning of his diary, Wesley printed this, written by a fellow POW:

To those who flew to lands afar,

To the handpicked few who fought the air war,

To those who died up there by my side,

Their glories in great air deeds

Shall not pass unheralded.

For we who flew and fought and lived,

Will glorify forever our crewmen dead.”

In his diary on January 26, 1945, Courson wrote, “The Russians are reported to be only 30 miles from our camp…The Germans won’t tell us whether we will be evacuated or not….The Luftwaffe is going night and day…German refugees have been pouring through Sagan the past 24 hours.”

Mrs. Lena Courson’s letter to her son, Wesley Courson while he was POW 1642 at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Germany Dec. 13, 1944.

And the next day, January 27, “Tonight at 8:30 the Germans gave us orders to be ready to evacuate Sagan and march in 30 minutes…We grabbed food, blankets and prepared to hit the winter roads…Because my right knee is still in bad shape, I was placed on the ‘not able to march list.’ So I fell in with the hospital cases and watched my roommates and buddies hit the winter night into what I am sure will be a terrible journey.”

The next few days were filled with turmoil as Courson was held in a “hospital area.” He remembers, “We went scavenging in other barracks for food ….The Germans are raiding our camp for anything they can find also. They won’t let us get to the Red Cross parcels…they are carrying them out…the roadways near us have been crowded with prisoners marching night and day. We can hear the guns of the eastern front getting closer and the Germans are getting restless.”

On February 5, Courson continues, “The Germans have secured railway cars and we moved out tonight…forty-eight men and seven guards to one small cattle car…it was crowded beyond belief.…we just half-sat and twined our legs and arms together….we began getting sick…for five nights we lived in that manner. I hope to God I never have to spend as miserable time again.”

On February 11, they arrived in Nuremburg. Courson continued, “At last we got out of that hell-hole…. Nuremburg has really been bombed out and there is no place to sleep and we have no food.”

On February 14, Courson and a friend tried to escape. “Last night, David Robinson and myself tried to escape camp…we got a little food, compass and a map.” They had cut through two fences, crossed a road and were cutting the last fence when a guard caught them.

On February 23, Courson notes, “Have just finished serving 10 days of hard confinement as penalty for trying to escape…seems good to get back with the fellows again.”

February 24 was Courson’s birthday. “Another birthday in Germany. I wish this —- war would end. What are the great armies of the U.S. and England doing over on the western front?”

Courson commented on March 6. We are living just as basic animals…it is snowing, cold and wet…We all have colds and the hospital is full…all the clothes we have are those we have on. We just sweat out the end of the war by the day.”

Courson remembered eight bombing raids while in Nuremburg, “One large bomb hit about 300 meters from camp. Against German orders, we dug some trenches with tin cans….Not good being bombed by Germans, much less by your own friends.”

In late March, Red Cross food parcels began arriving. Courson recalled, “Three big G.I. trucks from Switzerland pulled into camp today….camp moral went up 300 %. I ate a full chocolate bar today and had raisin pie tonight.”

A few days later, Courson and the other prisoners witnessed another British air raid on Nuremburg. He wrote in his journal, “We got in our slit-trenches and had a perfect picture of the raid…the targets were less than three kilometers from camp…We saw seven British planes go down…We could see the flak bursting, hear the drone of the British engines…It was a sight I’ll never forget. The falling pieces of flak scared us more than anything else.”

On April 4, Courson noted, “We packed our things and marched out today. We are headed to Mooseberg, near Munich…we walked 20 km. today, only 125 km. more to go. I’m tired and worn out…really sore the next morning, I could hardly stand to have my pack on.” After another 8 km. walking, the Germans decided to let all 7,500 prisoners rest. They were each fed a cup of soup and piece of bread.

On April 6, Courson recorded, “They marched us all night in the rain. Joe Hayes and myself have injured legs…they marched us hard and we started falling back…We covered 22 km. and everybody started falling back – then we fell out completely…You could hear the guns on the western front clearly. Joe and I stopped under a tree and fell there in complete exhaustion. All the others moved away and we were left there all alone on a German country road in the rain…. A German officer came by and told us he was sorry they couldn’t help us and then he was gone.”

After a short rest without sleep [for fear of the cold], they continued to walk. They eventually arrived at Berching, Germany, completely exhausted. Two German civilians carried them to a cathedral. It was so crowded with POWs that they had to be carried to an empty room at the fire station. Courson wrote, “We traded cigarettes, chocolate, cocoa, soap etc. for bread, eggs, potatoes, carrots and onions. The people are reasonably friendly and helpful…We have two Luftwaffe guards who drop in every 8-10 hours to check on us.”

Courson and five of his buddies made the best of their situation. There were two German women living next door who were friendly. Courson gave them coffee and the women cooked for the prisoners. Courson recalled, “They had been bombed out of their homes three times. One of them lost her husband and both of them have lost mothers and fathers to the bombs. How can they be so nice to us I’ll never know – they say ‘it’s the war, it’s not our fault’ and they understand. Boy, they nearly had me in tears.”

A few days later, Courson was upbeat, “Well, our little stay here has ended – we moved out in a German truck to Phiezerhausen….Red Cross trucks have arrived here and brought us ½ parcel per man… Joe and I have decided we are not going to march any further, so we got an OK from the Doc and rode the Red Cross trucks to Neustadht.” After a couple of days, they were moved by truck to Mooseberg. Courson recorded, “We were de-loused and given a shower today and moved to an officers’ camp. Men are crowded here beyond belief and there are no facilities for cooking or washing. Joe and I took up old fence posts last night and used them for firewood…I’ve seen many of my old roommates from Sagan.”

On April 26, Courson noted, “We are still in Mooseberg but things are looking up. The German High Command has agreed to ‘not move POWs from in front of Allied advances,’ so it looks as though we are to be left here. The American 7th Division is only 40 miles away and moving towards us…I only hope we can survive the passing of the battle line.”

On April 28, he said, “We can hear the front line very plainly…Rumors are running wild. Things are looking good!”

April 29 was the day Courson had hoped and prayed for, “The U.S. forces drove into Mooseberg, Germany this morning at 10:30am. There was quite a lot of gunfire and a few shells, but the city surrendered after just a little while.” He exclaimed in his journal:

“April 29, 1945, Sunday, Liberated! Liberated!

12:35pm, the USA Colors were flying over Stalag 7A!

We are free men again!”

In a celebratory mood on April 30, Courson wrote, “How does it feel to be a free man again?…We are talking with real American troops – looking at GI tanks, jeeps, trucks etc. and we even saw real American Red Cross nurses! There were 33,000 of us liberated from this camp.”

The Army’s evacuation troops arrived the next day, “We still don’t know when we’ll leave. Our armored forces crossed the river and have pulled out and the infantry is here now…The 99th Division of the 3rd Army arrived with General Patton, General Lee and their staff. They were astounded at the poor conditions we have been living under. General Patton [pearl handle pistol and all] said that he was proud to find good discipline and that the camp had held up the prestige of the American officer even under such living conditions.”

Courson was still jubilant and thankful when he wrote home to his family on May 12, 1945, “I’m sitting in a real GI tent right now and I’m full of GI chow…We were in pretty sad condition when we were liberated but Uncle Sam is doing all in his power to remedy that before he ships us home…I know that I have learned to appreciate a lot of the little things in life…. I shall never turn on hot water again without thinking just how wonderful it is to be able to do so….It won’t be much longer until we can be together and get back into the swing of things.”

Wesley Courson arrived home in summer 1945. His sister, Mary remembered, “Wes told us that they were very emaciated and pale when liberated. The Army did not want the folks back home to see them in that condition, so they were well-fed and also moved to more tropical regions to recover and get some color back.”

Along with many other servicemen, Courson began to pick up the pieces of his life that war had put on hold. He enrolled at the University of Alabama and received his degree. It was there that he met his future wife, Mabel “Patti” Kennedy of Biloxi, Mississippi. After their marriage, he worked radio jobs at Talladega, then at Greenville, Alabama before joining his father-in-law’s family business, the Kennedy Engine Company in Biloxi. Wesley and Patti Courson had three children: Susan Eugenia [1949], Helen Elizabeth [1951] and Wesley Eugene, Jr. [1955]. In a terrible twist of fate for this war hero, he and Patti lost two of their children in heart-breaking accidents, Helen in 1953 and Wesley Jr. in 1958. Their oldest child, Susan survived and has a son. The tragedies and other stresses took their toll and Wesley and Patti were divorced.

Courson later married Janie “Cleo” Pilcher and moved out west where he took a job as a safety and security manager for a produce company in Arizona and California. He retired in the mid-1970s and briefly moved back near his mother in River Falls, Alabama, before finally settling down at Freeport, Florida. Wesley Eugene Courson died on August 17, 1989 at the age of 67. He was buried at Andalusia Memorial Cemetery in Andalusia, Alabama.

— John Vick

[The author wishes to thank Wesley Courson’s sister, Mary Kyzar and her son Marc Kyzar, for providing Wesley’s wartime diary and the photographs of the Air Medal ceremony]