By George Morris
But for a miscommunication, Nolan “Country” Ruiz, of Plaquemine, Louisiana, might have been among the World War II B-17 crews who completed 25 bombing missions and earned a ticket home. That happened so rarely that those who accomplished it were declared members of the “Lucky Bastards Club.”
No one could call Ruiz’s last mission lucky — nor what happened after that.
Ruiz was shot down on March 4, 1944, in the war’s first daylight bombing attack on Germany’s capital, Berlin, and spent the next 14 months as a prisoner of war. Only 11 of those months, however, were in a prison camp.
Instead, he was among several thousand POWs who were marched for 86 consecutive days during a brutal winter before finally being liberated on April 26, 1945. That forced march is not well known except by those forced to endure it.
“It was terrible,” Ruiz said.
Hoping to become a pilot, Ruiz enlisted in the Army Air Corps in November 1942. But the Army closed his training program because it had enough pilots, so Ruiz had to choose whether to become a navigator, bombardier or gunner. He chose gunnery school because the training was the shortest, and he wanted to get into the action.
He became a ball turret gunner in the 8th Air Force’s 95th Bomb Group based in Norwich, England. As such, he manned a windowed sphere on the bottom of the B-17 with twin 50-caliber machine guns that could swivel 360 degrees to defend against fighter planes attacking from below.
Because of those fighter planes and the intense antiaircraft fire around German military targets, 8th Air Force bomber crews averaged 11 missions before being shot down, and many other crewmen were killed or wounded aboard planes that returned home. Ruiz and his nine crewmates hadn’t suffered a scratch when they began their 21st mission.
En route to Berlin, a radio transmission went out recalling the bombers because of anticipated bad weather over the targets. Many airplanes turned back. Some either didn’t hear the transmission or interpreted it as a German trick. Ruiz’s B-17 was among those that kept flying and dropped its bombs at a railroad yard.
Almost as soon as they left the flak field, German fighter planes pounced. Since so many airplanes had turned back or been shot down, Ruiz said his plane was more vulnerable. Bombers flew in formations so they supported each other with machine gun fire.
When their right wing caught fire, it was time to bail out.
“Our radio operator got to the bomb bay doors and froze right there, and our pilot kicked him out,” Ruiz said. “I don’t know if he’d have made it if it hadn’t been for the pilot. The pilot was the last one to jump. It’s quite an experience, but I wouldn’t want to go through that again.”
Nor what followed.
Ruiz was captured as soon as he came to a stop after landing on iced-over ground and being dragged by his parachute.
He spent the night handcuffed in a jail cell thinking he’d be killed. On the ground, he saw the bombing’s devastation, and its effect on the Germans, who yelled and spat at them.
“When we were taken to the train station, if those civilians could have gotten to us … they would have killed us,” he said.
The entire crew survived, and officers and enlisted men were taken to different prison camps. Ruiz, a sergeant, went to Stalag Luft VI in what is now Lithuania. They remained there until the Soviet army approached, and Ruiz was among the prisoners moved westward to Stalag Luft IV.
Prisoners weren’t well fed at either location — though, Ruiz notes, neither were the German guards. But, as the Soviet army drew close again, the camp was a paradise compared to what was to come.
From Stalag Luft IV and other prison camps, thousands of POWs were ordered to march west, but to no particular destination. Starting in January, in temperatures that dropped below zero, they slogged on, living and sleeping in the open air. Several motives for these forced marches have been suggested. Ruiz said the guards he spoke to said they wanted to be captured by Americans rather than the Soviets.
“They were giving me food, some of their rations,” Ruiz said. “They asked me, ‘Are you going to take care of us when the Americans take over?’ We did. At the end, the guards were real nice to us. They were worried. They didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Prisoners and guards alike scavenged for food. Prisoners died of malnutrition and disease, and some were killed when Allied fighter planes mistook the marching men for German soldiers and strafed them.
Finally, after marching hundreds of miles, Ruiz’s group was liberated by the 104th Infantry Division. Ruiz weighed 98 pounds, 40 less than when he enlisted, and was hospitalized for six months before being discharged. But he was alive.
There is no definitive figure of how many prisoners died, but it is estimated to number in the hundreds.
“I’m so fortunate that I’m here,” he said.
Ruiz returned to Plaquemine and opened Country’s Café in 1946, which he operated for 42 years before retiring.