WASHINGTON— May 8 marks 70 years since the Allied victory in Europe in World War II, but memories are still strong for one veteran who almost didn’t survive the war’s end.
Merle Hancock was one of 16 million men who fought in the Second World War, and almost was one of those who didn’t make it home.
As he looks at the planes that will fly in the 70th V-E Day anniversary commemoration, Merle remembers being drafted at age 19.
"[I had] never been on an aircraft before, and let alone, hold on to a gun – that was frightening to the death," recalled Hancock.
Merle joined the 10-man crew of a B-17 plane that flew bombing runs over Germany.
"We were signed to a B-17, and from there on our life was the B-17. We slept together, we ate together, we went to town together. We didn’t do anything unless we were all together," he said.
In unheated planes flying high over enemy territory, attacked by bombs, machine guns and heavy antiaircraft fire, Merle and the crew survived 36 missions.
That all changed during their 37th mission.
"We lost 17 B-17s that day – 10 men to a ship."
Merle personally shot down three German fighter planes before parachuting out of his burning B-17.
He landed in what must have been the highest tree in Germany, he said, only to be captured and turned over to the Gestapo.
They interrogated him and sent him to Stalag Luft Camp IV – a German prisoner of war camp.
With the Allies pushing toward victory, the Germans marched the prisoners out of the camp.
"We lost about 2,000 men on that march. I call it a march – it was a walk of survival," Merle said.
The end of hostilities in Europe came May 8, 1945, after six long years of war.
Marched almost to death, Merle didn’t experience V-E Day like the rest of the world.
"The greatest thing that happened is when I was liberated, and I don’t remember joy or anything like that, I don’t remember that, probably did but maybe we were too hungry to jump," he recalled.
As Europe celebrated, Merle worried about simpler things.
"I had my first shower and my first hot meal in about a year. The shower was great and the meal was good," he said.
The U.S. military recognized Merle’s contributions with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
"The day the two-star general pinned [these] on me, I cried," he said. The medals were pinned on his shirt once again for the commemoration.
Of the 16 million men who went to war, about 1 million are still alive for the 70th anniversary.