Missing in Action

Missing in Action

By Tom Gordon

It’s not unusual to hear children of World War II veterans say they know little or nothing about their father’s war experiences. Sometimes, it’s because they did not ask or waited too long to do so. A lot of the time, it’s because their father was determined not to tell.

Long-time Birmingham area dentist, former bomber pilot and German POW Roy Grady Davidson Jr. was an exception.  He started telling his four children bedtime stories based on some of the humorous moments he had in the war. Later, they began pushing him to put down his experiences  in writing. Finally, at the urging of his wife Betty, he began penning words on paper, and she edited what he wrote and typed it up. The finished product, told in the first person, is titled World War II Experiences and Adventures.  It never went to a major publisher or made the New York Times Bestseller List, but it contains a lot of stuff from which an entertaining movie could be made.

Because Davidson spent the majority of his 22 months overseas as a prisoner in German-occupied France and in Germany itself, the bulk of the book deals with the time he spent as a captive and the time he spent trying to avoid becoming one.  It only touches lightly on the love affair with Betty that had started before he left home to begin pilot training and renewed itself with vigor on the day a train brought him into Terminal Station. And it even has an epilogue that he did not live long enough to read, an account of the June visit that one of his grandchildren and her German husband made to the remnants of the German camp, now part of Poland, in which he spent the longest part of his captivity.

A little over 400,000 veterans live in Alabama. About 18,000 of them served during World  War II. Of late, according to reports from around the country, WWII vets have been dying at the rate of about 740 per day. On May 16, Davidson joined their ranks. He was 90, and he and Betty had been married almost 67 years. And while those years were certainly not problem-free, they do not seem to have been haunted by what he experienced during the war.

Many of his fellow vets have not been so fortunate.

A few years ago, I went to the V.A. Medical Center to sit in on a discussion group of veterans who were struggling with post traumatic stress. There were canes, walkers and maybe even a wheelchair in the conference room, because these vets had served in Korea, Vietnam and even in World War II. And as I took my seat in the room, one of the World War II guys was saying, “I scared the hell out of my wife again last night.”

Had he been there, another Alabama vet, the late E.B. Sledge, would have understood. The former Marine, who later taught biology at the University of Montevallo, was part of the horrific Pacific campaign battles on the islands of Peleliu and Okinawa.  At one point, the Mobile native nearly lost his mind, yet he kept on secretly keeping notes of the carnage and more than three decades later wrote an acclaimed memoir about his experience, With the Old Breed. In a preface to the book, he said he was finally able to write it partly because “the nightmares no longer wake me in a cold sweat with pounding heart and racing pulse.”

Roy Davidson was able to write his book not because he had no problem with nightmares. One of his three daughters, Jennifer Davis, said that after retiring some years earlier at age 75, he had reached the point where he was “twiddling his thumbs clockwise and counter clockwise,” and Betty Davidson had a problem with that. They started working on the book in 2001 and finished it in 2003.

The start of the book tells you that for Davidson, the actual war — being in combat — was spread out over just two months. He and his crew had arrived in England in August 1943 and managed to fly only five missions before their four-engine B-17 was crippled by enemy fire and had to make a crash landing. That forced landing came after they had been part of what was known as “Black Thursday,” a massive operation on Oct. 14, 1943, targeting ball-bearing production facilities in the German city of Schweinfurt. At the time, Davidson was a baby-faced 21-year-old lieutenant. Two years earlier, the Woodlawn High graduate and former state high-school tennis champion had been living at home with his parents and two younger sisters in East Lake, wanting to go to college but lacking the money to do so. He had worked some at a Moore-Handley hardware store and had made a little money building model airplanes with rubber-band powered propellers and selling them to neighborhood youngsters. But he was not yet sure what to do with his life.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — and two of his daughters say a bunch of bananas — would set in motion some events that ultimately led him to a decision.

Like many young men in the aftermath of Dec. 7, 1941, Davidson sought to enlist. But daughters Jennifer Davis and Denise Willett say that as the time for his physical neared, he feared he was not packing enough pounds to meet the Army weight requirement. So the night before, they say he gorged on bananas, and got a passing grade the next day when he got on the scale.

Some family members say that on another night before — the one before he was to leave home for stateside training and then deployment overseas —  he had his first date with his future wife. He had come to know Betty Travis over the years because she would come up from Bessemer to visit an aunt who lived next door to his family’s house.

There are different versions within the family as to what happened after Roy and Betty’s evening out ended.  There’s agreement on the fact that after dropping Betty off, Roy noticed she had left her purse on the passenger seat.

“I think she did it on purpose,” said Davidson’s sister Betty King.

According to one family version, Roy called Betty, and she told him to give the purse to the young man who was another of his next-door neighbors;  she was going out with him the following night. Another version holds that Roy hand delivered the purse, and that he and Betty got to go out again.

Davidson does not give his version of these events in his 83-page memoir. Nor does  he mention that while he was training, Betty sent him a portrait photo of herself. That photo would be with him during every episode he recounts in the book .

The slim volume is rich in detail, sprinkled with humorous observations,  and its narrative has a gentle tone,  reflecting Davidson’s nature and the years-distant vantage point from which he was telling the story. It also has a description of aerial combat that may partially explain why he was able to come home and live his life without any crippling psychological struggles.

“There was more excitement aboard our plane than there ever had been before,” is how he describes the feeling inside his aircraft as it encountered enemy fighters on the way to Schweinfurt. “What fun, what a sport! An important touchdown play at a big football game couldn’t hold a candle to the excitement created by aerial combat. Suddenly it seemed the whole German Air Force was coming at us from all directions, and the air was full of chatter as the radios reported all the approaching fighters, along with a not too infrequent exclamation of joy as some gunner reported another kill.”

Ultimately, German aircraft mortally wounded his plane, and what follows are some highlights, mostly from his book, of what unfolded after he crashlanded in a French pasture, taking out several cows in the process.  His stories about some of the episodes became so popular with his children that they liked hearing them again and again.

He and one of his crew members, Al Faudie, made their way to a French farmhouse, hid in what they shortly learned was a chickenhouse, startled the farmer’s daughter when she came to get some eggs and then managed, despite their  grubby appearance and almost nonexistent French, to convince the girl’s gun-toting father they were Americans and meant no harm.

After being sheltered in various households around France, Davidson and another of his crew members, Fred Krueger, boarded a large wooden boat to escape to England on the night of February 3, 1944, only to have the boat start sinking and return to the French coast where they were captured by a German patrol.

On a train to the first of two French prisons where he would be housed, Davidson thought of a way to protect the French civilians who had helped him and Kreuger. As Kreuger listened, he told a non-English speaking guard that he and his crew member had not seen each other “since the (plane) crash until we met on the boat.” Later, he would undergo three days of Gestapo interrogations during one of which an interpreter had trouble with his Southern-accented English, in particular his pronunciation of “house.”

During the same prison stay, two weeks passed during which the once-a-day meals alternated between boiled unseasoned carrots and boiled unseasoned rutabagas. When Davidson came home, his oldest daughter Denise says he never wanted to go hungry again, would only eat carrots when they were part of a pot roast and wanted nothing to do with rutabagas.

During his time at the second French prison, where the irritants included the cold and squads of biting fleas and the meals included soup from which he would have to remove rat droppings, Davidson enlisted his cellmates in a prank to break the monotony. Overnight, a German guard would make regular checks on them, turning on the cell’s overhead light with an outside switch, and looking in a peephole in the cell door. The guards tried to be quiet, but they always telegraphed their arrival by stepping on a squeaky board.

One night a guard flipped the cell light on, looked through the peephole and saw Davidson and the other prisoners all reading “religious literature.” He turned the light off and on, and the scene did not change, and it did not change when one of his fellow guards took a look. The on-and-off game continued until one of the prisoners, an Italian pimp, turned a page. Captives and captors alike had a hearty laugh then.

“He could always find the humor in situations,” his daughter Jennifer said.

In April 1944, not long after his written answers to three questions convinced a Gestapo officer in Weisbaden, Germany, that he was not a spy, Davidson and many other Allied prisoners “were herded like cattle” into boxcars with no toilet except a bucket and transferred to a prison camp known as Stalag Luft III. This camp, which would be his home until the following January, had been  the scene of the mostly unsuccessful “Great Escape” upon which the 1963 movie of the same name was based. Because prisoners had used bed slats to hold up the tunnel they dug to make their escape, bed slat checks were a regular thing in Davidson’s barracks, which was known as Building 163.

At the time, no one back home knew where he was or if he was even alive, and the strain of not knowing weighed heavily on Davidson’s mother.

“Mother almost turned white-headed overnight with worry,” Betty King said. “And my daddy was such a calm person, he’d say, ‘Well, just worry yourself to death and you won’t be here when he comes back. That’s what Hitler wants you to do.’”

Seeking some solace for herself and the Davidsons, Betty Travis visited a psychic on the Bessemer Super Highway. The psychic  told her the man she would come to call “Roy Boy” was behind barbed wire, but that he was all right. Betty also had a dream in which she saw Roy wearing a striped uniform like the one prisoners in the U.S. commonly wore in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In July, the International Red Cross told his family he was alive.

Not surprisingly,  the food at Stalag Luft III was meagre, and Davidson’s barracks had an iron stove for heating, but it had no fuel. The prisoners would get some horse meat or something else with protein about once a week, but until Allied bombing of German rail lines intensified, Davidson and his barracks mates got weekly goody boxes from the Red Cross, including a turkey dinner on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, to get fuel, Davidson and other prisoners used empty milk cans to help dig out roots of pine-tree stumps, then used a borrowed chain and winches to pull up the stumps. That work also cleared a field for baseball and touch football games that helped prisoners stave off boredom and depression.

Stalag Luft III happened to have two Red Cross-equipped POW dentists, and it also had a library. While stationed in England, Davidson had passed up a trip to the dentist’s chair to get two cavities filled because he had heard a patient screaming when he visited the dental clinic. Now, about six months later, the cavities were starting to talk to him, and one of the Stalag dentists gave him two concrete fillings. Later, as he was indulging his new-found joy in reading at the library, he read a book “on jobs and professions.” After reading the section on dentistry, he figured he had found a career “if the war ever ended.”

The war was ending, not nearly fast enough, in January 1945, when he and the other prisoners left Stalag Luft III in a blizzard. They were on foot, and many prisoners passed out and tumbled into the snow.  “Everyone was too exhausted to help them and I’m sure that many died,” Davidson writes. To stay warm one freezing night, Davidson “for the first and only time” snuggled with another man, an “easygoing” Midwestern boy named Bob Schooler, in a haystack.  Ultimately, the Stalag Luft III boys would take a crowded train to Nuremburg in Bavaria then walk from there to join tens of thousands of other prisoners in Stalag VIIA, a camp near the town of Moosburg.  The barracks were jammed, so he and the other new arrivals had to live in tents.

By then, springtime had arrived, and on April 29, American troops under the command of Gen. George Patton arrived to liberate Stalag VIIA. Davidson had been thrilled to get a good look at the swashbuckling commander when he came riding into the camp standing on a tank. But a few minutes earlier, he had been moved even more to see the swastika flag come down from the pole above Moosburg town hall and the Stars and Stripes take its place.

By the middle of May, Davidson was headed home on a troop transport. He was 35 pounds lighter than his normal weight, and he had been on a bland diet because Army doctors felt his digestive system couldn’t handle a heavy dose of regular fare. But after boarding the ship, he had bought two boxes of Hershey Almond Bars. The bars, 48 in all, were gone when the ship pulled into Boston harbor a week later, and they had not made him sick once.

Near the end of the month, Davidson’s train pulled into Birmingham, a little earlier than scheduled, and his family was not there yet because they were still eating at a nearby restaurant.  But a young woman from Bessemer was, and she was wearing a big hat that Davidson knocked off her head when he moved in for “a big homecoming kiss.” Less than two months later, they were married at her aunt’s house next door to the Davidson home, and Roy’s sister Betty remembers how his uniform “just hung on him because he was so thin.” Soon afterward, he began his studies at Howard College. Dental school at Tennessee would be next.

As the years passed, Davidson never really lost the boyish look that appears in his military and POW photos, and his daughter Denise cannot ever recall hearing him raise his voice.

His daughter, Jennifer ,and  a granddaughter, Melissa Nix, are continuing the dental practice he established and built for 47 years, and one of piece of advice he gave them was, “Don’t ever be the first to do something new or the last to give it up.”

A few weeks after his funeral, Davidson’s granddaughter Beth Davis and her husband Eike Bierwirth drove from their home in eastern Germany into a part of western Poland that was part of Hitler’s Germany until boundaries were redrawn after WWII. Their destination was the town of Zagan, the site of Stalag Luft III. Among other things, they found a museum, a replica of a prison barracks and some traces of the original camp, such as the remains of a theater where some of the guys dressed as women and sang and danced for their fellow POWs. But most of the camp was like the site of Roy Davidson’s  old quarters in Building 163 — covered with undergrowth and birch trees.

Meanwhile, framed and hanging in Davidson’s Vestavia Hills home is the photo that helped sustain him when he was flying in flak-filled skies, hiding in French farmhouses and pacing behind German barbed wire.  In its lower right-hand corner, still visible in ink after all these years, are the words “All my love, Betty.”

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