BELFAST, Maine — Belfast mason Dan Ladd didn’t think twice about volunteering his time to fix a century-old concrete monument on the east side of Belfast that will be rededicated this week to prisoners of war and those who are missing in action.
That’s because his father, a radio gunner in the Army Air Corps in World War II, spent a year and a half in a German POW camp after his B-17 was shot out of the sky.
In 1945, as the war was winding down, Tech Sergeant John Henry Ladd was liberated by the United States Army. After more than a year of hunger and privation, the 21-year-old came home bone thin — but he came home.
Not every veteran taken prisoner or who went missing during wartime was as lucky, Ladd knows. That’s why it feels good for him to know that officials from the Randall-Collins Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3108 in Belfast are working to make sure that they won’t be forgotten, either.
“I just thought it was nice to give something back to the community,” the 68-year-old stonemason said. “And, of course, there’s the link to my dad.”
His father was a farm kid who knew about tough times. John Henry Ladd slept in the unheated upstairs of the farmhouse even during the coldest Maine winter nights, the kind where ice blooms on the inside of the windows. He grew up as an outdoorsman, and loved spending time outside.
“That whole family was tough,” Dan Ladd said. “I think that helped him prevail.”
In late November 1943, John Henry Ladd, a 19-year-old with an infectious smile, was on a bombing raid over Bremen, Germany, with his Army Air Force squadron. The city was home to ball bearing factories, which made it a target for Allied forces. But on that mission, his B-17 was itself targeted by German aircraft.
He watched as enemy fire began to rip holes in the plane. A fire started in the wing, and the pilot hit the bail out alarm and ordered the crew to leave. John Henry Ladd reached for his parachute and glanced out the window where he saw a German plane shooting at them. He grabbed his own gun to shoot back.
“I am scared as hell,” he wrote later.
But the onslaught appeared to drive the other plane away, and for a while it seemed the pilot would be able to get the wounded B-17 back to England and safety. But over Emden, Germany, it was hit again. This time, the pilot said they all had to bail out as soon as they could.
John Henry Ladd jumped out of the plane, then pulled the ripcord of his parachute, which didn’t open at first. Then he yanked at it again, hard, and it opened.
“It hits me in the face like Joe Lewis,” he wrote.
He looked up to see that the smoldering B-17 was heading right for him. Afraid for his life, John Henry Ladd scrambled to maneuver his parachute out of the path of the plane. Then he had a rough landing.
“I clap my heels together and shoot through the top of a pine tree. The top breaks off,” he wrote. “I fall about 20 feet and hit the ground and the treetop comes on top of me.”
The young airman thought he might have landed in the middle of a quiet army camp. He hid his parachute, covering it with moss, then took cover in a brush pile and waited while a couple of guards walked by him. Before he could make his escape, a man and a bunch of adolescent boys, which he figured had to be Hitler Youth, appeared.
“Most of them go by,” he wrote. “There must be 20 of them. One darn kid in the rear rank is looking all around and sees me. They got me!”
Caught and imprisoned
John Henry Ladd ended up in a prisoner of war camp called Stalag 17B, just outside of Krems, Austria. It was one of the most notorious German camps, and served as the inspiration for both the 1953 movie “Stalag 17” and the long-running sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes.”
He was one of roughly 4,000 American airmen who were kept in barracks built for just 240 men. There wasn’t nearly enough food or fuel in the overcrowded space. In neighboring compounds, there were more than 25,000 Allied prisoners from France, Britain, Russia and other countries.
“The Germans were very respectful to Americans, but they treated the Russians like dirt,” Dan Ladd said.
The Red Cross kept the American prisoners supplied with cigarettes, toilet paper and coffee — but if there was food sent to them, it didn’t make it into their hands.
“He said the cigarettes were handy,” Dan Ladd said. “They could use them to trade with the Russians and the Germans.”
Because of the Geneva Convention, prisoners couldn’t be forced to work at the camp. So the Germans kept meticulous records of labor the American prisoners had done, and the money that would be owed them one day.
Meanwhile, just like in “Hogan’s Heroes,” the prisoners were always trying to escape.
“They were always digging tunnels,” Dan Ladd said. “Someone was always building a radio with spoons and wire, so they could listen to BBC news and share the news with others.”
John Henry Ladd and his parents were able to write heavily redacted letters to each other. They would sometimes take months to arrive.
“If you don’t hear much, don’t worry,” the young prisoner wrote his folks back home in Maine. “The mail’s pretty slow, I guess.”
Toward the end of the war, the Germans began to move the prisoners out of the camps and away from the Russian front. They marched, always hoping they would be able to forage scraps of food. Then, one day, John Henry Ladd and the others woke up to find the German officers had gone. Then the American soldiers showed up, and the prisoners began the long journey home.
“It took a while,” Dan Ladd said, adding that the airmen needed careful refeeding and medical treatment first. “You see pictures of those guys coming out of camps. They looked skeletal.”
Once he was home, John Henry Ladd picked up the dropped threads of his life. He tried various occupations, including running a woodlot and a short-lived stint building a chicken house and raising chickens. Then he went to work at the post office, where he became a longtime employee. He married and had four children, and didn’t talk much about the war.
“I’m sure it affected him,” Dan Ladd said. “These guys, a lot of them came home with PTSD.”
Remembering stories like this, and veterans such as John Henry Ladd, is important to Jim Roberts, the operations manager at the Belfast VFW post. Soon, the old concrete monument will have a POW/MIA Chair of Honor next to it, and a plaque that explains that the unoccupied chair is in honor of those who are still prisoners of war and missing in action.
The monument originally had been part of the Armistice Bridge, which now serves as the footbridge over the Passagassawakeag River. When the bridge was built in 1921, the monument sported a bronze memorial plaque that listed the names of all the Waldo County men who died in World War I.
When the bridge was rebuilt in 2006, the old monument — damaged, dirty, graffiti-covered, its plaque stolen decades before — was moved to the eastern end of the footbridge. Eight years ago, city officials brought it to its current location at the intersection of Route 1 and Footbridge Road.
But it just sat there. This spring, Roberts began talking to city officials about his goal of putting up a POW/MIA memorial in Belfast when someone suggested that the old concrete memorial off Route 1 would be a good place for it.
“I thought it was a great spot,” Roberts said.
First, it needed a little work. Charlie and Hilu Smith of Smith’s Memorials in Searsport came and power washed the memorial, leaving it fresh and clean. Then Ladd repaired it. Others will help plant a flower bed around it, and work on getting a bench placed there, too.
“Everyone’s been very, very supportive,” Roberts said. “It’s amazing.”
An American flag will be raised at the new POW/MIA monument at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the intersection of Route 1 and Footbridge Road in Belfast. The public is asked to park in the lot on the other side of Route 1.