I interviewed Walter Ram, a veteran of the U.S Army Air Corps in World War II and a recipient of the Purple Heart. Ram spent part of the war as a POW (prisoner of war) in the infamous Nazi prison camp, Stalag 17.
Ram was born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1923. He joined the military at 16 years old because his brothers were a part of the military. Ram faked his age in order to join the military because the minimum age was 18. Ram’s mother didn’t want him to go, but he promised to complete his high school education after the war. Ram faced many hardships at a young age, making him one of the bravest men I know. Ram recently published his book called “Helno-Gal: A Survivor’s Story of World War II and the Infamous Stalag 17.”
In September 1940, Ram became activated in the infantry and served a one-year enlistment. The infantry was the backbone of the military, supplying necessities like food and clothing. Also, they learned all about rifles, machine guns and side arms, plus drilling, marching and all military rules. Ram decided to re-enlist when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Ram re-enlisted in the US Army Air Corps as a radioman/gunner as well as a bomber crewman. His job was to communicate with other planes using Morse code. In radio school he learned all about radios, receivers, transmitters, etc. in B-17s and B-24s. He was Helno-Gal’s radio operator and also trained as an aerial gunner on AT-6 “Texan” Aircraft. He recalled a time where he and his crewmates were travelling to Iceland from Canada, and they couldn’t find Iceland. Their plane was running out of fuel, so Ram contacted Iceland for a course. He also recalled when they had just found a target near the German border and they were hit. Their engine started burning as well as the tire underneath. Later when they were trying to land he was at the height of the trees. Ram’s plane crashed, but thankfully he and his crewmates survived.
Ram told me about his first five missions as a radioman. “In order to go home, a soldier must complete 25 missions,” he explains. He said that his easiest mission was to bomb Orly Field in Paris. He said it was also the first time he had ever seen a German attacker. Ram talked about a close call he had where all of their plane’s bombs had dropped except one, which didn’t fully release from the bomb rack.
Everyone tried figuring out how to deploy the bomb, but nothing worked. They were close to landing the plane, but they were still at a high enough altitude to bail out. If the bomb were to deploy, it would explode their plane into pieces. Their pilot wanted to take the plane in, so Ram and his team stayed together until their plane safely landed.
Ram was directed to his second mission when another radioman was killed doing the same mission. He remembered that it was a rough battle all the way to Denmark on the east side of the Baltic Sea.
Ram’s third mission was arguably the worst, as Ram was ordered to bomb submarine installations in Emden. He and his team were outnumbered, and some of their engines were shot down. Their plane was damaged severely, so he constantly kept asking their navigator for a course. As they were heading to their course, they found a plane exactly like theirs. They were badly damaged, and six people died while trying to evacuate the plane. Before long, they hit England at treetop level, with no wheels. They landed in an open field where they ran away in fear the plane would blow up, but everyone survived. In half an hour, several British soldiers picked them up to see if they were okay. Ram was fine for the most part, but he left with scars on his arms.
For his fourth mission, his team was ordered to bomb a German submarine installation in St. Nazaire, France. For his fifth mission, they bombed Wilhemshaven, a coastal town in Lower Saxony, Germany.
On June 13, 1943, Ram and his crewmates were shot down in Kiel, on the North side of Germany by the Baltic Sea. He was severely injured and the Germans came and took him into Stalag 9C, one of the German hospitals. In German, Stalag means a prison camp for noncommissioned officers or enlisted men. Ram recalled a time where a German nurse was treating him decently because most nurses wouldn’t treat injured people with respect. Most Germans were brainwashed into thinking anyone who wasn’t “them” was dangerous and bad.
Soon, Ram was on a train from Hamburg to Frankfurt, and then to the SS center. Ram was taken into a small room where he was interrogated by an SS officer. He asked Ram personal questions including what Ram’s plans were, who he was, etc. Ram never gave the officer a straight answer, instead saying, “I don’t know.” Enraged, the officer took out his gun and pointed it at Ram’s head. Ram recalled not being afraid, possibly because of all the trauma he went through. In fact, he thought he was going to die anyways, so he thought of his mother as a way of saying goodbye. The officer kept repeating questions, only for Ram to hit back again with “I don’t know.”
Ram was then forced on a 300-mile death march. Ram first started marching in early March 1945. By early 1945, the American Air Force had destroyed most German oil storage facilities. The Germans then started putting their oil in oil tankers in rail sidings thinking that the Americans won’t be able to bomb it. However, this plan at guarding their oil backfired, as one morning some B-17 bombers flew in really low and destroyed them. In February 1945, the American and British planes firebombed Germany for several days in hopes of demoralizing the Germany people. He recalled that he woke up and it was difficult to walk until his body loosened up. He and everyone else were starved and were freezing to death. They had big long barracks, with big windows without any glass, just holes. They were given little to no coverings to keep themselves warm. For food, they were given sliced rutabagas that were loaded with maggots. They ended up eating the maggots because they were a source of protein. They would feed them bread that was over 50% sawdust, leaves, grass and whatever they could put in the bread to act as a filler. He carried an American flag he colored during the march, and he still carries a flag to this day.
Ram was liberated by General George Patton’s Third Army around two miles away from a town called Braunau, Austria. They went into the town for resources, but the town was deserted. Braunau was Hitler’s hometown, and the prisoners were filled with a lot of anger and hate. They wanted to blow up the building, but without the resources to do so, they peed all over the walls and beat up the building. Unfortunately, his two brothers, Alex and Humberto, died and did not make it back. Both of his brothers served in the infantry in the Pacific. Deployments back then were different than what they are today. Today they go for six months and come back and then soon go back. His brother Henry took off for Australia and New Guinea in January 1942. He didn’t get back to the States until April 1945. At that time, no cell phones so you were lost from your family all that time.
When Ram returned home, he was a completely different person than when he first left. He weighed 160 pounds as a prisoner, but after the liberation he weighed around 96 pounds. He was nothing but bones. He was a victim of prisoner camps, but he still managed to constantly fight and grow.
Walter Ram is an inspiration to many people, teaching us we should persevere through even our worst times. I think it is a wonderful book for people to read. It is also a great way for students to learn about history and a point of view from victims in the war. I felt honored to listen to his incredible story. I was very emotional to hear what he went through and what he endured. I was grateful to him and felt inspired by his strength and perseverance.