Alfred James Agostino, Sr.

Mr. Agostino served during World War II.

He served in the European Theater.

Mr. Agostino served in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

He was a Staff Sergeant. His B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down over Germany, and he was a POW for the remainder of the war.

Mr. Agostino was born in Reggio, Italy, on July 27, 1920. His family came to Duluth, Minnesota, when he was a year old. He later graduated from Duluth Cathedral High School.

Mr. Agostino died in Duluth, Minnesota, on October 30, 2007, at age 87.

He received many decorations, including the Purple Heart.

Mr. Agostino was the Commander of the Lake Superior Chapter of American Ex-POWs.

Source: Duluth News Tribune, November 1, 2007; notes from family member of Selby P. Hereid; story submission by veteran (see below)

Staff Sergeant Alfred Agostino, an Air Force veteran and prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, submitted a harrowing account of his experience as a P.O.W. The following is a transcription of his story:

“I enlisted in the Army Air Corps and attended various technical training schools such as Airplane Mechanics, Aerial Gunnery, and several other classes. Then I became a member of a combat crew, and our crew trained together in flying practice missions and attended ground classes such as Aircraft Identification and P.O.W. lectures. We stayed in the same barracks together, ate together, and went to classes together. We became a family; we became close friends.

A crew consisted of a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, radio operator, two waist gunners (located at the center of the plane), tail gunner, and lower ball turret gunner. Our crew flew B-17 Flying Fortress Bombers. I was the Flight Engineer and top turret gunner (there were 50 caliber machine guns at all positions). My place was in the cockpit with the pilots.

We were soon assigned to the 15th Air Force stationed at Foggia, Italy in January of 1945. This was a large airfield on the Adriatic Coast. The commissioned officers (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier) stayed together in one tent, and the rest of the crew stayed together in another tent to make it as comfortable as possible.

After two flying missions to Germany, we were assigned to a joint flying mission on March 22, 1945 with the 8th Air Force based in England to bomb Berlin and Ruhland, Germany where oil refineries were. While flying through thick flack (exploding anti-aircraft shells from the ground), over the target at 26,000 feet altitude with a bomb load of twelve 500 lb. bombs, we were hit in the bomb bay before we could drop the bombs. There was an explosion, and our plane was soon in flames. The pilots and I had to get to the nose of the plane where the escape hatch was. We tried to arouse the co-pilot, but there was no response. He was dead.

I finally got to the escape door, but it was jammed. It took me a few seconds to pull the hinge pins out and kick off the door. Other crew members were to leave through a door near the center of the plane. We had a crew of nine that day; a crew would fly without a bombardier sometimes, unless it was a lead plane in the formation. One of the other crew members would flip a switch to drop the bombs as soon as the lead plane dropped theirs.

Only five members of our crew, myself, the pilot, navigator, radio operator, and a waist gunner, survived by parachuting out of the falling and burning plane. The rest of the crew didn’t get out of the plane and perished.

The area where we bailed out was an open country with fields, few trees, and some small lakes and ponds. As I was floating down, I could see many people, civilians and farmers, waiting for me to land. I was pretty certain it was going to be the end for me. I landed in a large pine tree on the edge of a grove of trees. I was hung up in the braches and fell to the ground after I freed myself from my
parachute harness. I had hurt my lower back from slamming into the tree; I was later told that I had also broken three ribs. My left calf was bleeding from a piece of flack or airplane metal that had embedded itself in my skin. It is still there to this day.

As people approached me, I threw my hands up in surrender. They were really angry while yelling and carrying pitchforks, axes, and clubs. One man got to me first and kept the crowd from getting to me. The crowd kept yelling, and he would holler back at them. He would look at me as if to say, "Don’t worry." Ironically, a German saved my life.

Within minutes, a German soldier arrived at the scene and took me away from the crowd. He had me walk ahead of him down a gravel road and kept prodding me with his rifle. A few times I thought I was going to be shot. He led me to a group of other soldiers that had a vehicle (similar to our Jeep). One of them spoke English. He said he lived in Chicago for a few years before the war. They weren’t sure where they were to take me. We were captured in an area where there hadn’t been any combat yet. After a few hours of driving around, they left me at a mapmaking place where German officers questioned me. I would only give my name, rank, and serial number. Another soldier that could speak English told me there were ways to make me answer questions. Fortunately, they didn’t carry out any of their threats of beatings.

Shortly after, the English-speaking soldier took me out of the building. Then he told me he was sorry he had to treat me like he did. I asked him how he was able to speak English so well and had an accent like a New Yorker. He told me he had gotten married in 1939 and went on a honeymoon in Germany. Since he was still a German citizen, the Germans wouldn’t let him come back, so they put him in the army. He brought me to a large house where other survivors of our crew were held along with two Russians. The next morning, the Russians were gone. We were told they had been executed.

Three guards brought us to a very crowded train the next day to be sent to Weimar. The train was so crowded we had to stand the whole time. It took almost three days to get to Wiemar because the tracks were bombed out, and we had to wait for repairs or take another route. We would get to sit down occasionally when we switched trains. We spent one night in a concentration camp in Liepsig and one night in a jail.

Weimar had a military field, and it was also an interrogation center for captured Allied airmen. I was kept there for two days in solitary confinement and threatened with starvation and death. From there I was sent to a prisoner of war camp at Nuremberg where I reunited with other members of my crew.

We were evacuated from there after a few days because the Russian Army was expected to get there soon. The prisoners that weren’t wounded and had shoes were to march to Moosburg POW camp near Munich. The wounded and those without shoes were to go in boxcars or were shipped to Moosburg. I had no shoes, only the felt slippers part of our flying suits.

On the way there, we were strafed (shot at) by U.S. planes, but they soon saw our POW markings on top of the boxcars. One night they parked the train in a marshaling yard with us locked in. The air raid sirens began to sounds, but luckily nothing happened.

We finally arrived at the POW camp. It was so crowded that there was no room in the buildings, and I had to sleep outside on some hay; it snowed my first night. After a few days, I was able to sleep in the barracks or buildings in the compound. There were no bunks or furniture of any kind. Everyone was to sleep on the floor because there were so many POW’s. The whole camp was overcrowded because other POW camps were being evacuated and sent here.

All this time, food was scarce. We would get a handful of what looked like oatmeal and some dark bread made with sawdust and flour with a little margarine and some soup. The soup looked like dirty dishwater with a few potatoes with skins on them floating in it.

In all the POW camps, a POW was supposed to get a Red Cross parcel with food in it once a week. Of course, that never happened. The Red Cross parcels came from the U.S. and other Allied countries through a neutral country such as Sweden. They contained a can of powdered milk, a can of margarine, crackers, biscuits, or cookies, coffee or tea, sugar, a bar of solid chocolate and six packages of cigarettes with matches. We got a Red Cross parcel once or twice a week to divide between six men. These parcels of food were one of the conditions of the Geneva Conventions.

Every few days we would have to get out of the barracks at dawn, get in formation, stand at attention, and be counted. Sometimes this would take two or three hours when the count didn't come out to what it was supposed to be.

Working was for those without stripes; sergeants, corporals, etc. were not required to do hard labor. In April 1945, Hitler ordered all POW’s to be executed, but the German Regular Army refused to carry out the order. The Germans surrendered on May 7, 1945. We were then sent to Rheims, France to Camp Lucky Strike. There we were deloused, got our first hot shower, and were given good food, all we wanted to eat.

After a few days, we left for the U.S. through Le Havre, France to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey for processing. We were sent home for a month for leave, but then we were reassigned.

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