BRATTLEBORO—Last week’s commemorations of D-Day, that day 75 years ago when Allied forces landed on the beaches of northern France to begin the liberation of western Europe from Nazi Germany, were a reminder that the brave souls that were there that morning are passing from living memory and into the history books.
On June 6, 1944, the biggest day of World War II, all Richard Hamilton could do was watch and wait.
As the first waves of bombers swept over France in support of the Allied landings on the Normandy coast, Hamilton, a radio operator and waist gunner with the Eighth Air Force in England, was still undergoing his final training being assigned to fly combat missions.
“We just listened to the radio and tried to keep up with what was happening,” he said.
Hamilton’s turn in combat would come a few weeks later when his B-17 bomber crew flew their first missions over Europe.
The memories of that time, and the courage he displayed while a prisoner of war in Germany, was remembered on June 4 at American Legion Post 5 as Hamilton was presented a handmade quilt from the Deerfield Valley chapter of Quilts of Valor.
Originally started as a way to honor combat veterans in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the nonprofit organization has expanded its focus, according to its mission statement, “to cover those service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.”
Lynn Carrier of Jacksonville, the organization’s Vermont state coordinator, and her husband Michael gently draped the handmade quilt over Hamilton’s shoulders to applause from his family and the dozen or so veterans who were there as part of Post 5’s weekly coffee hour for veterans.
Now 96, Hamilton’s memories of 1944 and 1945 have stayed with him. He says he is “truly blessed,” and that is not hyperbole.
The losses sustained by U.S. air crews over Europe during World War II were extraordinarily heavy. The Eighth Air Force alone suffered 47,000 casualties, and more than 26,000 were killed.
Hamilton was born in Brattleboro on Sept. 28, 1922, and grew up on a little farm in West Brattleboro. He graduated from Brattleboro High School in 1941, and joined the Army Air Forces in July 1942, a few months after the U.S. entered World War II.
After nearly two years of training in the U.S., Hamilton and his crew flew their B-17 bomber from South Dakota to the UK for the final preparations before entering combat.
He said his first eight missions were uneventful. On his ninth combat mission, on July 20, 1944, his unit, the 91st Bomb Group of the 401st Air Squadron, was assigned to bomb a Nazi airfield in Leipzig, Germany.
Hamilton’s B-17 bomber was attacked by a pack of German fighters and raked with gunfire. The bomber, still carrying a full load of bombs, quickly caught fire.
Hamilton, and four other members of his nine-member crew, were able to bail out. The pilot, navigator, and a third crew member were killed.
After landing unharmed in a wheat field after an 18,000-foot parachute jump, Hamilton was captured by German civilians and turned over to military authorities. Hamilton ultimately spent seven months in Stalag Luft IV, a camp that held 10,000 prisoners of war.
Hamilton said he and his fellow prisoners were “always hungry” as they subsisted mostly on watered-down cabbage soup.
While there was plenty of intimidation and harassment from the guards, Hamilton felt he was “treated humanely” in the camp.
It was what happened in the last 77 days of his captivity that stretched the bounds of humane treatment.
On Feb. 6, 1945, with the Russian Army on the move from the east and the Americans pushing from the west, the Germans decided to abandon Stalag Luft IV and move the prisoners to alternate sites.
Hamilton was one of 200 prisoners who were forced into a 77-day road march across Germany in the dead of winter with only a blanket and the clothes on his back to keep warm.
“Each day’s march was laboring,” he said. “It was tough on us all.”
Hamilton said he can still recite the 91st Psalm from memory, words that brought him great comfort during his captivity — “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.”
The end, and a beginning
By the end of April, Hamilton said that his feet were swollen, blistered, and discolored, and he eventually dropped out of the march along with about a dozen other soldiers who were unable to continue because of illness and injuries.
The war was rapidly coming to a close, and the German soldiers were more worried about what would happen to them if the Russians captured them than about the fate of Hamilton and the other ailing marchers. The Germans fled, and left the ailing prisoners behind.
On April 24, 1945, Hamilton and the other prisoners were spotted by two Russian soldiers on horseback.
As an American, Hamilton was not taken into Russian custody and was left to wander Germany on his own until he was able to link up with an American unit not long after crossing the Elbe River.
“We were lucky,” Hamilton said.
After receiving medical treatment, Hamilton was discharged and returned to Brattleboro on July 8, 1945, thinner and weakened by his captivity, but determined to restart his life.
Hamilton married his high school sweetheart, Joyce White, a month later.
Together, they raised four daughters and started and ran the Skyline Restaurant on Hogback Mountain in Marlboro from 1946 until their retirement in 1992. Joyce died in 2005.
He was a longtime commander of Vermont Chapter 1 of the American Ex-Prisoners of War and, well into his 90s, he cut a dashing figure attending Memorial Day services around the county wearing the maroon blazer of his organization.
Hamilton said a recent gathering of the organization saw three World War II ex POWs. “One was 101, another was 99, and I was the young guy at 96,” he said.
He has told the story of his service, and his captivity, to many audiences over the years. He said he will keep telling his story as long as he is able, as someone who is in a select group — the people who are the last living witnesses of World War II.