Paul Parkinson left the Nazi prisoner of war camp Stalag 17B in 1945, grateful his 13-month imprisonment was over and that World War II was ending.
For the first time in 68 years, Brother Parkinson recently returned to where the camp was once located. Now 89 years old and a member of the Pasadena California Stake, he joined the Church in 1961 and has served as a Los Angeles Temple worker since 1987.
During World War II, Parkinson was a flight maintenance gunner and staff sergeant aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber. He had completed eight successful missions when, on Easter Sunday 1944, machine-gun fire from enemy planes caused his Liberator to catch fire. The crew was forced to bail out. "That was my first time parachuting out of a plane, let alone a burning bomber, and my chances of survival were slim," Brother Parkinson said. "Although I believed in God, I hadn't yet found the gospel and didn't even know how to pray, which under those circumstances seems completely unnatural to me today."
To his surprise, he survived, although two members of the crew did not. The eight surviving crewmembers landed in rural Germany, were taken into custody by a nearby farmer and sent to Frankfurt, Germany for questioning. They were then sent by train in a boxcar to Stalag 17B, which imprisoned Allied airmen.
Brother Parkinson recalled one experience that has stood out among many from his days as a prisoner of war. A German guard had taken leave and was in a passenger train on the way to visit his wife and six-month-old son, who was soon to be taken to a nursery run by the Nazis. While on the train, several American fighter planes began circling above. Despite the risk to their lives from heavy German anti-aircraft fire, they waited until the train stopped and the civilians had safely evacuated before commencing fire on the train.
"When the guard returned to the camp he told us that he'd probably be dead if the Americans hadn't waited for the passengers to exit the train — and they waited even though they were being fired upon," Brother Parkinson said. "The guard cried."
As the Allied forces began closing in on the Nazis in Germany and Austria, the German officer in charge of the camp decided it would be better to surrender to the American forces than to the advancing Russians. For this reason, all the prisoners of the camp began a 21-day march toward the Black Forest in Germany in an attempt to surrender to Gen. George S. Patton's Third Armored Division. On the third day of the march he came down with dysentery, but managed to survive until Patton's army caught up with the group on the 21st day and took the German guards as prisoners.
During his return trip, Brother Parkinson was able to tour parts of Germany and Austria, but he said the highlight was visiting the area where Stalag 17B was previously located in the village of Gneixendorf, near the city of Krems, Austria.
Christine Wofel, a Krems resident who has been doing research about the prison camp, showed Brother Parkinson areas that he saw while a prisoner. The site of the former camp is now an airport for sport fliers, but there are several monuments recognizing the former camp and its prisoners.
While at the airport, Ms. Wofel showed Brother Parkinson a map with the route of the 21-day march. Later, she drove him along part of the route. She explained her plans to put together a Wall of Remembrance in the airport tower acknowledging those who were imprisoned, which is to include information about Brother Parkinson.
"It was meaningful for me to meet Paul because I feel very grateful to the Allied forces and the sacrifices they made for our freedom," she said. "He was able to confirm some of my research and shared some additional experiences about those difficult times."
For Brother Parkinson, the return trip gave him an opportunity to find some closure to the 13-month ordeal. "I've always wanted to return to the locations of that horrible but necessary war," he said. "After living a long, full life and with an understanding of God's eternal plan, this return journey helped put to rest that painful experience that had such a profound influence on my life."