Remembering a POW's brave sacrifice at Shaw

Lt. Heckel, captured in Nazi Germany and liberated in 1945, receives posthumous commendation at Shaw

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 1/24/18

Hitler's Nazi Germany liked numbers. Numbers were used to keep detailed records throughout World War II. They were used to keep track of personnel. People, both those sent to camps and prisoners of war, became numbers.

In a purposeful and …

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Remembering a POW's brave sacrifice at Shaw

Lt. Heckel, captured in Nazi Germany and liberated in 1945, receives posthumous commendation at Shaw

Posted

Hitler's Nazi Germany liked numbers. Numbers were used to keep detailed records throughout World War II. They were used to keep track of personnel. People, both those sent to camps and prisoners of war, became numbers.

In a purposeful and specific attack on the spirit and will of those he sought to annihilate, the dehumanization of reducing a person to an item on an inventory list was successful in many.

The late Lt. Charles C. Heckel, who was honored with a Prisoner of War Commendation on Friday at Shaw Air Force Base, was prisoner No. 8286. West Compound Barracks 168. Room 15. He was 19 years old when he became a POW in Nazi Germany after flying for the 9th Tactical Air Force's 474th Fighter Group in October 1944.

"Between his daughters, his wife, his grandkids, between all of us, we got less than 500 words about his experience from him, total," said Phil Johnson, Heckel's grandson.

Johnson told the story of his grandfather's POW career, a story as detailed as the records kept, much of which was heard by his family for the first time, he said.

Because he had to find out most of the information from someone other than his grandfather, who died on Sept. 22, 2015, he said he took much of his research from Marilyn Walton, an author and researcher who has published books and is thought to be "the most knowledgeable person on the Stalags and The March."

About 80,000 Western Allied POWs were forced into a series of marches toward the end of WWII in extreme winter conditions to evacuate POW camps and delay liberation.

"Now these kriegsgefangenen, German for 'war-prisoners' or 'kriegies' for short, would become [Hitler's] personal bargaining chip, and he planned to use the kriegies in the Bavarian Alps for final negotiating leverage and as a last stand," Johnson regaled to a crowd of family members and airmen at Shaw.

Heckel walked for seven days from Stalag Luft III near Sagan, Germany, to a train station in Spremberg, Germany. And that was just the beginning.

The P-38 pilot suffered immensely between the day he had to bail after a mid-air collision during a 100-fighter aircraft air-to-air battle in Belgium and April 29, 1945, when he was liberated by Gen. George S. Patton's 14th Armored Infantry Division of the Third Army.

He was denied food, sleep, proper shelter, medical attention. He and thousands of other POWS were made to walk mile after mile in the freezing cold without rest. They were crammed into train cars, 60 men sharing a space made for 40. Sharing one bucket for water and one to be used as a toilet.

Airmen live by the values of "Integrity first, service before self and Excellence in all we do."

"Before we even had our Air Force values codified, he lived by those values," 20th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Daniel Lasica said.

Meanwhile, before his liberation from Moosburg, Germany, near Munich, he wrote letters to his fiance when he could.

"My grandmother remembers that the letters were heavily redacted and covered with blacked-out sections from the German censors," Johnson said. "Jacqueline diligently stood watch and awaited his safe return for over two years since his training began."

A photo taken aboard the SS Santa Margarita shows Heckel, who went on to fly more than a hundred combat missions in Korea and continued his service in Vietnam, his back to the camera, staring over the water to the Statue of Liberty.

Twenty-eight days after stepping foot back on American soil, Heckel married Jacqueline Sue Bowman.

"In their wedding photograph, she is breathtaking in her wedding dress, and he is very handsome in his, well, his slightly too-big dress uniform," Johnson said. "Lt. Heckel was home safe and free. He was no longer No. 8286."

After the missing man formation flyover - an aerial salute that begins in diamond formation and ends with the No. 3 wingman trailing white smoke and pulling skyward to bank west and out of sight as the remaining aircraft hold course, leaving the missing man's position open - and after the medal was awarded to Heckel's widow, after a wreath dedication, it was different numbers that stood out.

It was the one tear that caught the sunlight as it fell from the cheek of one of Heckel's three daughters. It was the about 28 family members who attended the ceremony. It was the 500 words he told his family about his experience as a POW because he didn't want them to worry.

"He was like a big kid," Johnson said. "He was classy. His faith kept him through. He was just as happy at 93, full of wisdom and health."

"He was like a boy's dream of a grandfather."