Former prisoner of war knows price of freedom

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 13, 2002

H.E. ‘Ed’ Jernigan, Jr. loves his hometown of Greenville. The retired businessman takes pleasure in sharing the beautiful camellias he cultivates, including one named for his late wife, the ‘Miss Lillian.’

He enjoys joining friends in regular domino matches with a hot cup of ‘java’ on the side.

(&uot;I like it made the old-fashioned way, in a percolator&uot;.)

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Jernigan has learned the value of appreciating the little things in life. Over 50 years ago he very nearly lost the chance to enjoy any of life’s moments. As the badly wounded navigator of a downed B-17, Jernigan would face pain, hunger, solitary confinement and imprisonment before he made the long and welcome journey home again.

The Greenville native had once been a happy-go-lucky Auburn student.

A pretty Montevallo co-ed named Lillian was the special girl he hoped to one day make his wife.

When World War II came along, Jernigan entered the Army Air Reserve and was called to duty in 1944.

&uot;They discovered my eyes weren’t good enough to be a pilot, so I ended training to be a navigator down in Louisiana in those 1929 and ’31 Sikorsky ‘Flying Ducks&uot;, mainly over water.&uot;

After combat crew training in Tennessee and B-17 training in Kearney, Nebraska, a crowded troop train shipped new 2nd lieutenant Jernigan and his fellow GIs to Virginia.

From there they sailed to North Africa, finally boarding a British troop ship for a trip Jernigan vividly recalls.

&uot;While we were on board, we heard about the D-Day invasion…that’s how I remember it was in early June of ’44.&uot;

Jernigan’s final destination was Foggia, Italy, where he would serve as navigator for a B-17 crew in the 463rd Division of the Fifth Wing, 15th Air Force.

&uot;I flew my first mission on June 23rd, 1944…we had to fly 50 missions before we got to go home.&uot;

The brand-new bomber received a uniquely southern moniker, courtesy of Jernigan.

&uot;We needed a name for our new B-17 and my suggestion was ‘Wampus Kat.’ One of the crew members asked me what a Wampus cat was and I explained it’s a fictional wildcat we have down south…well, they all liked my stories about it and our bomber became the ‘Wampus Kat’.&uot;

Within six weeks the ‘Wampus Kat’ crew had completed 37 strategic bombing missions.

A respite from the rigors of war was provided by ‘R. and R.’ on the isle of Capri.

The crewmembers enjoyed posing for photos with some pretty Army nurses—despite the fact the film had run out. &uot;I said, ‘Keep on snapping’… we were having too good of a time on that little beach,&uot; Jernigan notes with a grin.

Those good times had to be appreciated.

The losses in the 15th Air Force were tremendous. Day after day, crewmembers left on missions knowing there was a very good chance it might be their last one. Ground personnel even had to be trained to replace the many lost crewmembers.

&uot;We were just a few missions away from our goal of 50… when we flew on a bombing run to Blackhammer [Blechhammer] in Germany, targeting their synthetic oil refinery there.

There was heavy fire from the ground.

A piece of shrapnel came through the plane and went through the leg of the bombardier, then right into me,&uot; Jernigan recalls with a grimace.

&uot;I limped to the phone to call and say we’d been wounded in the nose [section of the plane]…I looked down and saw the fur lining of my glove had also been sheared off…my hand sure hurt.

&uot;Then I heard someone say, ‘Two bombs stuck in the bomb bay’…next thing I knew an engine was on fire.

We dived and leveled out…that thing was still burning so the pilot told us to bail out…I finally got my pack on and rolled out,&uot; he recalls.

Jernigan was in shock, bleeding heavily and concussed from the incessant pounding of the anti-aircraft guns.

He tossed away his gun in fear it would fall into German hands.

&uot;I kept blacking out on the way down…what I do remember is looking back and seeing our plane explode.

When I finally came to again I was on the ground.&uot;

The wounded flight navigator was startled to discover he’d landed less than 100 yards from a POW work camp filled with American, British and Polish prisoners, laborers at the very oil refinery they had been bombing. &uot;Two of the other fellows landed inside the barbed wire, can you believe it?&uot; ponders Jernigan.

Soon guards surrounded him and &uot;stripped me of everything except my Butler County High School ring…for some reason they let me keep that. They laid me on a board and used my belt as a tourniquet for my leg—that probably saved me right there.&uot;

In spite of everything, Jernigan was one very lucky man.

&uot;A doctor told me I would have bled to death if I’d stayed in the airplane any longer…I thought about how I might have gotten stuck and died up in those trees,&uot; Jernigan remembers.

Jernigan received blood transfusions and had a long stay in a local hospital.

&uot;I remember waking up and seeing all these nuns in their long robes…I thought I might be standing at the pearly gates,&uot; Jernigan laughs.

&uot;One of the sisters came in one night and slipped me a special gift—a bottle of schnapps.

It was very good, I have to say,&uot; he recalls with a twinkle in his eye.

Once he was well enough Jernigan was shipped to Dresden, then Frankfurt (&uot;I had three days of solitary confinement there…I didn’t like that&uot;) and finally to a rehabilitation hospital.

&uot;A bomb hit right beside the bridge out front and killed nine locals…we were not popular around there.&uot;

After a stay in a Nuremberg tent city the prisoners were packed like sardines into a train and sent to a POW camp in Englestadt on the Danube in April 1945.

&uot;We were almost bombed on that train…we’d stopped so we could eat, then we suddenly started moving again.

A B-17 dropped bombs on the spot where we had been stopped.

We got out later to relieve ourselves and the engine got strafed by a P-51…the other pilots realized [it was a POW train] and left us alone,&uot; Jernigan noted.

At the camp, potato peeling soup (with protein supplied by a grub worm or two) was the order of the day.

That would seem like ambrosia once the meals ended. The Germans, their supplies and fuel largely depleted by the strategic bombing missions of Allied planes, were about to admit defeat.

&uot;One day, all the Germans disappeared and then there was no food…we liked to starve there for a few days, until the [Allied] tanks came and tore down the gate.

They gave us bread from a local bakery but we couldn’t handle it on our stomachs, it made us sick,&uot; Jernigan remembers.

By the time he made it to a Red Cross camp a few weeks later, he was able to thoroughly enjoy the doughnuts, coffee and cigarettes provided by volunteers—though he admits he still can’t recall exactly how he got to the camp.

&uot;I do remember wiring home to let them know I was OK…my family had been getting postcards from the wives of ham radio operators indicating I was alive but the military would never officially confirm it for them,&uot; explains Jernigan, who still has some of those original postcards.

Once he arrived in New York he phoned home.

&uot;I called my mother and asked how everybody was—and if Lillian had gotten married.

I was mighty glad when my mother said ‘No’.&uot;

Today, Jernigan shares the story of his World War II experiences with local school children, clubs and civic organizations. His second wife Alice helps him record those valuable memories for posterity.

&uot;I was one of the lucky ones…I am so thankful I blacked out and didn’t know what all was happening to me…that part was a blessing.

[Of the six crew members] only two of us got hurt and all of us survived,&uot; Jernigan says.

As long as he can, this veteran hopes to continue being a ‘living history lesson’ for his community.