World War II veteran shares stories of war, imprisonment

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dillon White
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs Office
In 1943, Malmstrom Air Force Base was Great Falls Army Air Base and dotted with wooden buildings with tar-paper walls. Inside dwelled B-17 crews stationed here to train to fly combat missions in Europe with the same planes they would fly across the Atlantic.
One of those Army Air Corps members was George Jahnke, a waist gunner on the B-17E, "Patches" who went on to shoot down two ME-109s, and endure nearly two years in a German prison camp after bailing out of Patches on the crew's 13th mission and landing on top of a German farmer armed with a pitch fork. 

To capture his time in Europe, he wrote a book about his experiences, and still has a few to "get rid of," he said. 

"A lot of soldier's stories went to the grave with them," Mr. Jahnke said. "I just wanted to share my experiences so people would know what it was like." 

Mr. Jahnke was only stationed at GFAAB for several months for advanced training, but said he had fond memories of the time he spent here in 1943, mostly of the USO dances held on base, where he met a farmer's daughter named Dorothy. 

"I met Dorothy and I got to spend a few days with her before I found out I had to leave," he said. "One day the commander told us we were going to Europe and not to talk to anyone downtown. I called Dorothy anyway and told her I was going to Europe and I asked her if she would wait for me. She said she would." 

After leaving GFAAB, Mr. Jahnke sustained injuries that he carries today. His hands have limited movement from continued exposure to frigid temperatures of high-altitude combat missions and he can only lift his right arm a short distance because of a dislocated shoulder that went untreated after he bailed out of Patches over Shweinfurt, Germany. 

"I landed on a German," Mr. Jahnke said. "Our plane was hit and after I bailed out I saw two people running toward me," he said. "One of them had a pitch fork. He was trying to stab me with it as I landed. I put my right foot out to kick the pitch fork away and hit him in the face on accident. When I hit him, he fell one way and I fell the other and landed on my shoulder, dislocating it." 

Several months later, a fellow POW put his shoulder back in place as other POWs held him to the ground of German prison camp Stalag 17-B. 

"I couldn't move my arm at all afterward because it had been dislocated for so long, but it felt good to have it back in place," Mr. Jahnke said. "He took a thread spool with string attached to it, attached it to the bunk above mine and tied it to my wrist. I could lay in my bunk and pull the string with my good arm so my other arm could exercise," he said. "After a while I got to the point where I could move my arm enough to pick my nose. That felt pretty good." 

In his book, he writes about many other experiences, from joining the Army, signing up for gunner's school to earn a pair of "wings," flying training missions at various locations in the United States and combat missions over Germany. 

Mr. Jahnke also writes about firing on German aircraft and walking along the six-inch-wide bomb-bay catwalk at 22,000 feet to free stuck bombs with open bay doors. 

The book also covers interrogations by German intelligence officers and nearly two years of life in a German prison camp, where he and members of his B-17 crew traded cigarettes with Russian POWs for items such as onions and potatoes. 

He also recalls B-17 radio operators building homemade radios, which provided news about the war. 

Stalag 17-B is then evacuated and Mr. Jahnke writes about the forced march through Austria. This is followed by his escape with five other POWs along the Inn River and their trip back to allied territory through farmer's fields and city streets in a steam-powered car.
Mr. Jahnke ends his book with another story. 

In 1945, after returning to Great Falls, he called Dorothy and asked if she waited for him. Dorothy thought he had been killed, but said she waited for him anyway. 

"She said she was waiting for me and so was Judy," Mr. Jahnke said. "I said 'who's Judy?'" 

Dorothy said, "That's the little girl we're going to have after we get married." 

"That's my love story," Mr Jahnke said. 

George Jahnke is now a retired Air Force master sergeant and makes his home in Augusta, Mont.