BRADENTON -- Sixty-nine years ago this month, Donald Sjaardema returned to the United States after surviving seven desperate months as a German prisoner of war.
Liberated in April 1945, Sjaardema wasted no time picking up the threads of his life when he returned to the United States from World War II on June 3, 1945.
He enrolled in college to earn an accounting degree and married his childhood sweetheart, Ruth. The couple celebrate their 69th anniversary Saturday.
For many years, Sjaardema kept his wartime experiences to himself.
"When I first got home after the service, I didn't want to talk about it. You were glad it was over and behind you. You just wanted to start over," Sjaardema said this week. "I guess I have mellowed over the years."
Now at age 92 he is sharing his story.
Enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1943, Sjaardema became an aviation cadet, earning his commission as a second lieutenant. He was assigned to MacDill Field in July 1944 for more training. The crew, with Sjaardema as bombardier, flew a new B-17 bomber to England in August 1944.
Their first bombing mission was Oct. 7, 1944, experiencing heavy flak over Berlin.
On Sjaardema's second mission, engine trouble forced the crew to jettison their bombs and fuel over the North Sea. The plane belly-landed in England.
That was an ominous sign of what was to come.
Later that same month, on Sjaardema's third mission, the B-17 was hit by flak after completing a bombing run over Cologne.
"I turned around to talk with the navigator, who sat behind me. He was not there," Sjaardema said.
He made his way to the cockpit, and discovered it was empty, too, and that the plane was on auto pilot.
Sjaardema realized he was all alone on the B-17. The rest of the crew had bailed out.
After trying to fly the plane alone for a few moments and realizing it was hopeless, he bailed out.
He was captured by German farmers and held until German soldiers arrived in a truck to take him away.
One of the German soldiers pulled back a tarp on the truck to show him the body of an American aviator. It was the ball turret gunner from his B-17.
The next day he was taken by train to Frankfurt, where he was held in solitary for three days, and interrogated. He was taken by train to Stalag Luft III in Zagan, Poland, which he learned was where the "Great Escape" of allied POWs had earlier taken place.
What little food the POWs received often had bugs or maggots in it.
In the face of advancing Russian forces, the Germans evacuated Stalag Luft III in January 1945, and moved the POWs to a camp near Nuremberg.
"The worst was in Nuremberg, when we were all sick with dysentery. We had been stealing the boards off the latrine to use as firewood, and there was no privacy," he recalls.
Sjaardema wrote about his Nuremberg experiences for the Bradenton Christian Reformed Church's magazine:
"The camp at Nuremberg was in deplorable condition. Buildings were in disrepair and were filthy beyond description. Bedbugs, lice, and fleas ran unchecked. Soon we were all bit up and had no adequate facility to shower, cleanup or receive medical help."
Moreover, Allied bombers relentlessly pounded Nuremberg, and the POWs feared they would be caught in the bombing or falling flak.
In April 1945, the POWs were moved once again to Moosberg in the face of advancing Allied troops.
It was clear to everyone that the war would soon be over.
"We knew that it wouldn't last too long, that kept us going," he said.
"It was a Sunday and maybe every six weeks they would try to give us a shower. I was on the way to the shower and I heard this 'zing, zing, zing,' like rifle bullets. All of the sudden a U.S. Army tank came through the gates. The Germans had left the camp," Sjaardema said.
"It was a joyful time. We stayed in the camp maybe another 10 days before they evacuated us by airplane to La Harve, put us in a hospital and fed us real good. I was there a couple of weeks," he said.
Sjaardema returned to the United States on a ship that took 10 days to cross the Atlantic.
"They were still zig-zagging because of the U-boats. They were not sure all the German sub crews had gotten the word that the war was over," he said.
"One of the most wonderful things was sailing into New York harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty. I was just overjoyed," he said.
The excruciating ordeal was finally over, not only for Sjaardema, but his parents, and for Ruth back home.
"It was a very, very happy time," Ruth Sjaardema said.
"He went through a lot and so did I. It wasn't easy. And his parents had to go through it, too. We were very close through all of this."
The Sjaardemas retired to Bradenton in 1984. They have three children, 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
In 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, Sjaardema and other survivors of Stalag Luft III toured the prison camps and retraced their steps through the war.
"At the towns where we stayed overnight, the citizens came out with bands and the mayors. They treated us royally. They were so thankful that we were liberated and that they were, too," he said.
His wartime experiences forced Sjaardema to grow up fast.
"We were pretty cocky until that time and we got humbled real quick," he said.
He credits his religious faith with helping him survive the war and his captivity.
"Without faith, you sometimes give up hope. I knew there was somebody higher up in control. That really helped me get through the whole thing," he said.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.