Editor's note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.
By VIRGINIA SHANK
WARREN - His crew was about 10 minutes away from the target just south of Berlin when Henry M. Beben heard the call to "bail out."
The B-17 bomber was on fire and he could see pieces of the aircraft falling off and flying away. His parachute wasn't where he had put it and "everything was chaos."
Crew members were already jumping out of the plane when Beben, a flight engineer, finally spotted his parachute, made it to the hatch and jumped.
Tribune Chronicle / Virginia Shank
World War II veteran Henry Beben points out some of the honors he received from his military service. The Warren man spent 16 months in a German prisoner of war camp.
"The plane exploded in two parts. I was there, but I didn't even realize how bad it was or how it looked until later when I saw the pictures. It's a good thing I made it to the hatch. If I had still been inside the plane when it exploded. I don't like to even think about it."
Beben, 92, of Warren, said it was by the grace of God that he survived that experience - and the next 16 months as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.
"There were many times I thought I wasn't going to make it. But I did. And who do I thank? I thank God every day. I've thanked God every day since. I thank God that I am here to tell the story."
Family: wife Rose, deceased; daughter, Marsha; two grandchildren and one great grandchild
Service Branch: U.S. Army Air Force 1942 to 1945
Medals / Honors: Purple Heart, Air Medal, European, Africans, Middle Eastern Campaign, World War II Victory, American Campaign, Good Conduct, Prisoner of War and Presidential Citation, among others
Beben served in the U.S. Army Air Force from September 1942 to October 1945. He said he wanted to enlist, but his mother begged him not to. Then, in 1942 at the age of 21, he was drafted. He finished his basic training in Atlantic City, N.J., before going to Germany.
"But I was never trained for a B-17. That's the strange thing in all of this."
Still, Beben said it wasn't long after he was drafted that he found himself in Germany, falling to the ground after jumping from the burning aircraft.
"I started passing out around 2,200 feet from a lack of oxygen. I remember coming to the closer I got to the ground. When I came to at one point I realized I had my rip cord in my hand. So how did I open my chute? I don't know. I couldn't remember."
Beben said he heard a sputtering sound, sort of like the humming of a washing machine. He realized there was an ME 109, a German World War II fighter aircraft, circling around him.
"I thought that was it. That would be the end of me. There were so many instances like that. But it wasn't. He flew off and I thought it must be because he was locating us then going back to report where any of our surviving men were. You know, I think he actually saluted me, airman to airman."
Beben said he landed in a field near several farm buildings. At that point he realized he was bleeding from his head. He said he later speculated one of the bullets that had hit and killed his pilot when they were still on the bomber had grazed him.
"There were people there, on the ground, all around me, and they helped me over to a barn area. I was able to rest a little bit. But I was in a lot of pain. I realized I had a broken leg and several fractures. The amazing thing was that the people helping me were Polish. Isn't that amazing? I could actually understand what they were saying and I could speak to them because I have Polish background. I learned some Polish from my parents. To this day I wonder what ever happened to those people."
He said at some point enemy soldiers came and put him into a "corn crib," a building farmers used to store unhusked corn. Beben was put in one bin, or section, and not long after another member of the crew was brought into the crib and placed in another area.
"It was cold. I knew we had to talk to each other all night and keep each other awake. If not, that would be the end. We would go to sleep and never wake up," he explained.
He said a third member of the crew, a Jewish man, was brought in during the night.
"It was the worst night of my life. I have never forgotten it. I never realized people could be so cruel and horrible and treat someone else like that. It was so evil. They tortured him. I could still hear his screams years later. I don't know what they did exactly. We couldn't see it. But we could hear it. That haunts me to this day."
Beben said he never saw that man again. He said he was placed in solitary confinement and interrogated three times. He, along with the other surviving soldiers, were stuffed into a boxcar and transported to the barracks that would serve as their home for the next 16 months.
"It was so crowded. It was cold. We had just a light cover and we slept on a mattress bag with sawdust or something in it," he said. "But I don't want to make it sound like it was all bad. We had each other and we cared about each other. We looked out for each other. We tried to make each other laugh. I don't have any regrets. I am thankful I had the opportunity to serve and I wouldn't change that."
Beben explained that the prison camp was evacuated May 8, 1945, and the 4,500 prisoners were forced to march for 18 days. He said there was also a group of Jewish people marching.
"Some of them were falling to the ground, they were in such terrible condition physically and so weak. If they couldn't march they were shot in the head on the spot or cracked in the neck from behind.
"It's impossible for me describe, to even want to think about it sometimes. When you see someone put to death because they can't get back up or even crawl anymore, it's a terrible thing to witness."
Beben said he has had to work through his anger over what happened to his crewmate in the "crib" in Germany.
"But my wife and daughter helped me through that. They reminded me all the time that not all German people, or not any one group of people, are the same or all bad. There are good and there are bad people in all walks. I've had to work at that, to let go of that resentment, that bitterness. I admit it wasn't easy."
He said he advises members of the military who have experienced loss or other trauma to talk about it - something he said he was "reluctant to do for a very long time."
Beben said the most difficult part of serving during the war was the fear that he would never see his family again.
"There were so many close calls, so many times I thought I wasn't going to make it. But you know, I learned so much. In so many times it really was the greatest time of my life. It's hard to explain. But I really grew up. People who have been there, who have served, they understand that. It changes you. Sometimes for the worse. But it can also make you a better man, a better person, if you allow it to."