By Jeff Javid, Wisconsin Veterans Museum Archives Assistant
Robert Balliet of Appleton, Wisconsin served with the 776th Squadron, 464th Bomb Group, Fifteenth Air Force, United States Army Air Force in the European theatre during World War II. An employee of Wisconsin Bell Telephone Company, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in December 1942. Balliet received basic training in Florida, was sent to radio school in Illinois, and finished his training at gunnery school at Tyndall Field (Florida) before teaching radio and being assigned to a squadron in San Antonio (Texas). From a base in southern Italy the Fifteenth, and Balliet’s B-24, would fly missions against munitions plants, aircraft factories, transportation facilities, and oil refineries. They provided bombing support for Allied ground troops in southern Europe. Shot down on May 29, 1944, on his 18th mission, bombing the Wiener Neustadt aircraft factory near Vienna, a wounded Balliet parachuted into Yugoslavia. After a harrowing escape from the damaged plane, Balliet was captured by a Yugoslav who had been a hotel chef in Chicago and had ice fished on Lake Winnebago. Delivered to the Germans he endured solitary confinement, the Stalag, and a forced march conducted to elude the advancing Russians.
In this excerpt from his oral history interview, conducted in 2000, Balliet tells of the last days of the forced march and of liberation from his German captors:
Balliet: I came out of the walk pretty good. I had frostbite and all that kind of stuff. So then we went 680 miles according to northern Germany, we walked. And we got over by Lubeck, Germany, and all of a sudden we were in this little barn—very little, small—the city was just, it wasn’t even a city it was just a little—it wasn’t even a village–and we heard all this commotion. We had a tall guard that was Slim, we called him. Of course we had mean ones, very means ones. They’d sic the dogs after us and bite you and all that stuff because we couldn’t keep up with the march and stuff like that. They just wanted to be mean, that’s all. But Slim was a nice guard, and he could whistle. And so when we were at this barn that one night, the last night, I said, “Slim, ‘Indian Love Call’”. He loved to whistle “Indian Love Call,” and then he’d whistle that, and then finally we heard all this commotion. So I thought, “Well, I can’t open up the—there were just the barn doors. And so I opened up the door, and I could see the tanks going by from—the British tanks were going through, and oh, what a thrill. And so then Slim gave me over there, and he gave me his gun, and he held up [laughs] his hands. He gave up to me, and I had his gun so, but anyway we didn’t know what to do. What the heck are we going to do? Where are we? We don’t know where we are.
Interviewer: You’re loose and with no weapons.
Balliet: Yeah, that’s right.
Interviewer: You didn’t know where the hell you were.
Balliet: Oh, hell no. We had no idea. All we did was march; went here, and here and then through the woods. We never marched through a city; we never marched on a highway. We marched always through these heavy woods. In fact we marched late at night when it was snowing and snowing and snowing so damn bad we had nothing but a–we couldn’t even see the guy ahead of us. But anyway, then Slim gave me his gun, and we went out there, and these tanks threw food out to us: D bars and stuff like that. They had the Germans on the run, and they were really moving. Then we didn’t know where to go so we just packed up and went towards Epinal, France.
During the forced march Balliet lost close to fifty pounds due to malnourishment and the strenuous walking. He suffered side effects from frostbite for the remainder of his life. Balliet eventually made his way to Paris and then to Le Harve where he was put on a Liberty Ship and sent home.
After returning from war, Balliet resumed his career at “Ma Bell,” married in 1947 and was a member of multiple veterans and ex-POW organizations. Balliet passed away on November 13, 2012 at the age of 88.
To read the transcript of the entire interview with Robert Balliet from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Oral History Collection, click here.