After graduating from Little Valley High School in 1940, Lester J. Bishop started work in what was the main product produced in Little Valley at the time – knives.
“It was a cutlery town, and I went to work at Kinfolks making hunting and butcher knives,” he recalled of his job, which paid 25 cents an hour.
Several months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bishop doubled his hourly rate by moving to Buffalo and working at Bell Aircraft. It wasn’t long after that his rate increased to $1.07 an hour.
“I lived in Buffalo during the week and came home on weekends. There were a few people from Little Valley who did that,” he said.
But his ever-improving finances took a nose dive when he was drafted into the Army Air Force.
“I worked a few jobs on the B-24 Bomber. I checked on the bombs in the bomb bay to make sure they were hanging right, and I checked on machine guns in the turrets. I also served as a waist gunner toward the back of the plane.”
His first mission was over France, and the German anti-aircraft fire was heavy.
“They shot out part of our oxygen system and part of our hydraulic system, but we still had enough hydraulic fluid to get our landing gear down,” he said.
The second mission on Aug. 13, 1944, was his last.
“We were on a ground support mission and only supposed to be over enemy territory for 20 minutes. A German anti-aircraft shell exploded between two of the engines on our left wing. It just blew the wing off, and an aircraft doesn’t fly very good with one wing,” Bishop recalled.
The B-24 tipped up sideways and the escape hatches, situated on the floor of the aircraft, were suddenly above the crew members and out of reach.
“That’s why four of my crew members could not escape and went down with the airplane,” Bishop said of their deaths.
Lester J. Bishop, 94
Hometown and residence: Little Valley
Branch: Army Air Force
War zone: World War II, European Theater
Years of service: 1943 - 1945
Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, European Theater Medal, Prisoner of War Medal
Specialty: B-24 Bomber waist gunner
He said he was “very, very lucky” because he managed to get out through a hatch before the plane tipped. Five other crew members also were fortunate and did the same, parachuting to the ground.
“Just before I hit the ground, I was shot at by a German. I heard the bullet when it went by but he missed.”
His luck, however, did not hold out.
“I was with the navigator, and just when we hit the ground, we were captured. The Germans were waiting for us,” he said. “Three or four days later, the other four crew members were caught and we were all together.”
He said they were taken in an American troop truck that had been captured in a previous battle.
“Then we were loaded on French railroad box cars. There were 60 soldiers in one little box car with one 10-quart pail for facilities. It wasn’t any fun. We were packed like sardines. The trip took four or five days, and finally we came into the edge of Germany to a temporary prison camp.”
He spent three days there in segregated quarters, the enlisted men in one section of the camp and the officers in another, before again being loaded into box cars.
“I was with the enlisted men, and we went clear across Germany, stopping one night in Berlin when there was an air raid. We kept going the next day and ended up at ‘Stalag Luft IV,’ a permanent prison camp.”
Bishop remembers he was among 8,000 prisoners, all of them from the Army Air Force. They remained there until February 1945.
“We half froze to death, and we half starved to death,” he said. “The Germans gave us two potatoes and one piece of bread as our food ration each day. There was just one little stove in each room of the barracks and the fuel ration, 20 briquettes, did not last all day.”
Sleeping accommodations consisted of straw tossed on the floor.
What made the camp survivable were deliveries of additional food, wool blankets and coats from the International Red Cross, he said.
But even with that, he had a scare in January 1945 when he came down with diphtheria.
“I had a very high fever and I was quarantined. It could have been deadly but I was given a German serum and within 24 hours the fever broke,” he said.
When he returned to the barracks, Bishop said he was physically limited, unable to walk more than a few steps at a time. But that limitation worked in his favor.
“The Russians were getting too close, and they started evacuating the camp. The prisoners had to walk, but I couldn’t. After a few days, I was placed in a rail box car with about 25 other prisoners and shipped up to ‘Stalag Luft I.’ It was on the Baltic Sea.”
He remained there until the end of the war.
“Hitler had sent word that no Allied airmen were to be repatriated alive. That doesn’t sound good, does it? But the German camp commander was a decent sort of guy and did not follow Hitler’s order,” a grateful Bishop said.
During the night of April 30 into the early hours of May 1, all the German soldiers guarding the camp disappeared.
“I was born on May 1, and I’d say that was a pretty good birthday present,” said Bishop, who had just turned 23. “We were by ourselves two or three days, and we knew the Russians were near. A few of our officers went and found the Russians, and negotiations were conducted to repatriate us back to the Americans.”
Not long after that, B-17 bombers, known as Flying Fortresses, landed at a nearby airfield and began a non-stop evacuation, flying the POWs to Camp Lucky Strike in France.
“They never turned off their engines. Thirty POWs would board each plane, and they’d turn around and take off again. This took a couple days. It was quite an evacuation,” Bishop said.
In France, he said he relished the chance to take hot showers and eat good food as a free man, not bothered at all that his clothing still consisted of “pretty much rags.”
When he finally arrived by boat in Boston in early June 1945, there was yet more travel, this time by train to Fort Dix, N.J. After that, he returned to Little Valley on a 60-day furlough, and it was during that time the war in the Pacific ended.
After his discharge, Bishop learned the trade of carpentry under the tutelage of an older carpenter. Four years later, he married the former Laura Hagen and continued to work in carpentry and part time for the U.S. Postal Service. He eventually was made full time and over the years worked his way up to postmaster of Little Valley.
The Bishops have three children, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
When he thinks about the war, he said he remembers how scarce food was during his imprisonment, even with help from the Red Cross.
“I weighed about 170 pounds when I went into the service and came out at about 140 pounds,” he said.
But he said he knows the American prisoners were not the only ones who went hungry.
“One time we had a conversation with a German guard who spoke English. He could have been shot for talking to us. He told us how the guards were hungry, and so were the German people.”