Bob Teichgraeber grew up under the dark shadow of the Great Depression. When World War II came to America, he signed up for the Army Air Corps to earn a better living and serve his country.
He never dreamed he'd end up a prisoner of war.
Assigned to a B-24 within the 445th Bomb Group as a Gunner, Teichgraeber found himself stationed outside of London, England. It was February 24, 1944, when he and his crew joined 25 other planes headed for Germany. Their mission: bombing a factory responsible for building Messerschmitt fighters. Unfortunately, Teichgraeber's group missed the meet up with a large wing of 200 planes. Rather than wait, their group leader pushed to continue on without fighter protection.
The Germans shot down 12 of their 25 planes down before they ever hit the target. "They were all around us like bees shooting," Teichgraeber explained. Despite the constant barrage of bullets, their plane managed to drop their bomb on the factory. They also shot down enemy fighters in the process. Not long after that, they were attacked head on by an enemy fighter plane.
"They hit our oxygen system in the bomb bay and the plane caught on fire and went down," Teichgraeber shared. Although he broke his foot and ankle in the crash, a well-timed jump saved him from being torn in two by the horizontal stabilizer. When he looked around, he realized only six of them had made it through the crash.
As they exited the plane, the Germans were waiting for them. "We were captured and brought to a prison camp in East Prussia, which is Lithuania now. They handcuffed us to each other and made us run up a hill with German police dogs at our heels and throw our Red Cross parcels away," Teichgraeber said. It was so dark that he was soon separated from his crew. "It was the end of February of '44 and we tried to wait patiently for D-Day, which we knew was coming."
Some of the men were unable to cope with the waiting, though. "Some of us tried but we really didn't have the ability to help these guys," he said sadly. They were taken away and he never saw many of them again.
A few months after being captured, he heard the Russian guns coming closer to their prison camp. The threat of the Russians forced the Germans to evacuate the prison camp and move everyone up the Baltic sea on a coal ship. "We were put down in the bottom of the hull -- it was darker than an ace of spades and we didn't see anything for three days," Teichgraeber said. The Germans unloaded them in Poland, but the prisoners weren't there long… soon, they could hear the Russian guns getting closer once again.
The Germans forced them to march.
It was winter and hovering around 15 degrees and the only scarce food available was bread and potatoes, but not all the time. After that first night of marching away from the Russians, Teichgraeber and the other prisoners (mostly airmen) were forced to sleep on the frozen ground. He shared that they all dreamt about those Red Cross parcels they were forced to throw away, which were filled with things like spam, candy bars and soap – a feast they'd give anything to have right then.
The marching didn't stop, even in the snow. "Sometimes all you could see was the guy marching in front of you, it was so white out," Teichgraeber said. He described the horrific scenes of constant frostbite, diarrhea and starvation. Sometimes they'd get lucky and find barns to sleep in, instead of the ground. But those were filled with lice and fleas. "Guys began dropping out," he admitted.
After a couple of months, the marching finally stopped. Their group arrived at another prisoner of war camp, this one much more crowded. Teichgraeber and a friend found a barracks building and slept on the floor, trying to recuperate. Five days later, the entire camp was forced to evacuate and march once again. This time, to avoid the British.
"They would do a headcount every morning and we were close to a barn. Our guard got distracted so once they did the headcount, my buddy and I went back into the barn," Teichgraeber said. They hid, trying not to make a sound as they waited, praying they wouldn't be found. Eventually, they heard the sounds of the camp moving and marching again. Soon there were no sounds at all.
They were free.
"The next day, the British came through and rescued us," he said with a smile. Teichgraeber and his fellow airman were given new clothes, which was a relief after wearing the same ragged clothes for months. "They got us cleaned up and in one of their uniforms – which was very unusual as you'd normally never see an American service member in another country's uniform, but it was clean."
Normally around 135 pounds, Teichgraeber found himself hovering at 90 pounds after his rescue. He shared that they were all so hungry that after chow was served, he and the other airman went back and raided the garbage cans for food. "An officer found us and told us we didn't have to do that anymore," he said. "But we were so used to it at that point."
After a few weeks, he and the others rescued were put back into American hands and sent home. Although faced with torture and other unimaginable horrors while he was a prisoner of war, Teichgraeber said he never lost hope. When he returned to his hometown in Illinois, he went back to work at his old job and met his wife, Rose, not long after. They've been married for 68 years.
On August 22, 2020, the former prisoner of war turned 100. When Teichgraeber was asked the secret to his longevity, he got a twinkle in his eye and said with a laugh, "Just don't die." He still loves to sit in his riding lawn mower and take care of his own grass. Sometimes he even drives if he's feeling up to it, although there is a caregiver who comes to help with errand running these days. After surviving 421 days a prisoner of war, he said his life has been continually filled with beauty and joy.
And he's not done yet.