Victory in Europe: Charleston pilot was there at the end of World War II 70 years ago

World War II veteran Robert Dunbar remembers being freed from a prisoner of war camp by Patton’s 3rd Army near the end of World War II. The now-94-year-old bomber pilot was shot down over Germany during his 21st bombing flight.

Seventy years ago, Robert Dunbar was celebrating the close of World War II in Europe and the end of his days as a German prisoner of war.

He remembers U.S. Gen. George Patton’s liberating tanks entering his camp near Mooseburg, and he remembers his first taste of warm, baked American bread in months.

But he doesn’t plan on doing much to mark Friday’s anniversary of “V-E Day.”

“That was 70 years ago,” said Dunbar, 94, of West Ashley. “I very seldom talk to anybody that knows a damn thing about World War II now.”

May 8 is recognized as the end of six years of fighting in Europe. It remains a public holiday in some countries overseas, but not in America.

Dunbar’s path to Europe came after Pearl Harbor. He grew up in Charleston and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He excelled as a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber pilot, flying 20 missions safely over Europe and had just five bombing runs to go before being rotated home.

On his 21st mission, Sept. 13, 1944, German flak brought down his plane shortly after letting his bomb load go over a synthetic fuel plant.

Three engines went out and the plane fell from 27,000 feet to 9,000 feet in moments.

Dunbar, a lieutenant, and his entire crew bailed out and parachuted safely, but he broke his leg upon landing in southern Germany, near Saarbrucken. Still, he raised his hands to the heavens once he descended to the ground all in one piece.

“Thank God I didn’t have to be shot at again,” he recalled, thinking of the deadly Messerschmitt fighters that attacked in groups of 10 to 15.

Dunbar and his crew were immediately captured by a lone German soldier. He would spend months in a hospital, cared for by British doctors captured during the battle of Dunkirk.

After his leg healed, Dunbar was moved around and housed in various camps as Germany collapsed. He remembers being treated fairly during his nearly nine months in captivity — something he attributes mostly to empathetic German Luftwaffe guards running the camps where U.S. airmen were kept. Most of those guards were old men or others unfit for line duty.

The worst part was the cold and lack of food, he said. It was mostly cabbage and ersatz black bread made from sawdust. He went from 200 pounds to 150 pounds quickly.

Liberation came on April 29 after Patton’s tanks ended an artillery duel with the Nazi SS. Patton showed up later, pridefully riding in a jeep.

Dunbar’s first taste of American white bread followed. He would put it aside and treat it like cake.

Dunbar, who retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1970, said the World War II generation has disappeared all too quickly. Membership in Charleston’s POW club has dwindled to only about five or six veterans, he estimates. That decline matches the trend seen nationally as age catches up with World War II vets.

Of the tens of thousands of men and women from South Carolina who participated in World War II, less than 13,159 survive and still live in the state, according to recent Department of Veterans Affairs tabulations.

Dunbar’s liberation came about a week before the official end. By May 9, he was on an American C-47 transport plane and headed for food and medical care at what was dubbed “Camp Lucky Strike” in friendly territory.

Today, Dunbar says that despite the dangers of jumping from a falling airplane, it was an easy, no-nonsense decision to make.

“I had no trouble getting out — I guarantee,” he said, “because I saw many of them explode when they’d catch fire.

“I saw lots of airplanes go down.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.