Local WWII POW survivor talks
October 2, 2008 · Updated 4:51 PM
He was shot down in a B-24 bomber plane, forced to bail out over occupied Holland and evaded capture by hiding out with the Dutch underground. While on his way to the safety of France, he was captured by the Germans in Belgium and held in Prisoner of War camps in Silesia (now Poland). Sounds like an old World War II movie marquee, but this was the life of 21-year-old Lt. Col. James Keeffe, Jr. in 1944.
Now retired, Col. Keefe will be sharing his World War II experience with the community at a special presentation at the Snoqualmie Valley Alliance Church in Fall City on April 8 from 12:30-3:30 p.m.
Son Jim Keeffe III of North Bend grew up with a living history book in the house. "Even though I've heard his story many times, I'm still amazed at the details my father has retained. His memory is incredible."
Keeffe III has worked diligently to document his father's courageous history and is currently in the process of putting all the information together. "We've been told we have enough material to make a documentary or movie and we're copywriting his materials. My father has recorded over 40 hours worth of audio tapes about the war."
Col. Keeffe's story begins when America was still struggling with the Great Depression.
He became interested in flying as a young boy back in the 1930s when his pilot father took him for a ride in an open biplane. He was about 7; and planes have been a lifetime passion ever since.
Col. Keeffe grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, and Salt Lake City, Utah, moving to Seattle at the age of 15. He was the third child and oldest boy in a family of six children. He joined the National Guard shortly after arriving in Seattle, and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1939 at the age of 16.
World War II began September 1, 1939, when the Nazis rolled into Poland. France and Britain declared war, Col. Keeffe recalled, and America wanted no part of it. "Nazi philosophy was slowly spreading throughout Europe."
Col. Keeffe entered Seattle University in the fall of 1940. That same fall, the government activated the National Guard in anticipation of World War II and started sending young men off to Georgia for training.
Three months shy of 18, he wasn't eligible to go. Those three months changed the course of his entire life, he says.
In the summer of 1941, he joined the Civilian Pilot Training program, learned to fly and got his pilot's license.
The war in Europe continued, and Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Suddenly, young men everywhere were itching to go to war to defend their country. Col. Keeffe convinced his parents to allow him to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was sworn in July, 1942, completed aviation training and became an officer. The B-24 bomber pilot was sent to England in November 1943.
"We flew our first combat mission [on] Feb. 21, 1944," said Col. Keeffe. "Our second mission was pretty grim - we counted over 300 holes in the plane. German fighters were firing on us. We lost seven out of nine airplanes."
After losing two engines and all their fuel during brutal combat on their fourth mission, the crew was forced to bail out over occupied Holland. "There were 11 of us on the plane. One had died on the plane from shock after his hand was severed during the attack, and the remaining 10 jumped out of the plane while Germans were shooting at us from the ground," he said.
The men were separated and on their own in a country crawling with Nazis. Col. Keeffe hid in a shed before members of the Dutch underground found and helped him. They transported him to Rotterdam, where he hid in the homes of several different families for more than four months.
When members of the resistance were helping Col. Keeffe make his way through Belgium to France, he was captured by German counterintelligence and sent to Stalug Luft III Prison Camp. Seven months later, Hitler closed the camp because Russia was moving in, Col. Keeffe said.
12,500 POWs were evacuated in the middle of the night during a blizzard. They marched for six days with no trousers or boots before they were packed into boxcars for a four-day trip to the next POW camp, Stalug VII-A in southern Germany.
Despite the hardship of the dirty, lice-infested camp, Col. Keeffe said that the ingenuity of the men he was with was amazing. "Everyone was an expert at something. We put our skills together [to survive], and everything we did was on a technical level."
Col. Keeffe and a fellow officer eventually escaped from Stalug VII-A and made their way to France. When the war finally ended, he was put on a ship to New Jersey where he was cleaned up, examined, given new clothing and sent back home to Seattle with about $2,000 in his pocket for his service to his country.
Over the years, Col. Keeffe has given several presentations about World War II at various venues.
"There are many facets to his story," said Keeffe III. "People, places, history ... resistance leaders, human nature, prison life, the breakdown of authority at the end of the war ... my father weaves it all into the story."
The presentation on April 8 will open with a video clip of Hitler to give an idea of what that time was like, Keeffe III said. "We have footage of bomber missions and a segment with my father giving a tour on an actual B-24 bomber."
About five years ago, Lt. Col. Keeffe took a flight in one of the B-24s that comes to Boeing Field for a few days every summer. He was given special permission to film on the plane, most of which were destroyed in the '50s.
After the war, Lt. Col. Keeffe went to UCLA, married his wife Sandra, and together they had six children. He was a pilot for United Air Lines for a few years before making a career of the U.S. Air Force. He fought in the Korean War and retired right before he was to be sent to Vietnam. He then went to work for Boeing in international sales. He now lives in Bellevue.
Lt. Col. Keeffe has been back to Europe several times, tracing his path during the war. "My father spent years afterward researching families. He remains in touch with people he met in the prison camps, and some of the families that helped him hide out have visited him here. He has organized many reunions and some of the German guards even attended them," said Keeffe III.
Lt. Col. Keeffe feels it is necessary to tell his story. "Americans are wonderful people. The American 'can-do' philosophy overcomes virtually all obstacles. Young people need to know about [this time in our history