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Corporal Dale Thatcher

Corporal Dale Thatcher

 

Unit : 306th Fighter Control Squadron, attached to 1st Airborne Division.

 

Dale Thatcher, an American, was originally a member of the 40th Mobile Communication Squadron but he volunteered to join the 306th Fighter Control Squadron. Besides himself, this 10 man group consisted of Lieutenants Geddes and Johnson, Sergeant Jones, Paul S. Benton, Gino Berardino, Albert A. Dunn, Robert Evans, James Leu and Milton Ostern. Having been well trained in the United States in the art of radio communications, most of these men were based in England during the Normandy campaign, assisting in meteorological work. In July 1944 they were attached to the 101st Airborne Division, but for Operation Market Garden, which was to be Thatcher's first and only taste of combat during the Second World War, the Squadron and its Very High Frequency (VHF) sets were loaned to the 1st Airborne Division, so that they may call in close air support from the Allied aircraft that would be circling over Arnhem. Their inclusion with the British lift was very much a last minute affair, they arrived at RAF Manston with only a few hours to spare before take-off.

 

The Squadron and their three Jeeps were flown to Arnhem inside four Waco gliders. The men wore their American uniforms, but had removed their patches in the event of their death or capture. Each of the Jeeps mounted a VHF set, but it was only after landing that it was realised that none of these sets had not been tuned to the frequency that the fighters were using, and so it was that they were rendered entirely useless. Nevertheless the Squadron attached itself to Divisional HQ, and on Monday 18th September they were able to firmly establish themselves at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek. Two of the Jeeps were parked around the rear of the building, approximately 15 feet from the German POW's being held under guard in the tennis courts.

 

As the fighting intensified around Oosterbeek the Squadron began to take casualties from the shelling. One of the Jeeps was hit and its radio, still operational, was removed and installed in the attic of the Hartenstein. One of the other sets outside was destroyed in a separate incident which left Sergeant Jones badly wounded. Dale Thatcher believed that Jones later died from these wounds, however it has recently been established that he survived. All of the members of the Squadron were carrying wounds of one degree or another resulting from the bombardment. On the 25th September, the 1st Airborne Division began to withdraw from Oosterbeek and across the Rhine, however the 306th Fighter Control Squadron was one of several groups who never heard of the evacuation and did not realise what had happened until dawn on the following morning. Thatcher was the highest ranking soldier of the Squadron still able to command at this time, and realising the futility of their situation, with no food or ammunition, he ordered his men to dismantle and spoil their weapons and then scatter the pieces. They then surrendered.

 

Initially they were placed in the same tennis courts that German prisoners had been held in during the Battle. Thereafter, Thatcher was loaded on to a cattle car and taken by rail to Stalag XIIA at Limburg, from where he departed to Stalag IIIC. Conditions here were very bleak, made worse by the fact that at this stage in the war, food in the Reich was scarce, particularly for prisoners of war. The staple diet consisted of a soup made from rotten vegetables, sometimes made more substantial with the addition of rat meat and, if they were lucky, small portions of bread. Dale Thatcher remained in this camp for five months.

 

One morning the prisoners of Stalag IIIC awoke to find that their guards had disappeared. They hardly dared believe that it was true and so for a time they did nothing. A few curious souls wandered into the German quarters and confirmed that they had fled, leaving food behind. Thatcher's clothes were in rags by this time and the winter conditions were hard on every man, however he managed to find an Italian jacket to wear over the top of his tattered uniform. The prisoners left the camp and marched eastwards in the hope of meeting Russian soldiers, who were surely nearby. When they ran in to a Russian unit, their would-be liberators assumed that they were Germans and fired upon them, killing a number and taking the remainder captive. The were led away and herded into a prisoner of war cage containing captured Germans. After some time of trying to correct the misunderstanding, a passing Russian soldier understood some of the English words that he heard them yelling and the men were set free.

 

The prisoners split up into small groups and were allowed to wander away in any direction. Thatcher and his group headed further East, however a Russian sentry on a border post would not allow them to cross and so they turned back. On the way they found food wherever they could find it and in whatever form. At a farm they stayed at they found some chickens, and so killed and ate them. The first taste of solid food for months made them all very ill. The locals that they encountered on the way were most welcoming and provided them with food and shelter, one night they were even allowed to enjoy a featherbed. They were, however, in a dire state by this time, clothed in rags, their bodies dirty, smelling, and infested with lice. Thatcher himself weighed just 95 lbs. When they reached Odessa, the group were firmly set on their way to being repatriated when they were put aboard a ship and sent to Egypt. Once in the hands of the Western Allies, their rags were removed and burned, their bodies cleaned and fed until they were fit enough for the voyage back to the United States. Thatcher, however, was still far from well and he had to spend several months in hospital before he was discharged in December 1945.

 

Thanks to Larry Thatcher for contributing this story.

 

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