WWII POW Remembers Who Saved Him
RINDGE, N.H. (AP) -- Ralph Lavoie remembers just how close he came -- twice -- to being among those honored as America's war dead. And he remembers a buddy who defied a German guard to keep him alive.
First, as a gunner on a B-17 bomber, Lavoie barely had time to parachute out of his falling plane before it crashed in December 1943.
Then for 14 months, he faced the fear of death as a prisoner of war at Stalag 17-B in Austria, the camp that inspired a movie of the same name and the television comedy ``Hogan's Heroes.''
``We heard stories that Hitler said: `Kill all the prisoners,' and we waited for it to happen,'' the 78-year-old Lavoie said last week. ``There always was the constant threat that the Germans would say, `Why are we feeding these guys?'''
Last month, cancer claimed the man Lavoie and other POWs picked to be their camp leader -- a man they credit with keeping them alive.
He was Kenneth Joseph Kurtenbach of Waterloo, Iowa, a sergeant also shot down on a bombing run. Kurtenbach, known as Kurt, helped organize the POWs, was their confidant and their representative to the Germans. He was also a savior the night Lavoie and fellow POW Jim Proakis tried to escape.
A hail of gunfire stopped them, killing Proakis and wounding Lavoie. A German soldier, noticing Lavoie had survived, shot him in the shoulder, neck, ribs and cheek. Lavoie rolled on the ground, trying to dodge the bullets.
``The whole object was to kill us both, then in the morning, at roll call, bring the boys out and say, `This is what happens. You try to escape, you die,''' he said.
But ``Kurt and the boys were at the end of the compound, fighting with the Germans to let him come down and see if either of us was alive,'' Lavoie said. ``One German hit him in the mouth with a rifle butt.''
Eventually, Kurtenbach came down with a stretcher and helped carry Lavoie to an aid station. It was an act that Lavoie believes saved his life, though Kurtenbach had already earned the admiration of fellow POWs by then.
``He was only 19 and I saw him stand up to German generals,'' Lavoie said. ``Because of his forcing them to do as much as he could get them to do to improve conditions, we survived.''
Lavoie is one of the organizers of an effort to spread the word about Kurtenbach's bravery and let former colleagues know of his death.
``I'm not the hero of the story,'' Lavoie said. ``I'm proud to be part of it, but Kurt is the hero.''
In the decades after the war, Kurtenbach's homes in Iowa and Tucson, Ariz., saw a constant parade of POW visitors.
``His POW buddies were always his greatest admirers,'' said Kurtenbach's widow, Myrtle, in a telephone interview. ``Those people were so close. The fact that he never lost any connection with most of them during the rest of their lives is amazing to me.''
She said her husband didn't consider himself special, though he appreciated his buddies' admiration.
``He felt that being elected ... kept him sane and gave him more to do while in the camp, which made it easier for him.''
Her husband didn't talk much with his children about his war exploits, who have come to know them from the aging POWs who now gather often to reminisce, Mrs. Kurtenbach said. But her husband began a written narrative of his experiences last year, and ``told me to make sure I got it out and gave it to the kids,'' she said.