Update: We are saddened to report that Mr. Murray passed away May 16. 2017. Our condolences to his family and friends.
World War II veteran Donald Murray smiles as he sits comfortably in his personal care room at Buffalo Valley Lutheran Village in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
The walls around him are adorned with reminders of times past—World War II memorabilia, photos of his family and prized taxidermy mounts and furs that he obtained as a marksman hunter.
“Some people call me Daniel Boone,” he laughs as he scans his collection.
While some may call him a legendary woodsman, all call him a hero—a hero who endured the unimaginable. As part of what author Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation to live,” 93-year-old Murray says he will never forget March 23, 1944, or the months that followed.
Serving as a 19-year-old bombardier in the U.S. Air Force 8th Airborne Division, his squadron, stationed in Tibenham, England, was directed to bomb a German railyard that served as a military hub for equipment fueling Germany’s war efforts.
“This mission was geared towards stopping an invasion,” he says. “We had a job to do. We knew it had to be done.”
Focused on the task at hand, he along with nine other crew members climbed on board the “Paper Doll”—a B24 bomber that had been assigned to them for the mission.
With several planes carrying out the mission, the B24 formation was led and commanded by Jimmy Stewart. Yes, that Jimmy Stewart, the one who would later become famous for such film roles as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Jimmy Stewart—the movie star—was our squad commander. You couldn’t find a nicer personality,” Murray recounts today. “He was leading our group the day we were shot down.”
Donald Murray in his personal care suite at Buffalo Valley Lutheran Village.
Initially, that chilly day in March was going as planned. Murray, who was on his third mission, wore a plague vest, a helmet and an oxygen mask. With the plane prepared to drop explosives out of the bomb bay with precise accuracy, Murray was situated in a turret.
“At 10,000 feet in the air, I could hit an 88-inch circle. I trained in Victorville, California, near the Mojave Desert—the hottest place on earth,” he says. “I was prepared that day. I had my eyes on the lead plane and my hands on the toggle switch.”
Before any bombs could drop, the Paper Doll was riddled with anti-aircraft fire. Rounds of 88 millimeter bullets knocked out two of the four engines and hit the gas tank, setting the plane on fire.
“There was a tremendous explosion. The impact hit me hard—it blew my mask off. It shattered the two-inch thick glass on the front of the plane. My solid metal plague vest saved my life,” he says.
During the minute or two that followed, Murray drifted in and out of consciousness. His survival seemed questionable.
With his engines out and the plane carrying bombs composed of oil, gas and rubber—making the vehicle what some called “flying blow torches”—the pilot tried his best to find a spot to land; however, he decided it was best to abandon the plane.
“There was so much confusion. The navigator helped me out of my turret and put a parachute on me. He hooked up the harness and shook me. ‘Wake up, Don!’ he said. ‘And don’t forget to pull the rip cord when you clear the plane.’ After he said that, he put the ripcord in my hand.”
Murray jumped and pulled the cord.
“I pulled it and swung twice before hitting the ground at approximately 125 to 130 miles per hour,” he says. “When I hit, I tumbled.”
He he stopped tumbling, he found himself in the middle of a farmer’s field, surrounded by German land lock guards. Slightly raising his head, he saw his pilot lying lifeless near a tree. His navigator was pulling himself to his feet.
“It didn’t take long for the German air guards to pick us up. My pilot didn’t move because he had a broken leg. The Germans found an old shutter and made a litter. The navigator and I carried the front, and 2 Germans carried the back. We took him to a gas station and that was the last time we saw him until we got home.”
Now prisoners of war, Murray, his navigator and copilot were escorted to a general store, where they were reunited with the rest of their crew members.
Thankfully, all of the Paper Doll crew had survived as they exited the bomber, which had crashed and disintegrated.
However, what happened next had many of them wondering if they should have gone down with the plane.
“We were separated. For a week, each of us was in a room without any windows and we were interrogated. If we didn’t answer quickly enough, we were hit with a rifle butt,” says Murray.
In attempts to gain military intelligence, the Germans asked questions such as air raid strategies and locations of various U.S. air bases.
The U.S. servicemen were eventually placed on a train for Stalag Luft III, a POW camp in Zagan, Poland.
Donald Murray’s POW card.
Separated into different compounds, the camp was surrounded by double-barbed wire fences. Murray and the other crew members—including his navigator—were placed in North Camp. With little food, nothing to do and disease running rampant, many people tried to escape.
“Isolation can drive you crazy,” he says. “A few fellows couldn’t take it anymore and jumped the fence and were shot immediately. Right after we got there, the Great Escape occurred in our camp—North Camp; prisoners dug tunnels. Even with the security conditions, 135 people escaped, but they caught most of them. They shot at least 50 of them and buried them there.”
Surviving on potatoes, cabbage and very little meat, the prisoners faced many hardships.
Yet in the midst of desperation, the comradery among his crew members—especially his navigator and co-pilot—kept him going.
“We relied on our friendship; it was the three of us together. We mainly played cards or used what sports equipment was available,” says Murray. “The Germans gave us a folded postcard. We could write home, but it was censored by the Germans. I wrote to Mary (his high school sweetheart) and my mother.”
HOPE, FOLLOWED BY A GRUELING MARCH
After several months in the camp, he saw a sign of hope.
“The International Red Cross drove white trucks in and gave us a POW parcel—it had all kinds of concentrated food like SPAM, powdered milk, cigarettes, coffee and tea,” he says.
Shortly after that, war tensions grew high and Hitler began to sense that Stalag Luft III might be liberated. As a result, Murray, along with fellow crew members and other U.S. servicemen, were forced to march to Stalog 7A in Moosburg, Germany, in the dead of winter.
“The war made me a better family man and a more loving person; It made me appreciate life that much more.”
Throughout the frigid three-week journey, the hungry, cold prisoners had to wade through two feet of snow without winter gear.
“We traveled in fours to make it easier to live. We each carried a blanket. At night, we would put one blanket on the ground, all lay side by side, and put the rest of the blankets over us to try to keep warm. When we arrived in New Berlin, they put us on cattle cars headed to Moosburg.”
The men were placed in Stalog 7A, yet another POW camp.
“That camp was loaded with people. It was built for 1,500 people and there were 5 to 6,000 prisoners from all nationalities. We had one potato a day and dug dandelion to eat. It was very sparse eating,” he says.
After 3 months at Moosburg and 10 months at Stag Luft III, he lost much of his body weight, but he never lost hope of liberation—something he experienced April 29, 1945.
A photograph that appears in Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” features Murray and others on that day.
Murray points to photograph of himself and his crew in Tom Brokaw book.
“I remember it well. General Patton came in and said, ‘We will get the gates open, but I can’t stay. I have business to take care of down river.’” He vividly remembers that Patton had a white pearl-handled revolver—not the military issued .45 automatic pistol.
“Although we were liberated, we couldn’t leave camp until May. They had to set up transportation for us and decontaminate us. All the camp was filled with bed bugs and lice,” says Murray.
AFTER THE WAR
Although Murray endured hardships, he is not bitter about his experience. Instead, he credits his difficult journey for making him the person he is today.
“We all wanted to go (to Europe). We had a man that had to be stopped. That is the caliber of my generation,” he says. “A lot of us lost our parents. My mother, brother and sister and I lived with my grandparents. It taught me a lot about life. If we wanted something, we didn’t go and buy it, we made it. It made us more self-sufficient and that showed up in the lands of the battle.”
Honored for his bravery, Murray was awarded with a total of 5 service medals.
“One was for outstanding service in America,” he says. “Another one was a European Victory battle star. I also received a POW medal. The two others are service medals.”
Murray proudly displays his medals in his Buffalo Valley Lutheran Village personal-care accommodations.
But, he says, no medal could top the honor of marrying his high school sweetheart—Mary. They exchanged vows Oct. 4, 1945, and reared four children together. The couple celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary before she passed away in March of 2014.
Since 1945, many of the servicemen from the 8th Airborne Division have attended reunions. Murray recalls that Jimmy Stewart missed a gathering due to an illness. In response, Mary Murray wrote a letter to Stewart on her husband’s behalf, which was answered with an autographed photograph.
The photograph proudly sits on his dresser beside an exquisite clock Murray received for his 41 years of service at Citizens’ Electric.
Mementos from a well-lived life: Hunting trophies, work award, signed photograph from World War II commander.
As the last living member of his crew, Donald Murray still vividly recounts war details as if they happened yesterday. Similarly, his love for his family will never fade.
His eyes light up when he talks about his late wife—“the most beautiful girl in the world”—and the “joys of his life,” his children.
“The war made me a better family man and a more loving person,” he concludes. “It made me appreciate life that much more.”