John Crevitt WWII vet was a gunner and a POW; now he’s a doodler — and he’s happy

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 13, 2010

Seems funny that a big Nehi orange drink could change someone’s life, but one sure turned John Crevitt’s in a different direction.

Instead of several years on the high seas, he spent that same time in the air and on the ground in much of Europe during World War II.

Crevitt, now 85, was a high school senior at Culkin in 1943 when he went to Jackson to join the Navy, recalling, “That same morning I was thirsty, and I drank one of those big Nehi orange drinks.” During the physical later that day, “they rejected me because they said I had kidney trouble. The sugar had shown up.”

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

That was early in the year, and in June when his name came up in the draft, he went to Camp Shelby to be processed. He laughed that, “You were given an IQ test to show that you weren’t illiterate,” though it really allowed you to pick the branch of service you wanted.

He saw the Navy doctor and reminded him, “You already told me I have kidney trouble. You don’t want me.”

So, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was sent to Keesler in Biloxi, “a real hell hole, terribly hot. They’d line us up at attention after drill to go to the mess hall. There would always be one or two who would fall out. They’d get the meat wagon to pick ’em up and take ’em to the mess hall where they’d come to. It was the best time to fall out.”

John described the drill sergeant as one of those “youse guys” from up East “who wanted to give us a big party when we completed basic, so we each gave him $5 to help. When basic training was over, Sgt. Jackson was gone — took off with our money.” He was later caught, brought back and, “As we were marching off to get on the train, there he was in the compound, behind bars, waving to everybody.”

John underwent further training in Colorado, Georgia and Florida before becoming a crew member of a B-17 that flew 25 missions over Europe. First, though, they flew to Bangor, Maine, then to the British Isles. John remembers that, “From the air, Iceland looked like a rock with salt on top of it.”

“I was a waste gunner, responsible for all the ammunition, checking to make sure all the guns were in working order before we went on a mission,” he said. Those early missions were what he called “milk runs,” when “nothing much happened. We bombed the German bunkers in France.”

One that stands out in his mind was a shuttle mission when they landed at a town in Russia “which the Germans had really mutilated. There was only one corner of a building left standing, and the air base was out in a sagebrush field.” He remembers that Russian soldiers were crazy about “high flung” music, so guards had to keep them away from the plane’s radios.

There’s a story he tells, “though the Russians may not like it. We noticed every morning when they came out to work. The children would be in front, then the lady folks and the men in the back. We had an interpreter, so we asked what was going on. He told us that when the Germans bombed the town they used “butterfly bombs,” with wings on them, that landed in the fields. The children and the women were more expendable than the men, so if a bomb was detonated on the ground…well, we thought this was gruesome.”

The plane on which John served got to be the leader of the squadron, “and we thought we had it made for a 30-mission tour, but it didn’t happen that way,” he said.

On Nov. 30, 1944, their target was a synthetic oil field at Merseberg, a town near Leipzig. Just before reaching the target, the plane was hit by flak at about 27,000 feet. The doors were blown off, a wing was damaged and only one engine was running. Several men were hurt, the most serious being the radio operator, Lee Schwartz, who was hit in the thigh. An order was given to bail out. John and the tail gunner placed Schwartz in the catwalk, gave him a shot of morphine, strapped a parachute on him, pulled the rip cord and shoved him out.

“I never could dive, not even in water,” John said, “so I just pushed myself out. I was supposed to free fall for about 19,000 feet, through the clouds. The tail gunner and I pulled our rip cords about the same time, and we were about as close to each other as from here to across the street.”

Below was a rye field with a hay shed in it, and the men motioned to each other — they’d hide their parachutes in it and run for the nearby woods. But the plane exploded, and the townspeople John could see below all looked up.

“These were civilians,” he said. “They got sticks, rakes and hoes and encircled that field; we went down right in the middle. There was a man in uniform — maybe a policeman — and we kept trying to tell him the radio operator was hurt. They were beating the devil out of him with sticks, and he was lying there grinning because of the morphine.”

They were marched through the streets of the town to what might have been an old convent. The people kicked and hit them, “and even the small children spit on us, but I couldn’t really blame them,” he said. “They fed us some yellow stuff. I don’t know what it was — it looked like pumpkin stewed up. The next day, they marched us to Leipzig, about 20 kilometers, and we found a board to put the radio operator on, carrying it like a stretcher.”

At the interrogation, the men gave only the required information — rank, name and serial number. John was “cotton-topped, blonde and blue eyes with fair skin, and they took me to be German and kept asking me, ‘Why’d you come over here and fight the Fatherland?’”

John, who was a staff sergeant, was sent to Stalag Luf IV, a prison for officers, located in the Grasstychow area of Poland. He and others were packed into boxcars, much smaller than those in America, and in several days arrived at the camp. Their barracks was a large, wooden building with two- and three-tiered bunks with mattresses made of shuck and corn stalks.

“It was getting close to the end of the war,” he said. “Germany was in really bad shape. We didn’t expect much out of them because they didn’t have much.”

In the small-world department, John found two others from Vicksburg in the prison — Red Allen and Clarence Guider. Once a month, all prisoners were to receive Red Cross parcels, and among the items sent were Raleigh cigarettes, a not very popular brand which the men used for gambling.

During his stay there, John developed a respiratory problem which the American doctor, also a prisoner, told him was some kind of diphtheria that was unknown in the United States.

“It scared the hell out of me, and I asked him if I was going to die. He said he was going to give me some German serum, that it would cure me, but I would cuss him every day because I would itch so bad I’d be asking someone to help me scratch,” he said. The doctor was right — soon John’s body was covered with huge welts which finally went away — but he was cured.

In February 1945 the Russians made a drive to liberate the camp, so John and the approximately 100 prisoners marched for several months through the snow, sleeping in barns, the woods and often waking up under a blanket of white.

On May 2, they were in a barn when a woman gathering eggs told them they had been liberated, that the British had surrounded the area, “but we didn’t know for sure. We’d gone through this much, and we didn’t want to get shot on the last day.”

But later their interpreter and a German officer rode past, returning soon with a British soldier who assured them they were free. The German guards were more than ready to be taken prisoners.

“We were covered with lice, and we were hungry,” John said. “The Brits gave us ham, beans and bread. It was nice to taste good food again.”

John came home in June 1945. He worked for Mississippi Hardware for 32 years, retiring in 1987. He loved his work, loved meeting the public. The hardware business was a natural for him, for he always liked to “piddle and do things myself. I did all my own plumbing in this house.” He stays busy now doing odd jobs around the neighborhood.

A hobby has been “doodling.” He doesn’t claim to be an artist, but rather “more or less a cartoonist,” a natural talent he picked up from newspapers. Though he said he usually tore them up, some renderings he kept depict in detail his life in the Air Force and as a POW.

“About five years ago, I got a call from a man in Germany” who wanted him to come over there, John said. The people in the town where John bailed out were working on a museum that included American aircraft that were shot down. The man told him, “I have the complete story of your plane,” and John said, “Well, can I hear the story without being there?”

Several times friends have urged him to go back, but John figures “As much as I walked in Germany, as much as I saw Germany from the ground and from the air, I think the wind has blown my tracks away.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.