Cletus “Si” Sisley is like many veterans of World War II - after doing his duty he came back to his hometown and made a family and a career. And much like many veterans of the war against the Axis, Sisley is sometimes reluctant to talk about his tenure in the service, not looking for any glory, but did talk about the job he, and many other of his generation, did to protect liberty.
It was the summer of 1943 and Sisley was an 18-year-old living in Lancaster, fresh out of school. In August of that year, Sisley went in and enlisted in the Armed Forces, one month before he would have been drafted. Si went in early because he wanted to select how he would serve his country. Choosing between the Navy and the Army Air Force, the precursor to the Air Force. In the end, Si decided, “I’d prefer to be in the air.”
Wanting to be a fighter pilot, Sisley was enrolled in the training program near St. Louis. But in the final years of the war, the need for fighter aircraft was diminishing, and after he completed his training, half of all fighter pilots were transferred to the Army infantry. Sisley stayed with the air corps, first being sent to artillery training before being assigned to Tindale Field in Florida for gunnery training.
It was at Tindale where Si trained with B-17s, the Flying Fortresses, as well as B-24s, also known as Liberators. Si learned the differences between the larger, more complex fortress, and the smaller and faster liberator. After learning the intricacies, Sisley was assigned to a B-24 crew, as the liberator was more widely used, more than 18,000 planes during the war.
Sisley spent more than a year in training before being assigned to Massachusetts, his final assignment stateside before taking a converted liner to England. His unit was assigned to Tibenham Airfield outside Norwich near the end of September 1944, and Sisley was now part of the Eighth Air Force, 445th Bombing Group, 703rd Bombing Squadron.
Sisley and the rest of his crew were given a B-24J, which recently came off the line. What made the 24J different from its predecessors was that a nose turret was added for added protection. Si was assigned to the ball turret, which was located on the underside of the plane.
Those first few missions were relatively routine, but things kept evolving. After their second mission, all ball turrets were taken out of the B-24s to reduce drag on the fast flying heavy bombers. Sisley was reassigned to the nose turret because of his knowledge of how to maintain and fix all of the guns on the plane because of his artillery and gunnery training. With the new position, Sisley also had another important duty, acting as togglelear, controlling the bomb drop.
It was on their fourth mission that Si encountered his first problem in the theater of combat. Engine problems forced their B-24 back to Tibenham when an engine failed. Some mechanical problems had been hounding the plane, and the crew was reassigned to a new B-24 for their fifth, and what would be their final, mission.
On Nov. 26, 1944, Sisley and the eight other crewmembers climbed into B-24J 42-50729 for their mission of the day - Misburg. The German city was the home of vast oil fields and a major target as the Allies wanted to cut off supplies to the German Army. Takeoff and their ascent over the English Channel went as planned, Sisley wearing a respirator and heated leather outfit for the extreme cold of being 20,000 feet in the air. “It got down to 20 degrees below zero.”
The mission called for heading further east towards Berlin as a ploy to hide their true target. As they descended towards Misburg, German fighters began to strafe the bombers, trying to take out the lead planes. Fighters would often aim for the pilots’ compartment or the fuel tanks to disable the attacking bombers. Si’s plane was third in the formation, and it was as he was preparing to drop his payload that Si saw the plane in the second position explode.
While he was able to get their bombs away, Sisley’s plane was also severely hit by the Luftwaffe. A Nazi fighter struck the plane’s cockpit, severely injuring both the pilot and co-pilot, as well as hitting the fuel lines in the wing. The plane began to slowly limp away for a second pass at Misburg, the co-pilot managing the controls while a fire broke out in the bomb compartment.
Over the interphone in the plane, Si heard the radio operator signal for everyone to bail out. Wounded in the arm by either shrapnel or an enemy bullet, Si made his way to the nosewheel hatch. With the plane in a power dive, Si jumped for his life, just after two other crewmembers left through the burning bomb bay. “I don’t know how they made it out,” Sisley stated.
Because enemy fighters would often pick off parachuting crews, Sisley had to wait until he was around 5,000 feet before pulling the cord on his backpack chute. “The hardest part was when that chute opened,” Si said, noting the jarring snap the chute caused. Floating over a canal, Sisley landed in a farmer’s field, right next to a haystack. Having forgotten to remove his billfold before they took off, Si had to hide the wallet under that large haystack before he was ‘greeted’ by the German farmer.
“He thought he would take a whack at me,” Si said of getting his jaw cracked open. Sisley said he understood the frustration, adding he would be angry if someone came over here and dropped bombs in Lancaster every few days. After he was struck, Si sat down and waited for local German soldiers to bring him in, like many of the nearly dozen plane crews lost on that raid. What really irritated him was after he was taken into custody and placed in a cell with a member of another bomb crew who was severely burned. “ They didn’t put anything on him,” Si recalled.
He was shipped to Frankfurt where he was interrogated. Sisley only gave name, rank and serial number to the Germans, but he caught a glimpse of the intelligence they had gathered. “I was amazed,” Si stated, noting they had a wealth of information on the Eighth Air Force, right down to shipping records.
Placed in a dark cell with another prisoner for two days with little water, he was interrogated again for another hour. Sisley said that the process was worse for Americans with German descent, like his crewmate, waist gunner Walter Grotz, who the Germans would work on for hours trying to appeal to a sense of loyalty.
After the questioning, Sisley was sent to Dulag Luft, a transit camp near Wetzler where prisoners of war were processed before being sent to camps, or stalags. Sisley was given an OD, or an Army olive drab uniform, as well as an overcoat and a mess kit prepared by the Red Cross.
At Dulag Luft, Sisley was also given a chance to write a postcard to his mother, letting her know he was alright. While his family was informed that he had been captured, his postcard would not make it back to Lancaster until after Si did.
From there, he was sent to Grosstychow, north of Poland, where he would be held in an internment camp. In a building that housed 100 captured Air Force soldiers, Sisley had to share a room with 14 men, but only 12 beds. “Two of us had to sleep on the floor.”
Life in the camp was rough but bearable. “It was something you could put up with,” Si stated. Sisley recalls the camps vividly - warning rails marking a barrier before the razor fences and mined perimeter, where guards in towers could shoot anyone beyond the rails. He recalled the kettles, which would be brought from room to room with soup for the prisoners to eat and the bartering with locals for things like bread.
In one postcard he had written to his mother, also not delivered until after the war, Si told her about the canned turkey they had for Christmas, as well as the holiday show put on by several other prisoners.
Things were about to get worse for Sisley and his fellow soldiers, however. Around February 1945, Soviet troops began moving west, and the German lines were collapsing. “You could hear the 88’s,” Sisley said of the Russian guns.
Not wanting their prisoners to be liberated by advancing armies, Germans began to move them by foot, forcing them to march dozens of miles a day. Before they left Grosstychow, Sisley and the other prisoners were brought to a warehouse where the Nazis had been hoarding the Red Cross parcels they were suppose to get on a weekly basis. “I only had two parcels,” Sisley said of his nearly three months in Grosstychow.
Now, wanting to move their POWs, the Germans gave them as much as they wanted to carry. Sisley tried to pack wisely - grabbing chocolate bars, canned foods he didn’t think would go bad, and additional pairs of socks. He also fashioned a bag to carry supplies.
Si did not know how long he would be marching, and neither did the Germans. For the next 84 days, Sisley and the rest of the soldiers would be forced to walk between 12 and 20 miles a day, depending how close they were to the line. “One night we marched all night,” Sisley stated. They would sleep in barns, in warehouses, schools, or out in the open air. Sisley recalled one night where they slept in a muddy field as it rained all night.
The harsh conditions took its toll on the prisoners. Some had left the camps unprepared, without their coats or with little food. Pneumonia, dysentery, and other ailments like trenchfoot gripped the tired soldiers, and many died due to illness in what would be nicknamed the “Black Death March.”
Sisley would try to stay healthy enough by changing his socks, and eating when he could. Some of the soldiers got inventive, like one Si knew who made a deal with a soldier to go into the woods in the evening to catch rabbits, returning with his catch. Still, when he was finally liberated, Si was down nearly 50 pounds, to 110, and had frostbite on his feet.
That liberation came April 26, 1945, five months after his capture. Taken to a freed German hospital, many started gaining two pounds a day, eating when they felt ready to. When he was in decent shape, he went first to Scotland, then Mitchell Field in Milwaukee, then home.
Throughout the war, the Lancaster papers had been full of information on dozens of the local boys who served on both fronts. There were quite a large number who had been listed as missing in action, most who would later be listed as killed in action. Si said his family was caught off guard when he returned. “It seemed like they were surprised to see me out.”
After returning, Sisley went to work at a service station, then a garage, and finally spent several years as a sales representative at Bailey Oil. He married his wife, Ruth, and had two children, Jeff and Steve.
The first time he saw the rest of his crew after the day they bailed out of their plane was a year after he returned to the states when the remaining living seven members came to visit in Lancaster. Over the years he kept in touch, trading cards and telephone calls over the holidCletus Sisley as he is today, looking over the scrap book of letters and clippings collected by his family during his service.ays.
He hasn’t stepped onto a plane since returning, and doesn’t plan on doing so anytime soon. “I just felt I was lucky,” on his last time in a plane.