Wednesday, March 26, 2003
An American flag flies from the front porch of Jack Culbertson’s house off Pacific Avenue in the Heights. Inside, a portrait entitled “Safe Haven,” showing B-24 bombers returning to England after a raid in World War II, hangs above the mantle in the dining room. Under the portrait is a framed photograph of Culbertson and his own B-24 crew, along with a POW medallion.
Jack Culbertson, 79, is “disappointed” by the people rallying against the war in Iraq.
“Now we’re going to protest while Americans are over there risking their lives?” he says rhetorically. “It’s just not right.”
Culbertson equates Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler.
“In 1939 they said,‘Oh, he won’t go too far,’” Culbertson recalls. “But look at the countries he swallowed up.” Culbertson knows well what Hitler swallowed up. He himself was on the plate of the fascist dictator for longer than he cares to remember.
Jack Culbertson was 19 years old when he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1943, a year after marrying his high school sweetheart, Dorothy. Born and raised in the Hood River Valley, Culbertson was working in an aluminum plant in Portland when World War II began heating up. His was a priority job, one that would give him a deferment from military service. But he hated the work, and decided that fighting Hitler on the front lines was preferable to aiding the war effort on the homefront.
Culbertson spent a year traversing the country to myriad Air Force bases, training as an armament gunner on a B-24 bomber. In the summer of 1944, he and his crew of 10 flew to England to join the air bombardment of Europe. He and his crew were returning from their second mission, in September 1944, when they were shot down over Holland.
Culbertson was captured and taken to an interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany. After seven days, during which Culbertson refused to divulge anything beyond his name and rank, he was taken by train to Stalag Luft IV, a German POW camp in Poland, where he joined 10,000 fellow prisoners.
Dorothy, who’d returned to Hood River and was working as a fruit packer, got word from the War Department that Jack had been taken prisoner. But she knew little else about the fate of her husband until he was liberated seven months later.
In February 1945, Culbertson and 6,000 prisoners from his camp who were well enough to walk began the infamous Death March as the Nazis fled the approaching Allied Forces.
Over 80 days, Culbertson walked some 600 miles. He tried to escape twice, without success.
“I weighed 185 pounds before I was captured,” he recalls. When he was liberated in Halle, Germany, on April 26, 1945, he weighed 117.
“Most of the boys were under 100 pounds,” he says. Though he’d made it through the march, which claimed the lives of thousands of prisoners of war, he fell gravely ill only days after liberation. He suffered from acute malnutrition, hepatitis and pneumonia, and was hospitalized in Germany for weeks.
“If I’d gotten sick two weeks before, I would have had no care,” he says. “I was very lucky, I realize.”
Culbertson returned home on a hospital ship, then spent time in a New Jersey veteran’s hospital before returning to Oregon.
He and Dorothy made their home first in Parkdale, then in Pine Grove. They lived in the Upper Valley for more than 55 years before moving to town two years ago. Jack made his career in the logging business, working for several logging companies and mills — spending the last 20 years of his career at Hanel Mill.
Jack is an avid bowler, and he and Dorothy spend a good deal of time with their three children, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Lately, they’ve also been spending time watching the war coverage — including the protests going on around the country and worldwide — on TV.
Jack Culbertson thinks the U.S. pursued all diplomatic means necessary before resorting to war.
“I think (we) walked on eggshells for so long,” he says. “This should have been finished 12 years ago. I don’t understand France and Germany and the other dissenters.”
Last week, Dorothy finished re-doing the scrapbook of Jack’s war memorabilia, placing time-worn documents from the War Department and black-and-white photos of Jack and his fellow B-24 crew into protective plastic sleeves. She’s especially glad to have the scrapbook now, as one of her grandsons is a member of the Young Marines in Portland and is fascinated by his grandfather’s experiences in World War II.
“That’s going to be his book,” Dorothy says of the scrapbook.
Jack Culbertson hasn’t been in touch with his fellow B-24 crew for years. The pilot and co-pilot of his plane didn’t survive, but the rest of the crew did.
Still, memories of the war live large in his mind — as does his life-long patriotism made stronger by his military service and survival as a POW.
“When people burn flags here, I can’t stand it,” Culbertson says. “I was taught to respect that flag, and I still do.”