Concord veteran’s time as a prisoner during WWII preserved in video

Last modified: 4/23/2015 5:16:31 PM
Leaning over a small table, Robert Fortnam held a model B-17 aircraft and thumbed through his 70-year-old journal.

The model plane, given to him after his service in World War II, is a replica of the plane he flew and crash-landed in 1943. The journal, a thick book with a Canadian maple leaf on the cover, was a wartime gift from the Canadian government and is brimming with newspaper clippings, photographs, sketches and notes.

Cherished and well-preserved, these possessions are for Fortnam’s hands only. But his story, an intricate, dramatic tale of a young pilot’s imprisonment, is told freely.

The second mission

Fortnam, now 92, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces on Jan. 2, 1942, a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He completed his pilot training in May 1943 and flew his first mission in October of that year. It was his only mission that went as planned.

On the second mission, Oct. 8, 1943, he co-piloted a plane that was targeted by German fighters. Only 19 and newly trained, Fortnam was forced to land the plane after the pilot was shot.

“And it was a good landing,” he said. “The only problem was you couldn’t use the airplane again.”

His face lit up as he talked about landing behind enemy lines, which led to his capture for the remainder of the war.

The day of his crash landing is marked in his journal, a thick book that bears the wording “A Wartime Log,” with a sketch of a plane and optimistic message: “It was a good day – October 8th (1943).”

“I’m a record keeper,” he said, gently turning the pages that document his military experience.

His war story, which stretches from his training to his capture to his liberation and return to the United States, is one that Fortnam enjoys sharing. Wearing his pilot’s jacket, Fortnam leaned back in his chair, eyes closed at times, recalling memories from decades ago, his face glowing. He said this was the 42nd telling of the story.

But his detailed recollection will now be heard time and time again. Officials from the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire came to Fortnam’s residence – Granite Ledges of Concord assisted and senior living center – to document his experiences and preserve his story.

“This is really the first . . . really professionally done,” said Wendell Berthelsen, director of operations at the museum.

Nancey Bridston Hocking, a volunteer at the museum, conducted the oral interview, while Grant Morris, founder and executive producer of New Sky Productions, filmed it. Within a few months, Fortnam’s story will be available for visitors to the museum to hear.

For about seven years, Fortnam volunteered at the small museum in Londonderry located next to the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. Last spring, he told his story to a group of about 80 people there.

“Everybody listened when I talked about being shot down because nobody knew about prisoners of war,” he said.

Prison camp life

The time between when the plane – which still held 12, 500-pound bombs – was shot and when Fortnam landed was about 20 minutes.

“It was a perfect landing, of course,” he reiterated. “All of a sudden I became commander . . . I kept the airplane flying, that was my job.”

Once on the ground, the men walked, slept and hid for a few days before being detained by Nazi soldiers in Holland. Fortnam was arrested, taken to a prison in Amsterdam and then brought to Germany by freight train a few days later.

“That’s when I started my prison camp life,” he said.

That life lasted 19 months.

The German soldiers at the prison camps were trained under the 1929 Geneva Convention, an agreement that dictated the treatment of prisoners of war, he said.

Fortnam said he was most surprised during the war by “the lack of physical damage to us.”

“We were not mistreated,” he said.

When first captured, Fortnam was taken to Stalag Luft 3, a German prison camp.

The living quarters held eight or 12 men in a room, he said, with a total of 200 men in each building. The camp detained thousands.

“Certain people can’t sit still,” Fortnam said, referencing a group of prisoners who planned an escape. Men dug down 30 feet, built a 300-foot-long tunnel and lined it with boards taken from beds.

Fortnam opted to sit still in the camp instead of participating in the escape plan.

“I thought I was safer to stay right there,” he said, adding that he did not know the area outside the camp or speak German. “It didn’t look like something to get involved in.”

Several men who tried to escape were found and brought back, he said.

“They were told to shoot 50 of them, that’s what they did,” he said. “Cold-blooded.”

As his imprisonment continued, Fortnam and other prisoners were moved to a different German prison camp, Stalag 7-A, a move made as a result of the Russian forces moving west, he said.

A winter journey, the transfer involved some travel by box-car trains, some travel by foot in the snow.

“I don’t remember what we did for food,” he said, adding that he remembers there was not much. “We just kept hoping the world war would end.”

Months after arriving at the second camp, the war did come to an end for the prisoners. The camp was liberated April 29, 1945, by Gen. George Patton’s army, Fortnam said.

“I will never, ever forget the sight of seeing the American flag hauled up” on the steeple of a church, he said.

That image, he said last week, is still clear in his mind. But another remarkable detail in the liberation is one that Fortnam glosses over in recounting the event.

One of the liberators – a member of the 14th Armored Division of the U.S. Army – was Fortnam’s brother Dick. He did not learn that his brother had been a part of his liberation until he returned to the U.S. that summer.

Life in the U.S.

Back home in the United States, Fortnam, who attended school in Quincy, Mass., wasted no time resuming life on American soil. He met his parents and his girlfriend, Marion, at North Station in Boston in August 1945. That December, he and Marion wed, a marriage that lasted 48 years, until Marion died of leukemia in 1993. The couple had five children – three sons and two daughters.

About the same time that the couple married, Fortnam earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of New Hampshire. It took him just two years and eight months to attain it.

In 1996, he remarried to his current wife, Janet, who lives with him at Granite Ledges.

The couple traveled together for years, driving a motor home to all 48 of the continental states, as well as taking trips to Alaska and Hawaii.

“I really enjoyed driving the motor home,” he said.

And all this time, the World War II pilot who only had two missions continued flying.

“I just gave it up a year ago,” he said. “After 71 years of flying, I’ve seen it all.”

Trapped for 19 months early in his life, Fortnam said he most missed the freedom to wander as a prisoner. The 70 years following his return home have seemingly been spent making up for that.

Fortnam taught his three sons to fly, as well as many other students. Teaching people to fly in the clouds, he said, is his proudest accomplishment.

This story – a life intertwined with history – is one that Fortnam didn’t tell in his younger years.

“I wasn’t asked,” he said.

But, decades after the war, the museum and others are asking.

“Now is the first time we’re really trying to focus on our member stories,” said Jessica Pappathan, executive director of the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire.

“Oftentimes they don’t think they’re important,” Berthelsen said. “But they are.”

(Susan Doucet can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter @susan_doucet.)


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