Growing up, the Babin kids knew never to wake their father with a shake.
They’d have to stand well outside the bedroom, calling “Dad.”
“He would jump up and start swinging,” Claudia Childress said of her father, now 78.
Lloyd Babin, an Army Air Force staff sergeant, was a Nazi prisoner for less than a year during World War II. But even when he filed those months away in his memory’s deepest cellars, the dark, the dogs, the cold and the dead remained.
It was 52 years ago this month that the Prichard, Idaho, contractor returned to America. But for years, part of him was still a continent away.
The war advanced in the morning.
Or during loud movies, when he sometimes would dive to the theater floor and take his wife with him.
He never talked about it. Then about 15 years ago, he began writing other former prisoners of war.
Now, when Babin handles his medals, the paradox is apparent: It was the worst time of his life, and also the biggest. And he’s not alone.
“One of the POWs said to me, ‘I wouldn’t go through it again for a million dollars,”’ said James Bailey, a psychologist with the Veterans Administration Hospital in Spokane. “But I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it.”’
Babin doesn’t think he’s a hero.
“The heroes are still over there,” he said. “They didn’t make it.”
Babin - a radio operator and tailgunner - survived 32 missions. He was shot down twice, and had another plane burn up on the runway.
The first time Babin was shot down, his best friend was killed. Babin ended up bobbing on the salty swell of the English Channel, a flotation device under one arm, a Bible beneath the other.
But Babin’s true trial started Oct. 28, 1944, on a bombing raid over Muenster, Germany.
It was a clear morning. From 28,000 feet, the B-17 let loose its payload of bombs near a German fighter strip.
Then three 105-millimeter shells struck the bomber as if it was a balsa wood toy.
“I was in the tail and I saw these parts and motors and things going by and the plane caught fire, too … I heard the engineer say the nose is gone. I could see the left wing was gone.”
The bail-out bell sounded, and the bomber turned into a fiery elevator that went only down. Babin headed for the waist door, but couldn’t make it - the passage was corked with fire.
He turned toward the tail door, and found it was ripping open down the middle. Babin leapt through.
He was tumbling from five miles up, where the Earth’s ribbon of oxygen runs thin. Above, the plane exploded.
Babin’s chute caught the wind, and his dive jerked to a float. The rushing German landscape slowed.
“I hit the ground and rolled once, and they had me.”
Babin was taken to Frankfurt for interrogation and two weeks in isolation. Then off to Stalag Luft IV, along the Baltic coast. Babin was locked up there from November until January, when advancing Russian troops approached.
Prisoners were loaded into boxcars, 60 men in each. There was no water, no food, and the trip to Barth, Prussia, lasted eight days. Once, the Nazis threw snow on the men. Those who ate it caught dysentery.
The air was thick with the smell of men and sickness and feces.
“We didn’t have a place to - well, it was just, just a boxcar.”
The Russians caught up, shelling a small town where the train was stopped, not knowing prisoners were aboard.
An engine pulled away rail cars that held Eastern Front dead, but the Nazis moved the prisoners last. “We were just excess baggage,” Babin said.
Babin eventually arrived at Stalag Luft I in Barth. It was a mile walk to camp. The men who couldn’t walk were hauled in wagons.
Babin had lost 45 pounds, and was completely bald.
Snipers with machine guns glowered down from towers. Guard dogs roamed beneath the raised floors of the barracks.
At night, Babin poked the German shepherds with sticks through a hole in the floor. The dogs jumped for it, and Babin blew pepper into their mouths.
“Boy, they’d hate it. They won’t follow you if you get loose then, if you put pepper in your pants cuff.”
He planned to use pepper to escape.
The Nazis piped in propaganda. But prisoners built a radio of their own, tuned to the BBC. Before lockdown, news was passed room to room. The Allies were closing in.
Babin decided he’d had enough. A Russian prisoner regularly drove a cart into the American compound, hauling prison trash outside - the Russians had more freedom, and lived in a tent city outside the fence. The Germans figured no one would try to escape to their ravaged homeland.
“I thought about stealing his horse and galloping out, but I wasn’t cowboy enough for that,” Babin said. “The guards would have shot me and the horse too.”
Instead, he crawled under a blanket and laid himself down next to one of the dead. There he stayed, like ice. It was April, and Babin was free.
But only free to explore the Russian camp. There was no place for him to go, but at least the Russians had food.
His escape turned out to be nearly unnecessary. On April 30, the Nazis were ordered to evacuate the prisoners in the face of the advancing Soviet army. Instead, the Germans “took off to save their hides.”
Prisoners tore down the fence. The Nazis surrendered May 8. Babin went through the offices and tracked down his records - a part of him they wouldn’t get to keep.
On June 28, his mother in Spokane finally received the awaited Western Union telegram, “MOM WILL CALL YOU FROM TACOMA LOVE = LLOYD.”
He still has that salmon-colored ID card, with his gaunt, black-and-white photo. And that Bible, pages still stained by the English Channel. A model of a B-17. Six medals - including the Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross and a POW medal. “The important one,” Babin cracked, “is the one for good conduct.”
Lately, Babin has been thinking more and more about the war.
“They have more time,” VA psychologist Bailey explained. “When somebody’s working, most of their energy goes into work and raising a family.”
Only weeks ago, during a quiet drive, Babin’s wife Jo pointed out a new dam along the road. Panicked by the sudden gesture, Babin slammed on the brakes.
“It’s been hard,” Jo Babin said. “I’m proud of what he and the others did. But I’m a bit resentful.
“There are no winners in a war. It’s just plain hell.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
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