Kenneth Hale wasn’t surprised when he was drafted at the age of 21. He was living in Kansas City and because he had a private pilot’s license, he got to enlist in the Air Force. He learned how to fly a glider, a bi-plane, twin-engine Cessna and the B-17.
“The B-17 was probably easier to fly than any of them,” he said.
He was sent to England and was part of the 384th Bomb Group, 546th Squadron, Eighth Air Force. They were stationed at Grafton Underwood near Kettering, England. He was a B-17 pilot and had a crew of nine to 10 men. He mostly flew missions over Germany, but had one to France and one to Belgium.
Bombing missions like Cologne and Berlin were extremely difficult.
“When you are lying on the initial point or target, you don’t change for nothing. You’d see that big black pile of smoke from the anti-aircraft bursting up over the target and you knew you had to run into it,” he said. “It don’t make any difference how many planes attack you or how many anti-aircraft are shooting, you went straight to the target til you dropped the bomb. There’d be as many as 1,000 anti-aircraft shooting. That was the scariest part.”
Disaster struck on his 32nd mission. Hale and his crew were returning to base after bombing a German oil refinery. One of the propellers froze and two propellers ran away. The crew had no other option than to parachute out of the plane which was losing altitude at 200 feet per minute. They all got out and saw where the plane crashed into the side of a hill.
Hale and his crew were captured by the Germans on Dec. 14, 1944. They were take to Stalag Luft 1, a prison camp north of Berlin on the Baltic Sea.
“It was run by the German Air Force, which was nice. They treated us all right,” he said. “They treated the Russians different. We had bunks in wood houses. The Russians slept on the ground and under a big tent. They had a long standing feud with Russia.”
Hale was a prisoner of war for five months. He weighed 220 pounds when he parachuted out of the plane and a mere 157 pounds when he was rescued. They were mainly fed some type of cabbage soup. He and his crew were liberated from the camp on May 1, 1945. His squadron flew a bunch of American prisoners back to France on May 8. He was there for about a month before he got to return to the States. Once he did, he had one thing on his mind.
When he was home on leave, he met a woman named Madeline Keifer. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was that caught his eye.
“I just liked to kiss her,” he said.
Madeline grew up in Independence and was one of eight children. She wanted to be like her brothers who were in the Navy. She chose to serve in the Coast Guard. She served from May 3, 1943, to Oct. 8, 1945. She served stateside in New York, Palm Beach, Fla., and ended her service at a dental office in St. Louis.
Kenneth was sent to Jefferson Barracks, right outside of St. Louis. The day after he got there, he married Madeline on June 25, 1945.
“We were supposed to wait three days, but we got rid of that,” he said with a smile.
They’ve been married for 67 years and have three children, three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. They are both residents of the Missouri Veterans Home in Warrensburg. He is 95 and she will be 91 next month.