National POW/MIA Recognition Day: Remembering OSI’s Own

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

Every year, the third Friday of the month of September is recognized in the United States as National POW/MIA Recognition Day. First established in 1979, National POW/MIA Recognition Day exists to honor all former American prisoners of war and all those Americans still missing in action who have made the special sacrifice of being captive in war or who remain unresolved casualties of war. The day is also dedicated to the families of those formerly captured or still missing who themselves have suffered acute hardship due to the absence of their loved ones. In 2022, National POW/MIA Recognition Day is being observed on Sept.16.

While historical research thus far has not identified any Office of Special Investigations assigned personnel who have become a prisoner-of-war while serving with the command, a few individuals have served with OSI who had been prisoners-of-war before joining the command. One was Special Agent Crawford E. Hicks, who served with OSI from 1955 to 1966.

Crawford Elmer Hicks was born on Feb. 10, 1921, in Leitchfield, Kentucky, located in the central part of the state, approximately 70 miles southwest of Louisville. When he was approximately one year old, Hick’s family moved to the outskirts of Louisville and settled on a small farm. The move was prompted by his father, an attorney, who wanted to be closer to Louisville in order to practice law there, but also due to his mother who really wanted to live on a farm. Hicks was one of four children, two boys and two girls, who grew up there.

Beginning in late-1929, the effects of the Great Depression were creeping their way across the United States. Being raised on a farm during the depression had some limited advantages.

“We didn’t have any money,” Hicks later explained. “But we had plenty to eat, plenty of food, because we raised most of it. We had no money but we didn’t consider ourselves poor. We survived and were healthy.”

Hicks graduated high school in 1939 and enrolled at the University of Louisville where he played football. Self-described as not being a very good student who just didn’t do well at the university, Hicks left Louisville after just one semester to work as a bank teller. He rose to the position of bookkeeper and became responsible for delivering large deposits to the local Federal Reserve Bank clearing house. While working at the bank he first met Rene, a local girl, who later become his wife.   

In 1940, Hicks moved west to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Moving in with extended family, he worked as a clerk in a large factory that was related to the oil industry. His job there largely consisted of delivering mail and handling interoffice correspondence. 

On Dec. 7, 1941, Hicks was preparing to go to church services when he heard the news over the radio that Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, thrusting the United States into World War II. Just 20 years old at the time, Hicks realized that it was very likely that he would eventually be drafted into the military. A former model airplane builder whose childhood heroes were Eddie Rickenbacker and Charles Lindbergh, Hicks was enamored with becoming a pilot. He did not wait to be drafted. Just a couple of weeks after turning 21, in March 1942, Hicks volunteered to join the Army Air Corps. He was accepted as an aviation cadet at the rank of Private. After only a few days he received his first promotion. Now a Corporal, Hicks returned home and continued working until he was called to active duty. 

Hicks formally entered the Army Air Corps on July 21, 1942, reporting to the military processing center on Camp Atterbury, near Nashville, Tennessee. Shortly thereafter, he entered cadet training at Maxwell Field, near Montgomery, Alabama. He completed basic training there which consisted primarily of physical training, navigation and geography skills development, learning morse code, marching drills, formation drills, and other general military courtesies.  After successfully passing the required aptitude and physical exams, Hicks applied for flying school and was one of just six students from a pool of more than 100 applicants from his basic training class accepted to train to become pilots. 

Before formally entering flight training, Hicks first had to complete an introductory flight with an instructor. It was Hicks’ first airplane flight ever. The aircraft was a two-seat open air bi-plane where the student sat in back and the instructor sat in front. Shortly after takeoff, the instructor asked Hicks if he was wearing his seatbelt and if Hicks had a parachute on. When Hicks replied affirmative for both questions, the instructor flipped the aircraft upside down and told Hicks to put his hands up near his head.

Hicks later recalled the moment: “This was a crucial thing that if I didn’t do what he told me to do, and do it well, I was gonna wash out. I was gonna have to leave. I was scared. I had my seatbelt on, but I was hearing all that wind, and it broke me. It broke me of my fear, right there, of flying.”

Having successfully passed this initial challenge, Hicks formally entered pilot training. Over the next several months he progressed through the primary, basic, and advanced flying courses at bases in Alabama and Mississippi. On April 29, 1943, Hicks received his pilots wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant. Wanting to fly multi-engine aircraft, when given the choice between fighters and bombers he chose the latter. Hicks was subsequently trained as a B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber pilot at locations in Indiana, Ohio, and Texas.

Hicks deployed overseas in March 1944. He and his crew ferried a B-17 across the Atlantic Ocean, dropping the aircraft off in Ireland before taking a boat to Scotland and then a train to an air base at Polebrook, England, approximately 80 miles north of London. Hicks was assigned to the 509th Bomb Squadron, 351st Bomb Group, under the Eighth Air Force.   

Hicks flew his first combat mission on May 1, 1944, during a bombing raid against the German V-1 rocket launching sites in Calais, France. The target area was just 25 miles away from England across the English Channel. Hicks was assigned to fly in the co-pilot’s seat alongside an experienced crew which was a standard practice for indoctrinating new pilots into combat flying.  There were no enemy fighters encountered, but Hicks did have his first introduction to enemy antiaircraft artillery, also known as flak.

Hicks remembered: “I saw all these shells coming at me.  I could see them and feel some of them, the pellets hitting us. I was so scared I almost got sick, but I had to fly the airplane. I had to do it. This was a test for me. I did it and I got through alright.”

As it turned out, the target was completely obscured by overcast. Instead of dropping their bombs on the intended target, most of the B-17s returned to base with their full ordnance still on board. Hicks’ aircraft was one of a few B-17s that jettisoned a small number of bombs into the English Channel on the return flight in order to lighten their overall aircraft weight prior to landing. Some of the bombers suffered light battle damage from the flak, including Hicks’ own, but there were no losses that day.    

Over the next four weeks, Hick flew an additional eight combat missions. On all of them, he flew as the commander and lead pilot of his B-17. All but two of these missions were focused on targets in Germany, including four trips to the heavily defended area around the capital Berlin. 

It was on one of these trips over Germany, that Hicks nearly became a casualty. Hicks remembered: “One day we were approaching our target and an anti-aircraft shell, a flak shell, burst right above the astrodome of my airplane. A piece of the flak came through and hit me on the shoulder strap of my parachute. It felt just like somebody hitting me with a fist. I looked down and there it was a piece of flak about the size of my finger, still hot, just sitting there on the parachute strap, it hadn’t even penetrated. I took the piece of flak out and put it in my flying suit.  That’s the closest I came to getting a Purple Heart, thank goodness!”

On May 30, 1944, Hicks took off on his 10th combat mission. The primary targets were an aircraft assembly factory complex and an adjacent airfield in central Germany, near the town of Oscherschlegen. The target was approximately 108 miles west of Berlin and roughly a three and a half hour flight each way from England. After successfully striking the target area, Hicks’ formation of B-17s was returning home when they were attacked by German fighters. Piloting the lead aircraft in his formation, Hicks’ B-17, nicknamed Lil Ginny, came under direct fire from the 20mm cannon of an ME-109 Messerchmitt.    

“I could see those shells coming and I couldn’t dodge,” Hicks later recalled. “They hit me in my two right engines and set them on fire. We had fire extinguishers in the engines, but they didn’t work. I feathered the props in the two right engines. They were still on fire, so, I gave the alarm for all of the guys to get out.”

There were 10 men on board the stricken bomber when Hicks gave the order to bail out. As the crew prepared to exit the aircraft, they were attacked again. This time the B-17 was struck in the nose with a cannon shell penetrating the fuselage. The bombardier was hit directly by an enemy shell and killed instantly. With its engines severely damaged on the right side, the B-17 began to list in that direction. Hicks remained at the controls and kept the bomber level and trim while the rest of the crew escaped before jumping himself from a small hatch below the cockpit. This was his first ever descent under a parachute. Lil Ginny was the only bomber from the group lost during the raid. Nine crew members, including Hicks, made it out alive.

As Hicks approached the ground his parachute got caught in a tree which further slowed his descent and actually brought him down nice and easy. Hicks landed on the edge of German field near the village of Nienberg, roughly halfway between the cities of Hanover and Bremen.  Almost immediately upon reaching the ground, a motorcycle driven by a German policeman came over a hill and took Hicks into custody. He was transported to a small military outpost nearby where he spent the night in jail. Now officially a prisoner-of-war, it would be another 11 months before he was free again.  

Hicks was moved the next day to an interrogation center near Frankfurt. There he underwent a week of questioning before being moved again. Taken first by car and then by train, Hicks was interned at Stalag Luft III, just over Germany’s eastern border near Zagan, Poland. He arrived at the camp on June 7th or June 8th, 1944. The camp was run by the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. At Stalag Luft III, Hicks was rejoined with the two other surviving officers from his B-17 crew. The six enlisted crew members were also captured and were shipped to prisoner-of-war camps elsewhere.

“This was an officer’s camp,” Hicks later recalled. “The Geneva Convention called for certain treatment for certain ranks of soldiers. We were not required to work, but we weren’t given much food either. We were given very moderate, very minimum shelter. It was not bad, but it was not good.”

Hicks was housed inside a wooden barracks that held roughly 200 men divided into 12-15 prisoners-of-war per room. Sleeping bunks were arranged in triple stacks. There was a single table in the center of each room along with a few small stools and benches, a small community storage locker, and a small heating stove in the corner. 

There was a communal stove in the center of each barracks to cook meals. The navigator from Hicks’ B-17 formerly served as a cook and a baker with the Army before transferring to the Air Corps. He became a bit of a minor celebrity for being able to cook up edible concoctions from the scarce food resources that were available, much of which came from food parcels provided by the Red Cross.

The daily routine in the camp consisted of a morning and afternoon formation, roll call, and inspection. In between, the prisoners-of-war participated in a variety of activities to help pass the time. Athletic equipment and musical instruments were provided by international relief organizations. Sporting events, musical performances, and talent shows became the norm.  Educational and language classes were conducted. Lots of card games were held. There was also at least one clandestine radio receiver in the camp, which allowed the prisoners-of-war to listen to British radio broadcasts for entertainment purposes but also for news of the war. The clandestine radio was built piece by piece from components that were smuggled in along the with athletic equipment.

Despite these makeshift amenities, Hicks described life in the camp overall as just being depressing. Prisoners-of-war spent hour after hour, day after day just biding their time. The camp was crowded, unsanitary, there was never enough food, and during the winter months it was very, very cold. 

Perhaps the biggest concern the prisoners-of-war held was not for themselves but for their loved ones back in the United States. They knew their families would be suffering from the lack of information about the welfare and condition of the prisoners-of-war, which in turn made the prisoners worry more. In December 1944, through the efforts of the Red Cross, Hicks began receiving letters and packages from Rene, and also from his mother, which helped alleviate some of these anxieties.

Although there were no direct orders issued preventing prisoners from exploring escape opportunities from Stalag Luft III, the practice was generally frowned upon. Hicks remembered: “The coast of France was the frontline before D-Day, and we were all the way across Germany, all the way across Europe. This was before the Battle of the Bulge. The war was not over until the Summer of 1945. An escapee would have had all of Germany to cross in wintertime, they don’t speak the language, no food, and everybody looking for them. Too great a risk. You’re of more value there to keep those troops occupied then you are to try to escape.”

In December 1944, the prisoners-of-war began to hear guns coming from the east. Heard primarily at night, these sounds indicated the advance of the Soviet Army. Rumors began to circulate through the prison underground to prepare for a march. Rumors also circulated that the German high command had issued orders to execute all the prisoners before the Soviets arrived.  Finally, one afternoon in mid-January 1945, the prisoners-of-war were ordered by the guards to prepare to evacuate the camp.   

“We were told about noon that we were moving out that night,” Hicks later remembered. “We tore our bed sheets up and made ropes and backpacks and we took whatever foods and belongings we had for ourselves. We dressed warmly, took whatever clothing we had and started out about 12:30 the next morning. We walked all that night, all the next day, all the next night.”

The prisoners-of-war were marched west towards the German border, and after walking for several days the marchers reached a railroad siding near a factory in Germany where they were loaded onto trains and transported to a camp near Nuremburg where they remained for several weeks. Hicks described the barracks condition there as being very poor and not nearly as nice as the ones they had experienced at Stalag Luft III. There remained severely inadequate food supplies and there was only one source of piped water in the camp which the prisoners-of-war supplemented by melting snow.

On March 16, 1945, Easter Sunday, the prisoners-of-war were on the move again. This time they were forced to march south covering more than 80 miles in ten days. Their new camp was near Moosburg, Germany, approximately 30 miles north of Munich. At Moosburg they were housed in tents and surrounded by makeshift barb wire fences. This camp was extremely crowded with prisoners-of-war having been moved there from camps all over Germany.

On April 29, 1945, Hicks heard small arms fire coming from a nearby hill. He looked and saw a group of American tanks breach the top.  Hicks remembered: “They came down the hill and hit the front gates and burst on through. They put the American flag up and we all started crying.  (General George) Patton was right there behind them.  I was walking right beside the man. I could have kissed him, but he wouldn’t have let me.”

Hicks was liberated two years to the day he had received his pilot’s wings and commission as a Second Lieutenant. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had been promoted to First Lieutenant while in captivity. Hicks weighed 200 pounds on the day he was captured. When he was freed 11 months later, his weight had dropped to around 150 pounds.    

After being liberated, Hicks remained at Mooseburg for several days before being shuttled to the nearby airport at Landshut, Germany, where he boarded a C-46 Commando transport aircraft and was flown to an airport near Paris, France. Hicks was in Paris only long enough for a quick meal before being taken by train to Camp Lucky Strike, near St. Valery in northern France on the English Channel. Camp Lucky Strike was a reintegration camp built to temporarily house American military personnel before they were sent back to the United States. It was the largest reintegration camp in France, which also served as the chief assembly point for newly liberated American prisoners-of-war. 

On May 7, 1945, Germany formally surrendered at Reims, France. This effectively ended World War II in Europe the next day. Hicks visited Reims the same day as the surrender.

“When the armistice was signed then bedlam occurred,” Hicks recalled. “Everybody was out in the streets, walking up and down, with fireworks going up, everybody was happy and singing  and loved everybody. This is what it was.”

Hicks returned to the United States on board a Victory ship arriving in Boston. After riding a train to an Army camp in Indiana, Hicks caught a bus and finally returned home to Louisville where he reunited with Rene. 

Hicks later remembered, “Rene was outside her house, this was in June, so she was out there in shorts talking to her mother and father about something or other. And the taxi pulled up at the end of the street and let me out and I saw her and just ran, ran as hard as I could and I dropped my bag and I grabbed her. It was such a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful experience…What a beautiful reunion that was. She knew I was coming but she didn’t know when. Then I called my sister and went out to see her. And then I went to see my mother and my father and brother and we did a lot of crying.”

Hicks soon married Rene. They would have three children together, all boys. He remained in the military for a short period after their wedding before receiving a discharge in January 1946. He returned to school at the University of Louisville and pursued a law degree while working two jobs. He also enlisted in the Air National Guard.   

In 1950, just one semester shy of earning his law degree, Hicks was called back to active duty with the Air Force at the rank of Captain. He was assigned to an Air Force ROTC unit at the University of Kentucky, where he spent roughly four years before given an opportunity to join OSI. Though he had not yet finished law school, his background in legal studies caught the attention of OSI recruiters. 

He was accepted into the command as a Special Agent and graduated from the Special Investigations Academy in 1955.

The historical records on Hicks’ service time with OSI are scarce. His first duty assignment was with Detachment 8101 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, where he spent three years. 

Remembering his time in Alaska, Hicks recalled: “Had a very good time up there. Fairbanks, Alaska, a hundred and eighty miles South of the arctic circle, we went fishing and we went out in the snow in twenty degrees. I walked to work one day at thirty below zero just to say that I had done it. It was about four blocks.”

In 1958, Hicks moved to Robins AFB, Georgia, where he spent the next six years of his OSI career. It was there on active duty that Hicks finally finished that last semester of university study graduating from law school in 1960. He passed the bar exam on his first attempt at age 52.  In 1963, at the rank of Major, he served with the Counterintelligence Division in OSI District 6 Headquarters, at Robins AFB.

Hicks retired from active duty in 1966 at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. During his 25 years in the military, Hicks was awarded the Outstanding Unit Award with a bronze star, a Prisoner of War Medal, a WWII Victory Medal, an Air Force Commendation Medal, a Good Conduct Medal, an Air Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, and an Air Force Longevity Service Award with four oak leaf clusters.

After leaving OSI, Hicks worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. After retiring from that position, he practiced law in private in Atlanta. Rene passed away in 1990 after she and Hicks had been married for 45 years. Following her death, Hicks moved to Macon, Georgia, so he could be closer to Robins AFB. He was a regular member of a retired veterans group that met at the Officers Club on base. He also remained active in the community there. He belonged to several local military organizations and spoke frequently at military events, ROTC events, and at schools. It was at Robins AFB where he met Edna, an English born widower who had lived in London during World War II.  They married in 2003 and spent the next 18 years of their lives together.

In 2019, at the age of 98 years old and more than 74 years after he was liberated from captivity during World War II, Hicks was presented a Prisoner of War Medal by then former Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz during the annual Air Force birthday celebration at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Georgia. Hicks claimed this medal was the most special one he ever received because it was the only one awarded in person. 

Crawford Elmer Hicks passed away on Oct. 2, 2021, at the age of 100 years old. His remains were interred at the Andersonville National Cemetery in Georgia.