By Ashley Johnson for Alpine Living Magazine
He stared out the little square window in the retirement home and with one long withered hand he pointed to a hummingbird feeder outside on the balcony.
“I just love to sit and watch those birds,” he said faintly. “I reckon there isn’t much else I can do these days.”
On the fourth floor of Capstone retirement home James Henderson, 86, enjoys the company of the hummingbirds when they fly up from Mexico to Tuscaloosa in the spring and summer. The tropical colors that flutter in through the wooden blinds steer his memories far away from the grim scenes of war he witnessed years ago.
“I could see some castles in the distance while we walked through Germany,” Henderson said. “I daydreamed about running away to them and staying there.”
Henderson walked from Vienna to Munich in 1945 during WWII after Nazis captured his crew when their plane crashed. The Kassa-Wegert crew was on its way to bomb marshalling fields in Vienna, Austria when their B-24 Bomber was shot down by Nazis.
In a vivid moment he remembers his crew ejecting from the plane and while floating down to the ground, hearing bullets hiss past his cheeks.
“I could faintly see the crew parachuting down with me, but I knew that one of our crewmates was still in the plane,” Henderson said.
Hanging in the air Henderson and his crewmates watched their plane explode in sections then leave a black trail of smoke as it spiraled to the ground.
“It was one of the saddest days of my life. When the war was over I called every hospital in the area where we went down, looking for the boy that went down with the plane. I will never forget his name- Eddie Koezera. He was killed by Nazi machine gun fire and never parachuted out,” Henderson said.
Once captured in Vienna, the Nazi footmen soldiers made him march for three weeks from Vienna to Munich, Germany where the nearest Stalag was located in Moosburg.
“ I was so hungry they were starving us to death,” Henderson said.
One day Henderson gestured to the German soldier to explain he was hungry. He pointed to the cows in the distance then scooped his hand to his mouth showing he wanted food. The German soldier angrily laid his gun on top of Henderson’s head, and then fired.
“The bullet never hit me it just went over my head but it scared me enough to never ask for food again,” Henderson coolly laughed about the situation.
Mr. Henderson pulls a Zip-loc bag from a small drawer in his secretary at the retirement home. He carefully reached inside and opens his boney palm to reveal a slip of cardboard attached to a string of twine. On the cardboard tag reads: “Stalag VII A” and then an eight-digit identification number. Mr. Henderson laughed while saying he was glad he kept it even though he had hated wearing it in the Stalag for the few months he was there.
40,000 prisoners of war were held by the Germans at this Stalag located on the outskirts of Munich, in today’s world only a 45-minute drive. Some prisoners were French, Russian, American, and there were even some Australians. Mr. Henderson remembers the meals being few and far between and when they did have pieces of bread it was sprinkled with saw dust.
For Mr. Henderson hope seemed sparse behind barbed wire fences blocking him from returning home to Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he had lived for most of his life. Before the war he was naively scared of getting caught sneaking into the University of Alabama aquatic center on mischievous late-nights. Under a German guard’s watch, however, his fears were much more grim as he lived among death and pain.
“Flat cars on the trains would roll by about twice a day,” Henderson said.
These flat cars were not carrying logs or material supplies like the inventors and manufactures intended. Mr. Henderson predicted that everyday he saw about 2,000 bodies stacked on the flat cars pass by. He believed the Nazis were transporting them from concentration camps to mass graves or burnings.
“Despite the difficult times of the war German people are very intelligent and innovative. To build their country back in the time they did is wonderful,” Henderson said.
He reminisced about the beauty of Germany and the allure of the Alps so far away in the distance on his trek from Vienna to Moosburg. He saw a bombed out Munich and was still taken with its charm in the midst of war.
Henderson unfolds his hands from his lap and slips his cardboard dog tag in the plastic bag and then back into the drawer along with love letters to his wife and pictures of the Kassa-Wegert crew. Like a hummingbird finding its way from the trees of Cancun to a fourth floor balcony in Tuscaloosa, Alabama year after year, Henderson closes the drawer to the secretary and sits back on his sofa to gaze out the window.