Marilyn Vennink


Vennink farm: Gary Witt corner - south on the country road about 3/4 mile on the west side of the road.
Originally the William Wegner, farm then Sailer family owned, then purchased by Vennink family.
William would be Errol Wegner's grandfather


Back: Allen, AnnaBelle, Wayne, Mildred, Marvin
Front: Marilyn, Selma (Miller), Louis, Lois

P.O.W. HEARD FROM
John Vennink received word Tuesday evening that his son Staff Sergeant John Edward Vennink had arrived safely in New York, after having been a prisoner of war of the German government since the fall of 1942. He was a gunner on the 31st bombardment squadron in the African theatre of war in Egypt. His squadron first saw action September 1, 1942, and he was reported missing September 14 and November 13, a prisoner of war. He expects to arrive in Manilla, Iowa, within a few days.
More details at the bottom of this page...


Louis & Selma (Miller) Vennink


"Lewis" Vennink baptism certificate


John Vennink farm


John & AnnaBelle (Welton) Vennink


Allen Vennink MHS 1953


Wayne Vennink MHS 1954


Lois Vennink MHS 1955


AnnaBelle Vennink MHS 1957


Marvin Vennink MHS 1960


AnnaBelle Vennink Homecoming Queen


AnnaBelle & Marilyn Vennink


Lois & AnnaBelle Vennink - Spencer Fair


Lois Vennink - Prom


Wilma Seals, Leona Bosche, Frances Grimm, Mary Reinke, Faith Sander, Marilyn Vennink, Sandra Johnson, Nancy Mohr
Marilyn's birthday party 7th grade August 1956


Allen Vennink

Ronald Anderson & Allen Vennink


1956 Children's Day - note burnt out shell where the city library is currently located.


1959 Jr - Sr Prom - Back: Paul Spieker, Pat Kasperbauer, Paul Mundt, Tom Bennett, Dick Vaudt
Front: Linda Handlos, Marilyn Vennink, Pat Musfeldt, Frances Grimm, Barb Bruck


Page 121 of the Manning Schools history book


Neighborhood birthday party - Back: Marvin Vennink, Russell Witt, Robert Barten, Annette Ehlers
Front: Marilyn Vennink, Freddie Gruhn, Allen Ehlers, ??


Earl Pfannkuch, Louis & Selma Vennink, Liz Witt, Lorene Pfannkuch - after country school fire

Marilyn's birthday

Country School pals - Russell "Fuzzy" Witt, Marilyn "Mick" Vennink, Kay Frank


Day after prom 1960 - Eileen Frahm, Gary Monson, Elaine Irlbeck, Bob Stein


Prom 1961


Prom 1958


Junior High float 1956 Homecoming


October 1956 Homecoming

Iowa No. 7 country school
Memories of country school are good - I attended through 2nd grade.

Third grade was in Manning elementary.
A very scary experience.
Hot lunch and the fire escape.

Country school memories:
Christmas programs, Halloween parties, sleigh riding on our lunch hour.
Playing softball with other country school kids.
The school first sat on our farm property first then it flooded too much so was moved across the road.
We had a closeness like one big family.
I remember dad and Ray Witt going up to the school lot about a week before school was to start to ask the gypsies leave so the grass could be mowed and get things ready - so they chased them away. The gypsies came every summer and camped there. They stopped at the Witt family home a lot for eggs & chickens. They bathed in our creek.
We all took turns with school chores, cleaning the blackboards, bringing up coal.
I remember Alice Knott as a teacher. She presently lives in Manilla.
You could contact Allen Vennink, Ann Wegner, and Gaillard Frank. They could probably tell you lots.
Our school stands northwest of Dora Witt's place on the hill - converted into a corn crib.

Marilyn Vennink
January 19, 2007


John Edward Vennink first wife was Amanda Schwieso
Children: Kathryn, Judy, Marlene
Step-daughter is Kathy Richardson
The article about John was published in the Houston, Missouri, newspaper

John W. and AnnaBelle (Welton) Vennink - parents of Louis (adopted), John Edward, Miriam, Carol (man)
Louis' children: Mildred, Allen, Wayne, Lois, AnnaBelle, Marvin, Marilyn, Marlin (died in infancy)
Mildred - Mrs. Russell Spies
Lois - Mrs. Ronald Frahm
Marilyn - Mrs. Keith Pfannkuch
AnnaBelle - Mrs. Errol Wegner

John Vennink JOINS THE ARMY AND SEES U.S.
One of our favorite letter writers among the boys in the army is Corporal John Edward Vennink. The following letter is a part of one written to his father, which he was good enough to share with The Times and its readers.
Dear Dad,
Life is on the uptrend again. I got $10 in my pocket and no place to go, so I'm a rich manů
In reference to going over the hill, it always reminds me of going over the hill in Utah. On the way up here we were tearing along through the hills and dales when we came out of the sage brush and cactus and crossed a small green valley. In this valley, a hundred miles from the nearest settlement, was a herd of around 200 cows. About half of them had calves from one day to two weeks old, and every cow looked alike. Most of them appeared to polled Herefords, and the rest had been dehorned it was the most beautiful herd of that size I have ever seen. I'd give quite a lot to own something like that.
We weren't in Utah very long in comparison to other states, but what I did see made me appreciate Zane Gray more than ever. There was one place where we traveled for miles and saw nothing but pure white sand and once in a while a small grove of cactus. That sand was so clear we could see the reflection of the mountains off in the distance. That mountain range was supposed to be over 100 miles away, yet it was reflected perfectly. No author ever did, or could do justice to the perfection and deception of a mirage. We were hugging a small range of hills so we were curving a lot. That made the mirage appear in its most beautiful form with water, grass and trees reflected, then in a mile or so it would completely disappear.
One of the beauties of nature appeared when we had gone for two or three hours and saw nothing but desert and wasteland, then dipped into a valley and saw the famous Utah cottonwoods. I don't remember the name of the town, but it was supposed to be a prominent Mormon settlement years ago. The cottonwoods were over 100 feet tall, huge and old, and the town was almost a ghost.
There is one thing I can say the army has done for me, I've seen most of the beauty of the U.S. I don't know which state of the West and Southwest is the most beautiful. Washington and Oregon have their forests, sunny California has her fertile lowlands, Arizona and New Mexico have grasslands and mountain ranges of solid lava, Texas has expansive ranges, Colorado, Nevada and Utah have grassy upland pastures and deserts - all of which makes up the grandeur of the West. But I'm still inclined to believe that the heart of the Western hemisphere lies in the tall corn state.
Better I slow down, or I'll be writing a book, and I really should study for a test.
'S a hard life!

Love, Jack.


Sergeant Vennink Reported Missing on African Front
Telegram Sent - Manillan Missing Since September 14
Seventh Manilla Boy Reported Missing in World War II

Sergeant John E. Vennink was reported missing in action in a telegram received by his father, John W. Vennink, Saturday night, September 19. Sergeant Vennink is the seventh Manilla boy to have been reported killed or missing in the present conflict.
Sergeant Vennink was a gunner in the 81st Bombardment Squadron which saw action in Egypt recently, according to reports released to daily papers. The telegram, which announced he was missing in the African theater of war, has been the first official word that Sergeant Vennink was stationed there.
The telegram from Adjutant General Louis L. Ulio, Washington, D.C., read: I regret to inform you that your son, John E. Vennink, has been missing in action since September 14 in the African theater. A letter will follow."
The letter, which was received Wednesday morning, contained no additional information, but was a form repeating the announcement made in the telegram.
Inducted June 8, 1941 - Sergeant Vennink was inducted into the army June 8, 1941, at Fort Des Moines, under selective service. He was sent to McChord Field near Tacoma, Washington, June 20. At McChord he was promoted to the rank of corporal and attached to the 81st Bombardment Squadron in the air corps.
In March he was sent to Esler Field near Alexandria, Louisiana, and then to Las Vegas gunnery school for six weeks training the last of March.
On April 30 he returned to Esler Field, on May 27 sent to Stockton Field near Los Angeles, California, and on June 25 returned to Esler Field. On his return to Esler Field he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Saw Action September 1
Sergeant Vennink left Esler Field for Palm Beach, Florida, on July 6. From news reports and indications in his letters, it is thought that he went by plane to the African front about July 8. News reports indicated that his squadron first saw action on the African front on September 1.
Sergeant Vennink was born on the old Andre farm four miles northwest of Manilla on October 18, 1916. He attended the District No. 9, Iowa Township School. After he was out of school he worked on his father's farm, and worked out on a few farms in the surrounding territory before he went into the army.
Sergeant Vennink's mother died in 1939.
His father, John W. Vennink farms five miles north of Manilla. Other members of his immediately family are his sister, Mrs. Clay Denton (Miriam), who lives in Manilla; Carol, a younger brother who works on his father's farm, and Louis, an older brother who farms four miles northwest of Manilla.


Flight of Freedom
By Kathy Richardson, as told by John Vennink

The luxury of liberty is costly.
It is bought through the sacrifice of many, many who give their time, their welfare or even their lives. War, say the generals who have witnessed their brave soldiers die, is not a glorious enterprise. But, as long as there are men, there will be war.
It is in the aftermath of war, when soldiers return to the homes they defended, that wounds begin to heal. We walk easily in the shadows of those who protected us and carry the burden of their memories. It is important we never forget the many who walk silently among us and what they did.
The following series is the story of one such Houston man, John Vennink.
This is his story.
It is the story of many.

Iowa's yellow clay soil sifted easily through John Edward Vennink's long, muscled fingers. Its dampness nurtured his soul the same way it did his perfect rows of corn and thick stands of oats, alfalfa and red clover.
In 1941, farming was all 25-year old Vennink knew. As the rock-less soil churned behind the sputter of his tractor, he could recall the sleek, powerful workhorses of his youth, the days before the gasoline engines.
It seemed yesterday he had harnessed nine horses to the plow. "Man, that was the most beautiful sight you ever seen," he said in admiration.
"They were heavyweights, 1,600 pounds apiece; raw flesh, muscle and power."
Man and beast furrowed the earth at an acre an hour, and neighbors stood at the edge of the field to marvel at the massive team of horse flesh.

Vennink plowed 120-200 acres of corn that summer.
Since the age of 16, he had partnered with his father, working the family farm in Manilla, a half section of good Iowa land.
There was little time for anything else.
While oats, corn, and the dark clouds of spring rain occupied John's thoughts in 1941, other clouds had gathered in Europe, the ominous thunderheads of war. Germany, with Adolf Hitler's blitzkrieg (lighting war), had become a crushing war machine. Poland was attacked in September 1939, and by April of 1940, six countries were conquered.

England was under pressure.
Even when The Manilla Times announced all men between the ages of 18 and 35 were to report for the draft, to John, standing in the vastness of a freshly plowed field, the threat of war seemed far removed.
John Edward Vennink received his notice to report for duty May 6, 1941. It was to be an 18-month tour, and the timing could not have been worse. It was planting season.
His father, John Wesley Vennink, appealed to the registrar, a friend. Could his son's departure be delayed? He needed help in the fields, and Carol, his younger boy would be home from college Friday, June 5.
Twenty-five year old Vennink left Saturday.
"What kind of interests and talents do you have?" the Army Air Corps official inquired.
Vennink, familiar with farm machinery saw an opportunity.
"Mechanics," he said, "airplane or tank mechanics."
He piled on a train with other fresh recruits headed to McChord Field at Tacoma, Washington, with an optimistic outlook. It would be short lived.
"It was one fluke after another," said John. "The army had too many mechanics. They stuck me in armament where I studied machine guns, rifles and even cannons that were mounted in airplanes. The fellows who could put on a clean pair of coveralls and come home greasy got to have all the fun. The mechanics on those big cyclone engines, that's what I wanted to do."
Winter weather had its cold and clammy grasp on McChord Field by the time the 30 young recruits in the armament barracks had turned into soldiers. Cpl. John Vennink could break down a 30-caliber machine gun and reassemble the interlocking pieces with speed and precision - while he was blindfolded.
The first weekend of December 1941, with a weekend pass and a pooling of resources, spirits were high. "We never had any money." said John. "A group of us rented a car and drove from McChord Field to Seattle for a good time.
Sunday morning, December 7, word of a surprise attack began to trickle to the young airmen. There was no reason to feel alarm. "It didn't sink in," said John. "We thought a few bombs, Pearl Harbor, big deal."
But as the military police began to send airmen back to the base, the magnitude of death and destruction settled like the area's thick fog. The base was sober and silent. For many, like John, an 18-month tour of duty suddenly sounded like a life sentence.
McChord Field outside of Tacoma, Washington, a 900-acre landscape of swamp and prairie protected by mountain ranges, was an ideal location for the army's Northwest Air Defense Base.
When it was dedicated July 3, 1940, there were three B-18A and B-23 bombers on the runway. It would become the largest bomber training base in the U.S. McChord's mission encompassed training, aerial resupply and defense of the Pacific Northwest.
When the first North American B-25 Mitchell (medium bomber) rolled off the assembly line in July 1940, the 17th Bombardment Group at McChord was selected to become its first recipient. In early 1941, two new bombardment groups, the 12th and the 47th were activated at McChord with the new units trading its B-18s and B-23s for the B-25 Mitchells.
It was to McChord Base that the infamous Colonel Jimmy Doolittle came looking for experienced B-25 crews to volunteer for his secret bombing mission to Tokyo.
At least 10 aircrew members with McChord participated in the 1942 Doolittle raid, launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet.
Vennink was a member of the 12th Bombardment Group (BG) and 81st Squadron. Dec. 30, 1941, the 81st became a "medium bomber" squadron.
The B-25 was a "medium" bomber. Two Wright, 14 cylinder, double Cyclone engines powered the 54-foot plane with a 67 1/2 foot wingspan. Maximum speed was 275 miles per hour at 15,000 foot altitude, 230 miles per hour cruising speed.
It carried 1,200 pounds of fuel, 3,000 pounds of bombs and five men - pilot, copilot, bombardier, radio operator and gunner. The pilot and copilot sat side-by-side in the cockpit above a greenhouse nose, where the bombardier operated a .50-caliber machine gun and navigated a crawl tunnel to the bomb bay. The radio operator compartment was behind the bomb bay.
The upper turret gunner sat under a Plexiglas bubble, a bay window behind the cockpit, with a view above the airplane. Two flex mounted .50-caliber machine guns protruded from cuts in the window.
They could fire 400 rounds of ammunition, 10 rounds per second, and the gunner could pivot 360 degrees. They were noisy. The intercom helmet provided scant protection for the continuous explosions six inches from the ears.
Corporal Vennink was the field officer in charge of keeping the four mounted .50-caliber machine guns in top working condition when the B-25 bombers returned from surveillance missions. It was a job often done in early morning hours.
An early morning call out for an unscheduled inspection found Vennink standing at attention in a very small group. A previous night celebration had rendered half of the enlisted personnel grounded.
Colonel Charles Goodrich, 12th BG commander, pointed to Vennink. "You will be an upper turret gunner."
The upper turret compartment on a B25 was designed for men 5'6" and shorter. Vennink was tall, 6'2" with big, work hardened hands and size 14 feet. Jammed into the plastic bubble with two .50-caliber machine guns, he had to slouch. There was no room for a parachute.
He laid it at his feet.

Part 2
It had been a year of training, reconnaissance and rescue missions for 25-year-old John Edward Vennink since he left the family farm in Iowa and signed up with the Army Air Corps in June 1941. Instead of working on the powerful Cyclone bomber engines, as he had hoped, Cpl. Vennink found himself folding his 6'2" body into the compact upper gun turret of a B-25.
His 81st Bomber Squadron at McChord base in Washington moved training to Esler Field, Louisiana, in February 1942 and operated from Stockton Field, California, through May and June. It was in the heat of summer, July 1942, when they received their overseas assignment.
The advancement of Hilter's brilliant general, Erwin Rommel, called for a change in Allied strategy. Rommel, leading the Afrika Korps and known as the Desert Fox for his sly battle antics, was exerting pressure on Russian and British troops in Egypt. Allied landings on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Northwest Africa were needed, and U.S. aerial reinforcements were to remove Rommel's supply lines. Operation TORCH called for the skills of the 12th Bombardment Group.
The 12th BG, commanded by Col. Charles Goodrich, and including 81st Squadron gunner, and now Staff Sergeant, John Vennink, began their air journey from Florida. Between July 14 and August 2, the planes of three squadrons hopscotched from Antilles, Brazil, Ascension to the Gold Coast, Ghana, and across central Africa.
Crossing the endless sandy plains of the African desert, Vennink tucked in the upper turret of Captain Heinish's B-25 and flew in a group of four to six planes. They made three scheduled stops at secret locations.
Barefooted native Africans, waiting with 10-gallon gas cans that had been buried for protection from the intense heat, scrambled onto the wings and refueled the planes. They were off again in a storm of sand and dust.
"While we were waiting for the others to catch up," said Vennink, "there was some hot-dog flying. It gave us a learning experience, a little excitement and also, a chance to show off. The Australians were just as crazy as the Americans in seeing who could fly the lowest over the sand dunes. My Captain Heinish got the honors. His propeller tips were scarred by digging in the sand."
By mid-August, the 81st squadron had arrived at Deversoir, Egypt.
While stationed at Deversoir, Staff Sgt. Vennink flew three missions with 20-year old pilot Capt. Heinish. "We were bombing the front line of Rommel's army as they advanced towards Cairo, Egypt, trying to pick off his supply depots, trucks and equipment."
"We flew in low for night bombing, dumped 500 pound bombs and got out. If we saw any sign of a plane in the sky, we turned around and went back. We didn't know what damage was done until the reconnaissance plane returned to photograph where the raids had taken place."
Tucked into the upper gunner turret, designed for men eight inches shorter than he was, Vennink perched himself on the small bicycle-size seat and engaged the "slow switch" making a 360 degree rotation every 50 seconds. Attacking fighters were identified by clock positions.
But the night raids were without incident. It almost seemed easy.
With mission accomplished, Capt. Heinish turned the nose of the plane down to boost speed. Given a full throttle, the B-25 Cyclone engines headed home, 325 m.p.h.
"Nobody caught us. They might catch us going out but never going home," said Vennink.
It was the fourth raid when Col. Charles Goodrich, the man who had initially put Vennink in the upper gun turret, called for a replacement for his radio operator and a gunner with the most experience. The British sent him a young Canadian and the 81st sent Vennink.
The September 11th night was clear, the desert sky an endless tract of brilliant stars. Visibility was for miles. The mission was to bomb two airports near the TuBruk harbor. Goodrich and his men would target the Sidi Hanaish airdrome. They would fly in low, 8,000 feet, drop spikes to stop enemy planes, toggle the bombs off, destroying the runway, and head home. Others were to repeat the attack, following in two-minute intervals.
It was a bad idea.
"Night operations," the commanding generals would later say, "will not be flown by B-25s except in extreme emergency."
Without flame dampeners, the exhaust flames from the Cyclone engines were a guiding light for anti-air missiles.
Goodrich led the fleet of bombers. Vennink settled into a slow rotation lookout. His flight suit was warm and the engines hummed a steady drone. It was peaceful, and the night sky was a dark beauty.
They were the first ones over target.
"We went in at exactly 2 a.m., and their anti-air craft began throwing everything at us, including the kitchen sink," said Vennink.
The bomb bay doors opened, and the spikes and bombs were dropped.
A split second later, there was a deafening explosion. The plane was hit.
Vennink didn't remember hitting the floor. "The jolt of the hit knocked me out of the turret and on top of my parachute which I didn't have room to wear."
He did not hear Colonel Goodrich call for a bail out, but training and instinct kicked in. "I knew I needed to get the parachute on and get out of there."
Fire poured from the bomb bay between the wings, and Colonel Goodrich struggled with the controls which were knocked out.
Superhuman strength was needed to keep the plane from diving and precious seconds ticked off the time left to escape a fiery crash.
Pilot and copilot bailed out the top. Goodrich hit the antennae wire behind the pilots compartment with his face, the two halves of his nose laid across his eyes. He tumbled along the top of the plane and the second antennae drove through his shoulder blade. He landed alive but crippled and in pain. The copilot and radio operator landed safely, but the bombardier, who was to climb through a tunnel underneath the pilot's compartment to go out the front escape hatch, had been hit when the bomb-bay doors were opened.
With the scream of the plane, the turret pitch black and flames coming from the bomb bay, Vennink made his way to the rear escape hatch. His adrenaline was surging, and he struggled to fasten the shoulder and leg straps of his chute. The radio operator dove over him through the escape chute.
With one leg strap not fastened correctly, Vennink jumped. The fire, roar of the wind and chaos were jerked away by the powerful slipstream as Vennink fell from the plane into a silent blackness sliced with the beams of search lights.
One, two, he remembered, count to 10 and pull the red ripcord.
Vennink hit the desert floor on his face, with a hard jolt, his face dragging through the desert sand and rocks. There was no time to think of pain. Vennink sprang to his feet and hauled at the chute to make it collapse.
The plane landed in a fiery crash. It was close, too close, Vennink said. Nearby shrubs were illuminated and Vennink fled for cover when the second plane came over. He knew its radio operator, a big friendly Swede from Minnesota. Meinhardt was his name.
"There was a flash of the shell bursting," Vennink said. "The controls had been cut. The plane turned straight into the ground.
"There goes a good friend," I thought. No one could survive such a dramatic crash."
Two minutes later, the third plane arrived. When hit, it burst into flames and fell like a bird, hit dead center. With wings torn off and in a spin, there is no chance for anyone to bail out.
Two minutes later, a fourth B-25 was downed.
They were being shot as easily as sitting ducks at the county fair.
Vennink's hair was singed off and his head and face were raw with burns, gashes and scrapes.
"My back had been injured and each step was a sharp pain," said Vennink, "but I knew the other side would be looking for me and I started to move. I could see the third plane get hit, and the fourth. We had been told the enemy couldn't hit us with those 75 millimeter cannons but the Germans apparently didn't know that. The other planes turned around when they saw the trap, but not before four B-25s and many men were lost and captured."
Vennink easily found the North Star in the clear sky and headed east, hoping to make it out of enemy territory. It was difficult.
The dramatic crash had blanked out the moments of injury but now pain roared into consciousness.
"I didn't know what had happened to the other crew members, and I didn't dare yell out. I was a mess."
Vennink began his struggle through the desert. When he saw the lights of camps or buildings, he veered away.
"At sunup, I holed up under some bushes. My canteen was full of water and I had a chocolate bar.
Those rations would have to get me back to our camp," said Vennink. "At nightfall, I headed out again, keeping an eye on the North Star and keeping a steady pace."
Once gain at daybreak, he found cover.
From the brush, he watched a valley below, its German trucks and tanks coming and going.
Vennink began the third night of his painful trek. He was exhausted, hungry, sore. At one point as he stumbled along, he awoke with a start to realize the North Star was no longer over his left shoulder. He had fallen asleep while walking and was headed into the middle of the desert. Startled and alarmed, he regained his bearings.
It was a cloudless, moonless night, but the stars illuminated a cluster of large, dark shapes on the ground.
"I had inadvertently walked into the middle of an enemy camp.
I was surrounded by sleeping tents."
Vennink held his breath, turned and retraced his steps to the edge of camp.
He had been observed. In the darkness, he appeared to be a returning patrol, but retracing his steps had aroused suspicion.
"Just as it seemed I might have escaped my blunder, three Italian soldiers stood up with rifles pointed at me." "Arrestarsi! Halt!"
Staff Sergeant John Vennink was a prisoner of war.

Part 3
Staff Sergeant John E. Vennink wasn't sure if the end of his nightmare or the beginning.
It was the third night Vennink had struggled under the cover of darkness. One chocolate bar and a canteen of water had fueled him this far along the Egyptian coastline toward Allied territory. His face and head were raw with scrapes and burns, his back had been injured by a rushed attempt to put his parachute on. The B-25 in which he had folded his too-tall body into the upper gun turret had been hit by German anti-air missiles. It was a fiery crash. He was sure one crew member was dead, and he had no idea where the others were. Three other American B-25s had been hit.
Night travel was difficult, and at one time he found himself sleepwalking toward the desert. Now, he had wandered smack-dab into the middle of an enemy camp and was starting down the rifle barrels of three Italian soldiers.
Arrestari, halt," they challenged. Vennink held his hands high.
The wounded airman was escorted to headquarters and interrogated. Viewing his sorry state, the guards took Vennink to a tent away from the compound and told him to sleep. Lying between two soldiers and with a guard outside, there would be no escape.
Exhausted, Vennink slept.
Noon, the next day, a Jeep carrying two soldiers arrived to take the new prisoner to a German camp. He was held for two days.
Vennink's face and head had begun to scab, but the nights in the desert had taken a toll. Food and bad water cast their curse and dysentery was making him weak. He was taken to Brook Airfield to be transported to a hospital in Friesing, Germany.
Vennink climbed into a Ford trimotor plane whose corrugated metal skin had given it the well-earned nickname, "Tin Goose." The Tin Goose was designed for utility and had neither grace nor style. Vennink sat on the bench inside the belly of the plane and watched through the open-gap door as the Mediterranean Sea skimmed by 60 m.p.h.
In Italy, Vennink boarded a train, joined by other sick and wounded troops, most suffering from dysentery. Berths, lining the walls of the rail cars, were filled with a bedraggled lot of bandaged and pale prisoners of war and German soldiers. Windows were covered with tin to prevent passengers from seeing where they were headed. Lighting was dim, and Vennink strained to watch the passing landscape through a crack. He noted compact vineyards marching up rolling hillsides. Home was never far from Vennink's mind, and he made mental notes as to how Americans could benefit from this frugal method of land usage.
As the train rocked northward to Germany, word reached Vennink someone from the 12 Bombardment Group was aboard. He made his way through the cars and found Col. Charles Goodrich, the pilot of his downed B-25. He was in bad shape with his split nose roughly patched and his punctured shoulder bandaged. The men spoke briefly. It seemed there was not much to say. It would be the last he would hear of Goodrich until many years later. (Goodrich spent time in Stalag Luft 3 as a senior officer and endured a tortuous and freezing march to Stalag 7, a camp for 14,000 that would grow to 130,000).
Upon arrival at Freising, Vennink was taken to the hospital, a tiered, earth sheltered building in the side of a hill. For two weeks, he recovered and re-hydrated. The severe cases of dysentery, most of the patient population, were given powdered charcoal. Improvement was rewarded with standard hospital cuisine, a slice of bread three times a day and a slice of strongly pungent Limburger cheese.
After two weeks, Vennink was considered well enough to move to Luft 1, a prison for airmen near the Baltic Sea and originally built for training young Hitler troops. Vennink received a British prisoner of war uniform. For the first time he took off his flight suit, still crusty with the remains of a plane crash, a desert escape, captivity, illness and a hospitalization.
Luft 1 was to become known for interrogation tactics, well studied techniques based on the observation of each prisoner's reaction. As the war progressed, tactics grew harsher but for Vennink, he recalled, "they were not too bad."
They learned he was a farm boy. "That's all I have ever done," he told them.
"Ah, yes," they were pleased. "After we win the war, we will find a spot for you, and you can help German farmers from your experience with tractors and horses."
Vennink spent three months in Luft 1 and was transferred to Luft 3, at Sagon, Germany, near Berlin. He spent the winter there.
As the spring of 1943 began to green the landscape on the other side of the prison wire, Vennink had thoughts of home. It had been two years since he sat on a tractor, pulling a plow and watching the rock-less Iowa soil churn behind him. It felt like a lifetime ago.
Vennink found himself in interrogation for the third time.
"It was intense," he said. "They wanted to know everything about us. We had men who were into everything. We had been warned if we showed intelligence the Germans would find a place they could use us and would employ any method to get information they needed.
"So we did not give any real life skills. The fellows from the big cities said they were gangsters from Chicago. I was a horse thief, along with several other farmers.
"The German newspaper said 40 percent of the American prisoners were gangsters and 20 percent were thieves. It was used as propaganda.
They thought we were nothing more than a bunch of hoodlums. Anyhow, they didn't get much out of us."
The interrogation was for Vennink's final transfer.
Stalag 17B, Germany's third largest prison camp northwest of Vienna, was surrounded by lushly timbered mountains with small, neat farms wedged into flat areas. It lay in a valley, just beyond the town of Krems, Austria. The town people considered themselves fortunate they could not see over the hill. Since it took its first prisoner in 1939, Stalag 17B had become a barren, dirt worn, patchwork of ragged barbwire and long drab compound buildings. The Nazis had routed as many as 66,000 French, Polish, Russian, Greek, Serb and Italian prisoners there with the intent to let them rot or work themselves to death for the German war machine.
Plans were made to add American airmen.
The first 1,600 American prisoners arrived in the spring of 1943. POW Staff Sgt. John Vennink was among the men who spilled out of the boxcars arriving at the train station. Traveling all night, 90 men stood, packed into a rail car designed for 40 men and eight horses. Vennink felt trapped. Impossible sleep, standing and held up by the packed bodies, was only a slight relief.
Stiff and cramped from standing, the Americans began the mile march to Stalag 17B with heavy hearts. Vennink noted the beauty of the surrounding landscape, as majestic and pristine. "It was the most beautiful country in the world," he said. In the valley below, lay the prison camp, like a brown scab, the harshness of its barbed wire boundaries oozing human suffering.
The new prisoners were fingerprinted, photographed, stripped, deloused and issued two thin blankets, a spoon and cup. Vennink received a "kriegsgefangenen, " a prisoner of war number. He was now "kreigie" no. 90166.
"When we arrived at Stalag 17B, we were joined by other American airmen that had been shot down through the spring and early winter. There were about 1,600 airmen, non-commissioned officers, which did not fill up the camp but was enough for a couple of barracks."
By fall, there were 3,100 Americans at Stalag 17B and soon 4,300 in all, young men of youthful invincibility, mostly between 18 and 21 years old. At 27, Vennink was an old man.
The barracks were long with triple tiered bunks along the wall.
One stove and six wash basins stood in the middle of the building. Two men slept on each straw mattress.
"The lowest bunk had headroom and that's where we ate," said Vennink. "We rationed water every day for cooking and washing."
"We formed groups to combine rations and cook and eat together.
There were four in my combine: me, Bill Devin, Joe Powers and Jake Simmons.
"Bill was from southern Iowa.
We called him "Nubbin." He was a small kid, 5'6". He was a radio operator I learned to play bridge from him, and he was my partner in many bridge tournaments."
"Joe was from "Bawston". He was just 19 when he signed up. He had never been out of Boston, was a good Catholic and didn't know a darn thing about women.
"Jake was from backwoods Mississippi. He had a heavy slow drawl, a mush "mod" that might fool you into thinking he was a push over, but he was as tough as nails, a big guy. He had a football scholarship and was one of the hardiest in the games at the camp.
He wore shoes only when the ground froze. His feet must have had three-quarter inch calluses.
Jake was a tail gunner on a B-17.

"When the first Americans arrived at camp, we formed our "government." Jake Simmons was the most popular guy in the first contingent to arrive, and he was elected camp officer in charge. In the fall, more American prisoners were brought to Stalag 17b and one was Captain Ken Kurtenbach. He had been the officer in charge at the previous prison."
"Didn't you guys know we were coming and we were going to take over?"he said.
There was a little fuss and Jake said, "Let him have it."
Three helpers, barracks chiefs, then compound leaders and one liaison officer were elected. The government was run from the "white house" a half barrack reserved for meetings. Nine double barracks served as housing; a half barrack was used as a library and half was a designated meeting room. One was used for repairing shoes and clothing, a critical occupation in the cold, sparse environment.
Visible to the newly arriving American prisoners were 15,000 Russian prisoners in an adjoining compound. They portrayed a grim scene, staring from behind double-barbed wire with the hollow eyes of the walking dead. If the American soldiers thought they had entered the gates of hell, the Russians, not protected by the Geneva Convention, stood in its flames.
They were starved and frozen until their corpses bore no resemblance to the vital young men they had once been. Their dead collected in heaps and were shoved into mass graves.
Two electric fences surrounded the dirt compound and four watchtowers with 30-caliber machine guns reminded the men of the consequences of escape.
Confusion, fear and uncertainty faded confidence as young German guards, hardened from the battle front, hammered the "kreigies," telling them they were of no account, not human. The guards' eyes were cold and void and revealed a soul that held death as no consequence.
It was to this alarming situation John Vennink had arrived.
Salvaging morale was critical for long-term survival, and the Americans immediately began an organized effort to manage their meager resources and keep the faint flame of hope burning.

Part 4
Staff Sgt. John Vennink was packed like an upright sardine in a boxcar loaded with 90 other American airmen. He was on the last leg of an unpleasant journey, one that began when the B-25, with his too-tall body folded into the upper gun turret, had been hit by a German anti air missile. Three nights in the desert ended when he stumbled upon an enemy camp and became a prisoner of war. Burned, scraped and with a painful back injury, Vennink had been shuttled from a hospital and through two previous prison camps. After intensive interrogation, he now found himself an, mg the 1,300 new arrivals, the first Americans, at Stalag 17B, a Ger. Ian prisoner of war camp near Krems, Austria.
The spring of 1943 had arrived in Austria ahead of the train carrying Vennink. The surrounding mountains, lush forests and small neat farms were breathtakingly beautiful. Tucked among them lay Stalag 17B, a barren dirt arena of barbed wire and dingy tarpaper barracks. Hollow-eyed Russian prisoners watched from an adjoining compound as the newcomers entered its gates and shuddered with the fearful proposition of calling this home for the duration of a war, a war with no end in sight.
In October, another 1,500 airmen arrived. A steady influx continued until eventually 4,300 American prisoners milled inside the double barbed wire barriers of Stalag 17B.
The Americans immediately appointed a government. To preserve the body, meager supplies would need to be used wisely. To preserve the spirit, activity and purpose would have to generated where none existed. Vennink, with the first contingent of "kreigies,"(prisoners) found the newly vacated barracks still inhabited with fleas, lice and bed bugs. The men made a concentrated effort to improve conditions. Showers were provided in the beginning, and once a week, the men were herded into line, walked through a disinfectant and then a rinse. Only those at the first of the line had the luxury of warm water.
The men were grateful for "Soap and Water Beaumont" as they called the major from Council Bluffs, Iowa. As an officer taken prisoner, he had "chosen" to spend his time at Stalag 17B. He did dental work, tended to the ills of the camp and was head promoter for the bar of soap found in the Red Cross parcels. But, the war wore on, winters turned cold, and the barracks built for 240 men swelled to 400. Men, clothing and barracks accumulated filth.
The brick latrines were open pit, overflowing and needed no machine gun to remind the men there was no escaping them. Pure mountain air was no match for its foul aroma. As fuel became scarce, the crack of snapping wood rang through the night as boards were pried loose and toilet lids torn off. The latrines became more "open pit" than had been intended.
In revenge, the latrines assured the men they would not be put out of business. With no toilet paper, limited water and bad food, the efforts of "Soap and Water Beaumont" had limited success. Dysentery was a constant companion in camp.
The 1945 winter had been bitter; the wind and snow harsher than the previous 50 years. Even the Germans, with firewood and hot, rich broth warming their bellies, had said so. Kreigie #90166, John Vennink, had survived behind barbed wire for the past 28 months.
The barracks were unlocked at dawn and revelry ousted the men for roll call. With stiffness and pain, Vennink crawled off the straw mattress he shared with Bill Devine in the lower bunk.
A lone lightbulb dimly illuminated swirls of frost on the window.
Winter nights were a challenge. Men spooned two or three to a bunk for precious warmth and huddled under blankets described as thin as tablecloths. Months of confinement, dysentery and meager rations had weakened the men, and the cold drained their warmth as it did the strength from their muscles. They wrapped every article of clothing they had around their dwindling frames. Vennink, 6'2", once 180 lbs., cinched his ever-loosening clothes tighter around his gaunt frame. His back pain, increasing with his muscle loss, had become a crippling presence.
The German guards counted off the men as they stood at attention outside the barracks on the frozen, brown earth. Those too ill to stand stayed inside, along with two others, to guard the meager supplies.
"Gut morning," said the Commandant.
"Gut morning," answered a chaotic chorus of American voices.
"You can't do dis, you can't do dat." The men endured the lecture with studied indifference.
Vennink was thankful for "Shultzy" or "Big Stoop", the broad shouldered guard responsible for their half of the barracks. Around 40-years old, he was considered ancient by his young charges. "Shultzy was quite a mild man," said Vennink. "He wasn't, too bright but we liked him."
It was a different story with other guards, the young ones. "They were the scariest part of the experience," recalled Vennink.
Soldiers, returning from the battle front were assigned prison duty for rest and relaxation.
"They were mean," he said.
"They didn't take any nonsense from anyone. When they said stand at attention, you stood at attention.
You could tell by their eyes, they were hardened and filled with hate.
They didn't care whether they killed or not. The air raids didn't scare us as much as those guards."
They knew nothing but war and brutality and communicated it with rifle butts and bayonets.
After revelry, the men were allowed free movement within the camp. Vennink hurried back inside.
The barracks, although drafty, at least provided a wind break. Two men retrieved a wooden keg, the morning's ration of hot water.
There may have been a small portion of coal for the tile stove that was to warm 140 men, but more likely, precious shavings from a hijacked board heated a small tin stove constructed of empty Red Cross tins.
Vennink shared meals and space with tough-as-nails Jake Simmons from Mississippi, 19 year-old Joe Powers from Boston and 5'6" Bill "Nubbin" Divine from Iowa. They pooled their resources.
Breakfast was a toasted slice of dark, heavy "sawdust bread."
Its recipe, the men swore, included 75 percent sawdust and 25 percent potatoes. A film of Red Cross marmalade did little to disguise its sour taste.
In the beginning of his confinement, Venn ink received a parcel from the Red Cross each week. It had been lifesaving.
Now, the Germans were losing the war and were hungry. The parcels had not been distributed for several weeks and when received were missing items.
"Ersatz" (German for counterfeit), a generic type of coffee made from chicory, burned barley and acorns was served with the toast.
Whenever someone got real coffee in a parcel from home, it was cause for celebration.
But no mail had been received for weeks, either.
The noon meal was a cup of "swill soup," its ingredients easily identified, "split pea and bugs or gut-rasping cabbage and worms."
Seven to nine men shared the evening ration, a loaf of sawdust bread and three to four half rotten potatoes each that the Germans had not seen fit to feed their oxen.
"We received food from the Germans once a day," said Vennink. "Our main diet consisted of potatoes and a hard cabbage that had to be chopped with an ax in small pieces and boiled forever before it was edible. To begin with, we scraped off the cabbage worms that floated to the top of the soup, but before long, everyone fought for their own. Once a week, we got a pound of meat per man."
The bits of pig teeth and hair in the meat were hard to forget.
Supplies arrived by horse and wagon. Vennink enjoyed the sight.
They reminded him of his team of nine horses whose massive power he stood behind as they churned the soil of his Iowa family farm, one acre an hour.
"We had enough to survive, but minimally," said Vennink.
"We were losing weight and were hungry all the time."
The day was spent playing bridge, wrapped in a blanket for warmth. There were card games - checkers, chess and books.
Classes were offered: math, law, auto mechanics, English, Spanish, German and others.
Enrollment averaged 900 men.
"Classes were held by those willing to teach a subject," Vennink said. "I held an animal husbandry class for some of the city boys interested in livestock. I drew plans of a domed barn I wanted to build when I went home, and I took a trigonometry class to figure the footage and wind factor."
In summer months, there were football games and volleyball.
There had been baseball until those like Jake Simmons contributed to the problem of hitting the ball out of the compound.
Some men dug tunnels. "I was not involved in the tunnels," said Vennink. "I was too crippled in the back to do much of anything and weak from continuing dysentery."
During the summer months, small gardens had served as a dumping ground for the escape tunnels.
"There was a narrow strip of land along the barracks in which we were alit wed to plant a garden.
One square foot per man. You could plant 100 radishes, 10 to a row. When a radish was pulled, another seed was dropped in. The garden seemed to supply fresh radishes and onions all summer and an occasional bean."
Men tried to remain constructive and hopeful, but it was not without struggle. Vennink recalled a tragic failure.
"A kid had been bragging about escaping," he said. "He was just too young to know what he was doing. He crawled out, just this side of the barrier line with wire-cutters in his hand. They cut him down with three shots. One went through the barracks and lodged in a man's hip who was sleeping. The Commandant came out, pulled out his 45 and put a bullet through the kid's head."
His body lay untouched for 24 hours.
Vennink was sitting on the edge of his bunk playing cards when someone said, "Hi Jack." It was Clarence Meinhardt, the good friend in the second plane to be shot down in the desert.
"It was the crash I swore no one could survive. He had fallen out of the plane before it exploded," said Vennink. "He was the only survivor."
Shrapnel continued to work out of Meinhardt's body during the course of his confinement.
Radios were taboo, but the men managed to construct homemade sets. They salvaged fine wires from flight suits for a coil, scraped zinc off water pipes and took sulfur ointment from the hospital barracks. The ointment was heated, and the sulfur skimmed off the top. The zinc was melted and the two combined.
"These were made by some of the men in the group," said Vennink. "We kept track of the progress of the war with our radios.
Some of the older German guards actually came in and listened."
"Rauskriegen! Get Out!" Big Stoop was bellowing time for the evening assembly. Once counted the men returned to the barracks and prepared for another cold and painful night. The barracks were locked.
The men had survived another day of bare existence. The holidays had been particularly difficult.
Warm memories made the chill deeper.
"The days were long," said Vennink, "but, we entertained ourselves and the days seemed to go by."
Up on the mountain ridgetop, above the brown, grassless hell once frozen over, the white edelweiss began to unfurl its tiny white, star-shaped blossom.
The hidden radios were telling of American successes, and the guards were acting nervous.
Signs of spring, signs of hope pushed forth.

Part 5
Late March 1945.
Over the hill and out of sight of the citizens of Krems, Austria, lay a colorless arena of barren dirt, marked by the harsh outline of double barbed wire and packed solid from the endless milling of a thousand steps. The sweet breath of spring blew the promise of new beginnings over the putrid latrines of Stalag 17B German prison camp, and a ragtag group of American airmen tuned their faces to the sky, looking for the sounds they heard.
It was the unmistakable hum of airplanes.
"Rauschen! Rauschen! Get out! Get out!"
The prisoners, kreigies, had been ordered into the yard, and they stood in loose formation, a motley, earth-colored crew with their faces turned upward. The German guards pressed among the prisoners to use them as human shields. Over the rim of the hill appeared American planes, eight P-38s. Lightnings, they were called because of their turbo supercharged engines and ability to accelerate to 20,000 feet in six minutes. The eight circled high against the backdrop of the sky. They glided gracefully and easily, like seagulls above a blue sea. Then four dropped, wing tip to wing tip, and swooped as if they had spied their prey in the ocean, and over the hilltop they disappeared.
Boom! Boom! Boom! The Lightnings struck, their nose cannons, sending 37 mm shells into the oil storage tanks near the Krems rail line. Black plumes of smoke rose above the hill. The other four dropped and followed. The railway turntable was destroyed. The Lightnings regrouped, turned and passed over the camp. They dipped their wings in salute and disappeared into the vast ocean of sky.
The next day, a lone P-51 Mustang angled over the hill standing on one wing. The plane circled the perimeter of the camp, and the men could see the pilot's field glasses scanning their condition. The camp erupted with a crazy joy that had long been forgotten. Hoots, hollers, shouts and whistles went up to the pilot as they jumped and cheered. The Mustang dove, leveled, and make a run at the guard tower in a show of strength. The guard fled for cover, and one took a pot shot at the plane. But, the message had been given. "Deliverance is near."
A German officer berated the flustered guard. "What, are you crazy??? It's like swatting at a hornet! Leave him alone!!"
The men's spirits were buoyed, and the Germans were worried. They could hear the hum of an angry hornets' nest, and it was getting closer.
Twenty-eight-year-old Staff Sgt. John Vennink was among those in the yard. His heart leapt with joy at the sight of the plane, but he kept his feet firmly on the ground. Behind prison wire for 30 months, Vennink once a strapping 6'2" 180 lb. Iowa farm boy able to handle a team of nine horses, now couldn't help with the daily ration of water. His back injury was a constant reminder of the botched bailout from the B25 in which he had been the upper turret gunner.
Vennink was down to 145 pounds. His frame was gaunt, and his skin stretched over his shrinking muscles. The back pain had worsened.
But, it was nearly April 1945, and Vennink was still alive. In fact, miraculously, there had only been two American deaths in camp, one from the bullet of the grim reaper, whose shadow was always visible in the watch tower and the other from pneumonia. Remarkable because, despite the average age of the 4,600 American airmen prisoner being in the early 20s, the boredom and harshness of prison life worn on the body and soul like water drips on sandstone.
Homemade radios, kept secret, had been a lifeline to hope, broadcasting news of Allied victories. The day of freedom was close, but the threats were not over. A month earlier, there had been a scare.
"In early spring," Vennink said, "American bombers sent a reconnaissance plane to drop magnesium flares with million candle power. The flares were hanging in parachutes and lit the target for the bombers to unload. The flares spread right over the top of our camp. We headed for the trenches, knowing they would be little protection. Somebody carrying out the attack realized it was a mistake and came back. A plane flew into the flares to scatter them all over the country. They aborted the mission, but we were scared to death."
The tower guards, once evil, seemed vulnerable. Reports circulated of nearby Russian tanks. The Allies were pressuring the Germans, and though deliverance seemed nigh, the prisoners had the nagging uncertainty of what was to become of them. They were soon to find out.
It was the Saturday after Easter, April 7.
"Bereiten Sie vor, um zu marschieren! Prepare to march!" the guards bellowed. The American camp became a frenzied mixture of activity, excitement and apprehension. Vennink, along with his combine buddies, gathered necessities: stashed food, cigarettes and chocolate bars for trading, camping essentials, blankets and layers of clothing.

A plume of smoke spiraled upward in the damp, spring air. Everything left behind was to be burned.
Nine hundred men watched from hospital bunks with a mix of anxiety and regret. They were too ill and too weak to go. They would stay behind with a minimum number of guards (These men were liberated May 9, 1945, by the Russians).
Sunday, April 8, the men assembled in the dirt yard. The 3,600 men would divide into columns of 500. Each would be accompanied by 20 guards and two dogs.
Vennink had made a sling to carry his essentials. With it on his left shoulder, a blanket over the right and wearing a heavy wool overcoat, he limped through the open barbed wire gate for the first time in two years.
He didn't know it at the time, but there were bets on him, bets that he would not make it. Vennink began his painful march, and he wondered if they were headed down the path to freedom.
The column faced west, toward America, the men thought, toward the dark clouds that had begun to gather.
"They marched us up the Danube River," said Vennink. "We went the back way on side roads."
It was slow pace, and the day was nice. The mountain scenery was like a drink of cool water to those who had been thirsty for so long. But, the men were poorly equipped and weak from the ever-present dysentery. Some had no shoes and wore wooden clogs. As the mountain trails got higher and longer, feet began to swell and blisters bled.

They walked 15 miles before Vennink's column bivouacked in an open field the first night.
The Germans provided a ration of barley and weevil soup, flavored with the bones of a farmer's sacrificial cow. It, at least, warmed the stomach.
Rain began to fall. Vennink huddled under his overcoat with his combine buddy. Chill damp turned into clammy, wet cold as the thick wool soaked up the rain. It was a miserable night and a relief to start again the next day.
For 18 days, the march dragged on, a river of filthy humanity moving like sludge, described one of the participants. Extra items were left along the trail, including Vennink's waterlogged coat. There was little talk. Energy was spent putting one foot in front of the other. "I made it just one step after another," Vennink said, "and my combine buddies did what they could."
Remnants of any Red Cross parcels were long gone and the barley broth provided no fuel. Prisoners began scrounging for food.
Jake Simmons, Vennink's combine partner, found his Mississippi backwoods skills useful.
Passing by a chicken house, with great skill and stealth, he snatched one of the residents off its roost, had its neck broken and nearly plucked before its companions squawked an alarm.
Huddled around a small twig fire, Vennink got to share in the feast. Dandelions, sour grass, a stolen egg, the enduring journey was a sorrowful walk to freedom.
"We marched for a month," said Vennink, "until we got to Linz where we crossed the Danube by bridge. No one was allowed on the streets, but I suspect they were watching behind windows."
The railway and shipping yard had been bombed. Debris hung in trees and bushes. A wounded boy was seen. It was not difficult to see why the Germans hated the scruffy ragtag group marching by.
Over the bridge, the column headed into the Black Forest. They stopped in an open field about 30-40 feet above the river.
They had walked 281 miles.
"The Black Forest is in the southern part of Germany and extends over into Switzerland," said Vennink. "We had picked up several other prison camps along the march, and we found out we were to be held hostages. If Hitler was forced out of Berlin, we were the bargaining chips. Of course, Berlin was hit with such power, Hitler never made it out.
"Only one life was lost on the march and that was a guard who fell asleep while walking and fell with his head right in the path of the wagon carrying supplies."
The day after arriving at the Black Forest destination, one Red Cross parcel was issued for every man. A few days later, one was issued per every fifth man. That was the end of the supplies.
The prisoners, who had learned to make something from nothing, cut down trees and made small huts. It was a mystical forest, and the wind was pungent and sweet with the smell of fresh resin and small camp fires.
The Danube River was clear and full of fish. "By hanging on to the brush and tree limbs," Vennink said, "you could climb down and catch a fish as long as your arm. We had some fish fries, but more or less, the combines were still working, and groups were taking care of themselves, getting whatever we could to eat.
The guards roamed, but no escape attempts were made. It was obvious they would be running from their nearby liberators.
May 3, 1945, "we had been there about a week, when we were awakened by a lot of noise," said Vennink. "Four American Sherman tanks had backed together with cannons pointing in all directions. A captain climbed out of the hatch and asked for the camp commanding officer. A detail of men removed the guards' weapons, and we were to be in command. During the night, the German officers had fled. The remaining guards were left as a token, I guess. They had no ammunition in their guns." It would be another week before evacuation began, and the men continued to survive as they had for so long.
It rained again. But Vennink, his wasted frame down to 135 pounds, felt no discomfort and no cold. "I can't explain," said Vennink. "It was almost like a baptismal." The rain, cold, fresh and clean fell on Vennink's face, head and shoulders. It ran little rivers, clean rivers that washed away the dirt, a dirt from an accumulation of 30 months of harshness, homesickness, bearing the unbearable, and surviving, just one day at a time.
It was over, and now life could begin again.
Postscript: Evacuation for John E. Vennink, along with the other American prisoners, began May 9. They were sent to Camp Lucky Strike in France to recuperate. He had two things on his mind, eat and call home. It had been four years since John E. Vennink had last stood in a freshly plowed field of his beloved Iowa farm. It looked the same.
Even Spot the dog recognized him. But, Vennink had changed. "Now everything seemed overwhelming. People have changed and I couldn't recognize them. I had changed, too. I had lot of pain from my back, and I felt my brain was addled. I was giver quite a homecoming, but getting myself back to a normal way of life in Iowa was very difficult. The only easy part was the eating."
The war ended September 19, 1945, Staff Sergeant John Vennink was discharged from the Army Air Corps. No mention was made of his injuries or a Purple Heart.
Vennink married Amanda Schwieso in 1947. They moved to Texas County in 1972, and after her death, Vennink met and married Fran Elmore. They have been married 29 years.
John Vennink remains positive about his difficult experience. He admired the frugal conservation with which Germans tended their land, and he cringes at our American wastefulness. As with other veterans, he points out those who made greater sacrifices.
March 2002 a final chapter was added to Staff Sgt. John Vennink's story. Susan Elmore Warkentin, Vennink's stepdaughter, waded through government red tape in search of the medals earned but not given. Staff Sgt. John Vennink received the following awards: American Campaign, Re. Size, American Defense Service, European-African Mid-Eastern Campaign, Prisoner of War, Army Good Conduct, Victory WWII, Honorable Service WWII Lapel Button, Purple Heart and the State of Missouri for Patriotic Service.
He is also proud of a button he received from his family this Oct. 18, his 89th birthday.
It says "I have survived damn near everything."
Resources: John Vennink, a special thanks to Susan Warkentin for typing John's story as he told it on tape.