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A lifetime of memories
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A man who is blessed to live over 90 years probably has some stories to tell. That’s certainly true for John Herron Biddle, who turned 90 on Sunday, Dec. 16.
Biddle had started compiling his memoirs but never finished them. His niece, Judith Roney, and friend, Mary Robbins decided to have the memoirs published. The two presented Biddle with a copy of his book, “Prisoner of War: Death March from Stalag IV” at a party held in his honor on his birthday.
Biddle wrote in his prologue, “...the excited voice of the pilot came over the intercom of B-26 134865 with the two words the combat flyer dreaded most to hear, ‘Bail Out!’ In response to that order, I exited from the left waist window, and in less than 10 minutes, the most significant change in my life abruptly took place. I went from a free-spirited, exuberant air crewman with bright expectations to that of prisoner of war, dejected in spirit, deprived of liberty, and uncertain of the future.”
Biddle wrote his memoirs to increase public knowledge of World War II death marches beyond the more famous Bataan Death March.
At least 100 friends, family members and special guests were in attendance on Biddle’s birthday, including Warren County Executive John Pelham and McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley, who read a proclamation declaring Dec. 16, 2012 as John Biddle Day.
Biddle entered military service in January 1942, serving in the Army Air Forces/ Corps which was later called the United States Air Force.
Biddle said, “I took a mechanical drafting course at a base engineering office for over a year, but I wanted to fly. They had an opening for draftsman in the bomb group in Myrtle Beach, S.C. I applied for the job and spent a year in that job. Then, I persuaded the commander to put me on flying status and I became a flight engineer. I was not a pilot. I was a flight engineer. I sat between the pilot and co-pilot. I helped operate guns and engines. I flew almost 50 missions before I was shot down.”
0n May 20, 1944, Biddle became a World War II prisoner of war when his plane caught fire after being hit during air combat. Biddle bailed out of the plane over German-occupied France.
“We were shot in Northern France. One of the engines was shot out. I jumped out at about 11,000 feet. The Germans captured me. They took me to an interrogation center. It is almost unimaginable how many people were coming through there. We would lose 20 to 30 planes each mission. There were about 20 men on board each plane. That meant 200 to 300 men were lost each time.” said Biddle.
Biddle said he was sent to a permanent camp in Northern Poland.
“We did nothing there. They wouldn’t work us. They were probably afraid we knew the geography of the land and would escape,” Biddle said.
Biddle said the German prison guards were good to him. “The Germans guarding us could speak English. They would talk to us. They were not mean to us,” he said.
Biddle said the prisoners exchanged mail through allied sources. “I could receive mail from my parents. The French and the British ran the mail service. We knew what day it was. The Germans had newspapers and we could see them. We also made our own calendars to keep up with the days,” Biddle said.
“That was a long time ago. I was just 21 years old when I was shot down. There were a bunch of people in service in their 20s at that time. Some were in their teens and lied about their age to get in,” said Biddle.
Biddle was a prisoner of war for almost one year. He was liberated by British forces on April 16, 1945.
“When I went in, there were about 3,000 POWs in my camp. During liberation, there were about 11,500. All were American Flyers. The war in Europe was costly but necessary,” said Biddle.
Biddle married Pearl Golden on Jan. 18, 1946.
Back in the U.S., Biddle stayed on flying status. He reenlisted on the career track and served in Washington, D.C. Special Air Missions. He flew out of Washington National Airport, Stockton Army Airfield in California and Tokyo, Japan.
“I flew special air missions in 1946 and 1947. I flew around the world. In 1946, I took a 42-day trip around the world. I was on Gen. McArthur’s airplane crew for over a year. He never flew with us, but I was always flying diplomats somewhere,” he said.
Biddle said he quit flying because his wife worried about it all the time.
“I went into administrative management and worked in Washington, D.C., Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma, Oklahoma City, Okla., and Atlanta, Ga., among other places. I enjoyed working at all of them,” Biddle said.
“Someone once told me, ‘You’d be a good judge.’ It sounds big but that was just additional duties I had. Here, I sat in on General Sessions Court to see how things ran. I had to be acquainted with the laws I would be dealing with. I was more of a city administrator than anything. The judge job was a sideline of it. To be judge, I just had to listen to two sides of the story, then decide who was telling truth and make judgment on it,” Biddle said.
Biddle worked as city recorder, treasurer and municipal judge for the city of McMinnville from December 1966 until April 1972, and again from June 1978 until June 1988.
He was also the first full-time executive director of the McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce from May 1974 until May 1978.
Biddle has been a minister, Bible class teacher and song leader in area Churches of Christ. He was instrumental in starting a Church of Christ congregation in Okinawa, Japan.
The Biddles were married almost 63 years at the time of Pearl’s death on Jan. 7, 2009. They have two children, John Nelson Biddle and Anita Gail Biddle Covan, three grandsons and one great-grandchild.
When asked the most important thing he feels he had accomplished during his life so far, Biddle said, “That is hard to say. I feel it is important that I served in military. Of course, that’s why I got captured too. After the war, I spent several years in government service. I have held many different jobs. I was promoted up everytime I was eligible. Also, marrying my wife was very important. If it wasn’t for my wife, I wouldn’t have been a Christian.”
Biddle’s book, “Prisoner of War: Death March from Stalag IV” can be purchased for $15 at Magness Library.