Neil H. Behrens



Neil Harris Behrens was born to Alexander Ayres and Agnes Theresia Haglund Behrens on November 1, 1922 in Warner township, Clark county, Wisconsin.  He was the 5th son of 13 children: Adeline, Ed, Louis, Irma, Karl, Lucille, Lillian, Mildred, Lee, Eileen, Neil, Bill, and Edith. The family farmed northeast of Greenwood, where all of the sons learned to work on the farm.  Early on, Ed, Louis, and Karl worked the farm as their father Alex had heart problems from a serious illness.  Later, Harry and Bill added their skills. Mildred remembered that Agnes would call out to the boys ‘Har-Billy, Bill-Harry"as they were always together and she often mixed up their names.  Karl recalled that Alex said he had to watch them constantly and carry a big stick, because if they were not doing something wrong, they were thinking about it.  Adeline often wrote stories based on her brothers Harry and Bill. 


Neil graduated from Greenwood High School in 1940.  He went to university but left after the first year.  He returned to Greenwood and helped his mother sell the farm after the death of his father in the summer of 1941 and then moved her into Greenwood. .  He joined the army and tested successfully to become a pilot.  He went to Alabama for flight training on B-17F  bombers. He left flight training as a 2nd Lt.  Once his crew was gathered  he then flew his plane via Goose Bay, Labrador and then to Iceland. It took several attempts because of bad weather until they made the flight across the North Atlantic to England.  He joined the 96th bomber group of the 339th squadron and was stationed at a base near Bury St. Edmund in Suffolk, England. From there he was involved in the daylight strategic bombing raids of the Eighth Air Force over Germany.  He said they would fly in formation to Diepholz/Osnabruck where there was a castle they used as a marker.  There they would split up and head to various targets.  On return they would rendezvous over Diepholz.  That is ironic because as we have researched the Behrens line, its origin is Diepholz, Hannover, Germany. He stated that most of his missions were to bomb infrastructure in Germany to disrupt supply lines.  Often it was of rail terminals, although through the night German soldiers and civilians would rebuild what they bombed.


May Day brought the Eighths bombers their first major involvement in the pre-invasion plan to disrupt the rail network in France and Belgium when 328 B-17’s were sent to six major targets.  Every day missions were sent out to begin softening the infrastructure before D-day.   The normal mission number between breaks at this time was 25. On April 29th, a mission of  800 bombers hit Berlin.   Neil was on his 5th mission when he was shot down on May 7, 1944.  May 7th had brought  a milestone in combat for the 8th.  For the first time the significant figure of 1,000 bombers  (B-17s and B-24’s) was dispatched for missions.  The main target for this mission was a day attack on Berlin. Neil had successfully released his bombs over the target. On returning from the target the hydraulic fluid, which operates the valves to the Tokio Tanks, froze up making it impossible for us to drain the tokio tanks. The official army accident reports states that three of the engines failed.  Basically, we ran out of gas just after we left the target, because of the hydraulics failure.  Neil crawled back to the bomb bay area to try to adjust it. He was unable to open the valve.  After getting to lower altitude, the pilot gave orders to bail out.  The navigator and Sgt Taylor were the first out.  Neil the pilot jumped separately or by his account was thrown out of the bomb bay doors from the extreme G forces.  After their jumps the plane exploded from flak and crashed.  Only two survived the incident. Eight were killed, but seven bodies were recovered.   Sgt. Taylor was captured near Nedlitz and Neil near Konigsborn at 12:20 hours. This was about 15 Km east of Magdeburg.   The family received a cable in May notifying them that he was missing in action. Later they received a cable in June informing them that Neil was a prisoner of war in Germany. They held a family meeting to show love and support for Neil and pray for his safety.


Neil parachuted from the plane and landed with minimal injuries.  He severely broke his nose, which caused him breathing and snoring problems the rest of his life.  He also sprained his ankle. German police surrounded him and he was captured. After his capture, Neil was transported to a jail at an airfield near Magdeburg then he was moved on to the air crew interrogation center at Dulag near Frankfurt on the Main river for questioning.  Neil said that in his transport he noticed grass covered hills with entrances for trucks to go underground that appeared to be a factory.  He reported this to American officers at the Stalag where he was sent so they could  report it to England over hidden radio with the location and types of vehicles entering the hill. He knew the allied forces found out about the underground facilities, but did not know if it was from his observations.   He said that with his Behrens name, the interrogators wanted to know if he was German or had any relatives in Germany.  After a few days he was shipped to the air crew G. W. camp Stalag Luft  III in Sagan Germany, near the Polish border. The Great Escape of movie fame took place at this camp in March 1944 two months before Neil arrived there. There were six Stalag Lufts.  Today Sagan is in Poland.   The officers were in a separate stalag from the enlisted men.  All were British and American air force as ground forces were not yet in Germany. 


Life in the Stalag was crowded, cold and lacking in food. The summer was not bad but it became miserable as winter approached and food supplies were diminishing. He said he spent his time trying to learn German from the guards, exercising to stay in shape and reading as this camp had a library.  Stalag Luft III was the best of the prisoner of war camps as it was directly under the control of the German Luftwaffe, not the SS and  it was the model that was shown to the Red Cross and more closely followed the Geneva Convention rules. A Swedish representative visited often to try to maintain standards of the convention.   This did not make it easy but at least bearable.  While Stalag Luft III was known for many attempts at tunneling out of it, this diminished after D day as the prisoners decided to wait out the war, since 50 had been executed after the Great Escape.


The war was deteriorating for the Germans with the assaults on the eastern front from the Russians and the advance in the west by allied forces. Ever since the first of January 1945, Neil reported he could clearly hear the heavy artillery along the eastern front as the Soviet armies inexorably neared the camp. Around the 25th of  January 1945, the Stalag was evacuated under a forced march ahead of the Russian troop advance.  Neil reported that it was in the dead of winter—his clothes were frozen, his shoes were frozen and eventually cracked in half, and food -- his bread and margarine-- was frozen and scarce. It was about 15 degrees below zero.  They left at 10 in the evening in two feet of snow. He became a member of a lead column of 1,800 officers and enlisted men setting out in a driving snowstorm on a march south away from the oncoming Red troops.  Russians guns could be heard in the background as they began the march. It became a death march as weakened P.O.W.’s or Kriegies collapsed from unhealed wounds, disease or hunger and either froze to death or else guards murdered them.  They covered 100 miles and all along the way they saw a vast caravan of German refugees, also fleeing the Soviets.  At the end of the nearly six day journey they arrived at a train area and were loaded about sixty to a boxcar with no room to sit down.  They went to an area around Nurenburg another Stalag which eventually had about 100,000 POW’s there. Conditions were very poor here with little food and massive sickness.   They were there a few months when allied forces started to close in.  They were then marched to the Stalag at Mooseburg (100 miles) which is about 35 miles northeast of Munich. Neil and many other POW’s began to wander off across the countryside in search of food.  The SS was not too happy with these meanderings and executed some of the straying captives.  Neil rejoined the safety of a group of British prisoners who were also being marched south to Mooseberg where he eventually found his own group. He was in the Mooseburg prison camp when freedom came.   It was there that General Patton’s allied forces caught up to them on April 29th.  The 14th Armored Division, with a flurry of bullets whizzing through the camp, liberated them. After a brief exchange of small arms firing around the camp, a big General Sherman tank entered the front gate and they were freed.  Neil stated that he had gone from 170 pounds to about 100 at the time he was freed.


What a great day!  A few days later they rode to Fandshutt, a few miles away and after waiting for the weather to clear up, some C-47’s flew them out of Germany.  He flew out of Germany one year to the very hour he jumped into Germany,  May 7, 1945. They flew to Paris and then Thiems where he entered his first US mess line.  Having lost so much weight and feeling sick, but having eaten well, he went to the dispensary and to his surprise was put in the hospital for seven days by the medical personnel.   He remembered the bath, clean sheets, soft bed and quarts of fruit juice, but failed to truly enjoy it with his anxious desire to move on.  After his release he was detailed to take charge of a few men going to Camp Lucky Strike.  They stopped a day in Paris and then went to Le Havre where they caught trucks to the Camp.  This was the camp processing men to return home. While there General Eisenhower visited the camp and complimented Neil and the assembled ex Pow’s on a job well done.  On boarding the homeward bound ship, Neil was offered a bunk in one of the officers’ cabins that he gladly accepted.  Little did he know that in so doing, he would be in charge of the ship’s mess line and that required almost 24/7 duty to supervise the operation.  At least it was better than sleeping on the bunks in the ship’s hold.  Neil finally arrived in  Chicago, Illinois, where he was  processed at  Ft. Sheridan.  After his discharge, he left his uniform with Karl where it hung in the closet until he picked it up again several years later. 


Neil served in the Army Air Force for 3 years leaving with the rank of Captain.  After the army, Neil made use of the GI Bill for Education.  Neil received his BA from the University of Wisconsin in Sociology and Criminology and followed that with graduate work at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee at the School of Social Workers and the National Probation Association.  Neil then moved to North Carolina where he was employed as a probation counselor for Mechlenberg county justice court and a group worker for Alexander Home in Charlotte, North Carolina.  There he completed graduate work at North Carolina State College in Raleigh,  receiving his Masters in Occupational Information and Guidance.  It was when he was living in Charlotte that he met Shirley Lee Byerly, whom he married July 21, 1951 in Lake City, South Carolina.  Four children—Claudia, Frank, William Harry and Karl Arthur-- were born to them in Miami, Florida where they moved not long after their marriage.


Neil was always a life long learner.  He attended university during the summers and was an avid reader for self education. In Miami, Neil became a high school teacher/guidance counselor. In Dade county he taught science, social studies, biology, math and more. He told Karl that one day a student asked him why he had received an F and Neil looked him in the eye and replied, "because I couldn’t give you anything lower." He told it like it was.  He had joined the Air Force Reserves where he taught classes at the Air Reserve Center and attended the Air Force Command and Staff School.  He served until 1980 eventually retiring with the rank of Lt. Colonel. Neil and Shirley raised their children in Miami, but decided to divorce in 19 July 1974.  He especially loved the boat he had that he used for fishing in Florida. He delighted in tinkering with automobile engines and other mechanical objects. 


Neil enjoyed visiting with his siblings whenever he could.  He went twice to Utah to visit Karl.  Each time he came on a military plane to Hill Air Force Base, where Karl would pick him up.  He loved going to Greenwood and Wisconsin and visiting relatives.  In later life, his brother Bill came to live with him in Miami so he could be near the VA hospital there.  They enjoyed each others company until Bill’s death from lung cancer in 1996.  He continued living in Miami.  I called him once when he had just returned from a POW reunion in Miami and he informed me he would be getting married again.  At 80 he married Marie who was his kind friend, companion and finally caregiver in his last weeks.  On March 22, 2008, Neil passed away of cardiac arrest following open heart surgery in February.  He passed with a life well lived-- a loving son, brother, father and husband and a true American hero.  His ashes were buried in Greenwood, Wisconsin near his brother Bill and parents and in Arlington National Cemetery.  By Susan Holman Behrens


Related Links


Bio: Behrens, Lt. Neil "Harry" (1 Jun 1944)

Bio: Behrens, Neil Harris "Harry" (22 June 1944)

Bio: Behrens Family Military Records

Bio: Behrens, Family Photos



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