Rupert B. Maxwell

Former WWII POW has a message for his hometown: “Hey... I’m not dead yet!”

By Mary Kay Gominger

Air Force MSgt retiree Rupert B. Maxwell left his long-time home in Crossville, Tenn., last month and traveled to Gulfport to join his fellow veterans. At the age of 90, Rupert just felt it was time. But first, he had some things to do. Like write a book. So when he got the call from Greg Moore telling him his name had come to the top of the move in list, he knew he better get busy writing.  He finished his first draft the week before he left and is now waiting for the first copy to be published.

“Everybody I knew kept telling me I needed to write a book on my life,” Rupert said. “I never thought people would be interested in reading it but I decided to go ahead and do it.” Again, it was just time.

Rupert enlisted in the Army Air Corps in August 1941. He worked in air traffic control for two years and at the encouragement of his boss, he applied for Pilot Training. Since he never finished high school, Rupert figured he had a slim chance but as fate would have it, he breezed through the battery of tests required for fighter pilots and as he sat facing a board of five, two West Pointers against him getting in and two line officers for him getting in, he realized then that he could not only be a good fighter pilot but he could be one of the best fighter pilots the Army Air Corps had. That’s what he told the senior board member, who just happened to be have the tiebreaker vote. Rupert got in.

After he had completed his training, he was off to Europe and for the next seven months, as a 2nd Lt., he flew P47s with the 368th Fighter Group. Rupert, now 23 years old, was on his 27th mission when he was shot down just outside Neuwied, Germany. He landed in water and as he struggled with his parachute and began making his way to the shore, locals began shooting at him. Dodging bullets, Rupert finally made it to land. He was repeatedly kicked, beaten and stomped and then taken to the nearest Prisoner of War camp. Rupert spent the next seven months in captivity. His family was notified that he had been shot down and was killed in action. Weeks later, they were notified that no, he was in fact alive but was in captivity.

During the seven-month imprisonment, Rupert said it was the scarcity of food that he remembers most.  And the freezing weather.

“We didn’t have anything good to eat and what they did give us, there wasn’t much of it,” Rupert said. “We slept in snow banks and up inside culverts in temperatures below zero,” he recalled. “We lost a lot of men during that time.”  He remembers too, a German guard that froze to death watching over them one particularly frigid night. “He was frozen stiff as a board the next morning,” he said.

Besides the hunger and freezing weather, life in the POW camp took on the familiar hum of any military unit. The highest ranking officer took charge and they formed committees that focused on escaping, intelligence and survival.

Rupert and 8,000 other American POWs were released on April 29, 1945, when General Patton’s Army charged in and overtook the camp. Rupert, down to a mere 112 pounds, was transported with other released POWs to Camp Lucky Strike in France.  They were stripped of their tattered clothing, sprayed with disinfectant, given one set of clothing (wool shirt and pants and now it was hot) and then put on a cargo boat to make the 18-day trip home. At Ft. McPherson, Georgia, he was given $50 and was told that once his pay was figured he would be sent the balance of what was owed for seven months, minus taxes.  The Army Air Corps has no use for fighter pilots now, the war was over.

Rupert wasted little time in figuring out what he wanted to do next. He knew he had a love for aircraft so he went down to his local recruiting station and did what he did four years earlier. He enlisted. Rupert spent the next 17 years in Air Traffic Control eventually retiring as a MSgt.

Many years later, Rupert went to his hometown in Tennessee and visited a WWII memorial. Much to his surprise, his name was listed on the wall as killed in action. He called the local paper and they came down and took his picture and ran it the next day.  The caption read… “Hey, I’m not dead yet.”

We look forward to seeing Rupert’s book, entitled the same (“Hey, I’m not dead yet”) in our library when the final copy is released.