Alton's Robert Ryan, a former World War II prisoner of war and local attorney.

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On Memorial Day, World War II Prisoner of War Robert Ryan always takes a moment to reflect on how fortunate he is to have survived the atrocities of a German prison camp and the conflict itself.

Ryan, a Marquette High School graduate, is now 91 years old. He entered The Army Air Corps at age 19.

Ryan looks and acts much younger than his 90-plus years, and still practices law in downtown Alton. He received his law degree from St. Louis University after World War II. He attributes his long life to “the Good Lord, good genes and good whiskey,” joking about the third item.

In May 1944, Ryan was aboard a B17 4-Engine Bomber and his plane was hit head-on with an attack, damaging engine No. 2 of four engines.

“My pilot friend Anderson called on the intercom and asked how far we were from Switzerland and/or Sweden and it was 300 miles and we were 200 miles from France but it was too occupied,” Ryan said. “The pilot then said, prepare to abandon ship.”

Ryan was the first to abandon the plane because of his location in the plane.

“The navigator goes out first, so I went out,” Ryan said. “I grabbed my parachute and went.”

It was about 15,000 feet up in the air when Ryan jumped out.

“It was awesome,” he said. “The earth is a long way down. You had to kneel down and somersault out. I thought at that point, ‘How the hell am I going to get home?’”

Ryan pointed out that before he parachuted out of the plane there were fighter planes all over and when he jumped, it was suddenly and incredibly quiet.

“It was quite a contrast,” he said of how quiet it was after he jumped.

Ryan pulled his parachute earlier than he was supposed to, because he wanted to make sure it would release properly.

At about 500 to 1,000 feet above ground, Ryan spotted a German soldier with a rifle pointed directly at him.

“I felt like a rather large target,” he said. “Thankfully, he didn’t shoot.”

“I put my hands up,” he said when he landed on the ground. “It was a rural area. I didn’t understand German. Some of the townspeople admired the silk of the parachute. They kept me under guard; it was a Sunday afternoon. Ultimately we walked for a good while and then we got into a truck to an airbase nearby.”

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Later, in prison camp, Ryan was reunited with his crew. All nine aboard jumped and survived the fall and time in prison, for which he also remains thankful to this day.

Ryan was taken to Dulag, Germany, then Sagan to camp. He was interrogated and all he would provide was his name, rank and serial number, which wasn’t to the Germans’ delight.

He was moved to multiple camps during his time in prison and it was a typical experience, with little food, water. He lost a considerable amount of weight and struggled from boredom to fear of being incarcerated and always wondered if he would make it home. Ryan spent a lot of his time in prayer with a hope that someday he could return to Alton and have a normal life again.

Red Cross supplies were such a benefit during the time in prison camp and helped him survive, he said. To this day, he values every morsel of food on his plate and never throws any food away.

“There was not enough food,” he said. “We had German rations of potatoes and bread. We received soup in the middle of the day and had Red Cross parcels from the U.S., Canada and England. Those meant so much.”

As the Russians closed in at one point, he was forced to walk across country 60 miles in six days through the cold Germany weather.

“It was colder than hell,” he said. “We had coats and it was snowing and you had to carry everything you owned. We had some good overcoats from the Red Cross.”

Much of the time there were about 15 men to a room, where everyone ate and slept in one cramped area. Bathing most of the time simply didn’t happen. During the day when weather was decent, the prisoners used some softball equipment the YMCA had sent overseas. Some of the more talented people among the prisoners organized a Glee Club.

Finally as spring started to come, it seemed the war was turning. The American troops, led by General George Patton, were closing in on Ryan’s camp.

In the end, a U.S. tank bulldozed its way through the front gate of the prison camp. By this point all the German guards had escaped the camp and other than the prisoners, the camp was desolate.

One of the more telling sights for Ryan was looking up into the guard tower and seeing no guards. To this day, he said that is one of his most memorable sights of the war.

This was April 29, 1945, and soon after, Ryan and the prisoners were transferred out. For him, this was his Liberation Day, but soon after on May 8, was V-E Day.

The other most memorable thing for Ryan when the American soldiers liberated the camp occurred the next day when he was able to eat white bread.

“It was fantastic,” he said of the bread. “It tasted like angel food cake. German bread is dark and weighed about five pounds.”

Another memorable thing for Ryan was seeing the Statue of Liberty and what they represented for his freedom back to the United States as he entered New York.

There were no bands playing when he arrived back in St. Louis late at night, but his family was there and they grasped him as tight as they could. For Ryan, it was so good to be home.

He went back to school and received his law degree and had a successful career, had three children and was married for many years until his wife passed. Each day Ryan is alive and breathing he is thankful for the life he has had. He doesn’t broadcast to the public what he did as many of the World War II men and women who served.

Ryan has a simple way to describe what he and all the other men and women did sacrificing themselves in World War II: “We did what we had to do.”

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