Sgt. Marcel Philip Boisvert (31374854) was the tail gunner. This was his fourth mission. He was born in August 1925 in New Hampshire. He graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on 22 October 1943 at Ft. Banks in Boston, MA. When he arrived at Stalag VIIa Moosburg he was assigned prisoner number #11305. After the war he graduated from Tufts University in 1956 and later became a dentist in Reading, MA.
In 2004, the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA produced an on-line exhibition “Journey Out of Darkness: American Heroes in Hitler’s POW Camps.” The following is his experience in his own words:
Marcel’s shoes were taken by civilians and then he was shipped to an interrogation center outside Frankfurt and thrown into an 8 x 10-foot cell.
A board for a bed. A window leaking light, far beyond his reach. A bucket toilet and one coffee can of cabbage soup per day. Lines counting time scrapped into the wall. Marcel Boisvert, child of a house storming with seven brothers and sisters, sat in isolation for two days. But he didn’t despair. “I was defiant,” he says. “I was a cocky little bastard.”
They took him to an interrogation room. A German officer sat at a table. Another stood and two guards took their places behind Marcel. The questions started about the tactics of strategic area bombing. He shot back: name, rank, and serial number. Hours went by. The officer at the table told him in excellent, polite English: “We’ve got you listed as a spy. We’ll shoot you.” Then they returned him to his cell and days passed in exactly the same manner as before. The guards came again.
The time the officer at the table asked Marcel, with a worried tone in his voice: “Did you go to Dresden? I have family in Dresden?”
Dresden, where Allied planes dropped 3,907 tons of bombs and incendiary devices, killing between 50,000 and 100,000 people. Where, for days afterward, bonfires of bodies lit the night sky. Did he go to Dresden?
Marcel thought so, that had been the mission objective. But sometimes planes were diverted or lost their way. They could have dropped their load on a secondary target or a “target of opportunity.” A tail gunner didn’t really know what happened in the cockpit. He lived backwards in world of deadly fireworks, of fighter planes lurking in clouds of sky slipping away. And then the pandemonium of their bailout, the long drop to earth. The German civilians yelling. “Terrorfliegar!” But yes, that was the target at the daily briefing, Dresden.
“I don’t know,” Marcel replied.
Later they took him outside and showed him three tall posts in the ground. “This,” said the polite officer, “is where you’re going to be shot tomorrow.” Then they threw him back in his cell.
In the Summer 2005 issue of the Tufts University alumni magazine, the following article about Boisvert was published.
He understands, actually, the feelings of the German civilians who wanted to rip apart the American and English terrorfliegers who floated to earth from their blasted machines, the men who had bombed their homes and brewed flesh-consuming firestorms in their cities. He probably would have felt the same way, he admits, if the roles had been reversed. “You never let anyone know you were a flier or they’d string you up,” states Marcel Boisvert, forced to bail out of a burning plane on his fourth mission over Germany, compelled to parachute down a corridor of “unbelievable silence” and knowing, as he dropped, the stories of airmen killed by mobs below. “Keep your head down,” he says. “Keep your mouth shut.”
He’s 79. Back then, he was an 18-year-old tail gunner packed backward into a glassed-in cage at the rear of a B-17 bomber, watching shells explode all around into black-and-white smudges.
Their fourth mission targeted Dresden, called Elbeflorenz or “Florence on the Elbe River.” The city was well known for its opera, art, and delicate china. On February 14, 1945, Allied planes dropped 3,907 pounds of bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden, killing by most accounts between 50,000 and 100,000 people. For days after, bonfires of bodies lit the night sky. “It was a mission,” says Boisvert, flatly. Airmen flew missions.
Captured immediately, Bosivert was shipped to an interrogation center outside Frankfurt and thrown into a dank 8 x 10 foot cell. A board for a bed, a bucket toilet. A tiny window leaking light, far beyond his reach. Lines counting time scraped into the wall. Boisvert sat in isolation for two days, and then they come for him.
In the interrogation room, a German officer told him in excellent, polite English: “We’ve got you listed as a spy, we’ll shoot you.” After several hours of questioning, they brought him back to his cell. Two, three days passed exactly as before. The guards came again.
This time, the polite officer asked Boisvert in a worried tone: “Did you go to Dresden? I had family in Dresden.”
Did he go to Dresden? Boisvert thought so, but sometimes planes were diverted or lost their way. A tail gunner didn’t always know what happened in the cockpit. But, yes, that was the mission objective, Dresden.
“I don’t know,” Boisvert replied.
They took him outside and showed him three tall posts in the ground. “This,” said the polite officer, “is where you’re going to be shot tomorrow.” Back in his cell, six or seven days trailed like smoke out the tiny window beyond his reach. Then the guards arrived—and put Boisvert in a truck and sent him to Stalag XIII-D in Nuremberg. He stayed there for two months, subsisting on cabbage soup and sawdust bread. Bombers roared overhead to their targets. At war’s end he survived a forced march on infected, bloated feet.
Boisvert sits now in a large sunroom, overlooking his swimming pool. He lives in a beautiful house in the suburbs with an American flag out front, and he’s surrounded by toys for grandchildren, including an old-fashioned rocking horse on springs. As a child during the Depression, he built a bicycle from parts he found at the dump. Only it didn’t have brakes, so he got off by riding into trees or just bailing out. Then he’d pick himself up.
After the war, Boisvert’s mother sat by his bed at night as he thrashed with nightmares, as he jumped from the spiraling plane on its Dresden run, but this time his chute wouldn’t open, and he fell and fell through the column of unbelievable silence. In time, though, the memories burrowed beneath life’s joys and struggles. Boisvert graduated from college, married, and had three children, and rarely talked about being a POW. There was just no advantage in it.
But the officer’s question did not disappear. “Did you go to Dresden?” the man asked. He had family in Dresden. The officer asked the question for 40 years, until at a convention of his bomber group Boisvert learned that his plane, in fact, did not go to Dresden. They had been diverted to Brux, Czechoslovakia, to destroy a synthetic oil plant, a military target.
“I was glad to hear it,” says Boisvert. “I am not a killer.”
He knows, of course, that he could have gone to Dresden. That he didn’t, in the end, had nothing to do with him. He was just one more tail gunner among thousands of tail gunners, flying backward in a world of deadly fireworks, of sky slipping away. He was just another airman: hero to the gang back home, terrorflieger to the people below.
“War is like cancer,” says Marcel Boisvert, survivor. “War doesn’t distinguish between man, woman, and child.”
Boisvert was also interviewed in 2006 by John Hockenberry on WBUR “On Point” about his experiences as a POW.