- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

BUHL, Idaho (AP) - A sleeve full of potatoes.

For 70 years, that story remained buried in the mind of Ervin Pickrel, an Army Air Corps radio operator who was taken prisoner during World War II. Those starchy hunks along with a can of meat were the genesis of Pickrel’s escape from “the Black March,” one of the most horrendous marches in war history.

Pickrel and thousands of other WWII prisoners of war were forced to march 600 miles across Germany over 86 days by Nazis hoping to skirt invading British and Russian forces.

Pickrel, 92, said he didn’t talk much about his traumatic experience in the march after the war. When Veterans Affairs doctors recently asked him about his war experiences, he said, he “got tied up in a knot” and was nauseated thinking back on it.

“Right now I’m quite a bit shaky after all these years,” he said. “I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is.”

On his farm, Pickrel’s children heard bits and pieces. But Pickrel decided to open up more to his family after reading a Times-News article about Paul Kelly, an 88-year-old Twin Falls man who was part of the same march and held captive at the same prison - Stalag Luft IV.

This winter, the two former prisoners sat for four hours in Pickrel’s Buhl kitchen and discussed their experiences.

Pickrel said he was tied in knots again, even in the presence of someone who’d been through the same event.

Each time he retells the journey, Pickrel said, he gets more comfortable.

“I’ve done more this morning than I ever have,” he said after an interview of more than an hour. “It just ties you up in knots, and I don’t know why.”

Pickrel joined the military at 21. The Nebraska native was trained as a radio operator and served aboard a bomber, flying several missions and taking many close calls.

In Northern Ireland, his pilot couldn’t get the landing wheels down on the plane. The crew dropped the ball gunner in a lake and landed in a meadow. Like a plow, the gunner’s hole scooped up the sod and filled the back end of the plane with dirt, Pickrel said.

On his sixth mission, the plane was hit, and the crew was rescued from the English Channel.

On his 12th mission, he wasn’t as lucky. A few days after the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Pickrel was on a bombing mission when his plane was hit. The crew bailed over northern France.

“You bet your life I wouldn’t want to do that again,” he said with a smile.

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