William A. Wesley, a former gunner on a B17 Flying Fortress during World War II who was shot down and survived a year in a German prisoner of war camp, died of sepsis Jan. 5 at St. Agnes Hospital. The Glyndon native was 83.
The Germans "put him in a room so tiny that when he laid down his feet touched the side wall," said his sister-in-law, Shirley Thomas of Catonsville, who managed Mr. Wesley's affairs and was his caregiver after her sister and his wife, Mary Kathleen, died.
"They fed him black bread, which consisted of sawdust and any other things they could find. His beans had bugs in them. And he had water, and that's all he had. Essentially, he suffered from malnutrition, and it just about did him in," Ms. Thomas said.
At 17, the Franklin High School graduate left his job at the Baltimore Transit Co., where his father worked, and signed up for the Army Air Corps. He trained in Amarillo, Texas, and was sent to Britain with the 8th Air Force.
On his third pass over Germany, his bomber was shot down and the crew parachuted out of the plane. Ms. Thomas said that Mr. Wesley never saw any of his crewmates again. She said he subscribed to a magazine for former prisoners of war and that he would scan every issue, looking for his crewmates' names.
"They were shooting him under his feet as he was landing," said Ms. Thomas, who had known Mr. Wesley since she was 14 years old. "I don't know whether it was to kill him or scare him.
He was interred in a Stalag Luft 4, a German Air Force prisoner of war camp, she said.
"They told his mother that he was missing in action," Ms. Thomas said. "For one year, she thought he was gone."
While imprisoned, Ms. Thomas said, he was subjected to interrogations and threats of death.
"He told me that they would say things like, 'If you don't tell us why you're here, we're going to kill you,'" Ms. Thomas said. "And his response was, 'You're going to kill me anyway.' Frankly, he didn't think he would ever get home alive."
Ms. Thomas said that Mr. Wesley once told her that his German interrogator, who had gone to school in Pennsylvania, recognized his Baltimore accent. The camp was liberated in 1945 by a division of Gen. George Patton's forces, she said.
"According to William, George Patton rolled in with his tanks and everything on the day he was liberated," Ms. Thomas said. "He said it was just like it was in the movies. Patton stood on the back of the truck and with a bullhorn said that before night every man there would get a gallon of fresh milk and a hot loaf of bread."
Mr. Wesley, a tech sergeant, was discharged Dec. 5, 1945. After spending time in a hotel-turned-hospital for injured military personnel in Florida, he returned to Baltimore and his former job at the transit company.
He also met and wed Mary Kathleen Thomas, who had come up to Baltimore from Virginia to work as a secretary and was boarding with his sister, Ms. Thomas said.
"He went downstairs to get something out of the kitchen and saw Kathleen, who had forgotten to put her shoes on," Ms. Thomas said. "He said, 'Who's that little hillbilly with no shoes on?' And his sister said, 'That's going to be your wife.' He said, 'You don't know that' - but she did."
The two did not have any children, but Ms. Thomas said the couple treated all of their nieces and nephews as if they were their own.
Mr. Wesley, a mechanic, rose through the ranks at the transit company, retiring in 1991 as assistant director of maintenance. His wife, his parents and his six siblings all preceded him in death, Ms. Thomas said.
Most recently, Mr. Wesley had been living at Paradise Assisted Living in Catonsville.
"He told me, 'I don't care what you do with me. All I want is a military funeral,'" Ms. Thomas said. "He was very proud of his opportunity to serve his country. He loved the military until the day he died."
Funeral services have been held. Mr. Wesley will be interred today at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery.