Hometown Heroes

What are the Odds?

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LISTEN to Les Beck and Orville Lewis on Hometown Heroes—then— LISTEN to Orville’s POW story on Hometown Heroes

ALSO SEE: Rory Appleton’s piece on Les and Orville from the Fresno Bee.

What are the odds? How can you explain it? Is this for real? Those are just a few examples of the questions Les Beck and Orville Lewis keep answering after meeting in a waiting room at a VA hospital in Fresno, CA. Beck, a Vietnam veteran, and Lewis, who served in World War II, share a common legacy as recipients of the Purple Heart. Beck had driven from Coarsegold in Madera County, Lewis from Orange Cove in eastern Fresno County. They’ve been living about 70 miles apart for years, but if they hadn’t both had VA appointments at the same time, they would have never discovered the deeper connection that has left both of them amazed.

Orville Lewis and Les Beck look through the "Wartime Log" kept by Beck's father in Stalag XVII-B

Orville Lewis and Les Beck look through the “Wartime Log” kept by Beck’s father in Stalag XVII-B

“I’m sitting in the waiting room and I see this older gentleman come in with an Eighth Air Force ball cap on,” you’ll hear Beck recall about what caused him to strike up conversation. “One thing led to another, I learned that Orville and my dad were both put in the same prison camp, Stalag XVII-B, just outside of Krems, Austria, and not only that they were in the same barracks.”
As the conversation continued, Beck learned that his father, who died in 1995, had even been acquainted with Lewis, the two sleeping approximately 30 feet apart in barracks 36B.

“It’s got to be a million-to-one shot,” Beck surmises. “It still boggles my mind. They say nothing happens just for coincidence, there’s a reason for everything, and I’m a firm believer in that.”

A portrait of POW Lester Beck from his wartime log.

A portrait of POW Lester Beck from his wartime log.

But as quickly as this amazing revelation came, it disappeared. When Beck emerged from his appointment, the 95-year-old was gone. He had the name Orville Lewis, but no contact information. Through some internet sleuthing, he tracked him down, and two weeks later, the two men met up again and shared their story on Hometown Heroes. “Sure brings back some memories,” remarks Lewis. “I’ve got a few stories I could tell him. Probably make his hair stand on end, but I’ve still got them there and I’ll tell him about ’em.” Lewis remembers Beck’s father as “quiet, soft spoken, and a real nice guy,” and he remembers a pretty colorful personal journey that eventually led Orville to Stalag XVII-B.

Orville Lewis during World War II. For more photos and videos, visit the Hometown Heroes facebook page.

Orville Lewis during World War II. For more photos and videos, visit the Hometown Heroes facebook page.

He left his native Inola, OK during his junior year of high school because he had “itchy feet.” After three nomadic years riding the rails, he returned and made the honor roll. Listen to Hometown Heroes for some of Orville’s folksy memories from that period, including the alleged crime that put him in a rickety jail in Porum, OK, and the way he exited that facility. When he ended up at Stalag XVII-B years later, how many other prisoners could claim jailbreak experience? You’ll also hear about the circuitous route he took to service in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and how he would have avoided serving altogether if he hadn’t spoken up. Assigned to the 388th Bomb Group, 563rd squadron, flight engineer Lewis and the other nine men aboard their B-17 almost didn’t make it to their base in Knettishall, England. Listen to the program for his memories from a terrifying flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Orville walks us through each one of his missions, with flak, fighters, and other hazards dotting those memories. His seventh mission, on July 30, 1943, would proved to be his last. “The sky just blacked out in front of us,” Lewis remembers about the flak they encountered over Belgium. “We got a direct hit through the number three gas tank, and that fuel poured all over the plane, and metal was spewing all over us and there were fighters coming in.” Orville put on his parachute, then was going back to the B-17’s top turret when he was told to bail out. He had to jump through flames encircling the bomb bay doors, and overcame initial trouble with his parachute, only to see a German fighter planes heading for him. They never fired on the helpless American, and one of the Luftwaffe pilots even waved at him with his hand before Orville touched down near Antwerp.

Stalag XVII-B in Krems, Austria

Episode #382 of Hometown Heroes ends with Orville’s capture, while Episode #383 covers the duration of his prisoner of war experience. Interrogated at the infamous Dulag Luft, then transported to Stalag VII-A in Moosburg, Lewis was moved to Stalag XVII-B in Krems, Austria in October, 1943. Listen to Hometown Heroes for Orville’s memories of freezing conditions, paltry provisions, daring decisions, and the way he used one of his talents to boost morale. CLICK HERE for a video of 95-year-old Orville playing the fiddle, much like he did with the “Barbed Wire Mountaineers,” in Stalag XVII-B. Orville teamed with a group of musicians to entertain prisoners. Occasionally, they performed at the camp’s “Cardboard Theater,” but the music also served another purpose. Listen to Orville’s story to discover what that was.
95-year-old Orville Lewis in his Orange Cove, CA home.

95-year-old Orville Lewis in his Orange Cove, CA home.

Dreams of escaping were never too far from his mind, and you’ll hear about some of the ideas he and other prisoners had. The POWs kept tabs on the war’s progress through a smuggled radio that would pick up BBC news reports. “I heard Hitler one time,” Lewis recalls of a radio monitoring shift he covered.

“He was ranting and raving, he wanted all the prisoners killed. That was toward the end. Good thing they didn’t listen to him.”

If those orders had been carried out, we wouldn’t have the privilege of hearing this 95-year-old’s amazing story. We wouldn’t know about the 18-day march out of Stalag XVII-B that preceded his liberation. We wouldn’t get to hear about the crafty way he worked his way back to his base in England, surprising the few remaining airmen who had been there when he was shot down. For Les Beck, the picture of his late father as a prisoner of war would have been less than complete. “It’s just totally amazing,” Beck says. “They could make a movie on this incident, and it would sell.”
Paul Loeffler

  1. Russell Parker Reply

    Uncle was in the 388th. He was shot down July 25, 1943. Like to make contact with Orville and Les. Russ at deadendchief@gmail.com

  2. Steve Reply

    (Paperback) One of the most dramatic esapce attempts ever carried out by prisoners of war took place at Stalag Luft III in eastern Germany in World War II. It was a prison camp populated almost exclusively by allied airmen shot down over Germany. Nearly all were crew members of bombers that were devastating the German cities. The German population considered them to be criminals and there were many instances of downed fliers being brutally killed by the revenge-minded civilian population. Therefore, if a POW was to esapce from the Stalag, there was little possibility of being aided by the civilians if it were to become known that he was the member of an Allied air crew. The POWs in the camp were well organized and controlled, in many ways the camp represented a village isolated in the region but in contact with the outside world. Red Cross parcels arrived on a regular basis and there was a strict military chain of command that was respected by both the POWs and their German military guards. Within this context, the POWs planned and carried out an elaborate tunneling system that allowed several hundred POWs to flee the camp. In this book, the author relates the project of escaping from the camp to other major projects in less life-threatening circumstances. There is the process of setting the overall goals, soliciting and examining all possible options, making a decision regarding what option to pursue, managing the project, setting the timeframe for termination, acquiring and efficiently allocating limited assets, and carrying out the esapce attempt. Of the hundreds of men who fled the camp on the night of March 24, 1944 only three made it back to allied territory and over 50 of those captured were executed by the Gestapo. What was considered the greatest point of success was that immediately after the esapce, 70,000 German soldiers were tied down in the search and re-capture of a few hundred men. While I agree that some of lessons of the great esapce can be applied to the modern business world, one must be very careful in too tightly winding the analogy. I cite the following reasons why some space must be maintained. 1) This project was carried out in a time of war, being bombarded by memos and business plans is nowhere near the threat of death by bombs and bullets. 2) The men in Stalag Luft III were under military discipline, where the order of a superior officer must be obeyed. Attempting to relate military command structures to civilian processes is a difficult one to do right. 3) The POWs in the stalag were not able to leave, not even request a transfer. This will impart a cohesion that cannot exist in civilian life, where a person is free to quit and pursue another job. 4) Being airmen, the POWs in Stalag Luft III were more intelligent, educated and highly trained than most other members of the military. Given the large number of POWs in the camp, this meant that nearly every skill would be present.

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