German POW earned freedom, three degrees
May 21, 2014
By Peter Clark
Col. William Geil has a great memory — though he says it’s hard to forget getting captured by Germans behind enemy lines.
The 89-year-old Squak Mountain resident has seen his fair share of service in a career spanning more than three decades. He served overseas in World War II and two tours in Vietnam. His time in the United States Air Force is only made more impressive by the three degrees he earned outside the military. Still, he plays it humble.
“I don’t like bragging,” Geil said about his time as a prisoner of war. Speaking plainly, he said he didn’t find it anything worth bragging about. “I had a cousin that finished 25 missions, while I finished my time in the war in a prison camp.”
Now comfortably retired, Geil and his wife Fran split their time between an Issaquah residence and one in Phoenix, Ariz. Geil first volunteered for the draft in 1943, only a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I wanted to be a hotshot fighter pilot,” Geil said about signing up for the military.
He went through about a year of college before he took a test to enlist, ultimately finding himself a plane navigator.
The waning days of the war took him to England, where a fateful mission to Berlin and back would change his life. A compression problem caused one of the plane’s four engines to seize up and Geil said the pilot did not react accordingly.
“A more experienced pilot would have turned back, but he was being stupid,” he said. “I’m busy as hell as a navigator and then the next thing I know we are in a tailspin.”
The pilot righted the plane, but more engines were lost and the oil pressure dropped dangerously. The crew quickly determined they could not get the plane back to friendly borders and decided to bail out while in the air.
Bailing out into more trouble
Geil told the story with acute recollection of squeezing himself out of the plane’s hatch with his parachute on his back. He said the opening was small and it took off one of his boots on the way out. He described falling through the air, looking behind him and seeing his boot flying off into the distance.
He landed safely on the ground, gathered his parachute and ran to hide in nearby trees. Unfortunately, locals noticed the evacuating crew.
“The whole damn town was coming out,” Geil said. “When I saw their eyes, I knew I was in deep kimchi. I figured I’d had it.”
That sinking feeling only grew when German soldiers escorted him to a holding cell, removed his sidearm and held rifles to either side of his head while he showed them how to remove the weapon’s magazine.
Afterward, they searched him, finding all the things he had secreted about in his cell in case of escape, and gave him food.
“They gave me a boiled potato sort of thing, which was not very tasty,” he said. “But I ate as much as I could. I was starting to learn how to be a prisoner of war.”
Geil spent 44 days in prison camps around Germany, mostly in Moosburg. He spoke of his time there, telling fellow American troops what songs were popular at the time and sleeping on cold floors. He said a clandestine radio existed in the camp somewhere, where the prisoners could hear about the continued Allied success in the war. He suspected it was only a matter of time before the camp was liberated. Still, he doubted he would survive.
“It was a panicky time,” he said. “Being a POW is a life-changing event. I figured I wouldn’t make it.”
But make it, he did. General George Patton’s army came through and liberated the town. Geil remembers seeing a tank use its gun to lift up the gate and break it down.
“Man, we were all there cheering, about six or eight deep,” he said.
Pulling him back in
He recuperated and returned home to marry his high school sweetheart and finish college. His life returned more or less to normal and it didn’t take long before he considered re-entering the military for further credentials. However, he said a month after he re-enlisted, the Korean War started.
“I thought, ‘Jesus, I’m working this system wrong,’” Geil said, smiling. “When I went out, damned if they didn’t pull me right back in.”
Though he didn’t have to go overseas for his service in the Korean War, he ended up traveling abroad for the Vietnam War. There, he flew planes with a variety of functions, from transportation to combat.
“I finally got to be a fighter pilot when I was 42 years old,” he said.
Geil retired in 1974, hardly believing he spent so long in service.
“I left the military with 31 years, one month and 15 days, retiring as a full colonel,” he said.
Retirement did not slow him down. He went on to earn a Masters in Business Administration and another business degree in construction, graduating the third time alongside his son.
He and his wife raised three kids during his long career, and he said he thought his military service helped him and his wife raise a tightknit family.
“I think our family was closer because we got to travel,” he said.
He said his time in the military helped him build a life he valued greatly.
“A lot of times, I think back, and I think a lot of these decisions probably saved my life,” Geil said. “The military was good to me when I look back on it.”