JACKSONVILLE, FLA. -- - From his apartment in an assisted living facility on the Westside of Jacksonville, 94-year-old Andy Ramotnik tore through piles of documents he has been saving for decades.
"This helps me tell my story," he said as he searched for a specific piece of paper.
He wanted to find the exact flight plan from his mission on October 4, 1943.
Ramotnik was a 20-year-old radio operator and mechanic on a B-25 bomber. That day he and his crew were assigned a bombing mission leaving from Sicily for a target over southern Italy, an area held by Germans at the time.
He found the flight plan in a file folder and handed it over to me.
He didn't need it for his own memory of the story, he just wanted to show proof.
"I can remember all the big stuff," he said. "After being a POW for 19 months, I've found that too many people are BSers."
His mind is set on proving everything, documenting as much of his story as he can, a story that began two weeks after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
That's when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, he was 18 years old.
By his 20th birthday, he had flown on 42 bombing missions.
His 43rd mission would be his last.
"We were in a formation of 12 aircraft," he remembered. "We were heading to a target over Italy."
That's when he said he remembers an explosion and the plane shaking violently.
"The right engine took a hit," he said.
The Germans shot down his plane.
As the plane was crashing, he and the rear gunner were stuck with only a tiny floor hatch to try and escape through.
But the door wouldn't open.
"I stomped on the hatch, without my parachute on. Nothing," he said.
After a couple minutes that he said felt like hours, he finally got the hatch to open by jumping on it.
He let the gunner jump out first before he was able to get his parachute on and jump himself.
A noble move that probably resulted in his German capture.
"I looked down watching the airplane go down and hit the ground and it burst into flames," Ramotnik remembered.
Helpless now, he drifted to the ground in an area crawling with German soldiers.
"When I hit the ground I heard somebody say in English, 'Hands up!' Then I saw two German soldiers come out with a pistol and a rifle and I thought, 'What happens next?'"
Next was a 1000 mile trip by truck and train to Frankfurt, Germany where he was interrogated.
From there he was sent to his new home for the next 19 months, a prison camp called Stalag 17-B in Krems, Austria.
And after nearly two years in the camp, he waited for an opportune time to escape with a bunkmate he had befriended named John.
Ramotnik says hundreds of the prisoners were out on a forced march.
He says during a stop for water in a village he noticed there were no guards watching over an alley.
"I says 'John, you want to make a break for it?' And he says 'Let's go.'"
The two ran through an open field, crossed a river in the middle of the night, and finally found a home in a cave.
"That was great," Ramotnik said. "The cave was our home."
But it only lasted a couple days.
One morning they heard noise coming from outside.
They were surrounded by German soldiers who were digging trenches.
"So, we were unlucky, we were captured again."
But it wasn't long after his second capture that he and John made their second escape.
It seems the Germans didn't learn from their first mistake from the original escape, and the two managed to run again while unguarded during a march.
It was late April 1945, only a month before the European theater of the war would end. The two ran until they found a farm in Austria. It's where a woman gave them a place to hide out and work in exchange for food.
"We'd cut wood and we'd sleep in the barn," he said. "That was luck."
The two evaded capture again, even during a pulse pounding evening when German soldiers came searching the farm.
Ramotnik said after the Germans left the farm, the woman must have realized how dangerous the situation was.
She asked the two to leave.
"And it was night time, and we're walking away from the house with nowhere to go, down an old wagon trail when a young boy came running out of the house."
He was shouting that the war had ended.
"They had just heard it on the radio," he said. "So the boy yelled at us that we could stay, so we did."
The two finally hooked up with an American unit and they were granted a 90-day rest and relaxation period for their efforts.
However, it was a final paycheck Ramotnik received from the Department of War that still has him upset all these years later.
And he saved all the documents to prove it.
"I got a letter from the War Department," he said. "It reads 'You're getting paid a dollar a day for every day you're a POW."
That was a check for $554.
However, a note at the bottom troubles him to this day.
It told him he was being docked a dollar a day for every day he was on the run from his German captors.
That came out to $13.
He's not in need of the cash, it's more the point.
He says he feels like he's being penalized for doing something he was supposed to do, according to his code of conduct for the United States Armed Services.
"It reads that if I'm captured I will only give my name, rank and service number," he said. "But it also says that if I am ever captured I will make every effort to escape and help others to escape."
That's why he would like his $13 back, or at least an explanation from the Department of Defense.
"I helped my survivor to escape," he said. "Not only did I save my own butt, I saved his."
The ultimate conclusion to this incredible story, he says, would be getting to close it all out without talking about being penalized for bravery and as he says, following orders.
"I'm paying a penalty?" he asked. "Why? I did good."
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