For 25 months, Joe Still, a member of the U.S. Air Force, was imprisoned at Stalag 17B, a German prisoner of war camp located outside of Krems, Austria. From May of 1943 to June of 1945, Still and five of his fellow crew members were held captive under infamously stark conditions with meager rations and sometimes harsh treatment.
The memories of life as a prisoner of war under Hitler's regime are still very clear in Still's mind, although the Shell Knob resident says he has spent "quite a bit" of time over the last 60 years trying to forget.
"It was quite an experience, although I wasn't viciously mistreated," said Still. "Of course, you do have some post-traumatic stress disorder, but it's not the type of stuff I wake up screaming about in the middle of the night."
Still's service during World War II was the focus of a special awards ceremony held at the Shell Knob VFW Post last Friday. In front of a large crowd of family, friends and fellow veterans, Still received eight medals, which were pinned to his chest by retired USAF Lt. Col. Steve Gray, who now serves as senior military and veterans advisor to U.S. Congressman John Boozman from Arkansas.
"Today, we celebrate your safe return, and it's been a long time coming," said Gray.
Still was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the POW Medal and the Air Medal. He also received a Presidential Unit Citation and the Honorable Discharge "Ruptured Duck" pin.
Still's military career began in 1943 when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force shortly after graduating from high school in Nowata, Okla.
After basic training at Goodfellow Army Airfield in San Angelo, Texas, Still started learning the intricacies of becoming a radio operator for large aircraft.
Still was then sent to Blythe, Calif., and then onto England, where he was assigned to the famous "Mighty Eighth" Air Force.
In May of 1943, during a bombing mission, Still's plane was shot down over Hamburg, Germany. He and other members of the crew were forced to bail out from 22,000 feet.
"It was quite an experience floating down from there," said Still.
When he landed on the ground, German soldiers were waiting for him.
"I had a very slight wound, but I was basically in good shape when I landed," said Still. "I was struck once by a soldier when I was first captured. He took a haymaker swing at me."
All but one of the nine crew members aboard the plane survived. German soldiers separated the enlisted men from the officers, and Still and his crew were kept together in one of the prison camp's five compounds.
Hesitant to share much about his experience as a prisoner of war, Still said he remembered well the day he was freed by members of the U.S. Army.
"It was May 5, 1945, and we were extremely elated," said Still. "We had been expecting them for a little while to come in and get us."
Before he was released to U.S. soldiers, Still and other prisoners of war who were deemed healthy were forced to march for 30 days from Stalag 17B until they were intercepted by the Russian Army and finally released to U.S. soldiers.
At the end of last Friday's ceremony, Still wiped tears from his eyes with a white handkerchief and then thanked all those in attendance.
"I know why you're here and I love you too," said Still. "This is a great day for me," added Still. "I haven't had this much attention since my mom caught me skipping school. And this is a lot more positive."