Norman St. Pierre endured 18 months as a prisoner during World War II, an experience marked by hunger, fear and a period of cruel, solitary confinement at the hands of his German captors.

Yet when St. Pierre and his wife, Mary Agnes, met a German couple decades later, the two men formed a bond based on the shared experience of having been reluctant combatants.

“It gave him a different perspective on life,” one of St. Pierre’s daughters, Mary Cattadoris of Scarborough, said Tuesday. “Instead of being bitter, he chose gratitude.”

St. Pierre, a Scarborough resident and native of Cape Elizabeth, died Sunday at age 88. His family remembers him as a modest man who gave selflessly to his family and country.

That modesty concealed a World War II experience that is etched deeply into America’s military history, and that St. Pierre humbly recounted in media interviews late in his life.

He was one of the relatively few veterans to experience life in a camp in Austria known as Stalag 17B, where POWs attempted to tunnel their way out with teaspoons. Their exploits were later dramatized in television and movie accounts that made the camp a noteworthy point in World War II history.

St. Pierre was drafted in 1942 at age 20. He was sent to gunnery school and spent time training in Atlantic City and Colorado before being deployed overseas as a B-17 waist gunner with the elite “Mighty 8th” Air Force, 351st Bomb Group.

On the final mission before his planned return home, St. Pierre flew with the crew of a B-17 called the Piccadilly Commando on Dec. 31, 1943. The bomber encountered enemy fire, ran low on fuel and landed in the English Channel, where the crew was picked up by a German patrol boat.

St. Pierre was classified as missing in action, and his family thought he was dead. Instead, for the next 18 months he was a prisoner of war in Stalag 17B.

Later in life, whenever he saw movies such as “Stalag 17,” loosely based on the exploits of prisoners at the camp in Austria, or television shows such as “Hogan’s Heroes,” he disapproved.

“It wasn’t like that,” St. Pierre would tell his wife, recalling that camp was boring and cold and that the prisoners were always hungry.

The prisoners tried to burrow a tunnel underneath the floorboards, out of the cabin and under the fence to freedom. When they were caught, St. Pierre had to serve nearly a month in solitary confinement – in a room where he could touch both walls when he stretched out his arms.

The Germans passed him bread and water through the door.

Cattadoris, his daughter, remembers her father telling her that the cell was crudely made, and that one day he saw a finger poking through the slats of the walls.

The finger belonged to an Italian prisoner, she said, who was pushing a clove of garlic into the confined space for her father. She remembers St. Pierre telling her how he would rub the garlic on his bread rations each day, making it last through his solitary confinement.

“He told me, ‘You see the kindness of a stranger.’ He never saw his face,” she said. “Instead of being outraged (by being in solitary), he appreciated the kindness.”

St. Pierre was humble and kept many stories of his time in the service to himself, his family said. It wasn’t until one of his granddaughters asked to interview him for a high school assignment that they learned about his experiences, the good and bad.

St. Pierre had a deep respect for those who served their country. Another daughter, Cathy Bissonnette of Saco, who took her father grocery shopping on Thursdays, remembers how he would approach any man or woman in uniform to thank them.

It was this life of gratitude that his family remembered him for as they gathered Tuesday.

His son, Thomas St. Pierre of Venice, Fla., remembered how his father worked all day in Portland, drove to the family camp on Little Sebago to grab a bite for dinner, then picked up his boys and took them back to Portland for Little League baseball practices or games.

“You never heard him complain,” he said.

With nine children, Norman St. Pierre had many opportunities to give individual attention and provide special memories. Bissonnette remembers how she would join her father as he delivered linens and picked up laundry at Oceanville Cottages, which were owned and operated by St. Pierre’s wife.

“He’d buy me a big bag of fresh cherries, we’d eat them, spit the seeds out and hide the evidence,” she said.

On Tuesday, St. Pierre’s wife offered the couple’s son, Thomas, a pair of her husband’s shoes.

“He and Tom shared the same size,” she said. “Size 9.”

“The shoes might fit,” Thomas told his mother, “but I’ll never be able to fill them.”

 

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: [email protected]