Harlan “Huck” Charles Oakberg

1923 - 1996

Air Force

Their Story

Harlan Charles Oakberg was born January 5, 1923, the son of Charles and Olivia Oakberg He lived out most of his childhood in the small town of Rio, Illinois, alongside two older sisters.[1] Shortly after, the family moved to Alpha, IL, allowing Harlan to graduate from Alpha High School in 1942. Only a few months later, when he was 19 years old, Harlan enlisted into the US Army Air Force (the distinct Air Force branch had not yet been created), receiving his basic training in the air corps of Jefferson Barracks, MO. After the completion of basic training, the young airman was sent to a variety of other advanced training points across the states including; Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Boise.[2]

Now a well-trained tail gunner and Staff Sergeant, Harlan was thrown directly into the horrors accompanying the Second World War. During a bombing mission over Kassel, Germany, on the 30th day of July 1943, his plane was shot down.  As their vessel plummeted toward the foreign landscape, Harlan and several others from the 388th bomb group[3] narrowly escaped the wreckage by deploying parachutes, an operation feared by nearly all airmen. Once on German soil, Harlan was promptly captured and imprisoned at Stalag 7-A located just north of Munich for interrogation. He was later transferred to Stalag Luft 111 and finally to one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps, Stalag Luft 17-B in Austria.[4]

The term Stalag, used to describe most German POW camps, is a contraction of the German “Stammlager” which is translated as “prison camp.”[5] They served as fortified and well-guarded camps housing non-commissioned and enlisted Allied forces. Even with the Geneva Convention agreement[6] which was supposed to ensure the relatively humane treatment of American POWs, prisoners remained under fed, abused, and cold. Nazi Officials would often give out blankets and extra stoves just before the arrival of Geneva inspectors, only to retrieved them after their departure, misleading those back home as to the condition of their imprisoned loved ones.[7]

Stalag Luft 17-B was a particular torment. Upon initial entrance, prisoners were processed, “deloused, shaved, and assigned a number,” and then sent out within the barbed wire and guard towers to find an unoccupied bed in one of the tightly packed barracks. Clustered with three tiered bunks, each single-story building housed between 150 to 240 captured airmen, those of whom rarely saw hot water, toothbrushes, toilet paper or any other forms of hygiene products. These tight quarters formed close-knit groups which, in Stalag 17-B, developed into a form of democracy, each barrack electing leaders who reported to a particular barrack which they called “The White House.” This loose government helped facilitate trade by creating markets with cigarettes as the primary currency. It offered protection during disagreements, whether with Nazis or fellow airmen. It promoted common welfare, lending stoves and other amenities to barracks lacking, and most notably it organized escape attempts. Many men lost their lives attempting to escape the quick triggers and barbed wire, but only one successfully escaped.[8] This was the reality of Sergeant Harlan Oakberg’s world from 1943 till 1945.

However, in the early days of April 1945, airmen including Harlan began seeing American planes cruise over the Stalag, an early sign of their coming liberation. The sounds and flashes of the approaching Russian front were also finally within perception. Harlan, known by his fellow POWs as Huck, likely lay at night listening for the sounds of a freedom long awaited. On April 8, 1945, that freedom came as 4000 Americans were told to gather their few possessions and were sent out on the road, still accompanied by Nazi guards. It was on this trek that Harlan likely first saw that he and the four-mile-long column of men with him were the more fortunate as they passed the aftermath of German death camps where Jewish bodies were still visible. Later that month, Americans commandeered the prisoners and took them home.[9] Harlan notified his parents on June 12th that he had made it to Camp Miles Standish in Massachusetts and would return to Moline, IL soon.[10]

Once home, Harlan stayed close to family working at the Quad-City Airport, marrying Mrs. Doris Rawson, who was employed in the offices of John Deere Plow Works in Moline.[11] They wed October 15, 1948. He and his wife had two daughters, Patty and Linda, before his work brought him to Sacramento, CA in 1960[12] where he worked for United Airlines at the ticket counter of Sacramento Municipal Airport for 27 years, retiring in 1978. Harlan was a part of many veteran groups in California, including the 388th bombing group, Stalag XVII, and the Caterpillar Club, which is an organization reserved for those whose lives were saved with parachutes. On January 10, 1996, Harlan passed away, named in his obituary as “Squirrel man because of his penchant for feeding peanuts to the squirrels.”[13] He was buried on the Rock Island Arsenal in the same region in which he met and married his wife and raised his two daughters.


[1] “Harlan ‘Huck’ Oakberg,” Rock Island Argus, January 19, 1996, p. 5.

[2] “Sargent Harlan Oakberg Is First Alpha Man Reported Missing in War,” The Dispatch, August 7, 1943, p. 13.

[3]About Us – The 388th Bomb Group Association,” 388thbg, 2019.

[4] “Alpha Sergeant Is Sent to New German ‘Stalag’,” The Dispatch, July 13, 1944, p. 17.

[5] “Stalag Definition & Meaning,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster), accessed June 13, 2022.

[6] History.com Editors, “Geneva Convention,” History.com (A&E Television Networks, November 17, 2017).

[7] Eric Ethier, “STALAG 17-B,” America in WWII magazine (310 Publishing, 2006).

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] “Oakberg Coming Home,” The Dispatch, June 13, 1945, p. 15.

[11] “Mrs. Doris Rawson Weds Harlan Oakberg,” The Daily Times, October 16, 1948, p. 17.

[12] “Harlan Oakberg Family Moving to California,” The Rock Island Argus, April 14, 1960, p. 20.

[13] “Harlan ‘Huck’ Oakberg,” Rock Island Argus, January 19, 1996, p. 5.