Like Steve McQueen: Vet Part of the Great Escape


BEVERLY, MA -- By all accounts, Donald W. Goucher, who died last week at age 88, was a quiet guy.

And he was one other thing -- he was Steve McQueen in real life.

In 1963's "The Great Escape," actor McQueen played one of a group of determined World War II prisoners breaking out of Stalag Luft 3, part of the biggest mass escape of the war, including 77 men.

Goucher was in the real Stalag Luft 3 and part of the operation that became The Great Escape.

"We knew tunnels were always being dug," he told his daughter, Kathy Richards.

"He remembered carrying dirt around in his pant leg," she adds. That was the method Allied prisoners used to surreptitiously disperse the soil they dug out of three tunnels.

By the time of the actual escape on March 24 and 25, 1944, however, Goucher had been moved with all the other American prisoners. Nearly all of the British escapees were subsequently recaptured, with 50 murdered by the Nazis.

For Goucher, that might have been a narrow escape in itself -- but it wasn't the first.

Goucher was born in Lynn, an only child. His parents soon moved to Ellsworth Avenue in North Beverly, where he enjoyed an ideal childhood with his cousins.

"They just ranged far and wide," Kathy says. "They played ball. Went exploring."

He graduated from Beverly High School and, when war came, enlisted in the Army Air Corps. As early as 1942, he was a radioman and top turret gunner aboard a B-17 bomber flying missions over Germany.

Goucher was especially quiet on this subject.

"Dad was great at kind of deflecting questions," Kathy says. There is no doubt, however, that bomber crews faced the highest casualty rates of the war.

When Goucher's plane went down on Feb. 10, 1943, over Germany, he cleared it, with his parachute opening perfectly. "As he was coming down," son-in-law Earl Richards says, "a German fighter came by and sucked the air out of his chute."

Goucher began to free fall while working desperately to redeploy his chute and only succeeding at the last minute. That didn't end his problems.

He swung down into farm country, landing in a tree with two men converging on him, according to son Don Goucher Jr. One was a German soldier, the other a German farmer armed with a pitchfork. He always made light of that frightening first conduct, telling the family he was at once asked for an American cigarette, Kathy says.

The move from Stalag 3 was no rescue either. As the war wound down, prisoners were marched west. Sometimes they traveled on foot in brutal cold, sometimes on freight cars. For many, it was a death march. Eventually, they landed in Moosburg, Germany. In the spring of 1945, that camp was liberated by Gen. George Patton's Third Army. Don Goucher was 21 years old.

Back home, he settled down with a job at United Shoe. The man who held lives in his hands as a radioman was now the office boy. But he caught the eye of a beautiful secretary, Patricia Drown. It was the beginning, Don remembers, of a love affair that lasted 60 years.

In 1948, they were married. Four children followed. Don, who had a lifelong love of photography and getting "the perfect shot," would move on to help establish Donral Photo Studio on Essex Street in Salem. When that didn't last, he joined an outfit called Cameracraft.

In 1958, Goucher took the Civil Service test and went to work in the veterans office for the city of Beverly. From there, he rose to become the veterans' agent, a job that was especially meaningful to him. He held it until 1980, advocating for veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans.

In retirement, Goucher continued to gather the family for portraits. He gardened, went camping in New Hampshire and helped care for his grandchildren. So attached was he to his pipe that he kept chewing on it even after giving up tobacco.

Meanwhile, that reticence for talk never left him.

Sometimes Kathy Richards wonders if her father was always so quiet, if perhaps he had been changed by the war. Certainly, he returned with problems stemming from malnourishment in the prison camp, suffering that extended from his teeth to his stomach.

Early in life, Goucher played a part in helping to create a world that was safe and peaceful for more than half a century. He even took part in one of the most noted efforts of the war.

But it might be his greatest achievement, performed without fanfare, happened once he came home.

"He was quiet," Kathy says. "A true gentleman. ... But he was strong. As an adult looking back, you realize that. ... He worked hard to make sure we had a nice life. That we had what we needed. ... He was really the strength behind our family."

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