World War 2

World War 2 is probably the best documented event in world history. There are countless stories of individuals, communities, and countries around the world that experienced those times.  It is the intent of this website to tell the personal, the lesser known, and the sometimes untold true stories of that war.
Star Photo
Freedom Wall WWII Memorial
Washington, DC

The WWII Sinking of the USS Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea: And the Stories of Survivors

USS Lexington (CV-2) on October 14, 1941, leaving San Diego, California. Aircraft on the flight deck include TBD torpedo bombers, F2A fighters, and SBD scout bombers. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

 

The aircraft carrier United States Ship (USS) Lexington (CV-2), nicknamed  “Lady Lex,” was the fourth United States (US) Navy ship to be named after the American Revolutionary War 1775 Battle of Lexington. The ship was commissioned in 1928 and would serve until its sinking in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4 – 8, 1942).

On December 7, 1941, fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), in a surprise attack, bombed Pearl Harbor and other US military installations on Oahu, then the US Territory of Hawaii. There were three US aircraft carriers in the Pacific Fleet at that time. The USS Lexington and the USS Enterprise were at sea ferrying aircraft to Midway Island and Wake Island, respectively.  The third aircraft carrier, USS Saratoga, was preparing to leave San Diego, California, following an overhaul at the Bremerton, Washington, Puget Sound Naval Yard.

The Lexington arrived back in Pearl Harbor on December 13.  The ship would return to sea to patrol the Pacific and take part in US naval operations as part of Task Force (TF) 11.

In April 1942 the Allied codebreakers at Pearl Harbor deciphered the Japanese naval operation code JN (Japanese Navy) – 25.  They had information that the Japanese were planning a major attack, Operation Mo, on Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. Gaining control of New Guinea would have isolated both Australia and New Zealand from their allies in the South Pacific.  

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet, ordered TF 17 to the Coral Sea to counter Japanese operations. The aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown were the two carriers in TF 17.  [The USS Yorktown (CV-5) was later sunk during the Battle of Midway June 4 – 7, 1942.  The USS Yorktown (CV-10) was commissioned April 15, 1943, and served in the Pacific through WWII.)

 

Coral Sea. Map Wikipedia.

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea.  It would be the first battle in history fought between aircraft carriers.

On May 3, 1942, the Japanese landed on the island of Tulagi (a first step of Operation Mo) in the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate.

On May 4 Vice Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher, upon getting an intelligence report of the landing, ordered aircraft from the Yorktown to attack the Japanese landing group. Japanese intelligence had not reported American ships in the area, and they were taken by surprise.  

IJN Fourth Fleet Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue and Carrier Striking Force Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi began the search to find the Americans.  

With limited visibility in the area of operations, neither the Americans nor the Japanese were successful in immediately finding the opposing enemy carrier force. 

On May 7 the Japanese found and sunk the destroyer USS Sims and badly damaged the fleet oiler USS Neosho

Also on May 7 aircraft from the Lexington and Yorktown sunk the Japanese light aircraft carrier Shōhō.

American and Japanese naval forces became aware of the enemy fleet positions on May 8.  

Captain Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman, commanding officer of the Lexington, ordered “General Quarters” at 0552 hours (military time) that morning. Carriers on both sides started launching aircraft shortly after 0900 hours.  Two torpedoes hit the port side of the Lexington at 1120 hours to be followed by another two bombs.    

USS Lexington hit by two torpedoes and two bombs on May 8, 1942. Wikipedia Battle of the Coral Sea.

 

Torpedo and bomb damage resulted in a jammed hydraulic ship elevator, flooding in boiler rooms, and ruptured gasoline fuel storage tanks on the port side causing fires and explosions.  The fires could not be extinguished, and Captain Sherman ordered “abandon ship” at 1707 hours.  TF 17 destroyers and cruisers rescued sailors and marines abandoning the Lexington.

 

Sailors and marines evacuating the USS Lexington May 8, 1942. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Explosion on the USS Lexington May 8, 1942, shortly after Captain Sherman left the ship. Note aircraft being blown off the deck. Destroyer USS Hammann ship’s bow is shown in far left of photograph rescuing the crew.  National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Explosions and fires on the USS Lexington May 8, 1942. National Archives, Washington D.C.

 

By 1830 hours 2,735 surviving sailors and marines had been evacuated from the Lexington.  Two hundred and sixteen men had been killed in action.  

Captain Sherman was the last man to leave the Lexington.

The destroyer USS Phelps was ordered to sink the Lexington for several reasons:  (1) the ship could not be saved, (2) the US Navy did not want the Lexington to become a trophy for the Japanese, and (3) the US Navy did not want it discovered that the ship had been lost — at least not at that time.

The Phelps fired torpedoes into the Lexington at 1841 hours.  It was reported that the hull was glowing “cherry red” from the fires.  The ship took about an hour to sink.  

There were losses of men and ships on both sides. But the Allies had blocked the Operation Mo Japanese drive into the Coral Sea to Port Moresby.  Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue ordered the Japanese invasion force to return to port.

[The public would learn of the loss of the USS Lexington (CV-2) in June 1942.  The Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company in Quincy, Massachusetts, where the ship was originally built, was in the process of building a new ship to be named the USS Cabot.  The shipyard petitioned US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to change the name of the ship from Cabot to Lexington, and he agreed.  The (fifth) USS Lexington (CV-16) was commissioned on February 17, 1943, and would be assigned to the Pacific.  The Japanese several times would sight CV-16 and were confused thinking the ship had been sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea. CV-16 got the nickname “The Blue Ghost.”]

 

Stories about the survivors of the sinking of the USS Lexington (CV-2) .

 

James A. Phinney III.  Oral History Interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on July 15, 2010.  He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.

 

James A. Phinney III oral history interview July 15, 2010, in San Antonio, Texas.  Photograph video frame from 2010 interview.

 

Jim was born in Childress, Texas, on November 12, 1923, and was raised in Hugo, Oklahoma.  He graduated from high school in May 1941 and then joined the US Navy.  He was on his way to church on December 7, 1941, when he heard about the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.

After training stateside Jim was assigned to the USS Lexington. While training in Pearl Harbor awaiting the arrival of the aircraft carrier that was out to sea, he recalled that he and his friends would run over to a nearby Dole Pineapple Company building to drink pineapple juice coming out of the drinking fountains.

Jim would board the Lexington in April 1942.  He was assigned as an electrician Seaman First Class.

On  May 8, 1942, Jim was on the flight deck checking electrical systems in the aircraft.  He caught sight of a plane flying off the port side of the ship that dropped something.  His first thought was that something fell off a plane and that “somebody has sure messed up.” It was actually a Japanese torpedo plane dropping the first torpedo to hit the Lexington

After hours of fighting off attacking Japanese airplanes and fighting fires, the crew was ordered to “abandon ship.”  

Jim related in his interview that there was a plan to evacuate the crew in groups.  He said his group had a period of time to wait until their turn to evacuate, so they went to the “ship’s service store soda fountain,” also known as the “Gedunk,” and ate ice cream.  [Ice cream in WWII was a great treat for the sailors and marines.  You will be reading about ice cream again later in this story.]

It was about 65 feet down from the flight deck to the water.  Before starting down the rope lines, Jim said they took the emergency life rafts out of the remaining aircraft (36 aircraft would be lost in the sinking), inflated the rafts, and threw them overboard.  After getting in the water, they swam to the rafts.  A cruiser was the first to try to rescue them off the raft without success.  The destroyer USS Hammann would later pick them up. He said the crew of the destroyer had to “scrub them down” because they were soaked in salt water and fuel oil.  [The Hammann would later be sunk at the Battle of Midway.]

On the way to Tonga [an archipelago of 169 islands in the South Pacific at that time a British Protectorate],  the rescued crew on the Hammann were transferred to the cruiser USS Portland.  From Tonga a troop ship took them to San Diego.

 

Tonga archipelago in South Pacific Ocean. Map WorldAtlas.com.

 

Jim’s next assignment would be on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.  

Having several shore assignments after the Enterprise, then First Class Petty Officer Electricians Mate James Phinney would be in Houston, Texas, when he heard WWII ended.

Jim, after being discharged from the US Navy, would use the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the GI Bill) to further his education.  After that he rejoined the US Navy and would retire as a Warrant Officer with over 20 years of service.

Jim passed away on September 9, 2015.

 

Julius Harry Frey.  Oral History Interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War, in Fredericksburg, Texas, on August 6, 2013. He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Harry Frey. Photograph mynssa.nssa-nsca.org.

 

Harry was born in Laredo, Texas, on March 6, 1923.  When he was six weeks old the family moved to San Antonio, Texas.  He was 17 years old when he joined the US Navy in 1940 and had not graduated from high school.  [In 1946 after serving in WWII he would graduate from Breckenridge High School in San Antonio and continue his education.] 

Trained in the military as an Aviation Metalsmith, Harry’s first assignment was on the USS Lexington.  He was assigned to the pilot “ready room” keeping statistics on the aircraft.

The Lexington was two days at sea out from Pearl Harbor delivering aircraft to Midway Island when the ship’s captain announced that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941.  The ship returned to Pearl Harbor on December 13.  Harry remarked in his interview that the oil on the water was about two inches thick and difficult for smaller boats to even pass through it.

On May 8, 1942, Harry was standing on the landing at the Lexington emergency battery locker of the ship’s superstructure when the first torpedo hit the ship.  Aircraft were trying to land, others trying to take off, some planes landed and were shoved over the side, and others were sent to land on the USS Yorktown.

When Captain Sherman gave the order to “abandon ship” Harry reported to his muster station on the port side of the ship near the aft (stern) elevator. The area was just above the Gedunk.  While his group was waiting to evacuate, Harry remembered the ice cream.  

From Harry’s interview, “So, I rolled off the flight deck onto the next level. There was a big lock on the hatch going into the Gedunk.  Now there was a fire axe there, so I took the axe, and it took only one blow to knock off the lock.  I went in and took my helmet off, … , and I went behind the counter and loaded my helmet with pineapple ice cream.  …  Then I went out and I tossed it up to my buddy on the flight deck.” His buddy and others rolled off the flight deck, went into the Gedunk, and got more ice cream. He and his buddies got back up to the deck, and Harry continued, “So, when they came around to muster, everybody was up there eating ice cream.”

Harry would evacuate the Lexington using rope lines.  He was wearing a life jacket but took if off because it was difficult to swim. After about 30 minutes swimming he was picked up by the destroyer USS Morris.  Again from Harry’s interview, “Someone grabbed me and hauled me up on the deck.  I must have laid there for fifteen or twenty minutes … I looked, and I saw these ox-blood shiny shoes and the trouser had a sharp crease in them and this guy says, ‘I know this guy.  He is from our neighborhood back in San Antonio.’  He was a marine on the Morris.”

Harry and others rescued by the Morris were transferred to the cruiser USS Chester and transported to Tonga and then to San Diego.

After visiting his family in San Antonio Harry was assigned to the escort carrier USS Card. The Card provided protection for convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, searched for German submarines, and would see action in the North African Campaign (June 10, 1940 – May 13, 1943).  Harry’s next assignment was the aircraft carrier USS Bennington.  

Being on the shakedown cruise of both the Card and Bennington earned Harry what the US Navy calls a “Plank Owner” card for the two ships.

After WWII Harry used the GI Bill to get a degree from Trinity University in San Antonio and a master’s degree from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma.  

Harry did earn some credits from Sul Ross State College in Alpine, Texas.  He said he was into roping at that time and could take his horse with him. 

Harry Frey passed away on August 22, 2016.  On July 15, 2017, his and his wife’s ashes were “buried at sea” from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan with a 21 gun salute at the location in the Coral Sea where the USS Lexington (CV-2) sank in WWII.

 

Harry Frey’s burial at sea with a 21 gun salute on the USS Ronald Reagan July 15, 2017. US Navy.

 

 

[After my oral history colleague, Floyd Cox, and I interviewed Jim Phinney and Harry Frey, we realized they didn’t know each other while assigned to the Lexington nor that they both lived in San Antonio.  I asked their permission and passed on contact information to them.

Jim and Harry got together for hamburgers over lunch in San Antonio and talked about their experiences on the Lexington.

I forgot to ask if they had ice cream for dessert.]

 

The Patten brothers from Iowa.  

 

Seven Patten brothers assigned to the battleship USS Nevada. Photograph siouxcityjournal.com.

 

December 7, 1941, the battleship USS Nevada was berthed next to the battleship USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.  Because of battleship arrival times at Pearl Harbor, the Arizona was berthed in the usual place of the Nevada.  

The Nevada was badly damaged during the surprise Japanese attack. All the brothers survived and were then assigned to the Lexington. The Patten brothers were all survivors of the sinking of the Lexington.

After the death of the five Sullivan brothers in the sinking of the light cruiser USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Patten brothers served on different ships.

Floyd Patten, the boys’ father, received an age waiver during WWII to join the Navy.  Sadly he died of cancer in March 1945.  

The youngest Patten brother, Wayne, had the nickname “Patten pending” until he was old enough to join the Navy. 

The eight Patten brothers would all return home when WWII ended. 

 

Admiral Wags.  Commanding officer of the USS Lexington, Captain Sherman, had his dog Admiral Wags with him on the ship.  He was a cocker spaniel that according to the tale (not the tail) had his own muster station under the captain’s bed.

 

Picture of Admiral Wags and Captain Sherman. Photographs defensemedianetwork.com.

 

Captain Sherman was the last man off the Lexington and was able to rescue Admiral Wags.  Evacuated on different ships, they were reunited at Tonga.

Fanny Jessop Sherman, wife of Captain Sherman, wrote a children’s book about Admiral Wags published in 1943.

Admiral Wags passed away and was buried in the Shermans’ backyard with “full military honors” in 1949 at the age of 17.

 

 

Writer and WWII US Navy veteran Herman Wouk wrote two books about WWII The Winds of War and War and Remembrance that were made into two miniseries in the 1980s.  During the filming of War and Remembrance the USS Lexington (CV-16) [which at that time was designated AVT-16, training aircraft carrier] was used as a stand-in for both US Navy and IJN ships recreating battles in the Pacific.  

 

Staging on the flight deck of the USS Lexington (AVT-16) during the filming of War and Remembrance.  Photograph nara.getarchive.net.

 

The USS Lexington is now the USS Lexington Museum in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The book Stay the Rising Sun by Phil Keith has an extremely detailed  narrative of the sinking of the USS Lexington and the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

An article with more information on Admiral Wags can be found on the Defense Media Network website.

On March 4, 2018, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s expedition crew of the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel discovered the wreckage of the USS Lexington (CV-2) 76 years after being sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.  The oral history interviews of James Phinney and Julius Harry Frey are in the museum archive.  Jim Phinney’s oral history interview can be listened to online.

Thank you to Floyd Cox, my oral historian colleague, at the National  Museum of the Pacific War.  

Thank you to US Navy veteran and US Naval Academy graduate Clifford L. Deets (Lcdr, USN ret.) for providing information on Navy terminology and Navy life.

Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.

 


WWII 97th Infantry Division in Europe and the Pacific: And the Story of Private First Class Harold F. McDonald

 

Private First Class (Pfc.) Harold F. McDonald, US Army 97th Infantry Division, photograph “To my Family, Harold” circa 1943/1944.  Photograph courtesy of the McDonald Family.

 

Harold Franklin “Mac” McDonald was born July 24, 1923, on a farm in Menifee County, Kentucky, to parents Frank and Anna (née Bowling) McDonald.  He had three siblings.  His parents managed the Bowling farm during the Great Depression.  The main crop of the farm was tobacco.

Japanese Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, December 7, 1941.

On December 7, 1941, Mac returned to the farm after rabbit hunting. He found his father pacing the floor.  Frank told his son the news.  It was particularly upsetting to Frank hearing of the sinking of the United States Ship (USS) Nevada; Frank was a sailor on the USS Nevada in WWI.

Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Chester, Pennsylvania.

Mac graduated from high school a term early and found a job as a machinist at Sun Shipbuilding.  

[At the beginning of WWII Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company was one of the largest shipyards in the United States (US).  During the war the company built tankers, escort carriers, hospital ships, and cargo ships for the US Maritime Commission.]

While working at Sun Shipbuilding, Mac tried to join the Merchant Marine and the US Navy.  He was rejected; he was color-blind.  When Mac heard he would soon be drafted,  he decided to return to Kentucky because he wanted to enter the military from his home state.  

Mac was a good worker at Sun Shipbuilding; he was promoted three times.  His supervisor offered him a military deferment to continue to work there.  Mac said no.  That was the first of two opportunities Mac had to not go to war.

Military Training.

Harold Franklin McDonald was inducted into the US Army on February 11, 1943.  Private (Pvt.) McDonald trained as a combat infantryman and was assigned as a gunner in a five-man mortar squad with the US Army 97th Infantry Division (ID).  He was promoted to Private First Class (Pfc.) on September 16, 1944.

Stateside training concluded in California.  During a training exercise in the surrounding hills around San Diego, California, a brush fire burned Mac’s hands, and he was hospitalized at nearby Camp Cook.  The burns became gangrenous.  A military physician told him that he could get a medical discharge.  That was Mac’s second opportunity to not go to war.  

Many of the 97th ID training exercises in California involved amphibious landings.  Mac said their “graduation” exercise was a full scale, live ammunition, amphibious beach landing on San Clemente Island off the coast of California with 500 pound bombs dropped. Many soldiers in the 97th ID thought they were going to be sent to the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO).  The US Army 97th ID was sent (first) to the European Theater of Operations (ETO).  

[According to the history of the 97th ID, it was sent to Europe instead of the Pacific because of the high loss of US military during the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944 – January 25, 1945.)]

By train from California to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

The 97th ID left California by train traveling the Santa Fe Railroad southern route through Texas.  The trip took about five days.  

[Camp Kilmer was one of the staging areas on the east coast for military units being sent to the European Theater.  Transport ships carrying military troops and supplies would depart New York City and cross the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.]

While waiting for a ship at Camp Kilmer, the troops could get a military pass to visit New York City.  One of the most famous and popular places to visit was Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge near Forty-Ninth Street.  [William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey was a US professional boxer who held the world heavyweight title from 1919 to 1926.] 

 

 

At Jack Dempsey’s Bar and Lounge in 1945, left to right: Staff Sergeant Charles Birkes, Private First Class Harold McDonald, and First Sergeant Jules Donoff.  Photograph courtesy of the McDonald Family.

 

The 97th ID sailed from New York City on February 19, 1945, on the Merchant Ship (MS) Sea Robin and docked at La Havre, France, on March 2, 1945.

In a 2011 oral history interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, Colonel Harold F. McDonald, US Army Reserve (Retired), shared his experiences during WWII.

The European Theater of Operations (ETO).

Pfc. McDonald was now assigned to the 386th Infantry Regiment, Company C.

On March 29, 1945, the 97th ID was transported in 40 x 8 (40 men or 8 horses) boxcars from Rouen, France, through Maastricht, Netherlands, to the German border.  At the border the train engine was changed to the rear of the line of boxcars which were then pushed across a bridge into the area around Aachen, Germany.  As the men got off the train, they lined up in columns of two and marched toward the front lines. Mac remembers the sound of boots marching on snow, seeing dead bodies lying in a minefield, and observed the night sky lit up by artillery fire.

Mac’s company took up a defensive position across the Rhine River from Düsseldorf, Germany.  As the 97th ID position moved south along the Rhine at one time they were relieved by a US Army 101st Airborne unit. They watched the 101st add multiple telephone lines to prevent the loss of communication in the area.  Mac said they were “very impressed” with the 101st and learned the importance of redundancy.  Also, they noticed the “battle tested” 101st put their trench knives in their boots.  Mac said he and his company started to put their trench knives in their boots.

As Mac and his company advanced into Germany they encountered groups of displaced persons (DP) fleeing west, mostly Polish and Czech slave laborers who were forced to work in German armament factories.  [A DP is defined as a person outside the border of their home country when WWII ended.]

The 97th ID crossed the Sieg River in Germany on April 7, 1945, and joined the Battle for the Ruhr Pocket (April 1 – 18, 1945).  

[During the Battle for the Ruhr Pocket, Pfc. Joe R. Hastings of the 97th ID, 386th Infantry Regiment, Company C would distinguish himself in action when attacking an enemy position at Drabenderhöhe, Germany.  He would posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor.  Mac knew him; they had played cards together.] 

After capturing a German town in the Ruhr and having some stand-down time,  Mac and another soldier “liberated” a German Opal and drove into the forested hills north of the town.  In the forest they were taken by surprise when German soldiers surrounded the car. Mac got out of the vehicle, started to put his hands up, saw a German soldier with his arms up in surrender, quickly reassessed the situation, put his hands down, took out his .45 calibre pistol, shot it into the air, and then aimed it at the Germans and said, “You are my prisoners.”  A German soldier handed his MP40 submachine gun (Allies called it a Schmeisser) to Mac in a gesture of surrender.  Mac fired  it into the air, and it jammed; the soldier took the submachine gun back from him, unjammed it, and handed it back to Mac.  A German major, in perfect English, said he would only surrender to an officer.  There being no US Army officer nearby, he decided to surrender to Pfc. Harold McDonald and asked to bury the German dead before they left the area.  The request was granted.  Pfc. McDonald ordered the Germans to line up in a column of two, and they marched out of the forest into the town where Mac’s unit was waiting for the surrendering Germans.  Mac said he and the German major talked during the march.  The major who was in charge of an artillery unit told Mac his last order was to use all of his ammunition, and then they could surrender.  

Mac said in his interview that “surrendering is an art” that may or may not be successful.

On April 25, 1945, during combat with the Germans in a partially wooded area just inside the Germany and Czechoslovakia border, a member of Mac’s unit, Pfc. John “Jack” Van Valkenberg, was shot in the abdomen by a German.  The company medic, Pfc. Charles Kuhlman, who was identifiable with a Red Cross on his helmet and on his medical bag, went into an open field to treat him.  Jack did not survive his wound.  Pfc. Kuhlman was walking back to the American line when he was shot in the back by a German.  He was within a few feet of Mac; Mac was looking at him.  Mac saw the fatal bullet exit through the medic’s field jacket pocket. The 97th called in an artillery attack on the wooded area and approximately 50 Germans surrendered.

The 97th ID had advanced into Czechoslovakia when on May 8, 1945, WWII officially ended in the ETO.  The division moved back in stages to Le Havre, France, and on June 16, 1945, set sail for Boston, Massachusetts.

The division was given a 30-day leave back in the US.

The Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO).

On September 1, 1945, the 97th ID departed Seattle, Washington, on the USS General John Pope for the Pacific Theater.  Mac said a band was playing the Glenn Miller song Sentimental Journey when the ship left.

On September 2, 1945, the Japanese officially surrendered to the Allies on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan.

The 97th ID arrived in Yokohama, Japan, on September 25, 1945.  The division would be part the post WWII Allied occupation force with an assignment to dispose of and confiscate Japanese military property.  Mac’s company was sent to Chichibu in the Saitama Prefecture on Honshu.  One of their duties was to guard the Asan gas dump and aviation fuel tanks and to insure all military factories in the area were closed.  They found a closed factory building where Japanese uniforms were made during the war.  However, the factory owner had moved the manufacturing equipment to a dormitory housing workers and set up a production line there.  The factory was closed a second time.

In February 1946 the 97th began sending troops back to the US.  Mac recalled taking a train from Chichibu to Tokyo, Japan.  While waiting for a ship returning Allied troops to the US, he played his first game of golf at the Tokyo Country Club.

Due to rough weather in the Pacific Ocean, Mac’s military transport ship returned to Los Angeles, California, instead of Seattle.  The ship arrived at night; there were no bands or welcoming crowds.  But Mac had survived the war.  He was 22 years old.

On March 31, 1946, the US Army 97th ID was inactivated in Yokohama.

[The last official shot of WWII in the ETO was credited to Pfc. Domenic Mozzetta of the 97th ID, 387th Infantry Regiment, Company B when before midnight on May 7, 1945, he shot at a German sniper near the town of Klenovice in Czechoslovakia.

During WWII the 97th ID had liberated a prisoner of war camp in Hoffnungstal, Germany; liberated (with the 90th ID) Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, Germany; and liberated Helmbrechts, Germany, concentration camp, a Flossenbürg sub-camp for women.

Counter-intelligence officers of the 97th ID in Japan would find $3 million dollars of silver bullion in Iida and $2.5 million dollars of stolen radium in the Osaka German consulate on October 26, 1945. In Karuizawa on October 31, 1945, the 97th ID counter-intelligence Special Agent Robie Macauley arrested 26 prominent Nazis who were hiding there.]

After WWII using the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, Mac attended the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering.  While in school he met a young lady, Sara (Sally) Yetter.  They were married in 1950 and had three children.

Many returning servicemen after WWII decided to stay in the US military either on active duty or in the reserves.  Mac joined the US Army Reserve.  In his civilian life, he had a successful career as a businessman and banker.  He retired from the US Army Reserve as a Colonel in 1978.

 

Retirement ceremony for US Army Colonel Harold F. McDonald in 1978. His wife is standing to his left.  Photograph courtesy of the McDonald Family.

 

Harold F. “Mac” McDonald passed away on June 14, 2012.  When I interviewed him in 2011 he had a final thought about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan that ended WWII.  When Mac arrived for occupation duty in 1945 he saw three rows of trenches dug along the shoreline around Yokohama.  During his time in Japan he observed the military capabilities of the Japanese and the spirit of the citizenry who would have fought to their death.  His belief was that many more Japanese and Allied lives, above the number of those lost in the dropping of the two atomic bombs, would have been lost if  the planned Allied invasion of Japan (Operation Downfall) had taken place.  

 

 

Thank you to Kathleen, Linda, and John, the children of Harold McDonald for their help in researching this story and for permission to use the photographs.

Harold F. McDonald’s full interview is in the archives of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.  Thank you to museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.

Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.

Thank you to WWII historian and researcher Sue Moyer.

Thank you to historian G.L. Lamborn.

 


Escape Over the Pyrenees Mountains: And the Story of WWII B-17 Gunner “Bud” Owens

 

Francis “Bud” Owens during B-17 Flying Fortress training with the 381st Bombardment Group at Pyote Army Air Base, Texas, spring 1943.  Photograph WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society.

 

Francis Edward “Bud” Owens was born December 26, 1923, in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania.  He was one of 10 children.  

Bud enlisted in the United States (US) Army after the December 7, 1941, Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii.  He became a member of the newly formed United States Army Air Force 381st Bombardment Group (BG) flying the B-17 Flying Fortress and trained in Pyote, Texas, and Pueblo, Colorado.  The 381st BG arrived at Ridgewell, Station 167, County Essex, England, in May and June 1943.  Staff Sergeant (S/Sgt.) Owens was assigned as a B-17 gunner in the 533rd Bombardment Squadron (BS).

June 23, 1943.  In the early morning darkness the 533rd BS Ordance crew was loading bombs (with the fuses in place*) on B-17 tail number 42-30024 for a mission that day.  One of the bombs exploded and caused a series of explosions as other bombs and ammunition aboard and near the plane also blew up.  S/Sgt. Owens was in a nearby aircraft cleaning the guns when he saw a man who was still alive lying on the ground in the explosion area.  He ran over and pulled Private First Class Glen W. Burkland to safety.  For his bravery S/Sgt. Owens was awarded the Soldier’s Medal which is awarded for “distinguishing oneself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”  Twenty-three men of the 381st BG and one civilian died that day.

July 4, 1943.  Wartime industrial installations in Le Mans, France, were the Allied targets for the US Eighth Air Force that day.  Ninety-five B-17s were deployed for the mission.  Four B-17s were lost.  

One of the aircraft lost that day was 381st BG B-17 42-29928.  Flying to the target it was attacked by Messerschmitt 109 (ME 109) German fighter planes.  After the number 4 engine and the rudder were hit and with the oxygen line to the rear of the aircraft compromised, Pilot First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Olof M. Ballinger made the decision to drop out of formation and attempt to return to England.  German fighters continued to attack and anti-aircraft artillery flak was in the air.  B-17 Navigator Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt.) Paul H. McConnell shot down an ME 109 with machine gun fire.  Ballinger gave the crew the order to bailout.  

Left Waist Gunner Owens, realizing no one had heard from the radio operator, opened the door of the radio room discovering a seriously wounded Radio Operator Technical Sergeant (T/Sgt.) John K. Lane.  Flak had most likely hit the aircraft under the radio room, and there was a fire.  Seeing Lane’s condition and noticing his parachute was on fire, Bud pulled him from the room over to the B-17 waist hatch, put his own parachute on Lane, and pushed him out of the plane while pulling the D ring on the parachute.  He then found the spare parachute in the plane, put it on, and jumped.  [T/Sgt. Lane would be found by the Germans, treated for his injuries, and became a prisoner of war (POW).]

Bombardier 2nd Lt. George C. Williams’ parachute accidentally deployed inside of the B-17.  He was last seen moving toward the back of the plane to locate the spare parachute.  2nd Lt. Williams, Ball Turret Gunner S/Sgt. Albert G. Wackermann, and Right Waist Gunner S/Sgt. Harry W. Bauscher were killed in action that day.

The B-17 crashed and exploded in a farm field just south of the village of La Coulonche in the Normandy region of France.  

Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner T/Sgt. Byron J. Gronstal  became a POW.  Pilot 1st Lt. Olof M. Ballinger, Co-Pilot 2nd Lt. John M. Carah, Navigator 2nd Lt. Paul H. McConnell, Tail Gunner S/Sgt. William C. Howell, and S/Sgt. Francis E. Owens escaped capture by the Germans and were found by members of the French Resistance.

[Resistance groups in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Denmark formed escape and evasion lines to rescue British and American airmen shot down over occupied Europe and to help in their return to England.  

 

Map of WWII Pat, Comet, and Shelburne Escape Lines.  Map WWII Netherlands Escape Lines.

 

The Pat Line (also known as the Pat O’Leary Line), the Comet Line, and the Shelburne Line are noted in the illustration above.  There were other escape lines also, and routes could vary depending on German presence or activity in an area.  Resistance members and Helpers (those people sheltering airmen, providing food and clothing, accompanying them between safe houses and other locations), if caught by the Germans, could be arrested, sent to concentration camps, or executed.  

It is estimated that about 5,000 Allied airmen were helped to evade capture by the Germans in WWII.]

1st Lt. Ballinger and S/Sgt. Owens were found by local Frenchmen on July 4 after parachuting from the B-17 and were reunited while hiding in the area.  

September 1, 1943. Ballinger and Owens were moved from the Normandy countryside to Paris.

October 21, 1943. They left Paris by train for southern France with other evaders to begin the journey over the Pyrenees Mountains. 

 

The Pyrenees Mountains divide France from Spain and stretch about 270 miles (435 kilometers) from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea.  Photograph World Atlas.

 

The plan for the escape group was to climb from France over the Pyrenees to Andorra and then into Spain.  Map World Atlas.

 

The  Allied escape group consisted of seven Americans and seven French military officers.  [Not much historically is known about the Frenchmen in the group.]  The American evaders:

 

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and Boren family.

Major William T. Boren, Pilot, B-26 Marauder, 387th BG.  Aircraft crashed in France September 21, 1943.  

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and daughters Debra and Patricia Ballinger.

1st Lt. Olof M. Ballinger, Pilot, 381st BG.  B-17 shot down over France on July 4, 1943.

 

 

 

 

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and Keith Murray.

1st Lt. Keith W. Murray, Bombardier, 95th BG.  B-17 shot down near Paris, France, on September 6, 1943.

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and grandson Aaron Leary.

2nd Lt. Charles H. Hoover, Pilot, 381st BG.  B-17 shot down over Belgium on September 3, 1943.

 

 

 

 

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and cousin K. Ellis.

2nd Lt. Harold B. Bailey, Navigator, 379th BG.  Bailed out of B-17 August 16, 1943 near Paris, France.

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and brother Oscar Plasket.

T/Sgt. William B. Plasket, Jr., Radio Operator, 306th BG.  B-17 crashed near Rouen, France, on September 6, 1943.

 

 

 

Photograph WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society.

 

 

S/Sgt. Francis E. Owens, Waist Gunner, 381st BG.  B-17 shot down July 4, 1943, over France.

 

 

 

October 22, 1943.  The journey over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain started in the foothills of the mountains near Suc, France, with local guide Emile Delpy and another unidentified guide.   

French guide Emile Delpy. Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and Claude Benet (Andorra, Spain, historian).

The Americans who had been in hiding for months were weak from inactivity and lack of food.  The French provided the evaders with what food they could, but the German seizure of French provisions left the French with inadequate food supplies.  

To disguise the evaders the French Resistance and Helpers provided them with French clothing and footwear.  But the clothing and footwear were inadequate for the climb and the unforeseen weather.  An early snowstorm blanketed the Pyrenees with about three feet of snow.  

1st Lt. Ballinger due to weakness and leg cramping dropped out of the group and hid from the Germans in the area.  [Ballinger would later cross the Pyrenees on his own, with good weather, navigating by the stars and sun.  He eventually reached Gibralter, a British Overseas Territory, in southern Spain and returned to England on December 3, 1943.]

During the climb up the Pyrenees 2nd Lt. Bailey collapsed and could no longer walk.  According to interviews with surviving evaders, Sergeants Plasket and Owens dragged and carried Bailey about eight hours of the journey as the group ascended up the mountains.  The group had crossed into Spain and started their descent when Owens and Plasket collapsed from exhaustion.  Bailey and Plasket were unconscious.  Owens was semi-conscious but couldn’t move.  The guides tried to revive the three men without success.  After several attempts the guides made the difficult decision to continue on with the remaining ten evaders.  The three American airmen were left behind in the snow.  

On or about October 25, 1943.  Believed to be the date of death of the three American airmen in the Pyrenees Mountains.

Spring 1944.  Three bodies without identification were discovered in the mountains by Andorran shepherds.  They were buried in a cemetery near Arinsal, Andorra.  

1951.  An American Graves Registration unit disinterred the bodies in 1950 and positively identified them in 1951.

Harold Brunson Bailey was buried at the Lancaster Memorial Park in Lancaster, South Carolina.

William Beebe Plasket, Jr., was buried at the East View Cemetery in Salem, New Jersey.

October 1, 1951.  Francis Edward “Bud” Owens was buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.  While he was being laid to rest, Bud’s family members, at that moment, were attending a Requiem Mass in his memory at Saint Mary Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

2006.  In September 1943 before being moved to Paris by the French Underground, Bud gave his military identification “dog tags” to the Duval family who had hidden him in the Normandy countryside.  In the 1980s, former Ballinger crew member Paul McConnell visited La Coulonche.  He was given the dog tags and asked to return them to the Owens family next of kin if he could find them.  Paul McConnell passed away without finding the family, and the responsibility was given to Warren Carah, son of the crew Co-Pilot John M. Carah.  In 2006 Warren presented Bud’s dog tags to the Owens family in Pittsburgh.

 

 

 

Co-Pilot 2nd Lt. John M. Carah, Navigator 2nd Lt. Paul H. McConnell, Tail Gunner S/Sgt. William C. Howell were helped by other French Resistance groups after they parachuted from their B-17 on July 4, 1943.  They crossed the Pyrenees, were helped by British diplomats once in Spain, and returned to England in February 1944.

Lieutenant Colonel John M. Carah, US Air Force (Retired), would later write a book Achtung! Achtung! Die Flugfestungen Kommen! (Attention! Attention! The Flying Fortresses Are Coming!), Memoirs of WW-II  with his son Warren Carah who edited the book.  It provides in-depth information about the Ballinger crew and the experiences of other downed American airmen in WWII Europe.  Thank you to Warren Carah for his support in the research for this story.  He can be contacted at wcarah@livingonline.com.

*In a 2013 documentary From Pyote to Fortress Europe about the WWII 381st BG, 533rd BS Ordnance Chief S/Sgt. Joe H. Willis, on the taxi strip at the time of the June 23, 1943, explosion, said in a 2003 interview with WWII Historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams that procedures after that incident were changed when loading bombs into aircraft.  Fuses were placed in the bombs after they were loaded, not before, and fewer people were allowed in the area around a plane during the loading.

A 2016 documentary filmed in France, Spain, and Belgium Preserving a Legacy: In the Footsteps of Bud Owens Belgian battlefield guide Geert Van den Bogaert leads a group from the Normandy countryside, hiking over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, with the film concluding at the grave of Bud Owens in the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.  Bud’s niece, Colleen Brennan, and his great-niece, Hayley Hulbert, represented Bud on the journey.  Thank you to the Owens family for providing information used in the writing of this story.

Early in WWII escape lines were mainly financed by individuals in German-occupied countries.  Later on monetary support was given by the British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9 (MI-9) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).  Support included agents parachuting into occupied countries to help the Resistance and bringing maps, money, and false documents with them to help downed Allied airmen.  Pyrenees guide Emile Delpy worked with MI-9.

The WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society identifies and describes many of the escape lines used in WW2 Europe.  Search this website for additional stories about Bud Owens.

Thank you to WWII Historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, WWII Historian and Researcher Sue Moyer, 306th BG Historical Association Historian Clifford Deets, and Editor of the 8th Air Force News Magazine Debra Kujawa.

 


The German Resistance: The WWII Story of Otto and Hanna Kiep

 

Dr. Otto Kiep and his wife, Hanna, circa 1920s.  Private, undated photograph; Commemoration of German Resistance.

 

“He was never famous, and hardly anyone now remembers his name, but he was a very special kind of man ….  It was his honesty which led to his death.  He refused to tell lies to his friends at a time when telling the truth was a crime.”  From Ice Set Free: The Story of Otto Kiep by Bruce Clements.

 

Otto Carl Kiep was born on July 7, 1886, in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland, to the Imperial German Consul for Glasgow and Western Scotland Johannes and Charlotte Kiep.  His father and uncle had a timber importing business in Glasgow.  Otto had three brothers and one sister.  By 1909 the family had moved back to Germany and lived in Ballenstedt in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt.  

Otto Kiep earned a Bachelor of Law degree in London, England, and a Doctor of Law degree from the University of Leipzig in Germany. 

In 1925 when he met his future wife, Hanna Alves, Dr. Kiep was the Reich Chief Press Officer of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933).

Hanna Alves was born February 10, 1904, in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, Germany.  She studied law and political science in Berlin, Germany; Geneva, Switzerland; and Oxford, England.

Otto and Hanna met at a party in Berlin in February 1925 at the home of a mutual friend.  They were married December 14, 1925, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.  

On December 20, 1926, Hanna gave birth to their first child, a son, they named Nikolaus Friedrich Albrecht Kiep.  They called him Albrecht.

 

Portrait of Hanna Kiep in 1928 with her two year old son, Albrecht.  Photograph credit ullstein bild/GRANGER.

 

From December 1926 to 1929 Otto served as Counselor to the German Embassy in Washington, District of Columbia (D.C.), in the United States (US).  It would be the first of his two German government postings there.  

The Kiep family returned to Germany in 1929, and their second child, Hildegard, was born August 10, 1929, in Berlin-Dahlem.

In 1932 Dr. Kiep was in New York City, New York, serving as the German Consul General.  

 

Photograph caption: German literary genius honored at City Hall. Dr. Gerhart Hauptmann, the most distinguished figure in the literature of Germany across a generation, was formally honored today, Feb. 26, with a reception at New York City Hall. Left to right [first row], on the steps of City Hall, during the ceremonies, are: Dr. O.C. Kiep, German Consul General; Major William Deegan; Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University; Mrs. Gerhart Hauptmann; Gerhart Hauptmann; Mayor Walker and Victor Ridder, Publisher of a German newspaper in New York.  Photograph taken at New York City Hall on February 26, 1932, by ACME Newspictures, Inc. 

 

Eleven months after the above photograph was taken Adolph Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.  The Weimar Republic had ended, and so began the rise of the Third Reich which lasted until May 1945.

On March 16, 1933, Dr. Kiep spoke at a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City in honor of German mathematician Dr. Albert Einstein.  He made complimentary remarks about the United States and Dr. Einstein in the speech.  The comments were brought to the attention of the German government and Chancellor Hitler.  Dr. Kiep was summoned back to Germany and had a personal meeting with Hitler.  In the Bruce Clements’ book From Ice Set Free: The Story of Otto Kiep Otto told of being lectured for ten minutes by Adolph Hitler on the future of the Third Reich.  He also observed that Hitler did not just look at you, but he “watched you.”

Their third child, Hanna Charlotte, was born in New York City on June 2, 1933.

After continuing pressure from the National Socialist Party,  Otto wrote a letter of resignation as German Consul General on July 15, 1933.

From 1934 to early 1936 Dr. Kiep represented the German Foreign Ministry in business negotiations in South America and East Asia.  In 1936 he was chosen as the German representative to the International Committee on Non-Intervention in London, England.  He and Hanna would return to Germany in August 1939.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland.  WWII began.

The Abwehr … a secret nest of German Resistance.  By the end of September 1939 Otto had been drafted into the German military counter-intelligence service, the Abwehr, and worked for Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of the Abwehr, and Wehrmacht General Hans Oster.  Shortly before the start of WWII, Hans Oster recruited Hans von Dohnányi, a German jurist into the Abwehr.  

[Hans von Dohnányi was the brother-in-law of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  In 1941 he brought Dietrich into the Abwehr under the pretense that his “ecumenical contacts” would be of assistance to Germany.  Dietrich would become a courier within the German Resistance movement.

Admiral Canaris, initially supported Hitler, but by 1939 he and other anti-Nazis were working secretly to subvert the Nazi government.  He and many other resisters would eventually be arrested for treason and executed.]

The Solf Circle.  Dr. Kiep and others had social connections to resistance groups.  One such group was the Solf Circle.  Hanna Solf, the widow of Dr. Wilhelm Solf who had served in the Weimar Republic, would bring together German intellectuals to discuss the war.  A member of the Solf Circle, Elizabeth von Thadden, on September 10, 1943, hosted a birthday party and invited Dr. Paul Reckzeh who claimed to be a Swiss physician and sympathetic to the German Resistance.  He was in reality a Gestapo spy.  Many of the guests at the party would later be arrested.  [Dr. Reckzeh would be the main witness at Otto Kiep’s trial that began on July 1, 1944.  He took the witness stand wearing his SS uniform.]

Dr. Otto Kiep was arrested at his home at Taubertstrasse 15, Berlin-Grunewald on January 16, 1944, at four o’clock in the morning.  Hanna Kiep was arrested later that month.  

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.  After days of interrogation Otto was transported to the German concentration camp of Ravensbrück 56 miles (90 kilometers) north of Berlin.  He was put in a cell below ground in the cell building.  Hanna was also taken to Ravensbrück and imprisoned on the top floor of the cell building.  Neither knew the other was there until they caught a glimpse of one another in late February when both were being moved within the building; they knew to give no sign of recognition of each other.

[Ravensbrück concentration camp was established as a women’s camp in 1939, but in 1944 the “Lange Special Commission” of the Gestapo, which had moved from Berlin because of Allied air raids, used the Ravensbrück cell building to hold and interrogate “special prisoners” such as those involved with the Solf Circle and those later arrested in connection with the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.

Nina Schenk Countess von Stauffenberg, wife of 20 July failed assassin Colonel (Oberst) Claus von Stauffenberg, was one of the “special prisoners” held at Ravensbrück.]

Some of the “special prisoners” managed to write letters and keep a diary during their incarceration and had added privileges as compared to other prisoners in the main camp.  Being able to secretly communicate with one another through letters and notes was a way Otto and Hanna provided each other solace.  Otto knew he would be executed, and while in Ravensbrück he wrote his memoir for his children.

In their communications with each other at Ravensbrück Otto and Hanna would recall past times in their lives.  Before Christmas of 1944 they had read aloud the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.  In a note to Hanna, Otto recalled a passage from the book:  “… soon we shall die and … be loved for a while and forgotten.  But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”  He wrote a poem to her “The Bridge of Love.”  While walking in the yard of the cell building compound during an allowed prison exercise period, Otto looked up at the window of the cell that he knew was hers.  Hanna had written the word BRIDGE on a note card and held it up to the glass window.

In June 1944, on a Sunday afternoon, Otto and Hanna were allowed to meet for a short time.  The SS guards were not on duty on weekends.  Another guard, knowing Otto would soon be moved to Berlin for his trial, allowed them a visit.  

Both Otto and Hanna had shared a love of the play Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  In the play Faust, the protagonist, speaks of spring and Easter.  He goes on an Easter Walk (Osterspaziergang) and during the walk in nature, begins to feel that Easter is a time symbolic of a personal rebirth.  This is a sentence of Faust’s speech as quoted in Bruce Clements’ book:

“From ice set free are brooks and river,

Touched by spring’s fair, life-giving glance,

And in the valley new hope blooms.”

As Otto Kiep walked out of Ravensbrück concentration camp for the last time to be put on trial in Berlin, he glanced up at Hanna’s cell window and saw cards with the words “From ice set free…”

 

Dr. Otto Carl Kiep.  Photograph German Resistance Memorial Center, Berlin, Germany.

 

Dr. Otto Carl Kiep’s trial began in Berlin on July 1, 1944.  He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Hanna Kiep was released from Ravensbrück on July 6, 1944.

On August 26, 1944, Dr. Kiep was hanged at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin.

 

After WWII Hanna Kiep worked in the American occupation zone to establish a civil administration.  While working with the Americans she recognized one of her interrogators at Ravensbrück.  Her testimony led to his arrest.

In 1946 Hanna was Vice-President of the Bavarian Red Cross in Munich.

From 1951-1969 Mrs. Hanna Kiep was the Women’s Affairs Secretary of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.

 

Mrs. Hanna Kiep Women’s Affairs Secretary of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.  Official portrait German Embassy.

 

Hanna Kiep died in Pullach, Germany, on August 22, 1979.

She was survived by her daughters, Hildegard and Hanna.  Her son, Albrecht, was killed on the Eastern Front in WWII.

 

 

 

The personal accounts of the lives of Otto and Hanna Kiep used in this story are found in the book From Ice Set Free: The Story of Otto Kiep written by Bruce Clements.  Mr. Clements was the son-in-law of Hanna Kiep and the husband of Hanna’s daughter, Hanna Charlotte.

Thank you to German historian Dr. Susanne Meinl for assistance in locating information sources and in the research for this story about Otto and Hanna Kiep.

Thank you to Dr. Insa Eschebach, Director, and Cordula Hundertmark, Deputy Director and Head of Scientific Services Department of the Ravensbrück Memorial Museum, for their assistance in my research for this story. 

Thank you to G. L. Lamborn for his research assistance.

Thank you to Professor Charles Hansen for the translation of German documents used in this story.

In August 1971 on a trip with my uncle, US Congressman Alvin E. O’Konski and his wife, Bonnie, I met Mrs. Kiep at a luncheon in Munich, Germany.  They had become friends in Washington, D.C., when Hanna was posted there with the German Embassy.  I remember her as a gracious lady.  Little then did I know of her life and losses in WWII.


History’s Storyteller: The Life of WWII Marine Ed Bearss

 

US Marine Corps Corporal Edwin Cole Bearss wearing his Purple Heart Medal circa 1945.  Photograph archivingwheeling.org.

 

Edwin (Ed) Cole Bearss (pronounced ‘bars’) was born June 26, 1923, in Billings, Montana, to Omar and Virginia Bearss.  He grew up on a 10,000 acre ranch, the B bar S, located 90 miles west of Billings.  The Little Bighorn Battlefield was 35 miles southwest of the ranch.  He had a younger brother, Pat, and there was a time Ed and Pat would ride together on horseback to and from the Sarpy Creek School a distance of six miles from the ranch.

 

Ed and Pat on horseback.  Photograph courtesy of the Bearss Family, Robert Desourdis, and Nova Science Publishers, Inc. 

 

Ed Bearss was born into a lineage of family members who served in the United States (US) Marine Corps.  His father, Omar, was a Marine in WWI. Omar’s cousin Hiram “Hiking Hiram” Bearss was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1901 for extraordinary heroism during the Philippine-American War (February 4, 1899 – July 2, 1902); Hiram Bearss was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1918 for his valor in WWI (1914 -1918).

Omar Bearss would read history books to his boys on subjects including WWI, the American Civil War, and the US Marine Corps.  Ed developed an intense interest in history that infused his life. Charles Crawford of the Georgia Battlefields Association said about Ed, “There was a Marine in Ed before Ed was ever in the Marines.”

On December 7, 1941, the National Football League was finishing its season. Three games were played that day:  the Chicago Bears (34) against the Chicago Cardinals (24), the Brooklyn Dodgers (21) versus the New York Giants (7), and the Washington Redskins (20) played against the Philadelphia Eagles (14).  During these three games public address announcers broadcast early reports of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, or paged government and military personnel to report to their units.

The Bearss family on December 7, 1941, was listening to the Chicago Bears playing against the Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois.  

On April 28, 1942, Ed Bearss enlisted in the US Marine Corps.

Ed arrived at the US Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, on April 30, 1942.  After seven weeks training in Boot Camp Platoon 369,  he was assigned to the newly activated 22nd Marine Regiment (22nd Marines).  On June 18 the 22nd Marines began deployment to the WWII Pacific Theater of Operations.  In September 1942 Ed requested and was assigned to the 3rd Raider Battalion which was being formed in the Samoas.  [The Samoan Islands are an archipelago in the central South Pacific Ocean.]

In April 1943 when the 3rd Raider Battalion was based in New Hebrides (an island group off the northern coast of Australia now called Vanuatu), Ed was diagnosed with malaria and sent to New Zealand for six weeks to recuperate.

Ed didn’t return to the 3rd Raiders after convalescence but was assigned to the 2nd Platoon of  L Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.  The 1st Marine Division would deploy to New Guinea to plan the assault on Cape Gloucester in New Britain, Territory of New Guinea.

 

The island of New Britain, Territory of New Guinea, is to the east of mainland New Guinea. Ed Bearss would land at Cape Gloucester with the 1st Marine Division on December 26, 1943.  Map commons.wikimedia.org.

 

[The Battle of Cape Gloucester (December 26, 1943 – January 16, 1944) codenamed Operation Backhander had the objective to capture a major Japanese airstrip near Cape Gloucester and to defeat elements of the Japanese 17th Division in control of the area.  The battle was in support of Operation Cartwheel (1943 – 1944).  

Operation Cartwheel was a major Allied plan to neutralize and then to isolate and bypass Rabaul (far eastern end of island of New Britain) as the Allies moved northward towards Japan. 

Rabaul was a Australian naval base that was captured by the Japanese in 1942.  It became a major Japanese air and naval installation and was the most heavily defended Japanese fortification in the South Pacific.  It was also the assembly point for convoys of ships, known as the “Tokyo Express,” that would race south to bring troops and supplies to areas of conflict in the Solomon Islands.] 

On December 26, 1943, the 1st Marine Division would spearhead an attack at Cape Gloucester.

January 2, 1944, the Marines were driving eastward through dense jungle terrain.  Corporal Bearss’ platoon was advancing through the jungle — Ed was walking point — when they approached a creek that would become known as Suicide Creek.

 

Medium tank crosses Suicide Creek to blast Japanese emplacements holding up the Marine advance.  Photograph US Marine Corps January 1944.

 

In  the 2003 book Edwin Cole Bearss History’s Pied Piper by John C. Waugh,  Ed tells of being wounded as the Japanese, dug into the bank on the other side of Suicide Creek, opened fire:

“I was on my knees when the first bullet struck.  It hit me in my left arm just below the elbow, and the arm went numb.  It felt like being hit with a sledgehammer.  It jerked me sideways and then I was hit again, another sledgehammer blow to my right shoulder.  I fell, both arms shattered, and my helmet slipped down over my eyes.  I couldn’t see.  But there were now dead men  lying all around me.

It seemed a long time that I lay there, in fierce pain, pinned down by Japanese fire… Unable to stand it any longer and afraid of bleeding to death, I decided to risk getting up; the Japanese gun just in front of me was firing off to the right.  As I wiggled around trying to rise, another bullet grazed my butt and another hit my foot.  I quit moving…”

After lying in an area without possible rescue for what seemed like hours, bleeding, and afraid he was going to die, Ed decided to try to move again.  

“They [the Japanese] saw me [move] but couldn’t get their gun depressed fast enough before, without the use of either arm, I went over the lip of a knoll and slid down the other side, … I still don’t know how I did it.  If that ground had been level, I would be dead.  I realized then how important terrain was in a battle.” 

Having moved to a different position,  Lieutenant Thomas J. O’Leary and a US Navy corpsman named Hartman, crawled over to Ed and pulled him back behind the lines far enough so stretcher bearers could reach him and carry him to the battalion aid station.

Ed received medical treatment at military facilities in the South Pacific and would eventually arrive back in the US for continued medical care and rehabilitation.  During his hospitalization Ed would spend countless hours reading history books.  After 26 months recovering from his war wounds, Edwin Cole Bearss was discharged from the US Marine Corps on March 15, 1946.  [But for those of us who have known a US Marine, “Once a Marine always a Marine.”]

Ed Bearss graduated from Georgetown University in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Foreign Service Studies.  In 1955 he would earn a Master of Arts Degree in History from Indiana University.

After working at the Naval Hydrographic Office and the Office of the Chief of Military History, in 1955 Ed sought a position working for the National Park Service.  He was assigned to the Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi, as a historian.  

In 1957 a young schoolteacher born in Brandon, Mississippi, arrived at the Vicksburg National Military Park with a US Civil War question about Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Meridian Campaign.  Her name was Margie Riddle.  Her question and their discussion involved a campaign “cannonball,” and she was proved correct on the issue.  Ed and Margie were married July 30, 1958, and they would be a formidable team in the field of American Civil War history.

In 1958 Ed would be promoted to Regional Historian for the Southeast Region of the National Park Service working out of Vicksburg.

While at Vicksburg, Ed studied Civil War maps and located what he thought was the sunken Union gunboat United States Ship (USS) Cairo (named after Cairo, Illinois).  A ironclad warship,  she was sunk on December 12, 1862, when clearing mines in the Yazoo River for the planned attack on Haynes Bluff, Mississippi.  [It was the first ship sunk by a mine that was remotely detonated.]  Along with Don Jacks, a maintenance man at the Vicksburg National Military Park, and Warren Grabau, US Army engineer and geologist, the USS Cairo was located buried in Yazoo River mud.

 

USS Cairo.  US Naval Historical Center photograph.

 

With support from the State of Mississippi the ship was salvaged and can now be viewed at the USS Cairo Museum at the Vicksburg National Military Park.

In 1966, Ed, Margie, and their three children moved to Washington, D.C.,  where he became the Historian for the National Park Service’s historical sites.  In 1981 he was named Chief Historian of the National Park Service.  He held the position until 1994. 

In the 1990 Ken Burns miniseries The Civil War, Ed Bearss was featured as one of the Civil War historians.

After retiring from the National Park Service Ed Bearss continues to share his love for history and vast knowledge by leading battlefield tours, writing, lecturing, participating in Civil War Roundtables, and encouraging remembrance of our national history.  He has received numerous awards and has been called by many “A National Treasure.”

 

Ed Bearss leads a tour in 2011 about the US Civil War Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), Pennsylvania, with South Mountain Expeditions.  Photograph S. O’Konski Collection.

 

Ed leads the Battle of Gettysburg tour members across the July 3, 1863, “Pickett’s Charge” field in 2011.  Photograph S. O’Konski Collection.

 

In an earlier quote from Ed Bearss in this story about his wounding and survival at the 1944 Battle of Suicide Creek, he said, “I realized then how important terrain was in a battle.”  On his battlefield tours today he says, “You can’t describe a battlefield unless you walk it.”  

 

 

 

Thank you to the Bearss family, Robert Desourdis, and Nova Science Publishers, Inc., for use of the Bearss family photograph.

Thank you to the US Marine Corps University Research Center for assistance in the research for this story.

Thank you to Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Military Historian and Professor Emeritus of History, at Abiliene Christian University, Abilene, Texas.  He is the Director of the East Anglia Air War Project.

I first met Ed Bearss on a 2006 History America Tours cruise  “Invasion of Italy.”  The tour started in Valletta, Malta.  We sailed on the Clipper Adventurer to Sicily where we walked WWII Allied invasion beaches and visited battle sites.  The ship then sailed from Messina, Sicily, to the mainland of Italy, and the tour travelled north with excursions to the WWII battle sites of Salerno, Monte Cassino, Anzio, the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, and other WWII history locations.

After daily trip excursions with Ed,  I was filled with information about WWII.  I became a member of the “Ed Bearss Fan Club.”   I learned a great deal about WWII from him and was motivated to pass on the history I learned to others interested in WWII history.  In 2015 I started my website World War 2 History Short Stories and named Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service Ed Bearss as one of the people who inspired me to undertake the project.

Dinner onboard the Clipper Adventurer in 2006.  Left to right: Ed Bearss, this story’s author Susan O’Konski, and History America Tours company owner Peter Brown.

A Canadian in the US Army: The Story of WWII Nurse May Buelow Alm

 

First Lieutenant May Buelow standing next to a US Army 104th Evacuation Hospital tent in France 1944.  Alm Family photograph.

 

May Albertine Buelow was born March 21, 1916, near Mirror, Province of Alberta, Canada.  She was born at home on the family farm.  Her mother died in the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918.  After high school she attended the Royal Alexandra School of Nursing in Edmonton, Alberta, and graduated in 1937.  In 1939 May travelled to the United States (US) to visit her grandparents in the State of Washington.  She decided to stay in the US, completed exams for a State of Washington nursing license, and worked as a nurse.  May was visiting an aunt in Tacoma, Washington, on Sunday, December 7, 1941, when she heard on the radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii.

On April 10, 1942, May applied to the US Army Nurse Corps through the American Red Cross since her application for US citizenship was not yet completed.  She was sworn in as a Second Lieutenant on October 30, 1942.

On February 27, 1944, First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Buelow with the US Army 104th Evacuation Hospital sailed from New York City, New York, on the British ship Samaria and docked in Liverpool, England, on March 10, 1944.

The nurses travelled by truck from Liverpool to Southport where they were billeted in the homes of local British civilians.  Military housing for the large number of Allied military personnel arriving in England was limited.  Local families opened their homes to the troops.

1st Lt. Buelow was billeted with the Fisher family in Southport.  A Fisher family member is photographed with her in front of the Bibby Road home.  Alm Family photograph.

The 104th Evacuation Hospital remained in the Southport and Churchtown area for four months.

The Allied D-Day Invasion of Normandy, France, was June 6, 1944.  After the successful landing on French beaches troops and equipment began moving from England to France.

The 104th Evacuation Hospital landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on July 12, 1944.  Upon landing and moving inland they saw the debris on the beach, sunken ships, damaged buildings, destroyed vehicles, and dead bodies in varying states of decomposition.

The 104th Evacuation Hospital was attached to General George S. Patton’s Third Army.

The first evacuation hospital setup was Sainte-Mère-Église, France.  1st Lt. Buelow was assigned to Central Supply, a part of surgery, and one of her responsibilities was to insure that sterile supplies were ready for surgery and patient care.

 And then the war began for the US Army 104th Evacuation Hospital.

The hospital treated military and civilian casualties both men and women. There were times casualties exceeded bed capacity.  After the beds were filled  litters were placed on sawhorses and on the ground after that.

A duty day often included watching for landmines in the area and the sound of German 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery fired nearby.

One night they were alerted of possible capture by the Germans.  Unit personnel were moved by truck to a secure area until it was safe to return.

At night they often heard US reconnaissance planes overhead trying to locate German positions.  They nicknamed the aircraft “Bed Check Charlie.”

There were times German prisoners of war would help in the hospital.  May recalled they were generally helpful, but the German nurse prisoners of war could be uncooperative.   

The average stay of military casualties was three days.  They would then be moved to a medical unit further behind the front lines or flown to England.

Hospital setups could be in tents or in already existing buildings.  On October 7, 1944, when the 104th moved to Nancy, France, they were in a former mental hospital.  On December 16 they were told about the German breakthrough in a battle that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

On December 24, 1944, the evacuation hospital moved from Nancy to Luxembourg.  Christmas Eve for the hospital staff that year was C-rations (military packaged meals) by flashlights.  The building they used at this location had been occupied by the elderly and orphans who were moved to a safe location.  May said casualties “poured in” by ambulances and litters tied to jeeps on Sunday, December 25, Christmas Day.

They would be in Luxembourg for three months before moving to their next  setup in Trier, Germany, on March 14, 1945.  The casualties by then were fewer, and May and other unit personnel were given time for a three-day pass to Paris.

The last 104th Evacuation Hospital tent setup was April 22, 1945, in Erlangen, Germany.  On May 8 the unit heard about the declaration of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day. 

1st Lt. Buelow had applied for US citizenship before the war began, but the process was not completed before she left for Europe with the US Army.  On May 10, two days after V-E Day, she and other non-citizen military members received an order to report to unit headquarters where they took the US Oath of Citizenship.  May left the US as a Canadian, officially became a US citizen in Germany, and would return to the US as a US citizen.

The last 104th Evacuation Hospital setup was in Bad Wiesse, Germany, on May 22, 1945.

The 104th began the journey back to the US on September 8.  After stops along the way and periods of waiting for further orders the unit reached Marseille, France.  On October 27, 1945, they boarded the Liberty ship USS Hermitage* at Marseille and would arrive at Pier 88 in New York City, New York, on November 6.  

May travelled from New York City to her grandparents home in Addy, Washington.  She was home in time for Thanksgiving.

May Buelow was officially discharged from the US Army on January 26, 1946.  She was awarded the American Defense Service Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with five Bronze Service Stars for the Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Central Europe, and Rhineland Campaigns.  She was also awarded the World War II Victory Medal, and the US Army 104th Evacuation Hospital received a Presidential Unit Citation Award.

 

When May left for duty in WWII she, like her friends, would communicate through letter writing.  One of the people she wrote to was a friend from Washington named Maurice Alm, also known as “Swede” to his friends.  They had dated before the war began.

 

Bernhardt Maurice Alm was born December 1, 1916, in Chewelah, Washington.  He enlisted in the US Army Air Force in 1942.  He trained as a Flying Fortress B-17 armorer.  [An armorer was responsible for airplane maintenance and loading bombs.]

1943 photograph of Sergeant Maurice Alm.  Alm Family photograph.

Sergeant Alm was assigned to the 307th Bombardment Group (BG) in the Pacific Theater.  The BG flew multiple long distance missions, hence the nickname “The Long Rangers.”  One bombing mission on October 3, 1944, to Baltkapapan, Borneo, oil refineries** was 17 1/2 hours long; the mission was a round trip of 2,610 miles, and the bombing raid caused extensive damage to an important Japanese fuel source in the South Pacific.

While in New Guinea (an island north of Australia) Maurice developed rheumatic fever that damaged his heart.

 

After WWII Maurice returned to his hometown.  He and May were married  on June 2, 1946, in Chewelah, Washington.

Maurice and May Alm wedding picture June 2, 1946.  Alm Family photograph.

They had three children and were married for 10 years before his heart condition would take his life on May 27, 1956.

May returned to her nursing career to support herself and their children.  She retired in 1981.

 

May never married again.  She led an active life in retirement and would return to Normandy for the 40th, 50th, 60th, and 70th D-Day Anniversaries.  In 2004 she met the actor from the film Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks, who attended the ceremony.

Tom Hanks and May Alm in 2004 at the 60th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France.  Marie Alm photograph.

May passed away on September 30, 2019, at the age of 103.  She was buried with full military honors next to her husband, Maurice, at the Chewelah Memorial Park Cemetery in Chewelah, Washington.

 

 

 

*The USS Hermitage (AP-54) was a US Navy troop transport ship in WWII.  But before Italy declared war on Britain and France on June 10, 1941, the ship had sailed as the SS Conte Biancamano, an Italian luxury liner.  When Italy declared war, the ship was moored at the Panamanian port of Cristóbal, and it was interned there.  When the US entered the war in December 1941 the ship was seized by the US and converted to a troop ship by Cramp Shipbuilding of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and commissioned  the USS Hermitage on August 14, 1942.  The ship would sail in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation and was returned to Italy after WWII in 1947.  It was refitted, renamed the SS Conte Biancamano, and again sailed as a luxury liner until 1960.

**Borneo is a large island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.  Before WWII it was divided into Dutch Borneo and British Borneo.  The island was quickly captured by the Japanese in the opening weeks of war in the Pacific.  The Baltkapanan oil refineries on Borneo were of significant value to the Japanese for wartime fuel supplies.  The oil refineries were of important strategic value to Japan just as the Ploesti (now spelled Ploiești), Romania, oil fields were to Germany.

Thank you to Maurice and May’s daughter, Marie, for her help in the research for this story and for permission to use family photographs.  For further information on the WWII experiences of Maurice Alm and May Buelow Alm email wwii@crytalsw.com.

Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.

The book Voices of WWII Veterans: A Kaleidoscope of Memories edited by Rae Dalton Hight tells of May Buelow Alm’s life and WWII experiences as well as the lives and experiences of other WWII veterans.

I met May in 2004 at the 60th Anniversary of D-Day.  We kept in touch over the years.  It was an honor to know her.

Left to right: Marie Alm, May Alm, and this story’s author Susan O’Konski on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, in 2004.  Marie Alm photograph.

 

 


The “British Schindler”: The WWII Story of Sir Nicholas Winton

Nicholas Winton holding Hansi Beck on January 12, 1939, before the first evacuation by air of 20 children from Prague, Czechoslovakia, to London, England.  Photograph www.dailymail.co.uk.

 

“If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”  Nicholas Winton

 

In December 1938 twenty-nine year old British stockbroker Nicholas Winton was planning a holiday skiing trip to Switzerland when he received a phone call from friend Martin Blake who was working with the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia (BCRC).  Instead of Switzerland Nicholas travelled to Prague.  [In January 1993 Czechoslovakia in a peaceful dissolution would be split into the two sovereign states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.]

What was the political climate in Europe in the 1930s?  Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.  In violation of the WWI Versailles Treaty Germany began rebuilding its military.  In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in March 1936.  In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany absorbed Austria in March 1938.  In September 1938 England and France (without consulting the government of Czechoslovakia) and as part of the Munich Pact allowed Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia which had been incorporated into the country as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

It was at this time in history that Nicholas Winton would arrive in Prague on New Year’s Eve 1938.  He would check into the Grand Hotel Šroubek (later renamed the Grand Hotel Europa) on Wenceslas Square.  A hotel restaurant table would become his office as he met with families and helped plan for Czech refugee children to be taken to England for the duration of the soon expected outbreak of war in Europe.  

[Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.  With the invasion of Poland in September 1939 England and France declared war on Germany.]

In addition to working with the BCRC in Prague Nicholas would provide logistical support for two Kindertransport (children’s transport) flights sponsored by the Barbican Mission on January 12, 1939, which brought 20 children to England and a Sweden Red Cross flight that transported 30 children to Sweden on January 16 or 17, 1939.

Having exhausted his vacation time Nicholas returned to England and his stockbroker job on January 21, 1939.  But his work to rescue the children continued.

Nicholas’ job was not insurmountable, but he put into practice his motto, “If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”  He needed to raise money for the transportation of the children.  He needed permission of the Immigration Section of the British Home Office to bring them into the country and was required to provide guarantor monies for them.  The Netherlands had closed its borders in November 1938 after Kristallnacht.  He negotiated with the government of The Netherlands to allow the train to pass through the country.  And he needed to find foster families, hostels, or other organizations to care for the children.

In Prague Nicholas’ colleagues working with the BCRC were hurriedly gathering documents, photographs, adding names of children to the list of refugees, and dealing with the Nazis’ requirements to allow trains of mostly Jewish children to leave Czechoslovakia.

 

The identity document of nine year old Eveline Prager needed for the Czech Kindertransport.  Photograph www.dailymail.co.uk.

 

Kindertransport trains would leave Prague, travel through Germany, pass through The Netherlands to the Hook of Holland, children would sail by ferry to England, and arrive by train at the Liverpool Street Station in London.  The foster families would be waiting at the station to meet their new family member.

 

Winton Kindertransport train route 1939. Map stephenliddell.co.uk.

 

The first Kindertransport train left Prague on March 14, 1939.  Seven Kindertransports were to follow.  The ninth train with 250 children was scheduled to leave in September 1939.  After Poland was attacked by Germany on September 1, 1939, the Germans cancelled the ninth train.  According to Nicholas’ daughter, Barbara, who wrote the book If it’s Not Impossible… about her father’s life,  no further information about the children scheduled to leave on the ninth train was found and that many of them most likely died at Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

The Czech Kindertransport rescue lasted nine months.

With the start of WWII and the Kindertransports ending,  Nicholas Winton joined the British war effort as an ambulance driver and then became a member of the Royal Air Force until the end of the war.

After the war ended, Nicholas Winton would work for the London-based International Committee for Refugees which would be integrated into the International Refugee Organization of the newly formed United Nations.  In 1948 he accepted a job with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, France.  It was in Paris that he met a Danish girl, Grete Gjelstrup.  They were married in October 1948.  

Grete did not know about the Czech Kindertransport until she found a scrapbook in their attic in Maidenhead, England, in the late 1980s.  The scrapbook she found would make the story public.

Nicholas Winton and the group of rescuers working together on the Czech Kindertransport over the nine months of its existence saved the lives of 669 children.

The Scrapbook.  At the end of the Kindertransport operation in 1939,  a volunteer in the organization, Mr. W. M. Loewinsohn, presented a scrapbook to Winton that included correspondence, data, photos, and other information gathered during the BCRC effort to rescue the children.  At the back of the scrapbook was a list of the rescued children and the names and addresses of the  families who agreed to foster them.  

 

The cover page of the Nicholas Winton scrapbook.  Photograph www.cbsnews.com.

 

In 1988 Nicholas was invited to be a member of the audience in a BBC television program called That’s Life!  The host of the show, Esther Rantzen, would tell the story of the 1939 Czech Kindertransport and show the scrapbook to the audience.  At a point in the show the host spoke of a rescued child, now an adult, named Vera (Diamant) Gissing.  Unbeknownst to Nicholas, Vera was sitting next to him.  Vera gave him an embrace and said “thank you, thank you.”

 

Nicholas Winton and Vera (Diamant) Gissing meet on February 27, 1988, on BBC television program That’s Life!  Photograph www.storypick.com.

 

In a follow-on episode of That’s Life! the next week, the host asked if there was anyone in the audience who owed their life to Nicholas Winton.  Almost five rows of “Nicky’s children” stood up.

 

Nicholas Winton, in the front row with his back to the camera, looks at the people who were rescued as children on the Czech Kindertransport.  The woman sitting in the front row is Nicholas’ wife, Grete.  Photograph people.com.

 

The “children” contacted by the BBC did not know how they were saved or who had saved them until then.

On March 11, 2003,  Nicholas Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England.

A documentary Nicky’s Family was released in 2011.  It was narrated by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist, foreign correspondent, and author Joe Schlesinger.  Joe was one of “Nicky’s children.”  

 

Sir Nicholas Winton with Joe Schlesinger (right).  Photograph www.theglobeandmail.com.

 

Sir Nicholas Winton died in his sleep on July 1, 2015.  He was 106 years old.

Prague Post article on July 4, 2015, stated, “The first candles on the platform from which trains with Czechoslovak children of Jewish origin were leaving appeared a few hours after Winton’s death was announced.”

 

A statue created by Flor Kent of Sir Nicholas Winton with two children was unveiled on September 1, 2009, at the Prague Main Railway Station.  Photograph Prague Post July 4, 2015.

 


The Katyn Forest Massacre: And Five Betrayals of Poland by Its WWII Allies

Hands tied behind the back of a Polish soldier found in a mass grave in the Katyn Forest (Soviet Union) in spring 1943.

 

In Moscow on August 23, 1939, an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed.  It included a plan for the division of Poland.  The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact served as a prelude to Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.  The Pact assured Hitler that the Soviets would not interfere with Germany’s planned military action against Poland.

 

Betrayal One

Britain and France signed military alliances with Poland in 1939 to come to her aid if attacked.  

Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939.  

Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3. 

The Soviet Union attacked Poland September 17. 

By the end of September 1939 both Germany and the Soviet Union occupied the agreed upon Polish territory as set in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  The Second Polish Republic no longer existed.

 Neither Britain nor France came to the aid of Poland.

 

Betrayal Two

[The account of this massacre as told in this story is based upon declassified documents and the release of Soviet archival material in the early 1990s after the fall of communism.]

As the Germans advanced into the Soviet Union in 1943 they found a mass grave in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk which held an estimated 4,500 bodies.  The bodies, some in Polish uniforms, some with their hands tied behind their back, were stacked in layers 12 bodies high in an approximate 92 feet long and 52 feet wide pit.  Victims had been shot in the back of the head. 

Photograph of Polish mass gravesite in the Katyn Forest after it was discovered in 1943 by the Nazis when Germany was advancing into the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets captured and arrested thousands of Polish military and Polish intelligentsia after attacking Poland September 17, 1939.  An estimated 22,000 prisoners of war were imprisoned in three main prisoner of war camps in the Soviet Union:  Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk.  On March 5, 1940, Stalin signed a document ordering the execution of the prisoners.  The executions were carried out in April and May 1940.  The Polish prisoners of war at Kozelsk were shot at the Katyn Forest site, according to most accounts, and buried in a pit.  The prisoners of war at Ostashkov and Starobelsk were shot at NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs/Soviet Secret Police) prisons at Kalinin and Kharkov, respectively.

Benjamin B. Fischer in a paper, “The Killing Controversy:  Stalin’s Killing Field,”  wrote, “Those who died at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors; 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots.  It was their social status that landed them in front of NKVD execution squads. …  In all, the NKVD eliminated almost half the Polish officer corps–part of Stalin’s long-range effort to prevent the resurgence of an independent Poland.”

One of the Polish pilots killed at Katyn was a woman. Her name was Lieutenant Janina Lewandowska.  

Lieutenant Janina Lewandowska, Polish WWII pilot.
Polish WWII pilot Lieutenant Janina Lewandowska.

After finding the Katyn gravesite in early 1943, the Germans called in forensic experts before announcing to the world that the Soviets had killed the Polish officers.  The Soviets denied the accusation and blamed the Germans for the mass murder.  The London based Polish government-in-exile led by Polish Prime Minister General Wladyslaw Sikorski wanted to open an investigation by the International Red Cross.  The Soviets immediately cut off diplomatic relations with the Polish government.  

According to declassified historical documents and archival findings, both United States (US) President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been told by members of their governments about the Soviet responsibility for the mass murder discovered at Katyn.

Both the US and British governments were accused of suppressing information about the massacre.  Neither government at the time publicly acknowledged Katyn nor sought an investigation.  

A post WWII US Congress investigation would concur with the US suppression charge in 1952.

 

The US Congress Select Committee on Katyn Forest Massacre 1951 – 1952 *

A Select Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on February 6, 1952.  A Polish soldier hiding his identity was testifying.  Associated Press Photograph/Bill Allen.

The seven committee members on the rostrum in the photograph above are (left to right) US House of Representatives members Timothy P. Sheehan, Alvin E. O’Konski, George A. Dondero, Ray J. Madden (Chairman), Daniel J. Flood, Foster Furcolo, and Thaddeus M. Machrowicz.

Committee CONCLUSIONS

 1.  In submitting this final report to the House of Representatives, this committee has come to the conclusion that in those fateful days nearing the end of the Second World War there unfortunately existed in high governmental and military circles a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.  

For reasons less clear to this committee, this psychosis continued even after the conclusion of the war.  Most of the witnesses testified that had they known then what they now know about Soviet Russia, they probably would not have pursued the course they did.  It is undoubtedly true that hindsight is much easier to follow than foresight, but it is equally true that much of the material which this committee unearthed was or could have been available to those responsible for our foreign policy as early as 1942.

And, it is equally true that even before 1942 the Kremlin rulers gave much evidence of a menace of Soviet imperialism paving the way for world conquest.  Through the disastrous failure to recognize the danger signs which then existed and in following a policy of satisfying the Kremlin leaders, our Government unwittingly strengthened their hand and contributed to a situation which has grown to be a menace to the United States and the entire free world.

2.  Our committee is sending a copy of this report, and volume 7 of the published hearings, to the Department of Defense for such action as may be proper with regard to General Bissell.  We do so because of the fact that this committee believes that had the Van Vliet report been made immediately available to the Department of State and to the American public, the course of our governmental policy toward Soviet Russia might have been more realistic with more fortunate postwar results.

3.  This committee believes that the wartime policies of Army Intelligence (G-2) during 1944-45 should undergo a thorough investigation.  Testimony heard by the committee substantiates this belief, and if such an investigation is conducted another object lesson might be learned.

4.  Our committee concludes that the staff members of the Office of War Information and Federal Communications Commission who participated in the program of silencing Polish radio commentators went beyond the scope of their duties as official Government representatives.  Actually, they usurped the functions of the Office of Censorship and by indirect pressure accomplished domestic censorship which was not within the jurisdiction of either of these agencies.

5.  This committee believes that if the Voice of America is to justify its existence it must utilize material made available more forcefully and effectively.

6.  This committee began its investigation last year, and as the committee’s work progressed, information, documents, and evidence was submitted from all parts of the world.  It was at this same time that reports reached the committee of similar atrocities and violations of international law being perpetrated in Korea.  This committee noted the striking similarity between crimes committed against the Poles at Katyn and those being inflicted on American and other United Nation troops in Korea.  Communist tactics being used in Korea are identical to those  followed at Katyn.  Thus this committee believes that Congress should undertake an immediate investigation of the Korean war atrocities in order that the evidence can be collected and the truth revealed to the American people and the free peoples of the world.  This committee will return to Congress approximately $21,000 in surplus funds, and it is suggested that this money be made available by Congress for such an investigation.

Committee RECOMMENDATIONS

The final report of the Select Committee Investigating the Katyn Forest Massacre hereby incorporates the recommendations contained in the interim report, filed on July 2, 1952 (H. Rept. No. 2430).

This committee unanimously recommends that the House of Representatives approve the committee’s findings and adopt a resolution:

 1.  Requesting the President of the United States to forward the testimony, evidence, and findings of this committee to the United States delegates at the United Nations;

2.  Requesting further that the President of the United States issue instructions to the United States delegates to present the Katyn case to the General Assembly of the United Nations;

3.  Requesting that appropriate steps be taken by the General Assembly to seek action before the International World Court of Justice against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for committing a crime at Katyn which was in violation of the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations; 

4.  Requesting the President of the United States to instruct the United States delegation to seek the establishment of an international commission which would investigate other mass murders and crimes against humanity.

The final report of the Select Committee Investigating the Katyn Forest Massacre was sent to US President Harry S. Truman.  No action was taken on the Recommendations, at least not publicly. 

 

Betrayal Three 

Churchill had told the Poles that they would again have a free and independent country and be “happy” after the war.  

Two “Big Three” Conferences would decide the postwar fate of Poland.  

Tehran Conference November 28 – December 1, 1943

This was the first of the WWII “Big Three” Conferences.  The participants were US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.  

It was at this conference that Churchill told Stalin that after WWII the Soviet Union could keep the territory of Poland that Stalin captured in September 1939 (as designated in the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union).  Churchill said the prewar western border of Poland could be moved further west to compensate Poland for her loss to the Soviets.

Yalta Conference February 4 – 11, 1945

The future of Europe post WWII was determined by the “Big Three.”  

After Stalin’s broken promise to hold free elections in Poland the country would become a satellite state within the “sphere of influence” of the Soviet Union.  It would be named the communist People’s Republic of Poland.

The Allies did not consult with the London Polish government-in-exile regarding the postwar future of Poland.

 

Betrayal Four

After Poland was overrun by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 those Poles able to escape established a government-in-exile in London.  The Polish agreed to continue their fight under the British High Command.  The Polish military would support the Allied cause in the air, sea, and on land. Overall, the Polish military was the fourth largest Allied army in WWII after the Soviet Union, United States, and Britain. 

On June 8, 1946, Britain celebrated the end of WWII with a Victory Parade in London.  

Britain’s WWII Polish ally was not invited to take part in the parade.

London Victory Parade June 8, 1946.

Historians write that a British sensitivity to Stalin, the pro-communist government set up in postwar Poland, and the start of the Cold War may account for the Clement Attlee government to exclude their wartime ally from the parade. 

 

Betrayal Five

On September 18, 1976, a memorial to the Katyn Forest Massacre was dedicated at Gunnersbury Cemetery in London.

Katyn Memorial in Gunnersbury Cemetery, London, England.  Photograph TracesOfWar.com.

Poles in the United Kingdom were trying since the end of the war to have a memorial dedicated to their countrymen killed at Katyn.  Successive British governments after WWII had objected to a remembrance of the massacre.

Mrs. W. Piotrowska at the dedication of the Katyn Memorial in London September 18, 1976. Her first husband Captain Ksawery (pictured in the photograph she carried) was last seen at the Starobielsk camp in May 1940.  Photograph Keystone Press Agency, Inc., New York, N.Y.

The British government chose not to be represented at the 1976 dedication.  Serving British military officers were told they could attend the ceremony but were instructed not to wear a uniform.

 

On April 13, 1990, the Soviet government officially acknowledged  its responsibility for the Katyn Forest Massacre.

After the fall of communism Poland would become the independent and free Third Republic of Poland.

On April 10, 2010, Poland President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, high-ranking Polish military leaders and government officials were flying from Warsaw, Poland, to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Katyn.  The airplane crashed on approach to Smolensk and near the Katyn Forest site.  All 96 people on board died.

 

 

* The 45 page Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and the Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre can be found at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=osu.32435078695582&view=1up&seq=1

An excellent resource on this topic is British historian Laurence Rees’ TV documentary series “WWII Behind Closed Doors:  Stalin, the Nazis, and the West.”  Mr. Rees’ website is http://ww2history.com/ .


WWII American Graves Registration Service: And the Story of Sergeant John J. Kubinski

 

June 1944 Omaha Beach (Normandy, France) U.S. Graves Registration Service Collection Point for dead American and German soldiers being processed and prepared for temporary burial.  Photograph WW2 US Medical Research Centre. 

 

In WWII the United States Army Quartermaster Graves Registration Service was responsible for the care of the dead in all the branches of military service.  They worked with reverence and respect to preserve the dignity of those who sacrificed their lives.

 

WWII researcher and author, Jennifer Holik, has studied and written in-depth about the United States (U.S.) Graves Registration Service (GRS).  The following excerpts are from two of her articles:  

“In 1867 … Congress gave the Quartermaster General in the U.S. Army the responsibility of establishing permanent military cemeteries, handling burials, keeping records, and handling ongoing maintenance of these cemeteries.

When the U.S. entered World War II  … they planned to establish several cemeteries near the active front and would bring Soldier Dead to these cemeteries. Collection points would be established so the combat units could assist in the collection and identification of Soldier Dead.

The GRS in World War II were not only responsible for collecting, identifying, and burying the Soldier Dead, but also handling personal effects. The men had a system by which they worked on the stripping line to handle effects so they would be returned to the owner’s family.

GRS workers were responsible for locating suitable cemetery sites. They examined the terrain, soil quality, and distance to enemy lines. Upon selection of a site, they plotted the cemetery. Maps were drawn, processing tents were set up and the men assigned tasks. Local civilian workers were called in to dig graves and bury the dead.

It was important to bury all the dead primarily for health concerns. Decomposing bodies out in the open spread disease and lowered troop morale. It was better that the troops didn’t encounter the remains of Soldier Dead very often, lest the fear and panic they already felt increase, making them unable to do their job effectively.

Soldiers were buried for forensic reasons also. Information was gathered from the Soldier Dead to not only identify them but also gather information on how they were killed.

GRS claimed the remains of Soldier Dead from a unit, along the road side or battle ground. They worked on both sides of enemy lines in the mud, rain, deep snow, jungles and on beaches in their recovery efforts.

Effects recovered were bagged and sent to Kansas City, Missouri, for disbursement. They were cleaned of blood and grime.

When a soldier was located after death, every attempt at identification took place. The process began at the stripping line where troops initially removed explosives and equipment. Another soldier took these items to an ammo and equipment area so they could be reissued.

Next, medical sergeants stepped in with a clerk. The sergeants cut pockets and other pieces of clothing to locate identification tags and personal effects.

An Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) was created for every Soldier Dead upon receipt of remains by the GRS.

A Report of Burial contained the soldier’s name, serial number, rank, date of death, place of death, a copy of his identification tag is stamped onto the form using an addressograph machine. The report also contained the grave location of the soldier along with the man buried on either side of him. … A list of personal effects were included if any were found on the body.

If the deceased was unable to be identified then a form that allowed for fingerprinting and dental records was used and inserted into the Soldier Dead file. This form also contained space to list a physical description and information on personal effects or other things that might help identify the deceased.

The Report of Death was a form for the Adjutant General’s Office that listed name, rank, serial number, branch of service, date of birth and death, date of active entry in service, where he was killed, emergency contact and beneficiary information.

Request for Disposition of Remains. This form was sent to the next of kin to complete so the government would know what to do with the remains. The choices were:

  • To be interred at a Permanent American Military Cemetery Overseas.
  • To be returned to the United States or any possession or territory thereof for interment by next of kin in a private cemetery.
  • To be returned to [insert foreign country] the homeland of the deceased for interment by next of kin.
  • To be returned to the United States for final interment in a National Cemetery.

Disinterment Directive.  This form contains the basic identifying information on the Soldier Dead: Name, rank, serial number, date of death, cemetery name and location of grave, name and address of next of kin, condition of remains, date disinterred and remains prepared.

Not all Soldier Dead were identified because of the condition of the body when it was received by the GRS. Unknown Soldier Dead were assigned an X number since there was no serial number by which to identify them. … Unknown remains were placed into a mattress cover and the X number was painted on the bag.

The family was notified of Missing in Action and Killed in Action statuses within a couple of months of the event. When the family was notified, they were done so through the War Department.

After the war ended, the U.S. government began working with overseas officials to secure the authorization to use ports, disinter remains in private cemeteries, and to use rail and waterways to transport remains to major sea ports. Once this was in place, the government was able to contact families of the Soldier Dead to inquire about their wishes for the final burial.

The government began notifying families of the location of their Soldier Dead beginning in late 1946 and continuing for several years afterward. It is possible a family’s soldier had been buried overseas for two or more years before the family was notified of the location.

The disinterment and repatriation process took a couple years or more after the war ended. This was due in part to a shortage of materials for cases for the coffins and a shortage of metal for the coffins themselves. … When a Soldier Dead was placed in these coffins, they were sealed and placed into a wooden shipping case. The shipping case had the name, rank, and serial number of the soldier inscribed on the case.

Soldier Dead from World War II were returned home or reburied in a permanent American Military Cemetery overseas from late 1947 through 1951.”

 

Picture postcard of U.S. Military Cemetery Margraten, Holland, circa 1946.  Note: Identification “dog tags” affixed to the temporary grave markers.  Original photograph by Jean Smeets of Maastricht, Holland.  WWII Historical Collection of Josephine Pescatore Reaves, WWII U.S. Army Nurse, 24th Evacuation Hospital.

 

U.S. military deaths in WWII totaled over 400,000.  Every serviceman and servicewoman had a story.  This is the story of the life and death of  John J. Kubinski and his journey back to his home state of Ohio after WWII ended.

John Joseph Kubinski was born in Ohio on April 10, 1919, to Polish immigrants Stanley and Nellie Kubinski.  He attended Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio.  John married Susan Billock on November 29, 1941, and he was employed at the Republic Steel Corporation plant in Newton Falls, Ohio, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

On March 26, 1942, John enlisted in the U.S. Army.  His Enlistment Records noted he was 73 inches tall and weighed 149 pounds.  He was given the military rank of Private.

Private John J. Kubinski was assigned to the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment, as a Glider Infantryman.  

The 401st Glider Infantry Regiment participated in the June 1944 Normandy Invasion (codenamed Operation Overlord) landing on Utah Beach with the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division.   

On September 18, 1944, 750 gliders from the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment would land in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden.  The mission of the 401st was to keep open the road between Sint-Oedenrode and Eindhoven.  The road was of vital importance as British armored units advanced north from the Belgium and Netherlands border with the objective to reach the bridge at Arnhem.  Fighting was fierce and combat losses were heavy as the 401st fought 72 days to keep the road open between Veghel and Son, Holland.

 

Waco CG-4 gliders awaiting launch in England as part of Operation Market Garden. Photograph U.S. Army Signal Corps.

 

It was in that 72 day period that then promoted Sergeant (SGT) John J. Kubinski was seriously wounded.  He was transported to the U.S. Army 24th Evacuation Hospital, which at that time was working out of the Saint Maarten Kliniek (Clinic) in Nijmegen, Holland.  It was here that John would die from his wounds.

 

Saint Maarten Kliniek, Nijmegen, Holland, circa 1940s.  Picture postcard from  the WWII Historical Collection of Josephine Pescatore Reaves, WWII U.S. Army Nurse, 24th Evacuation Hospital.

 

One of SGT Kubinski’s nurses at the 24th Evacuation Hospital was Lieutenant (LT) Josephine Pescatore.  In a 2011 oral history interview she still remembered a courageous young soldier who often spoke of his family and how much he loved them.  John asked LT Pescatore if she could find a priest for him to talk to before he died.  After visiting with the priest, SGT John J. Kubinski, age 25, died at five o’clock in the afternoon on November 16, 1944.

SGT John J. Kubinski was buried in Plot F, Row 3, Grave 50 at U.S. Temporary Cemetery 4655 at Molenhoek, Holland.

After WWII ended, John’s wife, Susan, made the decision to bring his body back to the U.S. for burial in Newton Falls, Ohio.

In November 1948 the remains of SGT John J. Kubinski were disinterred from U.S. Temporary Cemetery 4655 and travelled by train to Antwerp, Belgium.  John’s casket along with the remains of 3,384 WWII dead sailed from Antwerp to New York City on the U.S. Army Transport Barney Kirschbaum.  His casket would travel by train from New York City and arrive in Newton Falls, Ohio, on January 31, 1949.  SGT Kubinski’s casket, draped by an American flag, was met by the James Funeral Home and The American Legion.

John was survived by his wife, Susan;  his parents Stanley and Nellie Kubinski; and his brothers Alex, Edward, Stanley, and Joseph.

John was laid to rest at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Newton Falls, Ohio, on February 3, 1949.

 

Photograph of tombstone from Find A Grave.

 

 

 

Thank you to Jennifer Holik, World War II Research & Writing Center.  Links to the full text of her “The Graves Registration Service in World War II” articles Part 1 and Part 2.

Thank you to Dr. Vernon Williams, Director, East Anglia Air War Project.

Thank you to Mallory Duriak, Reference Associate, Newton Falls Public Library and the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library in Ohio.  

Thank you to WWII historian and researcher Sue Moyer.

Thank you to Carlos Alvarado, Archivist, U.S. Army AMEDD Center of History and Heritage, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.


The British Crown Colony of Malta under Siege in WWII

 

Anti-aircraft gun protecting the Grand Harbor at Valletta, Malta, circa 1940.  Photograph en.wikipedia.com.

 

WWII Mediterranean Theater.  Map www.naval-history.net.

 

The coralline limestone archipelago of Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814.  Valletta, the capital of Malta, was the headquarters of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet until it was moved to Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 1930s prior to the start of WWII.  The location of Malta was considered too susceptible to enemy air strikes should Italy become a belligerent in a future conflict.  Britain did decide to build up the offensive and defensive capabilities of Malta but had not completed the task before WWII started.

Malta is located in the Mediterranean Sea halfway between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt, and with important shipping lanes passing near Malta, it was positioned to be of strategic value to the WWII Allies and Axis countries.  In Douglas Porch’s book The Path to Victory he writes, “Malta was the only place in the central Mediterranean where bombers flying from Gibraltar to Suez could refuel.  Valletta’s Grand Harbor … supplied the only haven for British ships in a long stretch of otherwise hostile Axis sea.  Malta’s problem was that while it lay eleven hundred miles from Gibraltar and nine hundred miles from Egypt, Valletta was only twenty minutes’ flying time from Sicily.”

Malta did have some military advantages before WWII began.  It was the first country in the British Empire outside of Britain to receive Radio Directing Finding technology (a type of early radar).  It was also a “listening post” intercepting German Enigma message traffic. 

England and France declared war on Germany two days after the September 1, 1939, invasion of Poland.  Nine months later on June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on England and France.

Malta was a naval and military fortress that was essential to the Allies.  It was the only Allied base in the Mediterranean between British controlled Gibraltar and Egypt.  Allied warships and submarines used Malta’s harbors.  Bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft could fly from its three airfields and seaplane base.  

Axis Mediterranean shipping routes bringing supplies to General Rommel and the German Africa Korps during the North African Campaign (1940 – 1943) were vulnerable to Allied submarines and aircraft operating out of Malta. 

[The Axis thought it could defeat the British forces and civilian population on Malta with aerial bombardment only.  After failure to accomplish that Germany and Italy considered a land invasion codename Operation Hercules in 1942, but the plan was never executed.]

 

The first air attack on Malta by Italy was on June 11, 1940. 

Anti-artillery posts were established on Malta to defend against the fierce Italian and later German aerial bombing raids.

The only air defense in Malta at the outbreak of WWII was a small force of Gloster Sea Gladiator biplanes which were flown by the newly formed Hal Far Fighter Flight.  A Malta newspaper would later name three of the biplanes Faith, Hope, and Charity.

 

Faith Gloster Sea Gladiator at an airfield in Malta circa 1940.

 

By the end of June British Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived in Malta.  They became a component of the Royal Air Force No. 261 Squadron.

In January 1941 the German Luftwaffe X Fliegerkorps flying from Sicily launched a bombing offensive against Malta.

British Spitfire fighters would arrive on Malta in March 1942.  The Spitfires were the first to be deployed outside of Britain.  The Spitfires were a more equal match for the Italian and German fighter planes.

In April 1942 the aircraft carrier United States Ship (USS) Wasp (CV-7), then part of the Atlantic Campaign, was attached to the British Home Fleet to deliver aircraft to Malta which was teetering on defeat after intense Italian and German bombing and military and civilian supply shortages.  The Prime Minister of England Winston Churchill asked United States President Franklin Roosevelt for assistance to save Malta.  The USS Wasp would make two trips ferrying Spitfires.  Once through the Strait of Gibraltar the Spitfires would fly off the carrier. The flying distance to Malta was within 700 miles.

 

USS Wasp

 

USS Wasp with Spitfires and Grumman F4F Wildcats aboard.

 

 

Allied submarines played a significant role in the defeat of the Axis in the Mediterranean.  Sinking or damaging Axis ships sailing to North Africa with needed supplies affected the fighting capability and morale of German and Italian troops.

The Polish submarine ORP (English translation, Warship of the Republic of Poland) Sokół (Falcon) was based at the Malta Manoel Island submarine base from September 1941 to March 1944.  She was attached to the Royal Navy 10th Submarine Flotilla. ORP Sokół sank or damaged 19 enemy vessels.

 

ORP Sokół photographed in Malta circa 1943.

 

At the time of the surrender of France to Germany on June 10, 1940, the French submarine Narval was at sea in the Mediterranean and had been ordered not to visit any British ports.  The submarine commander Captain Cloarec ignored the order, sailed to Malta, and joined the Free French Naval Forces.  In December 1940 it sank after hitting a mine.

 

The population of Malta in June 1940 was over 250,000.  The first air attack on Malta by Italy on June 11, 1940, was the first of  seven raids that day.  The siege of Malta began.

During the seige the people of Malta were unified.  Shelters were dug into the limestone rock of the island.  The civilians and military worked together.  Rationing began in February 1941.  Food, fuel, and ammunition shortages were common.  Supplies would sometimes get through, but by the spring of 1942 Malta’s lack of food, water shortages, poor nutrition, and sanitation problems reached a peak.  Malta had chosen September 1942 as a surrender date. 

To aid Malta and attempt to prevent a surrender, the British developed a plan codename Operation Pedestal.  In August 1942 a convoy with 14 ships carrying needed supplies and fuel left England. Porch’s book Path to Victory states, “The ‘Pedestal’ convoy, guarded by two battleships, four carriers, seven cruisers, thirty-three destroyers, and twenty-four submarines and minesweepers, as well as more than two hundred planes, cleared Gibralter on 10 August.  For the next four days it endured a massive sea and air assault by forces alerted to the convoy’s approach by Axis intelligence.”

One of the convoy ships, Ohio, carried 10,000 tons of aviation fuel.  Ohio, an American oil tanker owned by Texas Oil Company (known later as Texaco), was requisitioned by the Allies to bring the desperately needed fuel to Malta.

After entering the Mediterranean and the ensuing intense battle, Ohio was very badly damaged.  It was abandoned twice and re-boarded twice. Ohio had been a prime target of the Axis forces.  Forty miles or so outside of Malta desperate measures were taken to get the tanker to its destination.

 

Ohio making its way into Valletta’s Grand Harbor supported by British destroyers.

 

In recounting the effort to save Ohio, curator of the National War Museum in Valletta, Mr. Debono, states that in an effort to lift the morale of those slowly guiding and maneuvering the ship to Malta, the HMS Penn played a well known song of the day Chattanooga Choo Choo loudly over its public address system. 

Mr. Debono recounts that on August 15th at 8 a.m. Ohio made its way into Valletta’s Grand Harbor being towed and supported by British destroyers HMS Penn and HMS Bramham.  It arrived to a cheering crowd and a band playing God Save the KingRule Britannia, and The Star Spangled Banner.  A crew member on a ship reported being emotionally overwhelmed by the greeting of the Maltese people that day.  

August 15th is the Feast of Santa Marija (Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady).  The Maltese continue to call the WWII convoy the Santa Marija Convoy.

After the last of its fuel was drained from the ship, Ohio split in half and sank in Grand Harbor. 

The delivery of fuel revitalized the air offensive against the Axis Mediterranean shipping routes bringing supplies to General Rommel and the German Africa Korps.

During the 1940 – 1942 Axis bombing of Malta, there had been 3,340 bombing alerts.  

Italy surrendered on September 8, 1943.  The Italian Naval Fleet surrendered in Grand Harbor, Valletta, Malta.

The George Cross was awarded by King George VI to the people of Malta to “bear witness to the heroism and the devotion of its people”  during the siege of Malta.

In 1964 the British Parliament passed the Malta Independence Act.  Malta became the State of Malta and in 1974 the Republic of Malta.

 

 

The USS Wasp was transferred from the WWII Atlantic Theater to the Pacific Theater in June 1942.  After being hit by multiple Japanese submarine torpedoes on September 15 of that year, she was abandoned and scuttled.  The wreck of the USS Wasp was discovered on January 14, 2019.