The Story of WWII 306th Bombardment Group Medic William F. Houlihan

William Frederick Houlihan, age 22.

 

William “Bill” Houlihan was born December 11, 1918, in Boston, Massachusettes.  After working as a merchant marine in 1938, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, and worked for Ford Motor Company.

After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, Bill tried to enlist in the United States (US) Navy and the US Marine Corps. Due to an ear issue he was not selected.  Bill decided to go back to Detroit and wait for what he knew was inevitable.  On February 14, 1942, Valentine’s Day,  he received his military draft notice.

After being trained as a US Army Air Force medic Bill was sent to Wendover, Utah, and became a member of the newly formed B-17 Flying Fortress 306th Bombardment Group (BG) training there.  Arriving at Wendover on June 6, 1942, Private First Class (Pfc) William Houlihan was assigned to the medical component of the 367th Bomb Squadron (BS) of the 306th BG.

Personnel of the 306th BG began troop movement to the US east coast from Wendover in late August of 1942.  Travelling by train, ship, and air the 306th BG would travel 4,000 miles to their assigned base at Thurleigh which was five miles (8.0 kilometers) north of Bedford, Bedfordshire, England.

Staff Sergeant (SSgt)* Bill Houlihan (who was nicknamed “Houlie”) crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth (a troop ship during WWII) and was in one of the first 306th BG units to reach their destination of Thurleigh in September 1942.  [*Before troop movement to a theater of war some lower ranking military personnel were promoted to SSgt, Technical Sergeant (TSgt), or Master Sergeant (MSgt).  One reason for the rapid promotions is that it offered some protection for the men if they became a German prisoner of war (POW).  Senior enlisted men generally received better treatment in POW camps than lower enlisted grades.]

The 306th BG flew its first combat mission on October 9, 1942, to Lille, France, to bomb the steel and locomotive works located there.  Twenty-four B-17s took off from Thurleigh that day.  Twenty-three B-17s returned.  B-17 tail number 41-24510 flown by 367th BS pilot Captain (Capt) John W. Olson was downed when a German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter plane flew into the nose of the aircraft.  Three of the nine crew members survived.

It was then that the reality of war and losing friends and colleagues became part of everyday life at Thurleigh for both flying and ground personnel.

SSgt Houlihan and the 306th BG medical units manned the dispensary and hospital on Thurleigh.  But focus was on the flight line as B-17s returned from a mission.  Ambulances and medical personnel were at the airfield as the planes came into view and landed.  Personnel on the ground counted the aircraft as they were sighted.  Ground maintenance crews were there waiting to see if the B-17s they repaired and maintained came back.  Friends of crew members flying that day watched to see if their buddies were returning.  And the British living in the area surrounding the airfield would look to the sky and wonder if they would again see an American they had befriended as they observed the aircraft returning in formation or straggling back to Thurleigh.

If there were injured or wounded on board the B-17 crew would shoot off a red flare upon approach to the airfield.  Those planes were given priority landing.   As that B-17 landed the ambulance would follow the aircraft and quickly move to reach the wounded airman when the aircraft came to a stop.

 

Left to right kneeling: Captain Henry A. Danzig (423rd BS Surgeon), SSgt William F. Houlihan (367th BS Medic), Captain Charles P. McKim (369th BS Surgeon), and Sgt Clarence W. Hoheisel (367th BS Medic).  The patient is Corporal James Mitchell.

 

Removing a wounded or injured airman from the nose or tail of a B-17 could present a difficult problem due to limited maneuvering room for medics and a medical stretcher in the aircraft.  The Americans adopted the use of a special stretcher used by the British.  It was made of bamboo and would wrap around the injured airman and stabilize him during removal from the aircraft.

 

Flexible medical litter made of bamboo being used to remove an injured airman from a B-17.

 

When possible men were given some free time in the form of a day off, a pass, or leave.  Time off was a great morale booster among the troops.

SSgt Houlihan’s day off was Monday.  He tells the story of one day riding along to Belfast, Ireland, on a B-17 doing a “whiskey run” for an upcoming party on Thurleigh.  367th BS pilot Capt George R. Buckey was flying that day, and Bill’s friend TSgt Harry Brown was the radio operator.  Once in Belfast, Bill and Harry decided to take a tour of Old Bushmills Distillery while the B-17 was being loaded.  Capt Buckey told them to be back at the airfield by 5 pm because he wanted to take off in daylight.

Bill says that at the end of every whiskey production line at Old Bushmills Distillery he and Harry were offered a sample of that whiskey.  According to Bill they were “well sampled” when they noticed it was already 5 pm.  Hurrying back to the Belfast airfield they found Capt Buckey standing on the wing of the B-17 yelling expletives at them.  Bill says Capt Buckey never said anything further to him, but Harry told Bill that the pilot continued to “comment” to him on the B-17 radio frequency as they flew back to Thurleigh.

But tragedy could come to Thurleigh even from other bases.  On October 22, 1944, SSgt Houlihan was standing outside watching a formation of what turned out to be 305th BG B-17s returning from a mission.  They were based at Chelveston approximately 15 miles (23 kilometers) from Thurleigh.  Near SSgt Houlihan was the Thurleigh base photographer TSgt Francis L. Waugh who was standing on the running board of an ambulance with his camera pointed up at the B-17s.  They saw two of the B-17s crash into each other.  The crews from both B-17s were killed.  Human remains and wreckage from the aircraft rained down from the sky over Thurleigh.

 

Moment of collision when two 305th BG B-17s crashed over Thurleigh on October 22, 1944.  The B-17s altitude over Thurleigh can be observed as one notes visible Thurleigh base landscape in the foreground of the photo.

 

Bill says all Thurleigh base personnel took part in the respectful recovery of the scattered human remains.

[In the WWII 306th BG Historical Association newspaper Echoes published in April 1991,  then newspaper Editor and 306th BG veteran, Russell A. Strong,  wrote the following:

“It was a murky day in the air on 22 October, and the 306th planes were feeling their way into the field, when suddenly two formations appeared almost out of nowhere.  Two of the squadrons from the 305th Bomb Group came over Thurleigh, one from the south and another from the east, searching for the safety of their own field.

One air commander took his squadron up, telling his compatriot at 90 degrees to him to take his planes down.  All did, except for the ‘down’ tail ender, who came up instead and collided with the last plane in the other squadron.”]

But there were some happy moments during the war.  Bill was the best man at four weddings when American servicemen married English girls.

 

1944. Bill’s fourth time as best man. Left to right: Connie Walsh, John Corcoran, bride Mary Corcoran, Evelyn Walsh, and Bill Houlihan.

 

WWII ended officially in Europe on May 8, 1945.  The US War Shipping Administration in a plan called Operation Magic Carpet (October 1945 – September 1946) returned eight million Americans back to the US from the European, Pacific, and Asian Theaters.  Bill returned to the US on the ship Queen Mary.

During WWII SSgt Houlihan “Houlie” saw and experienced many things.  He had saved lives as a medic, lost friends in the war, and made many of what would become lifelong friendships.  And Bill was one of the men who got to go home.

Discharged from the US military in 1945 Bill went back to work with Ford Motor Company.  Bill would continue his education using the GI Bill, serve in various defense industry positions, and eventually retire from the US defense industry. 

On Saint Patrick’s Day in 1946 he met his future wife Ruth Jones.  They were married for 67 years.

 

 

 

Serving together in wartime can build lifelong friendships.  Bill is a member of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society and the 306th BG Historical Association.  In 1989 he served as President of the 306th BG Historical Association.  He has worked diligently to keep alive the memories of those who served in WWII.

I first met Bill Houlihan at a 306th BG Historical Association Reunion in San Antonio, Texas, in 2005.  Over the years he has shared many WWII dramatic and humorous stories with me.  Bill is one of the people who inspired me to create this WWII website.  Thank you Bill for permission to share your stories and photographs.

 

Bill Houlihan with son-in-law Joel LaBo at the 2005 306th BG Reunion in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Thank you to Dr. Vernon Williams, Abilene Christian University History Professor, for access to his WWII East Anglia Air War Project photographs and interview with Bill Houlihan which was conducted in 2005.  For more information on the East Anglia Air War Project visit http://www.angliaairwar.org .

Thank you to WWII 306th BG Historical Association Historian Cliff Deets.  Further information about the WWII 306th BG can be found at http://306bg.us.

Another publication mentioning SSgt Houlihan on this website  https://www.ww2history.org/war-in-europe/last-flight-of-a-b-17-named-combined-operations-and-emily-harper-rea/ tells the story of a 306th BG B-17 crash on the Isle of Man on April 14, 1945.

Brought Down in Flames: The Story of WWII B-17 Pilot Clayton A. Nattier

 

On August 30, 1943, Clayton A. Nattier was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps. He was 20 years old.

 

Clayton A. Nattier B-17 Flying Fortress crew, Sioux City Army Air Base, Iowa, 1944. Kneeling left to right: Sergeant Ernest Lussier (Waist Gunner)*, Sergeant Max Kimmel (Waist Gunner), Sergeant Cecil Richardson (Ball Turret Gunner), Sergeant Richard Edwards (Tail Gunner). Standing left to right: Sergeant Eugene Blaskoski (Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner)**, 2nd Lieutenant Bernard Weinstein (Navigator), 2nd Lieutenant Clayton Nattier (Pilot), 2nd Lieutenant Gerald Johnson (Co-Pilot), 2nd Lieutenant William Gregory (Bombardier), Staff Sergeant Edwin Block (Radio Operator). *Sergeant Lussier completed his combat tour flying with another crew when crew size was changed from 10 to 9 members. **Sergeant Blaskoski was injured in England and replaced by Sergeant Gerald Bump.  

 

 

The Clayton A. Nattier B-17 Flying Fortress crew arrived in England in July 1944.  They were assigned to the 306th Bombardment Group (BG), 369th Bomb Squadron, based at Thurleigh.

September 13, 1944

The 306th BG target for the day was Merseburg, Germany. The IG Farben Leuna works, the second largest synthetic oil refinery in Germany, was located there. It was also the most heavily defended industrial target in Europe protected by the Luftwaffe 14th Flak Division. Composition of the division in October 1944 totaled 62,550 persons.

 

Duration Plus (a B-17 borrowed from the 306th BG, 367th Bomb Squadron, that day) replaced the Nattier crew B-17 when it experienced hydraulic brake problems as it taxied for take off from Thurleigh. After shrapnel hit the plane near the bombing target over Germany fire burst into the cockpit on the co-pilot’s side.

 

The Nattier B-17 Heavenly Body was taxiing for take off when the plane developed hydraulic brake failure. The B-17 Duration Plus assigned to the 306th BG, 367th Bomb Squadron, replaced it. By the time the Nattier crew took off that day their first challenge was to catch up to the already airborne formation of 306th BG B-17s enroute to Merseburg. 

Approximately 30 minutes from Merseburg trouble developed in one of the four Duration Plus engines. Co-pilot Lieutenant (Lt) Gerald Johnson tried to correct the problem, but the engine eventually had to be shut down. 

In B-17 flying formation at 29,500 feet and entering the target zone, a second Duration Plus engine started to run rough. 

Then at the Initial Point (IP) where the bombers began the bomb run on the target, the B-17 was hit by shrapnel that penetrated the upper right aluminum shell of the aircraft nose. A fire was spontaneously ignited as the oxygen and oil lines were severed. Flames burst into the cockpit next to the co-pilot.  Lt Nattier gave the order to bail out.

Lt Nattier knew the fire was uncontrollable. He stated, “You know you’re going down, and all you can do is to try to give the crew enough time to bail out.”

Lt Johnson left the cockpit and proceeded to the front nose escape hatch to join navigator Lt Bernard Weinstein and bombardier Lt William Gregory according to bail out procedure.

Lt Nattier maneuvered Duration Plus out of the flying formation and put the plane into a steep dive from 29,500 feet. At a lower altitude oxygen was more readily available to the crew, and the chance of a successful bail out was improved. Then he too left the cockpit and moved toward the front escape hatch.

Clayton did not expect to have to return to the cockpit again before he too could bail out.

As Lt Nattier approached the front escape hatch he saw that the co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier had not left the aircraft. Above the noise he motioned them “Out,” but Lt Weinstein mouthed “No.” Clayton did not know what the problem was but knew he had to go back to the cockpit to change the angle of the B-17 dive to allow more time for them to bail out.

Clayton assumed the ball turret gunner, waist gunner, tail gunner, and radio operator had already bailed out through a rear escape hatch.  [They had.]  The top turret gunner Sergeant (Sgt) Gerald Bump was still on the B-17 and had made valiant attempts to put out the fire.

When Clayton got to the cockpit it was almost engulfed in flames. The instrument panel was melting. He had to reach through the flames to adjust the controls to decrease the B-17 dive angle.  His face, neck, and both hands were badly burned.

The route to the front escape hatch was now blocked with fire and smoke. Lt Nattier’s and Sgt Bump’s only escape route was to jump through the bomb bay.  The bombs had not been dropped that day.  Clayton jumped after Sgt Bump, but his parachute strap caught on the arming propeller of one of the bombs.  He pulled it loose and fell out of the aircraft.  By then he was semiconscious.

Clayton later estimated that from the time the shrapnel hit the B-17 until he bailed out was approximately five minutes.

An American P-51 Mustang fighter plane in the area piloted by Lt William McKee, III,  followed the B-17 until it crashed and exploded. The co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier had not bailed out and were killed in action.

Lt Nattier and Sgt Bump landed in a field near Halle, Germany.  Sgt Bump injured his ankle.  Lt Nattier was seriously burned and semiconscious. Cadets from a local Luftwaffe Flight School found them and transported the two airmen to the Halle jail where a medic from the school treated them.

Clayton does remember temporarily regaining consciousness a couple of times on the way to the Halle jail.  He opened his eyes once and found himself looking into the eyes of a donkey.  It seems he was thrown over the back of the animal, transferred to a small automobile (in later life he realized the car had been an early model Volkswagen), and then taken to the jail.

September 14, 1944.

Lt Nattier and Sgt Bump began their journey from Halle to a prisoner of war (POW) camp.

Lt Nattier was first taken to a Dulug Luft near Frankfurt, Germany, where he was interrogated. [A Dulag Luft was a transit and interrogation center for newly captured Allied airmen. After interrogation the prisoners were sent to permanent POW camps.] When being transported from Frankfurt to his permanent camp, he saw his five surviving crew members at the Frankfurt train station. They were sent to Stalag Luft 4* at Gross Tychow, Pomerania (now Tychowo, Poland).

September 26, 1944.

Clayton arrived at Stalag Luft 1 (SL1) near Barth, Western Pomerania, Germany, on the Baltic Sea. His bandages had not been changed since September 13, but miraculously he had not developed an infection at the burn sites. He spent his first three weeks in the camp hospital.

Lt Nattier became SL1 POW 5577.  His camp mailing address was Clayton Nattier, North Compound 2, Kriegsgefangene Baracke 202, Room 6, Stalag Luft #1, Barth, Germany.  Each room held 18 prisoners with bunk beds stacked three high.  A small wood burning stove provided them limited heat and a place to cook their meals. Food provided by the Germans was supplemented with Red Cross packages.  

Delivery of Red Cross packages to SL1 stopped from December 26, 1944 – March 28, 1945.  Packages were known to be in Sweden and on the docks in Germany but were not delivered.  Clayton describes a three month period without the supplemental food supply as one of near starvation the POWs endured.

December 1944.

Colonel (Col) Hubert “Hub” Zemke became POW 6559 at SL1.  He was captured after his P-51 Mustang experienced a structural failure over Germany. His rank made him Senior Allied Officer at the camp.  He was 30 years old.

Col Zemke was the son of German immigrants and spoke fluent German. The Col had delivered American P-40 Warhawk fighter aircraft to Russia as part of the United States (US) Lend-Lease Act, and he taught the Russians how to fly and maintain the aircraft. His language skills and experience with the Russian military would prove extremely useful. 

Clayton still speaks highly of Col Zemke and his leadership ability which greatly improved POW conditions.

May 1, 1945.

The Russians liberated SL1. There were nearly 9,000 POWs in the camp at that time.  The Russians planned to transport the POWs to Odessa, Russia, on the Black Sea.  

Col Zemke along with other Allied leaders had a different plan.

May 12, 1945.

The plan called Operation Revival (May 12 – May 14, 1945) was to fly SL1 POWs out of hostile-held territory and back behind Allied lines. B-17s from the US 91st BG based at Bassingbourn, England, flew into what was a German military airfield near Barth. American POWs were then flown to Camp Lucky Strike (one of the US camps in France for repatriated servicemen) near LeHavre.  British POWs and those POWs sick or injured were flown to England.

 

 

Nine days after SL1 was liberated by the Russians, Clayton wrote a letter to his parents.

May 10, 1945

Dear folks,

These past few days have been quite eventful to say the least. The “rotten Huns” left us on the thirtieth of April, and the Russians came in the following day. Although we can’t go just anywhere in Germany we are free outside these barbed wire fences, a wonderful feeling.

I’d like to tell you that I’ll be home in a few days but that probably wouldn’t be true. I can’t begin to tell you how anxious I am to get home, and it won’t be long I know –- a very conservative estimate would be the first of July and barely possible by July tenth. Got three letters here – one from Mother, Dad, and Jean.

Boy what a privilege it is to write a letter in ink that won’t be censored by some German.

Russians have been bringing in cattle and hogs to butcher. Yesterday we cooked our first fresh meat since England.

I’m in as good health as I ever was and feel swell – I just want to get home. Drop Jean a note and tell her I’ll see her soon.

Strawberry season should be in full swing when I get home – I can see your strawberry shortcake now Mother.

Lots of love,

Clayton

[Many servicemen throughout WWII did not want their families to worry about them. Their letters home did not always describe what they were seeing and experiencing and feeling. Clayton’s letter is an example of one of those letters.]   

Clayton would eventually sail from LeHavre on a Liberty ship back to the US.  He would return home to Concordia, Kansas, and propose to “a pretty special girl” named Jean Mails (mentioned in his letter).  Jean and Clayton got married two weeks after his return.  

Then as Clayton says he got started with the rest of his life.

 

 

 

 

*In January and February 1945, as the Soviet Army was advancing west, the Germans began marching POWs further into Germany from Stalag Luft 4 (SL4) and other Allied POW camps. The march for the SL4 POWs spanned over 80 days and an estimated 600 miles (965 kilometers). They first were marched west. Then they were marched east when Allied artillery fire could be heard to the west. On May 2, 1945, the SL4 POWs were liberated by a British unit. 

Clayton’s five surviving crew members — Gerald Bump, Edwin Block, Max Kimmel, Cecil Richardson, and Richard Edwards — returned to the US after SL4 was liberated.  They all kept in touch after the war.

A special thank you to Clayton Nattier for sharing his wartime experiences with me and answering my many questions.

Clayton’s son-in-law, Thom Mindala, wrote a book Flying the B-17 Flying Fortress which details Clayton’s wartime experiences.  

The story and photographs are posted with Clayton’s and his family’s permission.

Thank you to WWII 306th BG Historical Association Historian Cliff Deets who is an invaluable resource for BG history. Information about the WWII 306th BG can be found at http://306bg.us.

 

A Smoking Snake: The Brazilian Expeditionary Force in WWII

 

The Smoking Snake shoulder patch of a Brazilian Expeditionary Force soldier in WWII.

 

Brazil was the only Latin American country to send ground troops overseas to fight in WWII.

 

In 1941 after the December 7th Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the United States (US) Navy was granted access to Brazilian ports in its anti-submarine campaign in the Battle of the Atlantic against the Axis.  In early 1942 Brazil granted permission to the US to establish air bases and military installations on Brazilian territory.   The South American bases were essential as staging and stopover points for aircraft and ships with destinations in Africa, the Mediterranean, and beyond.  Recife and Natal, Brazil, were particularly important bases during WWII.

The President of Brazil Getúllo Dornelles Vargas declared war on Germany and Italy on August 22, 1942, after 36 of its merchant ships were sunk in the Atlantic Ocean by German and Italian submarines.

The  Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF) was formed in early 1943 and had Army and Air Force branches. The BEF included about 25,700 men and women.

The Brazilian Navy was not directly part of the BEF.  The Brazilian Navy and the Allies defended air and sea transport lanes, protected convoys between South America and the Strait of Gibraltar, and made it difficult for German and Italian submarines to operate in the Central and South Atlantic Ocean and in the Caribbean Sea. 

The first group of BEF troops sailed from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Naples, Italy, in 1944.  Their mission was to fight alongside other Allied armies in the Mediterranean Theater.

The BEF Army branch was attached to the Allied 15th Army Group composed of British and US field armies in Italy.  The BEF had a notable role in numerous battles in Italy including the Battle of Monte Castello, the Battle of Montese, and the Battle of Collecchio. They captured over 20,000 Axis soldiers.

The BEF air branch was attached to the 305th Fighter Group of the US Army Air Force, 62nd Fighter Wing, 12th Air Force flying in the Mediterranean Theater. The Brazilians flew Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter planes from their base in Tarquinia, Italy.  Their callsign was Jambock. They flew 445 missions and destroyed military targets including 1,304 motor vehicles, 13 railway wagons, 8 armored cars, 25 railway and highway bridges, and 31 fuel tanks and munitions depots.

 

Brazilian P-47 Thunderbolt pilots wearing their distinctive white caps. Kneeling left to right: 2nd Lieutenant Paulo Costa, Captain M. Joel. Standing left to right: 1st Lieutenant A.D.S. Eustógio, Lieutenant Colonel Nero Moura, 1st Lieutenant I. Motta-Paes, 1st Lieutenant R.B. Lima-Moreira, 1st Lieutenant L.F.M.F. Perdigão.

 

When WWII ended, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force had lost nearly 1,000 men killed in action.

The Brazilian Military Cemetery of Pistoia, Italy, was established on August 4, 1945.  The cemetery closed in 1960. The soldiers’ remains were returned to Brazil and re-interred at the Monument of the Dead of World War II in Rio de Janeiro.  

The body of an unidentified Brazilian soldier was later discovered still buried in the Pistoia cemetery.  The Brazilian government elected to leave the remains of the soldier there.  In 1967 the Brazilian Monument and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of World War II was inaugurated at Pistoia.  

 

 

WWII Allies remembered. 

An exhibit in the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, to commemorate the Brazilian Air Force in WWII.

 

For additional information about the Brazilian Expeditionary Force in WWII visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_Expeditionary_Force.  Also at the web page is the story explaining how the BEF got the nickname Smoking Snakes.

 

In Memory Of … WWII Nun Sister Emeldine

Sister Emeldine in Holland in March 1946.

 

This story is in recognition of Dutch citizens who helped the Allies in WWII.

 

The United States (US) Army 24th Evacuation Hospital landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 12, 1944, six days after D-Day.  The unit followed Allied military operations through France, Belgium, and then to Holland in support of Operation Market Garden in September of 1944.  

From October 28 to December 2, 1944, the 24th Evacuation Hospital occupied the Saint Maarten Kliniek (Clinic) in Nijmegen, Holland.  This was their first hospital set up in an already existing building.  Prior to that the unit worked in a tent hospital setting.  The Kliniek had been used by the Germans when they occupied Holland.  

The Saint Maarten Kliniek is where this story takes place.

 

Top photograph of the front of Saint Maarten Kliniek in 1944.  Bottom photograph shows the back of the building damaged after nearby military operations.

 

In a 2011 oral history interview 24th Evacuation Hospital nurse Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore Reaves tells of meeting Sister Emeldine and other nuns who cared for patients at the Kliniek.  

 

Photograph of Sister Emeldine and Lieutenant Josephine Pescatore Reaves taken at the back of the war damaged Saint Maarten Kliniek in 1944. 

 

Josephine shared a story in her interview about a US Army 101st Airborne Division soldier who was dying.  His name was John Kublinski.  She, Sister Emeldine, and a Catholic priest endangered their lives to grant John’s last request.

 

    

 

If the families of those lost in WWII had known that their loved ones did not die alone but were in the hands of caring people, it may have offered them some solace in their grief.

John Kublinski and Nick Patino were buried in US Temporary Cemetery 4655 at Molenhoek, Holland.  Their bodies were repatriated to the US after WWII ended.

 

Unfortunately I could not find further information about Sister Emeldine.  She did survive WWII as is attested by the 1946 photograph of her above.

Efforts have been unsuccessful in trying to locate the three sons of John Kublinski to share this remembrance of their father.

On November 19, 1944, a German shell hit the hospital.  US Army physician Guy A. Myers and nurse First Lieutenant Katherine L. Foster were seriously wounded.

The photographs in this story are used with the permission of Josephine Pescatore Reaves.  The oral history video is used with the permission of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. 

A valuable website with extensive information on many of the US medical support units in WWII is WW2 US Medical Research Centre

There are three other stories on this website about the US Army 24th Evacuation Hospital.  The stories are WWII Camp Shanks, New York: And a Visit by Archbishop Spellman,  An Afternoon in Paris after Liberation: And a Letter from a Parisian Lady,  and The Medics: Those Who Took Care of the Wounded and the Dying in WWII .

 

The Resistance, Escape from Buchenwald, Allied Flyers Escape Line, 101st Airborne Interpreter: The WWII Story of Dutchman Jack van der Geest

Jack van der Geest, 1951, United States (US) Air Force B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber Radar Operator. He served his adopted country after WWII and became a US citizen.

 

Jacobus (Jack) van der Geest was born in The Hague, The Netherlands,  September 17, 1923.  Before WWII ended Jack worked with the Dutch and French Resistance, escaped from Buchenwald concentration camp, helped Allied flyers escape to Switzerland, and was an interpreter for the United States (US) Army 101st Airborne Division.  

Jack spoke seven languages he learned in school and from friends.  He spoke Dutch, English, German, French, Flemish, Javanese, and Malayan.  This ability proved to be invaluable to him during WWII and after.

[The Netherlands proclaimed neutrality when WWII began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.  In spite of this, Germany invaded the country on May 10, 1940.  After overwhelming the Dutch Army and the bombing of Rotterdam, The Netherlands surrendered to Germany on May 15, 1940.  Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government escaped to the United Kingdom before the surrender and established a government-in-exile.]

In Jack’s autobiography Was God on Vacation? he tells of being awakened on May 10, 1940, at 4 o’clock in the morning to the sound of explosions somewhere in The Hague.  He, his parents and sister, and a friend staying with them that night ran from their apartment at Soestdijksekade 43 and gathered in the street with other residents of the neighborhood to see what was happening.  Jack said leaflets were dropping from airplanes.  The leaflets message, in Dutch on one side and German on the other side, was “We the German people came to liberate you.”

[In 1938 The Netherlands passed a law requiring firearms owners to register their guns.  The Germans used the registration list to go to homes and businesses collecting the weapons of Dutch citizens.  Some weapons escaped detection and became useful in the Dutch Resistance.]

The Dutch Resistance had many small, decentralized units that planned independent actions against the Germans.  Jack’s father became an area commander of such a unit in 1941.  Jack was a member.

In September 1942 the Gestapo went to the van der Geest apartment and arrested  Jack, his father, and his mother.  A Dutch woman collaborating with the Germans betrayed them. 

Jack and his father and mother were taken to a prison near The Hague in Scheveningen which in WWII was nicknamed “The Orange Hotel.”  They were interrogated separately.  Jack worried about his parents and did not find out until after WWII what happened to them.  Among his worries he didn’t know what happened to their old fox terrier, Jony, left in their apartment after the family was arrested.

After interrogation Jack was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany.  Travelling in a standing room only cattle car with other prisoners, Jack arrived at Buchenwald the end of September 1943.  Some prisoners died during the journey.  At the camp the prisoners had their heads shaved, were disinfected, and given striped uniforms to wear.  Jack’s prisoner number on his jacket was 512601.  Beneath it was a red triangle identifying him as a political prisoner.  Assigned to work in several different areas of the camp, his last assignment in Block 46 was the most horrifying.  It was where they did human experimentation on camp inmates.  Some of what Jack saw he could never discuss even toward the end of his life.

After nearly six months in Buchenwald Jack didn’t know how much longer he could live and planned an escape.  His plan would take extreme focus and patience on his part.  He knew the crematorium was out of fuel and used this knowledge to his advantage.

Every morning there was a prisoner roll call in the camp at 5 o’clock.  In March 1944, one morning Jack “played dead.”  A guard wrote down his prisoner number, and his seemingly lifeless body was dragged to an area where the dead were stacked for disposal.  He laid among the corpses until early that evening when there was only one guard near the pile of bodies.  With his remaining strength Jack jumped up and overpowered that guard.  He removed his German uniform and with multiple layers of clothing that he removed from the corpses to fill out his skeletal frame under the uniform, he started to walk toward the entrance gate of the camp.  It was now dark, and a German truck driver saw him walking.  The driver offered him a ride to Weimar.  Jack jumped in the back of the truck and then jumped out the first time the truck slowed down after it was driven out of the concentration camp.

Near Weimar a German farm couple let Jack stay at their home that first night after escaping.  He was still in a German uniform and was never sure they knew who he really was.  Jack spent the night in their son’s bedroom and saw a picture of him in his German Army uniform.  The next day the farm couple gave him their son’s bicycle to continue his journey.  

Feigning a limp to look like a soldier wounded in the war when he was seen in public, Jack found a railroad station in Erfurt, Germany, and decided to get in a boxcar of a train headed west to France.  Shedding the German uniform along the way, he dressed in some civilian clothes he took from the farmhouse.  He changed trains three times and eventually arrived in Neufchateau, France.  Jack decided to get off the train at that point.

 

In Neufchateau Jack decided to take a risk and find a dentist.  A guard in Buchenwald had knocked out his two front teeth.  His gums were swollen and infected.  A dentist Dr. Marvell treated his infection and later put in two false teeth.  After cautious and wary conversation Jack told the dentist he had escaped from Buchenwald.  Dr. Marvell revealed he was a member of a French Resistance group called the Maquis and asked Jack if he would like to join the Resistance.  Jack said yes, and the dentist arranged transportation for him to Paris, France.

In Paris Jack’s Resistance group would steal important information from the Germans to pass along to the Allies and would break into government buildings to get identification and food ration cards to give to Jews and dissenters in hiding.  They also helped downed Allied flyers escape from France.

A Paris Resistance member Guillaume who ran a Allied flyers escape line asked Jack to go with him on a mission to guide flyers from Paris to Neuchatel, Switzerland.  Guillaume thought Jack’s escape and evasion experience and ability to speak multiple languages would be extremely useful.  On Jack’s first mission he and Guillaume met three flyers (two British and one American) at Versailles outside Paris.

The phase of the moon was important in planning these missions as travel was mainly by night and paralleled main roads to avoid German vehicles.  They walked approximately 248 miles (399 kilometers) to Switzerland, and the trip could take 10-12 days one way.  French farmers and Resistance members living along the route would provide shelter and food for the group.

 

Jack led the next mission on his own.  On his sixth mission an American flyer told him being multilingual would be of great use in the upcoming Allied invasion of Europe.  Jack knew that there were other Allied flyers escape lines, and he felt that his luck may be running out.  He sent word back to Paris that he was going to England from Switzerland.  He and the escaping Allied flyers left one night from an airstrip near Zurich, Switzerland, in what looked to Jack like a Douglas DC 3.  There were British and American Embassy personnel on the flight also.  Switzerland declared neutrality in WWII, but Jack found out then that in wartime certain rules do not always apply.

It was March 1944, and Jack was 20 years old.

In England Jack was chosen as an interpreter for the US Army 101st Airborne Division.  He trained as a paratrooper and parachuted into Normandy with them as part of Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944.  Jack acted as an interrogator and interpreter.

Jack stepped foot on Dutch soil again in Masstricht, The Netherlands. 

 

In Bastogne Jack had an opportunity to return the kindness of the German farm couple who had fed and sheltered him after his escape from Buchenwald.  A captured young German soldier he was interrogating described a farm near Weimer, Germany, where he lived with his parents before WWII began.  To the surprise of the soldier Jack provided him a description of his parents.  He told the soldier he had fine parents and said nothing else.  In Jack’s interrogation report he stated that he knew the soldier’s parents, that they helped him when he escaped from Buchenwald, and asked that nothing happen to their son.

The end of 1944 brought a message that the Dutch government ordered her countrymen in foreign service to report to England.  After reaching London Jack was given two choices: join the Dutch Army and train in England or become a Royal Netherlands Marine and train in the US.  His time spent with Americans and wish to go to the US made the choice an easy one for him.

The end of January 1945 Jack and other Dutch marines left Liverpool, England, on the Queen Elizabeth sailing to New York City, New York.  The Queen Elizabeth on that voyage served as a hospital ship.  The Dutch marines helped care for the wounded servicemen returning to the US.  In New York Harbor Jack used a sheet as a sling to carry a soldier who had lost both legs up to the main deck of the ship.  The soldier wanted to see the Statue of Liberty.  Someone started to sing The Star Spangled Banner.  Others joined in.

Jack trained at US Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, South Carolina, and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.  He was in Washington, DC, when he heard the war in Europe had ended on May 8, 1945.

During his time in the US Jack asked the Red Cross for help in locating his parents.  But he could get no news of his parents and sister.

On December 8, 1945, the Dutch marines left Virginia by ship with a destination of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  Military assignments while based there included rescuing 50 Dutch marines captured in Indonesia during WWII that were being held in a Japanese prison near Peking (Beijing), China, and clearing Japanese soldiers out of the jungle of Java, Indonesia, who did not know WWII ended. 

In July 1946 Jack was discharged from the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps.  He found a job with a shipping and transport company located in Sydney, Australia.  He still had no word about his family.

After two and a half years Jack found himself back in Java on a business trip.  A letter from his mother was waiting for him at the post office.  She and Jack’s sister had survived the war and were in The Hague.  [Jack learned from his mother after WWII ended that his father was sent from “The Orange Hotel” to Dachau concentration camp about 10 miles (16 kilometers) northwest of Munich, Germany, where he died on February 19, 1943.  His mother was sent to the German concentration camp Ravensbruck 56 miles (90 kilometers) north of Berlin, Germany.  She was released about three and a half months later and returned to The Hague.  Records found in 2009 indicate Jack’s father died in Camp Vught which was a transit and concentration camp in The Netherlands in WWII.] 

Jack wanted to become an American citizen.  There was a six year waiting list to emigrate to the US from The Netherlands.  In Australia, where he had been living and working, there was a four and a half year waiting list.  Indonesia only required a person to speak Malaysian and live there for 30 days.  Easily fulfilling the two requirements Jack sailed to the US and en route stopped in The Netherlands for three months to visit his mother and sister.

He arrived in the US in November 1949 at 26 years of age.

While registering as an alien at a post office in Baltimore, Maryland, Jack saw a notice that one could become a US citizen after serving three years in the US military.  On March 2, 1950, Jack joined the US Air Force, became a Radar Operator on a B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber, and was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.  May 5, 1953, after serving three years in the military, Jack became a citizen of the US.

Jack died March 3, 2009, in Rapid City, South Dakota.  He was 85 years old.

Jack’s love for his adopted country is expressed in the last sentence of his autobiography Was God on Vacation? when he states “Next time you pledge allegiance to our flag, I hope you get the same thrill down your spine that I do.” 

 

 

A  friend of Jack’s once visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Museum where he found the Death Certificate of a prisoner named Jacobus van der Geest.  Jack was one of only eight people to escape from Buchenwald.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp Death Certificate.

 

 

Jack published his book Was God on Vacation? (with Carol Ordemann) in 1995.  Thank you to his son Van van der Geest for his help in the research for this story.  The story, photographs, and maps are published with his permission.

On April 29, 1998, the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education did an interview with Jack.  He was named a Rescuer and Aid Provider by the Foundation for helping  Jews during the Holocaust.  The link to the interview (Part 1 and Part 2) is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIMqe6_VZ54.  

Jony, the family fox terrier, was rescued from their apartment three days after the family was arrested.

 

A Prisoner of the Enemy: The Story of WWII B-17 Navigator Carl A. Groesbeck

 

United States Army Air Force Second Lieutenant Carl A. Groesbeck’s prisoner of war photograph taken in October 1943.  He was a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress navigator with the 306th Bombardment Group based at Thurleigh, England.  The word Lichtbild means photograph in German.

 

United States Army Air Force (USAAF) Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt.) Carl A. Groesbeck was a B-17 Flying Fortress navigator with the First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Roy Ranck crew assigned to the 306th Bombardment Group (BG), 368th Bomb Squadron, based at Thurleigh, England, in WWII.

The Ranck crew’s first combat mission was October 8, 1943, to Bremen, Germany.  The primary target was the German aircraft factory there.  Due to a thick smoke screen obscuring the target, the bombs were dropped over a secondary target.  After the raid, the B-17 formation encountered Luftwaffe fighter planes and heavy flak.  The Ranck B-17 made it back to Thurleigh but was badly damaged with so many holes in the fuselage that Carl said it looked like a sieve.  The B-17 was scrapped.  Miraculously, no member of the 10 man crew was seriously injured.

The second combat mission for the Ranck crew was the next day on October 9, 1943, to Gdynia, Poland, a city in the Polish Corridor on the Baltic Sea.  At that date in time it was the deepest B-17 penetration mission into the European Theater.  Gdynia was almost 200 miles (322 kilometers) east of Berlin.  The city had been under German control since the start of WWII in September 1939.  The target that day was the German Naval, industrial, and port facilities.

The 306th BG B-17s arrived at Gdynia about the same time as a formation of USAAF B-24 Liberator bombers from another base in England.  The B-17 formation did a 360 degree turn and dropped the bombs on the second run over the target.  As the B-17s departed the area numerous German Messerschmitt and Junkers fighter planes were in pursuit.  The Ranck B-17 was badly damaged in the attack.  The aircraft dropped out of the formation, an engine was on fire, and it was flying too slowly to outrun the fighters.  Right waist gunner Sergeant Douglas Farris was killed in action.

Flying over the Baltic Sea on the return route from Gdynia, pilot 1st Lt. Ranck was able to fly the B-17 to a Danish island called Samso in the Kattegat Sea east of the Denmark Jutland Peninsula.  The crew bailed out over land, but their landings were spread out over the island.  2nd Lt. Groesbeck landed near B-17 radio operator Technical Sergeant William Skahan who broke a leg when landing.  While tending to the broken leg, Carl was arrested by German soldiers.  He was led away from the area and hoped the radio operator would be taken to a medical facility.  2nd Lt. Groesbeck was now a prisoner of war (POW).  He was 24 years old.  The date was October 9, 1943.

2nd Lt. Groesbeck spent his first night as a POW in a Samso farm chicken coop guarded by a German soldier.  The farmer’s wife brought him some food that evening.

On Day 2 he was reunited with B-17 Flight Engineer Staff Sergeant (S/Sgt.) Harry Hall.  They were transported by boat to Copenhagen, Denmark.  Carl was surprised when they were billeted in a luxury hotel in the city.  He tells of walking into the hotel lobby while a man in a tuxedo was playing the piano.  They had a room on the fifth floor.  One German guard said he would buy them a razor and soap to get cleaned up if they gave him some money.  2nd Lt. Groesbeck said the American flight crews had been told not to carry money with them.  That was when S/Sgt. Hall pulled out a “ten spot” (American ten dollar bill) from his shoe.  They got cleaned up, and then a German officer offered them “the run of the town” if they promised not to try and escape.  Carl refused the offer, and that night a German sentry took their shoes and stood guard outside their hotel room.

2nd Lt. Groesbeck and S/Sgt. Hall were separated on Day 3.  That was the last time Carl knew anything about the crew until WWII ended.  [The nine Ranck crew members who bailed out did survive the war.]  Carl was transported by truck to a nearby German air base, taken by ferry to Germany, and then travelled by train to a Dulag Luft.  It was Day 4 as a POW.  [A Dulag Luft was a transit and interrogation center for newly captured Allied airmen.  There were several facilities in Germany as well as German occupied countries.  After interrogation the prisoners were sent to permanent camps.]  Carl spent about a week at the Dulag Luft and was then transported in a standing room only cattle car with other POWs to what would be his permanent camp at Stalag Luft 3 in Sagan, Germany [now Zagan, Poland].  Sagan was about 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast of Berlin.

Stalag Luft 3 opened April 11, 1942, and expanded to include North, East, South, and West Compounds.  There were prisons within a prison.  It housed Allied airmen who at one time totaled 10,949 men.  The camp had recreational activities, a library, theater, radio station, a band and orchestra, religious services, two newspapers, and prisoners planning escapes. 

The camp was intentionally built on sandy soil with the idea being it would be difficult for the prisoners to dig escape tunnels.  That did not seem to make a difference to many of the Allied airmen imprisoned there.  The most famous of the escape attempts was on March 24, 1944.  It became known after WWII as The Great Escape with the story being told in a book (1950) and a movie (1963).

Carl spent his time trying to keep busy, answering roll calls, attending Catholic Mass when he could, and sometimes acted as a security guard for tunnel diggers.  I once asked him how he lived through that chapter in his life.  He said his faith in God and an optimism about life were a great help to him.

After Carl’s nearly 16 months as a POW, on January 27, 1945, he and other prisoners of Stalag Luft 3 saw what he would describe as a “blood red” night sky.  The Soviet Army was advancing west and getting closer.  Artillery exchanges between the Russians and the Germans and burning structures in the distance lit up the sky.  The Germans decided to move Allied prisoners west into Germany.  Prisoners from Stalag Luft 3 (and other POW camps) were forced to march west in what was one of the coldest winters in Europe.  Temperatures were as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 25 degrees Celsius).  Over 80,000 prisoners made what became known as “The March.”  [Although the numbers of men who died during the forced marches that winter vary, the number of US and Commonwealth POWs is estimated to be 3,500.]

Carl and a group of men numbering about 250 were forced to start their march just before midnight on that January 27th night.  They had only the clothes they were wearing and any food they had stored in their living quarters and were able to carry.  Carl remembers marching through six towns and the POWs seeking shelter where they could when they were allowed to rest.  He recalls the first night after the march began that he and other prisoners packed as many men as they could into an abandoned German Lutheran Church.  Carl shared what food he had (a box of raisins) with a fellow POW.  There was always the threat of Allied air forces attacking them as they could  have been mistaken for retreating German soldiers.  At one point along the march the prisoners were put in cattle cars and taken to their destination point at Stalag 7A near Moosburg in Bavaria, Germany.  They arrived at the camp on February 2, 1945.  The distance travelled from Stalag Luft 3 to Stalag 7A was approximately 390 miles (626 kilometers). 

Other groups of POWs from Stalag Luft 3 and other camps continued to arrive.

Carl spent the last few months of WWII at Stalag 7A.  The camp was originally built to house 10,000 prisoners.  When it was liberated on April 29, 1945, by the United States (US) Army 14th Armored Division, there were nearly 80,000 POWs from many different Allied countries.  General George C. Patton made a visit to the camp.  

WWII was over for Carl.  He had survived.

May 8, 1945, WWII officially ended in Europe.  Carl was ill at that time and remained in Germany at Stalag 7A undergoing treatment for about two weeks before being evacuated to Camp Lucky Strike (one of the US camps in France for repatriated servicemen).  He recalls food portions in the mess hall being rationed for the POWs as they slowly regained weight and strength.  Food portions were determined by the color of the ticket they presented.  Too much food too soon could have killed them.  And at Camp Lucky Strike he saw B-17 Flight Engineer S/Sgt. Hall again.

Carl returned to the US by ship.  He went back to his hometown of Ottawa, Illinois.  Carl continued his education, married, and is the father of five children.  He attended Stalag Luft 3 POW reunions over the years and kept in contact with other fellow prisoners.   

But that is not the end of the story.  The German plane that shot down Carl’s B-17 on October 9, 1943, was a Junkers JU 88.  A crew member Heinz Philipp had written down the B-17 tail number that day.  After WWII, with the help of the US Air Force, Heinz learned the names of the B-17 crew and contacted Carl.  Carl later visited him in Germany, and they stayed in contact until Heinz’s death.

 

Carl Groesbeck (on the right) with 306th BG veteran Philip Mundell laid wreaths at the 306th BG Memorial in Thurleigh, England, in 2008.  Philip flew with the 369th Bomb Squadron as a ball turret gunner and togglier.

 

Last December Carl celebrated his 98th birthday.  He still has that sense of optimism and faith in God.

Thank you 2nd Lt. Groesbeck for your service in WWII.

 

 

A special thank you to Carl Groesbeck for sharing his wartime experiences with me and for all the time he spent answering my many questions while doing research for this story.  The story and photographs are posted with his and his family’s permission.

Thank you to the Witness to War Foundation which is dedicated to historical preservation of the stories of war veterans.  Martin Madert interviewed Carl in 2013 and provided me a copy of the interview which I used in researching this story.  For further information on the Witness to War Foundation visit http://www.witnesstowar.org/.

Information about the WWII 306th BG Historical Association can be found at http://306bg.us/.  Association Historian Cliff Deets is always an invaluable resource for BG history.