Into the Kassel

“Well, fellas, here’s the new ship.”

Harold, Kelley, and crew all stood before their new B-17, Classy Chassis. It was originally operated by a pilot, Alexander, who was to replace Topin as copilot while Kelley took over his seat as the captain. Jack and Ned gandered at the damaged Shack Up. “Good job, boys. You broke the plane.” Jack stood with his hands on his hips and cocked his head dramatically and comically to the side. It reminded Harold of his mother when he and Arthur would get in trouble as young boys; she would reprimand Harold for something his brother did, and vice versa. Harold would defend himself and then ask his mother to dress them differently. The group laughed at Jack’s comment because it was funny, but also because they were still in shock that they managed to land the plane. 

“Where’s your digit?” Jack pointed to Harold’s bandaged hand. 

“I dunno, somewhere near Dusseldorf, if I had to guess.” Jack laughed, “You boys ready for this one we got coming up? Dropping in on Kassel. Going to give those Jerry’s a nice wake-up.” Jack and Ned were set up to fly into Kassel and drop several tons of bombs in their wake; each B-17 was capable of carrying up to three tons. They hoped to be home that afternoon. Harold had a letter to write back home to Loretta. 

Several days prior the Allied forces began an operation against German ball-bearing and aircraft factories. Ball-bearings were vital to the aviation industry, and used in just about all machinery. This factory in particular was assembling FW-190’s. It was speculated that the Focke-Wulf was the best single engine fighter aircraft of the war. The FW-190 took its first flight in 1939, and since then its appearance over the skies always left a little extra tension in the already strung-out airmen. If they successfully destroyed these, they could begin the process of sweeping out Germany – at least in the sky. By 1943, Germany was already wavering on its pedestal, with more and more propaganda highlighting Hitler as unstable, his people starving – and as a result more and more Jews and minorities were unjustly punished. The killing of innocent people only increased as the end of World War II – hopefully – approached.

The ships took off out of Ipswich early July 30th. Kelley and his crew departed for Germany just after eight in the morning. The low roar of the plane shook Harold with a slight uneasiness – the same uneasiness he felt each time he went up in the sky. It had only been a couple of days since their previous plane went down – but this was war and a job had to be done. If they were successful in their mission, there wouldn’t be so many planes to worry about shooting them down, he reasoned. It would get done. 

Jack and Ned flew close by to Classy Chassis – two of over 100 bombers set to destroy the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories that sat just outside of a small village called Dorla. The B-17s did not have the protection of the Mustang fighter planes this time, and were resolved to defend themselves as well as each other. Daytime missions were always a risky run, sure, but they had luck on their side – especially following the July 28th mission. 

After flying into Germany, Classy Chassis began its mission. They turned north. These ships moved so smooth and elegant, Harold thought, as Kelley maneuvered Classy Chassis effortlessly to the drop location. The sinking feeling in Harold’s stomach came back, knowing the crew would have to fend for themselves, as well as being unreasonably deep in enemy territory. They were over the town of Bebra when suddenly an explosion rocked the left side of the Fortress. Harold was thrown to one side and the ball turret gunner ran to his station without saying a word. Through the ten-panel plexiglass the men saw fighter planes bob and weave about their formation. From below, German anti-aircraft weapons blew a hole straight through the wing of the plane. Engine number four was completely shredded and replaced only by smoke and flame. Flak pierced the metal and the crew screamed out in confusion and fear. The sound of metal ripping from the fuselage and wings was like if every train scheduled to pull into Jamaica Station back home came in at once without stopping. The men tried to steady themselves and Kelley fought to keep the nose even as thick, black smoke poured from the portside of their aircraft. Harold felt a deep, burning pain in his back but continued to look for something to shoot at. He jerked his wrists forward to choke up the sleeves of his bomber jacket and get a better grip on the turret gun when he noticed the gash on his arm. He gritted his teeth at the pain and yelled for direction, not knowing how many of the crew were still present. 

More smoke filled the ship. Sparks flashed and Harold began to find it difficult to see. Things looked grim; they still had a bomb shaft filled with artillery, and it was confirmed that two engines on the wing were torn clean off. Harold tried to desperately see if there were any other planes around them caught up in the mess. He wanted to see if Jack was out of harm’s way and on his route back to England.

Again, another explosion. A shell effortlessly ripped through the cockpit and the oxygen systems engaged. Electric was now completely lost and Kelley knew then that there was no hope for getting this ship back to England. They had been in the sky for just over an hour, trailing smoke like a bad omen across Germany. 

The controls were so damaged that they were flying a ticking time bomb if they stayed. Thinking quickly, Adams jumped into the bomb bay and used a large screw driver to wedge open the bomb shaft. All at once, the artillery dropped from the underside of the plane with no target in mind – the only goal to lighten the load and give the crew some more air time as they thought on what to do next. 

“Bail out! Bail out!” Kelley called from the cockpit as he made his way to the bomb bay. It seemed obvious at this point. He knew their situation was making them nothing more than an easier target for German fighter pilots. Jones ran over to radio an emergency message. By the time he returned to the front of the plane, the cockpit was empty – the rest of the crew had bailed out. Papers and wiring flew around and were sucked out into the sky as pieces of metal ripped from the fuselage. Jones found his way to the bomb bay and jumped.

One by one, the men descended onto Germany in different locations. They were separated, wounded, and far into enemy territory. Jack and Ned watched helplessly from the B-17 in front of Classy Chassis, his own crew avoiding flack and bullets from the Germans, and returning fire when they could. Jack never saw Harold bail out, no less make it to the ground.

Keep your eye on the Doughnut

I rang the doorbell three times before a nurse let me in the building, only to meet me in the hallway and tell me I was the first to know, and that my grandfather just died. What immediately followed was something I experienced when I watched my mother – his daughter – die seven years ago: tunnel vision, loss of breath, silent and uncontrolled sobs. My aunt arrived not two minutes after. We said our goodbyes to Harold in his bed, finally at rest and home with Nan, with my mom, with my family dog who died only four months ago in September. He was reunited with his identical twin, Arthur, who died in 1943 on a PT while Harold sat in prison camp in Krems, Austria.

I feel like I’ve become a professional at death and grief; the state of being dead is not what scares me, though. I am not afraid to kiss a recently-departed loved one on the hand or forehead one last time. The process of dying – the suffering, the pain, the uncertainty of whether or not that person will be around for three more days, or two – is what eats at me. Since January 9th my soul has felt heavy while my life has felt emptier. I will miss Thursday morning physical therapy appointments, grocery shopping, holding hands in the car, and singing old songs. I will miss him there in my life. It is something that I know I will get through, but I am not quite sure how yet.

I don’t even really know how to explain my grandpa when people ask. After newspaper interviews and his eulogy I still conclude that that he was – simply put – a good guy, because if I spent the amount of time I wanted to talking about him a whole year would pass before I was done. He died just a week shy of his 99th birthday, born before sliced bread and lived long enough to build the World Trade Centers, watch them fall on television, and watch Tower One be rebuilt. Harold lived long, but he lived. He lived enough for three lifetimes, and I was lucky enough to hear his stories and to commit them to memory – those moments of invaluable tales of war and love and sayings that I will write down and give life to until the day I myself am dead.

He always told my brother, cousin, and me, “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.” As silly of a quote as it sounds, I finally understood what he meant. Harold wanted us to keep our eyes on the good, not the bad; on love and forgiveness, not hate and grudges; on the sweet stuff, not the void. He was infectiously positive and kind until the day he died, and I always found it difficult to understand especially when our visits were peppered with war stories that – when told – would take him far away, back to 1943 and prison camp. His liberation from camp seemed like his only victory, but even in his stories, there was something positive to shed light on.

One tale in particular – and the one I shared at his wake when delivering his eulogy – has become affectionately known as the “egg story.” In March of 1945, as the war was coming to a foreseeable end, and Russian troops were closing in on Stalag XVII-B in Austria, Harold, along with about a thousand other soldiers, were forced to march along the Danube River with Berlin as the goal, in one of the harshest winters on record in Europe. He spent two years with meals that included hot water, black coffee, boiled cabbage, and sometimes nothing at all. He watched bunk mates’ faces and bodies ravaged by malnutrition, bed bugs, sores, and disease. And still, he along with many others were seen “fit enough” to march, maybe to Berlin, most likely to their deaths. The end of the war was certainly near, but the end of their lives was also looming overhead.

Harold told me one day in June of 2018 that as the men marched through fields and farmland they would pull vegetables out of the ground and eat them without washing them, simply for nutrition. They operated mostly in groups of three – one man to collect firewood, one to guard the food, one to find the food. Harold was the food finder. He would pull carrots, potatoes – anything he could find – to share with his two companions. He told me of older German women who would hide bread in the bosoms of their aprons and break off small pieces to throw at the feet of the soldiers, who scrounged and ate quickly as to not anger the SS that flanked them with guns and vicious dogs. Even in that time of horror and uncertainty, he still encountered kindness and humanity of strangers; he had hope to continue on marching. He had the belief that he would hold his wife again, his childhood sweetheart who he married on June 1, 1943, only to be captured July 30th that same year.

In his search for food, Harold came across what he described to me as “a German-speaking, Polish slave-girl.” She was on a patch of farmland that had animals as well as vegetables. He approached her and put a hand in his pocket, producing a sewing needle that he held onto from a British Red Cross care package he received earlier during his imprisonment when he had scurvy. He extended to her the needle, and told her in broken German, “Ich habe eine nadel,” which translates to, “I have a needle.” The young girl accepted the needle and handed him an egg, the first egg he held in over two years. Harold joyously returned with the egg to his two companions and split it between the three of them, a meal he described to me as “the best meal I had in two years.”

Pain and suffering is relative to each person and situation, this is a given. But tears poured down my face to see how such a simple act, and such a simple meal could bring out hope and humanity in a man who otherwise was stripped of everything. He lost his bomber jacket, teeth, weight, and yet he was so grateful and rejoiced in the tiniest of victories – the egg. He could have easily kept it to himself, but chose to share it with two men he might never see again. He ate that egg as if he knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste one, and I can personally vouch that Harold had an egg almost everyday for the duration of my 28 years. The war and the suffering bore a giant hole in Harold’s future, yet he kept his eye on my grandmother, on freedom, on the doughnut.

An Hour with my Grandpa

“No, no. That was bullshit. See? I wrote there, bullshit.” And there it was, in all its glory, the shaky handwriting of my 97-year old grandpa populating the margins of a World War II story he was given.

Bull

Bullshit

Not true

He handed me a stack of paper in a plastic folio, color printed and donning the emblem of his old bombardier group he was with for the duration of the War up to, and following, his capture in Germany. The initial bullshit in question was a paragraph referring to the prisoners of Stalag 17B – a notorious prisoner of war camp located in Austria (watch the show) – and how they were rationed roughly 54 pounds of coal per day in order to warm their barracks. He and I sat side by side on the couch, while i frantically scribbled in pen his story of the barracks; Anyone who is close to a veteran of the war – any war at that –  knows the value and importance of these stories. And not just, “I was in the war (insert place and time)” but rather the experience stories, the ones that merit a thousand-yard stare and suddenly you as the listener are beside them in their own personal hell. Living with my grandpa for three years helped me to understand his night terrors, and how the war affected him almost 70 years later. It made me more motivated to listen to him, and value his stories and document them.

I saw his eyes drift into another plane, like an out of body experience, grabbed my pen, and prepared. He would systematically look down and acknowledge and make sure I was writing, smile at me, and keep going.

“54 pounds of coal. I can’t believe it. Where did he come up with that number? Hell, I was lucky to get two – a couple of lumps to warm me in the damn winter. And that part about the Red Cross….” He pointed to the next line marked bull and paused while I watched him relive cold Austrian nights in prison camp.

“We had an outhouse….we’d call it the shitter. 150 of our guys – English, American – all crammed in this barrack, and the shitter was in the middle. It was overcrowded, and it smelled, and I didn’t shower for two years. I didn’t brush my teeth for two years. I lost teeth.” He looked at me, flashed his dentures, and stuck his pointer finger in his mouth, mimicking a tooth brush.

“Anyway, the shitter was covered in wood like an outhouse would be, but you know, we’d get cold. We didn’t have anything to keep us warm; they took so much from us. A guy here, a guy there, one by one would take a piece of wood off the shitter. Next thing you know, we’re all shittin’ in front of each other. Who cared? We had to survive…we had to survive.”

I put myself there. I placed myself in this overcrowded camp, full of filth and disease and downtrodden men, and goosebumps covered my neck. Two years. Two years of hell and back for this man.

“The Red Cross would give the English their care packages, and the Americans theirs. It was never much, and it would only usually go to one guy at a time, last you a week maybe. We all shared our care packages….cigarettes, vitamins, whatever they could give us. When I was in there, I got the jaundice real bad. I didn’t know, because I never really looked in a mirror – but all the guys were asking me, ‘Harry, why’s your eyes so yellow? What’s wrong with your skin?’ The English men gave me an English care package, full of vitamins and vitamin C. I got better, I was real grateful.”

Through the squalor these men took care of each other, and this was the first time ever that my grandpa opened up about the prison camp. He remembered the layout of the barracks, the rations, the food, and the liberation. He remembered the Long March, and the pain in his eyes said so much more than his words.

“I wish I wrote down more of those days, it would be important for people to know about the march. It was so cold, we walked and walked for…I think…maybe 28 days. We didn’t have barracks anymore, we barely had shoes. I slept under a horse carriage some nights, and we stole vegetables from people’s gardens to survive until we got to where we needed. I really thought that was the end for me – out there marching – I didn’t think I was going to make it home to my girl.”