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Eight years ago tonight, we sat down for dinner at our farewell banquet and asked them to turn on ABC News. It was Friday evening after a three day reunion at our high school that included a dinner dance with American soldier liberators and Holocaust survivors on a steamboat on Lake George. This is what we watched together with students and family members.

In the opening sequence, Frank Towers is walking his wife Mary into the high school, and he says, ‘Here we are! We have arrived!’

65 years before, Carrol Walsh and George Gross did exactly that- arrived on the scene with their two tanks to save 2500 Jews from probable death. The next day, Frank arrived to transport those saved by the Americans out of harm’s way.

They are gone now, but thankfully got to meet and reconnect with over 275 Holocaust survivors and their families. What they did will last forever.

 

L-R- Sergeant Clarence B McGuire, Sergeant Maurice J Franzblau, Sergeant Fenton D Strohmeyer, Sergeant Guido Signoretti, Sergeant John Swarts. Source: John Swarts

I’d like to tell you a story about how this photo came into my possession.

I had never seen it before the end of this past August, just a week ago.  In fact, all of my life I thought that the man who sent it to me was dead, like everyone else in the picture. Even as I began my latest book, I had assumed everyone in my dad’s cousin’s B-17 was killed when their plane blew up 20,000 feet over Nazi Germany in the summer of 1944.

My dad’s cousin Clarence was a twenty year old waist gunner on the crew, clean cut, the one in the white T-shirt.  Many times I accompanied my dad on walks to the quiet cemetery a few blocks from our house. The memorial reads:

SGT. CLARENCE B. McGUIRE

A COURAGEOUS AND GALLANT GUNNER

WHO GAVE ALL FOR GOD AND COUNTRY

JULY 29, 1944

MAY HIS SOUL, AND ALL THE SOULS

OF THE GALLANT MEN WHO DIED, REST IN PEACE

Clarence McGuire, rear, tallest, center; John Swarts, rear, far right.

So naturally, for years I thought that all of his crew had died in 1944 when their B-17 was hit on a mission to bomb a German oil refinery. I think that is what my dad told me; I dug their crew photo—the only photograph I had ever seen of Clarence, to be honest—out from his desk after Dad passed. So imagine my surprise a few weeks back when I found the exact same photo, labeled, on the internet, at the American Air Museum in Britain. Then I noticed that someone had sponsored the page, ‘in memoriam’, and it was the same name as one of the crew. A son, perhaps?

No. I tracked the tail gunner in Florida, and mailed him a letter to what I hoped was the right address, hoping that maybe he was still alive.  Well, he called me shortly thereafter.


‘‘This is John Swarts’, said the voice with the distinctive Southern twang. ‘Me and Clarence was pretty good friends.’ A pause. ‘You got it right, address and everything. I knew him well; I went with him to his home up there in New York. Me and him used to ride horse together; I got some pictures to send you. His mother used to write me letters afterwards.’ 


John hailed from Missouri, and later settled in St. Louis.

‘Things worked out right for me. Was married twice, got a boy and a girl. Spent 33 years on the railroad, and then had my own business. I’ll be 93 on February 3rd. But it was just me and the co-pilot who survived that day. I was burned in the eye and didn’t go on the last mission.’ 


The plane went down on July 29th, 1944. This last weekend in July of 2017, the 73rd anniversary was upon us as we spoke.

‘The name of the plane was Pugnacious Ball. Flak got the plane. Blew up before it hit the ground. But I think they recovered a body bag to send home to his mother.’ 

‘I watched for the planes coming back; you always do when they are out on a mission. You count them. We waited and waited. They didn’t come back.’

‘It was the worst day of my life. Still is.’


John also sent me newspaper clippings. ‘Vet Feels Guilty Because Buddies Died’, declares one. ‘I feel so guilty. They were buried in Germany the same day they were shot down.’

And he sent me the picture I had never seen before, labeled in his hand, five friends for life smiling for the moment, smiling for eternity, though the kid in the back looks more reserved, almost as if he is already carrying the burden that will haunt him in some ways forever.

My new book starts with the kid on the far left in the photograph (Clarence), and ends with the one in the back, on the far right (John), 73 yrs later. So I went back to the cemetery where I had visited with my father many times in my boyhood, and left a simple note, and my book.

John Swarts, Washington DC, Honor Flight recipient.

I found him, Clarence, or maybe John had rediscovered you, somehow, through me. But he did not forget you, and neither will anyone who reads John’s words:

‘I get a little emotional. I’m almost 93; I hope to see them all again in heaven.’

You can read more in The Things Our Fathers Saw- VOL II, Book One: War in the Air here.

 

I wrote this post on my Facebook author page the other day; I met one of the principal characters in my new book.
***
My wife and I went to visit with one of the main characters in my latest book today, down in a retirement community in Saratoga. He’s 91, and probably one of the more highly educated, brilliant men I have come across in my travels.
“Did you know that my father served in the Navy, and then the Army? In World War I and World War II? He wasn’t around much; I was an only child and my mother raised me; she was a strong woman. She signed the papers for me, and said, ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’ All my life I wanted to fly-so I volunteered soon after Pearl Harbor.”
Richard was anything but stupid. He went to Brooklyn Law School after the war on the GI Bill, passing the bar exam in New York. Only after that did he go for his undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree! I asked him why.
“I just wanted to learn. I basically went into the army at seventeen and a half years old. I didn’t really have a major, I just took classes, all kinds of subjects I was interested in. I racked up 132 credits in college; they kicked me out because I had too much.” Later, he also became a highly regarded painter and collected art.
He asked me about my world travels; I mentioned I had been to Germany. He said, “Me, too. Actually about 20,000 feet over it, dropping bombs.”
Later I asked Richard about what he thought of the current state of affairs in our country. Having seen what he had seen, and gone through what he had experienced in World War II, he was not the type of man to suffer fools lightly; he gave me a blistering earful.
I pressed on. I thought it was important to ask him his thoughts about American neo-Nazis parading openly with torches and chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’, right here at home in America—after all our veterans had fought and died for in World War II. I suppose I expected him to register bewilderment, or perhaps profound disappointment. He didn’t bother with those sentiments.
“It’s simple. I hated the Army, but they trained me to kill Nazis. I was an excellent shot. If I had my .50 cal., those sons-of-bitches wouldn’t have gotten very far.”
***
Immediately after the post above, I got comments about the shortsightedness of the removal of Confederate monuments, of how I am not looking at the whole picture, perhaps relying too heavily on CNN and MSNBC for my news consumption.
I definitely have some opinions to add to this ‘great monument debate’, but the point I was trying to make was that this was not about monuments or politics.  ‘Jews will not replace us’. Hitler salutes? Torchlight parades? ‘Blood and soil’?
It does not simply boil down to Democrats and Republicans, monuments or no monuments. And if we want to start drawing battlelines, or can’t agree that terrorizing young Jewish children, elderly survivors, our friends and neighbors with what we are now witnessing here in America, HERE and NOW, then we have an issue.
Because there is no argument here, but it seems logic and reason no longer has a place. Is there any wonder Holocaust denial is on the rise? How does one combat this, when the questioning of the imposition of false narratives is like challenging an article of dogmatic religious faith?
***
I went to visit with a  family member who lives a couple hours away yesterday. We don’t talk much about politics, but the conversation came around to current events, and onto the HBO video that I had watched—twice—as the march in Charlottesville was winding down. This young reporter had embedded herself in with the neo-Nazi demonstrators. The main subject is chilling to watch, especially as he celebrates the loss of life at the hands of a fellow white supremacist. My kin remarked that slowly the realization dawned on her, up here in the northeast, that the guy living right down the street was that neo-Nazi ‘star’ down in Charlottesville. It’s not isolated, or far removed; it’s right in the backyard.
If you have not seen this video, you should take the time. It’s 22 riveting minutes, and it’s not about monuments. It’s about the ever-illusory veneer of civilization wearing away as incendiary demagogues have their way. I write books, history books, but sometimes I wonder if any of it matters. Because as Richard alluded in his no-nonsense fashion, we’ve seen this movie before.

“VICE News Tonight” correspondent Elle Reeve went behind the scenes with white nationalist leaders. From the neo-Nazi protests at Emancipation Park to Cantwell’s hideaway outside of Virginia, “VICE News Tonight” provides viewers with exclusive, up close and personal access inside the unrest.

This episode of VICE News Tonight aired August 14, 2017 on HBO.

 

My third book is now available as an ebook. The paperback should be out by first week of September.

It is the story of eight airmen as they grew up during the Great Depression and then joined the US Army Air Forces and took to the skies over Europe. Each man held a different crew position on the ‘heavies’, the B-24 Liberator or the B-17 Flying Fortress. Most had a connection to ‘Hometown USA’, a name coined during WWII for Glens Falls, NY and the surrounding environs and small communities that lined the Hudson River 200 miles north of New York City.

Here is a story from Chapter Five.

The Navigator

Kenneth R. Carlson was born in 1921 in New York City. As a boy in the Great Depression, he spent his summers at Glenburnie at the Lake George Camp, the northern fringe of the communities surrounding ‘Hometown USA’. He called me at home one evening, shortly after I had returned from swimming near there.

‘Tell me about yourself, your family. I myself was from a middle-class family, but we were lucky in that I was able to attend what was probably the best private school in New York City. Incidentally, my tuition in grade school in the ‘20s was $250 a year; today a kindergarten slot is $45,000. I had a terrific education, even though I had to fight my way through the Irish gangs on 69th Street when I came back home from school.’

He tells me that the man who cuts his hair was an 8-year old boy in occupied France. He would look up, see the twin tails of the B-24 Liberators  coming or going to attack Germany, and wish them a silent prayer, hopeful that one day he would indeed be free.

‘I think what you are doing is very important. I still go to speak to the students here a few times a year; when we got out of the service, I joined the 8th Air Force Historical Society here in New York and vowed to speak to kids. At 96, I’m still keeping that commitment. Years ago the Smithsonian put out a book, High Honor, of inspirational stories with World War II veterans, myself and twenty-nine other fellows. Get the book, but I wouldn’t try to contact any of the other fellows. I’m the last one left.’

*

I won’t bore you with other missions, but we were on the first three raids on Berlin. March 6, 1944, was referred to as ‘Bloody Monday’ because we sent 600 airplanes up and 69 did not come back. That was not the worst experience I had because our group was not damaged. A lot of groups were, so we were very fortunate. But on our eighth mission we were sent to Freiburg in southern Germany, near the Swiss border. And it was there, just as we were going over the target…

Flak

Let me tell you a little about flak. I have carried this with me ever since, because this is what flak looks like [digs into jacket pocket, pulls out a jagged flak fragment about the size of two fingers].

carlson flak

This is a piece of flak from a German 88mm artillery shell, which is fired from the ground and explodes at 25,000 feet, which is where we were flying. It is designed to destroy the plane or the engines or blow up the gas tank. And on my eighth mission, just as we were flying over the target, through these black clouds of exploding shells that you had to fly though, and just as the bombardier released our bombs I hit the salvo handle, a handle right next to the instrument on the navigation table. That would release the bombs in the event that the bombsight did not release the bombs. The second the bombardier says, ‘Bombs are away’, the navigator hits the salvo handle so if any bombs did get hung up, they would automatically go when you hit the salvo handle. So as I hit that handle this piece of flak nearly took my right arm off. And all I felt was no pain, just the feeling that someone had hit me with a sledgehammer. I felt total peace. It was the most unbelievable experience I’d ever had in my life. I didn’t talk to God or see God, but I had absolutely no fear.

I looked down and there wasn’t much left of my right arm; I saw it hanging there. I called the pilot and asked him to send somebody down to put a tourniquet on. Meanwhile I was checking instruments, because now we were on our way back and navigating was part of what I had to do, and I was still capable of doing it; I had no problem with it. The radio operator came down, took one look at it, and fainted. So I called again and the engineer came down. He revived the radio operator and sent him back with his portable oxygen mask. He then put the tourniquet on and stayed with me for the three or four hours it took to get back to base. An engine was on fire. Joe put the fire out and we lost a second engine. He brought it back, we landed, and I was brought to the hospital. They repaired my arm. I was on the operating table for eight hours. I didn’t wake up for 72 hours due to an overdose of pentothal, which was the drug they used in those days.

While I was in the hospital, our plane had 150 holes in it [to be patched up], and the crew was given a leave to go to London and relax. Joe came in and brought this piece of flak to me. [It had been lodged] in the instrument panel and it had a piece of my wire suit and my blood on it. So it took part of my arm and then went on to demolish part of the instrument panel. Joe said to me, ‘Sorry you are so unlucky, Navigator. We’re going to miss you’, because there was no way I was going to fly again.

They came back from leave to fly the repaired airplane on the next mission, and they flew and they never came back. The crew next to them saw them explode, just like the Space Shuttle did on my 65th birthday. They were officially declared missing; [only] one parachute was seen coming out. For years I assumed they were missing rather than the fact that they were killed. About two years later, the government declared them killed in action. But up until about four or five years ago, [it was assumed that] there were no bodies ever recovered, because there was no indication otherwise. Then, through a German internet source, I discovered that they had been found by the Germans and were buried in a small German-occupied cemetery just north of Paris, but there were only body parts and one piece of wing that had a star on it. That was their identification. So they [turned out to be] in a cemetery in a little town northwest of Paris.

That was the end of my combat career. My arm was repaired by a doctor who, by fate, I met thirty years later. When my hand began to contract again I was sent to an orthopedic man. As I was sitting across from him he was questioning me about where this had happened, and he was the doctor who originally had put my hand back together again. He was the only doctor in that hospital which had just opened the week before I was shot.

*

[After the war, I did not go to reunions.] I had lost my crew and it was something I didn’t talk about for many years. I had no desire to go back and share memories with crews that had survived. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to do this book for reasons that it would be helpful to young people in understanding what World War II was like. Not so much understanding it in its entirety, but how it affected individual people’s lives. It wasn’t until then that I had any real reason to try and recapture people who had been there. Then I joined what is called the 8th Air Force Historical Society. And through that I have maintained contacts at both the national level and at the local level in New York City. I found that very rewarding.

[I think my time in the military affected me] in a very dominant way. People talk about religion and believing in something; the moment of truth comes to you. I was raised and schooled in the Christian church. I don’t go to church anymore, but I do have the faith that came to me when this piece of flak hit me. There was just no question in my mind that I was coming home, and that I was going to be safe and go to work and just do the job that I had to do. It is a feeling that has stayed with me all my life. So, from that standpoint, there is no fear. So many people today seem to be afraid of so many things. The fear of doing things or fear of failing has never been with me since I left the service. I have continued to look at my own life as one of missions, a series of missions and not just adventures, and it has worked for me.

*

Myrtle

Ken Carlson, first row second from right, and the crew of ‘Myrtle the Flying Turtle’. Credit: Ken Carlson.

There is a photo of me and my crew taken in 1943. [Pointing out crew]—Frank Caldwell was the bombardier, from Anderson, IN; ‘Johnny’ Johnson, the co-pilot, from Houston, TX; Joe Roznos, the pilot, my greatest friend, from Hollywood, CA; ‘Wally’ Waldmann, waist gunner, from Houston, TX; Hal McNew, waist gunner, from Montana; Ed Miller, tail gunner, from Wyoming; Frank Dinkins, the engineer; John Rose, ‘Rosie’, our ball turret gunner—he could shoot a squirrel, or a German fighter pilot, from his shoulder or his waist, it didn’t make any difference; and Cleo Pursifull, our radioman. He is the one that came to help me and fainted. And he failed to go on that last mission. He had just had enough.

The thing that haunts me is that I can’t put a face to the guy who replaced him. He was an 18-year old Jewish kid named Henry Vogelstein from Brooklyn. It was his first and last mission. And when you think about it, an 18-year old boy was put as a replacement in a crew that he did not know; we were an all Christian crew. We all had our little New Testament that the Air Force gave us and he would have been given an Old Testament. He made his only mission with a crew of strangers. Now that’s bravery!

We all want to be free, but very few of us want to be brave. For all of us to be free, a few of us must be brave, and that is the history of America.

 

My third book is now available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and other outlets. The paperback should be out by first week of September.

It is the story of eight airmen as they grew up during the Great Depression and then joined the US Army Air Forces and took to the skies over Europe. Each man held a different crew position on the ‘heavies’, the B-24 Liberator or the B-17 Flying Fortress. Most had a connection to ‘Hometown USA’, a name coined during WWII for Glens Falls NY and the surrounding environs and small communities that lined the Hudson River 200 miles north of New York City.

I’ll leave you with the teaser for now. The book is all in their own words, like they are speaking to us across the kitchen table (and that is exactly where some of them were seated when they told their stories…) It’s intimate, it’s heart wrenching at times, and it’s bust-out-loud-laughing funny at others. And it’s real history from real people, something a lot of Americans seem to have forgotten these days. We need these guys now as much as we did during the war.

Click here to see the book in the stores. Click here for a book preview. 

Earl Morrow, B-17 pilot and POW in my classroom , May, 2011. Credit. Robert H Miller.

Dying for freedom isn’t the worst that could happen. Being forgotten is.


— ‘You flew with what I would call ‘controlled fear’. You were scared stiff, but it was controlled. My ball turret gunner—he couldn’t take it anymore… I guess he was right. He’s dead now. But he had lost control of the fear. He never got out of that ball turret; he died in that ball turret.’ —B-24 bombardier


~THE LONG-AWAITED SEQUEL IN THE BEST SELLING ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’ SERIES~

How soon we forget. Or perhaps, we were never told. That is understandable, given what they saw.


— ‘I spent a lot of time in hospitals. I had a lot of trouble reconciling how my mother died [of a cerebral hemorrhage] from the telegram she opened, saying I was [shot down and] “missing in action”. I didn’t explain to her the fact that ‘missing in action’ is not necessarily ‘killed in action’. You know? I didn’t even think about that. How do you think you feel when you find out you killed your mother?’ —B-24 bombardier


At the height of World War II, LOOK Magazine profiled a small upstate New York community for a series of articles portraying it as the wholesome, patriotic model of life on the home front. Seventy years later, a history teacher tracks down the veterans with a connection to “Hometown, USA” who fought the war in the air over Europe, men who were tempered in the tough times of the Great Depression and forged in battle. He rescues and resurrects firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood, of captivity and redemption, and the aftermath of a war that left no American community unscathed.
Here are the stories that the magazine could not tell, from a vanishing generation speaking to America today.


— ‘I was in the hospital with a flak wound. The next mission, the entire crew was killed. The thing that haunts me is that I can’t put a face to the guy who was a replacement. He was an 18-year old Jewish kid named Henry Vogelstein from Brooklyn. It was his first and last mission. He made his only mission with a crew of strangers.’ —B-24 navigator


By the end of 2018, fewer than 400,000 WW II veterans will still be with us, out of the over 16 million who put on a uniform. But why is it that today, nobody seems to know these stories?
Maybe our veterans did not volunteer to tell us; maybe we were too busy with our own lives to ask. But they opened up to the younger generation, when a history teacher told their grandchildren to ask.


— ‘The German fighters picked us. I told the guys, ‘Keep your eyes open, we are about to be hit!’ I saw about six or eight feet go off my left wing. I rang the ‘bail-out’ signal, and I reached out and grabbed the co-pilot out of his seat. I felt the airplane climbing, and I thought to myself, ‘If this thing stalls out, and starts falling down backwards, no one is going to get out…’ —B-17 pilot


This book brings you the previously untold firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood, of captivity and redemption, and the aftermath of a war that left no American community unscathed.
As we forge ahead as a nation, we owe it to ourselves to become reacquainted with a generation that is fast leaving us, who asked for nothing but gave everything, to attune ourselves as Americans to a broader appreciation of what we stand for.

THE THIRD BOOK

I’m putting together the final edits for my new book, The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume II. The subtitle is War in the Air—From the Great Depression to Combat. In it, I track the wartime experiences of seven or eight veterans of the air war over Europe. I also make some surprising discoveries regarding a family cousin who was killed at age 20. I’ll be posting some excerpts over the next few days.

I know that some folks subscribed to this site for the Holocaust educational material. While this may not be directly related to the Holocaust, understand that it is all about keeping the memory alive. And I have to tell you that some of my biggest cheerleaders for these stories about our World War II veterans come from the Holocaust survivor community.

Maybe I’ll start with the guy who lived on the corner for most of my life. In 1969, he also became my younger brother’s godfather. Thirty-four years later he ran into some of my students at a garage sale. They found out he was in World War II, and asked him for an interview for my class.

I had no idea that Dick was even in World War II. Here’s just an excerpt. You can order the full book here; the paperback edition will be out Sept. 1, 2017.

 

War in the Air-Flight Engineer Dick Varney

Richard Varney

I grew up during the Depression. I remember that day in 1929 [when the stock market crashed] very well. I was about 17 or 18. I had been working for two years; I went to work at 15 years old with working papers. My parents, God bless them, they grew up in an era when school was not that important. You went to work as soon as you were able to help the family. I don’t think you people understand what I am saying or what that means, but it meant a lot. But I wish that I had gone to school. I did later on, but I made it in life without [a formal education]. I had to do it my way. I worked at the sawmill on Haskell Avenue in Glens Falls; it’s not there now. I also started playing at dances in a band when I was 17 and did it for a long, long time; it was a lot of fun. It was quite necessary then because the wages then weren’t what they are now. I took lessons for a little while on the violin, but I played by ear from then on. I also taught myself to play the alto and tenor saxophone, which I still have, incidentally.

You have to realize that when I went to work at the Imperial factory, later, if you weren’t late or forgot to ring in and out, you got 40 cents an hour. Can you imagine that? You worked 40 hours; you got sixteen dollars a week! Now on this, you had a family to support—it isn’t like what it’s like today. In the Depression era you could buy a home for 1,500 dollars. You couldn’t hang a door for that now! Money was something you didn’t have, but you didn’t feel deprived in those days because nobody else had any money. No, you probably had one change of clothes, maybe one pair of shoes if you were lucky. You didn’t wear them in the summer because you didn’t want to wear them out. I’m not exaggerating, because you just didn’t have the money. You made do. You didn’t eat a lot of prepared food, you [improvised and] cooked your own. You ate a lot of things… [Have you ever had] dandelions? We used to go and pick them. Clean them, cook them, you make do. You just didn’t always have money with those kinds of wages.

*

On December 7, 1941, I was working at the Imperial Color paint factory in Glens Falls. It was a shock— I was outraged naturally, because it was a sneak attack.  But it was not unexpected; believe me, we had been heading towards it. In fact, in my opinion we were already in an undeclared war; we were actually in it because we were supporting England. We had been giving them everything they needed; from then on it was just a matter of time before we all got into it.  But Germany and Japan declared war on us first.

I was not a kid; I was 30 years old at the time. I was married and I had no idea what the future was going to bring for us, because I did not know what they wanted to do. I don’t think anybody relished the idea of going to war; nobody does. But nevertheless, I think we had a level of patriotism at that time that we won’t ever see again; certainly we don’t have it now. Everybody was behind it, the whole situation, at that time. I don’t think you heard anybody wondering whether we should go in or not, because we were in. In retrospect it was so long ago now, a lot of the details are not as sharp as they should be maybe, but I can remember most of it.

Richard ‘Dick’ Varney, flight engineer, first row second from right, and the crew of his B-24 Liberator Source: Richard Varney, Sr..

I was drafted in April of 1943, I think. Then we went through God knows how many schools, how much training, to prepare us for it.

I took my army basic training in Miami Beach. It was tough duty in Miami Beach. [Laughs] After that we were assigned to air mechanic school, and there I was trained for the B-24 Liberator. I was being trained as the aircraft flight engineer, and my job at that time was everything mechanical on the plane. It was the flight engineer’s responsibility, so you were taught everything about the airplane. Then after we graduated from there, they sent us to Panama City for air gunnery. After that we went to various places and to Westover, and from there our crew was formed. Now this crew, when it was put together, was the first time that I had met most of these people, the enlisted men I met. Then we went to Walker Air Base in South Carolina, and there we met our pilot, copilot, navigator, and bombardier; from then on, we were a unit—we stayed together, we trained together, all our practice missions and everything. Then we went to Langley, Virginia, and from there we took radar training. And that was the last duty in this part of the world—from there we flew to Goose Bay, Labrador and then to Iceland and from there to Wales. We flew all the way over. Now as a unit we stayed that way. And then when we got there, we were assigned to our bomb group. And there we went through even more training—that’s all you ever did, you train, train, train, and train.

‘There Are No Heroes’

The B-17 crews were the glory boys. The B-24 flew faster, carried more bombs, and flew higher, but the B-17s were the glory boys. We didn’t name our planes like they did. We had ten to a crew in the 24s, yes. Originally they had a ball turret on the bottom but when we got over across the ocean they took that out and they put the radar transmitter in the bottom, where the belly turret was. That left the engineer free to do everything mechanical and the assistant engineer flew the top turret [gun] in my plane.

Finally we were scheduled for our first mission, to Hamburg. It was a vital mission, in the sense that Hamburg had all their oil refineries. And without that, they couldn’t fly, they couldn’t have gasoline, they couldn’t have anything, so you could destroy it because it would certainly limit their supplies. It was a very important mission. And because of that they concentrated their [fighter] aircraft and anti-aircraft guns to protect it. So that’s a target I really remember, believe me.

I’ve seen planes go down, naturally. And the only things you’d look for were how many ‘chutes came out of it because when an airplane gets spinning, you couldn’t get out. Sometimes because of centrifugal force, the spinning of the plane would kill you, because you couldn’t get out. As I said before, I never got hurt. It was always the other guy. And the frame of mind that you have is something that most people can’t understand—you can see this happening, but it’s not you. It becomes an impersonal thing; it has to be, because you would go crazy if it wasn’t. Not that you didn’t have sympathy for the people but still, it wasn’t you. I don’t know how to explain it. But there are no heroes, contrary to what people may think. It’s like a job. I don’t think there are any heroes up there because you’re just doing your job, you have to—you either did, or you didn’t come back. You don’t have time enough really to be scared a lot.

*

Our missions were all over. They were over the Rhineland, yes sure. And Cologne, Dusseldorf, whatever you can think of. And we hit them wherever they were—we bombed as far as Austria and Czechoslovakia; in fact we even hit Berchtesgaden, which was Hitler’s retreat.

Most of the missions we flew were around 20,000 feet and believe me, in the winter time at that altitude, it’s about minus 70 degrees. That’s cold. But we did have heated suits, heated clothes. And of course under those circumstances we still had our job to do. As an engineer, I had duties at the time. I had to check to make sure the generators were synchronized, I opened the bomb bay doors, and I transferred fuel. All of these things were part of my job. I won’t speak for the other people; they had their own jobs. But that is what I did.

*

‘Something Always Goes Wrong’

Did anything ever go wrong during your job?

 

Did anything ever go wrong? [Chuckles] Oh, something always goes wrong. Yes, I remember one time when we got ready on the ‘IP’, which is the Initial Point, where we start the bomb run to the target—I forget where the mission was to—well, they loaded the bombs all right. But there’s a propeller on the back of it, and when you drop them, the wind screws the propeller off. When that propeller comes off, that bomb is armed; it won’t go off otherwise. But when the group crews load them, they’re supposed to put a safety wire through it, in each thing. Well, somebody on that mission [laughs], they didn’t put the safety wires in. So when I opened the bomb bay doors, the wind hit them and I called the pilot on the intercom and I said, ‘I got news for you, we got 10 thousand pound bombs here that are now armed. The propellers are all off.’ Any piece of flak coming through would hit the nose of them and… [Makes the sound of an explosion] that would be all she wrote, you wouldn’t find anything! It didn’t though. But that’s one time I sweated a little bit, I can tell you. [Chuckles]  You couldn’t fix anything. We were on the ‘IP’. You couldn’t take evasive action, you couldn’t do anything and we’re flying right through that flak. But when they dropped the bombs, it was fine.

Flak

I learned more about the German anti-aircraft than I did about anything else because that was the only way you could defend yourself against anti-aircraft; oh yes, we picked up holes, sure. Flak holes. And they generally fired in bursts of three. They used their 88s, they called them, and at different levels. The first one would be 18,500 feet, and another one would be at 18,700 and so on; three. They’re like steps. And they would try to bracket you with the target. And each battery they had of anti-aircraft was three guns, usually. But they so had many of those batteries at some of our targets! When they started firing, you would have thought there was a thunderstorm up there, you know what I mean? But I never lost it, I never lost an engine. I did lose the oil out of one when we landed because there was a hole in the oil reservoir, but the pump in it was strong enough so I didn’t lose the engine in the air. No, I made sure the engines were alright before we went up. As I said before, I don’t make that much of that because there’s not many heroes up there. You’re doing your job, that’s all. But for flying personnel, we had the highest rate of causalities than any branch of the service, because there’s no foxholes up there either, no place to hide, but [we were lucky.] Out of our original crew of ten, we only lost two. There was a bomb group that was short a co-pilot and a tail gunner. And we weren’t scheduled to fly that day, so they assigned them to that other aircraft, from the other group. And they got shot down. They didn’t come back.

You didn’t do too much worrying because it’s something that you were trained to do, and you had to do it and you’re busy and taking care of the duties of the job. You didn’t have much time to think about anything else. No, I don’t think we always wondered—of course, it crosses your mind naturally, why wouldn’t it? When you look out the side window and see a plane going down, it isn’t you, but naturally you’re going to wonder about it, you know… But as far as that, that’s all there’s to it. I mean, the way the job was—what in retrospect, what I did like about the air corps was that despite the hazards, if you went over and came back, you did have a place to sleep. You weren’t like an infantryman sleeping in a foxhole! You ate in the mess halls; you did get your hot food. But outside of that, as I said, I don’t think there were many heroes flying up there—I can’t say I worried too much—because what are you going to do? If you don’t like it, are you going to get out and walk? You’re going where the plane goes, that’s all there is to it. And that’s it. But I can’t say I got to take much credit for that. The only thing you can take credit for is being able to function under those conditions. You take 70 degrees below zero and you’ve got murderous work, and if you take your gloves off, it wouldn’t be for two minutes and your hands would be frozen. Outside of that, that’s the part of it.

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I’m just telling you that I don’t feel that air combat was such a personal thing. It only gets personal when you’re flying through flak or got another plane coming at you or something—then it gets a little bit personal. So, like I say—what are you going to do? So I don’t pretend to be a hero; I just did my job, and I was good at my job, too. I made it a point to be, because I wanted to learn everything about that plane that I could. [When I entered the service] I never expected to fly. I thought I’d be a mechanic at my age. Instead of that, I wound up over places, I’ll never know how, but I did. I was in pretty good condition physically I guess. Not very exciting, but that’s the way it is.

This interview took place in 2003. Dick Varney passed away on April 28th, 2008, just shy of his 97th birthday.

Mr. and Mrs. Varney and my kid brother, 1969.

My Friend Frank.

My friend Frank Towers would have turned 100 years old today. Frank passed on July 4th, 2016.

Frank W. Towers.

Frank was born on June 13, 1917. Think about that for a minute. John F. Kennedy also came into the world, less than a month before Frank. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody left the world. American involvement in WWI was just getting underway, and Frank’s future 30th Infantry Division was formally activated. Gandhi was tromping around India, investigating the poor conditions of local farmers under British rule. Revolutionaries in Ireland were still licking their wounds after the doomed Easter Rising against the British the year before. The Russian Revolution was just getting started. American suffragettes that summer were arrested for picketing the White House for the right to vote for women.

So into this world came Frank W. Towers. And Frank Towers came into my life after he had already lived a good, long one, in September, 2007, shortly after he turned 90. But he had more things to do before the Almighty called him home.

He did not know me, and I did not know him-I have never even been to Florida, where he lived. But, from the news he learned of a reunion that we had recently done at our high school. He read about how I had reunited World War II tank commanders from the US Army 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division with the children of the Holocaust who he also had helped to liberate. And Frank said to himself, “Wait, I know about this. I was there, too.”

Frank reached out to me and we began a fruitful partnership in trying to locate more of the survivors who were on that train. He invited me, and the survivors, to the 30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II reunions that they held annually down south. And these were powerfully moving events, to see the soldiers touched by the gestures of the survivors; and for the survivors to laugh and cry with their liberators was a gift that they, their children and grandchildren, will never forget. We also held additional reunions at our school, for the sake of making students the new witnesses to what happened during the Holocaust. Varda W., a survivor’s daughter in Israel, even orchestrated a massive reunion of 55 survivors and their children for Frank in Rehovot, Israel when he was almost 94… talk about a rock star. I was there to see him mobbed.

Frank Towers greeting survivors at the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel, May 2011. Credit: Matthew Rozell

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There’s talk this week in Holocaust education circles of another important birthday, and another ‘Frank’-Anne Frank would have turned 88 yesterday.  She came into the world on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany; I’ve seen the house where she was born, and I’ve been to the place where she died, at age 15. Just shy of her last birthday, on June 6th, 1944, she recorded the following entry:

‘This is D-Day,’ the BBC announced at 12 o’clock. This is the day. The invasion has begun!

Anne Frank iat school in 1940,Amsterdam, the Netherlands). Unknown photographer; public domain.

Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation? The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale ever to come true?… The best part of the invasion is that I have the feeling that friends are on the way. Those terrible Germans have oppressed and threatened us for so long that the thought of friends and salvation means everything to us!

On D-Day, 26 year old 1st Lieutenant Frank Towers was also listening to this news in England as the 30th Infantry Division was preparing to ship out to the battle a few days later. Anne and her family would be betrayed in Amsterdam that August, as Frank’s 30th infantry Division held off a massive German counterattack in Mortain, France. The family was deported to Auschwitz and then Anne and her sister Margot were sent to Bergen Belsen, all the while with the Allies slugged forth through that long summer, fall and winter into 1945. Anne and Margot died in Belsen before the spring came, and liberation; there is a marker to honor them but they lie in a mass grave there today, whereabouts unknown, like so many thousands of others. Frank would not know them, but would help to liberate and rescue some 2500 from the train near Magdeburg, including some who knew of the Frank sisters. And yes, we are left to ponder some of Anne Frank’s closing words to humanity:

I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that only 5,000 of the 107,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands between 1942 and 1944 survived. That’s less than 5%. But I close today with Frank Towers, at age 97, in the Netherlands in 2014 meeting the generations who survived because of that fateful day when the US Army investigated a curious Bergen-Belsen transport stopped by the tracks near the Elbe River. And listen to the little girl in the video. The world was too late for Anne Frank, but maybe her ideals indeed live on.