Sunday, February 28, 2010

One morning in England

This is all still in my taped interview with John Sweren of Mesa, Arizona, which I have yet to play back or transcribe, so some of the details will be sketchy, but I wanted to share this story while I have some time before flying home this afternoon.

Sweren flew 58 bombing missions as a tail gunner before his B-26 was shot down in France late in July of 1944. He flew out of England, where he was stationed with the 9th Air Force. Whenever he got a pass, he would rent a room in a house owned by an elderly woman and her middle aged daughter. John was about 19 at the time.

One night he had a little too much to drink at a local pub and could barely stagger back to the house. As he climbed the outside stairs, he leaned on an expensive vase, knocked it over and shattered it.

The women of the house were very understanding and told him not to worry about the vase. They helped him up to his bed and tucked him in, and he promptly fell into a deep sleep.

During the night the air raid siren sounded, and the two women headed for a shelter, assumiing John had done the same. Only he was still asleep and didn't hear the siren. A "buzz bomb" slammed into the street nearby and the concussion caused part of the ceiling of the house to fall in. When the two women returned, they found John covered in debris and rubble, still asleep and thankfully, uninjured.

After they woke him and he shook off the plaster, one of the women remarked to John that she was so glad that he had broken their vase, and not the Germans.

More details will have to wait until I transcribe the interview, but I wanted to share that story, one of many poignant, humorous, sad, compelling anecdotes I was fortunate to record in the last four weeks.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On the Road Again

During the last three weeks, I drove 7,500 miles, interviewing World War II veterans in Florida, Dallas and Arizona, and making a stop at the Atlanta Armor Modeling and Preservation Society's annual show on my way back East.

It's been an emotional journey, never mind the 60 miles of icy slush in Maryland and the driving snow between Memphis and Little Rock, or the record snowfall in Dallas that greeted my arrival.

I don't have any sponsors, but I do feel a debt of gratitude to Hertz for providing me with a reliable car -- a relatively new Mazda 3 that got more than 35 miles to the gallon on the highway (okay, so I avoided the tempation to go 80 mph even when that was the posted speed limit in parts of Texas), and to McDonald's for their free wi-fi and senior coffee (I still can't bring myself to ask for a "senior coffee," but most of the kids they have working there recognize my antiquity).

Above all, I thank J.R. Lemons, a veteran of the Kassel Mission, for arranging a series of interviews for me in Dallas. J.R. is a member of the Happy Warriors, a group of mostly World War II veterans who gather on the fourth Friday of every month to share their experiences. I was unable to plan my trip so I could attend a meeting, but J.R. set up the interviews. One was with his pilot on the Kassel Mission, James Baynham. Another was with Louis Read, a survivor of the Bataan death march, and a third was with Bob Cash, who was the only survivor when his B-17 was shot down and told me of his experiences in Stalag Luft IV and the 90-day march across Europe. J.R. also set up an interview with a veteran who flew in a B-24 on the first Ploesti raid.

A prime reason I took this trip was to meet and interview John Sweren in Mesa, Arizona. John was a tail gunner in a B-26 that crashed in France. He was one of three survivors among the six-man crew, but other planes on the mission counted only two parachutes, so John's parents were informed that he was killed in action. He was sent to Stalag Luft IV and also took part in the 90-day march, and when the Red Cross helped him make a phone call to his family upon being liberated, his mother angrily asked who he was ... until he told her he couldn't wait to have some of her pierogis, upon hearing which she dropped the phone and fainted.

Now I'm faced with what I think a sound technician would call "white noise." Before I left, I started writing a book about the battle for Hill 122 in Normandy. I also began digitizing and editing an interview with Jack Sheppard, a former company commander in my father's tank battalion that stretches out over six 90-minute cassettes, for an audiobook to accompany the book on Hill 122. While in Florida I promised Sybil Swofford, the wife of a pilot on the Kassel Mission, that I would write a book about the mission; Sybil chastised me for taking so long because everybody in her church is waiting eagerly to buy a copy. Add to this the need to revise and update my web site, and all the changes coming to eBay, and I don't know where to turn first.

The conversations on this trip were recorded with my new Zoom H4, a digital recorder which produces a clearer sound than many of my earlier recordings. I plan to post excerpts from the new interviews at just as soon as I have them available.