Friday, June 28, 2013

Extract Digit

Is there an etymologist in the house? The above picture appears to have been photoshopped, but only to highlight the message on the roof of one of the cellblocks in the Rangoon Central Jail complex.

The complex housed more than 1,000 British, American and Indian prisoners of the Japanese. I interviewed one of those former prisoners, Karnig Thomasian of River Edge, N.J., in the late 1990s. Karnig was a waist gunner on a B-29 which was badly damaged over Thailand when a 1,000-pound bomb and a 500-pound bomb, with uneven trajectories, exploded beneath his plane. Over the next few months he was subjected to starvation and regular beatings by his Japanese captors. And then on May 1, 1945, as a battle was raging in the city, the prisoners awoke to discover that the Japanese guards had abandoned the complex overnight.

The liberated inmates remained inside the compound and, fearful of being bombed by their own countrymen, painted messages on two of the cellblock roofs. One of them said "Japs Gone," while the other said "British Here."

"British Here" is barely visible in the lower center cellblock. The words "Japs Gone" would be two cellblocks to the left, just out of the picture.
A Royal Air Force Mosquito nevertheless bombed the outer perimiter of the complex, according to a written account by Donald Lomas, one of the British prisoners. The British then climbed to the roof of another cellblock and painted "Extract Digit," a story told by Karnig and confirmed in Lomas' written account.
   The idea being that the pilot who bombed the complex might have thought the words "British here" was a ruse by the Japanese to prevent them from being bombed, much like American GIs would use questions like "What is the capital of North Dakota?" to challenge unknown soldiers, knowing that no German in an American uniform was likely to know the capital of North Dakota. Come to think of it, I don't know what the capital of North Dakota is. Ach du liebe! Ich bin ein Berliner! (On the recent anniversary of that famous statement by President John F. Kennedy, numerous wags pointed out that a "Berliner" was the German word for a jelly donut, and that President Kennedy, at the Berlin wall, was announcing, in effect, "I am a jelly donut." But I digress.)
   The phrase worked, and an RAF bomber passing overhead tipped its wings to a round of cheers and flew to a nearby airfield. The good news is that the bomber landed on the only runway that wasn't mined by the Japanese. The bad news is that its wheels got caught in a bomb crater and the plane was severely damaged. So the pilot and crew walked to the prison compound and discovered it to have been freed. Supplies were then dropped in by parachute.
   Following is an excerpt from my interview with Karnig Thomasian in which he discusses the compound's liberation:
Karnig Thomasian: We were losing people from lack of food, lack of nourishment. There was a shack, a brick building on the corner of our compound, and it was the warehouse, small as it was, of food. Like eggs. It had a door in the brick wall, and the guys had slowly taken the cement from the bricks to the point where the whole housing of the lock assembly came out with the door and the door just opened. But you can’t go in and just ransack the place. You’d do it one time and that’s it. So whenever somebody was really ill to the point that they need the nourishment of an egg, they’d go in and get one or two eggs, period, and that’s it. And then only by the direction of the commandant of our group, whoever was the highest officer there.

And this is, we’ll get to this, we haven’t gotten to this stage yet where they were dropping food containers. They bombed us by mistake. We said, "Japs gone." The British fighter planes thought they were joking so they bombed us. They missed and hit one of the outer walls. So the British prisoners got up and wrote this, "Extract Digit."

Aaron Elson: And what does that mean?

Karnig Thomasian: In British terms? "Take the finger out of your ass." So right away they came back and they waved their wings. Then they came back and they dropped food containers. I mean, would you believe? It’s just wild. What brilliance to come up with that. "No, they’re really gone!" No, "Extract Digit."

Aaron Elson: How much did you weigh when you were liberated?

Karnig Thomasian: I forget, 115, 120, something like that. Not much.

Aaron Elson: And what did you weigh when you were captured?

Karnig Thomasian: I imagine then I was around 165.

Aaron Elson: Was there any contact with the Red Cross when you were a prisoner, or was that only in Europe?

Karnig Thomasian: No contact whatsoever. We had no contact with anybody.

Aaron Elson: Had your parents been notified that you were a prisoner?

Karnig Thomasian: That’s another story. Mom wrote a diary, in one of these little school composition books. I still have it. It’s one of those notebooks the kids used to have that looks like a cow’s skin, only smaller. So she wrote, "Oh, I don’t know where you are but I know you’re going to be all right, and we miss you." She’d write to me every now and then. Not every day. On the day that we were – I call it liberated because that’s when the Ghurkas came in, the Japs had gone and the Ghurkas came in and this one newspaperman, an American newspaperman, he was the first one in there. He was fabulous. On that day, she said, "Karnig, I know you’re alive." It’s phenomenal. And the date’s there and everything. I could not believe it when I read it, when I got back, she showed it to me some time later.

Aaron Elson: What day was it you were liberated?

Karnig Thomasian: May something. Let’s see if I have it here. Six Ghurkas. May 3rd. (Reading) "I woke up at the crack of dawn, helped prepare the breakfast for our compound. We still had some condiments from the food containers that were parachuted by the British. We all started to gather what little we had so that when the time came to leave, we’d be ready. Later that morning an American officer entered our prison with his aide." That was General Stroudemeyer. I’ve got a picture with him.

Aaron Elson: How did you readjust after being a prisoner?

Karnig Thomasian: Well, I was in the hospital for a month in Calcutta, and they just fed us and they took care of our sores. I mean, these sores, the jungle sores that I got on my ankles, that’s why I didn’t go on the march. I had a choice, am I well enough to go on the march? They said, "Those that are able to walk, we take." Then you’d wear their fatigues, the Japanese fatigue uniforms.

Aaron Elson: What was the march?

Karnig Thomasian: The Japanese contingents were leaving and they used them as hostages, in their minds. Later on what happened was they left them, they just ran for their lives. The guys were lucky, but along the way they killed some people because they slacked back and that’s what I was afraid of. I said, gee whiz, if I can’t walk, what’s gonna happen? So I flipped a coin to myself and I said, I’ll stay back and I’ll be able to help the guys that are really bad off here, and hopefully they’re not gonna kill us all. Why would they? So that’s what we did.

Aaron Elson: Tell me more about the sores.

Karnig Thomasian: I got jungle sores. Because my GI shoes had heels, and there were corners, and at night I’d itch, and pretty soon I opened the wound and sure enough, they became deep sores. And the only way I could clean it – there was no medication – was to boil water and tear a piece of my suntans, which I didn’t wear, I wore a little loincloth, and just laboriously clean it out. Each time. Oh, Jesus.

Aaron Elson: That must have been painful.

Karnig Thomasian: Oh, yes. But you had to do it. And then you’d walk around with a flap on the top because flies were all over the place, so you don’t want them to hone in on it.

Aaron Elson: And what about bruises from the beatings?

Karnig Thomasian: Well, they heal.

Aaron Elson: Did you ever get any broken bones?

Karnig Thomasian: No, thank God.

Aaron Elson: And what about the guys who were in worse shape than you were?

Karnig Thomasian: Well, they had problems. There’s this Montgomery, who I told you about. I have a whole story on him, it’s all in there, where they had to, his hand was hanging by a thread, you see, and they had to cut it off. They severed that. But then it started to get gangrene, so they had to cut it below the elbow. Well, now this doctor, Dr. McKenzie was his name, a British doctor, he performed the operation. First the Japanese tried, and they gave him a shot of something which was the wrong thing and it drove him nuts, and they stopped. And the Japanese were just brutal, they were ridiculing him, "Ah, you, shut up!" Not shut up, whatever they said. So finally the British commandant appealed to the commandant of the Japanese, Look, let this man do the operation. He knows how to do it. Still, they had no anaesthetic, no nothing. Boy, we heard his screams, I hear them today. I tell you, it is absolutely profound. He passed out. How he went through it I’ll never know. A nice young man. So Dr. McKenzie did the operation, and by God, it held. And don’t ask me how he didn’t get infected. We don’t know. You know, we need the stories, they’re so unexplainable. In that humid climate, there were no bandages, there was cloth. Oh, jeez, I don’t even like to think about it. And Parmalee was another one. He had that shattered [bicep], and they had to squeeze the pus out all the time, my friend did that.
   So then we got out of Rangoon. We went to a hospital ship, and they deloused us and we threw all our clothes out the hatch. In the shower room there was a hatch, we threw the clothes out into the Indian Ocean. But I kept my leather jacket. And I kept the big gun, the rifle that I had been able to bring on board.

Aaron Elson: How did you get a rifle?

Karnig Thomasian: When the Japs had left, finally, we took over the place. My New Zealand friend and I were sitting on the steps of the compound, and I was smoking tea leaves; I never smoked in my life, but I started there. So we’re looking out over the city and we see Boom! Boom! Boom! They’re blasting things. And it’s late at night, and we’re saying, "Hey, I haven’t seen a guard come around, have you?"
   We walked around, and we went into this hut again, took the brick out, walked to the front and looked, and we could see from there that the main gates were open. When I say gates, they were these big teakwood doors, ten feet high. They were open, and I didn’t see any movement. We stayed there about ten minutes. So he said, "Something’s going on, let’s go back."
   We talked to the wing commander, and he said, "All right. Don’t tell anybody because it’ll be a riot here." So we hopped over the wall – it’s only about eight feet, you hike a guy up and he gets up and over. We hopped over and went down there. Now we’re taking a risk. Now we’re in dead man’s land, about seven of us. And some of the guys went to the gate and they saw a note. I have a copy of the note. "We meet you on future battlefields, and now you are free to go." Bullshit.
   Now we’re afraid to go further, maybe it’s boobytrapped. So, back in the fields there are cows. The British guys went and got a couple of cows and they made them walk around. The cows meander, they don’t go straight, so oh boy, they’re screening it real good. I expected one of them to blow up, but no. They went out the front door and we ran for the front door and closed it. This was late at night. And we put the planks down and blocked it, because we had all the piles of rice and stuff and cows, and Rangoon was starving.
   Then we went and ransacked the Japanese area. And then we gathered the guns and ammunition, and we found a few hand grenades, and I found a carved ivory cigarette holder that I kept. So now we had to negotiate with the townspeople, and finally we found one guy who was going to help us round up the people who owned boats and gather all the boats so that when the army landed on the other side, they’d have the little boats and could bring them over to this side. So myself and Dow, that fellow Dow, and Cliff Emony and this Burmese fellow, we went over to the other side of the river and went to the huts; they offered us food but we wouldn’t dare take any, or water – you’d get sick, you’d die. We’re not used to their food. It’s not clean, anyway. It’s just terrible. They’re used to it. Their bodies assimilate it. And so we got all our negotiations done, and we had our rifles as if, what was gonna happen I don’t know, and then we came back. That’s when this newspaper man came and the Ghurkas landed the next day.

Aaron Elson: Those Ghurkas must have been awesome.

Karnig Thomasian: Oh, they are. They’re little fellows, but I’m glad they’re on our side. Boy, I’ll tell you what they did. We were ready to go, and this fellow looked so beautiful, he was 6-foot-4, broad, rosy – apples for cheeks – and when we looked and saw our pale faces, we realized really how sick we were because before that we didn’t have anything to relate to. The Japanese have a different coloring altogether, so we thought everything was all right.
   We helped all the guys; there were some we had to carry out of their hospital-like situation, and we brought them in to the tender that was there. Oh, I was telling you about this Ghurka. We gathered around him like Gulliver, you know, with the little people, it was a scene. Oh, if they do a film I could just direct this scene, it was so precious. I remember every moment of it.
   Then the next morning we gather our things, we’re going to have a last breakfast, and then pretty soon it’s time to go to the tender that takes us out to the hospital ship, because the hospital ship can’t get in there. We’re ready to leave, and then we see these Ghurkas, they’re waving, waving, and then they’ve got one Japanese on a rope with his head bandaged, and there’s three or four of the Ghurkas holding a box between them, and the other Ghurkas are following up. And they’re all running like crazy trying to meet us.
   They brought us a gift. What was this gift? This was this Japanese soldier which they threw in the brig – they have a brig there – he was a young fellow – and they opened the box.
   It was full of ears. I was mortified. If you can believe it, I felt sorry for this guy, because he had never done anything to me. Oh, my God, how could they do this? It’s terrible. This is a present? I don’t know what they did with it. I couldn’t look at it anymore. Then they got us out to the ship. They deloused us.

Aaron Elson: You hadn’t mentioned the lice before.

Karnig Thomasian: Oh, lice, yeah, in the seams of our loincloths and everything, because we didn’t wear clothes, you didn’t have to wear clothes, but they get into the seams, so you’d have to get them out. The best way is to put the clothing out in the sun, and you see them starting to crawl out, and then you squash them. That’s the way it is.

Aaron Elson: And they had no delousing facility in the camp?

Karnig Thomasian: No, they didn’t have anything. All that stuff, they didn’t have delousing, they didn’t have Mercurochrome. They didn’t have nothing.

Aaron Elson: Were there rats or mice?

Karnig Thomasian: There were big cockroaches. Big ones. You went "POW!" But I wouldn’t do it in my bare feet – I was always barefooted, so I said, "Does someone have a shoe?" Oh, God. Oh, jeez, I tell you, I sometimes wonder how I…
   So we get there, and then we’re in the ship. And now it’s time to get off the ship. And they tell us, "No arms. Leave your firearms or anything else that you’ve gotten, swords and everything. …"
   So I dismantled the gun and put it in my blanket. We each got a blanket issued to us. So now it was a shorter thing. I managed to smuggle it off the ship that way.
   Then we got to the hospital, and they started feeding us. The first thing they did was clean our wounds. They put that sulfa powder in, and I tell you, in no time – almost in minutes, but it wasn’t, it was a couple of days, but the sores filled up and started to heal, it was a miracle. That’s a miracle drug as far as I was concerned. It healed it so fast. And that’s all we needed. From that to suffering like that.
   Oh, there was a general who visited us in the camp along with the American newsman. I never got his name. And he said, "We will wire news ahead that you people have been freed."
   Then when we got to the hospital, we met General Stroudemeyer, and I’ve got a picture with him. With my beard. I’m the only one that had a beard, I shaved everybody else. The wing commander wanted me to shave. He said, "Why don’t you shave?"
   I said, "No."
   He said, "Do you want to be the only one with a beard?"
   Oh, in the hospital, so they had bowls of pills. You just grabbed pills and ate them by the handful. It’s unreal. And ice cream.

Aaron Elson: What were the pills?

Karnig Thomasian: All kinds of vitamin things, who knows? I have no idea. All colors. Rainbow. But there was a bowl, on every table. I don’t know, it sounds ridiculous, you’d take one of this, and one of that. I guess we were lacking in so many things they said it can’t hurt.
   Then I went over to the Chinese compound, and I met this fellow. I can’t remember his name now, but he was the one that doled out the rice when we were in solitary. He had a black skullcap, a white, flowing shirt, short black pants, and sandals. That’s how he came around. And he’d always look to see if he could give us a little more, if the Jap wasn’t over his shoulder; we couldn’t converse. But I always remembered him. So I went over to where the Chinese were and I found him, and I said, "Does anybody speak English?" One of the fellows could speak a little English. I said, "Tell him that I want to thank him for his kindness."
   He told him, and then I said, "He made life more bearable for us, and he was such a nice man."
   Then the guy who was interpreting said, "Could he give you his father’s address, and you write to him, tell him that you saw his son and he’s all right?"
   I said, "Oh, sure."
   He gave me the address. And then the Chinese fellow got a coin, and he broke the coin. And he said, "When we meet again, we will match the coins."
   So I wrote to his parents. His father had a pharmacy in some town in China.
   Along comes a letter back, all in Chinese. I was going to art school then; this is when I was back in the States. There was a letter to me, and a letter to his son. So I showed it to my friend – I had a friend in school, the Art Students League in New York, a Chinese guy – and I said, "Do you know how to read Chinese?"
   "Oh, yeah."
   "I wonder if you could please translate these letters, so I could understand what it is and send it to his son?"
   He said, "Sure." So he gave me the translation in the next couple of days. He said, "I didn’t translate his son’s letter because that’s private."
   I said, "That’s okay."
   The father said he hadn’t seen his son all those years. That was the first time he’d heard anything about him. And it was so nice of me to write, and his mother is happy to hear that he’s okay.
   And he said, "Do you think you could send him a letter?" I don’t remember what he wanted to say. He wanted to get in touch with him, basically, that’s what it was. So I said, All right. Let me find out.
   I called up the 142nd General Hospital, they’re not anymore in there but they have an office in America. To make a long story short, I found out that these Chinese were released from the hospital, and they walked back to China.

Aaron Elson: He walked from Rangoon to China?

Karnig Thomasian: Yeah, that means over the Hump, well, they’d probably go to the Burma Road; that’s not a very good place, there are a lot of pirates there. It’s not safe just because the Japs are gone. They’ve got a lot of other things, problems. God knows if he ever got back.
   I wrote back and said he is walking back. I mean, you’re talking about thousands of miles. That’s how they must have gotten there in the first place. Can you imagine?
   Anyway, that was a sad thing for me, I couldn’t come to peace with it somehow.
   The full interview with Karnig is at my web site, and Karnig has also written a book about his experiences, "Then There Were Six," which is available at
   A little more, however, on the etymology of "Extract Digit." According to Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Catch Phrases, Prince Philip used a variation of it in a 1961 speech on British industry, he said "It is about time we pulled our fingers out!" Fast Forward to earlier this year, and Tiger Woods, according to the blog, sent an "extract digit" text to Rory McIlroy:

Tiger Woods Sends ‘Extract The Digit’ Return Text Message To Rory McIlroy.

   New World No. 1 Tiger Woods sent struggling Rory McIlroy a timely text message ahead of next month’s Masters – ‘Get your finger out of your ass and win this week’s Shell Houston Open’.
   McIlroy is returning to the PGA Tour for a first time in a fortnight and in his final tournament ahead of the April 11th starting first Major Championship of the season at Augusta National.
   The 23-year old Northern Irishman tees up in America’s fourth largest city having broken 70 just one in nine stroke play rounds including a pair of 75s to start his new season in Abu Dhabi.
   And on Monday, McIlroy’s 208-day reign as World No. 1 ended when Woods captured a record-equalling eighth PGA Tour event in capturing the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando.
   As McIlroy took to the Redstone course in suburban Humble, Woods helped lead his Albany team to success in the Tavistock Cup in Orlando.
   However before teeing-up in the Singles shootout he received a congratulatory text message from McIlroy.
   “I thought I would just let it all sort of die down a bit after his win yesterday so I texted him this morning.
   “I hadn’t spoken to Tiger for a couple of weeks but I sent him a text this morning congratulating him on his win and saying: ‘Well done’.
   “Tiger got back to me and told me to get my finger out of my ass and win this week.”
   And when www.golfbytourmiss. com mentioned the text to McIlroy later while he was playing a practice round, McIlroy admitted that was a toned down version of what Woods texted him.

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P.S. OMG, if there's one state those World War II Germans would know the capital of, it's North Dakota (Bismarck)!


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bandits at 6 o'clock

   “It was just like the battle in 'Wings,'” George Collar said of the Kassel Mission of Sept. 27, 1944. “You’d hear those guns shooting and you could hear stuff blowing up and planes blowing up and bomb bay doors come floating by, and you could see the fighters sailing in on these guys. It was just like the movies. Better than the movies.”
   “Wings," a silent film about aerial combat in World War I, was the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1927.
   Collar was a bombardier on the Kassel Mission. His B-24 was one of 25 shot down that day and he became a prisoner of war. Bill Dewey, the pilot of one of the 10 bombers that survived the initial battle, once mentioned that he'd probably seen "12 O'Clock High" two dozen times.
   The Kassel Mission was supposed to be what was called a “milk run.” It turned out to be one of the most spectacular air battles of World War II.
   These are some descriptions from the survivors:

    “The tail gunner broke in on the intercom with ‘Bandits at 6 o’clock level, ten or twelve across.’ ”

    “Planes were going down – some in flames, others just exploding. The air was full of 20-millimeter shells. I thought the whole German Air Force was in the air at the same time. The first pass that they made took most of the squadron with them.”

    “There were planes blowing up. I saw engines go flying out of their holes. I saw parachutes. Parts of planes.”

    “The leading Liberator, on fire from nose to tail, came swinging toward us like a severely wounded animal, then peeled away as if to pick a spot away from us to die. The next bomber moved up in its place. Then we were hit ourselves.”

    I looked east and saw what looked to me to be over l00 fighters coming down in waves. I saw planes on fire, fliers bailing out, many with chutes also on fire. It couldn’t have taken over a few moments and looked to me like the whole 445th was wiped out. It is a memory and a vision I’ve carried for over 50 years.

    “The Liberator with the engines on fire on the left wing came up from below us to explode after it had reached our level. A human form fell out of the orange colored ball of fire. As he fell through space without parachute or harness, he reached up as if to grasp at something.”

     “I looked down on the lead group and there’s a bunch of FW-190s coming in, nine or ten of them abreast, shooting at them. And by that time we’re getting hit.”

    “The 20-millimeter shell tore through the bomb bay, ripping off the doors and severing fuel lines. Two fires started simultaneously in the bay. What strange mystery of fate kept us from exploding I’ll never be able to fathom. The engineer threw off his parachute, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and put both fires out before the 100-octane gas had been ignited. Then he attended to the leaks from which fuel was pouring out like water from a fire hydrant. Gasoline had saturated the three of us in the ship’s waist, and we all had a difficult time moving about. The two waist gunners were slipping and sliding as they sighted their guns.”

   George Collar and Bill Dewey devoted much of their lives to gathering documentation and preserving the history of the Kassel Mission. Together they formed the Kassel Mission Memorial Association, which, along with the efforts of German historian Walter Hassenpflug, was responsible for placing a monument in Germany with the names of 123 Americans and 18 Germans who perished in the battle. Collar and Dewey have both passed away, and Hassenpflug, who was an 11-year-old boy at the time of the battle, is in poor health. The so-called "next gen," or next generation, with people like Linda Dewey, Bill's daughter; and Doug Collar, George's son, spearheaded the formation of the Kassel Mission Historical Society.
   It was the dream of Bill Dewey and George Collar to one day write a book about the mission. In 2000, I drove to George's home in Tiffin, Ohio, and sat down with George and Doug Collar and Bill Dewey, and we discussed what should go into a book about the Kassel Mission. Bill said he'd like to model it after "Black Sunday," a coffee table tome about the Ploesti raid, with pictures of all the crews and charts and firsthand accounts.
   As was often the case with George, the conversation went off on an occasional tangent. One such tangent involved the Dessau Mission of Aug. 16, 1944, five weeks before the Kassel raid.
   “That Dessau Mission was my first mission,” remarked Bill. “I didn’t know any better. I guess that was the worst flak anybody had ever seen, because it was from railroad guns [antiaircraft guns on rail cars along the path the bombers were flying], and I didn’t know that that’s not the way it would be for all 35 missions.”
   “We never got to the target that day,” said George. “We had supercharger trouble and we started back. And in the meantime there was a guy in the high high right squadron who flopped over and came right down on top of Captain Carlisle’s plane, and as they came past, they almost wiped out Baynham’s plane. And they think the plane was upside down because they found footprints on the ceiling. And the bombs went up and came down in the bomb bay. They hadn’t dropped the bombs yet; they were flopping around on the shackles.”
   “One of the best stories we’ve got to put in,” George said a bit later, “is that story about Hunter’s crew, when they crashed in France [on the Kassel Mission]. They got hit in the gasoline tanks and gasoline was siphoning out of the bomb bay and coming up into the photographer’s hatch in the waist, and they said they were sloshing around in six inches of 120 octane gas. And there was a guy that deserved a medal – and he got one, too – a guy named Ratchford – he was the engineer. He went down in the bomb bay, imagine that, with gasoline shooting all over, and he repaired the leak. And they crash-landed, and they never even caught on fire.”
   “You know, these stories,” Doug Collar interjected. “I remember at Friedlos, getting ready for the ceremony [the dedication of the monument in Germany 1990]. I’m kind of eavesdropping, and these 18, 19 year old GIs are saying, ‘Do you believe these old farts?’
   “One of them says, ‘I can’t believe it, these guys are up there flying around, shooting .50-calibers at each other, no pressurized cabins. Jesus Christ!’
   “I’m listening, and the thing about it is, when you tell the story, the guy flying upside down, the footprints on the ceiling, bombs flying around, gasoline pouring out: this is the stuff that the average citizen has no comprehension of today. They see pushbutton warfare in the Persian Gulf – it’s all electronic. And I think this is the essence of a lot of these stories. These are unbelievable today.”
   After a few more anecdotes, the discussion took a somber turn, as the two principals placed the mission in the perspective of military disasters.
   “I’ll tell you what I think about this mission,” George said. “It was a big defeat for us and nothing to brag about, and I always said there was never anything written about it because they were trying to forget it.”
   “That’s right,” Bill said. “A coverup.”
   “I don’t know if it was a coverup,” George said. “They just said, 'Let’s kind of wash it under the rug.'”
   “Yeah,” Bill said. “Like that battleship that went down in ’45. The Indianapolis [actually, it was a cruiser]. That was a terrible thing.”
   Doug Collar suggested stressing the teamwork among the crews.
   “The thing that comes across time and again,” he said, “is that this is a team operation. It’s the training, but also the esprit de corps. Everybody had a job to do, they knew what they were supposed to do. I think that comes across on the Kassel Mission a lot.
   “Another thing the team concept manifests itself in is in what’s happened since 1986, in the fact that these guys are like a family 50 years later.”
   One valuable member of that family, Bill and George pointed out, is the young Belgian Luc Dewez, the author of the first, and so far the only, book about the Kassel Mission, “The Cruel Sky.”
   “Luc, he calls me, my … what does he say in here?” George said, opening his copy to the dedication. “‘To George. Don’t stop talking. Don’t stop researching. Dear boyhood hero. Dear friend. From Belgium. Stay my wordy friend.”
   “When I read that I thought, ‘You sonofagun!’” George said. After a round of laughter, all agreed that Luc meant “My worthy friend.”
   “You know, another thing about this team concept,” Doug said. “When I introduced Luc at the banquet [at the Savannah reunion of the 8th Air Force Association in 1999], I made remarks about how this is a team effort and the Allies are part of this, and he was representing the role of our Allies in Belgium: his father fought in the underground. Well, he didn’t show up at the Saturday night banquet, and everybody was worried about him. Then we came back, and when the bus came in, he was standing there passing his book out at 11 o’clock at night in the hotel.
   “I said, ‘What happened to you?’
   “He said, ‘Well, you mentioned we’re part of a family, part of a team effort.’ And he said, ‘Web Uebelhoer’s legs were swelling up and he needed medical help, so I stayed here with him. I’m part of the team.’” [Web Uebelhoer was the pilot of the deputy lead plane on the Kassel Mission, and had suffered a stroke and was in a wheelchair at the reunion.]
   Despite the exhaustive research conducted by George and Bill, there was actually a bit of serendipity involved in the formation of the KMMA.
   “I’ve got to give credit to my wife for this,” Bill said, “because we were at a reception at Norwich City Hall [in England] and she heard these two people talking about going back to Germany and meeting the German pilots, and it was Frank Bertram and Reg Miner talking with some other people. She grabbed ahold of them and said, ‘My husband always wanted to meet the German pilots.’ And so she introduced me to Frank, who had been in our 445th but I didn’t know him. So I’ve got to give credit to my wife.”
   “I remember back in ’87,” George said to Bill, “we went to that mini reunion down in Dayton and I met you.”
   “You said, ‘I want to see you,’” Bill replied. “You were sitting in the auditorium.”
   “And you know,” George said, “the funny part of it was, after Woolnough [editor of the 8th Air Force News] published the “Kassel Mission Reports” [actually, KMMA published the “Reports” that were articles originally carried in the 8th Air Force News], there was a letter in the 8th Air Force newsletter from a guy who said he had a friend that was killed in the Kassel raid and somebody ought to do something about putting up a monument, so the nucleus of the monument really started with him.”
   “He was a B-29 gunner, wasn’t he?” Bill recalled.
   “They’d gone through gunnery school together,” Doug said.
   “He said, ‘If anybody wanted to put up a monument, I'd be glad to donate,” Bill said. “And that's where I got the idea of a monument.”
   “Anyway," George said, “I looked at the name. There was nobody with that name on the Kassel Mission.”
   “We never heard any more from him,” Bill said.
   “He never sent in his money!” George said.

The Kassel Mission Memorial in Friedlos, Germany
For more on the Kassel Mission, please visit, and think about becoming involved in the Kassel Mission Historical Society, to help keep the memory of this important piece of World War II history alive.



Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Medic's Story

   Following is an excerpt from "A Medic's Story," by Edward Madden, as told to me during a 2000 interview at the 90th Infantry Division reunion in Charlotte, North Carolina. "A Medic's Story" is available for Kindle for $1.99 at 
   After the Normandy peninsula was cut off, they put us into a holding position and we were put onto this farm. We were there for almost two weeks, in a holding position. And one day, July the 1st, the Germans decided they were going to put some artillery into the place.
   There were two girls who lived on the farm. One was 14 or 15, and her sister was 16 or 17. They were out in the field, milking the cows at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when the Germans put the shells in there. The shells landed real close to them, and a couple of the cows were killed, and some of the shrapnel went through the older sister’s heart and killed her. And the younger girl had both of her legs taken off below the knee, both of them, and one of her arms was pretty badly shattered. And I went out and picked her up and brought her into their house. I treated her, then I called and had her evacuated back.
   The very next day we moved out, and I never heard anything about her until later on in the year, in December or so, the Stars & Stripes came out and there was an article in it showing her with Air Corps people. And what they did was they came in, and they built a landing strip right near the farm. They found out about her, so they went back to the Army hospital that they had her in, and the Air Force took her out of there – with permission – and they brought her back to the farm and they built a tent for her. They had their doctors take care of her, and eventually they ended up buying her prostheses for her legs.
   When the Air Corps – these were fighter planes, P-47s – moved forward to keep up with the infantry, they were able to carry her in their planes because they got written permission from General Eisenhower to take her with them. And she met Eisenhower, he came over and talked to her.
   I sent the article home, and I didn’t think anything about it.
  Then in 1985, when I was going to go to Europe, I wrote to Henri Levaufre [a Normandy historian who has assisted many 90th Division veterans] and I told him about her and asked him to find out if the woman is still alive. He wrote back to me and he said, yes, he found her, that she lives only a few miles from where Henri lived. So he said when you get to the hotel – we told him what hotel in Paris we were going to be at – he said he would leave a message for me so I’d know where she lives. So when we got into Paris we got a message stating that her daughter – without the legs but with the artificial limbs; she married a lawyer, and she had one daughter, and the daughter was going to come by in the morning and pick us up and take us to the big hospital in Paris where they take care of the people. So they took us over and we met for the first time. And she didn’t know that it was the infantry that was stationed at her farm – she didn’t remember that it was infantry, she thought there were artillery people, and she didn’t know who I was or that I had taken care of her until I explained to her; I told her that one day one of our officers was going through their barn, and he moved some hay aside and he found a German motorcycle that her brother had hidden, that he’d stolen from the Germans. I told her about that and she said, “Oh, my God, you were there, on the farm.”
   And I said, “Yes, I was the one that took care of you.”
   Well, with all of this the Air Force had adopted her and they’ve had her come over to some of their reunions. And if you ever go to the Airborne Museum in Ste. Mere Eglise, they have a whole display about her there.
   I met her in 1985, and then when I went over in 1994 we stayed with her at her home for a few days and she took us around and she introduced us to the curator of the museum at Ste. Mere Eglise.
   Her name is Yvette Hamel. Incidentally, there’s a book, one of the fliers, he’s a doctor now, his wife met her and his wife wrote a book about her called “Sunward I’ve Climbed,” and it’s been translated into French, too. It’s an interesting book. I’ve got it. She sent me a copy, signed and all.