Friday, April 18, 2014

On the Passing of Frank Bertram

The sinking of the Estonia, Sept. 28, 1994 (illustration from
   At first it seemed like a bizarre coincidence that Frank Bertram, one of the "Core 4" of the Kassel Mission Historical Society -- George Collar, Bill Dewey and Walter Hassenpflug being the others -- should pass away, shortly after his 94th birthday, on the second or third day of the South Korean ferry disaster.
   I say coincidence because when I visited Walter Hassenpflug in 1999, he gave me a photocopy of an article that appeared in Stars & Stripes. I no longer have the photocopy, I may have loaned it to a researcher, but it was dated either Sept. 29 or 30 of 1994, and it had a big article about the ceremony at the Kassel Mission Memorial marking the 50th anniversary of that Sept. 27, 1944 battle.
   There were, if I remember the article correctly, 600 people at the memorial, American survivors of the battle and their families, former German fighter pilots who took part in the battle, civilians who were children at the time. The article told how three of the people in attendance -- one American, Jima Schaen Sparks, and two Germans -- were born after their fathers died in the skies overhead.
   The article would have made the front page of the Stars & Stripes that day were it not for another ferry disaster, the sinking of the Estonia in the Baltic Sea with a loss of, according to Wikipedia, 852 lives, making if the worst peacetime maritime disaster since the sinking of the Titanic.
   For a while, questions swirled about the Kassel Mission -- was it due to a navigational error that the 35 Liberators of the 445th Bomb Group flew off course? Was there a secret target in the city of Goettingen? Were the other factors at play? Thanks to the exhaustive research of Linda Dewey, Bill's daughter, most of those questions have been answered, with the navigational error remaining the most plausible explanation. But who knew that a brief Internet search for information about the then-fresh ferry disaster that shared the issue of Stars & Stripes with the 50th anniversary of the Kassel Mission in 1994 would spawn conspiracy theories that make the grassy knoll look like an anthill. There was a big NATO exercise going on at the time; a day before the disaster a terror drill involving two bombs took place aboard the Estonia; Swedish phone lines were jammed at the time the first distress calls went out; 150 smuggled Iraqi Kurds may have been hidden in a truck, which would have increased the death toll to 1,000; contraband advanced Soviet weapons were on the Estonia; and as recently as last year the NSA and CIA were stonewalling the author of a 1996 book, "The Hole," questioning the official findings of the Swedish inquiry into the disaster.
   So I asked myself, Coincidence? I don't think so.
   Linda Dewey has noted that without Frank, there wouldn't be a Kassel Mission Memorial, and there might not even be a KMHS. It wasn't until Walter Hassenpflug -- who as a 12 year old boy captured an injured Bertram after the 19-year-old navigator bailed out of his crippled B-24 -- located him in the 1980s and the two got together, that the idea of a memorial to the fallen on both sides began to take shape.
   I never interviewed Frank, and only met him once, at a reunion of the 8th Air Force Historical Society in Savannah, but after I called him in 1999 he sat in his car, at least I think it was his car, with, I think he said two tape recorders, and just spoke into them. He sent me the two tapes he made, one 90 minutes and the other either 100 or 120 minutes. He just talked and talked. I transcribed the two tapes and used a narrative drawn from the transcript in my book "9 Lives." Initially I wanted to write a book solely about the Kassel Mission, but I realized I was just getting started, so I included three accounts of the mission, those of George Collar, Frank, and Kay Brainard Hutchins, whose brother Newell survived bailing out of his plane but was murdered on the ground by civilians.
   Last night I messaged Jima Schaen Sparks with a question about the Stars & Stripes article because I knew she was mentioned in it, and she replied with an anecdote about Frank, and how they met at the Frankfurt airport on their way to the ceremony marking the dedication of the monument.
   "It's really sad to hear of Frank Bertram," she wrote. "I recall so clearly when we met ... 1990 in the Frankfurt airport. While wandering around looking for the group meeting the bus to Bad Hersfeld, I saw another confused wanderer, obviously American, wearing a yellow sweater and khakis, a tall, handsome man with a military bearing.
   "We made eye contact, and after a short conversation learned we were both looking for the Kassel Mission group. He then inquired about my connection, saying I was a bit young to be the wife of one of the 'ol' guys.' I introduced myself, telling him that my father, Jim Schaen, was one of those killed on the mission.
   "He appeared speechless for a time, and just stared at me with eyes brimming with tears. Then he told me that he was with Jim at mail call when he received the letter from Mother telling him she was pregnant, just a few weeks before the mission, I believe.
   "He was the first person I'd ever met, other than family, who had known Jim."

For more information and accounts of the Kassel Mission, please visit

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