Monday, October 21, 2013

The Watch That Went to War Part 1

Available soon at and for Kindle
 (My 1999 interview with Kassel Mission veteran Ira Weinstein will be available soon in a Kindle edition, with a print version available from Amazon.)

Navigator/bombardier, 445th Bomb Group
Kassel Mission survivor, ex-POW
April 17, 1999
Palm Beach, Fla.

 Aaron Elson: You grew up in Chicago?

Ira Weinstein: Yes.

Aaron Elson: Was there a Jewish community in Chicago?

Ira Weinstein: Oh, a tremendous Jewish community. My grandfather was the first Jewish undertaker in Chicago.

Aaron Elson: And where was your family from originally?

Ira Weinstein: My father and mother were born in America. My grandfather came from Russia.

Aaron Elson: Did you enlist or were you drafted?

Ira Weinstein: I enlisted. Since I was ten years old more or less, I was an aviation buff. I loved airplanes, so here, 70 years later, I’m still building model airplanes.

Aaron Elson: You had started studying the World War I aces?

Ira Weinstein: Yes. And when the war was imminent, and I was working, I enlisted. I filed an application to be an Aviation Cadet. In those days, you had to have either two years’ college education to get an appointment as an Aviation Cadet, or you had to take an exam. I didn’t go to college. My father went broke during the Depression. As soon as I got out of high school I went to work.
I took the exam, and out of 600 guys mine was the fourth highest grade, so I got an appointment. Then the war started, and they were processing so many guys, I quit my job. I thought they were going to take me right away. They didn’t take me for six months, because they were waiting to process people. Then I got my appointment as a cadet, and went through all the usual basic training and the pre-flight.

Aaron Elson: Did you want to be a fighter pilot?

Ira Weinstein: Every guy wanted to be a pilot. I went to primary school and I was doing really good. I was way up in the class in the ground school, but every time I got in an airplane they had to readjust the airplane. First of all, you were supposed to be 5-foot-4 to go to pilot training. I’m only 5 feet tall. So one day I’m standing in a line naked, waiting to get a shot, and a flight surgeon comes by. He says, “Mister, how tall are you?”
I said, “I’m 5-foot-2.” I wasn’t 5-foot-2. I was 5 feet tall. Next day I was in the commandant’s office, and he says, “Look. You’re through in primary training.” But I had a real high number in the draft, so I could have gotten out, because I volunteered to go in. He said, “Do you want out? I can let you out. But if you want to stay in, I’ll see that you go wherever you want to go.”
I didn’t want to get out. He said, “I could send you right away to bombardier school.”
That’s fine. As long as I’m in an airplane, that’s it. So I went to bombardier school. I went to Ellington Field in Texas, and then I went to Childress, Texas, and then they picked a whole bunch of guys and sent us to navigation school. So I had a dual rating. Before I went overseas I was already a first lieutenant; before  I was even assigned to a crew. I know that sounds like nothing, but in the service, that was big-time stuff, to be a first lieutenant instead of a second lieutenant.
I was assigned to a crew, and we went for training as a crew at Peterson Field in Colorado. I got married there, and then we went a bunch of other places to do this and that, and then finally we went overseas.

Aaron Elson: Did you marry somebody you met there or somebody from Chicago?

Ira Weinstein: This was a girlfriend that I had from Chicago. Even though the war was on, they were still treating us like cadets, it was unbelievable. The clothes we had, and the food we were getting, they treated us like kings. The invitations for our graduation, to get our commission, were on leather. Genuine leather invitations. Stamped! I sent one to my girlfriend. Next thing I know, she says, “I’ll come to the graduation.” She came. Next thing, we got married.
Anyhow, let me bring you up to the day of the battle, and then later you can go back if you want.
Okay. The Kassel mission out of Tibenham was on September 27, and you may not know it, but that was Yom Kippur. I was not supposed to fly that day. I don’t know why I went to the briefing, but I was on a lead crew. And I guess, I don’t remember, but I think maybe we had to go to every briefing, even though we weren’t going to fly that day.
I go to the briefing, and I see the mission, and I see we’re going to have fighter cover all the way. It wasn’t that far into Germany. And by that time we had pretty good fighter cover. My wife’s birthday was Christmas, and I had one more mission to fly, so I thought I’d try and go on this mission and I’d be home in time for Christmas.
I went to the colonel and I said, “Let me fly today. See if there’s an opening on a crew.”
And he said, “What are you, stupid? You don’t volunteer. It’s a Jewish holiday. You’ve got a three-day pass. Go to London. Have some fun.”
I said, “No, I want to go.”
And he really didn’t want me to go. He said, “You’re not supposed to do anything today.”
I finally talked him into it, and I was home for my wife’s birthday – a year later.
On the other hand, I’m here and I’m alive, so even though maybe God punished me for flying on Yom Kippur, he also saved me.
On the mission, I was assigned to a crew that I’d never flown with. I flew with the Donald crew. I didn’t know one person on it.
Early on the mission – once we turned off the initial point, I saw fighters. And everybody was on the radio, saying there were fighters and so forth, and in that ship that day we had a nose turret but it was not manned. So I got up in the nose turret, on the guns. I had never gone to gunnery school, but I’d flown enough missions I knew what that was all about.
The battle was quick. I don’t know how many minutes they say the whole thing lasted, but it was minutes, not hours. I’m firing the guns, and the next thing I know, I feel somebody tumble me over backwards out of the turret, and it was the navigator, a guy by the name of Eric Smith. I thought, “What’s going on?” And I turn around and he’s bailing out the nose hatch. He saved my life. That was the first I knew that our ship was in trouble, on fire, and we were going down. I didn’t know it. I was busy firing the guns. So I bailed out.
Now another interesting thing is – God’s will – I always wore a chest chute, and I never wore it on, because when I had to lean over the bomb sight, I couldn’t have that on me, so the chest chute was always by my side. That day, when I finally got permission to fly, I didn’t have a parachute because my parachute was being repacked. I went to the parachute room and they gave me a back pack. I had never worn a back pack except in the cadets. If it would have been a different mission, I wouldn’t be here today because I’d have never found that chest pack.
So I bailed out with a back pack, and when I bailed out, the straps of the parachute caught on the bomb sight. By this time the plane was going down. It was in a flat spin with a lot of centrifugal force. I could hardly get out. I chinned myself back up into the airplane, undid the strap, and bailed out a second time.
By the time I bailed out, I figure I was at the most maybe at 2,500 feet. I popped my chute and I was on the ground. That was it. I never had time enough to enjoy what it was really like being in the parachute.
I landed up in the hills, where a bunch of kids were picnicking. I got rid of my chute and ran, I was up in the hills, and I hid under some trees. My pilot – this guy Donald – must have bailed out the top hatch. When he bailed out, I’m presuming, he must have hit his feet on the rudders. I saw him come down in the valley, and I saw he couldn’t get up. And pretty soon some farmers came along and they pitchforked him to death. When night came, I went down and I got his dogtags, and they had stripped him of everything but his underpants. His shoes, everything but his underpants.
When I came back, I reported that to the War Crimes Commission, and they sent two guys down from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to interview me about it. And then maybe two or three years ago, I got a call – actually, Bill Dewey got the call – a guy was trying to find out if anybody knew anything about his brother-in-law. Dewey said, “Call Ira Weinstein. He knows all about it.” So the guy called me, and told me who he was, but I didn’t know who he was, so I asked him a bunch of questions, and I realized it was legitimate. Then I told him the whole story. I told him, “You may not even want to tell your sister about this,” because why should she know the terrible details?  I don’t know what he did, but we corresponded a couple of times. I sent him copies of all the stuff from the War Crimes Commission. That was a horrible incident.

Aaron Elson: What did you do with his dogtags?

Ira Weinstein: When I finally got to American hands a year later, I still had the dogtags. So I turned them in.

Aaron Elson: Where did you hide them?

Ira Weinstein: In my pocket most of the time. That night I hid under trees up in the forest. It was a pine forest. And the pine needles under the trees were inches thick, so I buried myself under those pine needles, and then during the day I wouldn’t move. I’d only move at night. I thought, ‘I’ll make my way to Switzerland.’ Well, I don’t swim, and every time I came to a body of water I couldn’t get across. I hid out for a couple of days, but by that time I realized that they were shooting and looking for guys. I realized I’m never going to get out of this.
I was scared, but I wasn’t hungry because at night I’d go down in the valley, I’d get some potatoes or whatever they’re growing, and that’s what I’d eat. I came to a little town, and I don’t know, Walter Hassenpflug thinks it was a town called Nesselrode [Nesselroden] or something, and there must have been 20 churches in that town. So I thought, “If I’m ever going to get a fair shake, it’ll be in a place where they had so many churches.”
I walked down into the town, and I looked like Murder Incorporated, because our plane was on fire, I was covered with soot, and I hadn’t shaved for maybe a week. And I’m walking through the center of town and a kid about 17 years old sidles up alongside of me and he said, “You’re one of the American fliers they’re looking for, aren’t you?”
I said, “Yeah.” Then I said, “How come you speak such good English?”
“Oh,” he said, “I went to high school in Milwaukee.”
I said to him,  “What’s going to happen to me?”
He said, “I’ll take you to the burgomeister.”
Sure enough, he took me to the burgomeister’s house, and the burgomeister’s wife gave me a bowl of potato soup. And I remember, that was the best thing I ever ate.
There was an SS battalion in that area, and the burgomeister said, “If I turn you over to them, you’re going to be dead. So if you behave yourself, and you don’t try and run away, I’ll call the Luftwaffe and they can come and get you. There you’ll be safe.” And about two hours later, two guys in beautiful Luftwaffe uniforms showed up with a car, and they took me to a little garrison. It was walled in, and they threw me in this room. I think there were maybe 20 other guys in it. George Collar was one of them. There were two badly wounded enlisted men, and I was the ranking officer.
I looked around – these two guys had had no medical attention, they’d been there two or three days already, and don’t ask me why I did this or how I did it, but I was always cocky. I got hold of the guard, and I told him I want to see the commanding officer. So he took me in to see the commanding officer. And it
Erich Von Stroheim
would have been a joke if I wasn’t so scared, but that guy looked just like Erich Von Stroheim, remember him? First I saluted him, and I gave my name, my rank and my serial number, and I said, “Sir, according to the Geneva Convention, we have two very badly wounded men, they’re entitled to some medical care.”
Erich Von Stroheim
He came out from behind his desk with a riding crop, and he hit me across the cheek. He split my cheek open, and he said, “I’ll tell you about the Geneva Convention. You’re bombing our schools and our churches and you’re killing our people and blah blah blah blah.” Then he told the guard to take me away. So I went back to the room, and about two hours later they came and took the two injured men away.
After you flew enough missions you thought you knew all the tricks, and one of them was that the electric shoes in the planes hardly ever worked properly. What I used to do is I’d put on two or three pairs of heavy woolen socks, and then I’d put my flying boots over them. That way my feet were pretty warm. When I bailed out, my flying boots came off,  because they were loose. I was running around in the forest for a couple of days with no shoes. But I cut a piece out of my flying suit and I made a pair of moccasins. I used the electrical wires that were in the flying suit to tie them on. So now I’m in this little room they had us in. Pretty soon the guard comes, he says, “Kommen Sie mit mir,” and he takes me back to the commandant’s office.
My parents never spoke Yiddish, but my grandparents did when they didn’t want us to know what was going on. So I knew a little bit. But a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. This is what I think I hear the commandant say to the guard: “Take him out and schissen him.” That means “Take him out and shoot him.” What he said was “schussen,” or “Give him a pair of shoes.” But I didn’t hear shoes. I heard shoot. So this guy marches me out of the little barracks we were in into the compound, and about 50 yards ahead of me there’s a gate. I thought if this asshole’s gonna shoot me, he’s gonna shoot me in the back, because I’m gonna make a run for it when I get to that gate.
Maybe 25 yards from the gate was another little room. He took me in there and got me a pair of shoes. That’s how close I came to being killed that time, let alone getting out of the airplane or in the battle.
Then they took the guys from that barrack – George and I especially – who were in good shape, around to all the airplanes, getting the guns off of them and burying the bodies. And one of the ships I came across was my own ship. I knew it was mine because I knew the insignia on it, but I didn’t know any of the kids who were in the plane. I knew the pilot got killed. I didn’t know where the navigator was but I knew he had bailed out, and there was another guy – I forget who he was – on the ship. The other five guys were all burned to a crisp in the ship. And I had to take them out and bury them, right there. When I got back to the States I said to my wife, “You know, those parents must wonder what happened. All they get is a KIA notice, nothing else, no explanation from the government. I think I’m going to go visit all those parents.”
I got the addresses and the names, and I went and visited all those parents. I didn’t tell them the gory details, but I told them that their kids were in a battle and it was terrible and they were probably shot during the battle, and that I buried their bodies and this is where it is, and so forth.
Now we go back to this little hut, and they’re going to march us to the railroad station to go to the interrogation center. And these are stories that George told me that I didn’t even remember.
They put two guys on a stretcher, and George and I were going to carry them to the railroad station. I remembered that, but I didn’t remember this part until George told it to me, then it came back to me, like when you see an old movie on television. It was real hot, and these goddamn guys have got their guns in our backs. “Raus! Schnell! Schnell!” They wanted us to walk faster. How can we walk faster? Finally, they let us sit down, and George says we sat down on the curb of the street and a lady came out and gave us a drink. When George told me that, I said, “No German lady ever gave me a drink of water, forget it, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The more I thought about it, all of a sudden it all started to come back to me. Then when we got to the railroad station, I don’t know if George told you this story, they lined everybody up in the railroad station and they made us all stand at attention, and some SS guys took control then, and they were calling out the roll. When they came to my name, Weinstein, they made me step up in front of the group, and George says he was sure they were going to shoot me right then and there. Then they put everybody else at rest, and they left me standing at attention. I think it was about two hours till that train came, I stood at attention, and finally we got on the train.

Aaron Elson: George said that somebody said “Jude.”

Ira Weinstein: Yeah, “Judish.”

Aaron Elson: And he said he thought, “They’re gonna shoot  Weinstein.”

Ira Weinstein: He told me that. And then it came back to me. You know, you’re so young, I think you’re too stupid to know what’s going on. You’re not afraid like you should be. As you look back in retrospect, how did I get the chutzpah to go to the commandant and tell him about those two men who needed medical attention? But I thought I was a hero in those days. Nothing bothered me, I was crazy.
Anyhow, we finally get to the interrogation center, and I have to tell you a great story. I’m writing this story up for the Eighth Air Force Bulletin now.
Before I left, I had a cousin who was older than I was, who was already flying his own plane, and he was my hero. His father and mother invited me to dinner, and he gave me a watch. It was a Longines Weems watch, which was the watch that all the commercial and other aviators wore. And he said, “Here’s a watch. I want you to take this, it’s a great watch for you, and you bring it back safe.” That’s the watch I wore on all my missions. So when we got to the interrogation center – I’m jumping ahead a little bit; well, I’ll tell you the watch story first. No, I can’t. They threw us all in cells, and first they’d run the temperature way up, then they’d turn it off, but I was only there two days as I remember, maybe overnight or two nights. And then they brought me in to a guy to interrogate me. We had seen a movie that showed just what to expect when you were going to be interrogated, and it would be laughable because it was just like that if you weren’t so scared. They told us, you just give your name, rank and serial number. Don’t try and outsmart them or get in a conversation with them.
I stood my ground. Finally, he brings in a guy, and he says to me, “Lieutenant, you don’t have to tell me anything. I know all about you. Your mother is Lillian Seligman. She lives in Rochester, New York, with your sister. She lives at 47 Rutledge Drive. You were born and raised in Chicago. You worked for Goldblatt’s.” They had a dossier on me that was better than the Americans had; they knew everything about me. “You were with the 445th Bomb Group. Your mission was to Kassel. You were in the 702nd Squadron. Your squadron commander was Lieutenant Colonel Jones.” So I didn’t have to answer anything, I just kept giving them my name. “Now, all you have to tell us is, where were you flying that mission and what was your target?”
I’d say, “Name, Ira P. Weinstein, first lieutenant, 0694482.” So finally he got pissed off. Then he says to me, “You are not an American. You’re a German. Your name is Weinstein. You were my neighbor in Frankfurt. You’re a shpy.” If you’re a "shpy," you’re gonna get shot. I didn’t give. Finally, he calls in a guy. A guy comes in, about six feet tall, in a black body suit with a rubber hose. Then the interrogator’s asking me questions and this guy’s slapping that hose. But we saw that in the movie. I was plenty scared, believe me, I wasn’t gonna laugh like I can now. And he finally says to me, “Well, if you don’t want to tell us what we want to know I’m going to have to turn you over to this guy.” I stuck with it, and finally he says to the guy, “Take him out of here,” and I went back to my room.
The next day I was out of there. However, when I went back to my room – oh, and then they sent in a German officer in a flying suit with a lot of ribbons, he came in and he said, “Cigarette, Lieutenant?”
I said, “No, I don’t smoke.”
So he sits down on the couch. He says, “You know, you’re a flying officer. I’m a flying officer. I’d just like to talk to you about what it was like. Can we discuss it?”
I said, “No.”
“You know, we’re compatriots.”
So he left. Then they took all our clothes, and they gave us a shower and a delousing. I was marching up the hall to the shower, a group was coming out of the showers, and there was a guy there from New Zealand. He says to me, “Hey, Yank. If you’ve got anything you don’t want them to take, get rid of it now because they’re confiscating everything.”
I still had this watch on. I took the watch off – it was on an expansion band – and I threw it to him. I said, “Here, you keep the watch.”
Two days later I’m in a boxcar in Frankfurt, in the marshaling yards, and the RAF comes to bomb the marshaling yards. It’s night, and the Germans lock us in the cars and they go to the air raid shelters. On the next track is another set of boxcars with POWs. There’s the New Zealand guy. He sees me. He says, “Hey, Yank, you want your watch back?”
I said, “Yeah.”
So he threw the watch through the slats – and I caught it. And I kept that watch all during the time that I was a POW and I brought it back. That story is in Roger Freeman’s book. But now I’m going to elaborate it on it and write it up for the Eighth Air Force newsletter, “The Watch that Went to War.”

(Part 2 coming soon)

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