Saturday, September 27, 2014

On the 70th Anniversary of the Kassel Mission

Paul Swofford being awarded the Silver Star

On the 70th Anniversary of the Kassel Mission

Aaron Elson
President, Kassel Mission Historical Society

Hard as it is to believe, today is the 70th anniversary of the Kassel Mission. Paul Swofford, one of a handful of pilots who brought his badly damaged B-24 back to England that day in 1944, left a message on my answering machine the other day. I could tell from the wavering in his voice how shaken he was by the memories, and yet he stressed how thankful he was that he had the opportunity to tell his story so that it would not be forgotten.
Every veteran of the Kassel Mission, every widow or sibling of a flier killed in the battle, has his or her own personal thoughts as the 70th anniversary of the battle approaches. Some family members of Kassel Mission veterans are in Germany where the annual wreath laying ceremony carries extra significance because of the 70th anniversary.
Thanks to the efforts of people like George Collar and Bill Dewey and Frank Bertram and Walter Hassenpflug, and the energy of the members of the Kassel Mission Historical Society, including Kassel survivors John Ray Lemons and Ira Weinstein, the sacrifice of the men lost on the Kassel Mission will be honored not only by the "next generation," but by the generation after that, as exemplified by social media wiz J.P. Bertram, and generations yet to come.
As for me, I don't have a familial connection to the mission. It was while visiting the village of Heimboldshausen where a buddy of my father's was killed in World War II, that I met Walter and became fascinated by the history of the mission, some of which I've helped to preserve through a series of informal oral history interviews.
So today I'm going to watch at least the beginning, and maybe a few scenes, of "12 O'Clock High," which to the survivors of the Kassel Mission is like "Patton" was to the veterans of my father's tank battalion, and I'll get all choked up when Dean Jagger sees that silly figure in the store window, and I'll listen for the drone of the returning B-24s. And I'll read the poem "High Flight," by John Gillespie Magee, a young Spitfire pilot who died in a training crash in 1941 at age 19, and and I'll remember George Collar telling me how disappointed he was as a youth because that was the War to End All Wars, and he feared he would never get the chance to be like his boyhood heroes.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor e'er eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

Olga (pronounced Ahl-ga) Warfield

Many years ago I interviewed Olga Warfield, whose husband, Marshall T.  Warfield, an officer in my father's tank battalion, was killed in September of 1944 while leading a reconnaissance patrol on the east bank of the Moselle River.

I asked Olga what the T in Marshall T. Warfield stood for, and she opened a scrapbook to his obituary. His name was Marshall Turenne Warfield.

Turenne, what an odd name, I thought.

When I got home, I visited my old friend the Internet and discovered that Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne was one of the great marshals of France, a marshal being a general, and that even Napoleon studied the battles of Marshal Turenne closely. The next thing I learned was that Turenne played a significant role in the 30 Years War. I mention that on this Memorial Day because while the War on Terror hasn't approached 30 years, it's well into its 13th year with no end in sight. And now on National Public Radio, on television and in America's newspapers, Memorial Day pieces on men and women who've fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken over the space once reserved for the fallen of World War II, Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Korea.

Olga never remarried, although I read in a book ironically titled "Thanks for the Memories: Love, Sex and World War II" by Jane Mersky Leder published in 2006 that she had many boyfriends and almost remarried once.

When I began researching the Kassel Mission, Frank Bertram sent me a tape on which he recorded his memories of that fateful day of Sept. 27, 1944. He spoke of two members of pilot Reg Miner's crew, Virgil Chima and Joe Gilfoil, who were killed.

Chima was "19 years old" ... "There were four boys [in his family] and three of them were in the Air Corps and Virgil was the only one who didn't make it. And his mother never did get over it. He was the baby of the family. The same thing happened with our radio operator, Joe Gilfoil. ... He was the only child of an Irish mother and father right outside of Boston. I guess his mother and father were at that time in their late forties or early fifties. Joe was 19."

On Memorial Day we remember the fallen, but we often don't think about the effect their deaths in battle -- and on National Public Radio today a soldier serving his third tour in Iraq said that one unit he was in didn't lose anyone in battle, but that two of his fellow soldiers killed themselves after returning home; those deaths are also related to serving our country -- but we sometimes fail to think about the effect on the loved ones left behind, the kid sisters like Erlyn Jensen, the widows like Sarah Schaen Naugher, the unborn children like Jima Schaen Sparks and Sheila McCoy, and how those lives are changed forever when a life is lost to war.

I thought about that today at the Avon, Connecticut, Memorial Day Parade, where my friend John Caruso was the guest speaker. John's brother Matt Caruso died saving a chaplain's life during the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War. Six days after he was killed, Matt's wife back in Hartford gave birth to a son, Daniel Caruso. His widow remarried, to a veteran of Matt's unit. Cornelius Griffin, the chaplain whose life Matt saved, became a Monsignor in the Tucson Diocese.

While I was at the parade I looked around -- at the sea of Cub Scouts and members of the Avon High School Marching Band, at the families in lawn chairs, the little kids tossing frisbees, the fathers walking dogs, the classic cars and vintage fire engines that paraded through the town, a scene repeated on Memorial Day Weekend in thousands of communities across America, and I thought of a letter the widow of a member of my father's tank battalion read to me when I visited her in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, earlier this month.

Lieutenant Wallace Lippincott Jr. was killed on Jan. 14, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge. A collector found a canteen in the woods in Belgium with his name etched onto it and enlisted the help of a veteran in California to try and locate his family. That veteran told me about the canteen and I was able to locate first Lieutenant Lippincott's great-nephew, and with the help of an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, his widow.

I drove to Canonsburg, Pa., to meet Lieutenant Lippincott's widow the day after she received the canteen. Toward the end of my visit, she pulled out a stack of letters and read a few of them to me. I thought of one of those letters today.

"It is a good feeling to know that we are building up a little nest egg in the bank for after the war," he wrote on Jan. 6, 1945. "I can think of no greater pleasure than that of buying a place of our own and going round furnishing the house. Dreams such as these make this mess seem worthwhile. If I didn't have something to come home to, this war would seem pointless to me. I suppose that is a selfish attitude to take but I almost consider it a personal fight against those who have deprived me of doing the things a man deserves most: having a home and a family to provide for ..."

Okay, so maybe values and attitudes have changed over the years and the "home and family to provide for" thing is from a different era, but as I looked around at the parade today I thought that this is what Wally Lippincott, and Marshall Warfield, and Virgil Chima and Joe Gilfoil and Don McCoy and the many young men -- both American and German -- who perished on the Kassel Mission sacrificed when they sacrificed their lives.