Lt. William C. Florentine Jr.'s story (338th FS)
Lt. Robert N. Jensen's story (338th FS)
Gevorkian and Kester's story (338th FS)
George Korinek relates his experiences (338th FS)
Victor LaBella relates his experiences (338th FS)
"55th Mission" - Capt. Bert McDowell Jr. (338th FS)
Wes Tibbetts - A Profile by Chet Patterson (338th FS)
Lt. Bradford R. Wikholm's story (338th FS)
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Lt. William C. Florentine Jr.tells his story - Reproduced with kind permission of Mr. Robert M. Littlefield, from his book, Double Nickel - Double Trouble (ISBN 0-9623080-3-X)
Bill Florentine tells his story: We took off the morning of November 13, 1943, joined up, went to Bremen, Germany, joining the bombers at the coast. They had just finished their bomb run when we were jumped by 250 enemy fighters. I never have seen so damn many airplanes, the wrong kind with the wrong markings, in my whole life! They attacked us like a swarm of locust or bees. Someway or another we, Karl Garlock my wingman and Joe Marsiglia, our flight leader, got separated from the rest of the (sqdn.) formation. We engaged the enemy. I ended up all alone. I found out later that we lost seven P-38s. Of that seven I was one of three that was not killed. I started a climb to get back to my unit when I saw pink tracers going by either side of my cockpit. The cockpit filled with smoke so that I couldn't see so I wound down the windows and the smoke cleared. My right engine quit and I feathered it. I glanced up in my rear vision mirror and saw a Me-109 firing at me and lined up with him were four more 109s! No matter what I did I was cold meat on the table! I put my plane in a dive, but not fast enough, and the 109 put a 20 mm shell into the armor plate directly behind my back. I decided that was enough! I pulled the canopy release handle and pulled out of my dive at about 4500 feet. I had started at about 23,000 feet. I crawled out on the wing and hooked my toes on the window sill and at the propitious moment straightened out and left the airplane. I stupidly had been buckling my chute under my Mae West instead of over it. When I pulled the ripcord and the chute opened, the mae west was forced up under my nose so that I couldn't see zip. I heard the roar of the Me-109 going around me. Hell, I thought I was for it now, he was going to shoot me. I probably gave him a bit of humor in his busy life at the Front because I was trying to get the Mae West down from around my face so I could see what the hell was going on. I tried to turn the chute 180 degrees around so that I would have the wind to my back. I hit in a plowed beet field in Holland I found out later. I sat down real hard, hitting butt first and ramming my knees into my chest. I felt a snap in my lower back and the pain was excruciating. I laid flat on my back thinking I might have broken my back. I sat up and the Me-109 was still circling me. He flew by so close I could see his face and he saluted me and buzzed off. He had been busy all this time notifying some Germans at the border station of my location.
I got to my feet and tried to give six or eight Hollanders my parachute but they would have none of it. I walked to a hut at the edge of the field and took off my tank, bib-type, coveralls and my winter flying boots that I wore over my shoes. I looked to my left and there was this huge dumb looking German soldier with a rifle in his hands. He said, in German and with no expression on his face, to come with him. He bundled me into a motorcycle sidecar and put my chute and flying boots on top of me and we drove down a red brick road, about a quarter of a mile to a German border station. I was treated with respect but notified that I was a prisoner and that for me the war was over. I was placed in a brick cell, in a WW I era building by an old man. It was afternoon by now and I started to go into shock. I started perspiring profusely and getting chills. They gave me some ersatz coffee and a slice of bread. At dinner I was given soup, 2 slices of bread and a cup of ersatz coffee. I was terribly cold and they heaped greatcoats over me. The following morning, Sunday, at 10 AM, a big German 1 /Lt. and three soldiers in a recon vehicle arrived and told me to sit up on the back of the seat. The Lt. drove and that son-of-a-gun drove under every low overhanging limb he could, trying to knock me off! I was kept busy ducking limbs of trees, etc. I didn't know it but they were taking me to an Me-110 station outside of Rheine. On the way we looked at a crashed P-38, not mine. We stuck in the mud and he broke the drive train trying to get out, all the time glaring at me as though it was my fault. We ended up walking a mile across a field to some red brick building surrounded by barbed wire. I believe it was a political prisoner prison. I was left at a guard house where they took my cigarettes but allowed me to keep some chewing gum. I asked for water, which they gave me. There were a group of soldiers and some women all playing cards and seemed to be enjoying themselves. At dark a two door Opel vehicle arrived and I was told to get into the back seat with a big burly soldier who kept calling me "gangster" and "Chicago gangster". Again the Lt. drove and he kept getting lost. He didn't know where we were. We eventually got to the Me-110 station near Rheine where I was interrogated from about 05:30 PM to about 08:30. They found my compass and the silk maps in the webbing of my tank jacket. They showed me the passport photo of Gene Stephens. He was one of the four who was killed and they wanted to know who he was because the body had no head when they found it. He had been on fire because the lower left corner of the photograph was scorched. I told them I did not know who he was. I just gave them my name, rank and horse power, (serial no.). They took me to the mess hall which was closed. As we approached the mess hall we passed an Me-110 pilot who saluted me and I returned the salute. The guards got me some bread, table margarine, sausage, and ersatz coffee. I didn't eat the margarine because it tasted badly. The guard insisted I eat the margarine. I motioned that I did not like it. He insisted I eat it, he had a gun, I ate it. I was taken to the front gate guard house where I spent the night sitting up. I was invited to sleep in the guard's bunk room but I couldn't stand the stench so I declined. The guards permitted me to sit up all night then. About 05:30 AM I was given something to eat and placed on a bus that took me and my guard to a railroad station.
We arrived during an air raid. We went into a shelter with civilians and some Hitler Youths, pompous little asses who strutted and preened - really comical. The all clear sounded and we boarded the train and headed for Frankfurt. We arrived at Frankfurt and the guard didn't want to take me on the electric train because he was afraid of having trouble with the civilians. We walked to an interurban electric street car and while walking I noticed the pale, thin look of the civilians. It was quite apparent that they were not getting enough to eat. We boarded the electric car and arrived at Oberursel where I was placed in cell no. 23. There I was interrogated by two different individuals. One was a school teacher from Leipzig, a gentle man. During the next two weeks, they told me all sorts of amazing personal things about me, such as: where I was born, who my parents were, that I had a brother in the navy, where I went to school and what flying schools I'd attended and even my graduating class in the Air Corps. I believe if they had the sense to use it properly they would have gone farther in making a dent in our military capabilities than they did.
I was taken with a number of other prisoners and spent about a week in a transit camp, (Wetzlar). We were loaded on a train for our permanent camp at Barth, Germany, Stalag Luft I. I arrived on the 10th of December 1943 and spent the remainder of my eighteen months of incarceration there. The trip took 4 days and nights and we were each given one half of a Red Cross food parcel. We slept on benches, under benches and on luggage racks, anywhere we could. The toilet facility was a hole in the floor at the end of the car. The filth and stench was terrible with four days of travel. We walked from the railroad station at Barth to the camp. My time at Barth was an incredible experience that I wouldn't want to go through again, but wouldn't trade for anything. It taught me a lot about human nature and my fellow man. The Germans left on the 28th of April 1945 and on the 29th the Russians showed up.
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Robert N. Jensen's tells his story - Reproduced with kind permission of Mr. Robert M. Littlefield, from his book, Double Nickel - Double Trouble (ISBN 0-9623080-3-X)
Bob Jensen relates his experiences: I joined the 338th Fighter Squadron at Portland, Oregon in April 1943. I had graduated from flying school at Williams Field, Arizona with cadet class 43-D. That fall the 55th Ftr. Grp. was shipped to England. I had about 175 hours in the P-38, none of it in preparation for high altitude bomber escort. A few hours transition time in our new planes in England and we went into combat. I have no excuse for being shot down on my 12th mission, but I do feel we had far too little training and were rushed into combat because we had planes capable of long range missions, something sorely needed at that time.
I was tail end Charlie in a three ship flight with Chas. Beall as flight leader and Bill Shank as his wingman on Nov. 13, 1943. The mission was bomber escort, target Bremen, Germany. Before we caught up with the bombers I lost the left engine and dropped out of the flight. I was attacked by a twin engine German fighter but managed to avoid significant damage and may have destroyed him as he went into the clouds smoking. I tried to head for England in the clouds but broke out with an Me-109 on my tail. He set my plane on fire and I bailed out.
I was burned about the face and neck and had shrapnel wounds in my left leg and arm before I bailed out. The chute was damaged by burning bits of my clothing after it opened but I landed relatively softly, a few Kilometers inside Germany straight east of Amsterdam.
I was picked up by German civilians immediately since I could not walk or run. I was taken to a rural schoolhouse where I was picked up that night by German soldiers in a truck. I was taken to a prison in Lingen, Ems, Germany where I received treatment by a French prisoner doctor and received no medical treatment from Germans.
While I was at the prison the only Red Cross medical parcel ever received there came in. It contained some type of sulfa powder. The French doctor used part of the sulfa on the infected leg of an American navigator and part on my face which had become infected. I suspect that my life was saved by that Red Cross medical parcel. After about two months I was able to travel and six of us American prisoners were taken to the interrogation center near Frankfurt. The train trip through the Ruhr Valley was at night and rather exciting as the city we went through was being bombed by the British. Upon arrival at the interrogation center I was placed in a small cell in solitary confinement, as were all prisoners.
The cells were small rooms about 6 by 8 feet in one story wood buildings. The one window was covered by an outside wooden shutter. The door was an ordinary wood door with a hasp and padlock on the outside. I remained at the interrogation center for about a week, and was interrogated about once each day. A guard would bring me from the cell to the interrogation office. The man who interrogated me spoke excellent American with no trace of accent. He was a small man and appeared to be forty or fifty years old. He was always polite and offered me a cigarette each session.
The first time he questioned me he was under the impression I was a bomber pilot and kept asking me what happened to my other crew members. I did nothing to make him think otherwise, but by the second or third session he knew who I was and what outfit I belonged to and the last time I saw him he showed me an aerial photograph of Nuthampstead and pointed out my Nissen hut. He then told me that since I had been shot down for over two months I had no current knowledge and would be released from interrogation and sent to a prison camp. I'm sure he learned a lot by watching my expressions when he told me of others from my squadron who had been shot down, and other intelligence tidbits. I wasn't treated badly except that I was refused medical treatment. One wound in my leg was infected and it worried me. I was told that as soon as I answered questions properly I would be sent to Dulag Luft where I could get medical treatment.
While at the interrogation centre I tried to escape. I had been given the liner to a heated flying suit to wear and I took the electrical connector from the suit apart. I used a piece of metal from the connector to slip through the window shutter and raise the outside latch. A Russian prisoner working on the grounds outside the building saw me and made his way to the window. He gave me a cigarette and two matches, but let me know that I could not get outside the grounds in that direction. I next used the metal piece to take the hinge pins out and had just opened the door on its hasp when I heard the guard walk out to the main hallway. Just as I got out of the cell the guard returned. So much for that.
At Dulag Luft, which was a holding camp where prisoners were kept until sent to a permanent prison camp, I was given clothing and a Red Cross personal care kit which consisted of a razor, blades, soap, toothbrush, tooth powder and a comb. I don't recall more than that. The camp was run by American prisoners under German control, with a mess hall, medical personnel and bomb shelters. It was truly a bit of heaven after the interrogation centre and the prison. After a week or so, a boxcar load of us were shipped to Stalag Luft I at Barth, Germany, where I spent the rest of the war.
The train ride to Barth was not especially enjoyable. The boxcar was crowded and had none of the usually considered necessary amenities. We stopped several times, for from one hour or so to several. Usually when we stopped the guards would open the doors but we were not allowed out. There were no sanitary provisions except buckets which were emptied by prisoner volunteers when we stopped. Drinking water was provided, and we had taken food from Dulag Luft, so it wasn't as bad as some other stories I've heard. We left on Jan. 17, and arrived in Barth on Jan. 20, 1944. We passed through Berlin on the way, but of course couldn't see anything as there were no windows or holes to look through.
On arrival at Barth we were marched to the camp. As we entered the gate I saw a former cadet classmate who recognized me. He told me which barracks he was in and I managed to get myself assigned to that barracks, number 1, just inside the gate and just across from the German offices, the hospital, the "cooler" and the Russian prisoner barracks.
Stalag Luft I had been entirely populated by British airmen before the Americans started coming in. A short time after I arrived an American colonel came in and since he outranked the British camp commander, he took over. There was a rather loose military organization inside the barbed wire. Each barracks was a squadron, with a squadron commander and a small staff. The Germans allowed us to run the camp as long as we obeyed their instructions. A typical day started with outdoor morning roll call by the German guards, then breakfast. Occasionally we would be kept outside after roll call while the barracks was searched. The usual reason for a search was to find escape tunnel entrances, locate forbidden items, or to see that rations were not being stored up in preparation for an escape attempt.
When Red Cross food parcels were available we ate fairly well. When that supply was interrupted we got by on German rations. These usually consisted of hot cereal and ersatz coffee in the morning, a slice of bread with oleomargarine or jam at lunch with more ersatz coffee, and thin soup with another slice of dark bread at night. Occasionally we were given horse meat, rutabagas or potatoes. There was a communal kitchen where the German rations were prepared, then delivered to the various barracks. Any other food, including that from Red Cross food parcels, was prepared in the barracks rooms, usually on makeshift stoves and using homemade pots, pans and dishes. There were times when we had no Red Cross food parcels. At that time the camp kitchen put out soup or barley each day at noon. The barley was in the form of a boiled whole-grain cereal, and was sent to each block (barracks) in five gallon cans. The block ration officer rationed it out to each room, and when ready, he gave the call, "Barley up!". This brought an avalanche of hungry Kriegies storming down the hall with every available can or bowl. The barley was eaten with salt as a soup, or if sugar was to be had, it was eaten as a cereal, or made into a pudding or cake.
Red Cross food parcels were supposed to be provided on a basis of one per week but we seldom got them regularly. After the Germans left and we took over the camp, just before the war ended, we discovered a lot of evidence of Red Cross food parcels at the Flak Training School near our camp. This confirmed our suspicions that some of the food parcels were consumed by the Germans. We also occasionally got Canadian or British Red Cross food parcels. An American parcel contained:
|2 oz.||Instant coffee|
|12 oz.||Canned corned beef|
|16 oz.||Powdered milk (Klim)|
|6 oz.||Liver pate|
|8 oz.||Canned salmon|
|16 oz.||Raisins or prunes|
|8 oz.||Cheese (Velveeta)|
|8 oz.||Chocolate (D ration bar)|
|4 oz.||Jam or marmalade|
In addition to the Red Cross parcels we sometimes received personal parcels or cigarette parcels sent from home, but this was pretty rare. Cigarettes were a medium of exchange and non-smokers who got them were considered rich. Some prices were:
|D Ration bar (chocolate)||50|
|Sugar (8 oz.)||50|
|Bouillon cubes (6)||30|
Occasionally prisoners would put on a show with original music, terrific acting and a lot of talent. Some sports equipment was provided by American support organizations so the sports minded could do their thing. A rather scantily supplied library provided some reading material. Some prisoners provided classes in one thing or another. Card playing was probably the most common pastime. Beds were straw filled mattresses on wooden bunks. Much time was spent fashioning necessities such as pots, pans and dishes out of tin cans or whatever was available. Ingenious contraptions for cooking, lighting and housekeeping proliferated.
Bedtime came early in the cold winter months since fuel was scarce and lights even more so. Guards with dogs patrolled outside the barracks and when window shutters were open on warm summer evenings the dogs would sometimes attempt to visit. A bath house provided infrequent showers. Laundry was done by hand when water was available. When I first arrived at the camp separate latrine buildings were in use but one indoor facility was installed in our barracks about a year later.
We were liberated by the Russians at war's end.
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Gevorkian and Kester's story - Reproduced with kind permission of Mr. Robert M. Littlefield, from his book, Double Nickel - Double Trouble (ISBN 0-9623080-3-X)
Lts. Gevorkian and Kester crash landed their P-51s on the same beach in southern France and evaded through Spain together.
Part of Gevorkian and Kester's story is related by Monsieur A. Auger, a Frenchman, who aided them: "The 26th of August 1944, I was on my way to Cap Ferret to see my parents. Suddenly, at the cemetery, I saw a soldier in uniform in the distance coming this way. Thinking it was a German (even though they had left Cap Ferret at the beginning of August), I jumped into a ditch. The soldier did exactly the same thing. That's when I discovered that he was an American soldier.
"Relieved, and as happy as I, the man tried to explain to me in his language that he was a pilot, and, showing me his scarf which was his navigating map, was going to Cherbourg. (This was actually a silk escape map that was carried by all U.S. aircrew members.) He explained as best he could that he and another pilot, (Kester), were caught in a thunderstorm and that their compasses went berserk. I then showed him on his scarf where he was and explained to him that, without knowing it, he had crossed a mine field! It is a miracle that the man didn't blow up because, except for a few paths, the beach was covered with mines."
Mademoiselle Marcelle Mora relates her story of the incident: "The 26th of August, (1944), we all rushed to the beach to see the planes, out of gas, one behind the other, 3/4 of a kilometer apart. With all my friends we hugged the pilots, posed for a picture in front of the airplanes. I remember the pilots were taken care of by the FFI, (the French Resistance Group), of Cap Ferret."
Lts. Gevorkian and Kester were turned over to Monsieur Guy Schyler, of Alfred Schyler Fils & Co., Bordeaux, and Prince Stanislas Poniatowski, who in 1939 was President and General Manager of Hispano-Suiza, SA., a French company that built gasoline engines and the famous "Moteur Cannon". He had been jailed by the Germans for refusing to aid the German war effort.
Monsieur Guy Schyler now picks up the story: "On August 26th, 1944, I received a call from Colonel De Luze, commanding officer of the F.F.I. (French Forces of Interior - Maquis), to inform me that the planes that had been cruising around the Arcachon Bay were now flying north, then south, that one of them flew out of sight facing the ocean, and the two others had crash landed on the beach, a few kilometers from the small village of Lege-Cap Ferret adjacent to the Bay of Arcachon. Colonel De Luze having asked me to investigate, I in turn called Prince Stanislas Poniatowski. We sailed for the spot where both aircraft had pancaked. We were living on the opposite side of the bay.
"Sam and John told us they had lost their formation because of a heavy storm, and were surprised not to find mountains printed on their scarf (escape map), after the estuary of the Loire. They were completely lost, having no idea where they were and practically no more petrol in their tanks. They also were not aware that there were a good many Germans at Royan as well as at Le Verdon, so they did not perform any attack on them, whereas the Germans thought they had better keep quiet unless the American pilots might well bring some trouble should they attempt shooting at the planes!
"An F.F.I. group joined us, wishing to recover the guns as well as munitions, which were useless because they were specially designed for the airplane. I myself took the compass, even though also of no use. Both aircraft were on the ocean side of the beach, so we had to climb a small sand dune to reach the beach on the Arcachon Bay side where our boat was anchored. Sam, John, Poniatowski and myself, crossed the bay to our homes. The Poniatowski family were direct neighbors to my mother.
"Next morning I contacted Major Xavier de Laborde Noguez, whom I had asked to join us at Bordeaux to organize the return of the Americansto their base through Spain. Xavier was then with the F.F.I. fighting the battle of Medoc under command of General de Larminat. Xavier, as well l as Poniatowski and de Luze are all now dead Xavier had organized, during the German occupation, a Resistance group specializing in getting French or foreigners out of France through Spain and forwarding information to London. As mentioned above, the German forces, having left Bordeaux and, in general, the Aquitaine region, there was then no need to hide our American friends."
Lt. Gevorkian told the interrogator in London: "My fighter plane, and that of 2nd Lt. John E. Kester, landed on Cap Ferret, W. of Bordeaux, on 26 Aug 44. We were both put up at the house of Prince Stanley Poniatowski, Villa Hyowawa, Boul de L'Ocean, Arcachon, for 12 days, a very well known man to the Resistance and acting mayor of Arcachon. Then we were taken by Guy Schuyler, who lived next door, to Bordeaux, where we stayed 2 days at the home of M. DuBreille, FFI Member, known to Mlle. F. Rauly, 23 Rue des Villas, Cauderan (Gironde). M. Xavier Testas arranged for us to be sent to Hendaye, and we were taken there by M. et Mme. Gabriel Testas. From here we went to Gastes to pick up a number of other Americans and British (Volz, Walsh and Christ), all now returned to duty, and then joined A!lied control on about 10 September."
The procedure if near the Spanish Costa Brava was to take the evader through the French/Spanish border to Barcelona, where he was hidden in a safe house, of which there were a good many in the city. There Tom Forsythe, of the American Consulate, took over to get the airman back to England, usually through Gibraltar.
John Potter, counterintelligence for the O.S.S. in Spain and Portugal, remembers "double crossing" things he dealt with in Andorra, the tiny (191 sq. m.) republic in the eastern Pyrenees, such as receiving word that, "I've got four aviators hidden in the mountains. Twenty thousand pesatas each ($2,190.) is wanted or they go back to the Germans." Mr. Potter said that in counterintelligence work, one does not deal with choir boys!
Lt. Kester was killed, 14 Jan. 1945, strafing a German airdrome. Major Gevorkian was killed in a P-51 accident, 7 Aug. 1945, in southern Germany. In 1982, Ailes Anciennes, a French non-profit organization that works to save historic aircraft, recovered Gevorkian's and Kester's P-51s from under tons of beach sand for restoration.
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George Korinek relates his experiences- Reproduced with kind permission of Mr. Robert M. Littlefield, from his book, Double Nickel - Double Trouble (ISBN 0-9623080-3-X)
George Korinek relates his experiences: Our fighter group had been assigned escort duty to protect a B-17 bombing mission in Germany. This part of the mission was uneventful and we didn't experience much enemy action other than flak. At this time I had 60 plus missions and 285 combat flying hours. After our rendezvous with the bombers, we were relieved by another fighter group and began our return to our base at Wormingford, England. Since we had not been bounced by enemy fighters and had not dropped our belly tanks, we had plenty of fuel left and so requested permission to hit targets of opportunity. The request was granted. From our altitude I had previously noticed a freight train heading for Paris. I took my flight down and made a strafing run on the train. About four cars behind the locomotive my machine guns hit an ammunition car which exploded. I pulled up to avoid the explosion and in doing so saw several German Me-109's parked in a pasture at the edge of a wooded area. I went down to tree-top level to strafe them and caught ground fire. It hit my left engine which caught fire. I managed to strafe the gun crew firing at me before I bailed out at low altitude.'
"bailed out at a low altitude," is a very modest understatement. Korinek almost lost his life! The official encounter report submitted by a member of his flight, Lt. Wayne Lanham, states: "Lt. Korinek had been strafing a locomotive and was hit by flak while strafing a plane on an airdrome. Lt. Korinek bailed at 300 feet and his chute opened at about 100 feet." (or lower!)
I was downed near Evereux, France, west of Paris. I'd landed in a grain field and hid there for several hours while German soldiers searched for me. On their second combing of the field, about ten young Wehrmacht soldiers saw me and fired several shots at the ground along side me and, needless to say, I surrendered! They put me aboard a 6 x 6 truck and took me to their operations headquarters several miles away. In route the truck passed through a dense forest. Several of the soldiers who had been talking among themselves didn't notice some low, overhanging branches and were swept off the truck. In spite of my predicament, I found this so funny that I broke out in laughter. The soldiers were so young and inexperienced that they seemed more embarrassed by this than disturbed. After picking up the soldiers who had been brushed off we continued on our way.
After we reached their headquarters I was interrogated by German flying officers, who could not speak English. They had an enlisted man who knew enough English to translate for them. I feigned ignorance, but since I had studied German in college, I knew enough to better prepare my answers as they asked for information concerning my unit and mission. After this attempted interrogation, I was sent to a jail house in Evereux. I was placed in a cell with some crew members from a shot down B-17. Several of these men had been badly injured with compound fractures but we were prevented from helping them by an armed guard.
The following day I was transported to Chartres, France, where I saw more American prisoners from downed B-17s. We were paraded through the streets to the derision of the French people. We were then transported to Paris by motor lorry and put on a train there to Frankfurt am Main for further interrogation. I was impressed by their intelligence organization, for they knew more about me and my family than I could have ever imagined. (Hanns Scharff interrogated Lt. Korinek on July 11, 1944.)
I spent eleven days in solitary confinement and was constantly interrogated. I was then sent by train to Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany, for permanent incarceration. I spent a little over seven months there. On January 20, 1945, we were forced to evacuate our camp and march through the countryside, deep in snow, for several days. About three or four days after the march we were loaded in 40 x 8 box cars enroute to Stammlager VII A, at Moosburg, near Munich.
We were liberated on April 27, 1945 by General Patton's 14th Armored Division. Our treatment by the Germans was satisfactory considering that we were prisoners. Regimentation and the lack of food and boredom were our biggest problems. We were always hungry and I went from 166 pounds to 115 at the time of my release.
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Victor LaBella relates his experiences (338th FS) - Reproduced with kind permission of Mr. Robert M. Littlefield, from his book, Double Nickel - Double Trouble (ISBN 0-9623080-3-X)
We were on a bomber escort mission to Berlin. About twenty minutes into Germany my right engine began to lose power. I turned towards home and my good engine began to lose power too and I started a descent. I descended to the tops of the cloud-cover at about fifteen hundred feet and decided to leave the airplane. I turned her over (upside down) and bailed out. I landed in a large cultivated field and immediately got picked up by the Home Guard. They had rifles and held me until some regular military took me to a local town and threw me in the hoosegow. The next day a Luftwaffe enlisted man accompanied me on a train ride to the interrogation center near Frankfurt am Main at Oberursel. The scariest part of this trip was that our 8th Air Force had bombed the train station that very day, so they stopped the train a few miles out of Frankfurt and all the passengers were put on busses. Here I was amongst all these people who were going in to check on their loved ones. My guard was very indifferent to my concern and I frankly stayed as close to him as possible. These people knew who I was and looks of hate and loud talking with threatening gestures alarmed me. I'd heard stories of how German civilians had killed downed airmen. I knew that my lone guard could never protect me even if he wanted to. After a slow agonizing ride we arrived in Frankfurt where I was taken to the interrogation center and thrown into solitary for two days. They fed me soup and black bread. I was brought before an interrogator who spoke perfect English and told me how he'd attended some college in California. I guess I was brought before him two or three times in which he asked me a few questions. After a few more days I was put in a box car with a lot of others and sent to Stalag Luft I.
I think I was in the south compound, block 14. There I ran into Joe Marsiglia, White, Ernest George and a couple of fellows with whom I'd gone to flight training school. After the long miseries of prison life we knew that the war was coming to an end and one day all the guards were gone. Some of our fellows took off and others remained. We had a lot of German women that were frantically trying to get into the compound with us. They were terrified of the advancing Russian army. When the Russians started arriving, they were not the regulars but a group of undisciplined, badly dressed, raggedy-assed of hoodlums. They went into town and were breaking into the homes and taking whatever they wanted, including cash and valuables, raped women and generally terrorizing the local populace. I believe this was actually planned by the Russians so that when the main body of the army came in, about three days later, and established discipline, the local people having undergone such horrible experiences that they were psychologically beaten into submission and would accept the new troops as their protectors.
When the Russians came into the camp we were treated very well. They rounded up some live stock from the local area and brought them into the camp, slaughtered them, and we had our first fresh meat since taken prisoner. I had been there fourteen months and some of the RAF pilots had been there for four or five years.
Our commanders, theirs and ours, asked that we stay in the camp, because we were going to be picked up. I don't know this to be a fact, but I heard that some of the Americans that didn't stay, that took off walking or by bicycle, you know how Americans are, especially after being imprisoned, were never heard of again. Well, shortly, B-17s came and flew us down to Camp Lucky Strike. We were there a week or ten days. Some of us took off for Paris. After being in prison we wanted to eat, drink and be merry ---- and be bred, (laughter). I think I fooled around in Paris for ten or fifteen days. Ernest George was with me and we then returned to Lucky Strike. Things were rather loose, the fellas were going into French towns or catching plane rides back to England. I eventually returned to the States by ship.
I stayed in the service and retired in 1963.
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Mission" - Capt. Bert McDowell Jr. tells his story. - Reproduced with
kind permission of Mr. Robert M. Littlefield, from his book, Double Nickel -
Double Trouble (ISBN 0-9623080-3-X)
I learned the importance of freedom the hard way! Our fighter group had a policy of the, three squadrons taking turns going back into Germany to look for "targets of opportunity" when escorting our bombers back from the target. On this mission it was the 338th's time and down we went from the 30,000-foot assigned level to 8,500 feet where we could more easily see enemy truck convoys, airfields, oil tanks and other choice targets.
I spotted an airfield in southern Germany (near Gerolshofen), called it out over the radio and down we went as fast as our "Mustangs" would go, coming in over the airfield fence at about 20 feet with the airspeed needle on the 400-miles-an-hour mark, all six guns on each plane blazing away.
I could feel the German shells from ground guns hitting my plane but had no idea how severe the damage. I lined up on a Junkers 88, a twin-engine bomber, and through the thousands of "red golf balls" coming at me from both sides, I could see my bullets hitting the JU-88 and setting it on fire. Just before I got to it, the plane blew up. Instinctively, I ducked my head and pulled back slightly on the stick to pass over the burning wreckage.
After flying for almost ten minutes, the engine froze. Wheels and flaps up, I set my P-51 down almost perfectly and came to a sudden stop. I was out and running for a wooded area, waving to my buddies who were circling above me to let them know I was O.K. When darkness settled in, with snow on the ground, I walked on muddy back roads all night. As dawn broke, I hid in another woods. It rained all that day, a bitter, cold, steady rain. I never spent a more miserable time in my life. I had no hat and was wearing summer underwear!
When dark enough to travel, I started walking towards the Allied lines and passed Germans who were coming home from work or shopping. The blackout was in effect, of course, so people appeared as dark forms. I walked all night again and just before dawn hid in another forest. I was awakened by voices. Looking cautiously from under my bush, I stared into the wrong end of two German Lugers. Two S.S. soldiers! One shouted: "Raus! Raus!", which I understood to mean, "Get the hell out of there." The taller of the two said in broken English: "You are lucky ... vor you der vor iss ovfer."
I was marched to a tiny village a couple of miles away to their detachment headquarters. There the German S.S. soldier who spoke English asked if I was hungry. I replied, "Ja!". He gave me a hot bowl of potato soup, two slices of black bread and a cup of ersatz (artificial) coffee. I wolfed it down.
The commander sent for a local female school teacher who spoke English and asked me many questions, such as where were the other members of my crew, what target did we bomb, where was our base in England, what type of plane were we flying, etc. Each time I answered by giving my name, rank, serial number and reminding her that this was in accordance with the Geneva Convention, to which Germany was a signatory member. She gave up and I was put in the cellar of a small house. No dinner that night. No breakfast the next morning.
Escorted by two guards, we walked five or six miles to a railroad station in a small village. While sitting in the tiny station, a small boy of about eight, who was with his mother, kept staring at me. Finally, he walked over to me, pulled out a cheese sandwich from a brown paper bag and offered it to me. I said "Dunker" (thank you, one of the few German words I knew). I almost cried, I was so overwhelmed by this gesture of generosity and friendliness to a prisoner of war.
We boarded the train for the hour's ride to Mannheim. There we rode a trolley car to the end of the line, then walked some four miles to an airfield, where I was imprisoned for two days, then transferred to the Luftwaffe interrogation center at Oberursel, a suburb of Frankfurt. There I spent 11 miserable days and 10 nights in solitary confinement while being interrogated.
They told me that I could not tell them anything that they did not already know. On the evening of 22 February 1945, about 50 of us were taken to the Frankfurt Banhof (railroad station). We were sitting on the floor when we heard the air raid sirens scream. Soon the eerie sound of falling bombs interrupted our thoughts ... RAF bombers were bombing the city! The railroad marshaling yard took a terrible beating but NOT ONE BOMB DROPPED ON THE BANHOF! The Good Lord answered our prayers!
After waiting seven hours for another freight train (the one we were scheduled to take was blasted to smithereens), we climbed aboard boxcars for the intermediate staging camp at Wetzlar. European boxcars are tiny when compared to American ones. There were 44 of us crammed into each boxcar, which meant we had to take turns sitting and standing. We were issued one can of meat and one loaf of bread, plus some water, for each six men. The meat was spoiled and we became violently ill. It was a nightmarish two-day and two-night journey ... an unbelievable mess!
About four days later, it was off to my first permanent P.O.W. camp at Nuremberg, also by boxcar. We were marched from the railroad yards to the camp, Stalag 13-D (I was in Compound 8). At 11 a.m. on 4 April 1945, we were informed that we were leaving camp at 1 p.m. and to be ready to march. Promptly at 1 p.m. down the road we marched, 8,000 of us, in a column of threes, with German guards and police dogs on each side of the column.
After three hours we were spotted by some American P-47 "Thunderbolt" fighter-bombers. They attacked us with 500-pound bombs and strafed us with their eight .50-caliber machine guns. It was sheer panic -- every man for himself!
After it was over, there were dead and dying all over the place. Among those killed (I counted 12 in my immediate area) were some who had been captured in North Africa in 1942 and had been through all kinds of hell ... forced marches in snow, half starved, and now this.
We marched all that night, in the rain, and all the next day in the rain until 11 p.m. before we finally stopped for the night, lying on the ground, trying to sleep. Every now and then we were given ten-minute rest stops. We walked into Stalag VII-A, Moosburg, Germany, near Munich, on 20 April 1945, we could hear the rumble of tanks of General George S. Patton's Third Army in the valley. A P.O.W. climbed up the flagpole at the main gate, threw down the Nazi swastika flag, then hauled up the Stars and Stripes. There were very few dry eyes among the newly liberated prisoners that morning!
My experience taught me something I had previously taken for granted ... how very precious is freedom. And food. And cleanliness. And warmth. And sanitation. Never before had I given any thought to having clean clothes waiting for me when I got out of the shower. But I do now, even after some 45 years
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A profile of Wes Tibbetts - By
Chet Patterson (Reproduced from the 55th Fighter Group and 442nd Air Service
Group Association Newsmagazine, December, 1988, Volume One, Issue Nine)
Several people told me to read the book Goodbye Mickey Mouse. It is a great story and I highly recommend it for it is very close portrayal of the men who composed a fighter squadron. One particular scene is about two fighter pilots who had too much to drink one night and what happened to them as a result of their overindulgence. That made me think of Wes Tibbetts and a similar night we shared.
Wes was a very fine looking fellow and almost the maximum size allowed for a fighter pilot. While in college he became a light middle weight boxer and won the Gold Gloves championship for Iowa. If you have ever boxed, you know this is no simple feat.
When I joined the 55th Fighter Group in Portland, Wes had been there and had come in with the new fresh lieutenants who were the class ahead of me. It included Joe Myers, Giller, Ryan, Marsiglia et al.
I liked Wes but he was never in my crowd. We never double-dated (although I am sure that the girls we no problem for him – he was very handsome man as you can see in the picture.) We were just friends in the early days but, as time went on, and especially when we were in combat, we became closer.
Wes was just a quiet and great guy. He did have something that I am not sure you would say made him special, but it did make him a “one and only” as far as anyone else I have ever met. By swallowing air, he was able to pass wind at almost any time. Somehow he decided it would be a great trick to pass wind in the form of Morse Code. If you don’t recall the sound of Morse Code, it is: A…dit…daaa B..daa..dit.dit.dit C:Daa.dit.daa.dit and so on down the alphabet.
Everyone got to know Wes for there was always a new officer coming in to the group. Eventually one of the old timers would say, “We have a guy that can fart the alphabet”. Naturally the new man would say you are crazy and a bet of some kind was bound to follow. The old timer would then come and get Wes and lead him to the fellow who would bet against him. I saw this happen in our room at night, at the Officers’ Club, and even in London when we were on R&R. Wes always seemed pleased to show the new man his unique talent and certainly never wanted any of the bet money. His demonstrations would always gather a crowd and his performance was always followed by tons of laughter.
Wes and I went overseas with the 55th and were stationed at Nuthampstead. There was a fair sized Quonset hut that contained the officers of the 338th and the flight leaders. That would be Sqd. Co.: Busching, Exec: Jones, Adj: Hall, S-2: Gabbert, Doc Garnett and the four flight leaders, Patterson, Beal, Marsiglia, and Tibbetts.
The night of the story, we had been flying out of Nuthampstead long enough to have some tough losses. Wes and I had both been flying every day for a week, trying to put up all the planes we could, filling in for some of the fellows who were ill. About 6pm that evening we got a call that there was to be an all out effort the next morning. Neither of us had been scheduled to fly, but after Doc and Bushing had checked around, they found they were short of a couple of pilots. So Wes and I volunteered.
We had all planned to go out that evening to something special, a Danny Kaye Show. So at about 8pm everyone took off but Wes and me. Both of us felt we needed the rest to be ready for combat the next day.
About 9pm we got a phone call saying the mission had been cancelled due to bad weather. Wes and I were so happy we got out of bed and started shooting the breeze. At that time I never touched a drop of liquor for I always wanted to beat my opponent and I would rather go in to combat with him having a hangover (, rather) than me. I knew I wasn’t going to give him any advantage. Wes was the same for he had been a great athlete and there is no place for liquor when you want to be in top shape.
Both of us had given our combat liquor to Busching and knew that he stored it in his footlocker. Somehow in shooting the breeze we decided it would be a good idea to celebrate tonight and have just a shot of bourbon. We put in enough bourbon to sufficiently fill the bottoms of our very large canteen cups and proceeded to have a drink. Well, let me tell you, if you never have any liquor and you drink it straight with no water, it arrives at the top of your head The first drink hit our funny bone and each drink thereafter seemed to hit a higher level of funny bone. We kept this up until the two of us drank the whole quart (they were quarts in those days). I remember that we were sitting at a picnic-style table with the cross supports you had to stop over to get out. Well neither one of us could step out and the last thing I remembered was crawling (there was no way I could walk!) back to my bed and into my sleeping bag.
I was vaguely aware of being slapped in the face and lots of turmoil going on around me, but I was in too deep a stupor to respond.
A day later when I came to, Doc Garnett told me the rest of the story. When they came back form the show that evening, they found Wes drunkenly trying to get in bed with me muttering, “The only way we’re going to get through this is to stick together”. They had a helluva time getting Wes away from me and Doc was slapping me, trying to get me to wake up. When he couldn’t wake me and saw that Wes was in such bad shape, he knew we weren’t merely intoxicated but in need of immediate medical attention.
He rushed us both to the hospital and had our stomachs pumped out. When I finally woke up almost a day later, I can remember the terrible terrible task it was just to open my eyes. What pain. And there was Wes in the next bed. Normally I think I would have laughed under the circumstances, but this was no laughing matter.
I often wonder if I would have lived if Doc hadn’t been in the room. Someone else probably would have just got Wes to bed and figured we would sleep it off. Doc said there was no way we would have made it with the lack of tolerance we had for liquor.
We stayed in the hospital another day and by that time we could laugh about it. We both thanked Doc Garnett for saving our lives. I certainly would have felt bad to be shot down by a bottle of bourbon.
Wes Tibbetts was shot down on a flight to (Gotha). That was a day we lost a number of pilots. A day that it was a tough show. We never heard from Wes on the radio and as far as I know he just disappeared. Was it flak? Did he call on the radio and it was jammed so we didn’t hear him? If by chance there is life after death then I want him to know that I still think of him and miss him saying “good-bye”.
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Lt. Bradford R. Wilkholm's story - Reproduced with kind permission of Dan Henry
I’d known since Annette & I dated that her uncle had been killed in WWII while serving as a pilot. Annette’s father Wilbur would tell me from time to time pieces of information about his brother Brad. I knew Brad was a P-38 fighter pilot in the Army Air Force. He was missing in action in Germany or France in March of 1944 and later declared killed in action, after the war Brad was returned to the U.S. for burial in Jan of 1949.
I also wanted to know Brad’s story but Brad’s siblings and widow Mary Ellen who had never remarried were all alive and well and I was a little concerned about what they might think of me digging into Brad’s service and ultimate death.
2nd Lt. Bradford R Wikholm was a pilot of a Lockheed P-38J “Lightening” fighter plane in the U S Army Air force during WWII. This was a single seat aircraft that was heavily armed with four 50 caliber machine guns and one 20mm cannon all mounted in the nose of the plane. It was the first fighter plane to reach and exceed 400 miles an hour in airspeed. The P-38 stood out from other fighters as it had a dual tail, in fact the Germans sometimes referred to it as the “fork tailed devil.” Lt. Brad Wikholm’s service # was 0-753770. Brad was assigned to the 338th Fighter Squadron as part of the 55th Fighter Group.
I learned that each fighter squadron usually had 25 or so planes attached to it with 16 flying per mission with an occasional spare or two. The rest would be grounded for service or possible repair due to battle damage. This would mean that the entire 55th would field about 50 aircraft per mission on average.
The 55th was very active as their record shows & Brad flew a number of missions during his time with the group. Brad was the pilot of P-38 tail # 42-67989. On March 18th, 1944 a major bombing mission was launched, the main target being Friedrichshafen, Germany. This mission involved nearly 2000 aircraft including bombers & fighter escorts including the 55th.
All of the bomber groups did not bomb the same target as some groups were split off to other nearby targets as part of the same overall mission. They encountered fierce opposition & losses were heavy as 43 bombers & 13 fighters were lost to enemy aircraft & flak.
The bombers successfully dropped their bombs & were on their return flight near the German town of Gottenheim not far from the French & German border when they were attacked from fresh German fighters including both FW-190 & Messerschmitt or ME-109 fighter planes. The 55th engaged the German fighters & tried to lure them or chase them away from the bomber formation in order to protect them from further loss when Brad’s P-38 was hit by enemy fire. I finally received Brads missing aircrew report or MACR # 3100 and it contained some graphic details of Brads final moments on the mission. Capt. Val Bollwerk was the flight leader for the 338th fighter squadron for that days mission and his statement is included in Brad’s Missing Air Crew Report. Capt. Bollwerk indicated he was the last witness to see Brad’s plane. His statement reads as follows:
“2nd Lt. Bradford R Wikholm was flying in my flight, we were in the target area and engaged with enemy aircraft. He was hit in the right engine and started burning. He dived and put the fire out. The enemy aircraft were chased away from him. He was going down and to the west apparently all right for he had the aircraft under control at apparently 6000 ft. I was then bounced by 4 enemy aircraft and lost him. This was the last I saw of him and he was not under attack by enemy aircraft when I last sighted him. I did not see him bail out and I believe he defiantly had the aircraft under control when I last saw him.” It also included a hand drawn map of the approx area where Lt. Wikholm’s plane was last seen near Gottenheim, Germany close to the French border city of Colmar located in the Alsace region of France. Some records said Brad went down near Gottenheim, Germany and others later mentioned France. I know Brad was recovered from France so it was clear that the U.S. Army simply did not know for some time just where Brad’s plane had gone down. Anyhow Capt. Bollwerk lost sight of Brad when he peeled off to evade & engage the German fighters and no other American pilots or aircrews witnessed what happened to Brad. He never returned to England nor did he ever turn up as a POW. So Brad was declared as missing in action for about two years. He wasn’t declared killed in action until two years later in 1946. The day that Brad was lost I knew from earlier research that he was the only loss for the 55th on that day. After Germany surrendered the U.S. military began earnestly searching for our missing and dead servicemen. The U.S. Army was contacted by villagers in and around Hohwarth/St. Pierre Bois, France that an American airman was buried in a local church cemetery. They eventually sent an Army graves and registration recovery unit into the area and investigated this along with numerous other claims and found it was true and exhumed Brads remains and interned him at the new U.S. Military Cemetery at St Avold, Metz, France. In January 1949 he was returned to the U.S. and interned in the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Mateo near San Francisco, California in plot l/6 8155 on Jan 6th, 1949.
My research results were beginning to slow down despite the fact that I had found what I thought were several key pieces of information. I had a number of replies from my posted queries on the Internet but they were not producing much new info at this point. I went back to some sites that I had visited before or thought I had when I found that someone else had posted a query asking if anybody knew Lt. Bradford Wikholm and that he wanted to be contacted. It was posted nearly seven years ago and had sat unanswered all that time but I was still hopeful & excited to answer it & told this person he hit the jackpot.
He emailed me the very next day & told me he had a propeller from Brad’s plane wreckage in his private collection and wanted info on Brad. He was in France & knew several details about Brad including the correct aircraft tail # and other facts that convinced me he was not pulling my leg. His name is Patrick Baumann from the village of Holtzwihr.
Patrick is a wine salesman and represents a local grower in the area so he travels throughout the region a lot and has made many contacts and friends over the years and he is an avid WWII historian who is especially interested in the air war. His hobby over the last 20 years is to research and locate WWII aircraft crash sites in the Alsace region of France. His goal is to research every known site in that region.
Patrick also heads the Association of the Aerial Remembrances of East France. He often donates remnants of plane crash sites to nearby and sometimes far away museums. In the case of Brad’s propeller Patrick tells the story of how he drove by a home in the region that had this propeller propped up in their garden and Patrick just had to have it. The owner wouldn’t part with it but after Patrick had stopped by a few times asking about how the guy obtained it he finally agreed to part with it but Patrick had to trade another piece of aircraft wreckage for it.
He offered to run an ad in the local newspaper to attempt to locate any witnesses who remembered that day long ago.
Patrick and I exchanged emails & info several times & we both were excited when he received letters from two witnesses who saw Brads final moments above & Brads plane crash. They stated that they watched as the smoke from Brad’s plane stopped as the fire appeared to have been extinguished but then Brad was jumped by two German fighters both of which were model ME-109’s. Brad was somehow able to out maneuver one German pilot & shoot him down. That German crashed landed a few miles away but the pilot survived it although we have not yet discovered his identity. Patrick’s research has since identified these pilots as belonging to German fighter group JG-106. In maneuvering to shoot down an enemy plane you would often try to position yourself behind the other plane to achieve a premium position to shoot him down. Based on one witnesses account and the physical evidence from a propeller from Brads P-38 that was salvaged from the crash site it appears that Brad and the German pilot now identified as Lt. Broo at one point found their planes coming face to face and engaged each other. The one propeller from Brad’s P-38 that Patrick now owns has two bullet holes entering from the front and exiting out the rear. As I understand at this point and admit I have yet to clarify is that the propeller only mounts facing one way. This would collaborate the witness who stated that he saw them fly at each other firing their guns. Brads aircraft apparently was hit again as his plane was again on fire or maybe the original damaged area reignited and started trailing smoke again. The German pilot Lt. Broo for whatever reason broke of the engagement and did not pursue Brad the last few moments before Brad crashed. Maybe he knew that Brad’s plane was so severely damaged that Brad was no longer a threat or maybe he was low on fuel. Either way he did not follow Brad all the way down which the pursuing pilots sometimes did if possible to ensure a confirmed victory. Captured German Luftwaffe records show Lt. Broo’s engagement with Brad was credited to him as a “probable victory” not a confirmed victory. Regardless the witnesses said they watched as Brad flew over an old castle on a hilltop across a wide valley past their homes flying right toward the old St. Gilles Church sitting on the opposite hill top. They watched nervously as Brads P-38 narrowly missed it passing just over the church steeple. Just as he passed the church steeple he rolled his P-38 over so it was upside down and dropped out of it “bailing out”. They saw two “pilots” fall out of the plane and later found that the second pilot was actually a life raft that was positioned behind Brad in the cock pit and automatically dropped out with the pilot. But many witnesses thought that two pilots bailed out. P-38 pilots had to bail out in an upside down position and drop out of the cockpit as the aircraft had a dual tail and a stabilizer that spanned in between that they were likely to strike if they bailed in an upright position. Anyhow they lost sight of both Brad and the aircraft as they both disappeared behind the hilltop and church but heard a dull whoop as the aircraft crashed into the far hillside out of view. Then seconds later they saw the smoke rising in the distance from the burning wreckage.
By ironic fate Brad’s picture appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 15th 1944 just 3 days before his loss. It shows Brad sitting in the cockpit of his plane with Lt. Orville Goodman kneeling on the wing talking to Brad before a mission. Its caption reads “California Pilots in England”. Since Capt. Val Bollwerk was the last to see Brad’s plane & did not actually see Brad shot down or crash there was no official record of his death for U S Army until he was recovered after the war. Therefore Brad was listed as Missing In Action or MIA until 1946 when he was declared dead. Since no American military personal witnessed Brad’s dogfight with the two German planes he does not receive any official credit for shooting down or forcing down the ME-109 either. This no doubt happened to a number of pilots during the war.
Patrick also received a letter from Mrs. Irene Meyer the widow of the former mayor of Hohwarth. Mrs. Meyer’s husband had two photographs of Brad, in these photos Brad is in civilian clothes and they are apparently his escape & evasion photos. Pilots carried these in case they were shot down behind enemy lines & survived they might be able to use them to make false id’s and passports to escape. Mrs. Meyer sent these to Patrick who in turn sent them to me via email. Mrs. Meyer does not know where her husband got the photos but fortunately they kept them for 59 years and never discarded them. Mrs. Meyer also included a photograph of Brads original grave in St. Gilles Church Cemetery apparently taken immediately after his burial showing it completely covered in flowers including a large floral wreath hung over the cross marking his grave. In that photo there’s also a woman with two children standing behind the cross. The back of the photo had the following written on it: “Bradford Wikholm 18/03/44. Jeanne, sister of Lucien, of Direction (or of Lens?)”
Patrick went to the town to meet a couple of witnesses & then went to the actual crash site along with his friend Lt. Col. Le Clair Yves of the French Air Force & with a couple others they used a metal locator to find & dig up fragments of the plane & sent several of those fragments back to the U.S. to me. I have those fragments in my home and after sixty years it’s just amazing to have parts of Brads plane sitting on my desk. I gave a number of these to Brads widow Mary Ellen and his siblings.
A new and most informative and the closest involved eyewitness came foward named Fernand Huber who was 13 years old at the time. He including his wife Annette who was also a child at the time and the others we later met at the memorial gave us the following additional information. “It was the afternoon of March 18, 1944. It was a beautiful day and dry, many people were busy cutting their vines (this is wine country). I heard and saw an armada of allied bombers on their way returning toward England when the Luftwaffe attacked them. The attack started while they were still on the German side of the Rhine River heading towards France. Fernand himself saw several aircraft shot down that day alone. He mentioned how three bombers went down on the German side of the Rhine and two came down on the French side of the river. One came down near the town of Muttersholtz and the other close to Chatenois. The attack was fierce and included both German fighters FW 190’s and Messerschmitt or ME-109’s. Suddenly an American P-38 was coming down with his engine on fire. His plane was approaching dangerously close to St Gilles Church. At about that distance the pilot bailed out with the villagers below watching closely. They thought that two pilots bailed out but later realized the second pilot was just a life raft. Sadly Brad was too close to the ground for his parachute to properly perform. His plane struck the ground in the forest between Hohwarth and Sauloch near Oberhagel. Brad was found less than 200m from the plane wreckage. He was lying close to a fir tree. Many people rushed into the trees all over the hillside at first trying to locate both pilots or so they thought. Fernand was the first to find Brad with his father right behind him. He saw that Brad had been killed instantly and could not be helped. Mr. Huber said he found Brad with his parachute pulled all the way out of the pack but was not fully opened up. He also said that Brad looked in good condition, meaning he was not wounded while he was in the aircraft. Whether out of reaction or instinct he removed Brad’s emergency survival kit from and stuffed it under his own coat. The German soldiers were right behind Fernand and when the soldiers caught up they chased Fernand several feet back and he watched them search Brad for anything of intelligence. The soldiers were going through his belongings. He had three uniforms with him including: his flight suit, regular uniform and a change of civilian clothes all of which were worn over each other. His flight suit being worn on the outside over his civilian clothes with his regular uniform under them. I assume that it was intended that if shot down he would strip his flight suit off and instantly be in civilian clothes and if caught he would strip them off and be in uniform. It would also help to insulate him as the P-38 itself was not insulated and could be around 20 degrees below in flight. He also had flight boots over his regular shoes with him. Fernand continued to watch in amazement and saw that Brad had three different currencies on him including: American dollars, French francs and German marks to have the maximum chance to slip into the population of the country where he would most likely go down. The Germans would not let the villagers remove Brad from the forest that night so a few of the local men stayed in the forest with Brad overnight where he lay as well as a few German soldiers who kept guard at the crash site and over Brad. The Germans allowed them to remove Brad in the morning, which they did by a horse drawn cart to the Town Hall where he remained for two hours. They decided he couldn’t stay there so they took Brad to the home of Fernand Huber’s family. Fernand’s parents owned a large home which was formerly an old school house that was located on a sloping hill so that at the lower end were two large storage rooms. The larger room was used by the local volunteer firemen as a storage room where they kept their equipment. In this room was a large table where they brought and laid Brad on it. He was kept there for the next two days with some villagers coming by at different times with flowers to pay respects to the brave fighter pilot who gave so much for them. The German soldiers would not let them bury him yet as they came by two other times to search him again for possible intelligence information. The last time the Gestapo came and actually removed his flight suit and took it. Fernand saw that Brad had on a nice pair of Brown shoes under his flight boots and Fernand was so interested in those shoes as the war had been going on for a few years now and new shoes were no where to be found but out of respect no one dared to remove Brad’s shoes.
During this time while Brad was at the Huber’s home the local villagers were forced by the German soldiers to go back to the crash site and dismantle the wreckage with hand tools and load the parts onto oxen carts and horse drawn wagons to haul it off with Fernand helping to help operate the cart brakes. He remembers the engines were very heavy and required very hard work to load them. While at the Huber’s home the local volunteer firemen took turns standing watch over Brad so that he was never alone. This fact was represented at the memorial later, in fact Brad was never alone from the time he was located moments after the crash until he was buried.
Finally after two days at the Huber’s home Brad was taken to the cemetery at St. Gilles Church and buried. The villagers risked much as they turned out and completely covered Brads grave with flowers and installed a large cross over it and then hung a large floral wreath on it. Someone took a picture of it that I had mentioned earlier. Several witnesses stated that to this day they do not know who did it but someone or several would come by and put fresh flowers on Brads grave regularly for two years until Brad was recovered by the U S Army. His grave was never without fresh flowers when they were available and just as remarkable was that they remembered that someone had placed a French flag at great risk on Brad’s grave in the summer of 44 much to the displeasure of the German authorities. A courageous gesture in occupied France. The German soldiers removed it but the same man came by another night and spread another French flag over it again. The Germans were angry this time and went to several nearby homes questioning and threatening the locals so he didn’t do it again as so not to endanger innocent villagers.
I finally received the IDPF or Individual Deceased Personal File this did not offer a lot of new information but it did provide a number of collaborating facts to what some of the witnesses and Patrick had already uncovered and offered.
Patrick did contact the mayor of Hohwarth reminding them of Brads sacrifice & that March 18, 2004 was the 60th anniversary of his death. Patrick advised them that four members of the Wikholm family are coming to hold a memorial that day at the crash site. He inquired if they would be interested in participating in the memorial as well. Patrick mentioned the suggestion of possibly renaming a local street in the village or placing a memorial plaque in honor of Lt Wikholm’s sacrifice there. We found out later on at the memorial that the village hadn’t planned anything at all but they got into the spirit of it all and in ten days flat had approved, planned, designed, engraved and built the memorial plaque at the site only about 40 feet from the actual crash site.
I never dreamed that when I started this quest to know the truth regarding Lt. Bradford Wikholm that it would result in the journey it became including traveling to France to remember Brad where he gave his life so long ago and now here we were.
I awoke early on the morning of the 18th to look out of the window over past the Rhine River at the black forest in Germany.
We had breakfast and Patrick met us at the hotel and we followed him to a church in Holtzwhir. About 10 feet high on the side wall was a plaque honoring a British Lancaster bomber crew that had been shot down nearby loosing 3 of the 10 crewmen. Patrick had had it dedicated ten years before at a memorial for that crew. Brads memorial was Patrick’s second dedication and an even bigger one he said. The Channel 3 news crew met us.
We now headed about 20 km to Hohwarth. Along the way we passed about a dozen ancient castles dotting the hills. We wound our way through the hills until we came upon a church on a hilltop. This was St. Gilles Church and was surrounded by a small walled cemetery. After standing it for a few seconds Patrick opened his notebook and showed us the photo of Brads original grave with the family standing behind it and pointed out to the hillside and said look. Here we were standing looking at Brad’s original grave with the exact hills silhouetted in the background. Then Patrick said to look at the actual grave and said that the little boy named Gerard Herbst who was standing in the old photo is now buried in that same grave. After Brad was removed and sent to the states that the family of that boy kept the plot and about 5 years ago he died and was buried in it. Wow!
We took lots of pictures and the news crew did the same focusing on Duane and Patrick mostly. After spending some time there we drove to a restaurant in town where we met several people including: two uniformed French Air Force officers a Lt. Col. Philippe Moral and Lt. Francis Bouillt. We also met Mrs. Irene Meyer who had provided the photos of Brad’s escape and evasion pictures and the original grave photo, we met Mrs. Herbst the widow of Gerard Herbst, the boy in the old grave photo.
Patrick hurried us to go and we left to go to the actual memorial and crash site. We arrived quickly and found about 75 or more people already waiting there. The local village school had come as well to attend this memorable event. The news crew set up and we saw a plot with a log border around it with the U S and French flags covering the monument. I gave an 8 x 10 inch portrait of Brad that I had brought and he placed it under the flags in front of the still hidden monument.
We then met the Mayor of Hohwarth Daniel Gross and the French Counsel General. Unfortunately I did not get his name. Patrick lined us up and right as it was beginning we heard the unmistakable noise of jets approaching. We all turned our eyes toward the sky and watched in awe as the two French Air Force fighters soared overhead. They were Mirage 2000 models and one was slightly ahead of the other. Wow! What a moment just about 60 years to the moment that brad’s P-38 crashed only about 40 feet from where we were standing. I couldn’t stop thinking about Brad and of Mary Ellen at that moment and of how much they both sacrificed that day. Brads life came to an abrupt end and Mary Ellen spent the rest of her life without him.
Patrick got up next and read a speech that his brother translated for all of us talking about that day 60 years ago and honoring all the airmen who were downed that day. As I mentioned earlier 8 aircraft or about 71 Americans were shot down within sight of the town that afternoon in the span of a few minutes. Then the Mayor and Duane (Brad’s brother) went up together and removed both flags revealing the large stone with the memorial plaque mounted to its face. The marker states:
2nd Lt. Bradford R. Wikholm
Pilot with the 55th Fighter Group
8th U S Air Force
Killed in action
18 March 1944
Patrick then brought Duane the family flowers to place at the base of the monument, which he did.
The monument was flanked during the whole ceremony on each side by the two French Air Force officers and then flanking them were a six man volunteer fireman’s honor guard. They were there to represent the memory of those who stood watch over Brad while he was lying at the Huber’s home for two days before burial 60 years ago. Then Patrick had a large portable tape player and stereo and played the U S national anthem and then taps followed by La Marseillaise. The officers saluted during the appropriate songs as we all hand our hands over our hearts.
The dedication was now over and we walked a short distance to the actual site where Patrick’s friends had hung an American flag right over the impact site. It was facing the wrong way I noticed as I quietly chuckled but it was a nice touch over that sacred ground. While we talked and listened to people telling about the times and memories an elderly woman of about 80-85 years came down from the road and started talking in French of course. She began to weep slightly but told of how young and how handsome Brad looked and how bad she felt for his family back home but stopped mid sentence and exclaimed that “my God did he have big feet”. They all laughed and had to explain to her that his thick padded flight suit was over his other clothes and shoes. For 60 years this woman thought Brad had gigantic feet. Again this was a moment of humor in a tragic circumstance. Mr. Huber during all this had picked up a stick and was digging around the site and dug up two fragments of the plane while we stood there. He gave the big piece to Duane, which I believe Duane brought back home.
We then returned back to our hotel in Bischwhir for a short rest, Patrick came and we followed him over to his home to watch the news coverage. It was maybe a seven minute long storyline and was done very well. It featured Duane of course as Brad’s only sibling there but also featured Patrick quite a bit. Annette had a really nice shot of her laying flowers at the memorial for her uncle Brad. I had brought a number of pictures of Brad and Mary Ellen and earlier in the day the cameraman asked me to hold my album open as he filmed shots of those pictures. Most all of them were on that broadcast as well including Mary Ellen’s. I was very happy to see that they featured and talked about Mary Ellen as she sacrificed so much also. After the broadcast we all went to old town Colmar and had a wonderful dinner before parting back to the hotel. Patrick stopped by in the morning before Annette & I departed and gave us one copy of the local newspaper with an article covering the memorial dedication. Patrick also gave a bottle of wine to Duane and I as a parting gift and we said our goodbyes. Annette and I took the train back to Paris to sightsee more and Duane and Sylvia drove back a different route that what they came.
How do you end a story like this? I think the key is you don’t end it. Those that loved and lost them will never forget what they did nor how they died. Nor do they forget the void left in their lives. News anchor and author Tom Brokaw called them the “greatest generation.” Brad was one of over 400,000 Americans who died in WWII. I hope in some small way I gave a little something back to Brad along with the good people of Hohwarth and St, Pierre Bois and Patrick Baumann with the dignity and honor Brad deserves.
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