My Life-Long Quest for my World War II Airman Father

The title "Carrying Fire" is taken from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about his own father. “I had two dreams about him after he died. I don’t remember the first one all that well. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen that he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Search Continues: Czech Republic

I mentioned in the last post that while searching for information about my father's WWII service, in 2005 we stumbled onto valuable information through a Google search with links to the 398th Bomb Group and a Czech website showing photos of a memorial to my father and his crew near Slany, Czech Republic

On Easter morningI called 398th's Flak News editor Allen Ostrom in Seattle . I believe he was as surprised to hear from me as I had been to uncover the 398th website. Allen sent me copies of his photos of the Slany memorial along with more articles pertaining to my father and his crew. He also put me in touch with both surviving crew members, tail gunner Selmer Haakenson and navigator Lawson Ridgeway, and with Jan Zdiarsky in the Czech Republic. Jan speaks and writes fluent English and, among other things, runs a WWII air museum near the German border and is one of the people, along with his friend Jaromir Kohout, most responsible for the Slany memorial. Jan informed me that there was a ceremony scheduled at our father’s memorial in June. At that point it seemed we had no choice but to go. We would worry about the cost later.

Five of us made the journey: I was joined by my wife Miriam, son Jeff, eldest grandson Jake Christensen, and Miriam’s son, Joah. Miriam, Jake and I flew from Colorado Springs, Jeff from Los Angeles, and Joah from Boston, all rendezvousing in Prague. With the help of a Czech friend we secured lodging in the Ziskov district far from any tourist hotels, giving us a good feel for the real everyday Prague. We spent two days visiting this marvelous old city, learning how to get around on the trams and Metro and how to order food.  

On June 16, the day before the official ceremony,  Jeff, Jake and I planned to have a quiet, personal visit to the Slany memorial. But we had underestimated the importance the Czechs place on these events and the gratitude they feel toward American servicemen of WWII, even though both Allen and Jan had warned us we would be “star attractions” and “the main event.” We were met on the outskirts of Slany by an escort—a fellow in an American GI corporal’s uniform driving a 1943 Willys jeep, flying a large American flag, looking as if he had just arrived with the Third Army. He led us into the town square where we were met by an official delegation which included the mayor, vice mayor, reporters, photographers, and others. Milan Spineta, another person responsible for the memorial and for organizing all the events around the ceremony that week, was also there.

We exchanged gifts, took photos, and received a tribute and heartfelt “thank you” to America from the mayor. Then we walked to the town museum where we were unexpectedly shown one of the scarred propeller blades from my father’s plane. Holding that scarred blade up for photographs was lump-in-the-throat experience.

We had lunch at a fine restaurant where the owner and the chef warmly greeted us on the sidewalk and posed for pictures with us. Then we rode to the airfield about a mile out of town to visit the memorial we’d only seen in photos. The three of us were silent for long moments as we took in the visual impact of the monument and studied the names engraved there of my father and his seven crew members. The monument is cast in the exact size and shape of a B-17 tail, painted with the triangle W of the 398th, and with the serial number 46573 of that downed plane. The names of the crew are engraved on bronze plaques. It is a most tasteful and impressive memorial, inspiring powerful emotions.

On the morning of June 17, we all boarded a chartered bus in Prague along with several Czech RAF vets and their friends and family bound for the memorial service at Slany, about 18 miles from Prague. We were met at the airfield by a crowd of 60 or 70 people along with dozens of photographers – Czech paparazzi. A military honor guard stood at attention beneath the twin flag poles flying the Czech and American flags. To see a short clip of the ceremony, see here.

As the ceremony began four of us placed bouquets of flowers on the monument beside the names of the fallen. Others involved were Lt. Colonel Bruce Goldstein of the American embassy, the vice-mayor of Slany, and a Czech air force general. We stood at attention while the national anthems of both countries were played. Simultaneously, eight pigeons representing the fallen airmen were released. I watched as they formed into a flock in the air and wheeled and banked together over the air field as a trumpeter played Taps. Nearly everyone was wiping tears from their eyes.

The four of us then addressed the gathering, me going last. Most of the remarks were in Czech, which I don’t speak or understand, but there was no mistaking their emotional impact on the assembly. Jan translated every few sentences of my remarks of honor and gratitude as more tears flowed. Jeff and Joah performed superbly in documenting the whole event in photos and video. When I introduced Miriam and the boys the crowd broke into hearty applause, especially for 15-year-old Jake.

Following the ceremony we moved to the airfield hangar where there was catered food, good Czech beer, and a fine 20 piece swing band.  I was asked to join an autograph session along with the Czech vets where dozens of people filed past asking us to sign books, photographs, pieces of paper. All the while a small army of photographers kept busy, recording every move. Miriam and the boys were also celebrities for a day as they signed autographs and posed for photos. None of us were used to this type of attention but tried to receive it in the same gracious manner as it was given.

For me, the most powerful moment of the day came from visiting and standing on the actual crash site of my father’s B-17. Jeff and I were talking with Jaromir Kohout, who heads a museum and memorial in Pilsen dedicated to two planes of the 398th which went down there on the last day of bombing during WWII, April 25, 1945. We asked about the actual crash site and he pointed to spot a mile or more away near an electrical tower. Jeff proposed setting out on foot, saying we shouldn’t come this far and be this close without visiting that spot. Jaromir said we could get closer by car, so five of us piled in Jan’s little car and raced around through Slany to a dead-end country road. Jaromir led the way as we ran up a long wooded hill, across a clearing, up another hill to emerge into a barley field near the electrical tower we’d seen from the air field. (To read about the many years of searching that led up to this very moment, see here)

As we caught our breath and took photos of a the barley field, I was overtaken with strong sensations and feelings, and we all found ourselves whispering. On the way back to the airfield Jeff mentioned feeling the same sensations at that spot. It wasn’t until later, when I compared my photos to those taken by Germans soldiers at the crash scene in 1945, that I realized from the location of the electrical tower in all pictures we had been standing on or near the actual site! In 2010, Jeff, my brother Steve and I returned to Slany and the crash site and, with the help of Jaromir and his metal detector, discovered several pieces of the plane 65 years after the crash.

The thing that impressed me most on this visit was the depth of gratitude that many Czech people still feel toward veterans of WWII and how this carried over to me and my family. We were important to them, not because of who we are, but rather who and what we represented. For them the past is still the present. One young Czech lady said that she did not know anyone of her countrymen who had lost a family member during the war, “But you Americans came to fight for us and lost thousands, including your own father. How could we forget that?”

An American airman who recognized and appreciated the love and dedication of the Czech people was Melvin McGuire, a gunner with the Second Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force based in Italy. The 15th flew many bombing missions into Austria and central and eastern Czechoslovakia, mainly Moravia and Slovakia. On August 29, 1944, nearly the whole of McGuire’s 20th Bomb Squadron was wiped out over Moravia. Czech citizens retrieved and buried all but a few of the seventy men killed that day. In his book Bloody Skies, he writes:

“[Czechs] had nothing to fight with and no allies. France, with its huge army, was defeated in a very few weeks. The British had retreated to their island and were embattled there. Then word filtered to them that the Americans were bombing Germany in broad daylight. Perhaps there was hope. In late 1943 and early 1944, American bombers—B-17s and B-24s—appeared regularly over Czechoslovakia. With their own eyes they had seen German fighters burning and crashing to the ground. They observed those battles where the Americans lost and their B-17s and B-24s crashed to the ground.

“The Americans were the Czechs only hope and they cheered wildly, much to the displeasure of their Nazi captors, when American bombers formations passed overhead. Many times, at great personal risk, they retrieved the bodies of those American airmen that the Germans had buried in shallow, unmarked graves. They built coffins for these adopted sons, often draped with home-made American flags, and buried them in honored positions in their cemeteries, with appropriate religious ceremonies and erected monuments to them.”

At the time I thought that this first visit to the Czech Republic was a culmination of my search for my father.  But I know now that it was only another beginning.

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