My Journal 2006

RETRACING JOHN R. KYLER’S ROUTE AS B-17 BALL TURRET GUNNER AND POW DURING WORLD WAR II.  TRIP TAKEN BY SARA KYLER, WIFE AND CANDY BROWN, DAUGHTER, SEPTEMBER 16, 2006 TO OCTOBER 7, 2006

There I was again, at the airport waiting to embark upon an excursion that was sure to assist me in contributing chapters to my father’s story – the story that I am attempting to build without him.  The story that began with his death when I lost the opportunity to ever be able to ask him about his life before us – his life as an American Airman – his training – his manning of the ball turret position on a B-17 flying missions out of Podington, England, – his bombing missions to bomb areas in Germany in the fight to win the war and secure our freedom – and last but not least his life as a prisoner of war.  My father kept 2 YMCA notebooks while a POW with a few facts, poems, sketches, parcel contents, calendars and names and addresses of room mates.  After his death in paging through the notebooks – each turn of each page took me back further in time.  I was not satisfied to fleetingly view these pages and return the notebooks back to the place they had been kept for nearly 60 years.  Remnants of my father’s past had been unveiled sadly upon his death but it was certain to me that I would build his story from these remnants – I would retrace his journey as an airman and POW the best way that I could without him to answer the many questions that would arise – an overwhelming goal but it has become my mission.  Since dad’s death I have been seeking a lifetime of his that we did not know.  

My father represents a generation of heroes to me and finding this young and critical lifetime I feel will serve to carry on the legacy of all of the courageous individuals who sacrificed months and years of their lives (and many gave their lives) for our freedom.  The sacrifices that were made for us I realize need to be remembered in future generations.  It is a debt that we all owe.  There is another purpose that I am hoping I can realize.  It is important to me to do everything possible to arouse those who are fortunate to still have their husbands, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles, to ask the questions before it is too late. 

It was September 16, 2006, and a longer than normal day even though it contained the standard 24 hours.  My mother and I left the house with husband Brad as our driver at 8:30 AM for the Buffalo Airport.  As usual my suitcase was overweight but this time it was mainly because of the gifts that I was taking.  The books were very heavy.  I had to put some things in mom’s suitcase so hers then was borderline but okay.  Brad picked up the tab for the excess weight fee.  I was already feeling concern about the Heathrow to Brussels flight which wouldn’t be for days but the weight was a worry with the tightened security in England.  Maybe I could do some rearranging.  One thing at a time and at the moment I just hoped that our baggage would catch up with us in England.  

We took a standby flight a few hours earlier than our reserved flight as it was explained that they had problems with flight delays the previous day so it would be wise to try to go early and if that didn’t work, there was still another flight before our booked flight so our chances of getting out that day were pretty good.  Due to the early flight, we spent hours in the Newark Airport waiting for our connection to Heathrow Airport in London.  Our Flight #2 Virgin Atlantic was scheduled to depart at 9:45 PM.  We arrived so early that you couldn’t even check in yet and when the line did start forming we waited an hour.  Our connecting flights were not the same airlines and I made a note not to ever make this mistake again.  It was bad enough for me and I could only imagine how my 85- year-old mother felt.  I assured her that we could just rest all of the next day which would be Sunday.  I was hoping that we could both sleep on the plane.  

Mom had several pills for different things that she takes at different times during the day and we were having difficulty remembering what was taken when.  It was hard to keep track of time.  I wrote the schedule down so I could try to keep it straight.  I’m not crazy about airports or about flying but here I am again.  You sometimes have to do things you don’t like to achieve a goal.  These next 3 weeks should do it.  All of the avenues should be covered by the time we go home.   Now that is what this trip is all about.  It is not a vacation – it is a mission – as it has been since May 4, 2004, when my father passed away so suddenly.

Sitting in the airport in New Jersey made me think of my friend, Joe O’Donnell.  I tried to use my computer to e-mail him but I was blocked from wireless internet.  I was disappointed but thought that it would be better to write people when we were at our destination.  We had just left home and already I was missing everybody.

Our arrival in London was smooth and we found the Hotelink that I reserved the cab with without too much difficulty.  We were not real pleased with our Hotel but it would serve the purpose.  The bathroom appeared to be new so that was a plus.  Our first full day in London was my 35th wedding anniversary.  My husband, Brad, is a saint.  I was out of the Country and he was home and he continues to put up with my obsession.  I did call him and I felt better.  I also called Gerry Darnell who kindly agreed to meet us at the Bedford Train Station and take us to Podington on Wednesday.   I attempted to arrange a tour of sites of interest with an agency also and it did not work out.  I guess it just was not meant to be.   The important thing was that we accomplish what we were there for.  I was pretty focused on my reason for this trip and nothing else really mattered.  I don’t think I was what you would call a normal tourist.  I was looking forward to Wednesday, September 20th, the day we would visit what was the Air Base for my father’s bomb group – the place that he lived between missions – the base that he would leave on February 4, 1944, and never return to.  Who would have thought that over 60 years later his wife and daughter would want to go there because it was a place that he had been?   Better yet who would have thought that we would actually be there?

I had my laptop computer so I could stay in contact with family members to assure them that mom was doing just fine.  Internet access was available but not without a bit of hassle acquiring it.  It was our connection to the other side of the world and it did keep us close to home.  As for my mother – I think that it was relief for her to keep up on news from the home front.  I could compare that to my father welcoming news from home during his time spent there – slightly similar.  

It was a great concern to me when I realized that I made arrangements for a taxi to pick us up September 21 to take us to the airport 2 hours later than I should have.  It was important to correct that error right away which I was able to do via e-mail.  Because I had made arrangements on the internet, the desk personnel in the hotel could not help me with the correction.  I sweated that mistake out for a few hours until it was resolved.  

We had a little problem with the different medication that mom has to take as far as the times to take them.  Mom wanted to keep on her home schedule but that would mean she’d have to get up in the middle of the night and there was going to be three weeks of this.  It got to be too confusing to think okay now what time is it at home – so I convinced her to adjust her pill schedule to London time.  That was much easier.  She had to skip one to do this but it was confusing enough to know when to take them without having to count back the hours to Salamanca time. 

The day of our train ride to Bedford finally arrived. We took the 9:00 AM Thameslink from Kings Cross, an hour ride. I was so anxious that we walked to the station too early and had to walk for 30 minutes just to pass the time.  It was fun to watch the people though.  What a busy place with people on their way to work walking to catch the train or the bus and the traffic was very heavy.  When we finally could board the train, I sat deep in thought being mesmerized by the rhythmic sound of the wheels on the track.  It was just a matter of minutes before I would see where my father’s missions began; the area that was his stomping grounds for a time.  Here I was in a different world at a different time than my father and I was feeling like a different person – almost like I was my father returning to relive his past.  It is a strange yet ordinary feeling for me these days.

Gerry and Audrey Darnell picked us up as planned and transported us to Podington.  I had written to Gerry months ago and sent my father’s crew picture.  He showed it to his brother and they both agreed that they thought they remembered my father from seeing him at the Red Cross Club where his brother would take him to work with him. Gerry was an excellent guide as he knew Podington from a very young age.  We would learn of his treasured memories from listening to him recall them and by reading the speech that he had written and read in the Podington Church to commemorate the 60th anniversary of what he called “the friendly invasion of the American Armed Forces” to his “Island to help combat the threat of Nazism to his Country during World War II”. 

He had fond memories of playing the piano, playing snooker and table tennis and helping out at the Red Cross Club.  The Christmas parties at the base were the highlight of the year according to Gerry.  They were picked up in the trucks and taken to the airfield where they would have their party, entertainment, a bag of sweets, fruit, chewing gum and a present to take home.  How great that must have been for him.  He recalled Saturday night dances and how he got to know the Americans who attended regularly.  He told us that James Cagney visited the base and opened the airmen’s bar which came to be known as “Cagney’s Cellar” and Glen Miller also played at the base.  No wonder dad always loved Glen Miller music.   How fortunate for my mother and me that we were getting a first hand account of events that had transpired during a significant period in my father’s life as an American Airman. 

Gerry said the Town of Podington was much the same as it would have been when dad was there and I could almost picture my father riding his bike to or from town with other GI’s on the same narrow wartime road that we were driving on through the woodlands. We had driven by a Pub in Town that the GI’s frequented which was not open at the time but I thought it was quite something that it remained.  Dad may very well have spent a little time in that building. We stopped at the Memorial of the 92nd Bomb Group and took pictures.  I had seen pictures of this Memorial.  The inscription across the top reads “We will always remember “Fames Favoured Few”.   Also inscribed are these words:  In memory of those brave airmen and support groups who gave their lives and who served during World War II for the liberation of Europe.  The group flew 308 missions, 274 from Podington Airfield.”  The memorial was dedicated July 3, 1999.  It makes me wonder if my father had any idea of the memorials that exist paying tribute to those who served, which includes him. 

After admiring and taking pictures of the Memorial we continued on the approach road and to the left there was a road that had lead to where the station hospital once was.  Along the way we saw the remains of small brick buildings that looked like small square houses.  They were not the Quonset houses that I’ve read about that housed the men.  Somewhere, though, in this now deserted land my father lived for a period of time and I was satisfied that I was there just knowing that.  What historic tales these old buildings hold.   We drove the perimeter of the airfield.  There was an original signpost still standing across from the building that once operated as the Control Tower and today has been converted to a residence.  I was looking at the Control Tower just as my father certainly had as he walked or rode by 62 years ago.  There were other buildings once full of activity that appear empty and abandoned.  Gerry pointed out the building where the photos would have been developed.  The road into the former base and the entire area that would have at one time been full of GI’s was now quiet and vacant as if Station 109 never existed.

This significant visit to Podington, as simple of a stop as it may seem, is huge to me.  My father arrived in England on November 15, 1943, according to his log book, beginning his flight at Presque Isle, Maine, on November 12, 1943 and making stops at Goose Bay, Labrador, Meek Field in Iceland and on November 13 he flew to Prestwick, Scotland.  He left Scotland on November 14 and his arrival on November 15 was in Stone, England.   England was to become his comfort zone – the place that he would desire to return to after the long missions that were in store for him from Podington Airfield.

Dad’s crew was assigned to the 407th Bomb Squadron of the 92nd Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force.  They were the Wilson Crew #4 according to the notation on the crew photo.    I could imagine seeing each group as they lined up with their crew members.  For many this photo would be their last.  I thought of my father being with his friends somewhere in this same area. He was eating meals, talking, laughing, riding his bike, going for mission briefings, and living on this same ground; he was preparing himself for flight and checking the armaments of the B-17 that he would be climbing aboard and taking off from this same field.  It is not the same but it is the same place and all of these activities were occurring.  He walked this area that is now a field.  We were viewing where he and his comrades saw and heard events that I will never know of from him but I can picture in my mind.  It is as vivid as if I were part of it.  Dad would have been so thorough in his responsibilities linked to his position. 

The extreme anticipation and anxiety experienced when preparing for one of these flights and the feeling of taking off in the B-17 that would be your home for the next several hours loomed in my thoughts.  Would she be able to bring you all back unscathed?  What tragedies were you about to witness?  Perhaps these questions never entered ones mind as they prepared for flight as they were busy performing their assigned duties but in flight en route to their destination surely there were many thoughts that invaded their concentration.  

What it must have been like hearing and seeing all those bombers take off.  It is understandable the love that anyone witnessing such a scene would feel for the B-17 and everything about this air base operation during World War II.  In modern times the sound of car engines echo through the air at certain times of the year as the main runway now serves as a raceway.  How times have changed. 

It was obvious that Gerry cherished the memories of his time spent in this region that we were now traveling in over 60 years later. The thrill that he felt then obviously stays with him still as he pointed out the location where he would stand to watch as the bombers would ready for take off.  He stated that he could remember the sound of the four propellers of the B-17’s in the early mornings as they taxied to their take-off point.  He recalled the screeching of the brakes as they reached the end of the runway, and the roar of the engines as full power was applied by the pilot for take off.  Fully loaded they would use the full length of the runway before becoming airborne.  As they climbed out above the surrounding villages, one by one the thunderous bombers assigned for duty that day would exit the runway until all aircraft were in formation ready for the mission at hand.

Take off was always dangerous, particularly in bad weather when the visibility was poor and accidents did occur.  A foggy Saturday morning at Podington resulted in a three-plane crash, a mid-air collision over Irthlingborough from the 305th base, and another mid-air collision at Thurleigh with the tragic loss of many young lives.  Gerry somberly pointed out an area at the airfield where an unfortunate incident had occurred.

He remembered counting the planes out, as many did, and then counting them back in.  The empty spaces in the returning formations told them the dreaded yet inevitable and too-frequent story that some had not returned.  Battle damage to the aircraft was at times extensive with holes in the fuselage and wings, and propellers “feathered”.  There were propellers that couldn’t be feathered that were “windmilling”, making it so much more difficult to control the aircraft.  There was the all too familiar sight of flares being fired from the aircraft indicating that there was wounded on board.  These would land first met by the ambulances and the wounded were rushed to the station hospital.  Sadly there were those who were beyond medical care that nothing could be done for.  There were the occasions when B-17’s would land without undercarriage.  They would be the last to descend after circling the airfield using up fuel to eliminate the risk of fire.

 Some of the targets of the 92nd were Kiel shipyards, Schweinfurt ball bearing plants, submarine installations at Wilhelmshaven, a Tire Factory at Hanover, Airfields near Paris, an Aircraft Factory at Nantes and a Magnesium Mine and reducing plant in Norway.  Kiel, Wilhelmshaven and France are all familiar names to me in that they were the targets in my father’s missions.  His last mission was to Frankfurt.  It was on February 4, 1944, when they left Podington for the last time never to return.  His bike would be passed on to the next airman who would hopefully fare better than my father.  This was the day that his role in the war changed for him and the other members of his crew and for the navigator it would be the flight that would end his life.

We traveled from the airfield to the Podington Church where a memorial was dedicated in 1985 to the 92nd Bomb Group in the form of the restoration of the church organ.  There is an inscription on the side of the organ above the propeller blade from one of the B-17’s from the base.  The inscription reads:  “In Thanksgiving and in memory of Fames Favored Few, the 92nd Bombardment Group of the United States 8th Air Force 1943 to 1945.  In the cause of peace and freedom the group flew 308 missions  274 from Podington Airfield.  This organ was restored by the 92nd Bombardment Group Memorial Corporation in the hope that the voice of this instrument will speak for them – the living and the dead – to the people of Podington every time it is played.”  “Dedicated by John – Lord Bishop of St. Albans   18th May 1985”.  There is also an American flag sited next to the organ.  What a fitting tribute in this Church as well as at the former airfield to the oldest serving group in the American Air Force. This group flew 308 missions over enemy territory with the loss of many young lives.  The sight of this memorial in this beautiful church warmed my heart knowing that these courageous heroes would never be forgotten in this, God’s house.  It is apparent the appreciation shown by the quaint Village of Podington toward the admirable members of the 92nd Bomb Group.  There is a definite connection. 

I appreciated being given a tour of this wonderful village and realized that Podington was more than an air base.  How gratifying it is knowing that the voice and memory of our fathers is being carried on through the music of the organ and in the permanent inscriptions at the church and the airfield.  Once again I felt a tremendous amount of pride in my father; in all of the fathers and sons and brothers.

It was getting late but Gerry and Audrey both thought that they should take us to the Cambridge American Cemetery.  We first made a stop at their home where Audrey thoughtfully made us lunch.  I could not help but notice how the love of the B-17 certainly shines through in the décor in the Darnell household.  I was happy to have made that stop.  You can forget about something as trivial as eating when you are absorbed in reliving the events of such an historic era.  My mother and I hadn’t eaten since early morning and the sandwiches that Audrey served went down pretty easy sustaining us for the remainder of the afternoon.

We then continued on to the beautiful Cambridge American Cemetery – so beautiful yet solemn when one looks at the wall with the tablets inscribed with the names and details of 5,126 Missing in Action, lost or buried at sea, or “unknowns” whose remains were either never found or positively identified prior to interment.  These young boys were someone’s son, or brother or husband; someone was left wondering and agonizing over their whereabouts.  How could there ever be closure?  What a sobering thought. There are four statues along the wall of a soldier, an airman, a sailor and a Coast Guardsman.

 The graves area contains 3,812 headstones which are aligned like the spokes of a wheel.  One is speechless when absorbing the meaning and foundation prompting such a tremendous memorial site.

We entered the beautiful chapel through a doorway which had the words “Into Thy Hands O Lord” inscribed.  Another inscription read “To the Glory of God and in Memory of those who died for their country 1941-1945”.  The celestial montage ceiling was breathtaking in displaying the Archangel trumpeting the advent of the Resurrection and the Last Judgment.  The pictures of angels accompanying aircraft making their final flight were so beautiful stirring emotions from the realization of the depiction.  It was impossible to capture the significance of the ceiling in one picture but the words written should be conveyed so one can imagine the feeling in standing in the midst of it all and reading this commemoration:  “In proud and grateful memory of those men of the United States Army Air Force who from these friendly Isles flew their final flight and met their God.  They knew not the hour the day nor the manner of their passing.  When far from home they were called to join that heroic band of airmen who had gone before.  May they rest in peace.”  

The members of the naval and air forces who are buried or honored at the cemetery are memorialized by the ship and aircraft portrayed above the altar.  The altar also displays the words “Faith” and “Hope”. 

There was a map in the Chapel which indicates each location in the United Kingdom where an American unit of battalion or larger size was stationed during WWII.  Also shown on the map are the principal air and sea approach routes to Great Britain from the United States.

Also inside the Memorial, an outstanding map, “The Mastery of the Atlantic – The Great Air Assault” is featured.  There were plates below the map which recorded the development of the war against Germany and Japan as well as a plate describing the operations exhibited on the extraordinary map.  I think it meaningful and important that I write the words of the description:

“Thrust into a global war with the Axis Powers, the United States, at the close of 1941, moved to strengthen its defense positions in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  The protection and control of the sea and air routes across the Atlantic, so vital to the Allies’ hopes of victory, were concerns of unceasing urgency.  The United States Navy joined with the Royal Navy in this bitterly contested battle; U.S. Army and Marine Corps units were dispatched to strengthen key outposts in the North Atlantic and to reinforce the defense of the United Kingdom.  While the enemy made every effort to sever the lifelines to the British Isles, the Allied Navies fought to keep the sea lanes open, to convoy troops and military and civilian supplies across the Atlantic and to maintain the long run to North Russia to sustain the Soviet forces.

Continuously the Allies strove to develop and improve their anti-submarine tactics, to provide adequate escort and air coverage to their convoys.  The coordinated employment of land-based air-power and of escort carrier and destroyer groups, together with developments in detection devices, gradually drove the enemy’s submarines from the principal sea routes.

This war of attrition on, above, and below the waters of the Atlantic steadily turned in favor of the Allies.

In November 1942, Allied Forces landed on the shores of North Africa.  This successful operation involved the simultaneous debarkment of attack teams transported from the United States and the United Kingdom.

Throughout the Battle of the Atlantic the United States Army Air Forces overseas continued to grow in the urgent effort to build overwhelming air strength.  The first American strategic bombing mission was undertaken in August 1942.  By the summer of 1943 the U.S. Eighth Air Force was conducting large-scale daylight bombing attacks; the Royal Air Force continued to fly missions at night.  The objective was the progressive dislocation and destruction of the enemy’s military, industrial and economic system.  Ever present was the necessity of beating down the German fighters which attacked our heavy bombers fiercely and persistently.

With the Allied landings in Italy in September 1943 came opportunity for attack from another direction.  The U.S. Fifteenth Air Force joined with the Eighth to form the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe.  Massive attacks on critical industrial targets forced the German Air Force to fight for their protection.  In a series of violent battles the enemy air arm was broken, never again to be a serious menace.  In March 1944 the U.S. Ninth Air Force and the British Second Tactical Air Force initiated concentrated attacks on the enemy’s transportation systems and coastal defenses in Belgium and Northern France.  The U.S. Eighth Air Force, while continuing its strategic attack, augmented this assault.  

On 6 June 1944, Allied Forces crossed the English Channel to storm the beaches of Normandy in the greatest amphibious operation recorded in history.  The absence of serious naval and air opposition attested to the effectiveness of Allied Operations during the long months of preparation that had preceded the landings.  Following the success of this assault, thousands of men and millions of tons of supplies were moved over these beaches through artificially created harbors.  With naval gunfire and air support, beachheads were consolidated and the Allied Armies moved forward. 

Through the remaining months of the war the allied military strength grew steadily as troops, equipment and supplies flowed across the Atlantic.  The combined bomber offensive continued to strike at strategic military and industrial targets with evermounting intensity as the ground forces pushed onward into Germany.

On 8 May 1945, 337 days after the landing in Normandy, came victory in Europe.”

Illustrated in glass panels were the principal decorations awarded our Armed Services as well as the seal of the War and Navy Departments.  Stained-glass replicas of the seals of the States of the Union in the order in which they entered the Union were also brilliantly displayed in the windows of the Memorial. 

Before we left, we entered the Visitor’s Building and were greeted by an American staff member who was very kind and informative.  We signed a guest book while we were there and were given information regarding the Cemetery.  I was not aware while I was there but later learned that on the porch wall of the Visitor’s Building was a bronze tablet honoring the members of an American bomber crew who sacrificed themselves in order to avoid abandoning their disabled aircraft to spare the communities of Cheshunt and Waltham Cross.  There are so many stories like these that we will never know about. 

As we left the Cemetery I looked back at the flag flying on the tall flagpole with the crosses in the background to capture the last view of this serene area honoring so many fallen heroes.  A quotation at the bottom of the flagpole read: “To you from failing hands we throw the torch – be yours to hold it high”.

We made our way back to the Bedford train station and said our goodbyes to our friends, Gerry and Audrey Darnell, who we are indebted to for an unforgettable day.  The hour train ride back to Kings Cross was an hour of quiet reflection on the previous hours spent in another time.  Our tour of Podington was all that I hoped that it would be and more with such a wonderful guide – a guide well abreast of the time when Podington Airfield was in full operation.  What an education he received at the young age of 10 and how fortunate it was for my mother and me that he willingly shared his memories.

We were pretty tired when we reached our stop at Kings Cross but grabbed a sandwich at the Subway near our hotel and took it to our room to eat it.  Our visit to England was coming to an end and it was a good feeling knowing that we had completed the first phase of our trip and an important stage of my father’s life in the Army Air Forces.  We had relived that life the way that we imagined that it was. 

I called Gerry and Audrey just to say we had arrived safely back and to thank them once again for their hospitality and kindness.  They were so thoughtful of my mom.  We would leave early in the morning to be taken to the airport for our flight to our next stop – Belgium.

On September 21 our taxi arrived at our hotel almost an hour earlier than scheduled but my mother and I were all ready and I was anxious to get going anyway.  I was leaving conditioner and lotion behind to try to drop the luggage weight.  They amounted to about 2 pounds but it was the best I could do.  I felt that every little bit helped. 

It was still dark when we rode to the airport and I was feeling a little apprehensive about what was in store for us with good reason.  We had great difficulty with our luggage in the airport and we each had our purse and a carryon.  My poor little mom was so bogged down and she kept offering to help me with my bags.  I wish I would have weighed my backpack.  It was so damn heavy.  I crammed all the books I could into it to take weight away from the check-in bag.  It was practically breaking my back and my mother could see how I was struggling and wanted to help me.  When it was our turn to get our tickets the lady said we could only have one carry on – either the purses or the backpacks.  And the backpacks weren’t going to cut it because they would not fit in the box that they had set up to measure if your bag was allowable or not.  I wanted to cry but I didn’t.  We did some combining and rearranging and ended up checking our backpacks.  I had to carry my laptop computer out of the bag but luckily they let me do that.  They were confiscating makeup, deodorant, just everything when we went through security.  I had my lipstick in my pocket and when I walked through the scan area a lady searched me and said “what’s in your pocket?”  She gave me the dirtiest look when she saw my lipstick and took it from me.  I felt like a criminal – like I was trying to smuggle my valuable lipstick out of England and into Belgium.  She was just doing her job I know and the strictness unfortunately has been brought on by the state of the world in which we live.  After we made it through security, we stopped for a bite to eat until our flight came up on the monitor and then we sat for a while.  It was a welcome sit.  After a most tedious 3 hours in the Heathrow Airport, we finally boarded our plane.  

I think of my Dad flying out of Podington in a B-17; mom and I flying out of Heathrow in an Airbus A319.  It was a hassle at the airport but nothing like dad’s flights.  All we had to do was check in, go through security and wait.  Seemed a pain but would be worse to get briefed, check the armaments and man the gun in the ball turret.  Guess this was trivial.  Our missions are different yet very connected.  We were seeing the English Channel over which the crew’s guns were tested on their way to their target.  I read that practice in Jay Joyce, the radio operator’s notebook. This was the body of water that was such a welcome sight to the returning crews as they knew they would soon be back home at their base after a long, challenging day.

Our flight was smooth, our luggage arrived quickly and the taxi that I had prearranged from Taxibleus was waiting so it couldn’t have been better.  I guess it makes up for the frustration at Heathrow.  Guy and Willy Wendelen were due to meet us at the Hotel at 6PM so we were going to make it with a little time to spare.  It took us over an hour to get to Hasselt from the airport.  The driver helped us with our luggage and noticed the zipper on my large suitcase had split.  He rezipped it but now I had to make sure that I looked for straps to secure it.  I could just picture clothes and books being scattered all over.  I am pretty certain if that had happened, I would not be able to suppress the tears.  Up to this point I had done so well not crying out of frustration that I had felt at times. 

Our Hotel Radisson Sas Hasselt was fairly new and a mansion compared to the Hotel that I had selected in London (it had just been important to be near the train station in Kings Cross so I didn’t have to worry about getting there and it was a 2 minute walk but it just wasn’t the best area and so, so busy).  We felt so much more comfortable without the crowds.  We had arrived there about 5:10 PM.  Internet access was a bonus and there was no charge for it.  When we checked in the young lady at the desk who spoke perfect English also furnished me with an adapter I needed so I could plug in my computer.  I planned on offering to purchase it as it would help me with the remainder of our trip.  It would be one less thing that I would have to ask about each place we stayed.  The fewer things that I had to worry about the better off that I was. 

We got settled in our room and mom was tired so I said that I would go downstairs and wait for Guy and Willy to arrive.  I sat in the lobby watching out the window when two men approached the front doors.  I knew the minute that I saw them that it was the two fellows that I had been expecting and I was so happy to be able to meet them in person.  I hadn’t noticed until they came through the doors that they were carrying two large beautiful bouquets of flowers and a box of Belgian chocolates.  We exchanged hugs and I told them they had to come up to our room to meet my mom. They gave her the same welcoming hugs that they had given me.  I was finally meeting these men who had been corresponding with me as information unfolded regarding my father, his crew and his plane.  It was hard to believe that we were actually there.  I did not mention Raimond but he was on my mind.  I did not forget him for a moment.  

We talked fleetingly about the day ahead of us – the day we had been planning since January.  Guy briefly mentioned the route that we would be taking on September 23.  It sounded so unreal to me.  I showed him things that I brought him but he said we would have time to get together on the 23rd after the events of the day were accomplished.  They invited us for coffee downstairs where we could continue our discussion.  The day’s plans that Guy was explaining seemed like a dream.  I needed to be pinched to make sure that I was actually there.  He said the Mayor would speak and I asked if I should say something.  He didn’t think that it was necessary but I knew how I am and that I would feel the need to thank everyone.  He said maybe I could say a brief thank you.  Willy didn’t speak English so Guy did all of the talking.  I could tell that these two kind and generous men had worked determinedly on preparations for our visit.  The excitement was building and they informed me that the time they would pick us up at our Hotel would be 9:30 AM.  Guy told me to call him or e-mail him if any questions arose between then and Saturday.

After we discussed the arrangements and said our goodbyes to Guy and Willy, mom and I went back to our room feeling pretty anxious about the anticipated day ahead of us.  I sent out e-mails to home letting them know that we were now in Belgium and had met with Guy and Willy Wendelen and that our plans had been finalized.  They would want to know that we arrived safely and that mom was doing just fine.  I also e-mailed Taxisbleus just to verify our pickup date and time to be taken to the airport so I would not have to worry about it. 

We would have the next day, Friday, to just take it easy and rest up waiting for my friends, Ejvind and Bjoerg.  I would inform them of the pick-up time.  Their friends, Nils and Bente Baaring, would be driving from Mons to pick them up and follow us to the Beringen Town Hall. 

That was another unreal component of the trip – the fact that I was actually going to meet Ejvind again to thank him personally for the efforts that he put into my mission and the fact also that he was going to be able to share in the phenomenon; this event that had been developing since we met in Barth.   I could not wait to see Ejvind and Bjoerg again.  (I explained previously that I had met them last year when I participated in a group returning to Barth, Germany, for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Stalag Luft I, which was one of the first steps in my efforts to retrace dad’s experience.)  This man, my friend, Ejvind, is an amazing and special person to me.  After meeting him in Barth, we continued our relationship via e-mail.  As I explained previously, he knew what I was trying to achieve and was as resolute as I was in efforts to find pieces to the puzzle.  Through his friends, Nils and Bente, he was given contact information through a Belgian officer for the library in Houthalen.  He sent a letter to the librarian there.  Through him the Wendelen brothers were contacted and that is how I progressed to this incredible day.  Downed planes in World War II in his area had been Raimond Wendelen’s passion for years and before we left Belgium we would bear witness to this fact.    

Honestly, just to see Ejvind and Bjoerg and give them a big hug would make me happy and I felt so fortunate all the way around.  Ejvind had helped 2 American Airmen to freedom during the War and that is another story in itself.

Friday came and mom and I walked around town checking out the area.  I had it on my mind that I needed some sort of straps for my big fat bulging suitcase so I would not have to worry about it splitting again.  Right around the corner from the Hotel there was a store similar to a dollar store at home.  I love those stores.  I bought two rope type dog leashes for a Euro apiece.  That was the best that I could find.   We noticed a grocery store that we would go back to later to pick up some things that we might want to take with us Saturday because we probably would not have a chance to eat.  I thought it smart to think ahead.  I didn’t want either mom or myself to go into “vapor lock” as my husband calls it when I have needed nourishment but not had a chance to eat.    As a precaution, it would certainly be a full day and would be a good idea to have a stash of food.  I wouldn’t want to go into this vapor-lock and frighten my friends the Wendelens.  Guy had asked in one of his e-mails if I thought we should plan to have lunch and he was not sure if we’d have time to go to Leopoldsburg if we did.  I mentioned that I felt that this would be my one and only chance so I would rather forego lunch and visit the Museum at Leopoldsburg as I thought it was another place that was relevant to my father’s route.

Mom and I had a late lunch at our hotel and I was hoping that Ejvind and Bjoerg would arrive soon.  We went to our room for a little while. I had no word from Taxisbleus which concerned me.  I would write them again.  I tried the dog leashes and they were going to bind my suitcase perfectly.  We then enjoyed our dessert which was the delightful Belgian chocolates that Guy and Willy gave us.  We were rationing them to make them last.  It is definitely the best chocolate that I have ever eaten.  We decided we would only have 2 pieces per day and would continue this practice throughout the remainder of our trip.  I don’t think that I ever cheated only maybe a couple of times and I’m not sure but mom may have cheated a little bit also.  The box of chocolates was accessible at all times. 

When it was about 4 in the afternoon I thought I would check at the desk to see if our expected guests had arrived yet.  The girl at the desk said she didn’t even show their reservations.  Now that worried me.  I went to our room and e-mailed Ejvind.  I wrote to Guy also just because I was concerned but I don’t know what I expected him to do.  Anyway, it weighed on my mind and to pass time mom and I went for a walk to see what other stores were close by.  It was dinnertime so we stopped at one of the restaurants to have a bite to eat.  The broccoli soup sounded good to both of us but when I ordered I said “I’m not that hungry so I’ll just get soup” and mom wanted soup.  Well the waitress thought because I said I wasn’t hungry that meant that I didn’t want anything and she brought mom soup and me nothing but a drink.  It wasn’t worth saying anything but now that I had nothing to eat I was really starving.  I watched mom take a spoonful of her thin soup and she made a face.  She didn’t like it a bit so I told her I’d eat her soup and she could eat the rolls that came with it.  That is what we did but then mom began to look awfully pale and she said she didn’t feel good.  Now not only was I worried about Ejvind and Bjoerg but I was also worried about mom being sick.  And then it crossed my mind, could she be getting the flu and if that’s the case I will get sick also as I ate the soup.  Things seemed to be going downhill fast.

We stopped at the grocery store and bought crackers, apples and water for the next day that hopefully would come to pass.  We went back to the hotel and it was getting pretty late when there was a knock on the door.  Finally my Danish friends had arrived and a weight had been lifted.  It was so good to hug them.  I surprised Ejvind with a New York State license plate to add to his collection.  He told me a while ago about his hobby and that he was missing The Empire State, New York, and asked if I might be able to provide him with the missing plate.  I had written and told him it didn’t look like I would be able to come up with one.  It isn’t that easy to come up with a New York license plate but luckily a friend, Jim Pedacchio, had an old one and was kind enough to part with it.  I didn’t tell Ejvind ahead of time that I had it.  I wanted to surprise him and I knew he’d be so happy.  I was so anxious to give it to him and that was one of the first things I did.  He was so pleased with it and I knew that he would be.  He gave me another hug.  I also gave him a book that I had brought for him.  Mom finally met these people that I had talked about.  After meeting them she decided that she was going to turn in for the night rather than join them for coffee.  She was very tired and still not feeling that great since dinner.  

I went downstairs while Ejvind and Bjoerg ordered something to eat and just had coffee and a small glass of Bjoerg’s dark brown beer.  It wasn’t bad.  Boy was I happy to be with them.  I think when I checked at the desk I may have spelled Jensen wrong; I’m not sure.  It doesn’t matter – everything was going to be all right now as long as mom felt better in the morning.  We had waited too long for this day to not have it happen. 

I explained the time that Guy and Willy planned to pick us up and Ejvind called the Baaring’s to advise them of the time so they could follow us.  We were to be at the Beringen Town Hall at 10:00 AM.   We said our good nights and went to our rooms looking forward to the fruition of our efforts.  Mom was asleep and it would be a miracle if I could get to sleep as I was reeling.  I suppose I did get a few hours but I think I was awake with my eyes closed for most of the time. 

We went down for breakfast very early.  There was a wonderful variety of breakfast foods and I asked the waitress if it would be possible for us to order sandwiches to take with us to have for the day ahead of us.  She brought out some tin foil and some rolls that would be good with the luncheon meat and told us just to take what we wanted for lunch from the breakfast buffet.  She was such a pleasant lady.  Ejvind and Bjoerg soon joined us and they did the same for their lunch.  We went back to our rooms and agreed to meet downstairs by 9:30 AM.

Ejvind was sitting in the lobby and Guy and Willy arrived according to schedule.  Soon Bjoerg joined us.  Nils and Bente followed shortly and we were off.  It felt like a dream when we arrived at the Beringen Town Hall and saw the people gathered there.  The feeling is indescribeable!  The Mayor, the townspeople, Raimond’s daughters, and others who I had looked forward to meeting filled the Town Hall.  I met Dirk Decuypere, an Aviation Archeologist, who I wasn’t sure would make it.  I had been corresponding with him via e-mail regarding the planned visit.  The American and Belgian flags were flying.  It was unbelievably uplifting to think that we – my mother and I and the Wendelen’s – were responsible for these people, this Town, remembering the heroic Allied Airmen and the very gallant Belgian Patriots, whose sacrifice for our freedom should never be forgotten. 

The Mayor spoke in Flemish and then in English.  The recollections of Richard Heyligen regarding the day the bomber landed in his village were read by his daughter, Ann.  Guy then explained how he and his brothers became involved in my mission to retrace my father’s past.  My mother and I were both given treasured gifts (me a Beringen Bear and mom chocolate bears and a special bottle of alcohol from Beringen and glasses displayed on a round mirror).  I gave a brief thank you for such a warm welcome and then read a statement that was written by my friend, Jetty Cook, which perfectly expressed his sentiments concerning the Belgian people and I thought were most appropriate to convey to those present.  It read: “I want to express my deep and ever-lasting appreciation to the many very brave Belgian patriots who risked so much to assist me and other airmen to evade capture and to safely return to our families.  I and thousands of other Allied airmen owe the Belgian people a great debt of gratitude for their bravery and kindness.  But they shall always remain very dear in our hearts.”  I was experiencing first hand although in different times and under very different circumstances exactly why Jetty felt the way that he did about these special people.  

 It was especially touching when Raimond’s daughters, Olga and Vera, presented a beautiful plaque that their father had made for us.  It was a very emotional day for the girls.  Their father belonged with us.  I could relate to their sorrow.  Both of our father’s should have been present.  Our fathers and the love of them were the reasons that we were there.  The plaque that Raimond crafted had my father’s picture in the middle of a circular piece that was found at the crash site and he had written the names of the crew members, the serial number and the place and date of the crash.  We shall cherish this masterpiece and this memorable day.  

There were also pieces of the B-17 that had been verified by part number which were given to my mother and me.  Guy told me that someone had brought another metal article that was apparently found at the crash site area and placed it with the others.  I did not notice who left it.

After the heartwarming and overwhelming affair at the Town Hall we were graciously transported to the crash site by drivers in World War II jeeps provided by the Hell on Wheels Association.  We were driven as close to the area as possible as the ground became swampy and muddy.  We jumped out of the jeeps and Willy had brought some big rubber boots which I slipped on replacing the sandals that I had worn.  They came up to my knees and must have looked a sight but it did not matter.  I wanted to be able to go where I needed to go and not worry about mud and water.  We walked in a line and Guy pointed out the “Black Creek” when we got to that area.  I had read about the Black Creek in the reports of the crash.  Again, it was like a dream that I was walking this area that I had heard about and had seen pictures of.  Guy explained the direction that the plane came from with the landing gear lowered.  There had been grooves in the ground at one time and it was told that one of the wheels had come off in the field.  We saw the final resting place of the broken ship. 

I could visualize the occurrence as Guy’s explanation continued and imagine how cold it was on that day in February.  I walked in the area that the B-17 would have come through.  I could tell my father’s pilot, Lawrence Cook, who I believe is the sole surviving crew member now, that I walked where his B-17 had come to its resting place 62 years ago before being dismantled by the Germans.  There could have been some of my father’s gear strewn out of the plane into this very place.  I felt a closeness to dad just by being there – a closeness to him as a boy in another time. 

We moved on to our next stop which was the path of the tail gunner on my father’s crew, Thomas Mikulka.  Richard Heyligen had explained in his statement the critical role that his brother, Jules, played in Mikulka’s road to freedom.  He was now showing us the meadow in which Thomas landed, where the airman and Jules hid in the woods until dark, the field that they walked across and the Heyligen house which he stayed in overnight.  We all entered the home which is now occupied by Jules and Richard’s sister.  She welcomed us and Richard told of “Tommy” being in the very room that we were sitting.  The table was not the same but it was the same place.  We were led into the bedroom and it was astounding to see the original bed that Mikulka had slept in his on his first night in Belgium – his first night as an Evader and I believe it possibly to also be young Jules’ first night as a Helper.  It was very special to have the Heyligen family with us contributing so much to this incredible journey.  It is hard to explain but even though I did not know Thomas Mikulka, I feel as though he is family. 

Our next stop would be to the area where the radio operator, Jay Joyce, landed in a tree.  The witness, recalling that Jay had given him gum and cigarettes, pointed and gave his account of what he remembered of that day in February, 1944.  I had been in touch with Jay’s wife, Bea.  She had been told by her husband that he in his parachute had landed in a tree.  I wished that she could have been with us. The Germans saw him descending and were there immediately to free him from the tree.  He was liberated yet restrained. That was the beginning of his experience as a Prisoner Of War.  I am suspecting that he and my father may have seen each other when taken to Leopoldsburg as there was not a large distance between landing sites and they more than likely would have been picked up by the Germans at approximately the same time. 

We moved on to the region where my father would have landed.  The memories of this significant day and place are indelibly etched in my mind.  I could almost see him standing there as a 20-year-old boy who would one day become my father and who most certainly overnight became a man.  I listened as the events of that day were explained by 2 different witnesses.  The first expressed his memory of my father landing in a garden.  He saw him from a distance as he had a broken leg.  He was a young teenager and the ladies who lived in the house (which is gone now) went in to get my father civilian clothes.  It was upsetting to them when they returned to help him to see the Germans arriving to claim him.  They screamed and cried.  This account matches the story that my father told his sister, Helen, the day he returned from the War.  He had mentioned landing in a garden and the ladies crying and extremely upset when the Germans arrived on the scene.

The second witness showed us the area in which he remembered seeing my father land.  It had been a garden then and he was the first one to him.  There was a large tree there which was a landmark.  He told that my father had given him a cigarette and as mentioned previously, the Germans quickly zeroed in on him and took him away.  I couldn’t help but stare at these two men who I had been listening to and thinking of the day that they saw this young airman fall into the garden.  I was gazing at someone that my father looked at as a young boy over 62 years ago.  What an extraordinary feeling that I will never forget.  Again, I was walking the route of my father and feeling his presence every step of the way but seeing through different eyes in a different time the same people in the same place.

Our next and last stop on the agenda was the Museum at Leopoldsburg.  The building was a German hospital during the War and would most certainly have been the hospital that my father’s navigator, Donald Caylor, would have passed away in.  Donald was wounded when his plane was hit and died shortly after apparently from the wounds inflicted as he operated from his navigator position.  As we entered the building and looked down the hallway, I thought of Donald being brought in and how sad it was for him to die alone.  It had to be heartbreaking for his family to learn of his death and be so far away.  I understand that his body was eventually repatriated to his hometown of Horton, Kansas.  Mrs. Caylor, Donald’s mother, visited the Pilot, Lawrence Cook, after the War to see if he could tell her anything about her son but he had no knowledge of what had transpired after he bailed out as he was not with him.  She was looking for answers certainly to try to find closure.  That could easily have been my grandmother trying to find answers regarding my father. 

The area at Leopoldsburg would have been the place in Belgium that my father spent his two days after being captured.  Driving by the area sustained my thoughts of him.  It was the beginning of his time as a Prisoner of War.  It started with his landing in the garden and continued to that very location – the reasons that I needed to be there.  It is why it was so important to me to walk and view the different significant areas in Belgium.  There was a nice guide who explained interesting facts about the history of the area and the building.  I was right in my feelings that we should forego lunch to make sure that we had time to stop in Leopoldsburg.  It made this tour of key areas involved in my father’s travels in Belgium complete.

Prior to continuing to Leopoldsburg, I’m ashamed to mention the scare I had when I realized that I did not have my purse.  It made me feel a little sick as everything important that I owned was in that purse.  Ejvind, my private detective, had taken pictures with his digital camera along the way and he looked back at the pictures and discovered the last place that I was carrying my purse.  It was in front of the Heyligen home.  I was pretty embarrassed that I was so careless but I was so caught up in the day.  When we sat at the table I had laid it on the floor.  We stopped at the house on the way to Leopoldsburg and Ejvind was right.  It was there.  The house that was “safe” 62 years ago remains so today. 

There was another incident which added a bit of humor to the moment and that occurred in the Town Hall.  After mom and I sat down, a tray of drinks was brought to us.  I only cared to have water so I selected a small glass with a clear liquid which I thought was water.  Mom also wanted water so I took the other small glass.  We took sips at the same time and that clear liquid burned all the way down.  They could tell by the look on our faces that we thought the alcohol that we just drank was water and brought us real water.  It was a little awkward but we had never done anything like this before.  It turned out that the alcohol we drank was probably a very popular drink called “genever” or “jenever.  I’m not sure if that’s the correct spelling.  Maybe another day and at a different time I might have enjoyed it but at that particular moment it was best that I drank water.  

We ended our day with refreshments at Raimond’s house meeting his lovely wife, Louise, and talking of the events of the day.  The hospitality shown by this family was heartrending when I know what a void that they were suffering in the loss of their husband, father, and brother.  I could feel the sadness they felt and totally understand it and I wished that I could do or say something profound to relieve their pain.  

In talking with the daughters, there were many similarities in our fathers.  They were both very handy and could build anything.  Raimond’s collection of artifacts was indicative of his passion for World War II aircraft and memorabilia displaying a propeller as a lawn ornament in his yard as well as many other objects that he had collected.  I was glad to see all of Raimond’s treasures and to hear about him.  His presence was felt just like my dad’s was.  He had to be satisfied and proud with the outcome of this unforgettable day.

We went back to our Hotel and we were very tired.  The day was over and what a huge letdown.  I didn’t plan for this feeling.  The day was everything that I dreamed it would be and more and it was inevitable that it would end.  I didn’t like how I was feeling but I think that it was normal.  I had looked forward to this for so long and the only way it could have been better is if Raimond and dad were there.

Guy said he would come over Sunday to discuss the events of the previous day and answer any questions that I had.  I had that to look forward to.  It would be good to rehash everything.  I made a notebook of dad’s things that I wanted to give him and I had a book and a zippo lighter that I had gotten for him and Willy.  It was the same book that I had given Ejvind.  I also had a lighter for Ejvind that I would give him Sunday as well.  I think Ejvind was in his glory riding in the WWII jeep and talking with everyone.  How appropriate and gratifying for him and Bjoerg to be with us.  Bjoerg, Nils and Bente took such good care of my mom and she just loved them. 

I had to do some e-mailing before I went to bed to try to explain to the best of my ability the unbelievable day that mom and I had experienced.  There was no way that words could do it justice but I tried my best.  I don’t know if I was going to get to sleep with my mind replaying the events of the day but I would try.  I think that Ejvind and Bjoerg were probably as tired as we were.  We would see them at breakfast.  I can’t say enough about how happy I was that they were able to be with us.

Guy arrived as planned Sunday with his notebook of maps and information that he had used in planning the previous astounding day.  I ordered my first beer in Belgium, Jupiler.  I liked it. Ejvind and Bjoerg joined us also.  I gave Guy the notebook I put together for him and the copies of dad’s Missing Air Crew Report and POW notebooks as well as the engraved Zippo lighters for him and Willy.  The book, “Belgium Rendesvous – 127” was written by Yvonne Daley-Brusselmans and Thomas Mikulka’s picture is in it.  I thought that Guy would like it.  I had told the Heyligen’s about it and said I would order them one when I arrived home and send it to them. 

Guy I think felt the same letdown as I did.  Here we had been e-mailing and planning for months.  They put a lot of effort into this occasion and now it was over.  I was grateful for the papers that Guy gave me to add to my information.  He was going to leave us but would be back Monday night to say goodbye.  I was glad that we would get to see him one more time before leaving.  Ejvind and Bjoerg were going to leave Monday morning to go to Mons.  I was already starting to feel sad about that too.  I gave Ejvind his engraved Zippo lighter with the Air Force insignia.  I thought it would be good to put with his collection of 8th Air Force Memorabilia.  

We ordered lunch at the bar in the Hotel.  This was our last day together.  Bjoerg had discovered a museum close by when she went for a walk so we all decided to go to the Museum for our last day.  It was pretty interesting and what was really great was the company that we were in.  I wished that I could hold onto these days we had spent together.  We walked through the museum and went outside and took some pictures and then made our way back to the hotel.  It began to rain a little which was appropriate for the way I was feeling.  I think we all were exhausted.  We said our good nights and that we would see each other in the morning before they took off.

We had our breakfast the next morning and Ejvind was planning on leaving about 10:00 AM.  He said they would stop at the room first.  He and Bjoerg stopped to say goodbye and Ejvind wanted to take a couple of pictures of my mom and I with the beautiful plaque.  They then had to go check out.  We hugged goodbye.  I waited a few minutes and then told mom I just had to go downstairs to see them off.  I had to say goodbye one more time.  I wanted them to know just how much I appreciated them being with us throughout this meaningful visit in Belgium.  We said our last goodbyes and it saddened me. 

Mom and I took an afternoon walk around the area for our last day.  I ended up having to call Taxisbleus because I never received a confirmation from them via e-mail.  I did manage to talk to someone and verify that there would be a taxi to pick us up in the morning to take us to the airport.  I also verified our flight to make sure that it was on time.  We packed our bags as much as we could leaving just our clothes for the next day and toiletries unpacked.  Everything was in order. 

We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant for our last meal and then went to our room to wait for Guy to call.  Our bouquets were still beautiful so mom and I decided to give them to Guy as a memorial to Raimond.  He did call as he said he would and mom and I went downstairs flowers in arms.  It was going to be hard to say goodbye.  Guy was right there to meet us when we stepped out of the elevator smiling broadly and then from behind some panels stepped Willy, Olga, Vera, Louise, and Richard Heyligen who also came to say their goodbyes.  What a wonderful surprise!  The girls gave each of us more chocolates and Richard brought a copy of a newspaper article with our pictures as well as a picture of his brother, Jules, and a copy of a page of his book that had a picture and article regarding Milo Blakely, waist gunner on dad’s crew.  

Guy also brought some information that I had asked for.  We all had drinks in the bar and sat for a brief while.  We took a few more pictures and then it was time for them to leave.  I knew that it had to end sometime and this was it.  We all hugged and my heart was heavy.  I wanted to cry but I didn’t.  They were taking the elevator to go to their car.  Mom and I were just pressing the button to go up to the room when their elevator door opened and there were the Wendelen’s and Richard again so I got to wave goodbye to them one last time and take one more picture.  I missed them already. 

We were two families carrying on the memory of our loved ones; my mother and I retracing my father’s experience and the Wendelen family carrying on what Raimond had begun in helping this American family realize their dream.  Although it was over 60 years later, it was evidence that the tradition of the kind Belgians assisting complete strangers from a foreign country carries on still today.  It was different yet vaguely familiar.  Our encounter with the many people convening in Beringen who afforded my mother and me such a warm reception was indeed shades of the past.

Mom and I returned to our room both feeling subdued from the finality of the evening and an unforgettable visit to Belgium.  Morning would come very early and we would be departing for the next important segment of our voyage as we would fly from Brussels to Berlin.

We woke up at 4:30 AM as we planned and as it worked out the taxi was at the hotel very early so we were able to leave as soon as we were ready. I looked out our hotel window one last time and relived the last few days in my mind. What I needed to do was to go home and really absorb everything and write every minute detail of our stay here but I had more territory to cover and I had really felt when I was planning this trip that it was a now or never thing. If I did not plan to visit all of these important places now more than likely I would not plan individual trips. This was the only way I could be positive that I would cover dad’s route as completely as possible. I could not gamble that I would be able to be back.

Mom was really tired getting up so early and it was hard to sleep after having said goodbye to our friends. You couldn’t help but have sad feelings leaving people and a place that you were treated so kindly – this extraordinary place that certainly provided such vivid memories to my father and now to my mother and me. This was such an important region. It was on both of our minds the reality of how slim the chances are that we would ever see any of those that we had spent quality time with again. On the positive side, we will definitely keep in touch.

I went to the lobby to check out and asked if I could purchase the adapter for my computer as I would need it and that way I wouldn’t have to ask about it everywhere that we were to stay. The young gentlemen said they had plenty of them so just to keep it. His kindness was saving me a lot of trouble I was sure.

We arrived at the Brussels Airport in plenty of time to catch our flight to Berlin. It was so much easier to use the luggage cart rather than lugging the heavy suitcases and trying to carry the heavy backpacks and our purses like we had been. One can work up quite a sweat doing that. We had enough time to eat a leisurely breakfast after we checked in.

As we sat waiting for our flight I wrote some of the things that I wanted to remember: “Mr. Krumpen was 14 and the other witness was 16”. These are the two witnesses who saw my father as he parachuted into the garden. I also wanted to remember that “Milo Blakely, the waste gunner, made it to England in a week but it took Thomas Mikulka three weeks”. These seem like little things but to someone (like me) who would like to know as many details as possible they are important. I continued to write thoughts of our time spent in Belgium. We had promised to keep in touch and I wrote that I was certain that we would. Guy Wendelen had solved a mystery and gave me a copy of an explanation of the Nickname that my father’s B-17 had been given which was “Margriet”. In Flemish “Margriet” means daisy. I was so happy to have this paper and I would read it many times. There were daisies in the beautiful bouquets that the Wendelen’s gave us commemorating the B-17 nicknamed “Margriet”.

Now when I say or write that my father’s B-17 crashed in Belgium and that the crew members were forced to bail out of the plane over Belgium, the picture once again is clearer in my mind just as our visit to Podington brought things into focus. That is, as clear as it can possibly be not reliving my own experience but trying to piece together and visualize my father’s.

We had a smooth flight to Berlin Tempelhof airport. It was confusing though when we exited the plane. We did not go through a tunnel into the airport; we went down the steps onto the runway and just followed everybody to the stairway entering the building. It was not clear where we should go so I just picked some people to follow. We would find out that I made a bad choice. We walked out of the secure area mistakenly thinking we were going to get our luggage. When I figured out we needed to go back where we came from – that was not possible. We had to wait until everyone was out of the plane and the luggage was claimed and then they would bring our luggage out to us. We weren’t the only ones that made this mistake and it ended up just being a minor inconvenience. They brought our luggage and we were on our way again.

We now needed to find a taxi to take us to our hotel, the Berlin Steigenberger. It was a struggle to get our luggage one at a time up the stairs as it was not allowed on the escalator but we made it fairly easily out of the airport. There was a line of taxis waiting so we just picked one and gave the driver our hotel name and we were off. Things would be a little easier now once we met up with the tour group that we would spend the next eleven days with. I would not have to worry about how we were getting anywhere until our last day so that would be a relief.

It was a 10 Euro drive from the Airport to the Hotel. I saw the remains of the familiar bombed church and knew that we were close to our destination. The hotel was just as I remembered it and there was a man waiting to take our bags to our room. All we had to do was check in and then we went to get settled in the room that we would spend the next 2 nights in. I went back down to buy the internet service and as I turned I saw a familiar face. It was John Tayloe who I had met the previous year. I took him to the room to meet my mother and we all went out for a little walk. I wanted mom to see the church. We sat outside and had drinks. I was the only one who had a beer and it was just like I remembered it. German beer is the absolute best. It was so good to see and talk to John. We went back to our rooms and John said dinner would be at 6:00 PM. I wrote home to tell everyone that we had made it safely to Berlin. We got freshened up before dinner and had time to rest a little bit. I think mom was a little nervous being with people that she had never met before but everybody was really nice and it didn’t take long for her to feel comfortable. We both had a glass of wine with our dinner. I drank mine and most of mom’s.

The following day, September 27th, we enjoyed a very interesting and informative tour of Berlin with a guide, Pamela. There were many highlights: Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie but one place that stands out in my mind was a tour of the Crown Prince William’s Palace where the Potsdam Conference was held. We were very fortunate as it was not a planned tour and our guide had to get permission for us to enter and we were allowed to be worked in between the groups as long as we were orderly and moved along. And this we did. Pamela certainly must have been quite proud of the behavior of her group.

We paid a visit to Frederick the Great’s Castle which is huge and just walked around the outside area. I thought it pretty interesting that he was buried on the grounds along with his dogs who took preference over his wife.

We returned to our hotel in time to get cleaned up for dinner which would be at 6:00 PM again. This time mom only wanted water and I ordered their pilsener beer to drink with our meal. The meals were very good both evenings and there was always a sweet dessert. We would leave at 8:00 AM the following morning. The breakfasts at the Steigenberger were utterly the best! Their pastries were out of this world!

We began the long bus ride and I would begin to focus on the next episode in our venture – my return to Barth. This would be my second visit to Barth and the former Stalag Luft I camp site. Last year I participated in a group returning for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Stalag Luft I and I went with the hopes of finding someone who remembered my father. I knew relatively nothing at that time and was looking for answers. I had thought – if only one of his room mates would be there to tell me about him. Of course I was hoping for too much. At that time I did not even know what Compound that my father was held in. I felt pretty insignificant because I knew so little but by the time I left there I knew that I had belonged as I walked the same ground, looked at the same sky and viewed the same beautiful church steeple as my father had 60 years before me.

Now, I was returning a bit wiser. I had located my father’s pilot, Lawrence Cook, who could tell me what he remembered of dad and what he recalled of their missions particularly that last fateful mission. He could also give me some of his memories of being interned at Stalag Luft I himself. He had evaded capture for seven weeks and after interrogation was taken to Barth where his residence would be the North 1 Compound, Barracks 8, Room 6 until liberation. I was certain that my father was in the West Compound so I could focus on that area. I had been corresponding with Helga Radau, the historian and person who has dedicated so much of her time to preserving the history of Stalag Luft I. I located the radio operator’s wife, Bea Joyce, who provided me with a crew picture so I could now put faces with the names that I had come to know so well from the Missing Air Crew Report. My mother and I flew in a B-17, I jumped from an airplane, we had visited the Podington Airfield that dad’s bomb group flew from and then visited significant areas in Belgium prior to arriving in Barth. It would be a great feeling to be there again. I felt more confident this time. It would be wonderful to see Helga and Martin again. Martin is Dr. Martin Albrecht, a historian and archaeologist from Berlin, who is also a wealth of information. Helga has exhibited her hospitality to many visiting ex-POW’s and their relatives by showing them the area. She and Martin have studied the history of the camp and have written it as well as illustrated the before and after picture. Without them visitors would have no idea what was where.

There is no intrigue in my father’s story that I know of.  He was one of thousands of Airmen who became POW’s but still Helga and Martin make me feel that he is special and everything that I find out about him is important.  I think they realize the lengths that I have gone to in retracing dad’s route.  I will feel that I have covered as much of his path as possible after returning from this trip.  It obviously was much easier for me than for dad but I feel I have come as close to his experience as I possibly could.  I have said this before but sometimes I feel like I am him reliving this past life of his. 

It was exciting to arrive in Barth.  John Tayloe and Vicki Morgan wanted to be dropped off to walk to the camp.  It would have been great to do that but I would get a chance to walk around later.  It was a long ride and mom was tired and hungry and it was lunchtime.  We went to Zingst, which is a lovely tourist attraction on the Baltic Sea, for lunch and ate with Joe and Shirley Reus.  It was quite a busy place.  Our group had gone there for lunch the previous year and I remembered the exact table that I sat at with Ruth Lawrence and Bud Bodei.  I could recall how much that I enjoyed their company.  As I looked around I remembered the hugs that Don Menard and the Russian, Vasily Bzugli, shared when they saw each other and could renew their acquaintance.  I could almost see Ejvind Jensen walking around taking pictures.  I had taken a picture of him and his sweet lady, Bjoerg, in front of this very restaurant.  Ruth and I had walked down to the water before we left so we could put our hands in the Baltic Sea.  This place certainly rekindled memories of the previous year.

Getting back to the present…Joe and I had a beer with our meal.  Shirley loves beer but has a medical condition that does not allow her to drink it so Joe just gives her the suds to satisfy the craving.  It is so much fun to sample whatever the house beer is at the different restaurants.  Mom ordered water.  We enjoyed a really good salad and still had time to go for a walk before Walter would pick us up.  Mom and the Reus’s walked on the pier and I wanted to put my feet in the water so I took off my sandals and walked through the sand and into the water.  What a beautiful day it was and I was reveling in the moment and the thoughts of what was to come.  It did not seem possible that I was here again and this time with my mom.  I could feel that dad was with us watching over us.  The blue sky, the warmth of the sun, and the atmosphere were all indications of his presence.  Mom had already said several times in our travels “I wonder if your father sees us”.  The weather had been beautiful ever since we left home.  To me that indicates that we were being watched over.  Mom would have been hampered by bad weather.  For me, weather would not be a deterrent from carrying out the plans I anticipated but it could restrict my mother; therefore, I am certain dad interceded on our behalf as far as the perfect weather conditions.   We had a few more minutes until the bus would arrive – just enough time for me to purchase an ice cream cone that had been calling my name ever since I walked by the stand that was selling them.  It just fit in with the milieu that the beautiful weather had set. 

After lunch we checked into our hotel, the same hotel I stayed in last year, the Hotel Speicher Barth.  Our room had a small sitting area but a stairway that we had to climb to get to the living and sleeping area. I was a little embarrassed because our bags were so heavy and we definitely needed help to get them up these stairs.  It took 2 men to carry them up and they were mumbling words I could only imagine the meaning of.  After getting a little settled we all sat outside on the deck downstairs and had drinks just happy to be in Barth.  I was hoping that Helga would be around.  Soon Walter, our guide, came and advised us that he had just spoken with Helga and that we were to go to the Mayor’s office at 6:00 PM that evening so our dinner would not be until after the meeting.  Walter also gave me gifts that Helga had sent.  I couldn’t wait to see her.  The gifts were a book that she had written that would be a treasure, “Barther Heimatheft Nr. 1” “VOLKSLAGEN” (der Stadt Barth und ihrer Umgebung) and beautiful perpetual calendars for my mother and me.  That was so thoughtful.  I brought gifts for her but did not expect to receive them. 

As arranged, we met with the Mayor’s Assistant and were served coffee and cookies.  It was a very nice meeting and nice of the kind representative to give of his time.  He answered any questions that we had about anything about Barth with Walter as our interpreter.   There was a reporter there who interviewed John Tayloe and Joe Reus.  We then left to go back to the hotel for dinner.  I really enjoyed the dinner and instead of beer I thought I’d try wine.  Martin joined us after dinner and it was nice to see him again.  I took mom to the room as she was so tired and just wanted to go to bed and then I went back to talk to Martin.  I told him about the places we had just visited and updated him on the progress on dad’s story since the last visit to Barth.   He asked when I returned home if I would put dad’s notebooks on CD and send it to him.  He said we could write a small book around the poems and sketches.  I really would like to do that and believe that it will happen.  We would talk more about it the following day.

I did not get much sleep at all.  I was just too excited thinking about the events of the next day, September 29th.  There would be a conference and Joe and John and I would be participating.  I was looking forward to it but didn’t know what to expect.   When we arrived the conference was in progress and while we waited outside we were taken to this beautiful garden and there was a pleasant lady who told us the kinds of flowers and how they related to the bible.  It was very interesting I thought and we were going to go into the building but we ran out of time.  I felt bad but it couldn’t be helped. 

It was time to go inside to the conference.  Martin was speaking and then we would be next.  John Tayloe and Joe Reus were interviewed about camp life.  John was a cook in camp and he never went hungry as many did and both he and Joe felt that they were treated well during their experiences as POW’s.  They really didn’t have any complaints.  I think that it depended on when you were brought into camp and your rank.  It sounded from their interviews that based on their titles and job responsibilities that there was mutual respect between them and their captors. 

There was an interpreter for us so we could not speak fluently; we had to talk a little and then let the interpreter talk and you were never sure if the message was coming across the same as what you were saying. If I could have spoken German it would have been so much better for me and I know that I could have gotten the point across smoothly. Those few who understood English complimented me including Helga and that meant a lot to me. I was so happy to do it and just a little disappointed that it did not feel like it was translated quite right.

The Conference ended appropriately with 2 songs played and sung by Reiner Lemke (singer/songwriter).  They were songs composed and performed in the POW camp including the historical camp song, “Low is the Sun” which was written by John Lashley in Stalag Luft I. Some of the words —
“Days have their worries Nights have their flurries in between times it’s dull. I hate to dream alone so hate to seem alone evenings bring such a lull
–for low is the sun.
As slowly it leaves the sky
low is the moon as night draws high
so is my heart whenever the day is thru.
Once a day, every day, evening brings thoughts of you.”

The song added a special touch to the conference and set a somber tone as one could imagine the loneliness felt behind barbed wire by the thousands who did not know when and if they would ever see their loved ones again.

We were given lunch and then continued from the Conference to the Airport which was where the POW’s had been marched to after liberation to be flown out in B-17’s – “Operation Revival”. Dad was flown out on May 13, 1945, twelve days after being liberated by the Russians.

From the airport we were taken to the Stalag Luft I Exhibition which is very interesting. There are many photos and many of them of the pertinent people in the camp as well as a replica of the layout of Stalag Luft I. There is also a book containing the list of those who were interned there on the premises. There is a video of the men being flown out – those happy young boys who would now be returning to their loved ones after having lost their freedom for months. I have been certain since the first time that I viewed the video that I see my father in it. It is so heartwarming to see how the memory of Stalag Luft I is carried on in this Museum as well as in the maintenance of the memorials at the Camp Site. I am so thankful to the Association for their efforts to carry on the legacy of such an historic event. They are keeping our fathers’ memory alive.

We then rode from the Exhibition to the camp site. It was a gorgeous sunny warm day. The ground was dry and it was easy walking around the area. Thank goodness for that for me as I did not have another pair of shoes and I had on my flipflops. Mom only had on her sandals also and I gave her the extra pair of shoes that I had brought.

I was in awe of the church steeple in the distance just as I had been in the previous visit. It was astounding to me to look at this steeple from the same area my father had. What a feeling it had to be for those men to view this house of worship from behind barbed wire – this beautiful steeple and this beautiful old church and there they were as prisoners doing the best they could to practice any sort of religion. There is just some tranquility that is felt gazing at this landmark and its appearance may have served to provide peacefulness to those captive bodies but free minds.

Helga first led us to a crumbling foundation in the North 1 Compound area. It is just an incredible feeling walking this area and imagining just what this foundation on which we were now standing had once supported. Oh, the sights that these grounds saw 62 years ago. And it is amazing to me to realize that although the fields look barren, there is so much that remains that was there 62 years ago. There was blood, sweat and tears that soaked into this ground. It all seems so sacred to me. To look at the pictures in the Exhibition and see the buildings and camp area in the background and then to walk the camp area – there is such a connection and it is easy for someone like me who is so engrossed in this time to visualize the activities of the men all those years ago.

Helga led us around the freshly-mowed perimeter of the West Compound pointing out different areas of interest, original roads and foundations. She showed us the fire pool and then the border of the West Compound. She called our attention to the original road that leads to where the flak school once was. We picked up pieces of brick, ceramic and glass throughout our walk that would become treasures to take home. My mother walked the entire area – everywhere that we went – she went. I was proud of her because I knew that there were a lot of emotions and this was not an easy thing to do. When she was sitting on the bus, just being there made her cry but she wanted to go where he (my dad) had been in that lifetime that was foreign to us. After being satisfied that we covered the area completely, we began our walk back to the bus. On the return walk we also viewed the base of a flak bunker. We took some final photos of the area. My flipflops worked fine except for some very small pricker type foliage that not only pricked but burned for quite a while. I only walked into a couple of those. John told me the name but I can’t remember. I did not complain though because it was not very bright of me to not have brought extra shoes for both mom and I.

We then rode back to the hotel once again deep in thought of the historic grounds that we just walked. There is something that draws me to this place and it is hard to explain to anyone. I could see it if I had been there 62 years ago and came back but that is not the case. I am just me. I have felt this way every leg of this trip that was part of my father’s route.

After returning to the hotel we freshened up for the evening and met in a different room then we normally ate in. We listened once again as Reiner sang some beautiful, meaningful songs before dining with us. I wish I would have taped them. I wish I had a video of the entire visit. His serenade was a wonderful end to a rewarding day. We then enjoyed dinner with everyone. Martin arrived late as he picked up copies of his book “Flugzeuge aus Barth” to distribute to us. I asked both him and Helga to sign their books which they did. Helga gave me 2 precious coins that were found at the camp site. I am accumulating such a priceless collection of treasures – the books included. Mom was tired and I took her up to bed but came back down to visit with Helga and Martin for a little while. I have explained my desire to write my father’s story the best way possible without him. I was hanging on to every minute that I could. I hated to have it end knowing that we were leaving in the morning.

This time spent in Barth was a very gratifying and significant facet of our voyage. Things are so much clearer to me now than after my first visit. I was confused then and it was important to me to know the route that the men took from the railroad station through town and to the Camp as well as their walk from the Camp to the Airport. I can picture it all so much better now and it is my dream to some day walk the entire area. It all makes sense and I feel good about that. I have grown in my knowledge and understanding of this area and feel that I belong here as my father’s daughter. When I visit I am returning in his place and remembering this lifetime for him and the thousands of men like him. Things have begun to look familiar to me as they most surely would to him. I was looking at places, though, almost as if I was seeing them through my father’s eyes.

Mom and I got up early our last morning and took a short walk to take one last look at the water and the Town and the Church. There was a boat named “Roland” that mom wanted her picture taken in front of. She always called dad by his middle name, Roland. I took another picture of her in front of the Hotel Speicher Barth. We then had our last breakfast there and it was time to depart.

Helga, with her two dogs, came to bid us farewell.  We hugged and promised we would keep in touch.  Grete and Gunther Koch were staying at the same hotel and also waved as we left.  Grete’s father was a German guard who never returned home to his family after the war.  She had been told that he was murdered by an American.  She is very brave to return to this place that is a sad reminder to her but I would do the same with hopes of finding answers.  I took a few last-minute photos and we were on our way to Peenemunde.  Martin who graciously took the time to be with us and contribute his expertise throughout our visit was riding along with us.  He would be dropped off in Berlin on our way to the next leg of our trip – another meaningful piece of the puzzle – Poland.

We spent 45 minutes at Peenemunde and it was worth the stop although we did not have time to go into the museum.  It was great to have Martin Albrecht with us as he is so knowledgeable about so many things including the V-1 and V-2 rockets and he gave us a dissertation regarding the history of Peenemunde.  He was the perfect guide.  As planned we dropped him off and continued the drive to Poland.  The traffic was very heavy and slow so we were very behind schedule.  It was a holiday weekend which accounted for it. 

I had pictures and books that I had received from Joe O’Donnell that were so relevant to the area that we were about to visit and I shared them especially with Walter and Mary Grotz as it would be very familiar to Walter.  I also had a most interesting and informative letter from George Guderley that I shared with the others on the bus.  Mary commented that it was like a history lesson in itself.  Joe and George are two fellows I am so fortunate to have come in contact with.  I was referred to George way back when I was inquiring with Gib, the tour guide on my first trip to Barth.  Gib gave me George’s number and said that he would be able to help me in my pursuit of my dad’s experience.  He was right.  I did everything that George told me to do and it paid off.  I contacted dad’s Bomb Group, ordered books he recommended; sent for dad’s POW medal.  Any advice he gave, I listened to and followed up on.   He and Joe O’Donnell have been my gurus as far as the POW facet of my dad’s experience as well as other areas.  My goal is to prove to them that they did not waste their time on me.  I’d like to make them proud of me – as proud of me as I am to know them.

We finally arrived at the border and had to have our passports inspected and we all passed.  There was a large gas station with a shop like our Uni-Mart so we all went in to go to the powder room and buy any snacks or drinks we thought we needed.  Ed Pototcznik was eying the kinds of beer and ended up buying a couple of large bottles of Heineken which I did not know at the time but I was going to be glad that he did later.  

We were now on our way to our destination Hotel in Koszalin.  We were supposed to be there at 4:30 PM and it was after 6:30 when we arrived.  It had to have been a stressful drive for Walter, our Coach driver and guide.  Jupi Podlaszewski was waiting for us with two young American girls who teach in his school of English in Koszalin.  They had a program scheduled for us upon our arrival so everyone involved had been waiting for 2 hours.  He asked if we could go right away to attend the planned welcome for us.  Of course we would go.  There was dinner waiting for us at the hotel as well but that would have to be delayed until we returned.  We all had to check in and leave our luggage to be taken care of when we returned as there were people who had been waiting and who were kind enough to still be there. 

Jupi had called taxis to pick us up and transport us to what was quite a magnificent display of art.  The artist, Zygmunt, explained many pieces in his impressive exhibit – an exhibit which memorialized a number of serious and tragic occurrences.  There were many sculptures of individuals who had fallen victim to atrocities.  These works of art were appropriately displayed in a dark and dismal tomb or dungeon like setting with candles casting the only shadows on the beautiful and meaningful faces that Zygmunt had sculpted.  We stood in silence as we listened to the stories that were translated smoothly by Jupi.  I wished that I had a tape recorder or video camera to record what was being told.  It was an emotional and sobering presentation which led up to the unveiling of the beautiful sculpture of the American Airman. 

How thrilling to be present for this viewing which stirred the emotions in all of us.  There was a sense of pride in casting my eyes on this piece, this face, the face of the “American Airman” the face of my father who to me represents the thousands of American Airmen who served in World War II who also was the reason that my mother and I were there.   There was a book that we all signed and then we were transported to another building where they had prepared food and drink for us.  There was plenty of vodka and whiskey to toast with.  My mom and I both chose the whiskey to toast with.  I took teeny tiny sips.  We were given an incredibly warm welcome that I shall never ever forget and it was even warmer with the alcohol consumption. 

I did not know all of these people who were treating us so amiably even though we went around the table and each told who we were and why we were there as a person was videotaping.  When my mom found out that we were going to have to do this she got big tears in her eyes so I told her I would introduce both of us.  It was awkward because there was a person between us but I think that it worked out okay.  I sat next to the two sweet American girls who work in Jupi’s school and they each said that they were young Americans when they introduced themselves and when it was my turn I said I was “Candy Brown and I’m a young American”.  That is the humor that I would use at home but I probably should not have done that.  They don’t know me and nobody laughed when I said it.  They probably didn’t know that I was just making a joke.  I won’t do that again.  At home my friends who know me would have laughed.  Anyway, these people treated us royally and I realized that I owe a huge debt to so many people after such a gratifying trip.  To complete the evening, Walter Grotz, the only ex-POW who was with us that was interned in Stalag Luft IV, cut the cake – the cake decorated so appropriately with the Polish and American Flags.  The flags were also displayed in the room that we congregated in. 

Walter resembled my dad I thought as I looked at him throughout the week.  I was honored to meet him.  His humor was like dad’s.  It really hit home to me during this visit the unlikeliness of there being any more visits from the Ex-POWs.  We have to remember them and there is such an impact when the story is told from first hand experience.  Can the interest continue with stories being told by a son or daughter who was not there?  How can one make it intriguing to capture ones attention and make them want to know more?  That is my project and it will be full time I know.   Perhaps the reason I feel the need to visit all of the places that my father had been is so that when I tell the story I can at least say that I was there.  Could that possibly make it any more interesting?  I don’t know but what I do know is that it is a key factor in the foundation of my father’s story told by me without having been there when he was.  Whether it arouses anyone’s interest or not it matters not because it helps me to feel, as closely as I can possibly feel, what my father must have felt.  I am confident that I can write.  My goal will not change no matter how impossible it seems to compile anything of interest to all ages.  It will not be easy but I owe dad and Joe and George and Oscar (Mick) and Jetty and Lawrence and all my friends that have walked the walk my best efforts in keeping their memory alive.  Without them and men like them I wouldn’t even be here attempting this feat.  They are my heroes.

Now back to the feast that our Polish friends put on for us…..after much eating, and not that much drinking really, it was time to go back to our hotel.  We were all drained from the long day but there isn’t one of us that would have changed a thing.  What a jam packed and exciting evening.  It had brought all of us to life after the long drive to get there.  It was quite humorous when it came time to leave as due to the consumption of alcohol as a result of the many toasts welcoming us, we no longer had capable drivers to transport us to the hotel.  It was not that far so we set out on foot.  My mom was such a trooper.  She was amazing as she had to be exhausted.  She was quite proud though at our gathering to be the oldest one present.  They were trying to determine the oldest and youngest and she won out in the oldest category by a narrow margin over Joe Reus.  The “Young Americans” beat me out of the youngest category.  I won’t say what the margin was.

We had a problem to face when we arrived back at the hotel as they held dinner for us.  We were all so full and now we had to sit down to a full course meal.  I felt pretty bad but I could only take a few bites of things.  It was hard enough to look at – let alone eat when we were so full.  Besides being full it was also bedtime and we had an important day ahead of us.  We did the best that we could.  I’m sure the food would have been very good under normal circumstances.  I tried to shove things around on my plate to look like I’d eaten more than I did but I wasn’t very successful.  We needed a dog or 2 to slip things to.  I don’t think that they were too happy with us but it could not have been any different.  Our friends went through the time and effort to welcome our small group and we were happy to accommodate them and show our appreciation by participating in their generously planned evening.  We then had to pick up our bags at the desk and take them to our rooms and try to get to sleep after the exciting evening.  We had arrived in Koszalin on Saturday and Sunday, October 1, was the day we were to visit the Stalag Luft IV Memorial. 

We woke up early and went down to breakfast with great anticipation of the day ahead of us.  I brought my notebook with me full of copies of dad’s things and couldn’t wait to show them.  Jupi, Moira and Amy rode with us and I showed the girls some of the pages in the notebook.  They seemed very interested.  It was so nice to have them along with us and I think they were probably glad to be with other Americans.

In arriving at the Camp Site, my heart was heavy yet warmed by the uniformed persons and many others who gathered to remember the Airmen who had been held captive in this Camp.  It was another beautiful day weather-wise.  The Mayor gave a speech translated by Jupi which was a message of assurance that this significant event in history would not be forgotten.  Once again I wished that I had a recorder to record the words.  A wreath was laid at the foot of the memorial by the Mayor and other officials.  Amy and Moira, the young American teachers, read some “dear John” letters that the POW’s received while prisoners.  There were many misconceptions about the life of a POW as indicated by these letters.

 I know that the Memorial commemorated the long march out of camp which my father did not have to endure but I felt like I was there to represent my friends; Joe, George and Oscar.  It made me very proud of my friends as well as dad to be there for them.  We were at the area that was formerly A Lager.  There was a potato cellar behind the memorial.  We went across the road to where the fire pool was.  It was still in tact and from what I understand was not used for anything.  Apparently, the purpose was to put out any fires but it was told that there were no buckets to transport the water in and you couldn’t swim in it either so it was just water serving no purpose whatsoever.  It amazed me to see this pool that looked like an old swimming pool and think how long it has been there and the reason that it was there.  It was quite an experience to stand on its edge with Walter Grotz and hear his comments.  He was held in Lager A so remembered this area well.  There was a certain excitement when he looked around and told what he remembered during the time he spent there.  He pointed in the direction of where he would have sacrificed over a year of his life. It means so much to me to be able to visit these Camps with men who are so willing to share their memories.   All that I will ever be able to do is share the memories of their memories.  That will have to be the best that I can do without ever having lived it and without ever having questioned my father about it.

 I noticed some young neighborhood children who traveled along with us when we walked to the fire pool.  They were awfully cute kids and were obviously typical kids as when I took their picture one of the girls gave probably a sibling bunny ears.  That must be a universal trick.  The girl she did it to will never know.

 We gathered once again and boarded the bus to be taken to what was the Kiefheide Railroad Station, now Podborsko.  I had read and heard this name many times before.  I have seen the word written in my father’s notebook.  And now I was going to see it with my own eyes.  Every place that we visit seems like a dream to me.  It is as if I am in this dream world from years ago.  If I didn’t know better I would think that I had actually been there in a different life rather than my father or as well as my father.  This is the Station that my father would have been dropped off at prior to being run up the hill – another occurrence that I have heard so much about.  Walter said that nothing had changed there so I was looking at the same station that my father had seen during a most terrifying part of his experience as a POW.  There is a memorial on site commemorating the thousands of men who traveled through there on their route to Stalag Luft IV.  I was standing in or near the same space as my father and my friends.  The Memorial was another heartwarming tribute to those brave men as well as assurance that they will not be forgotten.  That is important – it’s important to the Ex-POW’s – not only to them but to their family members like my mother and I.  We walked around the front of the building and continued to the back.  I looked up and down the tracks knowing my father passed this way.  You could imagine seeing those old boxcars and the doors opening and the men who had been crammed in them for so long exiting them in such a weakened state from thirst and starvation. This is the place that dad’s march to Stalag Luft IV began – the run for his life – he and the many other men who were at the mercy of the agitated German guards.

I asked Jupi where the road was that the men would have traveled on to the Camp and if it would be possible to go there.  I wanted to walk on it.  If it would have been possible I would have wanted to walk the entire route or better yet – run it.  It was not viable to do that but we did travel to the road – “the” road where the “Heydekrug Run” took place with my father as a participant.  This short walk on this infamous road was one of the highlights of the visit.  I could only look and envision my dad chained to another person running from the dogs and the guard’s bayonets.  He would have been so weak from the months of internment and the painful boat and boxcar ride he was forced to bear. He had to be carrying his belongings as he came home with items that he would have had from his first camp, Stalag Luft VI.  I am wondering if he made a backpack with his shirt.  Walter Grotz demonstrated how the men did that and perhaps that is how dad carried his things without losing them.  I’ll never know who dad was paired with.  My Aunt Helen told me once that the one time dad talked to her, the night he arrived home, that the man he was handcuffed or chained to was sick and he had to help him along.  I appreciated that we could make this unplanned stop that meant so much to me.  It had to bring back memories for Walter.

 After this somber stop we continued to the Stalag Luft IV Museum which once again to me was a pleasure to observe – the exhibition of many articles and pictures which in viewing satisfied the need felt to preserve the memory of the sacrifices made by men like my father.  I left the notebook that I had compiled of pictures and copies pertaining to my father and his crew.  I brought 3 notebooks with me and left one in Belgium, one in Germany, and one in Poland to ensure that this crew that is special to me would be included in those remembered.   I felt relief and satisfaction when I presented this last book knowing that what has become “my crew” was included in each important location.  It had been worth the weight of the heavy notebooks that I had carried in my backpack which became lighter at every stop, to now feel that my mission was accomplished.

 After absorbing all of the interesting displays in the museum, it was lunchtime so we once again boarded the bus and were transported to a picnic area where we enjoyed camaraderie and good Polish sausage, potatoes, salad and Heineken beer which was my drink of choice.  What beautiful weather for this wonderful gathering – all of us involved in a day of remembering.  It couldn’t have been a better day.  It was hard to say goodbye to all of these kind people and to look at their friendly faces for the last time.   It once again was hard to believe that we were really there.  I will never forget these days or these people.  I only wish that I could remember the names although I don’t think remember is the correct word as I can’t forget something that I didn’t know in the first place and I did not catch many of the names to go with the friendly faces.  I loved the faces – those I will never forget. 

I wished that every one of my family members could have experienced what mom and I had in the astounding 3 week quest.  It was even better than I had hoped for.

 When we left the picnic grounds, we were going to go to Jupi’s School of English in Koszalin to view a tape that he had of a previous reunion I believe in 1996 at Stalag Luft IV with a group with Leonard Rose.  On our way we stopped at a beautiful meticulously kept cemetery.  There was another beautiful sculpture by Zygmunt in the Cemetery in memory of the deceased heroes.

The reunion tape was very interesting and informative and I wished that there was a copy of it.  It would be good for everyone to view such an emotional video of the men going back and to hear the stories – the real life stories.

 It is impossible to put into words or to recapture the precious memories that we had made on our journey to retrace dad’s past.  The journey was truly priceless. 

We went back to our hotel and were going to meet for dinner in about an hour.  We were invited to Ed and Berneice’s room along with Walter and Mary as he was willing to share the 2 large Heineken’s that he had purchased when we first arrived in Poland.  Mom wanted to rest but I chose to help Ed drink the beer.  What a great way to top off our unbelievable day with such good company.  I just loved the four of them.  I told Walter that he was my stand in dad.  I took a picture of my friends.  I knew that I was going to miss them when this trip was over.  After our most enjoyable toast it was time for dinner.  We had a whole trout that evening and I swallowed a bone.  I didn’t choke to death though.  Actually it went down pretty easy.  I wasn’t accustomed to this type of fish presentation but once I watched and figured out how I was supposed to eat it I was home free and it was really delicious.  Mom didn’t care for it so much though.  I think it was looking at it that bothered her or perhaps it looking at her.   I hated for the day to end but it was time to turn in for the evening as we would be leaving early in the morning. 

What a nice surprise that we had in the morning – Jupi, Ziggy and the nice man from the Home Army that I liked so well but did not know his name, came to bid us farewell.  This is an example of the type of people that we spent 2 days with.  I knew that I would miss them but I couldn’t help but feel that I may some day see them again.  I am not sure why I felt that way but I did.

We arrived in Berlin about 3 PM on October 2nd.  John Tayloe, Vicki Morgan and I walked to get mom some hearing aid batteries.  Our dinner was going to be at 6 PM.  It was nice to walk around with John and Vicki.  They knew where everything was as they covered quite a bit of territory on our first stop in Berlin.  It had been nice to see both of them again.  I had met them last year on the Barth trip.  Our dinner was pork and noodles which was very good.  We went to bed at 10:30. 

The following day, October 3rd, we walked around Dresden and took many pictures prior to our stay in Erlangen.  I think mom enjoyed the sights there but it was the first day that we had rain so we had to walk around with our umbrellas.  Mom was quite impressed with these buildings and the history.  The temperature was still pretty comfortable.

Walter Grotz had taken the bus microphone and entertained us for a couple days to break up the monotony of the drive.  The first day he told us his very interesting story and it was so nice for him to share it with us.  Once again a video camera would have been great.  I talked to his wife, Mary, about his story and she had a copy with her and graciously gave it to me which made me very happy.  The second day that he took the mike he gave us a little of the history of Dresden, told a few jokes and then sang a couple of songs.  He had such a nice voice and I loved listening to him.  I loved to see and hear him as he sat in the front of the bus down next to the driver.  I admired the person that he was – a hero and a survivor who I am so lucky to know and be able to share this trip with.  He may be scarred from the War but knows how to handle life.  He was and is a joy to be around – a silent hero as is Ed.  Both of these men like so many emerged from a most traumatic time and went on to live their lives achieving success to become true assets to society despite their harrowing struggles to survive as young men.

As I was riding on the bus and realizing that we only had two more evenings that we would spend together,  I was planning in my mind how special that I wanted our last day with everyone to be.  I planned to show the beautiful plaque that mom and I had received in Belgium along with the gifts that we were given in Beringen.  I wanted to show the pieces of the plane and read the poem that I had written.  I was running out of time and it was important to me to tell my friends who shared the same interests as I in the route that we had taken together for the past couple of weeks.  They did not witness our time in Belgium but they would be interested to hear about it.

Once again we enjoyed a good dinner with friends who were like family to us after sharing some unforgettable incidents together.   Our time was running out and she and I would have one more evening with the group.  Things were winding down but it was fun to recap the places we’d been with everyone. 

Our last day went just as I envisioned.  We did some sightseeing in Nurnberg, visiting Hitler’s parade grounds and the Arena.  I took pictures of mom standing where Hitler did to give his pep talks to the crowd.  You could imagine the thousands of people in the stands that are now quiet, empty and overgrown with foliage.  The only crowds now are those sightseers like us and school groups with their history teachers explaining the past historic occurrences on these grounds.  We then walked and shopped in Nurnberg Center.

On our long drive to Berchtesgaden, which was our last full day on the bus with our friends, I asked if I could sit up front and use the microphone so that I could read my poem and that is exactly what I did.  These are the words that I read:

“I ask myself how did he feel

But why do I need to know

I did not even know him then

As it was a lifetime ago.

 

I could not discern for I was not there

My feelings could never be like his

To witness as my father did

An impossibility is what it is.

 

My walk freely across the empty grounds

That now are open as can be

It’s nothing like the crowded compounds

Caged by wire as far as the eye can see.

 

The wretched confinement, hunger and cold

Extreme hardships most will never know

I can only imagine the deprivation

Of all those courageous men so long ago.

 

My leisurely ride in a B-17

On a bright and beautiful day

To being shot at in a ball turret

Cannot compare in any way.

 

Many thought it to be crazy

That I would jump out of a plane

But it was to honor my father

So it was heartfelt not insane.

 

I am compelled to persevere

And trace his route the best I can

The path of a boy who went to war

And returned home a man.

The vague depiction in my mind

Is a delineation of each trial.

Although it is during different times

I feel admiration and love in every mile.

 

In my pursuit of my father’s story

I do not know what I hope to find

For it was not me and I was not there

But I play his role in my mind.

 

I am so proud of all the heroes

And the sacrifice they made.

To win for us our freedom

A gift I would never trade.

 

Forever heroes to future generations

This is the goal in which I strive

To assure these brave now weary men

That in our memory they will survive.” 

I called this poem “My Mission” and I was glad that I had the opportunity to read it.  I then showed our plaque and the other articles that I planned on exhibiting.  I felt good about it all as I knew that it was something that I had to do before I left everyone.  Mom and I had periodically shared our Belgian chocolates that we had been hoarding.  It took us a few days of quietly getting into our bag with the box of chocolates in it for us to have a family meeting and decide that it was time to share our treasured gift.  Everyone loved them.  When we were in Poland there were only a few left but I gave them to Jupi as I climbed on the bus for departure.  We did get a lot of mileage out of those outstanding chocolates.

It was an enjoyable scenic drive that I almost didn’t want to end as this was the last full day with our friends; those who we could freely share our experience in England and Belgium with because they shared the same interests that mom and I did.  We were all there for one reason and we all liked to hear what stories any one of us had to share.  It was never boring.  When we go home it will be different and I knew that.  We will be removed from the atmosphere of traveling to historic areas that others had been and could tell about; areas that my father had been and Vicki’s father had been and we all wanted to know everything about the first hand experiences from the ex-POW’s and what we knew about our father’s journey.  We were with a circle of people with common interests in a different world taken back in time.  It would be good to go home but there would also be a void from hearing and telling War stories.  I guess most people could compare it to taking a Cruise somewhere with a group of friends from other areas and having a wonderful time and then coming home and trying to tell about it.  People will listen once and then you feel like you can’t talk about it anymore only to the people who shared the cruise with you.  The difference between the cruise and my endeavor is I keep adding and adding to dad’s story so it just keeps building and the adrenaline keeps flowing in me but to everyone I know I’m sure it is the same story and it is as if I am repeating it when in actuality it is as if I have taken a hundred trips and have hundreds of stories.  I think this is a pretty difficult thing for people to understand.

Anyway, we arrived in Berchtesgaden about 5 PM.  We had a beautiful view of the Alps out of our window.  It was thrilling just to stand on the little balcony and just gaze at the magnificence.   Once again our dinner hour was to be at 6 PM.  Mom and I went to our room to get cleaned up for our last dinner with the group. 

Our dinner was wiener schnitzel with a really tasty cranberry sauce and I ate every bit of it.   It was the company I’m sure that  made everything so delightful. 

We returned to our rooms and gazed out the window one last time before turning in for the night.  I walked out on the small balcony to try to take in a more extensive view of the surroundings.  The mountains appeared even more beautiful at night as the backdrop of this picturesque and softly-lit Village.

We were up very early, put our bags out and went down for our last breakfast with our friends.  I was a little anxious about the day ahead.  I looked forward to and hoped that weather would permit us to go to the Eagles Nest.  It was what was in store for us after that visit that concerned me.  It was very foggy on our windy ride up the Mountains.  We all thought we would probably not see much but they were taking people to the top so that was a positive.  We would at least see the building.  We took an elevator and could walk out the back door of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest which generated mixed-emotions in seeing his original furnishings.  What labor was put into the building of the road and the construction of this beautiful gift for this insane man.  It was very foggy, like pea soup, and it was freezing and there were flakes in the air.  I was determined to walk to the top though and just told mom to stay at the bottom.  It was steep and there were a number of stairs but I made it to the top.  There was a cross that I took a picture of.  As I descended, it appeared that the fog was moving so there was beautiful scenery in patches.  I took many photos and as each minute passed there were even more beautiful photo opportunities.  I walked back to the top to try to get a view from there without the fog.  I felt chills not just from the cold but from the vista.  It was breathtaking bringing tears to my eyes in absorbing the splendor of the region.  I was glad that I made the last trip to the top and didn’t leave before the fog shifted.   I have heard that Hitler made maybe 7 visits to this place that was a gift from his party for his 50th birthday.  They have said he was afraid of heights. 

You could see the village of Salzburg in the distance. That was a reminder of what would transpire for the remainder of our day after leaving the Eagles Nest. We would be dropped off there and Walter would call a Taxi to take us to the train station in Salzburg. We would travel by train to Vienna where we would stay for 2 nights and then fly home from the Vienna Airport. I suddenly returned to reality with this awareness. We rode back to our starting point. I had met a girl from Canada on the bus and we talked the whole way down the mountain. In the short time that we sat by each other we both agreed we felt the same about life. She told me about herself and a terrible accident that she had been involved in that changed her life. She was a very pretty young but mature girl and I enjoyed our talk. She told me the same, she enjoyed my company, which was quite a compliment coming from her – she who was someone that I thought was quite a young lady. Sometimes you just click with people and know that they are your kind of person and that was her to a T. I hope that she has a good life.

Before boarding the bus we entered the gift shop and I think most of us bought the musical Woodchuck who yodeled or played this Octoberfest song which made you wish you had a big mug of beer to clink together with the others. Before we went up to the Eagles Nest we purchased a DVD of the building of the road, etc. It looked most interesting and most of us bought one of those as well.

Well, we ran out of time with the group and I felt sad. We were dropped off as planned in Salzburg and Walter called the Taxi that picked us up quite quickly. We said our goodbyes and Mary, Berneice and Vicki got off the bus with us. We all hugged and I couldn’t stop my tears. It was a fact that I was going to miss everyone. We climbed into the taxi and we were off and never looked back. This next leg of this adventure was going to be quite a test I was sure. Our luggage was still cumbersome although somewhat lighter than when we began. The difference now was that we had to somehow load this luggage on the train. It worried me just thinking about it. We had hours before we would board the train, also. I wouldn’t want to be rushed but the anticipation of how we were going to handle things was overwhelming. We couldn’t find a bathroom so went to a McDonald’s down the street and took turns going to the restroom. We had some apples to eat and just sat on a bench until we could find which track we would be departing from. As soon as I found that information we went up the elevator and sat near where we thought we would board the train. After a while, the train arrived. Oh brother, when I looked at the skinny doorways and saw the steps I wondered how the hell I was going to manage this next problem. These men boarded the train after everyone got off and began cleaning the cars and bathrooms. I climbed onto the train and wanted to ask the guy if he could help me with my luggage and I would pay him. He didn’t speak English and mumbled something and then just left – just like that. I’ve no idea what he said but he sure wasn’t going to be of any help to us.

We were finally able to board. I think we were the first ones there and I must have been quite a sight trying to lug our heavy baggage one at a time up the stairs and mom would try to push. We got them into our car. I had investigated which car was ours ahead of time. The next task was where to put the luggage. There was no way I could lift them and I didn’t think that the high shelf would accommodate them anyway even if I was Superwoman. Well, mom got in the seat first and then I shoved the 2 big suitcases where my feet would go. She was pretty squashed but she had a little leg room. We held the other bags on our laps. My legs had to be in the aisle and I would just scrunch anytime anyone walked by. It was not comfortable. It was another time I felt like crying but didn’t.

And then it happened, it was like a miracle. There was a big, young, strapping Austrian sitting in a seat in front and across from us and he could speak English. He noticed our discomfort. (He was probably snickering inside at us Bumpkin tourists). He asked if I’d like him to put the bags on the shelves. I said “do you think they’ll fit, they’re awful heavy”. He took my oversized bag and hoisted it like nothing and it fit fine and then he did the same with mom’s. It shows once again that there are good people in this world willing to help a stranger. That was such a relief and so much more comfortable than those cramped quarters. Mom and I were now free to eat or read which if it weren’t for the Incredible Hulk, we would not have been able to do a thing but sit and the angle we were sitting would have caused lameness I’m sure. I was free now to write again about this leg of our trip as I felt the difference in me as we were gradually returning to reality. I felt exhilarated though by what we had accomplished in three weeks. The feeling reinforced the certainty that I am doing the right thing. It hit home that time is running out for the Ex-POW’s. The memorials will soon not have them in attendance to honor and help us remember. It crossed my mind as it has several times before and since then “is it possible to carry on the legacy of such an important group of heroes without them?”. It is up to the children, like me, to assist in the remembrance of our fathers. I have a lot of work to do and pray that I have what it takes to accomplish such a difficult task. I thought as we rode of how far that I have come. I know that I can write. I am motivated and I have faith that I can and will. It will take some time because it has to be just right – more than just right – perfect.

Being the me that I am, as we continued closer to our destination which the kind Austrian assured me was where he was also getting off so I would know to exit, I wondered again how I would now get the bags down and out of the train. I was pretty sure that the kind man would help us again but maybe he would be in a hurry and forget about us. Well, I worried for nothing because the first thing he did when we stopped was get our bags down and put them off of the train one at a time and also pointed us in the right direction to the taxis. I tried to pay him for his kindness and he would not take it. I told him that he was our hero.

We hailed a cab and were on our way to our hotel. It was a very nice and comfortable hotel. We were so tired and it was really too late to get something to eat. We had sandwiches on the train so we weren’t that hungry anyway. When I checked in I also checked on internet access and he told me how to acquire it. Mom and I both got ready for bed and I e-mailed everyone that we had arrived safely. I had already received some pictures from Ejvind from our Belgium trip and Guy had sent me e-mails just checking on us. I was beginning to feel normal again. The dream was slowly becoming reality. We would spend 2 days in Vienna to ease the transition.

We went down for breakfast pretty early and there was quite a crowd so I guess it wasn’t early enough but it was okay. There was plenty of food and a good variety. Mom and I were sitting and a couple came over and asked if they could sit with us. We told them sure and had a nice conversation for probably all of an hour. Coincidentally, they were from Buffalo and their last name was Ball. It sure is a small world. We discussed everything. They were waiting for a couple to join them who had been in Brussels. The couple, the Flanders’, finally arrived and our friends were gone to welcome them. They were joining a group who was going to take a cruise. They were really nice people.

We were within walking distance of the Ringstrasse and Gib had sent me maps showing us areas we could walk to. Mom and I took a leisurely walk around the very beautiful City. We did some souvenir shopping and that is where I found the stacking doll for Joe O’Donnell. He sent me money and asked if I would get him one. I had some of the Euros converted to US Funds as there were many places that we walked by that would do this. I didn’t want to monkey at the airport. This was another indication of the fact that we were going home. We enjoyed the views, the buildings and the shopping. We stopped for a light lunch. I thought I’d try a Vienna beer and it hit the spot. We then continued to view the City and who did we run into but our new friends made at breakfast, the Balls and their friends, the Flanders’. We stopped and talked for a while. If we would have planned it we never would have found them for the crowd. It was a nice surprise and they were interested in hearing more about our past 3 weeks. It was good to see them again. They were nice couples.

Mom and I were satisfied with the day we’d had and decided to walk back to the Hotel and get ready for the last dinner. We’d be leaving fairly early in the morning. I had made arrangements for a Taxi to pick us up. We had a good last dinner. I liked the Wiener schnitzel so well that’s what we both ordered and we both ordered a beer. My new beer trick was soon coming to an end. At home Brad or any of my friends always drink their entire beer. They don’t just want a few sips like mom and need me to finish theirs so as not to waste it. I took a picture of mom with her beer and she took one of me. This was it.

The taxi arrived on schedule and the driver was a very pleasant man who even helped us get a luggage cart. This was a very busy airport. The check-in was pretty smooth and we thought that we were allowing enough time but little did we know how long the line would be at the security checkpoint. That took so much time and then we even had to fill out a small form with our name and address and our next of kin in case something happened. I guess that is a good practice but we were in a hurry. We were really running out of time but from listening to everyone around us we were all in the same boat. The weird thing for us also was that we had to get our assigned seats at the gate. I never did understand why and that was a cause of concern. I wanted our seats together and it was doubtful that would happen. Finally, after a long wait we were given the seat numbers and boarded the plane.

We were in the middle section and mom was one row behind me on the opposite side. I didn’t think that was too bad. I could at least see mom. But then, I got the feeling we were being watched over when I heard a man behind me complaining because he wanted an aisle seat. His seat was next to me. I was in the aisle. He was ready to explode when I said how would you like that aisle seat and pointed to my mom. He was very satisfied with that switch and it couldn’t have worked out better. We had a 9 hour and 40 minute flight ahead of us and it was a great relief to be sitting next to mom and to have the aisle when we needed to use the facilities.

I did a lot of writing on the long ride home just reviewing the previous 3 weeks. I also wrote about the purpose of the trip. I like to review from the beginning and think of how far that I’ve come – going step by step – remembering who told me to do what and how I listened and followed up on every single suggestion. I thought of the letters I’d written for the past couple of years and the responses. All of these things have added up to contribute so much to my father’s story and to my confidence. I am becoming his story.

What a smooth flight we had and the City Lights shone so brightly and colorfully. There was just so much to tell Brad about and it was fun that I had mom to join in the telling. He was our driver and our captive audience for the hour ride home. When we took mom home – home where she and dad lived for 57 years until his death, it crossed my mind that mom was returning to the same home that dad had returned to 62 years ago from the same places he had been. Who would have thought? I am so proud of her just as I am of dad.

*** Just a comment about my dear friend, Ejvind Jensen. We corresponded after we arrived home and exchanged pictures. He wasn’t feeling well and I was very concerned about him. He found that he had lung cancer. He wrote saying he was doing better and on November 30, 2006, I received an e-mail notification that he had passed away that day. I lost a very special friend. He had his own story and then we combined for our story when we met at Barth leading up to the incredible experience that we shared in Belgium which I am indebted to him for – for his intense interest in my mission which led me to the wonderful Belgian researchers who made our visit possible. Ejvind is sadly missed. He was a gem. When I write my book, he will be included in a special chapter as a contributor in my quest to retrace my father’s path in WWII.


to be continued in 2007 journal page . . . .