March 31, 2016 Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye

I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried to serenade their Nazi adversaries during World War II. The ones who actually pulled it off must number, precisely, one.

James and Kate Kaminski’s little bundle of joy came into the world on June 26th 1926, in Brooklyn. They named this, their fourth son, Melvin James. James died of tuberculosis at 34, when the boy was only two. A small Jewish kid growing up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, Kaminsky learned the value of being able to crack a joke. “Growing up in Williamsburg”, he said, “I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face”.

The boy had a talent for music. He was taught by another kid from Williamsburg, Buddy Rich.  By 14 he was good enough to be playing drums for money.

Melvin Kaminsky, 1Melvin attended a year at Brooklyn College before being drafted into the Army, in WWII. After attending Army Specialized Training at VMI, Corporal Kaminsky joined the 1104th Combat Engineers Battalion, 78th Infantry Division in the European theater.  There, he served through the end of the war. Most of his work was in finding and defusing explosives, though on five occasions his unit had to drop their tools and fight as Infantry.

At one point Kaminsky’s unit gathered along a River. They were so close they could hear Jolson, BlackfaceGerman soldiers singing a beer hall song, from the other side. Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded the Germans back, singing them an old tune that Al Jolson used to perform in black face, “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”.  Polite applause could be heard from across the river, afterward. I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried to serenade their Nazi adversaries during World War II.  The ones who actually pulled it off must number, precisely, one.

Kaminski went into show business after the war, playing drums and piano in the Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs of the Catskills. It was around this time that he took his professional name, adopting his mother’s maiden name of Brookman and calling himself “Mel Brooks”.

Brooks started doing stand-up, when the regular comedian at one of the clubs was too sick to perform. By ’49 he was “Tummler”, the master entertainer at Grossinger’s, one of the most famous resorts in the Borscht Belt.  He was making $50 a week writing for his buddy Sid Caesar and his NBC “The Admiral Broadway Review”.Mel Brooks

In 1968, Mel Brooks wrote and produced the satirical comedy film “The Producers”, about a theatrical producer and an accountant who set out to fleece their investors. The scheme was to do a play so bad that it was sure to flop on Broadway, then to abscond to Brazil with their money when the play closed. Problem was, the show turned out to be a hit. The fictional play is a musical, called “Springtime for Hitler”. Even before the age of suffocating PC, I don’t know many guys beside Mel Brooks, who could have gotten away with that one.Melvin Kaminsky, 2

There isn’t one of us who doesn’t know his work. From the 2,000 year old man with “over forty-two thousand children, and not one comes to visit me” to Blazing Saddles’ “Candygram for Mongo” (“Mongo likes candy”).

Brooks has risen to the top of his chosen profession, winning the coveted “EGOT”, an acronym for the entertainment industry’s four major awards, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only eleven others have ever risen to this level: Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Young FrankensteinMarvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Rudin, and Robert Lopez.  As of this date, Brooks only needs another Oscar to be the first “Double EGOT” in history.

Melvin Kaminsky will be 92 in a couple of months. Last year, March 31, 2016, the Averhill Park K-12 School District in upstate New York kicked off a three day production of “Young Frankenstein”.  Let me know if you can think of another 92-year-old guy, who remains that current.  I can’t think of one.

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March 27, 1912 Cherry Trees of the Potomac

While the future President Taft labored in the Philippines, Helen Herron Taft took up residence in Japan, where she came to appreciate the beauty of the native cherry trees.

Eliza_Ruhamah_Scidmore
Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore was an American journalist, world traveler, author and socialite.  The first female board member of the National Geographic Society, her brother was a career diplomat, who served 38 years in the Asian Pacific. Frequent visits led to a passionate interest in all things Japanese, most especially the ‘Sakura’, the Japanese blossoming cherry tree, which she called “the most beautiful thing in the world”.

In January 1900, Federal judge William Howard Taft was summoned to Washington, to meet with the President. He hoped it was to discuss a Supreme Court appointment, but it wasn’t meant to be. One day judge Taft would get his wish, becoming the only man in United States history to serve both as President, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For now, the American war in the Philippines was ongoing. Taft would head up the commission to organize civilian self-government in the island nation.

Helen & William Taft
1st Lady & President Taft

While the future President Taft labored in the Philippines, Helen Herron Taft took up residence in Japan, where she came to appreciate the beauty of the native cherry trees.

Years later the Japanese Consul in New York learned of the First Lady’s interest in the Sakura, and suggested the city of Tokyo make a gift of Cherry trees, to the government of the United States.

For Eliza Scidmore, it was a dream 34 years in the making.  It was she who raised the money to make it happen.

On March 27, 1912, the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States joined First Lady Helen Taft, in planting two Japanese Yoshina cherry trees on the bank of the Potomac River, near the Jefferson memorial. The two were planted in a formal ceremony, the first of 3,020 trees.Jefferson cherry trees

It was the second such effort. 2,000 trees had arrived from Japan two years earlier, in January 1910, but they had fallen prey to disease along their journey. A private Japanese citizen donated the funds to transport a new batch of trees. The 3,020 were taken from the bank of the Arakawa River in the Adachi Ward suburb of Tokyo, to be planted along the Potomac River Basin, East Potomac Park, and the White House grounds.

The blossoming trees were overwhelmingly popular with visitors to the Washington Mall. Inpotomac_blossoms 1934 city commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration of the late March blossoming cherry trees, which grew into the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

During WWII, aerial bombardment laid waste to Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs. After the war, cuttings from the cherry trees of Washington were sent back to Japan, to restore the Tokyo collection.

It’s not clear to me, if the trees along the Arakawa River today are entirely from the Potomac collection, or some combination of American and native stock.  After the conflagration that was the war in the Pacific, I’m not sure it matters. It may even be the whole point.

Cherry Trees along the Arakawa

Cherry Trees along the Arakawa

March 24, 1944 Tom, Dick and Harry

Barracks were built on pilings to discourage tunneling, creating 24” of open space beneath the buildings. Seismic listening devices were placed around the camp’s perimeter. In the German mind, the place was the next best thing, to airtight. “Kriegies” didn’t see it that way.

Stalag Luft III in the province of Lower Silesia was a German POW camp, built to house captured Allied airmen.  The first “Kriegsgefangene” (POWs), arrived on March 21, 1942. The facility would grow to include 10,949 “kriegies”, comprising some 2,500 Royal Air force officers, 7,500 US Army Air officers, and about 900 from other Allied air forces.

Barracks were built on pilings to discourage tunneling, creating 24” of open space beneath the buildings. Seismic listening devices were placed around the camp’s perimeter. In the German mind, the place was the next best thing, to airtight.

Model_Stalag_Luft_III
Model of the set used to film the movie The Great Escape

Kriegies didn’t see it that way, three of whom concocted a gymnastic vaulting horse out of wood from Red Cross packages.

A Trojan horse was more like it. Every day, the horse would be lugged out to the perimeter. Above ground, prisoners’ gymnastic exercises masked the sound, while underground, kriegies dug with bowls into the sand, using the horse itself to hide diggers, excavated soil and tools alike. Iron rods were used to poke air holes to the surface.  There was no shoring of the tunnel, except at the entrance.

Every evening for three months, plywood was placed back over the hole, and covered with the gray-brown dust of the prison yard.

On October 19, 1943, the three British officers made their escape.  Lieutenant Michael Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams reached the port of Stettin in the West Pomeranian capital of Poland, where they stowed away on a Danish ship. Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot boarded a train to Danzig, and stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden. Eventually, all three made it back to England.

RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was shot down and forced to crash land on his first engagement in May 1940, but not before taking two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with him. Taken to the Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, Bushell formed an escape committee along with Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley, and Wing Commander Harry Day.

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty.  Bushell escaped twice and almost made it, but each time his luck deserted him. By October, Roger Bushell found himself in the north compound of Stalag Luft III, where British officers were held.Harry

By the following spring, Bushell had concocted the most audacious escape plot in WWII history. “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time”, he said. “By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”

The effort was unprecedented. Previous escape attempts had never involved more than twenty. Bushell, soon to be known by the code name “Big X” was proposing to get out with 200.

Civilian clothes had to be fashioned for every man.  Identification and travel documents forged. “Tom” began in a darkened hallway corner. “Harry’s entrance was hidden under a stove, “Dick”‘s entrance was concealed in a drainage sump.Vintage KLIM Powdered Whole Milk tin can - circa 1940

The Red Cross distributed high calorie, dehydrated whole-milk powder called “Klim” (“Spell it backwards”) throughout German POW camps. Klim tins were fashioned into tools, candle holders and vent stacks.  Fat was skimmed off soups and molded into candles, using threads from old clothing for wicks.

Six hundred prisoners were involved in the construction.  200 with sacks sewn under greatcoats made 25,000 trips into the prison yard, disposing of soil as Tom, Dick and Harry were excavated.  30′ down and only 2 ft. square, the three tunnels extended outward for a football field and more.

These “penguins” were running out of places to put all that soil, around the time the camp was expanded to include “Dick’s” originally planned exit point.  From that time forward, “Dick” was refilled from the other two.  “Tom” was discovered in September 1943, the 98th tunnel in the camp to be found out.

The escape was planned for the good weather of summer, but a Gestapo visit changed the timetable.  “Harry” was ready by March.   The “Great Escape” was scheduled for the next moonless night.  73 years ago – March 24,  1944.

Tunnel_Harry

Contrary to the Hollywood movie, no Americans were involved in the escape.  At that point none were left in camp.

The escape was doomed, almost from the start.  First the door was frozen shut, then a partial collapse had to be repaired.  The exit came up short of the tree line, further slowing the escape.  It was over when guards spotted #77 coming out of the ground.

German authorities were apoplectic on learning the scope of the project.  90 complete bunk beds had disappeared, along with 635 mattresses.  52 twenty-man tables were missing, as were 4,000 bed boards and an endless list of other objects. For the rest of the war, each bed was issued with only nine boards, and those were counted, regularly.

Gestapo members executed German workers who had not reported the disappearance of electrical wire.

In the end, only three of the 76 made it to freedom:  two Norwegian and one Dutch pilot.  Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 73, 50 of which were carried out.  Harry Entrance

General Arthur Nebe is believed to have personally selected the 50 for execution.  He was later involved with the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and executed on March 21, 1945.  Roger “Big X” Bushell and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer were caught while waiting for a train at the Saarbrücken railway station.  They were murdered by members of the Gestapo on March 29, who were themselves tried and executed for war crimes, after the war.

New camp Kommandant Oberst Franz Braune was horrified that so many escapees had been shot. Braune allowed those kriegies who remained to build a memorial, to which he personally contributed. Stalag Luft III is gone today, but that stone memorial to “The Fifty”, still stands.

Dick Churchill was an HP.52 bomber pilot and RAF Squadron Leader.  One of the 76 who escaped, Churchill was recaptured three days later, hiding in a hay loft.  In a 2014 interview, he said he was fairly certain he’d been passed over for execution, because his captors thought he might be related to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Today, Dick Churchill, age 97, is the only man among those 76, still left alive.The50Memorial

March 13, 1942 US Canine Corps

It’s K-9 Veteran’s Day. March 13, 2017. I could tell you no other story today, half as fitting as this.

The history of war dogs is as old as history itself.  The war-dogdogs of King Alyattes of Lydia killed some of his Cimmerian adversaries and routed the rest around 600BC, permanently driving the invader from Asia Minor in the earliest known use of war dogs in battle.

King Molossus of Epirus, grandson of the mighty Achilles, used a large, powerfully built breed specifically trained for battle. Today, “molosser” describes a body type more than any specific breed.  Modern molossers include the Mastiff, Bernese Mountain Dog, Newfoundland and Saint Bernard.

Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians often used dogs as sentries or on patrol. In late antiquity, Xerxes I, the Persian King who faced the Spartan King Leonidas across the pass at Thermopylae, was accompanied by a pack of Indian hounds.

Attila the Hun went to war with a pack of hounds, as did the Spanish Conquistadors of the 1500s.

Sallie statue
Sallie’s likeness rests at the foot of a statue in Gettysburg, looking out for the spirits of “her boys” for all eternity

A Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Sallie “joined up” in 1861, serving the rest of the Civil War with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  At Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania, Sallie would take her position alongside the colors, barking ferociously at the adversary.

Abraham Lincoln spotted Sallie from a reviewing stand in 1863, and tipped his hat.

Sallie was killed at Hatcher’s Run in February 1865.  Several of “her” men laid down their arms then and there to bury her, despite being under Confederate fire.

messengerdog
WWI Messenger Dog

Dogs performed a variety of roles in WWI, from ratters in the trenches, to sentries, scouts and runners. “Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out the wounded on the battlefield, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves.

Sometimes, these dogs simply provided the comfort of another living soul, so that the gravely wounded should not die alone.

By the end of the “Great War”, France, Great Britain and Belgium had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, Imperial Germany over 30,000. Some sources report that over a million dogs served over the course of the war.

duncan-rin-tin-tin
Lee Duncan & Rin Tin Tin

The famous Rin Tin Tin canine movie star of the 1920s was rescued as a puppy, from the bombed out remains of a German Army kennel, in 1917. (Read more about him, Here).

GHQ of the American Expeditionary Force recommended using dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918, however the war was over before US forces put together any kind of a War Dog program.

America’s first war dog, “Sgt. Stubby”, went “Over There” by accident, serving 18 months on the Western Front before coming home to a well-earned retirement.

sgt_stubby_5
Sgt. Stubby

On March 13, 1942, the Quartermaster Corps began training dogs for the US Army “K-9 Corps.” In the beginning, the owners of healthy dogs were encouraged to “loan” their dogs to the Quartermaster Corps, where they were trained for service with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

The program initially accepted over 30 breeds of dog, but the list soon narrowed to German Shepherds, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Collies, Siberian Huskies, Malamutes and Eskimo Dogs.

WWII-era Military Working Dogs (MWDs) served on sentry, scout and patrol missions, in addition to performing messenger and mine-detection work. The keen senses of scout dogs saved countless lives, by alerting to the approach of enemy forces, incoming fire, and hidden booby traps & mines.

ChipsThe most famous MWD of WWII was “Chips”, a German Shepherd assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy. Trained as a sentry dog, Chips broke away from his handler and attacked an enemy machine gun nest. Wounded in the process, his singed fur demonstrated the point-blank fire with which the enemy fought back.  To no avail.  Chips single-handedly forced the surrender of the entire gun crew.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and Purple Heart, the honors later revoked due to an Army policy against the commendation of animals. It makes me wonder if the author of such a policy ever saw service beyond his own desk.

Of the 549 dogs who returned from service in WWII, all but four were able to return to civilian life.

Over 500 dogs died on the battlefields of Vietnam, of injuries, illnesses, and combat wounds. 10,000 servicemen served as dog handlers during the war, with an estimated 4,000 Military Working Dogs.  261 handlers paid the ultimate price.  K9 units are estimated to have saved over 10,000 human lives.

War dog memorial Univ. Tenn.
War dog memorial, University of Tennessee

It’s only a guess, but, having an MWD handler in the family, I believe I’m right:  hell would freeze before any handler walked away from his dog. The military bureaucracy, is another matter. The vast majority of MWDs were left behind during the Vietnam era. Only about 200 dogs survived the war to be assigned to other bases. The remaining dogs were either euthanized or left behind as “surplus equipment”.

In 2011, a Belgian Malinois named “Cairo” accompanied the Navy SEAL “Neptune Spear” operation that took out Osama bin Laden.

Today there are about 2,500 dogs in active service.  Approximately 700 deployed overseas. The American Humane Association estimates that each MWD saves an average 150-200 human lives over the course of its career.

Nate & Zino
Nate & Zino

NPR’s “Here & Now” broadcast an excellent segment out of their Boston affiliate WBUR in 2014, when our son-in-law Nate was reunited with “Zino”, the Tactical Explosives Detection Dog (TEDD) with whom he served in Afghanistan.

Their story ends well, but that isn’t always the case. Many have been left behind, no longer qualified to travel on military transport after being “retired” on foreign soil.

In 2015, Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced language in their respective bodies, mandating that MWDs be returned to American soil upon retirement, and that their handlers and/or handlers’ families be given first right of adoption.

LoBiondo’s & McCaskill’s language became law on November 25, when the President signed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It’s a small step in recognizing what we owe to those who have stepped up in defense of our nation, both two legged and four.

Boston’s NPR Station WBUR broadcast a segment on Nate & Zino’s reunion, if you’re interested in listening to it.  It’s a great story.

 http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/03/21/soldier-dog-reunion 

March 6, 1940 White Death

Dressed in white camouflage, the most deadly sniper in history would surround himself with hard-packed snow, his mouth filled with snow so no one would see his breath.

The Republic of Finland is a sovereign state in the north of Europe.  The 8th largest country on the European continent, with a population roughly equal to that of Minnesota. In 2015, the World Bank ranked the country 44th in GDP, behind Ireland, Chile and Pakistan.

finlandWith Sweden to the west and Russia to the east, the region has been a zone of conflict since the early 12th century, finally gaining independence as the result of the first World War and collapse of the Russian Empire.

In 1938, the Soviet Union demanded Finnish territory in exchange for land elsewhere, ostensibly as a security zone. Leningrad was at that time only 20 miles from the border. Finland refused, on November 30, 1939, 3 months after the outbreak of WWII, the Red Army invaded.

The “Winter War” is a David vs. Goliath story. The Soviets had three times as many troops, thirty times the number of aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. The Red Army officer corps, however, was dangerously inexperienced, with over 30,000 of its most experienced mid-level and senior officers imprisoned or executed following Josef Stalin’s “Great Purge” of 1937.

Expecting a short conflict, Soviet forces were poorly equipped for an extended winter war. Few if any possessed the white camouflage of the other side. For the Finnish side, morale was high, and Finnish forces inflicted far heavier casualties, than anyone had anticipated.

Simo “Simuna” Häyhä was a farmer and hunter, born in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland, near the border with Russia. Häyhä enjoyed shooting competitions in Viipuri Province, and was quite good at it. It was said that his house was full of trophies. He joined the Finnish voluntary militia in 1925 at the age of 20. During the Winter War of 1939-40, Häyhä served as a sniper for the Finnish Army.

He was the “White Death”.  Over the 100 days of his wartime service, Simo Häyhä racked up 505 confirmed kills, more than any sniper in history. Many of his kills went unconfirmed. The true count is probably closer to 800. An average of eight per day, in a place where December daylight hours number no more than six.

simo_hayha_honorary_rifleThe Battle of Kollaa took place in temperatures ranging from −4° to −40°, Fahrenheit. In February, the temperature averages only 18.5°. Dressed in white camouflage, Häyhä would surround himself with hard-packed snow, his mouth filled with snow so no one would see his breath.

At 5’3″, he liked the shorter, White Guard version of the five shot, bolt action Mosin–Nagant, because it fit his small frame. He preferred the open “Pystykorva” or “Spitz” sight, so-called because of its resemblance to a Spitz dog. It made for a smaller target, as a shooter must raise his head ever so slightly higher, when using a telescopic sight.

The Red Army was desperate to kill this man. Russian counter-snipers and entire artillery barrages were sent to take him out. On March 6, 1940, Häyhä was hit on the left side of his jaw, by a high-explosive incendiary/armor-piercing (HEIAP) round, fired by a Russian soldier. The damage was catastrophic. Soldiers who went to pick him up, said “half his face was missing”. He regained consciousness eight days later, the day that peace was declared.

The bullet had crushed his jaw and taken away his left cheek, but he did not die. It wouldsimo_hayha_second_lieutenant_1940 take several years to recover from his wound, but Häyhä went on to become a successful dog breeder and moose hunter, once hunting with Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.

Häyhä passed away in a war veterans’ nursing home in Hamina in 2002, at the age of 96.  In 1998, someone asked how he became such a good shot. He answered “Practice.”  He must have been a man of few words.

To this day, Simo Häyhä remains the most successful sniper in history, with a confirmed kill rate three times that of Chris Kyle, and five times that of Carlos Hathcock. Asked if he regretted killing so many people, he replied “I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.”

February 28, 1944 Test Pilot

The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops.  It was the last plane to leave Berlin.  Two days later, Hitler was dead.

Hannah Reitsch earned her wings in the 1930s, as a flying missionary.  The Encyclopedia Britannica describes her as the first female test pilot in Germany.  If she wasn’t the first female test pilot in history, I’d be interested to know who that might be.
Reitsch began flying gliders in 1932, as the treaty of Versailles prohibited anyone flying “war planes” in Germany. In 1934, she broke the world’s altitude record for women (9,184 feet).  Hannah Reitsch was a German Nationalist, and her work brought her into contact with the highest levels of Nazi party officialdom.
hannah-reitschAs a test pilot, Reitsch won an Iron Cross, Second Class, for risking her life trying to cut British barrage-balloon cables. On one test flight of the rocket powered Messerschmitt 163 Komet in 1942, she flew the thing at speeds of 500 mph, a speed nearly unheard of at the time. She spun out of control and crash-landed on her 5th flight, leaving her with severe injuries.  Her nose was all but torn off, her skull fractured in four places.  Two facial bones were broken, and her upper and lower jaws out of alignment.  Even then, she managed to write down what had happened before passing out.
Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring awarded her a special diamond-encrusted version of thehitler_goering_und_hanna_reitsch Gold Medal for Military Flying on this day in 1944. Adolf Hitler personally awarded her an Iron Cross, First Class.
It was while receiving this second Iron Cross in Berchtesgaden, that she suggested the creation of a Luftwaffe suicide squad, “Operation Self Sacrifice”.
Hitler was initially put off by the idea, though she finally persuaded him to look into modifying a Messerschmitt Me-328B fighter for the purpose. Reitsch put together a suicide group, becoming the first to take the pledge, though the idea would never take shape. The pledge read, in part: “I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as a pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.”
The plan came to an abrupt halt when an Allied bombing raid wiped out the factory in which the prototype Me-328s were being built.
In the last days of the war, Hitler dismissed his designated successor Hermann Göring, over a telegram in which the Luftwaffe head requested permission to take control of the crumbling third Reich.  Hitler appointed Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim, ordering Hannah to take him out of Berlin and giving each a vial of cyanide, to be used in the event of capture.   The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops.  It was the last plane to leave Berlin.  Two days later, Hitler was dead.berlin-wwii
Taken into American custody on May 9, Reitsch and von Greim repeated the same statement to American interrogators: “It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer’s side.” She spent 15 months in prison, giving detailed testimony as to the “complete disintegration’ of Hitler’s personality, during the last months of his life.  She was found not guilty of war crimes, and released in 1946. Von Greim committed suicide, in prison.
In her 1951 memoir “Fliegen – Mein Leben”, (Flying is my life), Reitsch offers no moral judgement on Hitler or the Third Reich.
She resumed flying competitions in 1954, opening a gliding school in Ghana in 1962.  She later traveled to the United States, where she met Igor Sikorsky and Neil Armstrong, and even John F. Kennedy.Hanna Reitsch, Fliegen Mein Leben
Reitsch remained a controversial figure, due to her ties with the Third Reich.  Shortly before her death in 1979, she responded to a description someone had written of her, as `Hitler’s girlfriend’.  “I had been picked for this mission” she wrote, “because I was a pilot…I can only assume that the inventor of these accounts did not realize what the consequences would be for my life.  Ever since then I have been accused of many things in connection with the Third Reich”.
Toward the end of her life, she was interviewed by the Jewish-American photo-journalist, Ron Laytner. Even then she was defiant:  “And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can’t find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power … Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost”.
Hannah Reitsch died in Frankfurt on August 24, 1979, of an apparent heart attack.  Former British test pilot and Royal Navy officer Eric Brown received a letter from her earlier that month, in which she wrote, “It began in the bunker, there it shall end.”  There was no autopsy, or at least there is no report of one.  Brown, for one, believes that, after all those years, she had finally used that cyanide capsule.

February 20, 1942 Ace

O’Hare’s Medal of Honor citation calls it “…one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation…”

We’ve all read the story of “Easy Eddie” O’Hare, the mob lawyer who had everything but a good name, who gave it all up to show his son that personal integrity was more important than all the riches of the underworld. Easy Eddie went on to testify against Al Capone and lost his life for it, Eddie’s son “Butch” going on to become a WWII flying Ace.

The story is true, kind of, but it lays the morality play on a little thick.

Edward Joseph O’Hare, “EJ” to friends and family, passed the Missouri bar exam in 1923easy-eddie and joined a law firm.  Operating dog tracks in Chicago, Boston and Miami, O’Hare made a considerable fortune working for Owen Smith, the high commissioner for the International Greyhound Racing Association, who patented the mechanical rabbit used in dog racing.  EJ and Selma Anna (Lauth) O’Hare had three children between 1914 and 1924, – Edward (“Butch”), Patricia, and Marilyn.

EJ developed an interest in flying in the 1920s, once even hitching a ride on Charles Lindbergh’s mail plane.  For a time he worked as pilot for Robertson Aircraft, occasionally giving his teenage son a turn at the controls.

One day EJ came home to find 13 year old Butch sprawled on the couch, munching on donuts and banana layer cake.  He enrolled the boy in the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois.  The kid was getting way too lazy.

easy_eddie_with_caponeEJ and Selma divorced in 1927.  He left St. Louis for good, moving to Chicago while Butch attended WMA.  It was there that the elder O’Hare met Al Capone, later earning his second fortune working as the gangster’s business manager and lawyer.

In 1930, O’Hare approached John Rogers, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, asking that he arrange a meeting with the Internal Revenue Service, which was then after Capone on grounds of tax evasion.  It may have been to restore his good name, or maybe he saw the writing on the wall.  Possibly both.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  Whatever the motivation, an Agent Wilson of the IRS later said “On the inside of the gang I had one of the best undercover men I have ever known: Eddie O’Hare.”

Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and sentenced to Alcatraz, becoming easyeddieohare02eligible for early release in 1939 due to syphilitic dementia. On November 8 of that year, EJ left his office at Sportsman’s Park racetrack in Cicero in his black ’39 Lincoln Zephyr. Two shotgun wielding gunmen pulled alongside, firing a volley of big game slugs and killing O’Hare, instantly. No arrest was ever made.

Butch had graduated from WMA and the Naval Academy at Annapolis by this time, receiving his duty assignment aboard the USS New Mexico.  Shortly after his father’s assassination, the younger O’Hare began flight training at Naval Air Station in Pensacola.
Assigned to the USS Saratoga’s Fighting Squadron, Butch O’Hare made his first carrier landing in 1940, describing it as “just about the most exciting thing a pilot can do in peacetime.”

butch-ohareIt was February 20, 1942, when Butch O’Hare became the first American flying Ace of WWII. The carrier Lexington was discovered by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, 450 miles outside of Rabaul.  Six Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters and Lexington’s anti-aircraft guns were engaged with an incoming formation of nine Japanese bombers, when nine more bombers were reported incoming.

Six more Wildcats roared off the flight deck of the Lexington, one piloted by Butch O’Hare.  He and his wingman Marion William “Duff” Dufilho were the first to spot the V formation, diving to intercept them and leaving the other four fighters too far away to change the outcome.  Dufilho’s guns jammed and were unable to fire, leaving Butch O’Hare alone on the unprotected side of his flotilla.  One fighter against nine enemy bombers flying in tight V formation, mutually protecting one another with their rear-facing machine guns.

O’Hare’s Wildcat had four 50-caliber guns with 450 rounds apiece, enough to fire for abouthagel-butchohare 34 seconds.  What followed was so close to the Lexington, that pilots could hear the carrier’s AA guns.  Full throttle and diving from the high side, O’Hare fired short, accurate bursts, the outermost bomber’s right-hand engine literally jumping from its mount.  Ducking to the other side and smashing the port engine on another “Betty”, O’Hare’s Wildcat attacked one bomber after another, single handedly taking out five bombers with an average of only 60 rounds apiece.

O’Hare’s Medal of Honor citation calls it “…one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation…”

Butch O’Hare disappeared in a confused night action on November 26, 1943.  Some say he was cut down by friendly fire, mistakenly shot down by TBF Avenger gunner Alvin B. Kernan.  Others say it was a lucky shot by a gunner aboard his old adversary, a Rikko (Betty) bomber.  A third theory is that his Hellcat caught a wingtip on a wave, and cartwheeled into the ocean.

The Orchard Depot Airport in Chicago was renamed O’Hare International Airport in tribute to the fallen Ace, on September 19, 1949.   Neither the body, nor the aircraft, were ever recovered.  butch-ohare