June 12, 1942 A Night at the Beach

Much has been written about the eight central characters in this story. These individuals have been described by contemporary and subsequent sources alike, as Saboteurs, Nazis and Spies. Certainly to call them such, fed into the political expectations of the day. Yet their country had chosen them for this mission based on unique qualifications, separate and apart from whatever devotion they felt for the fatherland, or the Nazi party. It may be that these guys deserve every evil name that’s been heaped on them. Or maybe they were just eight guys who got caught up between two nations at war. It’s an interesting story. You decide.

The German submarine U-202 commanded by Hans Linder came to the surface on the night of June 12 at Amagansett, New York, near Montauk Point. An inflatable emerged from the hatch and rowed to shore at what is now Atlantic Ave beach, in Long Island. Four figures stepped onto the beach wearing German military uniforms.  If they’d been captured at this point every one of them wanted to be treated as enemy combatants, instead of spies.

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This was “Operation Pastorius”, a mission was to sabotage American economic targets and damage defense production. Targets included hydroelectric plants, train bridges and factories. The four had nearly $175,000 in cash, some good liquor and enough explosives to last them two years or more.

German plans began to unravel as they buried their uniforms and explosives in the sand.  21-year old Coast Guardsman John Cullen was a “sand pounder”.  Armed only with a flashlight and a flare gun, Cullen had the unglamorous duty of patrolling the beaches, looking for suspicious activity.

It was “so foggy that I couldn’t see my shoes” Cullen said, when a solitary figure came out of the dunes.  He was George John Davis he said, a fisherman run ashore.  But something seemed wrong and Cullen’s suspicions were heightened, when another figure came out of the darkness.  This one was shouting something in German, when “Davis” spun around and shouted, “You damn fool!  Go back to the others!”

With standing orders to kill anyone who confronted them during the landing, Davis hissed, “Do you have a mother? A father?  Well, I wouldn’t want to have to kill you.”

It was Cullen’s lucky day.  “Davis’” real name was Georg John Dasch.  He was no Nazi. He’d been a waiter and dishwasher before the war, who’d come to the attention of the German High Command because he had lived for a time, in the United States.   “Forget about this, take this money, and go have a good time” he said, handing over a wad of bills.   $260 richer, John Cullen sprinted two miles directly to the Coast guard station.

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Seaman John Cullen, left, received the Legion of Merit from Rear Adm. Stanley V. Parker for his service in WW2

Before long the beach was swarming with Coast Guardsmen. A dawn broke it was easy to see something heavy had been dragged, across the sand. Within minutes boxes were found containing Nazi uniforms.

Four days later, U-584 deposited a second team of four at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, south of Jacksonville. As with the first, this second group had lived and worked in the United States, and were fluent in English.  Two of the eight were US citizens.

Georg Dasch had a secret.  He had no intention of carrying out his mission.  He summoned Ernst Peter Burger to an upper-level hotel room.  Gesturing toward an open window Dasch said  “You and I are going to have a talk, and if we disagree, only one of us will walk out that door—the other will fly out this window.”

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Burger turned out to be a naturalized US citizen who’d spent 17 months in a concentration camp.  He hated the Nazis as much as Dasch. Then and there, the two of them decided to defect.

Dasch tested the waters. Convinced the FBI was infiltrated with Nazi agents, he telephoned the New York field office.  Put on hold with the call transferred several times, Dasch was horrified to have the agent who finally listened to him, quietly hang up the phone.  Had he reached a German mole?  Had the call been traced?

Dasch had no way of knowing, he’d been transferred to the ‘nut desk’.  The FBI thought he was a clown.

Finally, Dasch went to the FBI office in Washington DC, only to be treated like a nut job.  Until he dumped $84,000 cash on Assistant Director D.M. Ladd’s desk, a sum equivalent to about a million dollars, today.  Dasch was interrogated for hours, and happily gave up everything he knew.  Targets, German war production, he spilled it all, even a handkerchief with the names of local contacts, written in invisible ink.  He couldn’t have been a very good spy, though.  He forgot how to reveal the names.

All eight were in custody, within two weeks.

J. Edgar Hoover announced the German plot on June 27, but his version had little resemblance to that of Dasch and Burger.  As with the brief he had given President Roosevelt, Hoover praised the magnificent work of FBI detectives and the Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction which led Assistant Director Ladd to that $84,000.  Dasch and Burger’s role in the investigation was conveniently left out, as was the fact that the money had all but bounced Mr. Ladd off the head.

Neither Dasch nor Burger expected to be thrown in a cell, but agents assured them it was a formality.  Meanwhile, a credulous and adoring media speculated on how Hoover’s FBI had done it all.  Did America have spies inside the Gestapo?  German High Command?  Were they seriously that good?

Attorneys for the defense wanted a civilian trial, but President Roosevelt wrote to Attorney General Francis Biddle: “Surely they are as guilty as it is possible to be and it seems to me that the death penalty is almost obligatory”. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the decision “Ex parte Quirin” became and remains precedent to this day, for the way unlawful combatants are tried.  All eight would appear before a military tribunal.

Whether any of the eight were the menace they were made out to be, remains unclear.  German High Command had selected all eight based on past connections with the United States, and ordering them to attack what they may have regarded as their adopted country.  Several were arrested in gambling establishments, others in houses of prostitution.  One had resumed a relationship with an old girlfriend and the pair was planning to marry.  Not the behavior patterns you might expect from “Nazi saboteurs”.

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The trial was held before a closed-door military tribunal in the Department of Justice building in Washington, the first such trial since the Civil War. All eight defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death.  It was only on reading trial transcripts, that Roosevelt learned the rest of the story.  The President commuted Burger’s sentence to life and Dasch’s to 30 years, based on their cooperation with the prosecution. The other six were executed by electric chair on August 8, in alphabetical order.

Bodies of the six men executed are transported by ambulance, under armed guard.

After the war, Burger and Dasch’s trial transcripts were released to the public, over the strenuous objections of J. Edgar Hoover.  In 1948, President Harry S. Truman bowed to political pressure, granting the men executive clemency and deporting them both to the American zone of occupied Germany.  The pair found themselves men without a country hated as spies in America, and traitors in Germany.

The reader may decide, whether Hoover and Roosevelt operated from base and venal political motives, or whether the pair was playing 4-D chess.  Be that as it may, Hitler rebuked Admiral Canaris, and seems to have bought into Hoover’s version of FBI invincibility.  There would be no further missions of this type, save for one in November 1944, when two spies were landed on the coast of Maine to gather information on the Manhattan project.

Georg Dasch campaigned for the rest of his life, to be allowed to return to what he described as his adopted country.  Ernst Burger died in Germany in 1975, Dasch in 1992.  The pardon Hoover promised both men over a half-century earlier, never materialized.

Neither Dasch nor Burger could have dreamed of what they would become, in the popular imagination.

June 10, 1944 Ghost Village

Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead”.

It was D+4 in the invasion of Normandy. The 2nd SS Panzer Division (“Das Reich”) had orders to stop the Allied advance. They were passing through the Limousin region in west central France when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that Waffen-SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held captive, by French Resistance forces in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

June 10, 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane

Forget for a moment the idiocy of our age and incontinent use of the term, “Nazi”. The people who committed the atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane are like unto beasts and not to compared with anyone, from the modern world. May it come to pass that we never see their kind, again.

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Diekmann’s battalion sealed off the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Glane, unaware they had confused the place with another village. Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square to have identity papers examined. The entire population of the village was there plus another 6, unfortunates caught riding their bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Women and children were locked in a village church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a nearby barn where machine guns were already set up.

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The Germans aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before the SS lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

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Nazi soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church and gunned down 247 women and 205 children, as they tried to escape.

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642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane age one week to 90 years, were murdered in just a few hours. The village was razed to the ground.

After the war a new village was built on a nearby location, and given the same name. President Charles de Gaulle ordered the original site to remain as is; a memorial to the cruelty of collective punishment and the savagery committed in countless places, by the Waffen-SS: the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki, Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo, and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto. And on, and on, and on.

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In 1999, French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour”. The village stands today as the Nazis left it, 78 years ago today.

It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

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The story was featured in the 1974 British television series “The World at War”, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. The first and final episodes of the program began with these words:

Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

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June 7, 1942 To Alaska

Construction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring to begin what officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In 1865, Western Union contemplated plans to install telegraph wires from the US to Siberia, sparking discussions of an road to the Alaskan interior. The proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s caused the idea to pick up steam but the project was a hard sell, for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through Canadian territory while the government believed the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

In the days following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Guam and Wake Island fell to Imperial Japanese forces , making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable.

Priorities were changing for both the United States, and Canada.

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed. Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had but 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory, an area four times the size of Texas.

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Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., son of the Confederate commander who famously received Ulysses S. Grant’s “Unconditional Surrender” ultimatum at Fort Donelson (“I propose to move immediately, upon your works”), was in charge of the Alaska Defense Command.  Buckner made his made point, succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

The Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February 1942, the project receiving the blessings of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the United States pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Construction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring to begin what officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

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Dawson Creek, 1942

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, hostile, wilderness.

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island and murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio. Japanese forces took 45 Aleuts into captivity along with Jones’ wife, Etta.  Adding to the urgency was the fact that the Alaskan winter permits no more than an eight-month construction window.  That period was already well underway.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rocky Mountains had yet to be identified.

06162017_HighwayRadios of the age didn’t work across the Rockies, and the mail was erratic.  The only passenger service available was run by the Yukon Southern airline, a run which locals called the “Yukon Seldom”.  For construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse, it was faster to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to assigned locations was one thing.  Transporting 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment, to say nothing of supplies needed by man and machine, was quite another.

alcan-hwyTent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant waking up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day.  Hungry bears raided camps at night, looking for food.

Engines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground which had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.

Alaska Highway Black Soldiers

That October, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers, was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. Sims slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

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A gathering at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942 celebrated “completion” of the route, though the “highway” remained impassable for most vehicles, until 1943.

Alaska-Hwy-historyNPR ran an interview about this story back in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers.  The old man’s comment, as best I can remember it, was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

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A Trivial Matter: “There were many timber bridges built by civilian workers on the Alaska Highway, the Kiskatinaw Bridge is the only one still in use. It is also one of the most unusual, curving nine degrees along its 162.5 metre (534 foot) length”. Hat Tip http://www.alcanhighway.org

May 21, 1944 Hammerberg

Let the man’s Medal of Honor citation tell his story. He didn’t live long enough to read it for himself.

From June to November 1944, forces of the United States Marine Corps and US Army conducted an offensive intended to dislodge Japanese forces from the Mariana Islands and the island nation of Palau, with operations supported by elements of the US Navy and code named, Operation Forager.

Part of the island-hopping strategy employed to defeat the Japanese empire, Operation Forager followed the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and had as its objective the neutralization of Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support for the Allied drive to retake the Philippines, and to provide bases for strategic bombing raids against the Japanese home islands.

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LST in Sicily

In May 1944, the naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor was a rush of activity, building up for the planned invasion.  78 years ago today, twenty-nine LSTs (Landing Ships, Tank) were tied beam-to-beam on six piers in the “West Loch” loading munitions, high octane gasoline and other equipment.

Shortly after 15:00 local time, LST-353 exploded causing a chain reaction down the line. Munitions exploded hurling men and equipment into the air. 200 men and more were hurled into the water in explosions powerful enough to knock over vehicles. On shore eleven buildings were destroyed altogether. Another nine were damaged.

Firefighting efforts were slow to get underway due to the heat and the inexperience of many of the crew. Some LSTs were able to move away under their own power or with the assistance of tugs. Others were left adrift and afire and slowly sinking, into the channel.

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A NASA image of Pearl Harbor. The disaster occurred in West Loch which is to the left side of the photo, where the water is lighter in color.

Burning gasoline spread across the water and ignited other ships, left unharmed by the initial explosions. Fires burned for twenty-four hours as yet other vessels were intentionally sunk to contain the disaster.

Casualty figures are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 163 personnel killed in the incident in West Loch and another 396, wounded. Some sources put the number of dead as high as 392.  Eleven tugboats were damaged while engaged in fire control efforts.  Six LSTs were sunk, two already carrying smaller, fully loaded Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) lashed to their decks.  Several others were heavily damaged and/or run aground.

A press blackout was ordered immediately after the incident, and military personnel were ordered not to talk. A Naval Board of Inquiry was opened the following day. The disaster at West Loch was initially believed to be caused by Japanese submarines. The idea was dismissed due to the shallow depth of the harbor, and the presence of anti-submarine nets.

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The wreckage of the LST 480 following the West Loch Disaster.

The precise cause of the accident remained elusive, as everyone near the initial explosion was dead. Army stevedores were unloading mortar ammunition at the time, using an elevator just fifteen feet from 80 drums of fuel. Some believe a mortar round was accidentally dropped and exploded. Others contend that fuel vapors were ignited by a cigarette, or welder’s torch.

Subsequent salvage and removal efforts on the West Loch brought up the remains of a Japanese midget submarine, now believed to be the fifth such sub used in the attack from two years prior.

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known about the incident, today.

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Less still is remembered about the men who came to clean up the mess. The last fatality from the disaster at West Loch occurred nine months later during salvage operations, for a sunken LST.

In February 1945, five teams of hardhat divers were brought in to raise these hulks and clear the channel. Working under the mud and the water of West Loch, four teams using jet nozzles successfully cleared tunnels under some of the wrecks, the first stage in refloating the sunken hulls.

Disaster struck as the fifth team labored to clear a tunnel under one sunken LST. We can only imagine the blackness down there in all that swirling mud as divers George Fuller and Earl Brown labored with jet nozzles, to clear the way. Suddenly steel wreckage overhead, caved in. Buried alive with lifelines and air hoses hopelessly tangled in jagged shards of steel, the pair was trapped under 40-feet of water and some 20-feet of muck. 

Other divers attempted t0 reach the pair but only stirred up more mud. A US Department of Defense website page describing the event relates that even a special dive team, declined to take further risk.

There seemed no chance for either man’s survival when fellow Navy diver Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg slipped into the water.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg

Owen Hammerberg had nothing to prove when it came to guts, and cold courage. Once stationed aboard the USS Advent Hammerberg dove into the water to free cables, snarled about a live mine. Imagine being down there, so close as to touch a mine powerful enough to blow himself to rags and atoms and sink the ship, on which he was stationed. And yet the man patiently labored until finally freeing the cable, without explosion.

Now working in the swirling mud and pitch blackness beneath the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the diver worked desperately to wash another tunnel under the sunken LST.  After five hours of exhausting labor Hammerberg was able to locate and free the first man, George Fuller. Following later inquiry congressional records state “Fuller, who had been pinned by a steel plate, shook Hammerberg’s hand underwater before heading to the surface for safety”.

Though physically tired Hammerberg labored on to reach Earl Brown, the second trapped diver. Eighteen grueling hours after the rescue began he finally found his man.

I do office work and I’m worn out after an eighteen hour day. What one man experienced after such a span of time down there, we will never know. Suddenly the whole mess caved in and a great piece of steel pinned Owen Hammerberg on top of Earl Brown.

Two days later a Filipino father and son team of divers at last rescued one of them and recovered the dead body, of the other. The cave-in had killed Owen Hammerberg even as his body protected that of the second man.

Navy diver and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was the only service member in all of World War 2 and the last man ever to receive the Medal of Honor as the result of heroism performed outside of combat.

Let the man’s Medal of Honor citation tell his story. He didn’t live long enough to read it for himself.

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“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a diver engaged in rescue operations at West Loch, Pearl Harbor, 17 February 1945. Aware of the danger when 2 fellow divers were hopelessly trapped in a cave-in of steel wreckage while tunneling with jet nozzles under an LST sunk in 40 feet of water and 20 feet of mud. Hammerberg unhesitatingly went overboard in a valiant attempt to effect their rescue despite the certain hazard of additional cave-ins and the risk of fouling his lifeline on jagged pieces of steel imbedded in the shifting mud. Washing a passage through the original excavation, he reached the first of the trapped men, freed him from the wreckage and, working desperately in pitch-black darkness, finally effected his release from fouled lines, thereby enabling him to reach the surface. Wearied but undaunted after several hours of arduous labor, Hammerberg resolved to continue his struggle to wash through the oozing submarine, subterranean mud in a determined effort to save the second diver. Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific pressure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his 2 comrades. His heroic spirit of self-sacrifice throughout enhanced and sustained the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.”

Author’s note: I have searched without success for the names of the Filipino father and son divers who rescued Earl Brown and recovered the body of Owen Hammerberg. Kindly let me know if you find that information. They too have earned the right to be remembered.

Feature image top of page: “Divers are lowered into Bikini Lagoon during an Operation Crossroads survey in July 1947”. Hat tip Naval History and Heritage Command

May 7, 1945 Victory in Europe

General Alfred Jodl came to Reims to sign the document including the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“.

Beginning on May 5, reporters from AP, Life magazine, and others began to sleep on the floor of Eisenhower’s red brick schoolhouse headquarters, for fear of stepping out and missing the moment. Adolf Hitler was dead by his own hand, the life of the German tyrant extinguished on April 30.

General Alfred Jodl came to Reims to sign the document including the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“.

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The signing of the instruments of surrender ending the most destructive war in history took place on Monday, May 7, at 2:41am, local time.   In Europe, World War II had come to an end.The German government announced the end of hostilities right away to its own people, but most of the Allied governments, remained silent.   It was nearly midnight the following day when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed a second instrument of surrender, in the Berlin headquarters of Soviet General Georgy Zhukov.

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had his own ideas about how he wanted to handle the matter while the rest of the world, waited.

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In England, May 7 dragged on with no public statement. Large crowds gathered outside of Buckingham Palace shouting “We want the King”. Bell ringers throughout the British Isles remained on silent standby, waiting for the announcement. The British Home Office issued a circular, instructing Britons how they could celebrate: “Bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.” And still, the world waited.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill finally lost patience in the early evening, saying he wasn’t going to give Stalin the satisfaction of holding up what everyone already knew. The Ministry of Information made this short announcement at 7:40pm: “In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday”.

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The news was greeted with reserve in the United States, where the first thought was that of the Pacific. Even now, many months of savage combat lay ahead. President Harry Truman broadcast his own address to the nation at 9:00am on May 8, thanking President Roosevelt and wishing he’d been there to share the moment.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died on April 12 in Warm Springs, Georgia. President Truman’s speech begins: “This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe. For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity”.

So it is that most of the world celebrates May 8 as Victory in Europe, “VE Day”, the day of formal cessation of all hostilities, by Nazi Germany. And yet in some sectors, the fighting continued.

German military operations officially ceased on May 8, a day celebrated as VE Day in in the United States, Great Britain, Western Europe and Australia. VE Day occurs on May 9 in the former Soviet territories, and New Zealand.

Even so isolated pockets of resistance continued to surrender day through May 14-15. The “Georgian uprising” of some 400 German troops and 800 allied Georgian soldiers under German officers continued until May 20 on the Dutch island of Texel (pronounced “Tessel).

The last major battle in Europe concluded on May 25 between the Yugoslav Army and Croatian Armed Forces. One contingent of German soldiers lost radio communications in Spitsbergen in the Norwegian archipelago and surrendered to a group of seal hunters, on September 4. Two days after the formal surrender of Imperial Japan and the end of war, in the Pacific.

May 5, 1945 A Sunday School Picnic

Only once during all of World War 2 did death result from enemy action, in the 48 contiguous United States. That of a Sunday School class out for a picnic, on May 5, 1945.

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Following the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, weather watchers described an eastbound, upper atmospheric air current described as the “equatorial smoke stream”. 

In the 1920s, Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Oishi tracked these upper level winds using pilot balloons from a site, near Mount Fuji. Oishi published his findings in Esperanto, dooming his work to international obscurity. Inside Japan there were those who took note, filing away this new-found knowledge of what we now call the “Jet Stream”.

Japanese balloon bomb diagram

During the latter half of WWII, Japanese military thinkers conceived a fūsen bakudan or “fire balloon”, a hydrogen filled balloon device designed to ride the jet stream using sand ballast and a valve system, to navigate its way to the North American continent.

With sandbags, explosives, and the device which made the thing work, the total payload was about a thousand pounds at liftoff.  The first such device was released on November 3, 1944, beginning the crossing to the west coast of North America. 

Between late 1944 and April 1945 some 9,300 such balloons were released, with military payloads.

Today, inter-continental ballistic missiles are an everyday if frightening reality, of our time. Such a long range attack was unheard of during World war 2 and would not be duplicated until the Falklands War, in 1982.

In 1945, intercontinental weapons existed only in the realm of science fiction.  As these devices began to appear, American speculation ran wild. Authorities theorized that they originated with submarine-based beach assaults, German POW camps, even the internment camps into which the Roosevelt administration herded Japanese Americans.

These “washi” paper balloons flew at high altitude and surprisingly quickly, completing the Pacific crossing in only three days. Balloons came down from Alaska to Northern Mexico and as far east, as Detroit.

A P-38 Lightning fighter shot one down near Santa Rosa, California, while Yerington, Nevada cowboys cut one up to make hay tarps. Pieces of balloon were found in the streets of Los Angeles. A prospector near Elko Nevada delivered one to local authorities, on the back of a donkey.

Among US units assigned to fight fire balloons was the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which suffered one fatality and 22 injuries fighting fires.

One of the last balloons came down on March 10 near Hanford Washington, shorting out power lines supplying electricity for Manhattan Project nuclear reactor cooling pumps. The war in the Pacific could have ended very differently had not backup safety devices restored power, almost immediately.

Japanese Balloon Bomb

Colonel Sigmund Poole, head of the U.S. Geological Survey military geology unit, asked, “Where’d the damned sand come from?”  Microscopic analysis of sand ballast identified diatoms and other microscopic sea life.  This and the mineral content of the sand itself proved to be definitive.  The stuff could only have come from the home islands of Japan, more specifically, one or two beaches on the island of Honshu.

American authorities were alarmed.  Anti-personnel and incendiary bombs were relatively low grade threats.  Not so the biological weapons Japanese military authorities were known to be developing at the infamous Unit 731, in northern China.

284 of these weapons are known to have completed the Pacific crossing to the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Experts estimate as many as 1,000 may have made the crossing.  Sightings were reported in seventeen US states. Pilots were ordered to shoot them down on sight, but many escaped detection, altogether.

In an effort to deny valuable intelligence to their Japanese adversary, US military and government authorities did everything they could to keep these “Fire Bombs” out of the media.  Even while such secrecy put Americans at risk.

Japanese Authorities reported that the bombs were hitting key targets. Thousands were dead or injured they insisted, and American morale was low.

On the morning of May 5, 1945, Pastor Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie took a Sunday school class of five on a picnic to a forest area near Bly, Oregon.  As Pastor Mitchell parked the car, Elsie and the kids came upon a large balloon with a strange looking device, attached. There was no way they could have known, what they had found was a Japanese weapon of war.  The device exploded killing all six, instantly.

Japanese balloon bomb shrapnel tree

Several such devices exploded, igniting wildfires in the forests of California, Oregon and Washington, but the site near Bly is the only one known to have resulted in American casualties.

Today there is a small picnic area located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Lake County, Oregon.  It’s maintained by the US Forest Service, memorialized as the Mitchell Recreation Area and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  A small stone marker points the way to a shrapnel scarred tree.

A second monument bears the words cast in bronze:  The “only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II”.  There are six names above those words, those of five children and their teacher:  Elsie Mitchell, age 26,  Edward Engen, 13,  Jay Gifford, 13,  Joan Patzke, 13,  Dick Patzke, 14 and  Sherman Shoemaker, age 11.

Elsie Mitchell was pregnant at the time of her death. Her unborn child was the 7th albeit nameless victim, of one of the most bizarre weapon systems of WW2.

Mitchell Monument

May 4, 1943 Counter Measures

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped on or moved in any way can be rigged to mutilate or kill, the unwary. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities.

In the Spanish language, the word “Bobo” translates as “stupid…daft…naive”. The slang form “bubie” describes a dummy. A dunce. The word came into English sometime around 1590 and spelled “booby”, meaning a slow or stupid person.

In a military context, a booby trap is designed to kill or maim the person who activates a trigger. Like the common mess tin at the top of this page, modified to mangle or kill the unsuspecting soldier. During the war in Vietnam, Bamboo pit vipers known as “three step snakes” (because that’s all you get) were tucked into backpacks, bamboo sticks or simply hung by their tails, a living trap for the unwary GI.

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Punji stakes were often smeared with human excrement result in hideous infection for the unsuspecting GI

The soldier who goes to lower that VC flag might pull the halyard rope may hear distant snickering in the jungle…just before the fragmentation grenade goes off. Often, the first of his comrades running to the aid of his now shattered body hits the trip wire, setting off a secondary and far larger explosive.

Not to be outdone, the operation code-named “Project Eldest Son” involved CIA and American Green Berets sabotaging rifle and machine gun rounds, in such a way as to blow off the face the careless Vietcong shooter.

German forces were masters of the booby trap in the waning days of WW1 and WW2. A thin piece of fishing line connected the swing of a door with a hidden grenade, by your feet. A flushing toilet explodes and kills or maims everyone in the building. The wine bottle over in the corner may be perfectly harmless, but the chair you move over to get it, blows you to bits.

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped on or moved in any way can be rigged to mutilate or kill, the unwary. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities. Would the “Joe Squaddy” entering the room care if that painting on the wall was askew? Very possibly not but an “officer and a gentleman” may be moved to straighten the thing out at the cost of his hands, or maybe his life.

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Exploding Peas, illustration by Laurence Fish

In the strange and malignant world of Adolf Hitler, the German and British people had much in common.  Are we not all “Anglo-Saxons”?  The two peoples need not make war the man believed, except for their wretched man, Winston Churchill.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a true leader of world-historical proportion during the darkest days, of the war.  Taking the man out just might cripple one of Hitler’s most potent adversaries.

In 1943, Hitler’s bomb makers concocted an explosive coated in a thin layer of chocolate and wrapped in expensive black & gold foil labeled “Peter’s Chocolate”. When you break a piece off of this thing, you might wonder in the last nanoseconds of your life.  What the hell is this canvas doing in a chocolate bar?

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Churchill was known to have a sweet tooth and so it was, that Nazi Germany planned to kill the British Prime Minister. A booby trapped chocolate bar placed in a war cabinet meeting room.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. Their work is performed out of sight, yet there were times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

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The lives of millions, or perhaps only one.  German saboteurs were discovered operating inside the UK, the information sent to British Intelligence.

Lord Victor Rothschild was a trained biologist in peace and member of the Rothschild banking family. During WW2, British Intelligence recruited him to work for MI5, heading up a three-member explosives and counter-sabotage unit. Rothschild immediately grasped the importance of the information and the need to illustrate Nazi devices to communicate, with other intelligence officers. 

We live in an age when computers are commonplace but that wasn’t the case, in 1943. ENIAC, the first electronic computer wouldn’t come around yet, for another two years. Photoshop was definitely out of the picture and yet, high quality illustrations were needed and quickly, and they had to come from a trusted source. Donald Fish, one of Rothschild’s two colleagues, had just the man. His son.

On this day in 1943, Lord Rothschild typed a letter to illustrator, Laurence Fish.  The letter, marked “secret”, begins: “Dear Fish, I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate…”

The letter went on to describe the mechanism and included a crude sketch, requesting the artist bring the thing, to life.

Laurence Fish would one day become a commercial artist and illustrator, best remembered for his travel posters of the 1950s and ’60s.  He always signed his work, “Laurence”. 

From the pen and ink technical drawings of the war years to the brightly colored travel posters of his post-war career, Laurence Fish was a gifted and versatile artist.

In 1943 that was all for some time in an unknown future, a time when dozens of wartime drawings were quietly left in a drawer and forgotten, for seventy years. For now a world had a war to win and Laurence Fish, played a part.

Hitler’s bomb makers devised all manner of havoc, from booby trapped mess tins to time-delay fuses meant to destroy shipping, at sea.   In 2015, members of the Rothschild family were cleaning out the house, and discovered a trove of Fish’s work.

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The artist is gone now and his name all but forgotten but his work, lives on.  Fish’s illustrations are now in the hands of his widow Jean, an archivist and former journalist living in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. Thanks to her we can see this forgotten piece of history in her husband’s work, last shown in an exhibition last year over the weekend of September 18 – 19.

And a good thing it is. The man has earned the right to be remembered.

April 29, 1944 The White Mouse

To WW2-era British Special Operations she was Hélène.  To the Maquis she was Andrée. Her New York Times obituary called her “The socialite who killed a Nazi, with her bare hands”. To the Gestapo who wanted her dead, she was the “White Mouse.”

It was March 1944 in occupied France, when the French Resistance leader Henri Tardivat found her, dangling from a tree. Her name was Nancy Wake, and she had just jumped from a B24 bomber, with a pocketful of classified documents. Tardivat couldn’t help himself. “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year”. “Don’t give me that French shit” she snapped, as she cut herself out of the tree.

Nancy Wake was not a woman to be trifled with.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand and moved to Australia as a young girl. She later moved to Paris where she met her future husband, the wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca.

As a freelance journalist, a Parisian newspaper sent Wake to Vienna in 1933 to interview a German politician, by the name of Adolf Hitler. There she witnessed firsthand the wretched treatment meted out to Austrian Jews by followers of the future dictator. She vowed she would oppose this man, by any means necessary.

She would get her chance in 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg tore through Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

The couple had the means to leave but chose to stay in France, to help the Maquis. The French Resistance. For two years, Nancy and her husband Henri worked to hide downed allied flyers and get them out, of Nazi occupied France.

With the Gestapo reading their mail and staking out the Fiocca home the writing was on the wall. Nancy fled while Henri remained in Paris, to continue the couples work with the resistance.

Henri would be captured and tortured before execution, to reveal the whereabouts of his wife. Nancy would not learn until after the war, the man never gave up her whereabouts.

The British SOE called her by the code name, Hélène. To the Maquis she was Andrée. It was during her flight from France that Wake earned the name which would stick, given by the Gestapo who wanted her dead. “White Mouse,” they called her, for her ability to hide in plain sight and to disappear, without a trace. “A little powder and a little drink on the way” she later explained “and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me? God”, she said, “what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”

Once picked up on a train outside of Toulouse she spun a wild tale about being the mistress, of one of the guards. She pleaded with her captors that her husband could never know. Astonishingly, they let her go.

Wake eventually escaped occupied France moving first through the Pyrenees into Spain and then, to England. There she joined the British Special Operatives Executive (SOE). The training was intense: infiltration/exfiltration techniques, tradecraft, weapons, even hand-to-hand combat. Her trainers called her as competent, as the men in her class.

On April 29, 1944, Wake parachuted into the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of occupied France, part of a three-person team sent to support three Maquis organizations, operating in the region. She participated in a major combat operation pitting resistance members against the German wehrmacht. It was a major defeat for the Marquee. She later said she bicycled 500 km to bring a situation report, to her SOE handlers.

One day she found herself on an SOE team, on the inside of a German munitions factory. An SS guard nearly gave up the whole operation when he arrived, to investigate. Wake killed the man, with her bare hands. “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff” she later explained, “with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practiced away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”

SOE official historian M. R. D. Foot said “her irrepressible, infectious, high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her”. Henri Tardivat may have given her the ultimate compliment, after the war. “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts” he recalled. “Then, she is like five men.”

She was the most decorated woman of World War 2, awarded the George Medal by Great Britain, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance by her adopted home nation, and three times, the Croix de Guerre. 

After the war

She worked for a time with the intelligence department at the British Air Ministry and dabbled in politics, after the war. She remarried, the union with RAF officer John Forward lasting 40 years until his death but producing, no children.

The White Mouse died of a chest infection on August 7, 2011, after a brief hospitalization. She was 98. Her New York Times obituary called her “The socialite who killed a Nazi, with her bare hands”.

She sold her medals along the way, because she needed the money. “There was no point in keeping them,” she said. “I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”

March 30, 1945 A Great Act of Defiance

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”. – Martin Niemöller

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old”.

Winston Churchill
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Before the age of the internet,  office jokes and bits of folk wisdom were passed around and copied, and copied again.  “The Last great of Defiance“ was one of those and shall live for all time, as my personal favorite. 

The image speaks for itself.  I had one on the wall, for years. This is one of those stories.

The last great effort of German arms burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming for the vital port at Antwerp.

Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein“, (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”) was a tactical surprise for the Wehrmacht, as allied forces were driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by American forces in World War 2, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving some 610,000 GIs.

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Prisoners were swept up by the thousands, to face an uncertain future.  In Malmedy, Belgium, seventy-five captured Americans were marched into an open field and machine gunned by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), a part of 6th Panzer Army.

On December 16, the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion of the racially segregated US Army put up an heroic defense outside the town of Wereth, Belgium. Using 155mm guns to delay the German advance they were desperately outnumbered. The 333rd was overrun the following day, groups of men scattering to escape as best they could. Eleven soldiers made their way to the home of Mathias Langer, the Mayor of Wereth.

To shelter allied troops under German occupation was to risk summary execution. Despite the obvious risk to their own lives, Matthias and his wife Maria took these men in and attempted to hide them, in their home. When German troops arrived, the eleven surrendered rather than risk the lives of their benefactors.

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Movie poster for the 2011 film, “The Wereth Eleven”

The prisoners were marched out of sight and murdered by German troops. Every one of them. Lost in the confusion of the Bulge, the bodies of the Wereth 11 lay hidden under the snow, until the Spring melt. For the next fifty years their story was lost, to history.

Nazi atrocities were not limited to Allied troops.  By some accounts, more civilians were killed during the Battle of the Bulge than anytime. in the last four years.  When the fighting was over, more than 115 bodies were found in the towns of Ster and Parfondruy, alone.

For Master Sargent Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds, the war ended on December 19, swept up with hundreds of American troops and taken prisoner.  These were the lucky ones, escaping those first white-hot moments of capture to be sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  Edmonds was later transferred to another camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.  At 24, M/Sgt Roddie Edmonds was now the senior non-commissioned officer at Stalag IX-A, responsible for 1,275 American POWs.

The Wehrmacht had harsh anti-Jewish policies and kept Jewish POWs in strict segregation.  In the East, Russian Jews who became POWs were sent directly to extermination camps.  In the west the future was more uncertain, for Jewish POWs.  Many of them were worked to death, in slave labor camps.

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On January 27, the first day at Stalag IX-A, commandant Siegmann ordered Edmonds: All American Jews were to identify themselves at the following day’s assembly.  The word went out to all five barracks:  “We’re not doing that.  We’re all turning out“.

The following morning, 1,275 POWs presented themselves.  Every. Single. Man.

Siegmann was perplexed.  “They can’t all be Jews!”  As senior NCO, Edmonds spoke for the group.  “We’re all Jews here“.  The Nazi commandant was apoplectic, pressing a Luger into Edmonds’ forehead.  This is your last chance.

Imagine yourself in this situation and ponder, what would you do?

Edmonds gave his name, rank and serial number. :  ‘If you are going to shoot’, he said, ‘ you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.’”  Siegmann was incandescent, white with rage, but the moment had passed.  He was beaten.

The 1,275 American POWs held at Stalag IX-A were liberated on March 30, 1945, their number including some 200 Jews.

Years later the Army called once again and Roddie Edmonds was recruited, for the war in Korea.  He never told his family a word about what happened, at Stalag IX-A.

Chris Edmonds is the Pastor at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. Following his father’s death in 1985, Chris’ mother gave him his father’s  war diary, where he found a brief mention of this story.  Chris scoured the news for more information, around the time Richard Nixon was looking for his post-Presidential home.  As it happened, Nixon bought his posh, upper-east side home from Lester Tanner, a prominent New York Lawyer who mentioned in passing, he owed his life to Roddie Edmonds.

So it is, this story came to light.  In 2015, Edmonds was honored as “Righteous among the Nations”, the first American soldier, so honored.  It’s the highest honor bestowed by the state of Israel, on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi death machine.  President Barack Obama recognized Edmonds’ heroism in a 2016 speech before the Israeli embassy.  In 2017 Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn led a bipartisan effort to bestow the Congressional Gold Medal. 

Pastor Edmonds and the Jewish veterans saved by M/Sgt Edmonds continue to push for the Knoxville, Tennessee native to receive the Medal of Honor. Pastor Edmonds says he always looked up to his father, the man had always been, his hero.  “I just didn’t know he had a cape in his closet“.

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Pastor Chris Edmonds

March 24, 1944 The Great Escape

“Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability”. Group Captain Ramsey (played by James Donald), senior British officer at the prisoner of war camp in the 1963 film The Great Escape, addressing the German commandant.

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.

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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.

Harry

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.

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.

Vintage KLIM Powdered Whole Milk tin can - circa 1940

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.

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.

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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.

Harry Entrance

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.  

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.

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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.

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