Friday, 21 September 2012 00:00
In a tribute that seeks to honor all Americans who have defended our nation, Anton Community Newspapers invited readers to submit essays about the heroes in their own families. Several entrants were selected to fly aboard historic World War II bombers that visited the American Airpower Museum (AAM) at Republic Airport through the Labor Day holiday.
Participants dressed in airborne uniforms and flew in the museum’s C-47 D-Day transport aircraft over south shore beaches with WWII living historians.
The Collings Foundation also provided aircraft, flights, and historical experiences for museum guests over the holiday weekend. The foundation’s bomber collection of aircraft has not been seen on Long Island for four years and it contains some of the finest restored “warbirds” in the United States.
The following contestants were selected to fly: Andrew Keen, Rose Wilson, Robert Gaudiosi, Tony Molligo, Gregory Thomas, and Janice Buckner.
The following were honorable mentions: Sam Mantovani, Ronan Glynn, Cathy Scibelli, Mary Slisz, Howard Bernstein, Ed Thompson, Sr., and Philip Strehl.
Each of the essays was noteworthy and captivating. Over the next couple of weeks, Anton Community Newspapers will print each of the essays submitted along with any photos supplied by the entrants.
The following is the first half of the essay submitted by Howard Bernstein, writing about his father, Alvin Bernstein.
My father, Alvin Bernstein, was in the Air Force in WWII. All he ever related to his family was that he flew on a B-17 bomber, was a radio operator and on his 17th mission he was shot down over Berlin, Aug. 6, 1944 and spent the rest of the war as a POW. I am 47 years old now and I can remember when younger trying to engage my father in conversation about his war time experiences, but to no avail. After awhile, as a young man, one stops to ask questions of the father if not encouraged to do so.
Unfortunately, my father came down with Multiple Sclerosis when I was 13 years old and he steadily went down in health over the succeeding 15 years, passing away in 1980. Because of this I never got the opportunity to relate to him as an adult and to learn about his past. He did, however, have his very interesting scrap book with photos of his B-17 crew, letters to and from the War Department and the 351 Bomb Group about his capture, letters to and from his prison camp and a letter from a German man who had claimed to have saved him from drowning under the weight of his parachute harness in a lake near Berlin.
Over the years I have always had a latent interest in the history of WWII and the part the Air Force played. I would watch the documentaries on TV, movies such as Memphis Belle and I visited air shows, like one in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, that had an abundance of WWII aircraft. And anytime there was a B-17 on exhibit nearby, I would make the effort to see it.
In my office I already had hanging beautiful color photos of B-17s and in my apartment a stunning computer enhanced reproduction of my father’s crew in front of their B-17. Looking back I feel that I had a longing to be closer to my father by trying to imagine what it was like during his war experience, hence I chose to have the various photos around me.
One day in January of 1997, my mother who lives in Long Island and is still listed in the phone book under Alvin Bernstein, got a call from a Mack O’Quinn in Hawaii looking to speak to my father. He had my father’s 1945 address from some military documents and then looked up in the Internet telephone directory all the Alvin Bernsteins in New York.
On the second cold call he found my mother, which was quite amazing. O’Quinn related to my mother that he was doing his master’s degree thesis on the treatment of Jewish prisoners of war in WWII and from the National Archives in Washington D.C. he had copies of four depositions from after the war stating that a “S/sgt. Bernstein” was beaten in a prison camp called “Stalag Luft 4” (now in present day Poland) by a certain German guard nicknamed “Big Stoop” (so named because of his size; he was about 6’9”, 280 pounds and so big that he had to stoop down to get into the prison barracks).
Well, as anyone can imagine, my mother was shocked to hear such information for the first time after 53 years and found it almost hard to believe and quite frankly a bit suspicious. Not only did my father never relate such stories to me but also neither did he to my mother. I took the opportunity to have many hours of phone calls in January 1997 with Mack and learned many intriguing things. I learned that there were 10,000 men in Stalag Luft 4 and that in March of 1945 they were evacuated westward in a “Death March” away from the advancing Russians without much food and water in the coldest winter of German history, for 89 days.
O’Quinn also told me there was an active association of this camp with their president located in Indianapolis and furthermore that in the National Archives in Washington D.C., there are captured German files on every downed B-17 that list details about every crew member found dead or alive complete with ‘dog tags’ and personal effects carried by the individuals.
Well, as one can imagine this set off a course of events that took me on one of the most interesting discoveries of my life. By coincidence that March I was going on business to Indianapolis and only 15 minutes away from my meeting lived the president of the Stalag Luft 4 POW association, Leonard Rose. I spent four hours with him and was able to hear the whole story behind the camp. I saw photographs of the barracks, learned its actual location, the regimen, lack of food and water, treatment of the prisoners and more stories of the guards including Big Stoop. Big Stoop was summarily executed during the liberation of the POWs he was guarding, by Canadian troops in May 1945.
Rose had in his possession a roster that was compiled by a POW and smuggled out of the camp, listing every room in every barrack of Luft 4 and the men that were in these rooms in alphabetical order with their service ID numbers and their POW numbers. He was able to tell me exactly what room my father was in and who were the other men along with him. He knew from some of their recent conventions that some of those men were still alive and he gave me seven addresses and telephone numbers. He told me that he knew personally one of the men listed named Otha B. Huckaby and he suggested calling him to see if he knew anything about my father.
Well I did call ‘Huck’ and once he heard my name on the phone and I briefly explained the why of my call, he became so choked up that he had to put his wife on the phone. As it turned out he was one of my father’s best buddies in the camp and they arrived at the same time in September of 1944 and stayed together all the way until their liberation.
In the prison camp room, there actually were groups of four men and they needed to keep together and sleep together so as not to freeze at night and Huck and my father were two out of the four. The third man, Russell Becker, is still alive and I had planned to see him but unfortunately he took ill shortly after my call.
Also by coincidence in the end of March 1997 I was going to a convention in San Antonio, 45 minutes by car from Huck’s house. Huck was nice enough to invite me to visit and I stayed over and I spent a lovely day with him and his wife and came back with many personal stories of my father’s trials and tribulations at that camp.
Huck told me my father was beaten badly upon his arrival at the camp by Big Stoop. According to Huck, the beating seemed to be more random than the fact my father was Jewish. Huck, who was in a complete body cast at that time due to his injuries. was also beaten. He referred to my Dad as “Bernie” with a memory of him as clear as yesterday. It’s a shame that my father dropped out of contact with Huck although over the years he did occasionally mention his name to my mother with the tidbit that Huck with his Southern accent always talked of “Maars Baars” (Mars candy bars).
Huck described in detail to me the daily life of Luft 4 and details about the 89-day march; such as the constant quest for food, the lice and the fear of reprisals by local Germans, etc.
To read the complete essay, visit http://www.antonnews.com/farmingdaleobserver.html/.As I mentioned previously, part of my father’s scrapbook contained a letter from a man named Otto Gleichmar who claimed to be the person who fished my father out of Petzin Lake near Berlin on August 6, 1944, which was the day he was shot down on his 13th mission. It seemed Gleichmar was having a hard time in the Allied occupation and he wanted a recommendation from my father that he saved an airman’s life at the risk of his own. Saving the enemies life that had just bombed your city was risky business among the neighbors in those days.
In April of 1997 while on a business trip in Europe, I decided to visit Berlin to find Petzin Lake and make a pilgrimage there for the purpose of video taping it to show my mother and family. I found the lake as a very serene place in the midst of the countryside. I videotaped an old house that was abandoned but from its age appeared to me to have been on the lake the day my father bailed out. Its architecture was unique and for some reason, I also felt compelled to open the gate and look around the yard.
The next day after visiting the lake I decided to look in the Berlin phone book to see if there were any Gleichmars. There were two listings and by great fortune one was the wife of Otto Gleichmar.
Speaking through the hotel concierge, I learned she remembered well about my Dad and invited me to her house for a meeting. Mrs. Gleichmar did not speak English but I was fortunate to have her neighbor, Edith Kopitzke, translate. I learned Mrs. Gleichmar was not at the lake the day my Dad arrived but her sister-in-law, Erica Spiecher, was. And at 91 years old she was still alive and well in Berlin and interested to meet me. Between the two women I learned the events of that fateful day and saw photos of the very canoe Otto used to save my Dad who was wounded and drowning under the weight of his parachute harness. Spiecher said she was the “first person to give my father his first cup of coffee in Germany.”
I also happened to notice in their album a photo of the very old house I videotaped the day before at the lake. By amazing coincidence this was the Gleichmar house during the war years and the very place Otto had brought my dad after his rescue.
In piecing together the Gleichmar side of the story it seems to me Otto’s furniture factory was pressed into military service perhaps for making rifle butts. Apparently he was reluctantly pressed into the Nazi party, which most Germans had to join, as we know. Because of his higher profile evidently he served prison time during the American occupation. And because of this he needed a recommendation letter from my dad. My dad never wrote back.
The two women had never known of the attempt of Otto to contact my father and they were fascinated by the copy of Otto’s letter I showed them.
I was treated extremely well by the Gleichmar family. It was an emotional recounting for them and at times their eyes focused on me as if I were heaven sent and in response to a good deed they did some 55 years ago. They did keep saying “why so late, why so late,” to contact them. It was absolutely none too late because two months later Gleichmar developed Parkinson’s and Spiecher’s sight started to fail.
The next part of my journey took me to research about the 351 Bomb Group. I found out from the 8th Air Force Society about Clint Hammond, who is the president of the group. Hammond was very patient with me and he took the time to educate me about the history of the 351 and Polebrook Airfield in the U.K. where the group was stationed.
He even entrusted me with precious one of a kind copies of crew load lists so I could figure out what specific missions my dad participated in. Having then been able to recreate the missions, Hammond sent me the descriptions of those missions from the 351 history book.
Armed with the mission list, it was now high time for me to meet Mack O’Quinn (the person who set off my long journey) and we did so at the National Archives. O’Quinn showed me how to find information on the 351 Bomb Group. Amazingly in perfect condition and in chronological order are boxes with original documents of all the missions the 351 flew (and for that matter all 8th Air Force missions).
Inside each mission file are original documents ranging from crew lists to bomb assessment damage, B17 sustained damage and losses plane-by-plane, flight formation diagrams and weather reports. I could now understand exactly what my dad experienced on each mission, its degree of difficulty and on one mission even know that shrapnel passed through the radio room right where he was sitting. Hammond had not known of the archive stash and I sent him copies of the 8/6/44 mission file (my dad’s last) in which Hammond was a pilot on another B17. Hammond’s name is clearly shown on a few documents.
O’Quinn also showed me the captured German files (captured by the Allies after the war) on each downed B17. The Germans kept meticulous records about each downed plane. Information they recorded was as detailed as the serial numbers on the guns to the detailed specification of each radio. Detailed records of the fate of each airman was recorded. In my dad’s case it was absolutely amazing that in this file was a list of all the personal belongings found upon him on his capture and his original dog tags which were bright and shiny as new. There was also a letter that my aunt and cousin wrote him (my cousin was 10 at the time) with a line that said “keep up naming the bombs for the paper hanger” (the paper hanger was a reference to Hitler as it was his occupation before politics). How the letter survived is amazing.
My mom did remember my dad saying this letter did not “help” him on his capture. It was an amazing experience to give a copy of it to my cousin who is 65 now. There were a variety of personal belongings of 351 airmen in the captured German files such as love letters never mailed and even a crib sheet from one pilot on how to fly the B17. We could tell from the files who survived the crashes and who did not, and the exact location of the plane crash.
My dad’s plane crashed in Wilhelmshorst, a few miles east from Petzin Lake. Coincidentally when I was driving back from Petzin to Berlin, I momentarily lost my sense of direction vis a vis my road map which is something that rarely happens. As I now know, I doubled back, re-orientated and passed through the town of Wilhelmshorst perhaps within yards where my dad’s plane crashed. At that time I did not know about the crash site location. Throughout my discovery it seems there was a force showing me the way. Too many coincidences happened to make the discovery easier. I really never had to go out of my way on any leg of the journey. My journeys amazingly connected to my business itineraries and once there I sometimes received this uncanny guidance.
One of the greatest experiences of my life was to attend the 351 Bomb Group annual convention in June 1997. Where would one be able to meet in one place hundreds of men and their wives who share such a common bond with my dad’s history and now myself.
Hammond was kind enough to allow me to tell my saga in front of the group and weave the story of who I am and how I retraced my dad’s history. It was a speech that was unrehearsed and needed no notes or preparation. Things from the heart need not. I told the group how I never had the opportunity to relate to my dad as an adult. He got sick when I was 13 and shortly thereafter I had to take over the role as man of the house. My childhood was short. I related that for years I was searching for a connection to my father, to know something about him and his accomplishments; and that now I know how brave and strong a man he was.
Like the other men of the 351 who were listening to me with wet eyes as I choked up during my tale, the men of the 8th Air Force were the unsung heroes of WWII. They did a job with tremendous risk to themselves. Odds were as high as a 50 percent risk of not returning after each mission, yet never complaining, never boasting; they returned home in 1945, picking up where they left off and set the current prosperity of our nation in motion. And in the case of most, they never told their tale. These are the characteristics of those brave men.
For me being able to tell my dad’s tale to his colleagues was my special connection and honor to my father. To this day although I miss him dearly, the pain of growing up without him in my life and not being able to share my accomplishments with him is now much less due to this experience. To this I thank the 351 Bomb Group eternally.
My dad did keep in touch with the only other survivor of his crew, Milton Sheir, who also was on that last Aug. 6, 1944 mission. Both Sheir and my dad bailed out about the same time. Sheir was an officer so he sat out the end of the war in another prison camp but after the war and up to the time of my dad’s illness, they both kept in touch.
After the bomb group convention, I visited Sheir in Cleveland (again not having to travel far as the convention was in Dayton), related the entire story and showed him the interesting captured German documents and the video tape of his dog tags that were also in the National Archives.
Sheir was the navigator and all these years he wondered where his plane actually crashed and where he landed. With copies of the captured documents I was able to show him the exact street and town where he landed and was captured and of course where the plane crashed in Wilhelmshorst. This was a very emotional experience for Sheir and I was glad that I could answer something that had bothered him for so many years. During my visit I was lucky to receive a copy a photograph I did not have of my dad’s crew in front of one of their B-17s in Texas. Sheir remembered that was the very plane they flew over to Polebrook.
The final chapter of my journey was written in March 1999 when I visited the Polebrook U.K. Airfield, 45 minutes by train northwest of London. It’s the very place from where my dad was stationed. Not much remains today but I was fortunate to get the ‘cooks’ tour from Mike and Brenda Hollingdale who are 351 Bomb Group members. What remains is a bit of the tarmac, which now has a monument, the main hangar now used to store farm supplies which is in remarkably good condition and some concrete paths.
But the English countryside, some of the pubs, farmhouses and villages nearby have changed little from 1944. One could just picture what is was like for a young man to be stationed there seeing such serenity one day and then awful perils of air combat the next day. It must have been mind boggling for young men to be uprooted from their lives in America (much less sophisticated than life today) and to be put into to such a situation of strong contradiction. Fighting one hour in a B17 and returning to idyllic countryside the next. I could not help but to dwell on this paradox.
At Polebrook I had a final coincidence—the very concrete path I felt the need to photograph, as I learned later in the London hotel upon studying the original site map of the airfield, was the path that lead to the sergeants’ mess hall and barracks. This was one of the very paths my dad traveled. Surely Staff Sergeant Alvin Bernstein was watching over me on that sunny day of March 27, 1999 in the English countryside, again showing me the way to his past, just as I had experienced the other coincidences during this journey.