Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Some of you may remember that a few Memorial Days ago, I wrote a tribute to my great-uncle, Francis Sulcofski, who flew on a B-17 bomber during WWII. My dad, who was a boy during the war years, vividly remembers hearing about his uncle's experiences during the war -- including the fact that he was shot down over France and held in a Nazi POW camp for over two years.

Since I wrote that tribute, two things happened. My great-uncle's daughter (which makes her either my first cousin once removed or my second cousin; I was half-asleep that day in Wills class so I don't remember which) contacted me to tell me a little bit more about her dad. Turns out my dad's memories were a little rusty and he'd gotten some of the details about my great-uncle Francis's story wrong. The second thing, which happened rather recently, was that I came across a very detailed account of what happened to my great-uncle after he parachuted out of that B-17 sixty years ago. The story is every bit as dramatic and emotional as any novel or movie written about the war, so I'm going to share it with you.

My great-uncle was a Tech Sergeant in the Army Air Corps (the forerunner to the Air Force) on a B-17 bomber called Susfu. (Another thing I found out recently was that "SUSFU" is a military acronym for "Situation Unchanged: Still Fucked Up," the dark humor of which I appreciate.) One thing my dad did remember clearly was that the plane had Bugs Bunny on the fuselage:

The 427th Bomb Squadron; my great-uncle is in the front row, all the way on the left, and Bugs Bunny is visible on the plane above them.

Their missions involved flying over France and Germany, dropping bombs on various Nazi targets. Mission No. 11 took place on January 23, 1943. Twenty-one flight crews were sent to bomb U-boat pens and the German ports in the northwestern part of France (Brest and Lorien). Two flight crews aborted the mission and returned to the base because of equipment malfunctions. Nineteen crews continued on, and ran into Luftwaffe planes -- forty-nine German fighters were reportedly seen. Fourteen of the remaining 19 planes made it to their targets; five planes were shot down. The Mission Combat report says that the losses were in part caused by the chaos caused when another bombing squad flew over my great-uncle's, breaking up the lower formation.

My great-uncle's plane, the SUSFU, was shot by a German FW-190 plane something like this one:

The pilot, 1st Lt. Harry A. Robey, was killed by machine gun fire as he parachuted toward the ground; another crewmate, 2nd Lt. Roy Moser, was also killed. The remaining seven crewmembers parachuted to the ground, landing around Le Cloitre-Pleyben in Brittany.

Three of my great-uncle's crewmembers -- Charles Grice, Edward Levering and Val Hannon -- were found by some local farmers and sheltered. They were subsequently taken to the town of Quemeneven by a local butter merchant. Two days later, my great-uncle and his crewmate Wilbur Hummel, had found shelter with a family named Hascouet at their farm, which was called "Ty-Glaz." Two days later, the five crewmembers were reunited at the Chateau du Trefry, home of the de Poulpiquet family.

Apparently my great-uncle and his crewmates had stumbled across some French citizens who were connected to the so-called "Pat Line," an escape route founded by a Belgian resistance member to get downed Allied pilots back to England. The five SUSFU crewmembers were eventually taken on trains to Paris and taken to a safe house by a resistance member named Jean de la Olla, to await transport to Tours. They made it to the Tours station, but after they left the larger train from Paris to get on a smaller local train, they heard a voice with a German accent tell them, "Les mains en l'air, vous etes faits!" ("Put your hands up - you are taken"). A double agent named Roger Le Neveu had infiltrated the Pat Line and in addition to my great-uncle and his four crewmates, various French citizens were arrested by the Germans.

The crewmen and the French resistance members who accompanied them were held at Tours for two weeks and then transferred to Paris for interrogation. On March 16, the interrogations began. One of the Americans, Charles Grice, later recalled that neither he nor any of his fellow Americans revealed anything about who had helped them. The crewmen were ultimately taken to German POW camps; my great-uncle spent over two years at Stalag Luft 17B (the POW camp which inspired the movie "Stalag 17"):

Conditions at Stalag 17B were terrible: not enough food, overcrowding, poor hygiene, limited running water, a single indoor latrine (that could only be used after dark), all sorts of horrors that got worse as the end of the war grew closer. My great-uncle was liberated in mid-1945 and eventually returned to the United States. My dad, young as he was, realized that the war had taken a profound toll on his uncle, saying "he was never the same after that."

My great-uncle's story is a compelling one. But when considered on Memorial Day, it takes on extra depth and meaning as it illustrates the kinds of challenges and sacrifices we demand from our armed forces.

Imagine being a young man who grew up in an insular Pennsylvania valley, whose dad was a coal miner and who didn't get much in the way of education or material comforts. Imagine finding yourself stationed on a base in Britain, far away from everyone and everything you know. Imagine that your job is to climb into an oversized tin can and fly out into the blackness of night, knowing that squadrons of German fighters are waiting to try to shoot you down. Imagine being out on one of those bombing missions, scared out of your wits while the adrenaline pumps through your veins. Imagine the terror you feel when you realize you're in the middle of a dogfight with German planes. Imagine the leap of faith it must take to jump out into the night over a foreign country occupied by your enemies, motivated only by the animal instinct to save your own life. Imagine landing on the ground and feeling your training take over, cutting the lines to your parachute, checking to see what you've got in your pack, trying to decide where and how to take cover. Imagine the fear of knowing that your enemy is looking for you, and then imagine the relief when you are found by friendly French farmers who risk their lives to hide you. Imagine how your relief and hope turns to terror when you realize that someone has betrayed you and you're handed over to the Nazis. Imagine being interrogated by them, and then being shipped off to a hellhole of a prison camp. Imagine spending over two years in Stalag 17B, waiting for the war to be over, trying to survive without losing your mind or getting shot by a pissed-off guard. Imagine the joy of finally being liberated in 1945, then shipping home and finding yourself in a world that seems unchanged while everything about you inside is different.

We ask so much of our military, and we're still asking so much of them. It doesn't matter whether you head out into the night in a B-17 or a stealth bomber with the latest computer technology, whether you face Luftwaffe rifle fire or IEDs by a roadside, whether you see your friends die in an airplane or an exploding humvee or a rice paddy, whether you're taken prisoner by Nazis or the Taliban or nameless psycho extremists, whether your flashbacks are of Viet Nam or Korea or the Middle East or of Nazi-occupied France.

So please take a moment today to think about the men and women who have served and are serving our country in the military, and the families who love them and miss them. We honor them today, and we thank them for their sacrifices.

Tonight I'll light a candle in memory of my great-uncle. I didn't know him, but I'm proud of him.


Mel said...

My grandfather was a Tech Sgt. at the time with the 578th. I wonder if their paths ever crossed. And your great-uncle's daughter would be your first cousin once removed.

Melissa Morgan-Oakes said...

My maternal grandfather was in the Army, and both my father and father in law served in the USAF. One of our boys was in the Army. My daughter's best friend is a very proud member of the USAF now.

We need to remember.

Anonymous said...

Very moving. My great-great uncle died on his third day of active service in Belgium in WWI. He was his parents only son.

Ashley said...

Wow...that was very moving. I'm glad that he was okay physically, but am sorry he was not the same mentally. It's sad to see that happen to so many young men.

My grandfather was in WWII. I don't really know any details about his times. He died when I was about two, so I barely knew him, just know pictures of us together. I wish he were alive to tell me what it had been like.

Thank you for sharing your great-uncle's story.

Anonymous said...

Wow. You told his story well. Thank you for reminding us of the reason for this day.

Alison (in Australia) said...

Thanks for this moving story and reminder about the people who put their lives in danger to keep others safe. It's good to keep in mind.

As an aside, I've never heard of SUSFU, but I have heard of SNAFU: Situation Normal: All Fucked Up. I imagine it derived from Allied (probably Australian/NZ (or both!) forces) in similar circumstances around the same time.

Unknown said...

Wow, what a wonderful story about your great-uncle. Definately a hero!!

Susan said...

What a moving story. As a baby boomer, I am prone to forget that my Dad was in the Army during WWII as were two of my uncles. It should not be forgotten that so many gave their lives for their country as well as memories that could never be forgotten. I wish I could have known your great uncle - he certainly sounds a true hero. Thank you for sharing.

Diana said...

Thanks so much, Carol. As the daughter of a Marine who served in the Pacific during WWII and the wife of a submariner during the Cold War, your reminder helps us all keep our men and women in the military and their families who make great sacrifices here at home, in mind.

Barb B. said...

Very well told story! Thank you. My neighbour of years ago was in the same Stalag. He grew up in India, the son of missionaries. I imagine it was much the same for him as for your great uncle.

This made me think of my friends who are in Afghanistan right now, and what they face and what their families face.
Thank you.

Carol said...

Amazing story. And to think this is just one story among how many servicemen? I think this could be a great book with a little more research. Feel like writing non-fiction?

Kathleen Dames said...

Thank you for sharing such a moving story, Carol.

Kris said...

Well written post and excellent story -- thanks for sharing the details. I agree that this would make a great book; it's amazing how much of the war is revealed through this one man's experience.

Unknown said...

In consideration of the events suffered by combat VETs, we might all be extra cautious/considerate about probing their horrible memories.
...from a non-combat VET

Mary the Digital Knitter said...

My uncle (I'm older than you are) was a navigator in a B-17. His airplane was shot down over Ploesti, which had important oil fields that the Allies eventually bombed into uselessness, and smuggled out by the Romanian underground. He went back to flying and finished out the war with no other incidents.

One remainder of that experience is that he reacts abruptly if awakened. All of us kids knew not to touch him when he slept, but to call to him from across the room.

He was just a farm kid from a little dink place in the Four Corners area, going off to war in his teens. He came back to the States, used the GI Bill to go to college (majoring in engineering), and went into teaching. He was my 6th grade teacher (in another little dink town, this time in the CA Central Valley). He eventually became the Superintendent of Schools in the SoCal High Desert, where he still lives. He's written about his wartime experiences and has promised me a copy eventually, probably after his death.

I also have a friend who was an F-4 pilot (and an ace) in the Israeli Air Force (dual citizenship). His airplane was shot down in the 1970 War of Attrition and he spend three years in a POW prison in Cairo. The cousin of another friend wrote a book about him and the other twelve Israeli POWs. It's called "Season of Captivity" and is, I think, out of print. He also spoke to some of us, test pilots and a few engineers, at NASA Dryden about his experiences.

I didn't mean to write so much, so late, but your posting about your great uncle struck a real chord. I really admire people in the military, and their families, for the sacrifices they're willing to make for us.

tabasco206 said...

Regarding the Hascouet family from Quemeneven you mentioned in your post: The parents and their 2 sons were deported to Nazi camps after having contributed to help some members of Robey's crew. Only one son returned to France.

Tabasco206 said...

Last thing. You should read this

Vogel and your grand uncle were in the same B-17 on Jan 23rd 1943.