From Enemies to Friends
By Linda Alice Dewey
How former enemies, haunted by the Kassel Mission, found each other 40 years later.
Republished from the Kassel Mission Chronicles, Summer 2014
If I heard my father, Kassel Mission pilot Bill Dewey, say it once, I heard it a hundred times. “If anyone had a reason to hate the Americans, it was Walter Hassenpflug.”
Walter did not start out by being afraid of enemy bombers or fighters when they flew overhead. On the contrary, as a young boy, he found it all very exciting. So when 70 years ago, on 27 September 1944, he saw several parachutes followed by a Liberator that came down in the hills near his home, he and a friend ran to the site. In that wreckage-strewn forest, they saw three dead men. Then the authorities shooed them away.
The next day, Walter was out with the Hitler Youth when he discovered an American airman with a bad ankle who was resting near a creek. He ran to get an older member.
“Are you hurt, sir?” the older teen asked.
The navigator indicated that his back and ankle were causing him pain.
The older boy answered, “We must take you in to the authorities.”
They assisted the lieutenant along the railroad tracks that led into the town of Hersfeld. Walter watched the airman as they walked. After they delivered the lieutenant to the home that served as a way station for rounded up enemy airmen, Walter hung around outside. Eventually, a German came outside and told him that the American was a navigator from San Francisco. Inside, although the lieutenant only gave his name, rank and serial number, the Germans confiscated his prayer book. Inside the cover, they found his address.
Soon, German Luftwaffe soldiers arrived to take the prisoner away.
Walter’s love of all aircraft changed that November, when his home was hit by errant bombs dropped by a group of B-17s. Walter’s father covered Walter with his body to cushion the blows, which killed both the father and Walter’s mother. The attack also severely injured Walter, who was their only child. For weeks, no one would give the boy a straight answer when he asked why his parents did not come to visit him in the hospital. Finally, a tearful aunt confirmed his fears. Walter was now an orphan. His grandparents had already taken in orphans and other disenfranchised family members, and there was no room for him. So, in February, he was discharged to live with a doctor and his family who were friends of the family.
As the Front encroached, school closures became permanent. The Air Force cleared the way for the ground troops to follow, and the war, very near its end now, became extremely hazardous to all in the path of the conquering army. Enemy planes—once so exciting—now filled Walter with terror and hatred. Unable to abide going down to the basement shelter for fear of being crushed once again, the twelve-year-old sat each raid out alone on the main floor.
Walter pleaded to go live with his godparents in the small village of Friedlos a few miles away and finally moved there on March 28. By then, the Americans had arrived at nearby towns. That day, he saw American fighters bomb the railroad in Hersfeld.
Three days later, on Easter morning, Walter and a friend decided to see if the Americans were coming. As they walked down the road toward Hersfeld, they began to hear faraway motors. Soon, a long convoy of trucks carrying lots of men with great equipment came into view. Walter watched the men ride by in their sharp uniforms, so unlike the bedraggled German soldiers. Seeing the two boys, the Americans smiled and waved, and Walter found himself waving back.
Hanging around the camp site, he watched the soldiers talk and laugh. These men weren’t like the Russians who tore through Germany, raping and pillaging. This enemy had a friendly face, and they had really good food, too, that came in tins that the soldiers threw away half-eaten. Walter, whose family was hungry, scavenged around and took some home.
He soon tried out his “school English,” and became their unofficial local translator. If a unit stayed a few days, some soldiers even became his friends. One day, he told them his story. During the telling, he looked up to see tears in one soldier’s eyes.
Eventually, the schools reopened. Walter graduated and began a career at the city offices of Hersfeld (now Bad [“bŏd”] Hersfeld; “Bad” means “spa”). He married a local girl and had what he considers to be a good life.
Having embraced what happened to him, Walter found he had a taste for local bhistory. As for his own personal history, he wondered about the bombing raid that had claimed his home and his parents. Which bomb group had that been? In the early 1980s, he decided to find out. With the help of a translator, for his English had become rusty, Walter wrote the U.S government, asking for information and discovered what group it was, where they had been headed, and what occurred.
Then he turned to 27 September 1944, when he witnessed the B-24 crash in the hills. He learned that this plane had been from the 445th Bomb Group, which was returning after dropping its bombs near Göttingen. The plane he had seen crash had been the group’s lead Liberator. The command pilot, Captain John Chilton, and the group’s mission commander, Major Don W. McCoy, had been among those killed, and Walter recalled the dead men he had seen that day. He decided to see if he could find anyone who had been near Göttingen when the 445th’s bombs fell and found eye witnesses whom he interviewed.
This success led him to wonder about the men in the air. Who were they? Did they survive? If so, how could he contact them? Beginning with the Germans, he wrote the German fighter association, which put him in touch with some of the surviving Luftwaffe pilots. Several responded with their accounts of that day’s events.
A Battle Unparalleled
As the story unfolded, Walter began to realize that this battle—of which he himself had witnessed a small portion—might be unparalleled in German history. The 445th Bomb Group had been decimated in no more than six minutes. The resulting crashes—22 Liberators—occurred within a very small area—a 16-mile radius near his home! Another 29 [Ed. note: this number has expanded since then to a probable 32] German planes had also crashed. Over 200 airplanes had been concentrated in a small area of sky.
Perceiving the magnitude of the event, Walter felt that he must record this story in full and without bias. To do so, he must contact every involved German and American possible.
He began with the lead 445th crew. The Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) listed the crew home addresses in 1945. Walter sent off letters to the eight survivors of the original 13 and heard back from three who also sent their stories. He visited the places they described, interviewed corroborating wit-nesses, and mapped their attempted escapes, documenting everything.
Then he ordered all the mission reports as well as the other 24 MACRs. The raw material he received out in a dozen directions—the KIAs, the missing, the documented POWs, the men who returned to Tibenham. Topping it off were war crimes trial transcripts from several murders! He created a huge aerial map and marked the site where each Kassel Mission plane went down with a red or blue pin and a label. He studied the myriad parachute landing sites and spoke with German civilians who witnessed them; some had even participated in rounding up the survivors.
Once he contacted the lead crew, Walter’s quest to find every possible survivor began with the man topmost in his mind: the lieutenant he had discovered the day after the battle. What happened to him? Was he still alive? He wrote the 2nd Air Division Association (2ADA) asking for any information about this mission, stating that he was especially interested in finding the navigator he had discovered by the creek on September 28, 1944.
It took months for Walter’s letter to wend its way to the 445th BG vice president, who remembered an article by a Kassel Mission (KM) veteran. He suggested that Hassenpflug write the author—maybe he could shed light on the subject—and enclosed contact information. The author was Frank Bertram.
In the Fall of 1985, Walter sent a packet of material to Bertram to see if he could help.
Dear Mr. Bertram,
As you can see from the correspondence enclosed I am working at a documentation reconstructing the disaster of the 445 BG.
Perhaps you can help me with further information or to establish useful contacts.
Because I intend to investigate the events of those days – as far as possible – from the American and German point of view, I have also contacted three German pilots.
Bertram was shocked. He sat down and went through everything in the packet, which included Walter’s story of being a boy of twelve, seeing parachutes and a B-24 go down on September 27, then finding the man with the injured ankle by the creek the next day. One letter in the packet said, "All I remember is that he was a first lieutenant from San Francisco."
My God! Bertram thought. That’s me! He sat down immediately and wrote Walter, who received it ten days later—six months since he had first written the 2ADA.
Dear Mr. Hassenpflug,
Your letter was like a bolt of lightning. I believe that there is a good possibility that I am the First Lt. from San Francisco who was found by a brook. If, in fact, it is as I hope, my wife and I will be very happy to use this as an excuse to fly to Germany very shortly. My wife and I have been to Germany several times, including last September. We…explored the general area…, however, we were unable to find the place where you picked me up and were forced to abandon the search...
Bertram and Hassenpflug had been seeking answers from opposite sides to a lifelong mystery they had in common. Each had reached across the ocean looking for answers and found them in one another.
Walter looked at the enclosed POW picture and recognized the lieutenant he had discovered forty-one years before. Bertram had enclosed the addresses of his pilot, Reg Miner, and their original bombardier, George Collar. He added a request.
I see you have contacted some German pilots who were involved in the air battle. I would like to meet them as it could possibly be that one of them is the same one who flew by me and waved as I floated down...
Your letter has very much touched my heart, recalling a day when so many fine young men lost their lives for both of their respective countries…
That August, Bertram and his family flew to meet Walter, who welcomed them into his home. Over his couch hung a giant map covered with red and blue pinheads. Through a translator, Walter told the story of each American plane, citing details of where the men had landed when they parachuted down—the whole general story.
Frank was amazed. “When you think of what it took to go back 35 or 40 years, and to go to where all these planes had crashed, get all the information on those that survived, those that didn’t: Walter did all this on every plane that went down.”
Bertram felt that the Germans were a little wary of him, as if they thought he might resent them. But Frank thought it was miraculous that they were so welcoming and marvelled that they would go so far out of their way to help him find answers to lifelong questions. His sense of humour soon made everyone feel at ease.
The interpreter told Frank that Walter had called him over dozens of times—whenever new information came in and that he had accompanied Walter many times to visit people, take pictures and document everything.
Hassenpflug reconnected Frank to places that, for four decades, existed only in his mind. He took him to the creek where he had found Frank. They followed the route into Bad Hersfeld they had walked after his capture. Frank saw the home where Walter turned him in and the place where the jail, which had since been bombed, once stood. They even walked to the train station from which Frank embarked for Stalag Luft I.
They drove to the gravesite where Frank’s best friend and copilot, Virgil Chima (Kēˊ-mä), had been buried during the war, before the U.S. government exhumed him (and all dead American soldiers) from what had been enemy soil. Bertram became emotional as Hassenpflug explained that, in November 1944, two months after the battle, women gathering beech nuts near the Autobahn had discovered Chima’s body, badly decomposed and curled in the fetal position. His chute shrouds had been cut; the silk gone. This, to Walter, meant that someone had taken the silk without reporting the body. That Chima did not bury his chute—the first thing you did after landing, so it wouldn’t give you away—told Bertram that his friend must have been very badly hurt and could not move. Poor Virg must have curled up to protect himself against the chill of that first night, which Frank recalled from his own escape attempt.
Walter introduced Frank and his family to Sturmgruppen pilot Ernst Schroeder, who had been in the second wave of Luftwaffe Focke Wulf 190s that attacked the 445th on September 27. Schroeder received credit for two B-24s that day, but admitted, "In all honesty, Frank, I’ll get the credit, but the damage had already been done. I put the finishing touches on them." Of the P-51 Mustang, Schroeder said, “That plane won the war.”
Frank and Mary Bertram returned to Germany in 1987 with his pilot, Reg Miner, and Miner’s wife. Hassenpflug once again rolled out the welcome mat. This trip was all about Miner: Walter took them to Miner’s landing site at the village of Grebenau, where he had managed to find locals who had captured Miner. They re-walked Miner’s journey into town, where he met townspeople with whom he remembered having had an enormously civil discussion 43 years before, while had had been waiting for the military to arrive. As with Bertram, they walked to the train station. In a neighboring town, they visited an office building that had been the jail where Miner and several others that first night, when Bertram and Chima had still been out in the cold.
These two meetings between Bertram and Hassenpflug set the precedent for a third, much larger, delegation of Kassel Mission airmen to follow. The growing number of KM veterans they were able to find organized and, with the Germans, created a memorial they dedicated to the men on both sides who died in that battle. (See “How it All Began,” p. 10)
At the dedication ceremony, a German speaker asked, “What sense would their death [sic] have made if reconciliation had not taken the place of hatred and hostility?" He proposed that there be an annual commemoration so that the event, and its takeaway lesson of forgiveness, not be forgotten.
The next day, Walter guided 83 Americans and their German hosts on a tour of KM crash and parachute landing sites, similar to the tours he had prepared for Bertram and Miner but on a much larger scale. At each point, those who had been in the air and on the ground came forward to tell the story from their individual points of view.
Since 1990, Walter Hassenpflug has taken many more American airmen and the families of those who died to their crash and landing sites. He has faithfully taken that pledge to organize and oversee the commemoration of the Kassel Mission at the memorial every September 27 since the dedication.
“There are many memorials in Germany,” Hassenpflug said in a 2010 interview with this author, “…and people met after the war; but nothing to the extent of what happened here.”
Pioneered by Frank Bertram and Walter Hassenpflug, the legacy of the Kassel Mission has transformed tragedy into triumph. The healing that transpired transformed hundreds of enemy combatants into friends whose relationships last for lifetimes.
© 2014 by Linda Alice Dewey, All Rights Reserved