Form Submission Leads to Intriguing Interview

"Form submission." That sounds kind of dry, doesn't it? But that's how queries from visitors to the Kassel Mission web site arrive in my inbox, and some of those queries are anything but dry. 

In April, a form was submitted by Carol Sanders of Stanwood, Washington, seeking information about her uncle, Lars Larsen, who was killed on the Kassel Mission. Carol said she grew up hearing stories of "Uncle Babe" ("all of my mother's siblings were given nicknames by my grandfather.")

This was a name that, as is the case with many of the men who lived through or died on the mission, was unfamiliar to me. While I managed to do formal interviews with 20 or so survivors of the mission and brief, impromptu recorded conversations with a handful of others, there were roughly 350 fliers on the mission. And while there are many written accounts from survivors and descriptions of how others perished, Lars Larsen appeared to have slipped through the cracks.

Still, I thought if I looked up his crew in the exhaustively researched material on the web site, I would at least find the plane he was on and maybe one or more of the other members of his crew would be familiar.

And there it was. Lars Larsen was one of two crew members killed on Little Audrey, pilot Donald Reynolds. Two crew members were killed in action, one of them being  Larsen, the waist gunner; the other Robert Long, the nose turret gunner. And there was a name I recognized: James Withey.

I visited Jim Withey in 2010 in Mesa, Arizona. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip that included a lengthy interview with another veteran who lived in Mesa, and I decided to see if I could meet Jim while I was there.

I had only recently switched from recording interviews on an analog tape recorder to using a digital voice recorder. When I got home, I transferred the interview with Withey from the recorder to my hard drive. I had recently started a new job, and I forgot about the interview.

The form submission from Lars Larsen's niece served as a reminder. I still haven't transcribed it, but I listened to it and sent Mrs. Sanders a CD with the recording. This is the information I was able to supply:

"I cannot tell you much about Lars Larsen other than that he perished on the mission and the position of his plane, both of which are  according to a painstakingly compiled list of crews and formations on the Kassel Mission web site. However, when I looked at the list of the crew on the plane, one name jumped out at me, that of the navigator, Jim Withey. I remembered that I had met and interviewed Mr. Withey, and so I did a search of my computer and found a two-part audio file that I had not transcribed. I listened to it and gleaned some details about the crash in which Lars was killed. It was Withey's first and only mission with that crew because he only needed one more mission to achieve 30 missions and then he could go home, so he volunteered to be the navigator. He knew two or three men on the crew because he shared a quonset hut with them, but that meant they would have been officers and Lars, one of the two waist gunners, was an enlisted man. Withey said it was that crew's tenth mission.

"As furious as the battle was, Little Audrey, as the plane was named, survived the initial battle despite losing one engine. But as they flew back toward England, near Koblenz, Germany they flew over a 20-millimeter flak emplacement and a second engine was shot out and the nose turret gunner was killed (His name was Long, Withey said, not Lars, although only two of the crew were killed and the rest became prisoners of war). The plane then crash landed -- on a hill no less. He did say the reason the pilot tried to make it back to England instead of ordering the crew to bail out was because there were severely injured men on board, which likely would have included Lars."

The story of the Kassel Mission and the memorial in Germany with the names of all of those killed on both sides is a powerful story of closure. The Kassel Mission Historical Society, composed mostly of the remaining survivors and several "next generation" members, has dedicated itself to preserving and spreading word about the mission. I hope you'll spend some time exploring the accounts of the mission on the web site, and will consider taking out a membership in KMHS.

A KMHS Story, by Linda Cadden Gibson

At some point, my Father [gunner John Cadden] reached out to Dick Trotta, son of Len Trotta (co-pilot on the Krivik crew).  It might have been after Len passed away; Dick's recollection is that my Dad wrote to him.

In about 1989, my Dad invited Dick and his family to visit my parents in Avalon, NJ.  Dick, his wife Vicki, and two sons (ages 7 & 4-5) did just that.  Over the years, Dick would call my parents here and there and catch up.  Eventually the communications became less and less which, as we all know, happens.

During the funeral of George H.W. Bush, Dick was thinking about the "greatest generation."  He tried to contact my Dad, who had since died, as had my Mom. And so, Dick hit a dead-end trying to reach them.  

Many years before, my father asked Dick to stay in touch with his (my father's) children. Dick googled my Dad and came upon Aaron Elson's interview.  Dick contacted Aaron to see if he could put him in touch with any of the children.

Aaron reached out to me to make sure I was agreeable to having him sharing my contact information which, of course, I was.

Dick called while I was in California and we spoke for hours. He has since joined KMHS and signed up for the upcoming trip (juggling some previous overseas vacation travel plans).  

Yesterday, on Dick and Vicki's drive back to New York from a winter break in Florida, they stopped and visited me and my husband. We finally met, had a wonderful visit and look forward to seeing each other in Germany this September.  

An added twist to this story is that Dick and Vicki bought a weekend cottage on one of the NY finger lakes (maybe 30 years ago). Dick became fast friends with his next door neighbor there - none other than [Kassel Mission pilot] Reg Miner

Small world.  

Memorial Day, By Kassel Mission pilot Jim Baynham

This morning my mail box has a message from the Collings Foundation in Dallas with their schedule for the year. They have restored several WWII war planes and they fly them across our country to air shows to help us remember that war 75 years ago. That was the one so many of our young men died fighting against an evil leader named Hitler. It is good for all of us to remember what the world could have been had we lost that war.

One of the warbirds still flying is an old B-24 named Witchcraft.  It’s picture in their message brings home hard the image of my crew on the day we were shot down.  Four of my guys were Killed in Action that day. Out on the nose in a gun turret sat Hector Scala, our bombardier. He had dropped our bombs and then fought off a nose attack with his fifty caliber machine guns before he heard the alarm bell sent him to the bomb bay to bail out. Johnny Cowgill was nearby, just behind the nose turret at his navigation desk, plotting our course even as cannon fire hit our ship. He followed Hector out through the bomb bay to what should have been safety. Up on the flight deck, just behind the copilots seat, James Fields, our radioman had stowed his camera after taking bomb strike photos of our bomb strike when smoke filled the flight deck. Our bomb bay, directly under the gas tanks that held 2700 gallons of 100 octane gasoline when we took off was hit and set afire. He led Hector and Johnny out as he jumped. The three young men hit the ground, were captured, turned over to a group of murderers who tortured them before they shot them and threw them in a hole they dug outside a copper mine office. It was a long long time that their families suffered with the Missing In Action notice about their kids and then finally were told they had died. The fourth was Olin Byrd, a Texan who flew the waist gunners position. He bailed with Lemons and Knox through the hatch door in the waist. They made it back, but Byrd died somewhere below. He is buried in Europe at one of our cemeteries. These young guys died fighting for us. So we could be free in this great country. Please remember them this Memorial Day. They were our heroes. Still are. Love, Dad, Grandpa, Uncle, Jim

Memorial Day Message on behalf of the Kassel Mission Historical Society

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and for us members of the Kassel Mission Historical Society, it’s another time to pause and remember the sacrifices of ALL those who participated in the Kassel Mission. So much was sacrificed by those who perished, as well as those who survived the mission.

As part of our remembrance, I thought I would share an example of why we should never forget - including those who did not necessarily fight, but suffered and sacrificed as much.

I have a letter written to my mother, Mary, dated January of 1945, which I came across maybe 6 or 7 years ago shortly after my mother’s passing… she had kept this letter all those years. The letter was short and very bittersweet then as it is now.

It was from a mother who was inquiring about her son, Joe Gilfoil, knowing that he was on the same crew as my father, Frank Bertram. She had been informed in early October of 1944, (my mother had been advised of my father’s MIA status at that time), that Joe was also MISSING IN ACTION.

However, my mother received another confirmation 6 -7 weeks later (on Thanksgiving Day of ’44!) that Frank was “alive and safe” in a German prisoner of war camp… a telegram that Mrs. Gilfoil never received about her son.

That January 1945 letter to my mother simply said:

"Hello Mary, I hope you are well. I understand that my son Joseph was on the same mission as your husband. Have you heard any word about our boys?”

That was it; that was all she wrote in her sweet and hopeful letter. Short, but to the very most important point she cared about. Sadly, unbeknownst to Mrs. Gilfoil, her boy Joe lost his life over 3 months before she composed her letter, and she spent an unknown amount of days not knowing his fate.

I have no idea if, or how, my mother responded… she was 20 years old at the time. My mother only knew my father’s fate as a POW; but she probably deduced that it was not likely good news with no word on Joe so many months later.

It is hard to imagine what Mrs. Gilfoil must have gone through once she did receive official word. She, too, paid the sacrifice.

I must have read this letter a dozen times and the effect is always the same. Over the course of this war, or all wars, how many mothers and fathers wrote such letters, unaware of the doomed fate of their sons or daughters

So, a Memorial Day toast of Thanks to all those who have sacrificed in defense of our country and our freedom! But let us also toast all the Mrs. Gilfoil’s for the faith and courage they demonstrated as well!

Jim Bertram, Chairman

Kassel Mission Historical Society


If you’re interested in joining the Kassel Mission Historical Society, all are welcome to help us preserve the stories of our heroes. To learn more, click the button below.

Rest in Peace, Erlyn Jensen

erlyn-jensen.jpg

Erlyn Jensen didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at the annual reunion of the 8th Air Force Historical Society in Kansas City in October of 2004, and she was fearing the worst.

Erlyn’s brother, Donald William McCoy, was killed in action on Sept. 27, 1944. Erlyn’s mother and her only sister had passed away, and now that she was the only member of her generation left, she was curious to learn more about how her brother died.

One day she read in the paper that a B-24 Liberator and a B-29 Superfortress were going to be at the local airport in Bremerton, Washington, and she decided to go and see the kind of airplane — the B-24 — her brother flew.

While she was there, she got into a conversation with a fellow who was active in the 8th Air Force Historical Society. When she told him about her brother — who she always called by his middle name, Bill, whereas in the 445th Bomb Group he was known as Major Don McCoy — the man encouraged her to get involved with the historical society. He told her that a whole issue of the society’s journal was devoted to the mission on which her brother died.

What he didn’t tell her was that some survivors of the battle in which her brother was killed blamed him for the biggest one day loss for a single bomb group in 8th Air Force history.

She found that out when she read the issue devoted to the Kassel Mission, on which 35 B-24s were ambushed by as many as 150 German fighter planes, and 25 of the bombers were shot down. Major Don McCoy was the command pilot who made the decision to proceed to a secondary target after what is believed to have been a navigational error due to a faulty piece of equipment, sent his plane off course.

So you can imagine Erlyn’s trepidation when, unannounced, she quietly entered the 445th Bomb Group hospitality room at the 8th Air Force reunion in 2004.

The hospitality room was buzzing with activity. Off in a corner, Bill Dewey, one of the founders of the Kassel Mission Memorial Association, was sitting in the hospitality room with his daughter, Linda.

Erlyn Jensen, left, and Linda Dewey at the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show in 2010. Photo by Carol Holliday.

Erlyn Jensen, left, and Linda Dewey at the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show in 2010. Photo by Carol Holliday.

“I was sitting with my dad at the far end of the hospitality room when I saw a woman at the other end and she was standing in the door frame looking at everything,” Linda Dewey recalls. “I got up and walked across the room and asked, ‘Can I help you?’ And she replied, ‘I was told that someone here might be able to tell me what happened to my brother.’ And so I asked her, ‘Who is your brother?’ And that’s when she told me. And I said, ‘I think we’ll be able to help you.”

When Linda told her father, who was one of the pilots on the Kassel Mission, who Erlyn was, Bill Dewey stood up straight and announced: “Everybody stand up. This is Major McCoy’s sister.”

That opened the floodgates and Erlyn Jensen became a major part of the Kassel Mission Historical Society, which the KMMA morphed into after many of the actual survivors of the mission had passed away.

“Having Erlyn become part of this group made everyone re-examine their theories and look at the blame they had fixed on that lead plane. years later,” Linda Dewey says. “We have learned that the plane Major McCoy flew that day was brand-new, and a diary by his engineer tells us that the navigator reported he was having trouble with the ‘Mickey,’ the instrument. It was, however, Major McCoy who made the final decision not to  defer to the deputy lead ship, which was protocol when the lead could no longer lead the group.

Erlyn at her brother's grave. Sophie Haelbig, Eb's daughter, accompanies her in this photo. 

Erlyn at her brother's grave. Sophie Haelbig, Eb's daughter, accompanies her in this photo. 

“I remember in 2006, when Erlyn was with us at the rededication ceremony of the monument in Germany, She was sitting with my dad in the bus on the crash site tour, while he explained to her that after they dropped the bombs and were making that turn, where the formation got messy, that you couldn’t turn a group ‘on a dime.’ One of her concerns had been, why did everyone get so out of formation on that turn? I’m sure she wondered if that was her brother’s fault. She was that kind of woman.

“The story of the Kassel Mission would never be the same after we met Erlyn. Knowing her caused us to re-examine everything.”

Erlyn Jensen passed away peacefully at her home on Saturday, March 23. She was 85 years old.

Rest in Peace, Erlyn Jensen. (2019, March 30). Retrieved from https://www.aaronelson.com/2019/03/30/rest-in-peace-erlyn-jensen/

Original article by:

Aaron Elson