"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.