Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hidden Aircraft Factory

The 1st U.S. Army found these partly completed Heinkel He-162 fighter jets on the assembly line of the underground Junkers factory at Tarthun, Germany, in early April 1945. The Germans built planes in huge underground galleries, this one in a former salt mine, to avoid having above-ground factories bombed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Jimmy Stewart's Wonderful Life

Jimmy Stewart enjoyed success in Hollywood. Professionally, he won the 1941 Academy Award as Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story. Personally, he made the conquest of many of his female costars.
With American involvement in war likely, the draft began. His draft number got him in early, before Pearl Harbor. He waged his own battle to get into the Air Force. Overseas. In combat. Not just one token mission, but a sustained combat tour.
Serving their country was a Stewart family mission. Jim’s grandfather served in the Civil War; his father in the Spanish-American War and World War I. Alex Stewart expected his son to serve, too.
Louis B. Mayer of MGM, which had Stewart under contract, didn’t agree. He wanted to keep Jim out of combat and suggested he could best serve in the Army Air Corps Motion Picture Unit. Stewart did make Winning Your Wings, one of the most successful recruiting films of the war. But he would not allow it to deter him from serving in combat.
Stewart already had his own plane and worked toward a transport license as a commercial pilot, doing as much as he could to increase his prospects and offset his advanced age of thirty-three. Most pilots were at least ten years younger than he.
He seemed destine to serve as a flying instructor. A talk with his commanding officer at Gowen Field in Idaho resulted in the “static” designation removed from his personnel file. A newly formed B-24 bomb group needed personnel, and Stewart was on his way as an operations officer of one of the four squadrons.

As a squadron commander in Tibenham, England, he flew missions in rotation with the other high ranking officers in the 445th Bomb Group. He shouldered responsibility for those missions, and saw friends die and planes explode. He wrote letters to the men’s families.
His hair began turning gray. A nervous stomach had always made eating a full meal difficult. Now he could barely eat at all, telling a childhood friends that ice cream and peanut butter got him through the war. He got the shakes, wrung out by the rigors of war. Nevertheless, he rose to Colonel in command of the Second Combat Wing.
After the war, Jim Stewart enlisted in the Officers Reserve Corp because he considered his service years as the happiest years of his life. And since acting was the only thing he liked to do, he returned to Hollywood, hoping to resurrect his career. Retaining stardom wasn’t a given. Many actors served in the military and failed to regain their momentum. New, younger actors were getting the starring roles.
Stewart was 37 and looked 50, no longer a probable romantic lead. Detective and murder pictures were now big, but having just been through the war, he wanted no part in a movie about death. Louis B. Mayer wanted to make The James Stewart Story about his war experience, but Stewart said no. His refusal to relive the war extended to conversation. He never talked about his experiences.
Actors weren’t the only ones having trouble getting reestablished. Producer/director Frank Capra wasn’t getting offers, so he went independent and called Jim Stewart about a project he had in mind called “The Greatest Gift.”

Renamed, It’s a Wonderful Life saved Jimmy Stewart’s career. What do you remember him best for?

Recommended reading: Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Germans and Americans Fought a Last Battle Together

Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. World War II was winding down, and many Germans looked forward to its end. Not the fanatical SS men though. They prowled around, executing deserters and those who hung out white sheets in anticipating of Allied troops.
High in the Austrian Alps, Wehrmacht Major Josef (Sepp) Gangl got in touch with an Austrian resistance cell, determined to help prevent fighting against the advancing American army and the destruction of bridges and roads.
SS Captain Kurt-Siegfried Schrader also turned from the Nazi mindset. Assigned as a supply officer in the Tyrol, his only goal was to protect his family whom he’d moved to Wörgl.
Both Gangl and Schrader learned of VIP prisoners in danger nearby. Important people who were famous or powerful or valuable and who might have value in negotiations with the Allies were held in relative comfort in hotels and castles throughout the Reich. The thirteenth-century Schloss Itter held several French citizens, along with Eastern Europeans brought from the Dachau concentration camp as servants. After the commandant committed suicide and the guards fled, the prisoners remained sequestered at the castle because of marauding Waffen-SS troops.

The French were a querulous lot. Among them were bitter rivals, former prime ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud. General Maurice Gamelin had been sacked by Reynaud after Germany invaded France. Reynaud recalled retired General Maxime Weygand who, hoping to save France from destruction, sought an immediate armistice. Reynaud and Gamelin were horrified to see Weygand and his wife arrive at Itter. Others included labor leaders, Vichy government workers too vocal in their disdain for the Nazis, and relatives of prominent people, like Charles de Gaulle’s sister and brother-in-law.
Instead of supportive camaraderie, they existed in fractious segregation. Several spent their days writing their memoirs that vilified their fellow prisoners.
For a brief time, they united to plan their survival. Messages went sent with the Croatian handyman, Zvonko Čučkovič, and the Czech cook, Andreas Krobot, to find the American army they knew was nearby from broadcasts on a hidden radio. They also summoned Schrader and formally asked him to ensure their safety.
Čučkovič found the lead elements of the U.S. Army in Innsbruck. Waiting for the commanders to arrive that night and for a rescue to be organized would take time.
Cycling to Wörgl, Krobot was taken to Sepp Gangl. Gangl knew he and his dozen men couldn’t prevail over a well-armed Waffen-SS attack. He hurried to Kufstein, seven miles away, with a white flag. There he found Captain Jack Lee and his tanks, spearhead of the 12th Armored Division, awaiting word of a cease-fire.

The red dot marks the location of Itter.

Lee accompanied Gangl back to the castle to reconnoiter, by now late in the day. After meeting Schrader and the French VIPs, he returned to organize his rescue effort.
Seven tanks set out for Itter, but three turned back after a small, old bridge started to collapse after the fourth tank crossed. Two more had to stay at Wörgl to bolster the town’s defense against roving die-hard soldiers. Gangl summoned more of his men to reinforce Lee’s group. They continued on—two tanks, fourteen American soldiers riding on the tanks, a German kübelwagen (a jeep-like vehicle) and truck with ten German soldiers. The second tank was left to guard a bridge that was the only route back to American lines.
Lee’s group broke up a Waffen-SS roadblock and he realized the situation was deteriorating. He immediately deployed the men around the castle and distributed their weapons. They had little, and were likely to be badly outnumbered in an attack. Schrader informed Lee that they’d seen two antitank guns pulled into position.
The attack came just after 4 the next morning. Four hours later, the defenders spotted a 20mm anti-aircraft cannon and an 88mm gun brought into place, both fearsome weapons. Also, 100-150 men of the 17th SS Panzer-Grenadier Division were deployed around the castle. They had spent the previous four hours probing the castle’s defenses. Now they were ready for business.
The Waffen-SS also posed a threat to the advancing U.S. forces. Lee wanted to notify them, but his tank’s radio was inoperative. Schrader offered a novel idea: use the telephone. Gangl placed a call to the resistance leaders in Wörgl to spread the word.
Lee’s tank was soon destroyed and rounds from the 88 began slamming into the castle. Five of the Frenchmen retrieved guns and began firing away with the soldiers, exhibiting more enthusiasm than skill. Skirmishes with the SS had slowed the arrival of the relief troops. Ammunition was running low, and Gangl was killed by a sniper.

Wehrmacht Major Josef (Sepp) Gangl and SS Captain Kurt-Siegfried Schrader

Then the telephone rang. Lee was able to tell Major Kramers, leading the Americans, how dire their situation was becoming before the line went dead.
Just as a squad of Waffen-SS men positioned their panzerfaust at the front gate, the sound of tank guns and automatic weapon fire heralded the arrival of the American relief force. The SS disappeared into the woods.
The attack had lasted twelve hours on May 5. The Americans would not have been able to safeguard the French VIPs without Gangl, his men, and Schrader fighting alongside them. The French returned to their squabbling.

For further reading: The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe by Stephen Harding. 2013

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Germania Statue

Germany did not exist as a nation until 1871, after the Germanic states defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War. To commemorate the Germanic victory and union, a massive monument was built overlooking the Rhine River. A 34-foot tall personification of Germania stood atop a pedestal. In one hand, she held the crown of the Holy Roman Empire; in the other, a Reichsschwert imperial sword.

(The defeated French, meanwhile, built another statue to honor American independence and Franco-American friendship. At 305 feet tall, Liberty Enlightening the World intentionally dwarfed Germania.)
A flood of German immigrants came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to escape the Revolution of 1848 and the persistent wars in Europe. One of them, George Brumder, flourished as a publisher of German-language newspapers and Wisconsin Lutheran Synod hymnals.
In 1896, he built his headquarters on Wells Street and called it the Germania Building. The entrance is framed by a three-story pedimented central pavilion. For its centerpiece and at a cost of $7,500, Brumder commissioned a one-third scale duplicate of the Germania statue in Germany.

In 1917, the United States entered the first World War on the Allied side. Seemingly overnight, Milwaukee’s Germanness became suspect. German names were changed, including the Germania Building becoming the Brumder Building.
Across the street from the Brumder Building, Canadian Lt. A.J. Crozier maintained a recruiting office for the British-Canadian war effort. He told the Milwaukee Journal, “The site of the statue at a time like this makes me see red.”
The wrath of the vocal Canadian was a problem. By this time, George Brumder has passed away and his son, William C. Brumder, headed the family business. He and his brother, George F. Brumder, decided to remove the statue before it could be vandalized. During nighttime hours, it was taken down and hidden in a corner of the Ornamental Iron Shop, the business of well-known metalsmith Cyril Colnik.
Alleged sightings were reported. Germania may have been loaned out for a convention in 1940 at the old Milwaukee Auditorium. At one time it came close to being melted down for scrap. But now? No one knows what became of the three-ton, ten-foot bronze work of art.