Saturday (Sept. 14th) morning we had an interesting drive to Kovarska through Czech countryside and lots of little towns and villages, winding our way to this town that no one had heard of (hotel, airport, etc.)! Jan’s directions were perfect, however, and we arrived in ~ 1 ½ hours at “Hotel Central” – 15 minutes before the official start of the reunion. Jan came to meet us briefly, then introduced us to Mateus to guide us to the museum. We dumped our bags and headed out on foot – just a 5-minute walk to the “Museum of the Air Battle over the Ore Mountains on 11th September, 1944 in Kovarska” for the 9th International WWII Airmen Reunion and celebration of the museum’s 5th anniversary.
The museum was a huge display of artifacts and memorabilia from the battle over Kovarska – part of the Allied raid on Ruhland – fought by US Army Air Force and Germans Luftwaffe. Jan Zdiarsky, the director, is a passionate ball of energy dedicated to locating both survivors and wreckage/remains from this conflict over his home town. (He teaches computer science in Prague during the week, and keeps an apartment in Kovarska to run the museum on weekends.) The “reunion” was amazing – an opportunity for veterans to establish dialogue and friendship. The Czechs (who escaped the German occupation to fly with the RAF) acted as “hosts”, but tended to keep to themselves. However, we heard a lot of their amazing stories as the day progressed (including being treated as traitors after the war, when the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia – putting some in camps for several more years!)
The most fascinating part of the reunion was Dad’s opportunity to meet three German Luftwaffe fighter pilots – Manfred, Helmut, and Deiter. They were extremely kind, open and interesting – and spoke enough English (along with Dad’s little German) that they could truly share stories. It turned out that there was a strong possibility that Manfred’s Fockewolfe and Dad’s B-17 may have actually inflicted serious damage on each other! It was a truly tragic battle for both sides. Dad’s squadron of 12 planes left from England on that memorable date: September 11, 1944 – headed for a raid on Ruhland, Germany. Apparently their fighter escort was delayed, and they were besieged by German fighters, resulting in the 11 other planes in his 349th squadron of the 100th bomber group being shot down (all were killed or captured). Dad’s plane was hit, too, and went into a spin, but came out of it (radioman bailed out and was captured)…. Eventually they made their way back across Germany without hydraulics, dumping everything they could to lighten the load (including manually releasing all but two of the 500-pound bombs on board – which they couldn’t reach)… and crash landing in German-occupied France because they didn’t have enough fuel to reach liberated Paris…. More on that later… Anyway, Dad’s bomber fired on and hit a Fockewolfe in the tail before/after that fighter hit them… and Manfred’s fighter was hit in the tail and he fired at and saw a B-17 (?Dad’s?) go into a spin and come out of it. It would be incredible if they really hit each other, with both part of the few lucky ones that were able to crash land and live to tell about it!
After the reunion, we walked to the town square for a moving Memorial Service, attended by most of the townsfolk (population of Kovarska = 500 – down significantly since the war). There were many speeches (from Jan, Dad, Charlie Stein -- an American veteran from another bomber group shot down and captured -- Manfred, and a representative of the US Embassy in Prague), wreath laying ceremonies, a fly-over, etc. Afterwards, the veterans were bombarded with requests for autographs by the locals (some to save, some to sell, we were told).
From there we went to the hotel for a delicious lunch --vegetable noodle soup, tender beef in gravy with potato-bread dumplings, wine, beer, etc. Conversation was lively with the Germans at our table – another Luftwaffe vet and the son of another – and locals who witnessed the battle as children (most hiding in the basement of the school). The next event was held at the school across the street (a plane crashed into it during the battle) where they had a competition for the school children and townsfolk in artwork and models pertaining to WWII.
The veterans were all seated at a long table and for ~ one hour took questions from the public. In summary, these veterans – then in their early 20’s – just “wanted the war to be over!” (Some who went to POW camps had to wait longer – and the Czechs, who left to fight with the RAF were later charged with treason when Czechoslovakia became communist in 1948 under the Russians and some were imprisoned until 1955!) Autographs galore were provided by the visiting “celebrities”!
After the prizes were presented for the local competitions, we had just enough time for a stop at the “pub” before heading down the street for a concert at the local church. (Dad opted for a nap.) The concert performed by high school kids from a town ~ 25 km away was outstanding, and the acoustics amazing. We returned to the hotel to wake Dad, had cocktails in the bar – then went to the hotel restaurant for dinner – more delicious meats and (cold) vegetables. When no one else appeared, we called Jan to discover that the rest of the group had gone to the museum – So off we went for another tour – more signings – and lots of fascinating stories. We learned that the Germans did not have a “tour of duty”, but were expected to serve until the war was over. Helmut flew over 50 missions and was shot down many times. When asked what he thought about the outcome, he claimed that they knew from the outset that they didn’t have a chance to win the war….
It was an exhausting, but incredibly special day. We all had a chance to meet some very special and dedicated people, and Dad had a chance to bond with his former “enemies” and bring some closure to the loss of so many of his friends and fellow airmen at this place (11 planes x 9 crew = 99 + l radioman = 100) – explaining the pain when he and the remainder of his crew (minus one severely injured gunner) finally made it back to an empty barracks in England over a week later… (I’ve left space here for Dad to record his thoughts… but to date he’s reluctant to put a pen to my journal…)
(9-15) We were able to “sleep in” at last, and met for breakfast at 8:30 – typical German fare (fruit, buns, bread, sliced meats & cheeses, cereal, yogurt & coffee). Then came our next dilemma – paying the hotel bill! The guy behind the counter spoke only Czech and German (same for the barmaids and waiters!) and we discovered they did not take credit cards! We had less than $20. in Czech currency – but finally, with my “survival Deutsch” and eventually some help from Jan, we got him to accept my Euro traveler’s cheques. The spartan rooms cost just $40.40 a night and dinner for 5 the night before was $38.00!