The German-American Airmen´s Memorial
Inside the Community of Ludwigsau
A Monument of Reconciliation and Understanding Among Nations,
by Walter Hassenpflug of Ludwigsau-Friedlos
I. The Disaster of the 445th Bomb Group of the 8th USAAF
As of the middle of 1944, mass attacks of allied super bombers took on dimensions that exceeded anybody's imagination.
On Wednesday, September 27, 1944, the 8th USAAF was scheduled for another such mission. One of the three large units was supposed to attack the Henschel Factories in Kassel. This unit consisted of 283 B-24 "Liberator" bombers of the 2nd Bomb Division. 198 P-51 "Mustang" fighter planes were escorting this armada.
In dense cloud cover, the 445th Bomb Group flying within this formation was diverted from ist course while approaching the target in Kassel and instead headed for the Goettingen train station as the secondary target. The bomb load of the 35 "Liberators" missed the marshalling yards and was dropped on the open fields outside the city. Due to this diversion from the original course this Bomb Group was now without fighter protection. On the return flight, flying on a south-south-westerly course, these bombers were unexpectedly attacked, only a few miles north-west of Eisenach, by units of the German Fighter Wings 3 (Uder), 4, and 300. The German fighter force also included Storm Groups of these Fighter Wings whose Fw 190 fighters were specifically equipped and armed for the fight against bombers.
The dramatic air battle that ensued and that extended to our local area turned into a disaster for the Americans. 30 of the 35 "Liberators" were lost, and one of the Mustangs crashed on the ground. The whole group of bombers would have been wiped out if it hadn't been for US escort fighters who were summoned for help by radio at the very last moment. 118 Americans lost their lives including 11 airmen who were murdered after parachuting to the ground. 121 survived German P-o-W camps. This was the highest loss that any American bomber group ever suffered on a single mission.
On the German side, 29 fighter planes were lost. 18 pilots were killed. The crash of a German aircraft upon a military hospital claimed seven more unidentified dead.
After the war, the above mentioned cases of murder were tried before an American tribunal in Dachau. Six of the perpetrators were sentenced to death and executed in Landsberg. Two of them committed suicide.
The lead plane of the Bomb Group, with the Group Commander and Wing Commander on board, crashed into a wooded area 2 Km (1.25 miles) east of Friedlos. Five members of the 13-man crew lost their lives. Their remains were buried at the Friedlos cemetery.
In the course of my research of the aerial warfare events in our county, I have done extensive reserach and documented this by extracting information from all accessible sources, including American archives.
II. My Experiences as a Contemporary Witness
The 27th of September was a day of the autumn holidays. In the morning of that day, I was hanging around outside on Friedloser Strasse at Hersfeld, together with friends. As usual, we were listening to the noise of the engines of airplanes that were flying overhead. Due to dense cloud cover we were unable to see anything. Suddenly, we heard the sound of explosions and aircraft cannons. Only seconds later debris of a blown up aircraft crashed to the ground in the Seulingswald Forest near Friedlos. Because of the clearly recognizable double rudder-assembly we immediately realized that this was a "Liberator" bomber. At the same time, we observed five airmen coming down on parachutes. At that time, however, we did not know that these airmen belonged to another bomber which crashed near Grebenau.
We immediately rushed to the crash site which was easy to find because of the rising smoke. When we arrived there, we noticed that debris of the aircraft were scattered over an area of hundreds of meters within this wooded area. German soldiers were already at the scene. The burning front section of the fuselage had hit the ground near the "Dicke Eiche" (Big Oak). Four charred bodies were removed from the aircraft by military personnel. Another dead airman was lying on the ground nearby.
The following day, around noon, a bomb carpet rained down onto the southern slope of Giegenberg and Zellersgrund. At the same time, thousands of leaflets, including phony ration cards, poured down onto the Solzwiesen. A posse of hastily assembled Hitler Youth from Hersfeld, including myself, was dispatched to collect the droppings.
While collecting the droppings we discovered an American airman who was hiding in the bushes along the Solz creek. We eyed him over with interest and curiosity from head to toe because he was the first American we had ever seen. The man was rather tall and had full dark hair. He did not wear headgear and wore a green heatable overall as well as medium-high insulated brown boots. He had problems walking because he had sprained his right ankle when parachuting to the hround. We took him to a Police Station on Friedloser Strasse. After a first interrogation we learned that he was a First Lieutenant from San Francisco. He belonged to the crew of the bomber that crashed near Grebenau.
At that time, I could not even imagine that one day I would meet this man again.
III. Meeting Again after 42 Years
In the Course of my inquiries for source material regarding the aforementioned events from American archives the fate of this airman naturally occupied my mind. What had become of him? Did he survive the war?
In 1985, I sent out several inquiries to various agencies in the USA. Several months later, I came across the address of one Frank J. Bertram from California. In the course of our correspondence it became evident that he was the person I was looking for.
In August of 1986, he came here for a visit with his family. Mayor Wilfried Blum arranged for a reception of the visitors at City Hall. At Bertram's request I had also arranged for a meeting with the former German pilot Ernst Schroeder from Bonn. Schroeder had downed two "Liberators" at that time. In May of 1987, a second visit followed. This time, Bertram was accompanied by his pilot and buddy, Reginald R. Miner. A meeting with local witnesses took place at Grebenau, arranged by Mayor Rosenkranz. Grebenau was the crash site of the aircraft of the two airmen.
After his return to the USA, Bertram had reported of the experiences of his trip in a newspaper article. This newspaper article set off a wide echo. In the meantime, I had establised contact with several other survivors of that air battle. Beside numerous Americans I had also contacted some German pilots, however, most of the German participants in that air battle were killed in action before the end of the war.
IV. William R. Dewey's Thoughts and Ideas
In the middle of November 1987, I received a letter from a William R. Dewey from Michigan. He had received my address from Frank Bertram. Dewey had been the pilot of one of the five "Liberators" that withstood the disaster. He succeeded in flying his crippled aircraft back to England with three wounded crew members on board.
In the ensuing correspondence he suggested a friendly reunion between the former adversaries. Furthermore, he developed the idea of erecting a joint memorial in a suitable location in memory of the victims of the air battle. In my opinion, the likeliest site for such a memorial could only be the crash site of the American lead aircraft near the "Dicke Eiche" (Big Oak).
Subsequently, I first discussed this with Mayor Wilfried Blum. He immediately indicated his willingness to support the project. Then, there were more talks with the former president of the German War Graves Commission, Inc., Hans-Otto Weber, as well as with the head of the Forest Administration, Hans Klingelhoefer. After a general agreement among these parties I was able to inform William R. Dewey that his suggestion met with general approval, and that the project could be tackled under the guidance of the Community of Ludwigsau. In the meantime, the "Kassel Mission Memorial Association, Inc." had been founded in the USA which took charge of the matter.
V. The Project becomes Reality
Our first task was to coordinate the planning with our friends in the USA in order to determine the expected costs and their financing. In doing so, we had agreed on some restrictions as to the concept of the project. The site was supposed to be unpretentious and fit harmoniously into the surrounding forest area. The inscriptions were supposed to impart to the spectator that the memorial was a symbol of reconciliation and unserstanding among people, and not a glorification of war experiences.
After we all had agreed on the planning concept, and the financing had been guaranteed by promised contributions and donations, the necessary contracts for the construction and for supplies were placed by the community. A contract of approval concerning the memorial site and ist upkeep was entered into between the Community of Ludwigsau and the State of Hessen, represented by the Bad Hersfeld Forest Administration.
The costs of the site were able to be financed by contributions by the Federal Chancellery, the government of the State of Hessen, and the People's League of the German War Graves Commission, as well as private donations from the USA and the Federal Republic of Germany. We also received big support from the Community of Fighter Pilots, Inc., especially from the Jägerkreis (Fighter Circle) West.
VI. Description of the Memorial Site
The memorial site is located within the Seulingswald Forest, 2 km (1.25 miles) east of the locality of Friedlos within the Community of Ludwigsau. This wooded area is part of Section 145 B of the Hessian Forest Administration at Bad Hersfeld.
The size of the basal surface is approximately 410 square meters. It is located at the junction of two forest roads which are part of the net of footpaths, and which are marked "x 17 Fuldahöhenweg" and "+ 32 Nadelöhrweg" on hiking maps. On the topographic maps of the State of Hessen Surveying Office the memorial site is marked "Fliegerdenkmal" (Airmen's Memorial).
A 200 cm tall and 190 cm wide boulder of nordic granite is located in the center on the eastern edge of the site. The weight of the boulder is 124 hundred-weights. A bronze plaque measuring 98 x 70 cm is mounted on the boulder. This plaque contains a short description of the historic events and lists the units involved in the air battle as well as words of commemoration, reconciliation, and understanding among nations.
The boulder is flanked on both side by a stone of Indian granite. Both stones, including their basis, are 180 cm tall and 86 cm wide. Each stone weighs 10 hundred-weights. Bronze plaques measuring 84 x 60 cm are mounted on these stones. These plaques list the names and ranks of the dead of both nations, broken down by their individual unit. As far as the Germans are concerned, their date of birth is also listed. Since it was not possible to identify the birth dates of all Americans they could not be listed.
On the right side of the access road, there is another granite boulder weighing 12 hundred-weights. Mounted on it is a 40 x 30 cm plaque listing information pertaining to the dedication, the responsible body, as well as the name of the historian.
VII. Dedication Ceremony on August 1, 1990
In a 90-minute ceremony, the memorial was dedicated on August 1, 1990, under the auspices of the People's League of the German War Graves Commission, and turned over into the care of the Community of Ludwigsau.
78 persons from the USA attended the ceremony, among them 23 former airmen who had been involved in the air battle. Many relatives, sons and daughters of dead airmen belonged to the travel group. On the German side, four surviving pilots of that air battle and a number of next of kin of the dead airmen attended the ceremony. Fighter Circle West of the Community of Fighter Pilots attended with a large delegation headed by Herbert Thomas.
The ceremony took place in the presence of numerous personalities of public life, the Bundeswehr (German Army), the US Armed Forces in Europe, and a large number of local clubs and civilians. Air Force Music Corps 3 from Muenster and the men's choir of the choral society "Liederkranz" of Friedlos, directed by Karl-Heinz Hassenpflug, formed the background. Tightly packed, hundreds of spectators watched the impressive and moving ceremony. Reporters from various newspapers, and a US TV team were also present.
After words of welcome by Mayor Wilfried Blum, Permanent Under Secretary Reinhold Stanitzek spoke on behalf of the government of the State of Hessen. Hans-Otto Weber, president of the People's League of the German War Graves Commission also gave a commemorative address. William R. Dewey and Herbert Thomas took the speaker's stand representing formerly hostile airmen. Prayers were said by Chaplain Michael D. Mantooth and Parson Rudolf Jacobi.
The commemorative plaques were unveiled by four each airmen of both sides. In an impressive gesture they spontaneously joined hands in front of the plaques bearing the names of their dead comrades.
VIII. Commemoration on September 27, 1994
At the request of both sides, a commemoration was held by the Community of Ludwigsau on September 27, 1994, on the occasion of the 50th recurrence of that fateful aerial warfare event.
A few months prior to this ceremony, another mayor had been elected in our community. After 26 years in office, 38-year old Thomas Baumann was elected as the new mayor to replace Wilfried Blum, who had held his office for 26 years and who now resigned for medican reasons.
The schedule of events for this ceremony was almost identical to that of the initial dedication ceremony. In his opening speech, Mayor Baumann was able to welcome as the principal speaker Mr. Friedrich Bohl, the Secretary in the Federal Chancellery, and Permanent Under Secretary Hans-Joachim Suchan representing the Government of the State of Hessen as head of the Chancellery, US Consul-General Pat Wardlaw, members of parliament, military personnel, and other personages. The honoring of the dead on behalf of the People's League was conducted by COL Juergen Damm. On behalf of the airmen of both sides, now turned friends, Reginald R. Miner and, again, Herbert Thomas gave a commemorative address. Prayers were said by Chaplain Lawrence W. Kloster and Parson Rudolf Piller. Songs by the men's choir of Friedlos, directed by Hans Kreutzer, again formed the background along with the Army Music Corps 2 from Kassel.
Again, delegations of local clubs and hundreds of spectators had gathered around the memorial. And again, relatives and participants of both sides from the USA and the Federal Republic of Germany, some even from the German Democratic Republic, attended the ceremony.
This event, too, was financially supported by the Government of the State of Hessen.
IX. Concluding Remarks
This monument, at the time considered the only German-American memorial worldwide, has proven to be a memorial of reconciliation and understanding among nations, as intended by ist initiators. Reconciliation has struck roots as evidenced by numerous new friendships and many meetings. At the same time, the memorial is also a monument of contemporary and local history. It imparts to the younger generations, who can't even cast back their minds to horrible nights of bombing or the heaps of rubble in the cities, the idea of aerial warfare by which, for the first time, our native country and the civilian population were severely affected. Such a fate, which the majority of our nation had to suffer, must be brought to the attention of future generations.
Reconciliation among the nations is the only way to a peaceful future. There is no alternative. This is the message that emanates vigorously from this memorial.
In this connection, I would like to cite former chancellor Helmut Schmidt (chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1974 to 1982) who, in his address on July 23, 1993, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the terrible bombing of Hamburg, stated as follows:
"Reciprocal settling of accounts leads astray.
On either side, widows mourn for their husbands,
children grieve over the loss of their parents, and
mothers mourn for the loss of their sons.
Not the settling of accounts is necessary, but reconciliation!"
Truly a significant statement.