First Lieutenant Addison Bartush’s voice was being drowned out by the unmistakable scream of a Pratt and Whitney-powered P-47 flying overhead. “To go dancing with the four ‘M’s,” he yelled in answer to his friend’s question. “At the Terrace Room of the Statler Hotel . . . Mary, Mary, Marilyn and Marion!”
Addison sat at a table in the Officers Club at Bassingbourn USAAF Air Station, about 40 miles north of London, where he served as a second pilot flying B-17s in the 91st Bomb Group of the mighty Eighth Air Force. The 91st completed its last mission of the war on April 25 and the Nazis surrendered unconditionally on May 8. The celebration on base had continued uninterrupted since then, and this day would be no exception. It was a time for the survivors to celebrate their hard-won victory and to rejoice at their own good fortune. It was a time to decompress and to dream about going home. It was a time to reflect upon their recent experiences that, over time, would become indelible memories, and it was also a time to think about the friends they had lost.
The P-47 roaring overhead was called the Thunderbolt, but just as often it was referred to by its ignominious nickname, the “Jug,” as it looked like one. In a dive, the P-47 was magnificent and fast. This particular plane was used by the 91st to locate their bomb group in relation to other bomb groups forming up for missions over Nazi Germany. Today it had been liberated for a joy ride by one of the B-17 pilots who had 20 hours experience flying one.
Slowly sipping his beer, Addison was not the least bit distracted by the racket outside. It had taken the better part of a month for it to finally sink in that he had flown 31 combat missions and would not have to fly number 32. He no longer had to suit up every fourth or fifth day in the very early morning. He no longer had to endure a somber breakfast followed by a tense mission briefing. Now he could relax and enjoy his morning cigarette rather than just suck one down for a quick preflight fix. Even the Officers Club was more fun now. Germany was “kaput”—destroyed. His gladiatorial lifestyle was now in remission. Although he might get dragged into the war against Japan, he was able to set those worries aside for the time being and bask in the satisfaction of a job well done. The nervous feeling he carried in the pit of his stomach was now subsiding.
Addison looked around the room packed with celebrants—men parked at the curved, polished wooden bar or seated at the tables; practically every table was filled. Cards were being shuffled and dice were shaken in a cup. It was early evening, getting towards sundown and a fair amount of scotch and beer had been consumed. “I’m lucky to be at Bassingbourn,” Addison thought. “The Savoy Hotel of air bases!”
Addison thought of his last strategic mission, the attack on that airfield in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, on April 25, the last mission of the war for the Eighth Air Force. It had really scared him. The war was supposed to be about over, but there he was flying through the most ferocious flak field he had ever seen. The first pilots in his squadron, the 324th, including his own first pilot, had disobeyed orders to make a second pass at the target area and turned back for home.
This episode seemed like a bad dream. Most of his combat experiences were bad dreams, Addison reflected. He had seen things from a viewpoint almost five miles high, and even from that altitude some of what he saw shocked him. “Dresden,” he uttered under his breath.
His thoughts switched back to dancing at the Statler Hotel in Detroit. He would proudly wear his summer khaki uniform with jacket and tie. Above his left breast pocket would be his silver USAAF wings and an Air Medal with a number of oak leaf clusters, each cluster denoting five combat missions performed. In 1943 when he left the company of those young ladies, the four ‘M’s, he had been a fraternity boy. In 1944 when he briefly saw them again on home leave he was a newly minted flight officer, proud but nervous about the future. Now he was returning as someone else entirely, and he felt good about the changes. The war had aged him well beyond his 23 years. Now he was a first lieutenant and a combat veteran. He had accomplished something.
After the chuckles about his many girlfriends subsided, Addison’s thoughts shifted again, as they often did that day. He remembered that horrible event of November 26, 1944 when German fighters shot down a B-17 that carried six of the crewmen that he had trained with in Gulfport, Mississippi, along with three veteran airmen. He himself had flown his first combat mission only the day before. When this happened a few parachutes had been spotted, but not knowing who may have survived, the USAAF listed the entire crew of nine as missing in action.
Of his six buddies from the Gulfport days, he now knew, both from official sources and letters from family members, that two had been killed, three had been taken prisoner and that one, the tail gunner, was still not accounted for. All he could do in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy was to commiserate with his other two Gulfport crewmembers who, like him, were not assigned to fly that fatal mission. A devout Catholic, Addison also prayed with Father Ragan, a chaplain at the base, who had been wonderful to him throughout his time at Bassingbourn. Addison knew that top turret gunner Charles Cumings and radioman John Kendall were dead and did not hold out much hope for the missing tail-gunner, Owen Monkman. Six months on a MIA list with no International Red Cross change in status was not a positive circumstance for Owen. Addison also appreciated that a B-17 tail-gunner had the least chance of any crewman of evacuating a stricken bomber. With only a few chutes spotted, chances were that Owen’s was not one of them.
And of his POW buddies?
The two officers, First Lieutenant Dave Bishop, his pilot, and Flight Officer Robert J. “RJ” Miller, his navigator, were said to be in the Stalag Luft I, a large POW camp for commissioned officers, near Barth, northern Germany. The news reported that the Red Army had liberated Stalag Luft I on May 1 without shots being fired. Addison was mindful that a U.S. and British airlift to this camp was in progress at this very moment. Hopefully he would be reunited soon with Dave and RJ, or at least be notified of their safe return to U.S. military control.
Where POW waist-gunner Sergeant Paul Lynch might be at that time was unknown. Paul had been shipped to an NCO POW camp in northern Poland in December, but there had been press reports that in early February the camp had been closed and that most of its occupants were put on a forced march through Nazi Germany. Both the International Red Cross and Paul’s family were in the dark as to Paul’s status since this march began. On the move, Paul could not mail out letters or postcards as he did from the POW camp.
Addison remembered one thing about Paul that would serve him well if he was still alive: the guy was resourceful. At Gulfport, when their bombardier unexpectedly dropped out late in the B-17 crew training, the three remaining officers picked Paul out of six enlisted crewmen for training on the Norden bombsight. Paul was a quick learner and physically strong. Over several months Paul demonstrated time and again the ability to make sound decisions. If any one could make that march, Addison thought, it would be Paul. “Thank God that the shooting is now over,” Addison reflected, thinking that if Paul were still alive this circumstance would help him.
A number of Addison’s friends and associates had perished during his time at Bassingbourn. He was immensely grateful for his own survival, but contemplated from time to time, “Why me?” He looked slowly around the room at the faces of his fellow celebrants and knew instinctively that everyone present had recently asked himself the same question. There had been close calls, lots of them, and all here had shared the risks.
Again, “Why me?” he asked.
The sound of the P-47 came back again, even louder than before. “Pull up!” someone shouted from the bar inside in response to the deafening noise. That yell was followed immediately by a loud crash outside.
“My God!” Addison screamed.
Major James Griffin, the well-liked operations officer of the 324th squadron, went down near the intersection of the two runways at the Bassingbourn airfield while attempting a low altitude roll. He became the last casualty of the 91st Bomb Group in Europe in 1945.
For three months Sergeant Paul Lynch had been on a continuous march; he reckoned that he had lost about a third of his body weight, but had no way of knowing this other than the fact that his filthy, itchy, lice-infested wool uniform hung off him like a loose bag. He smelled and looked horrible; his hair and beard were unkempt and matted by dirt—caked hard by the smoke of many evening fires and the dried-up perspiration that had accumulated after three months of slogging through snow and mud and sleeping in barns. He knew he looked like a wild beast, but there wasn’t much he could do about it.
On May 12 his trek across Europe had finally ended, and for the past three days he had been billeted in a dormitory of what had been a technical school before the war. Paul was now in the custody of the Red Army and received regular meals, but he knew it would be some time before he recovered from the effects of slow, persistent starvation. And try as he might he could not significantly improve his personal hygiene, as there were no baths or showers available and no change of clothing.
The last three afternoons and nights had been horrible. He had never witnessed anything like them in his life. This was not the world that he had been raised in. When would the horror end?
The U.S. Army was nearby, just a few miles away. The war was over. When would he be permitted to go home?
Paul remembered back to the day in early October 1943 in Leominster, Massachusetts, when he walked to the bus stop with his kid brother, Bruce, on his way to his induction at Fort Devens. Bruce was 11 years old and he looked up to his 18-year-old brother with envy and pride for the “adventure” that Paul was about to begin. “Some adventure,” Paul muttered to himself, followed moments later by a defiant “I’m alive!” In the quiet of fading daylight, he then offered, “Thank you, God, for letting me live. If I ever return to my family, I vow to put this whole episode forever behind me.”
Paul had accomplished something remarkable. Along with three other American airmen, on April 22 he escaped his Nazi captors and made his way through the battle line to be liberated by advancing Soviet forces. Now, in supposed peacetime, he and approximately 160 other Americans, all former POWs of the Nazis, were held in a Soviet-administered collection center for U.S. servicemen in the city of Riesa, Germany, anxiously awaiting repatriation.
Paul looked out a dormitory window at the balcony of an apartment house across the street. He dreaded the advance of the day as he knew that was when the drinking of vodka would start up in earnest. He felt truly sorry for his former enemy. Would he witness again what he saw before?
Map showing the location of the 91st Bomb Group in England and the targets attacked by Lieutenant Bartush.—Map by Mark Allison
Map showing Sergeant Lynch’s travels from his point of capture near the Altenbeken target site to his repatriation to U.S. control six months later.—Map by Mark Allison