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Remembering heroes: US pilot's WWII sacrifice to be honored with flyover in England

A B-17 bomber flies in an undated photo.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

By CHRISTOPHER AVE | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: February 17, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — In thick clouds over the North Sea, a four-engine bomber trailed smoke as it lumbered alone toward England.

The B-17 Flying Fortress was known as the Allies’ toughest aircraft of World War II, capable of surviving damage that would knock any other plane from the air. But on Feb. 22, 1944, this particular B-17G, nicknamed “Mi Amigo,” was struggling to stay aloft, having been riddled with shells in an attempted bombing raid on a Nazi airbase in Denmark.

Bailing out over the frigid water below was not an option; hypothermia would have claimed the crew’s lives in minutes. The pilot, 1st Lt. John Kriegshauser, 23, from St. Louis, kept his wounded bird headed west through the soup, the most direct route available to a friendly airstrip — and any hope of survival.

Finally, some eight hours after it had taken off, Mi Amigo emerged from the clouds at an altitude of about 500 feet. Instead of a runway, what lay below was an industrial city of half a million people: Sheffield, England. The bomber lurched toward the city’s largest open field, in a place called Endcliffe Park.

There, a number of British children stood, craning their necks to see the struggling aircraft.

Tony Foulds was among them.

He was ready for a fight that had nothing to do with the war. Foulds, who was 8, and his friends had had a beef with another group of Sheffield boys. They were gathered in Endcliffe Park to battle it out.

Before anyone could throw a punch, they heard the labored drone of the Mi Amigo’s four 1,200-horsepower engines. They watched the aircraft drop from the clouds. Tony and other witnesses could see gaping holes in the fuselage left by enemy fire.

Tony remembers seeing something else: members of the crew waving their arms at the children below. He waved back, oblivious to the crew’s plight.

What happened next was to bind the life of the Sheffield schoolboy with the fate of the young pilot from St. Louis for the next 75 years, guilt and gratitude enduring in ways neither could have imagined on that wintry English afternoon.

Final word

After he graduated from Roosevelt High School, John Kriegshauser worked in one of the city’s numerous shoe factories. He spent his spare time tinkering with radios and his 1936 Ford sedan. Then, after Germany invaded Poland, starting a war in Europe, John and his only brother volunteered for the military.

While Arthur ended up as an Army engineer, John’s penchant for shortwave radios led him to become an Army Air Forces radio operator. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was tapped for flight training. At some point, he met and fell for a girl, Margaret Thomas of Columbus, Ohio, whom he called Peg.

On Feb. 22, 1944, 1st Lt. John Kriegshauser fired up the engines on Mi Amigo, packed with a full load of bombs, fuel, .50-caliber bullets and nine crewmen, and taxied down a Chelveston runway.

His 15th bombing mission of the war was to be part of a crucial Allied air offensive known as the Big Week campaign. The aim was to smash the Nazi Luftwaffe, gaining air supremacy in advance of the invasion of Europe the Allies were planning for later in the year.

“This is a letter I hope is never mailed,” he wrote in neat cursive.

If he were reported missing, he told them, they shouldn’t lose hope because he might have been captured and held as a prisoner of war. However, “Should the final word come thru ‘killed in action,’ then there isn’t much sense in having any false hopes.

He mentioned his girlfriend. “Peg was the only girl I’ve ever really loved, and someday, as soon as possible, I had hopes of making her my wife.”

This is how he ended:

“My final word is that I’m glad to have been able to lay down my life for a cause which I believed was just and right. Your son, Johnny.”

Courage, coolness and skill

Mi Amigo was one of 60 bombers headed to Denmark as part of a ruse meant to distract the Nazis from a much larger attack on Germany to the south. Kriegshauser’s designated target: a highly fortified Luftwaffe airfield at Aalborg.

Unfortunately for the American airmen, heavy clouds blocked their targets. After three passes through anti-aircraft fire, the bombers gave up, dumped their bombs in the North Sea and headed back toward England, losing track of each other in the clouds. Mi Amigo, with at least one engine misfiring and its skin ripped by 88 mm anti-aircraft shells, struggled to maintain altitude and fell behind.

That’s when the German fighters pounced.

Single-engine ME-109s and FW-190s tore into the group, focusing on stragglers like Mi Amigo. Kriegshauser’s crew fought back, shooting down at least one ME-109 before the fighting ended, according to “Courage Above the Clouds,” a book on the mission written by Paul Allonby of Sheffield.

By the time the aircraft dropped below the dense shield of clouds above Sheffield, smoke poured from one wing as it flew low toward the park.

Tony Foulds said he remembers it clearly.

“The airmen were waving at us, but being young boys we just thought they were waving, being friendly. We were only 8,” he told the Mirror newspaper. “But it was them saying, ‘Get out of the way.’

“When we didn’t realize (their meaning), he tried to take off again, he tried to rev off.”

The bomber appeared to groan, then it suddenly plunged into a wooded hill just beyond a park building known as the Old Pavilion.

“It went over the trees and there was a huge explosion. Straight into the ground,” Foulds said.

The bomber had taken out several trees as it broke into two sections. Firefighters and passers-by rushed to the flaming wreckage. One body was recovered outside the bomber; others could only be carried out after the fire was doused.

There were no survivors. But the children in the park were unhurt, as were people in and around the pavilion.

For avoiding ground casualties, Kriegshauser was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, America’s oldest military aviation award. It was presented to his parents on Jan. 24, 1945, at Scott Field, the precursor of Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County.

The citation reads: “The courage, coolness and skill displayed by Lt. Kriegshauser reflect the highest credit on himself and the armed forces of the United States of America.”

Soon after the crash, Foulds became convinced that whoever had been piloting the B-17 had saved his life and those of his friends.

As the months and years passed, Foulds made it his mission to learn the crew’s names, ranks and hometowns.

For the 25th anniversary of the crash in 1969, a small memorial was erected in the park near the crash site. To Foulds, it is a sacred place where he can talk to the 10 Americans he never met.

“I always tell them how I am, what I’m doing, what the weather’s like,” Foulds told the BBC.

Foulds still carries guilt from that day, he said in a recent interview with CBS News. Correspondent Mark Phillips asked him why.

“Because it’s me that killed them,” he replied firmly. “Because if I hadn’t have been on the park, they could have landed on the park.”

A few years ago, Foulds noticed that the memorial was getting shabby. He began gardening and tidying up, hoping that by the 75th anniversary, the small plaque-and-boulder monument would be pristine, surrounded with color.

And so Foulds was at the memorial, planting flowers on Jan. 2, when a man walking his dog happened by and asked what he was up to. Foulds, now 82, a slight, white-haired man whose hands shake from essential tremor, recounted the story of Mi Amigo and how he wanted the coming anniversary to be special.

His fondest wish, Foulds said, would be what the English call a “fly-past” — an aerial demonstration of military aircraft, in honor of Mi Amigo’s sacrifice.

Foulds didn’t realize it, but he was talking with Dan Walker, host of the national BBC  Breakfast television newscast. Walker’s Twitter account has more than half a million followers. “Leave it with me,” Walker told him.

“Just met an amazing man in Endcliffe Park, Sheffield,” Walker tweeted that day. “Tony Foulds was an 8-yr-old playing in the park when a US plane crashed in Feb 1944. He has diligently maintained the memorial ever since. He was planting new flowers. Almost 75 yrs of service. What a man. I’m in bits.”

“All he wants,” Walker said in a subsequent tweet, “is a fly-past on the 75th anniversary on the 22nd Feb 2019. Can anyone help?”

After Walker’s Twitter campaign and accompanying BBC coverage, the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force agreed to a fly-by. Walker brought Foulds on his show, arranging to have a U.S. Air Force colonel with the U.K.-based 48th Fighter Wing and the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., Robert Wood Johnson, break the news to him live on the air. His wish would be granted on Feb. 22.

“That’s everything,” Foulds said, his eyes clouded with tears. “That’s everything I wanted.

“I mean, they’re mine,” he continued, referring to Mi Amigo’s lost crew. “They’re my family.”

Remembering Uncle Johnny

Kriegshauser’s brother, Arthur, served in the Army in North Africa, Italy and Greece. He returned to St. Louis, where he became an architect, married and had three sons.

He almost never talked about the war or about his late brother.

Arthur’s son, James Kriegshauser, now a St. Louis doctor of internal medicine, remembers hearing bits and pieces of his Uncle Johnny’s story. Although they didn’t often discuss their lost son, Dr. Kriegshauser’s grandparents kept a framed photo of a B-17 in their bedroom, a silent tribute to the family’s fallen hero.

Other family members made sure the next generation knew the story of Mi Amigo.

“As far back as I can remember, I always heard that story … about the kids in the field,” James Kriegshauser, now 65, said. “We were always aware he died a hero’s death.”

Kriegshauser since has become the keeper of Uncle Johnny’s artifacts. He has dozens of photographs, scores of newspaper clippings, letters of thanks from Sheffield residents and officials, his uncle’s Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart medals, even a door handle recovered from the Mi Amigo wreckage.

This time around, Kriegshauser is expecting a rather larger crowd.

He has been interviewed by the BBC, which plans to broadcast the anniversary ceremony. NBC has been in touch. CBS already has done a story on the crash anniversary. He’s thrilled that his uncle’s sacrifice, and a former schoolboy’s commitment to honor it, have attracted so much attention.

“I think it kind of renews our faith in people,” Kriegshauser said.

He’s especially looking forward to meeting Tony Foulds. He’d love to assuage Foulds’ guilt, but he isn’t sure that’s possible.

“I guess the biggest thing,” Kriegshauser said, “is to thank him for keeping John’s memory alive.”

©2019 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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