Relatives of US airmen killed in WWII raid dedicate monument in Germany
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — When John Torok was a child, the reminders of his uncle’s fate in WWII made him feel as if he were growing up with a ghost.
When Torok was a young boy, his uncle, a nose gunner on the Pregnant Peggy, a B-24 Liberator, was killed during a bombing raid in Germany.
His parents turned inward and bore their grief in silence, but through the artifacts and people he left behind, Sgt. Geza Torok was a constant presence in his nephew’s life.
“My parents always talked very highly of him. He was very much missed when he was killed in combat,” Torok said. “It was something I was always very interested in -- finding out what exactly happened to him. I missed out on a huge part of my life. I know it would have been a close relationship for sure.”
On Thursday, Torok and family members of the Pregnant Peggy’s crew unveiled a monument in Germany to honor the sacrifice of the 14 men who died during a bombing run in 1944. The attendees included Dennis Lithander, a nephew of 2nd Lt. Lee Lithander, pilot of the Pregnant Peggy; and Tom Burton, whose uncle, Staff Sgt. Robert Butler, was Pregnant Peggy’s flight engineer.
The monument is located within forested hills six miles west of the southwest German town of Edenkoben, a few hundred feet from where one of the plane’s buried debris fields begins.
Lithander said that while growing up, he experienced many of the same feelings about the incident as Torok.
“No one would ever talk about it,” he said. “We’d have family gatherings and no one would ever talk about it. It was such a painful subject. But when I would go to my grandmother’s house I would ask to see his medals and my grandmother would show them to me.
“As I got older, I wanted to know more and more, and I just felt I had to do something for these 14 men who died,” Lithander said.
On Oct. 19, 1944, the crews of Pregnant Peggy and Bomber’s Moon, from the 844th Bomb Squadron, 489th Bomb Group, 8th Army Air Corps, were sent with their squadron to Mainz to bomb a railroad yard.
In the weeks prior to the attack, the 844th had hit Germany hard, bombing industrial areas in 10 cities and striking Cologne three times.
At 12:56 p.m., according to eyewitness reports, Pregnant Peggy got caught up in the prop wash of another bomber and the pilots lost control in the ensuing turbulence.
As they struggled to maintain control of the 33,000-pound plane packed with thousands of pounds of bombs, the Pregnant Peggy slipped back, banked left and dipped down over the Bomber’s Moon.
It continued losing altitude and struck Bomber’s Moon’s tail section with its left wing tip. The wing disintegrated and the engine and prop fell off the Pregnant Peggy. The Pregnant Peggy, now overpowered on one side, went into a lateral spin some 20,000 feet straight to the ground.
The Bomber’s Moon didn’t fare any better.
“The rudder started to break, and then it sheared off completely at the waist,” Sgt. Robert Olsen wrote in an after-action report. “The (Bomber’s Moon) seemed to stand for a moment in the air, and then began to fall and went into a spin. I saw one chute, but I can not ascertain from which ship it came.”
The two aircraft crashed in the hills of the Palatinate Forest some 300 yards from each other. Of the 18 men in the two planes, 14 died. The German Red Cross and local officials buried them in a cemetery in a mass grave. Four men escaped and were held as prisoners of war.
After the war, the bodies were disinterred and reburied according to the family’s wishes: at home, in Arlington National Cemetery, or the Lorraine American Cemetery in France.
The effort to set up the monument and the funding for its placement was led by the families of the victims. But local efforts to bring the families to the crash site were led by Uwe Benkel, leader of “Searching for the Missing,” a volunteer organization dedicated to finding the remains of those lost in World War II and reuniting them with their families. Benkel acted as a liaison with local governments to obtain permits for the monument.
Benkel, who started the organization in 1989, was inspired partly by his father, who lost two brothers in the war on the Eastern Front. All he has left of them is two photographs.
“(My father) is 80 now and he still talks about his brothers and it is his wish before he dies to know what happened to them,” Benkel said.
For Lithander, going to Germany for the dedication brought decades of emotions to the surface.
“I feel like [my uncle is] there. When I walked up to the crash site I feel like they are still there,” Lithander said, wiping tears from his eyes. “I have been battling cancer for two and a half years. I didn’t know if I was ever going to make it over here. All my life no one ever talked about it.”
“But now I can do something about it. I felt so proud, so proud.”