Monday, July 8, 2013

Dad's Letter: The Last Flight

Captain Ed Kieselbach
There are two stories in this post, maybe more eventually. On the mornnig of August 26, 1944, Captain Ed Kieselbach pulled back on the column and launched his B-24 into the air from the air strip in Italy headed for Romania.His and a group of other bombers were headed for the oil fields near Bucharest.  The plane never made it home. Ed and two others eventually made it back to America.  The rest of the crew found eternal rest beneath the ground in what is today the Republic of Macedonia.  Before Ed's death he penned the following acount of that day to his family.  Captain Kieselbach's daughter, Cindy Kieselbach Dister, has graciously allowed us to publish it..

It turns out that the brother of a woman who regularly writes for The MoreStories Place was on the plane that day.   June Tuthill Bassemir's story about her brother, Bruce Tuthill, was previously published here, but it certainly will come alive even more so when you read it again following The Last Flight by his captain.  But first, Captain Ed Kieselbach.

The Last Flight

by Captain Edwin C. Kieselbach

Dear Children: this is an actual experience in the life of your father, grandfather, (great-grandfather) and Uncle Edwin Carl Kieselbach. Captain Edwin C. Kieselbach #076118 USAF assigned to the 15th Air Force 455th bomb Group, 732 Squadron, based in Italy near Bari which is near the east coast of Italy. All of this was routine assignment for a pilot during World War II.
Captain Kieselbach, top center, Bruce Tuthill, kneeling, far left.

I had completed 43 combat missions. If you completed 50 combat missions you could be rotated home for a rest. After that you would probably be assigned to duty in the Pacific. Our country was also at war with Japan.

The morning of Aug. 26, 1944 our target was Bucharest, Romania, a marshalling yard “Train Depot”. Oil shipments, munitions, and troops were passing through this location. Our mission was to destroy and harass the enemy.

Take off and assembly went well. Our group consisted of four squadrons with 8-9 planes each. There were about 40 planes that proceeded toward target at an altitude of 22,000 feet. Each plane carried about 6000 lbs (anti personnel bombs).

Enemy anti aircraft fire was heavy although no enemy aircraft were seen. Unfortunately my B24 Bomber the four engine Liberator was struck by anti aircraft fire. The missile was about 18” long and exploded above and below the plane. One engine was damaged. This caused a decrease in airspeed. The rest of my flight proceeded on, leaving my aircraft to become a straggler.

A straggler is considered easy prey by the enemy fighter planes. Soon five ME 109 German fighter planes attacked from directly behind. The first burst of machine gun fire hit the tail gunner. All we heard from was “here they come. I’m hit, I’m hit”. No one could help him. Then the waist gunner was struck. My copilot slumped in his seat and considerable blood flowed from his wounds. He died in his seat. 

Enemy machine gun fire penetrated the length of the B24 from the tail coming out the windshield. This fire passed through the Ball Torret gunner’s position. He never made a call through the intercom. We never knew how badly he was injured. The five German fighters each made a run on my B24, rolled over on their backs and dove toward home. My battered B24 was still in the air. I continued to wrestle with too many mechanical problems to relate to you.

The mountains were high and rugged. Mountain tops seemed to be too close. I maneuvered to avoid these mountain heights by flying over valleys, which was unwise. Before long my plane was being blasted by anti aircraft fire. The noise and explosions were very, very awesome and frightening! I could only try to sustain control but soon the plane was spinning out of control. I hit the Alarm Bell. This signals, “Bail Out”. Evidently the top turret gunner went out. I saw his badly battered body later in the day. The other waist gunner was never accounted for. The bombadier, radio operator and I found each other at a prison some days later. 

My predicament: the anti aircraft fire blew off the two vertical tail assembly rudders. The B24 started to spin in a flat motion. At this time I was certain life would be all over for me. I do remember thinking. “My Mother will never know where I am.” I made my move. The centrifical force held me as I crawled out of the cock pit, pushed away from the controls pedestal and flopped into the bomb bay. I had already opened these doors when I hit the alarm Bell. I was out on my back, looking up at the belly of the B24. That is how I knew the tail was gone. At that instant I pulled the rip cord on my parachute. With a jolt it opened. Right then tree tops engulfed me. We were instructed to ball up when you hit the trees as you could lose an arm or leg tearing through the branches. Minutes after I thought my end had come I was on the ground. I am not overly religious however I knelt and thanked God for his protection. Just think how close we ALL came to not being on earth. 

I was alone. I saw the top turret gunner’s badly bashed body. His chute opened but his body struck the steep mountain side. I was above because exiting the spinning plane I was thrown between the sides of steep mountains. We had been told that in an event such as this we should go higher into the mountains staying away from farms and towns. Soldiers and civilians were out in force looking for the crew of the downed B24.

Hours passed. At one place soldiers came so close I could see their shoe laces. They fired into bushes. The sound of this gun fire was everywhere indicating they were panicky. I went from tree to tree putting my back against a tree or a rock. I was afraid that someone would shoot me from behind. I was armed with standard issue 45 caliber automatic. Suddenly two soldiers confronted me. They jabbed and lunged at me with their bayonets. One put the point against my chest and pushed. The leather of my jacket probably saved me. They were so close I count’s miss. I fired at them. Both went down with loud grunts looking more surprised than in pain. To this day I don’t know if they died or were just wounded. 

I continued to walk up into the mountains but civilians came with shot guns and pitch forks. I hid in a rock crevice and time went by. It was still. It was then I realized that I had been wounded. My back at my left shoulder was sticky. It still has a bothersome feel to it. People with hound dogs on leashes were on my trail. I knew this was it. I called out “Amerikanski” in a low voice so as not to alarm them. They had me. 
Kieselbach kneeling, in overseas cap; Tuthill standing far right

I could not understand their language. One man who appeared to be a civilian spoke English. He had lived in Detroit Mich. He said the war was over for me, that I would go to prison, rest and read books. He was very wrong.

Soon the civilians were outnumbered by German and Bulgarian soldiers. The Bulgarians took me prisoner as I was in their country. The Bulgarians are harsh, mountain people with long bushy mustaches. They marched me away. I wondered why they did not disarm me. I still had the 45 cal. Automatic in my shoulder holster. Again I did a dumb thing at a resting place. I thought it wise to surrender my gun. When I pulled it out they shouted and ran around in all directions. Now this was dumb if anyone of them had been front line troops I am sure they would have shot me. But I was wounded, nauseated and feeling lost and scared. I held my weapon by the barrel and waved it at them. Lucky for and you all they understood and accepted my weapon. 

On the way to my eventual prison a strange thing happened. Soldiers woke me at night threatening me again with bayonets. They took my watch, etc., led me out of the stockade, marched me ahead of them across a valley of farms. We were halfway across when the station we had been in blew up with a loud bang! Smoke poured up. The guard hastened me onward. I never understood what caused the explosion but the guards did not want to go back. Neither did I. 

I spent time in jails and insane asylums until I ended in a prison atop a small mountain. It looked like a stone castle, big wood door and all. The commandant would ride his horse around it every morning in full uniform. He was so proud to have 201 American “gangsters” (that is what they called us) in his charge. We slept on straw with no blankets. Our food was potato soup or bean soup and one small loaf of rye bread each day. We used tin cans for utensils. The camp was near Schumen, Bulgaria close to the Black Sea.

One night we saw flashes in the sky and heard booms. It was canon fire. The next day all the guards were gone. The Russians were coming towards our prison. The Russians were our allies in World War II but we were told not to wait for them to liberate us. It was the practice of the Russians to shoot any people in uniforms that they were not acquainted with. We scattered and were on our own again. 

I made my way toward Greece riding a train on a flat car that was strafed by US B51’s. Then on to Turkey, then to Syria hitch hiking on British trucks all the way around the Mediterranian Sea to Cairo, Egypt. Once in Cairo the American ground troops radioed my group in Italy. They sent one of our B24’s to take me back to my home base. They were glad to see me! It was one heck of a party!

It's been reported that the debris field for what might have been Captain Kieselbach's and Bruce Tuthill's plane, has been found near Vratnica.   We'll keep readers posted as that story unfolds.  Meanwhile, here is Bruce's younger sister's account of a terrible day in her life when she found her brother was not coming home.

A Case For Peace

by June Tuthill Bassemir

This is 2009.  Sixty five years ago in 1944 my brother Bruce W. Tuthill gave “the supreme sacrifice”…his life for his Country in WW2.  It was supposed to be the last war.  We lived for about a month with the “Missing in Action” notice until the final dreaded telegram of “Killed in Action” came.  As hard a blow as it was for us to bear, the taxi man who delivered it had just as hard a time.   He tried for as long as he could to delay the news of the delivery.  Mr. Miller was the husband of Bruce’s first grade teacher and his job was to relay these telegrams as they came in to the parents in our small town.  It was a dark day in November when we received the news.  Its devastation is no less potent today than it was then but there are fewer and fewer folks still living to remember him.  Gone are his Mother, Father, his oldest brother; both Grandmothers; the only Grandfather he knew; Uncles and Aunts…. Gone are his two closest buddies; his first girlfriend and his admiring Floridian cousin who thought so much of him that she even named her son - Bruce.

Bruce Tuthill, standing far right
He was born on April 18th 1924 and died twenty years, four months and eight days later – in 1944.  He was very proud of his birthday and never failed to let people know that it was the date of the ride of Paul Revere – no less a hero.  He graduated from H. S. in 1942 and after working at Grumman Aircraft for a short time, he enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1943.  His basic training was at Camp Upton, NY and from there he went on to Miami FL; Tulsa OK; Las Vegas NM; and Sheffield, TX.  In Tulsa he met “Billy” Emmons, a nice girl whom I am sure he was planning to come home to.

Finally, he was ready to be shipped out and the Army gave him a “Ten Day Delay en Route” to visit the family in the spring of ’44.  The pictures of that time are curled and yellowed now, but oh how the memory lingers.  All four siblings lined up in profile for that picture – from the tallest and oldest brother; then the second oldest brother, then Bruce; then me his only sister.  That day he showed off his bulky brown shiny flight suit and his khaki uniform with the Staff Sgt. Insignia on the sleeve.  At one point he noticed I was wearing the gold plated locket he sent me.  Someone snapped a picture of us just as he said, “Oh… you’re wearing my locket – and my picture is inside”.   I still have that picture with the locket attached to the outside of the frame. 
I look at it and see two young people unaware of the photographer …absorbed in the joy of the moment.

He loved his family and his home town and wrote frequently from the day he enlisted to the bombing days while stationed in Italy. We didn’t know then where he was but afterward we learned that he was part of the bombing raids that targeted the Polesti Oil fields in Poland.  I became the recipient of all his letters and tried to put them in a book but reading them with his hope of what he wanted to do when he came home expressed in all the letters caused my heart strings to stretch and the tears to flow.  I put them aside thinking that time will ease the sorrow.

We now know that Kieselbach saw but couldn't reach the body of top turret gunner Bruce Tuthill.

My life went on; I married; children were born; houses were built; moves were made – and still the letters followed with me.  Now, my oldest son in his 50’s is interested in his Uncle Bruce that he never met.  I dug out the letters to read and to supply the information my son wanted.  What kind of a plane did he fly; what was his position in the plane; did the plane have a name; what was the number of the Bomb Squadron; how many missions did he fly?  I found that even though tears flowed again, the more I read of Bruce’s familiar hand writing, the closer I felt.  He lived in a tent and frequently he would write his letter as “the candle is getting low” or “I’m writing this by flashlight”.  He had adopted a dog, a mutt really, and the guys called him “Elmer”.  Elmer slept with Bruce on his cot. At one point he and his crew went to the Isle of Capri and he thought it was “the most beautiful place he had ever seen”.  When servicemen wrote home they only had to write “Free” where the stamp would be and V-mail was another method of receiving mail.  One sheet of writing was photographed and sent in a small envelope.  While it was good to receive those letters, it was less intimate than a regular hand written one.  Quite often the letters were censored if something was said that would imperil the safety of the soldiers or give information to the enemy.  He said, “After fifty missions, we get to fly to Miami Beach for a 21 day rest”.  I don’t know if that was a rumor or if it was really true.  Fifty was the magic number. - But he was on his 35th mission when his plane was hit.  All but two of the crew was able to parachute to safety but Bruce was not one of them.  He occupied the Top Turret Gunner position on the B-24, having proven himself to be a good marksman.  One of the crew, who lived in Brooklyn, came to visit us after he was sent home.  He told us more than we wanted to know of that last flight.  Too late to stop him, he said my brother’s chute failed to open.

I have come to the end of this writing… my eyes are swollen again but this time it has been comforting to share my brother’s thoughts and activities with my interested son…. sort of a visit with my brother “Bru” and his Uncle.   Maybe some day wars will cease but I doubt it.  There always seems to be another generation in the wings that has not learned that hatred, revenge, envy, greed and fighting only lead to bloodshed and heartache for those left behind.  Of course, they say that WW2 was “an honorable war” but really in the end “honorable” or not, if you have lost a loved one in any war the sadness never really goes away.

          copyright February, 2009, June Tuthill Bassemir

June Tuthill Bassemir is the widowed mother of four and grandmother of 10.  An artist and writer, she  volunteers as a docent in a 1765 farm house.   June loves old cars and antiques, and has also enjoyed furniture stripping and rug hooking.  "I used to say I was a stripper and hooker.but with so many trips around the sun, no one raises an eyebrow anymore. They only laugh."  June has given up furniture stripping, but is still an avid rug hooker.

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