World War II prisoner of war camp - Stalag Luft I


World War II - Prisoners of War - Stalag Luft I 

A collection of stories, photos, art and information on Stalag Luft I


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Remembering Stuart Mendelsohn

By Verne Woods

     Most young American males in 1941 saw the attack on Pearl Harbor not as a National calamity but as an appreciated transition. Adventure was promised. That promise could best be realized, so I reasoned, as a pilot in the US Army Air Corps. Soon after Pearl Harbor, I took a battery of tests, passed, and on April 1, 1942, was sworn into Army Air Corps as an Aviation Cadet. But before I reported to Santa Ana, California, I, at age 21, and Onie Belle Patrick, eight days past her 18th birthday, were married. Our first months of marriage must not have been especially happy ones for Onie, a little teen-age waif living alone in unfamiliar western towns far from Memphis while I, on near-by military bases, completed the various stages of pilot training. In April, 1943, a graduate of the class of 43-D, I received my pilot's wings and the brass bars of a second lieutenant. At an airbase near Blythe, California, I was introduced to the Boeing B-17 and to my combat crew.

     How were the ten men (except for our 31-year-old waist gunner, Roke Lieberman, they were boys only yesterday) of the Mendelsohn crew brought together? Did we have a choice in the assignment? No, it came about through standard military organized randomness. Here's the way I would guess it happened: there was this one list of pilots awaiting a crew and a second list of potential crew members. The names rising to the top of the second list were told they were assigned the pilot whose name had reached the top of the first list. That's how the Mendelsohn crew and hundreds of other 8th Air Force crews were formed, but as I said, it's only a guess. I've wondered what initial impression each of us might have had of those with whom we would share the war. Did any of us think (borrowing the wonderment expressed by another 8th Air Force veteran writing about his first encounter with his new crew) that these men had been brought together by a kind of destiny, men who would be tested in battle together and who might die together, as well. Nah, nothing at all like that. Too theatrical.

     We came together in May of 1943 at the B-17 transitional school in Blythe, California. Hot! Christ, it was hot there in the California desert. I hated that place. And Onie who was there cooped up all day in an apartment she shared with another officer's wife had even more reason to hate the place. 

     The crew came together in a piecemeal way. One by one over a period of a week or so someone would come up and without even a formal salute say something like, "Hi, I'm Sgt. (so and so) and I've been assigned to your crew as (radio operator or tail gunner or engineer or whatever)." Preparing to write this, I asked Onie if she remembers any comment I may have made about this or that new member when he was assigned to Stuart Mendelsohn's crew. Surely I must have talked to her about some of the more conspicuous personalities. But if I did, she doesn't remember it. 

     Before there was a crew there was just Stuart Mendelsohn and me. I'd come to Blythe with a large chip on my shoulder. Chip laden shoulders abounded there at Blythe because my whole graduating class from the fighter pilot school at Yuma -- every single one of us -- had been sent there to become B-17 co-pilots. Instead of flying the Mustangs, Lightings or Thunderbolts for which we'd been trained, we were to fly heavy bombers. In advanced fighter pilot training we'd mastered the perky, powerful, lovable AT-6 and had put her through every aerobatic trick in the books. We'd even been checked out in P-40s. From our elite caste position as fighter pilots we regarded with disdain those poor, miserable cadets who had the misfortune to be selected for multi-engine bomber training. Who'd ever want to go to advanced pilot training and fly that ugly AT-17 twin-engine trainer? So under-powered, so sluggish. I was particular bitter because I considered myself to be an especially hot-shot fighter pilot and had credentials to prove it. In my class of 120, I'd come in second in aerial gunnery (a towed sleeve target) and fifth in ground gunnery (strafing of stationary ground targets). The combined scores put me in the class's first place in aerial gunnery.

     On my second day at Blythe, I met Stuart Mendelsohn. I was told that I would find him over on the tarmac where several AT-17s were parked. I found him standing next to one of those twin-engine trainers. I walked up carrying my parachute and introduced myself. He asked if I'd ever flown in an AT-17 and I said "no" -- and I could well have said under my breath, "thank goodness." We climbed in and seating side by side in the cockpit, Stuart spent 30 minutes explaining the instrument panel, the controls and emergency procedures. He was articulate and thorough, a born pedagog. I'm sure I must have sat there nodding sullenly.

     Recently, trying to remember that first encounter, I asked Onie, "Are you sure you can't remember anything I might have said about Stu?" Again, she could remember very little. I do remember the first landing I made in the AT-17. I greased it, so smooth you couldn't feel the wheels touching down. I'm sure I must have mentally smirked, as if to tell Stu, "See, nothing to it," or "Piece of cake." But I must admit that was the best landing I was to ever make in the AT-17. 

     After a week or so in the AT-17, we began our first training in a B-17. I never figured out why we had spent so much time in an AT-17 in the first place, except that, before a crew was assigned to us, it helped cement a working relationship between the pilot and co-pilot. Or maybe there were too few B-17s there to accommodate all the newly formed crews and they put some of us on hold, giving us the AT-17s to play with in the interim. At Blythe the training day was 14 hours long. Most of the time was spent not in the air but in ground school. Stuart said that never in his two years at the University of Michigan was class work so concentrated.  Looking back, I still wonder why pilots and co-pilots had to know how to take apart a Pratt and Whitney rotary engine. More hours were spent in a Link trainer than in the air. At Blythe there was no after-hours socializing with crew members. We were all too beat after a long day that began at six and ended at eight in the evening. Everyone just flopped on his sack at the end of the day. Living off base, I'd return to our rented apartment each night completely exhausted, too tired to even talk about the day's events. Poor Onie, she had probably spent the day anticipating a festive evening and I'd come in, stretch out on the bed and pass out.

     Stuart and I first came together -- came together in the sense of a bonded relationship -- on a navigation flight that took us on a eight hour triangular path from Blythe to Salt Lake City to Phoenix and back again to Blythe. Our navigator, Bill Borellis, had just joined the crew and the flight was mostly set up as a training exercise for him. Our altitude was a comfortable 5,000 feet, higher, of course, over the Utah mountains. It was a relaxed flight, flown mostly on automatic pilot, with nothing for the two of us to do but enjoy the gentle (sometimes harsh) rocking of the plane by thermals rising from the desert not too far below. Stuart and I unfastened our seat belts and restraint harnesses and began to idly reminisce about growing up in Cleveland and Memphis. Stuart had already told me that he was engaged to a girl there in Cleveland, but now he opened up to tell me of certain of his misgivings -- her endearing faults, but faults nevertheless. He thought that maybe it was unfair to have postponed their wedding until after the war but then maybe they shouldn't have become engaged at all because of the war and its uncertainties. He'd met Onie when she'd come to the Base for an evening meal and I told him about our life back in Memphis.

     It was on that long navigation flight that I learned that Stuart played the violin. I think he was reluctant to talk about it because being a violinist and a B-17 pilot might seem incommensurate. Our bombardier, Harold Fox, once asked me, "Did you know that Stu is an accomplished violinist?"  Well I didn't know about the "accomplished" part because I never heard him play. Much, much later, in 1992, Stuart's step-cousin, Betty Mendelsohn, asked me the same question, using the same word "accomplished" in her letter. 

     What really brought Stu and me together, however, was the discovery that in growing up, we'd both been book readers and that we both had discovered James Willard Schultz. Both of us had read all the books by this American anthropologist who'd lived among the Plains Indians and who wrote about them in books for young boys. There were a dozen or more of these Schultz books and Stuart and I, as we bounced along on that long navigation flight, managed, between us, to remember most of them. After that flight, Stuart and I were no longer just crew-mates. We were friends. 

     Stuart was almost two years older than I -- 22 and 24 when we first met at Blythe. And although I judged us to be equally adept at flying a B-17, Stuart usually demonstrated more mature judgment than I was then capable of. I don't recall a single incident when he used abusive language to reprimand an erring crew-member although there were several instances warranting it. Once, in July, 1943. after we'd reached the second phase of our B-17 training and had been transferred to Dyersburg, Tennessee, we were preparing to land but couldn't lower the right wheel. The system operates hydraulically but in case of malfunction, a crank was provided so that the engineer could lower the wheels manually. In this instance, Richard Hensley, our engineer, was unable to crank the wheel down. Panic time. We faced the prospect of making a wheels-up belly landing. I went down to give Hensley a hand but wasn't much help. Stuart remained calm and reassuring to the crew members who were aware of our problem. He left the cockpit and went to investigate. After a very few minutes, he'd found the problem -- an elementary one as it turned out, one that Hensley himself had caused and that any half-way competent B-17 flight engineer should have detected. Hensley was deserving of a strong reprimand for a lapse that could have led to the totaling a B-17, to say nothing of possible injury or even loss of life. Stuart knew, however, that Hensley was already suffering enough under his own self-lashing. He told Hensley to go have a beer and forget about it and then told me to say nothing of Hensley's lapse when we later wrote up the mechanical failure report. 

     When Stuart was working on the malfunctioning wheel crank problem, several crew members from the rear of the plane stood around watching. Stuart's finding and correcting the problem added to the crew's growing respect for Mendelsohn as a pilot and commander. His was a soft, authoritative presence. By the time we had finished our B-17 transitional training in Dyersburg in late July, 1943, I felt (we all felt) that ours was the best B-17 crew on the field. We had an objective basis for this feeling. After practice missions (bombing, gunnery, navigation, formation flying and so on) crews were brought together to critique the mission and evaluate each crew's performance. Those crews whose performance was below expectations were singled out, some being repeatedly cited for various infractions or sloppy performance. But the Mendelsohn crew was never the object of such censure, not in a single instance that I can recall. Quite the contrary. Often we were pointed to as a model of how things should be done. I took a deepening pride in belonging to the Mendelsohn crew. 

     But enough of that. Let's pack up and leave Dyersburg, smuggling aboard the B-17 the little puppy, "Eager Beaver," we had acquired there. We'll arrive in England and ultimately at the 91st Bomb Group, 324th Squadron in Bassingbourn in September, 1943. For their first few combat missions, members of newly arrived crews were split up and assigned to crews that had already experienced combat. Thus, Stuart flew the October Schweinfurt mission as co- pilot on Lt. Christensen's crew in the Iowan's B-17, The Corn State Terror. On that early mission, Stuart's composed performance under the most demanding ordeal earned him the distinguished flying cross. Here's how Stuart later described it: 

Soon after dropping their bombs, the B-17s of the 91st came under attack by Me-109s and FW-190s. The Corn State Terror was hit, killing one crew member and injuring another. An engine was also knocked out and The Corn State Terror had to leave the formation. The pilot, Christensen, following recommended procedures, took The Corn State Terror down to tree-top level. With fuel supply uncertain, the navigator set the plane on the shortest route back to England, a route that took the B-17 over the heavily defended Ruhr. The B-17 came over a ridge and suddenly dropping off in front of the plane was a broad valley, now a thousand feet below. They were momentarily deprived of their ground-hugging security. Almost immediately, they were hit by ground fire. It was, Stuart said, as if all the anti-aircraft gunners in the Ruhr had just been sitting there waiting for them to come over the ridge. The Corn State Terror was caught in a vortex of tracer bullets and flak streaming up from below. The shells tore into the plane, mortally wounding the pilot and injuring still another crewman. Stuart abruptly found himself in charge of a plane with a comatose pilot and two badly injured crew members aboard and not enough fuel, if gauges were to be believed, to get back to England. By the time he reached the English Channel the gauges were reading empty. Even worse, the plane had entered a dense fog bank and Mendelsohn was unable to see the surface of the water only two or three hundred feet below. Even if the fuel held out and he reached England, he might not see land in time to avoid crashing into something. The fuel gauges had registered empty for ten minutes when, unexpectedly, there it was. The plane had crossed the coast. And dead ahead was a runway. The wheels wouldn't lower because of a severed hydraulic line, so Stuart put the B-17 down on its belly beside the runway. The Corn State Terror seemed to skid forever, finally coming to a stop when it hit a tree. It would never fly again. The unconscious pilot, Christensen and the other two wounded crew members were rushed to the hospital. Christensen died the next day. 

     Much later, in July of 1992, when Onie and I attended a reunion of the 91st Bomb Group Association in Memphis, I was flattered to find that several attendees remembered Mendelsohn as an outstanding pilot. This prompted me, when I got home, to reestablish contact, after a lapse of four decades, with Mendelsohn's family. I wanted Stuart's family to know that one of their relatives was still well remembered after all these years. I found that the role of custodian of all Stuart Mendelsohn memorabilia had devolved upon Betty Mendelsohn, a cousin of Stuart's by marriage. She had become a kind of curator of Stuart-related material. She even had letters that Onie had written in 1944 to Stuart's parents after Stu and I were shot down. 

     We became friends, Betty and I, talking on the phone and corresponding over a two year period. She wanted to know everything I could tell her about Stuart and I wrote her long letters answering her questions. She wanted to know, for instance, what the daily routine was like at an 8th Air Force base in England during the war. Who did our laundry? was one of her questions. (I've forgotten.) Did we make friends with English villagers? I told her it was for the most part boring. Hour after hour was spent in gin rummy games with Stu, Borellis and Fox. We'd go to movies on the base. Or to the officer's club for poker if we hadn't already lost our monthly allotted stake. If we had, we'd go there anyway for a beer, several of us from various crews sitting around a table. I don't remember that the talk there ever focused on combat missions or about comrades who'd recently failed to return. But I don't remember that these topics were ever taboo either. On days when there was no combat mission, we'd fly long practice missions or else we'd be sent out over the North Sea flying back and fourth for hours at 400 feet over the water looking for downed RAF or 8th Air Force airmen who might have ditched in the North Sea returning from a mission. I told Betty about Stuart's English girl -- a very bright girl from near-by Cambridge. By early November of 1943 Stu had become completely smitten by her. If we weren't on the roster for the next day's mission, Stuart would take off for Cambridge to be with her, returning late at night. He wasn't at all shy in talking about her to Borellis, Fox and me, awed by her "sophistication." Before she came along, Stuart and I would go to London together when the crew was given a 48-hour pass but once the English girl (What was her name?) arrived on the scene we went our separate ways. I described for Betty a scene from one of those early passes to London. Here's part of the letter I wrote to her:  

Stuart and I belonged to a little London drinking club called the "Knightsbridge Studio Club." Once, immediately after a mission, our crew was awarded a 48-hour pass. Stuart and I quickly showered, put on our class-A uniforms and caught a train to London, less than two hours away. I, and I'm sure I speak for Stuart as well, always felt an intense pride in walking down the streets of London in our Class-A uniforms-- pinks and greens, we called it, handsome and distinctive -- with our crushed hats set at a jaunty angle, the 8th Air Force patch on our sleeves and with ribbons and pilot wings prominent on our jackets. And you know something, Betty. That night with Stuart at that little Knightsbridge club is, to me, probably the most memorable moment of the whole war -- memorable in the sense that I later many times quietly reflected upon it. Absolutely nothing unusual happened. The two of us just sat at a table near the cocktail pianist and there we spent the whole evening nursing scotch and sodas and requesting the pianist to play favorite songs that evoked memories of girls and dates that seemed so long ago. What made that night special was a kind of secret we harbored from all those crowding the small barroom. The secret was this, hardly a secret at all: we knew that just hours before we had been in a B-17, in combat over Germany and no one in the barroom could ever suspect this if they happened to look over at us. Just why this knowledge, this thought, this "secret" was savored so as we sat there talking together with our scotch and sodas I don't know, but because of it, that night has ever since been a precious ornament suspended in memory. If I were to see Stuart again, I would surely ask "Do you remember that time after a mission when we went to that little club. . .?" for I suspect that Stuart would remember it as vividly as I do. 

     My correspondence with Betty waned when she failed to answer my letters. Several years later I got a call from Palo Alto, California. The caller introduced herself as Betty's daughter, Barbara Mendelsohn. Barbara had come across the letters I'd written to her mother, was impressed by the content and asked my permission to use excerpts from them in an essay. I told her that she could use anything she wished. I learned that Betty was now living with her daughter in California but that she was a victim of Alzheimer's. In learning this, I was disturbed in a way that is difficult for me to understand. A link to Stuart Mendelsohn was severed.

Mendelsohn Crew  

Standing are (L to R) ball turret gunner Larry Hull, tail gunner Donald Frans, pilot Stuart Mendelsohn, co-pilot Verne Woods, waist gunner Stanley Sadlo and radio operator James Quinn.  

Front row - waist gunner Roke Lieberman, bombardier Harold Fox, navigator William Borellis, and engineer/top turret gunner Richard Hensley. 

Borellis is holding their mascot Eager Beaver that they took to England with them and who accompanied them on one mission.


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