An American bomber pilot and German foot soldier become friends years after the fall of Hitler—without realizing how dangerously close their paths had converged.
Temple opens his side window to keep track of the formation. A draft of thin, cold air meets him at thirty degrees below zero, causing his eyebrows to frost, his forehead and hands to freeze, and his eyes to water. At 23,000 feet, ice coats his flak suit as the crew struggles to keep control of the plane. They work the feathering to correct the runaway propellers and don’t turn back – the squadron is off to bomb an oil refinery in Bottrop-Welheim, Germany.
They carry twenty-four bombs, each 250 pounds. On the ground, the Germans pinpoint their altitude, unleashing a sea of bullets that envelops the air around them. A B-24 up ahead is hit badly, plummeting down in a tight spiral above the target. Anti-aircraft rounds burst in front of the airplane, and one enters the turret, cutting Joe Amrien across his nose. Another half-inch and no Joe Amrien, Temple thinks. Joe jokes that the flak had his name on it, but the wrong serial number. Other crews flying off their tail expect them to be hit any second – the Germans are sweating them out, and everyone is iced in. His window open, only Temple can see the flak outside, but he is too busy fighting the situation to worry about it.
They release their bombs.
As the squadron limps back across the English Channel to their base in Flixton, they discover that two bombs didn’t drop. The explosives are hung up, lodged in the plane, so the crew replaces the pins, fires flares, and they land last as a precaution for the rest of the squadron. They touch down without explosions and scarf down coffee, sandwiches and conversation.
The crew, all under the age of twenty-five, has been together since they trained in Texas. It is Armistice Day. When they complete their next mission, they will receive their first air medal, the Rookie’s Badge. Seventy years later, the camaraderie of the crews will be what Leslie Armen, Bill Frutchy’s navigator and bombardier, remembers most.
The following mission at 24,500 feet is forty-four degrees below zero. Crews take a beating from frostbite, and Temple’s heated flight suit fails. There is word that German jet fighters are in the vicinity, but no one sees them, and P-47 fighter planes cover the squadron well. On this run, it’s Frutchy’s B-24 that takes a heavy beating from the ground.
He is only twenty, tall and handsome with eager, young brown eyes to match his wavy hair. Frutchy enlisted at eighteen with 20-8 vision and the hope of becoming a fighter pilot, but he was almost 6’4” – too tall for the cockpit of the fighter jet. The B-24 fit him better.
His plane survives 88mm and 105mm fire for nine minutes over the target. The aircraft becomes littered with bullet holes, and the number two plane is shot down in front of them. They keep the pieces of flak, which almost killed them, as souvenirs. Bill Frutchy has once again guided the plane through chaos.
Only one of the frostbitten crew goes to sick call that day, where he is grounded for his condition. They receive shots of whiskey but decide to save the booze for a celebration of their thirty-fifth mission, their final flight. They have only completed six so far.
A few months later, Bill Frutchy finishes all thirty-five missions as one of the most skilled pilots in the squadron; Leslie Armen still recalls the crew’s great faith in his flying ability. His copilot, John Boyd Thomas, was hyper, but Bill always remained calm; he carried a natural instinct for flying as their B-24 hurtled through German air space, their engines often shot to pieces. He was my grandfather, but I never got the chance to ask him more.
* * *
In 1944, as a teenager in Münster, Germany, Ernst Edelmann spent much of the year in bomb shelters. By then, The Third Reich was reeling. Allied fleets of B-24 squadrons, flying from England, pummeled cities all over Germany. Ernst squeezed into the bunkers, sometimes no bigger than half a tennis court, with hundreds of other people.
In Germany’s northwest, Münster lay on a direct path to Berlin for Allied bomb squadrons coming from England. The city was bombed heavily. Since bombing had begun in his hometown in 1940, Ernst had gotten used to taking cover. Richard Overy, a British historian of the Allied Bombing, has documented that Germany’s Air Force Protection Law of 1935 legally required civilians to find shelter as soon as city alarms sounded. Shelters were used so often that the Nazis governed them as common public spaces; smoking, drinking and animals were forbidden from the sites. According to Overy, Nazi Germany had established only enough shelter for 4,550 people, just three percent of Münster’s population. By the end of the year, the spaces were increased to hold 60,000 people. Overy estimates that, in World War II, 600,000 European civilians died from Allied bombing attacks. Millions were probably injured. But Ernst, spending almost the entire war in one of the most heavily bombed cities in Germany, somehow survived.
Ernst had grown up the son of a high-ranking officer in the German military. On many evenings during the war, he fell asleep in bomb shelters, not knowing whether or not Allied bombers were on their way. During the daytime, he was ordered to enforce boycotts on Jewish businesses by patrolling storefronts.
Then, in late 1944, as Germany grew desperate to replace its increasing casualties, the Nazi regime raised a new army, the Volkssturm, from civilian ranks which included young teenagers. At sixteen, Ernst Edelmann was dispatched to Polanka, in present-day Poland, where he fired anti-aircraft machine guns at Soviet planes and ducked their incoming fire.
* * *
A few months ago, Ernst Edelmann, now eighty-seven, sat in a living room in Elmira, New York, and told me stories about the Hitler Youth. My mother, Jenny Frutchy, sat next to me. The room was comfortable, and decorated as it had been for decades: neat, stripped, and minimal – recognizably German. Sitting on his sofa in a blue shirt and khakis, Ernst told stories with a thick accent. For such a heavy topic, he recalled his wartime tales with a humorous levity, as if the memories were part of another world.
We discussed Allied B-24 flight journals I had brought along. They indicated that, near the end of World War II, Ernst may have shot anti-aircraft rounds at my grandfather, Bill Frutchy, and the rest of his B-24 crew.
“How did you end up enlisted?” I asked Ernst.
“If you say no, they shoot you,” he said, laughing again.
He thought the machine guns they manned probably weren’t very accurate or effective – they had lost the war after all. In the skies on the other side of Germany in 1944, though, that didn’t seem so true: Bill’s crew was riddled with machine gun flak that was constantly blowing out their B-24 engines. But Ernst was right in the end; only a few months after he was sent to Polanka, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies.
Ernst returned home to Münster after the war ended and worked for a sports retailing outlet. His father, the German officer, became the general manager of a circus.
* * *
Bomb Squadron 706 of the 446th Bomb Group flew its thirty-fifth and final mission on April 7, 1945. Just this once, to make up for missing his first mission, Boyd Thomas acted as waist gunner while Bill piloted the bomber. The new position, it seemed, gave Boyd Thomas more time for observation in his journal:
We were left near Duneberg, and we made our run on the target, already burning. As we approached, small explosions showed with flashes, and brown, rolling smoke reached 10,000 feet high. All at once, a terrific explosion let go with a ball of flame about a mile and a half square! It looked like oil flames; the nitro must have “gone up”. Our planes made cracking sounds as if flak was hitting us and we “jumped” about 100 feet. It was the most terrific explosion I had seen, even in the movies (as my notes say). This smoke came even higher.
We left the target as it continued to burn and flashes continued to appear from bombs. We came on Neumunster which had been our secondary target, and had been hit by one squadron up ahead. Near the coast, accurate flak came up from about 8 guns, followed us, then switched to another squadron. The day was the clearest I have seen in Germany, and it was a real sightseeing tour all the way. (It is a beautiful country.) All of us returned safely, but it was another exciting day, even from the waist. I never fired in anger during the action!
With that, Bill Frutchy’s World War II ended, the crew scattering and keeping in touch with Christmas letters. Leslie Armen stayed in the U.S. Air Force for most of his life, working as an attaché and spy in the Philippines, and then continuing to travel the world from Europe to the Middle East, where he helped design security for Dubai’s airport. Others left the military and returned to the young adulthood they had left behind.
Bill Frutchy chose the civilian life in his hometown of Elmira. He joined the Air Force Reserves and briefly considered becoming an engineer before taking over his father’s plumbing business, A.E. Frutchy and Son. In his free time, he flew planes and gliders at Harris Hill, the “capital of American soaring.” He had everything he needed in Elmira – a family, a small-town business, and planes and gliders without seas of flame and bullets.
* * *
Ernst considered going to the United States when the war ended but didn’t think he had enough money. Soon though, he was offered a chance. Managing a small sports store in Rinteln with his grandfather, Ernst became friends with another businessman in sports retail. His name was Adolf (“Adi”) Dassler, and he asked Ernst to represent his new brand in America. Ernst declined the offer, thinking the man had to be crazy — what American was looking to buy German sportswear after World War II? But Adi Dassler’s company would survive Ernst’s refusal of the American brand ambassador position: Last year, Forbes listed Adidas’s sale revenue at $19.24 billion.
After Ernst missed out on the Adidas lottery, fate delivered him a real one. In 1954, Ernst’s wife Irmgard won a lottery of 10,000 Deutsche marks. The couple decided it was time to try their luck in America and arranged visas through a doctor in Sayre, Pennsylvania, where Irmgard had family. They left their children Peter and Karl in Germany with their grandparents, hoping to send for them later.
In Sayre, a town on the border of New York State, Ernst and Irmgard moved into the doctor’s carriage house. They found work oiling factory sewing machines at Blue Swan Mill, but Ernst always had a mind for numbers. He quickly signed up for a course-by-mail on accounting, learning English along the way with the help of coworkers, friends and family, and eventually received certification as an accountant. Soon after completing the course he took a new job as an assistant accounting office manager, then moved to nearby Elmira, to become the C.F.O. of Arnot Realty, a large real estate company, which built the first and largest mall in the area. The Edelmanns’ immigrant success story was a headline for the American dream. They had arrived on a lottery ticket; now they controlled large amounts of real estate in a 1950s American manufacturing boomtown.
By then, Ernst’s sons had come to America and assimilated well. Ernst taught them to play tennis, and the brothers became some of the best players in town. Years later, Peter found his first high school sweetheart in a girl he’d played tennis with growing up named Jenny Frutchy. The Edelmanns, like most people around town, knew Jenny’s father, a highly skilled and decorated glider pilot named Bill.
* * *
Bill Frutchy raised a family in the spitting image of 1950s white American suburbia. The four Frutchy girls wore pinafores and loved to swim. Bill taught his only son to golf. Heidi learned to fly gliders as well, and my mother Jenny, one of the middle sisters, became the first girl to earn a varsity letter on the high school men’s swim team.
Bill and Ernst were acquaintances from the Elmira Country Club before their children began dating; they played tennis together. When their oldest sons became close friends and their younger children started dating, Bill and Ernst began to see more of each other. Their war pasts surfaced in conversation, and Ernst and Bill soon became regular beer-drinking buddies.
They quickly established that Bill flew B-24s during the war while Ernst mostly hid from them. Bill vaguely recalled flying to Münster, but neither of them followed up, and they continued to play tennis together. There was little to say, Ernst remembered, except voicing the obvious – the shock at the strangeness of wartime. Jenny and Peter eventually broke off their high school romance, but their fathers continued a friendship for the rest of their lives. The former enemies deserved to be friends, it seemed. Bill had made it through the war, through all the flak, without losing any of his crew members, and Ernst had survived too. Who had shot at who didn’t seem to matter much anymore. If anything, it gave their friendship a new connection.
In 1977, thirty years removed from escaping flak-filled German skies, Bill Frutchy died of a brain aneurism on Thanksgiving. He never learned the more precise details of his and Ernst’s possible wartime overlap.
* * *
I met Peter Edelmann in Burlington, Vermont, where, like his father, he builds malls. His company will soon be expanding to China, to boomtowns with new consumers and disposable incomes, not unlike Elmira’s former manufacturing economy of the fifties. I asked him about Ernst and his own grandfather’s wartime memories.
“It’s not something that Germans talk about,” Peter told me, sitting in his office. “It was different back then in my childhood. You didn’t ask your parents about their past.”
The sentiment matched my mother’s. Before going to college, she had only ever witnessed her father’s past on Thursday nights, when he attended weekly Air Force Reserve meetings. He wore his uniform as he walked out the door past his children who stood in a line, saluting playfully in four turns upon his command.
In college, my mother came across pictures her dad kept in an old scrapbook. They showed before-and-after photographs of bridges and other targets his crew had bombed. She finally inquired. He described to her what they were matter-of-factly, but didn’t elaborate much. His daughter didn’t push him – she put the pictures away.
Bill had visited Europe only once after the war, touring Paris with Norman Temple. He returned with a fondness for French Opera, which he employed to put his children to sleep on car rides. But Bill left his past encounters with Europe out of the conversation. There may not have been much to talk about – the only conclusion, perhaps, was that war was simply absurd.
* * *
In 2011, my mother finally followed up on the details. Returning to Elmira for a high school reunion, she brought the flight journals of Bill’s copilot Boyd Thomas and showed them to Ernst.
He looked through them and found an entry for Münster dated January 29, 1945.
When Bill’s B-24 flew in, clouds covered the sky entirely. There was no flak, even though in the Ruhr Valley, in the distance, B-17s were taking on heavy fire. Norman Temple’s plane lost an engine when the bombs dropped, but the crew flew home safely.
Ernst and Jenny looked at the journals together and laughed incredulously.
On closer examination though, Bill and Ernst’s paths seemed to have barely missed each other. Ernst recalls leaving for Polanka on the Eastern front (away from American forces) in late 1944, a month or so before Bill’s mission to Münster. The 446th Bomb Group had previously attacked Munster while Ernst was there, but Bill Frutchy hadn’t joined up with the group yet. He flew his first mission in Germany on October 30, 1944, late to the WWII air theater, and was lucky to have gotten started then: The heaviest Allied air casualties were suffered earlier in the war, and his voyage to Münster in January was just late enough to avoid dropping a bomb on Ernst.
* * *
This past spring, before my mother and I left Elmira, Ernst walked us through the basement and out toward the driveway. On the walk down, he brought us into a side room where a collection of tennis trophies stood on a counter. Ernst turned on a stereo and walked back out, filling the basement living room with trumpet riffs. He looked at my mother, who has been a dancer her whole life, and offered his hand. She gave me her purse, walked over to join him, and waltzed through a full song with Ernst. I stood off to the side watching, four years older than my grandfather was in 1944 when he flew B-24s. His Air Corps portrait, which sits on a piano in my family’s living room, entered my mind. It is the most handsome picture of anyone in our house. I looked back at my mother and Ernst and felt myself smiling – they moved around the room effortlessly.