‘Unternehmen Walküre’: Killing Hitler (Almost)

“This is General Olbricht, calling on behalf of General Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army. The Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, is dead. A group of radicals in the SS are attempting to seize control of the government. Initiate Operation Valkyrie.”

Bill Nighy delivered that line as General Friedrich Olbricht, one of the participants in the famous July 20 plot intended to assassinate Adolf Hitler, arrest members of his inner circle, and negotiate an armistice with the Allies. The bomb failed to eliminate their intended targets and the plotters were quickly arrested and executed. For a brief moment though, men like Claus von Stauffenberg, Ludwig Beck, Friedrich Fromm, Werner von Haeften, Henning von Tresckow, Carl Goerdeler, and Erwin von Witzleben believed that they had incapacitated the Nazis and rescued Germany.

Adolf Hitler, the target of over twenty assassination attempts since 1934. With every escape from death, his hubris and ego grew to mammoth proportions (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

Popularized in the 2008 film, Valkyrie, the July 20 plot became the most famous assassination attempt against Hitler, who by than had avoided death more than a dozen times. Members of the German Resistance were comprised of senior political, military, and private sector businessmen who lost faith that Germany could prevail against the Allies. U.S., British, and Canadian forces were in the midst of liberating France and renewed offensives by the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front placed Germany in an untenable position. In the early summer of 1944, after a failed bomb assassination, a new plan was put forward to resistance leaders.

Colonel Henning von Tresckow, a July 20 plotter, tried detonating a bomb on Hitler’s plane in 1943, but it failed. He later rewrote the Valkyrie plan to meet the plotters goals of removing the Nazi government (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

The German Reserve Army (or Replacement Army) retained operational plans for maintaining law and order during a national emergency. Codenamed ‘Operation Valkyrie’, General Olbricht believed that it was possible to retool the plan to use the Replacement Army if a coup d’état were to erupt. Resistance members recruited the commander of the Replacement Army, Friedrich Fromm, who agreed to keep silent in exchange for a senior position in the new regime. Colonel Henning von Tresckow (who tried to kill Hitler in 1943) drafted a new copy of the Valkyrie plan and distributed it to various Nazi installations across Europe over a period of several weeks. The new draft required seizing communication hubs, government offices, and concentration camp offices so as to quickly secure German infrastructure.

But how to kill Hitler himself? There had been twenty-one attempts, including shooting, stabbing, bombing, and even poisoning (allegedly Hitler’s vegetarian diet spared him that fate). The answer came with Colonel Stauffenberg’s appointment as Chief-of-Staff of the Replacement Army. This granted him access to Hitler’s advisors and itinerary, which was manna from heaven to the Resistance. Armed with the knowledge of Hitler’s moving location and retinue, they could decide the method for killing Hitler. Two bombs armed with chemically timed pencil detonators inside a leather briefcase was the best option. The bomb would detonate inside a concrete bunker at the Wolf’s Lair complex in East Prussia and the resulting concussive blasts would instantly kill anyone in the room. Stauffenberg’s job required him to attend military briefings and so he volunteered to deliver the bombs.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg before sustaining injuries and receiving his signature eye patch (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

The planners originally chose July 11 to carry out their mission, but there was a hiccup. Resistance members understood that if only Hitler was killed, he would be replaced by a close associate like Himmler or Goering. Ultimately the plan was aborted because Himmler wasn’t present at the briefing. A second attempt occurred on July 15 since Himmler and Goering were in attendance, but Hitler was called out for another meeting and Stauffenberg hastily removed the detonator from the bombs. Simultaneously as the Resistance carried out their plans, the Gestapo were investigating the alleged plotters and many concluded that some assassination attempt was in the works. Stauffenberg, Beck, Tresckow, Olbricht, and others resigned themselves to the fact that even if Hitler miraculously survived, they needed to complete the second half of their plot of seizing control of the German government. Failure meant facing the firing squad.

July 20, 1944: Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, arrived at the Wolf’s Lair and under the pretense of using a washroom, the two armed the bombs and walked to the briefing. A last minute change occurred when the meeting was moved from the concrete bunker to a wooden cabin with large windows: it was an especially hot and humid day. Stauffenberg placed the bomb as close as possible to Hitler and left the room quickly thereafter under the pretense of a phone call. At 12:42 PM, an explosion ripped through the cabin, shattering windows, ripping off doors, and splintering rafters. Believing Hitler was dead, Stauffenberg and von Haeften sped away from the Lair and flew back to Berlin where plotters received the flash: “HITLER IS DEAD.”

Hermann Goering and Martin Bormann inspect damages following the bomb blast

Hitler wasn’t dead. General Fellgiebel, another plotter present at the Wolf’s Lair, saw Hitler and informed other members, but when Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin, he maintained the Hitler was still dead. At 4:00 PM, Operation Valkyrie was initiated and the Replacement Army quickly went to work arresting ‘conspirators’ in the Nazi Party and Wehrmacht. As the plot continued though, news of Hitler’s survival began undermining the plan. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel deduced that Stauffenberg planted the bomb and orders for his and others arrests went out.

At around 7:00 PM, Hitler recovered enough from his mild injuries to begin making phone calls to Berlin. Members of the coup who wavered in their support for the Resistance shifted sides after hearing of Hitler’s survival. The coup quickly disintegrated and the plotters were ordered to be taken alive. In an attempt to prove loyalty, General held an impromptu court-martial and pronounced death sentences to all the conspirators. They were escorted to the courtyard of the Bendlerblock (administrative offices for the War Ministry), lined up, and shot to death.

Conspirators for the July 20 Plot appear before Nazi German judge Roland Freisler. Conspirators stand as their names are called out. German officers and other people seated. Judge Roland Freisler seems more intent on intimidating and chastising the accused, than eliciting testimony.

In the weeks and months following the July 20 plot, dozens more conspirators were identified, admonished before kangaroo courts and summarily executed. It was the last assassination attempt against Hitler, but after World War II, it became the most famous attempt of them all since it came the closest to possibly ending the war. In those six hours on July 20, the Resistance had their chance of stopping the most savage fighting in all of Europe. They made the most of those hours before facing the gallows. Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators became heroes in postwar world and their actions were later recognized by the German government in 1980 with the Memorial to the German Resistance. A plaque hangs above the spot where the plotters were executed, displaying a four solemn lines attributing to their cause:

You did not bear the shame.

You resisted.

You bestowed the eternally vigilant signal to turn back

by sacrificing your impassioned lives for freedom, justice and honour.

American Pallas Athene: The Women’s Army Corps Service Medal

General Douglas MacArthur said they were ‘my best soldiers.’ Without them, many believed that the U.S. war effort would have been vastly shorthanded. They were a vital force in North America and by the end of World War II, there were over 150,000 active duty personnel in every theater of operations.

The Women’s Army Corps was established as an auxiliary unit and activated to full duty status on July 1st, 1943, serving in communication and mechanical duties both in the United States and overseas. During World War II, the service women endured rigorous training and a great deal of slandering from WAC opponents. Some believed that women could not rise to the challenge and many others disbelieved that women should perform any wartime duties. Despite some public backlash, the Women’s Army Corps boasted over 150,000 active duty members and inspired the creation of other women’s auxiliaries; the Navy WAVES, Coast Guard SPARS, and the USMC Women’s Reserve. Like the rest of the armed forces, segregation was practiced between black and white women in the WAC, but senior leaders made it a priority to ensure that everyone received the same training and opportunities to work in different specialties.

The Women’s Army Corps Service Medal

For their service, all enlisted members of the WAC received the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal. Created by Executive Order 9365 by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 29, 1943, the medal is given to anyone who served with the WAC or it preceding organization, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Unlike other service medals, the WACSM has no appurtenances and is only awarded once. Following the corps’ disbandment, the medal was no longer awarded, but those who still served during the necessary time frame can apply to receive the award. The observe side of the medal features a profile of the deity Athena; Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. For many women, World War II proved that they were capable of doing many of the demanding wartime jobs and accomplishing them with great valor and gallantry.

Harsh Waters, Hard Sailors: The Story of the Shetland Bus

The North Sea is a tumultuous landscape. Filled with rolling waves, violent storms, and high winds that only the most experienced seamen can withstand. Those who work on the sea can recount the harsh conditions. Life in the North Sea was immeasurably worse during World War II as it became a no-man’s land of German U-boats and patrol planes. They waited patiently for enemy ships to enter their vector and launch their attack. For the duration of the war, the North Sea became a precious corridor, a lifeline to the people of Norway and Great Britain. A small cadre of Norwegians and British sailors ran a covert shipping operation delivering weapons, supplies, and saboteurs to aid the beleaguered Norwegians as they resisted German occupation. Refugees were spirited across the sea as well to protect them from Nazi atrocities. Throughout the operation, ships had to travel at night to avoid detection from spotter planes and U-boats, but the sea is harshest at night and some never made it to their destination. This is the story of the ‘Shetland Bus’.

Shetland bus sailors endured harsh conditions and risked their lives ferrying agents and materials to Norway and returning with high risk refugees (Image courtesy of Scalloway Museum)

Fans of the BBC crime drama Shetland would know a trivia night amount of the Shetland Bus. Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez researches its operational history searching for a link between a murder victim and a Norwegian sailor. He hears of the dangers they endured; fierce storms, aerial attacks, torpedoed by U-boats, and if discovered in Norway by the Germans, arrested and executed. This isn’t artistic license. The operators lived like this for over four years. To fully understand the bus’s criticality, we look back to Europe in 1941.

Heinrich Himmler visiting Norway in 1941. Seated (from left to right) are Vidkun Quisling, Himmler, Josef Terboven (Reichskommisar of occupied Norway) and General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the commander of the German forces in Norway (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

Norway capitulated to Nazi Germany in June 1940 and a pro-German puppet government under Vidkun Quisling was established with the Reich Commissariat of Norway. The country remained under German control until the end of war. This presented a precarious, but unique situation to the British Navy. The North Sea would be an intense battle ground for supplying Allied forces and blockading Axis ports. Additionally, British and Norwegian agents could be ferried and supplied across the sea and help subvert the Nazis in Norway. In early 1940, the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6; yes, the James Bond MI6) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) met with Norwegian special agents to formulate an espionage and supply operations between the two nations. A brief series of runs demonstrated the effectiveness and necessities of supplying agents in Norway and rescuing at-risk civilians. In late 1941, the SOE created the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit becoming informally known as the ‘Shetland Bus’ by its officers and sailors.

Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Lieutenant David Howarth spotted a perfect location in Shetland at Lunna Ness. The small harbor and nearby houses would provide a fitting cover for clandestine operations. Many would not look twice at some fishing boats, thinking that they were ferrying saboteurs between nations. While central command was located at the Lunna House in 1941, boats would be brought in at any available harbor that had proper facilities for upkeep. Scalloway was used as the main port with its engineering capabilities and additional space for boats. The Shetland Bus operated from Lunna and Scalloway for the next four years. During its first winter, six boats and thirty sailors were lost at sea, either from harsh storms or enemy fire. In 1943, three sub-chasers from the U.S. Navy were transferred to the Norwegian navy who used it for the Shetland Bus. These were a godsend for the sailors and officers as it afforded them increased protection and faster speeds to outrun U-boats.

Sub-chaser VIGRA patrolling the North Sea corridor just outside of Scalloway. This ship, plus the HITRA and HESSA, were gifted from the U.S. Navy to help augment the Shetland Bus (Image courtesy of the Scalloway Museum)

Two critical exchanges on the Shetland bus were vital to Norway’s survival. The country had several resistance groups, but were disorganized and scattered throughout. Specially trained SOE agents were ordered to slip into Norway and lead sabotage operations to undermine the German war effort and the Quisling puppet government. They took radios, explosives, and other needed supplies with them to contact British handlers and Norse resistors. SOE operatives also required a reliable transport network to ferry them back to Shetland at any point. The SOe proved incredibly effective in helping the Norse resistance. One famous act of SOE clandestine work during WWII were the raids on heavy water production facilities supporting the German nuclear weapons program.

A SOE radio used by the Norwegian resistance. These were designed to be so compact and rudimentary that they could be disassembled and shipped without being intercepted by the enemy

The second exchange were spiriting away high risk Norse citizens considered enemies of the state. Nearly three thousands Jews lived in Norway in 1940 and approximately two-thirds escaped by fleeing to Sweden or taking passage on the Shetland Bus. Sailors routinely arranged with local Jewish and SOE leaders to make exchanges when making deliveries to transport Jewish families to Shetland. A handful of such exchanges were sometimes discovered by the local Gestapo, but they were never fully able to halt the Shetland Bus. The sheer length of the Norwegian coastline and number of fjords and harbors made it impossible for the Germans to police every incoming ship.

By late 1944 as the war turned against Germany and U-boat patrols in the North Sea diminished, the Shetland Bus lost less men, materials, and ships to the enemy. The addition of the three sub-chasers cut down on the loss of life and afforded them the ability to run shipments during the day rather than only at night. By the war’s end, the Bus completed 210 missions, carried over 400 tonnes of equipment, rescued over 300 refugees, and assisted with some clandestine operations that arguably held down thousands of German troops stationed in Norway that might otherwise have been deployed elsewhere. The last mission was completed on May 9, 1945, the day after V-E Day when the VIGRA entered free Norse waters.

Today a memorial cairn honors the memory and sacrifice of Norse and British sailors who worked tirelessly, risking their lives to keep hope alive during WWII. What many thought was a motley crew of hard scrabble seamen in fishing boats was in reality a life-line to the oppressed Norwegians resisting the German occupation. Had it not been for the brave men running the Shetland Bus, who knows what might have happened to Norway and possibly Western Europe during the early dark days of the Second World War.

Oklahoma Bat: The Military History of Fred Laverne Richardson

For as long as I can remember, hearing stories about my grandpa’s World War II service was part of my childhood. They were my first history lessons outside of school. I spent many weekends and holidays with my grandparents and often heard older relatives bring up his time in the Philippines, Japan, or just talk casually about the war. Hidden at the top of one of grandma’s bookshelves was a thickly bound brown book with large white lettering; ‘WARPATH’, showing a Native American wearing a war chief’s headdress. It was a chronicle of the 345th Bombardment Group and its achievements in the South Pacific. On many occasions, I grabbed it off the shelf and thumbed through the pages looking for grandpa’s face. I knew which unit was his and when I found the respective section, no headshot or group photo. Family lore did say that in one photo taken from behind showing two men rushing out to check on a damaged plane, he was one of them (recognized by his flipped up hat bill, before Gomer Pyle made it fashionable). He very rarely shared some personal war stories and for a long time, all I told others at school or work was he served in the Pacific as a tail gunner in a B-25 bomber over the Philippines.

He passed away in 2006 and that was when I began to learning more. He received medals he never mentioned before and soon there was a cache of old photos and documents filling in the gaps. Since working for the National Archives stirred my history passions and learning about military records, I spent last year and all two months of this year putting together a narrative of his military service. An unexpected miracle happened yesterday when in a vain attempt to find his discharge documents (see the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire) finally paid off. I randomly placed a call to the Garfield County records office in Oklahoma asking if they had any copies. To my surprise they did! Returning WWII veterans normally filed a copy of their discharge documents with the county they returned to in order to receive VA or other government benefits. Thankfully his was still intact and that completed the narrative. My grandpa’s war record here is the best that I have researched with all the available materials. While some information will be lost forever because of the 1973 fire, this is an obstacle facing all military history and genealogy researchers.

Technical Sergeant Fred Laverne Richardson (Service Number 38563209) served in the U.S. Army Air Force from July 20, 1943 to January 14, 1946. Throughout his World War II service, Fred served with the 499th Bombardment Squadron under the 345th Bombardment Group in the V Bomber Command with the 5th Air Force. While overseas, Fred was stationed in Biak, the Philippines, and Ie Shima, participating in aerial combat operations throughout the South Pacific and Sea of Japan. At the end, Fred took part in a handful of major battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II and in the American occupation of Japan. He was twice decorated with the Air Medal for heroic achievements in aerial flight and was later awarded multiple medals for his part in the liberation of the Philippine islands. 

Researching World War II-era service records presents a unique challenge because a significant number of records were destroyed in a massive fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center. Approximately 80% of Army records from 1912 to 1960 were affected with varying degrees of damage. Fred’s record was substantially affected by the fire and only a handful of documents survive attesting to his military service. The information given here is extracted from surviving records in Ancestry, Fold3, FamilySearch, Army unit records, local county records, and WWII reference materials. 

Fred Laverne Richardson was born on April 26, 1925 in Enid Oklahoma to Fred Richardson and Millie Pearl LeGrand. They lived at 508 N. 9th Street and Fred was a senior at Enid High School when he registered for the draft. Local Board #1 in Garfield County recorded his entry the day after his eighteenth birthday on April 26, 1943. Sometime in June 1943, he received a draft notice and was ordered to report to Oklahoma City, where he was formally inducted into the U.S. Army on July 20, 1943. During World War II, inductees were required to serve for the duration of the conflict, plus six months after. This meant that for as long as the war went on, Fred remained in the Army unless he was dishonorably discharged, critically wounded, or killed. Following induction he was transferred to the Enlisted Reserve Corps and was placed on active duty on August 3, 1943. According to family history, he completed basic training at Amarillo Army Airfield in Amarillo, Texas. Aerial defense, air artillery, and forward observing courses were taught at Amarillo AAF and if Fred was later assigned to an Army Air Force unit, he would have received physical and aerial warfare training there. The airfield trained recruits on B-17 Flying Fortresses; four engine long range bombers capable of flying hundreds of miles and dropping thousands of pounds of bombs individually. 

Aerial combat training was tremendously harsh and a small percentage completed the physical battery. Those who passed went onto flight education and armament training. Fred’s recently discovered Notice of Separation (discharge summary) shows he attended two service schools: Aircraft Armament Training School at Lowry Field, Colorado, and Aerial Gunnery Training School at Fort Meyer, Florida. One family story is that his aerial gunner training consisted of shooting skeets with shotguns out the back of a moving truck. Service schools offered specialized training for enlisted personnel. Enlisted men did not serve as pilots, navigators, or bombardiers. Commissioned officers served these roles. 

Fred completed all training by approximately July 1944. From family photographs taken before shipping out, he received his assignment to the U.S Army Air Force and was promoted to the rank of Corporal. This is shown by the chevrons on the sleeve and shoulder patch. The separation document lists his military occupational speciality as Airplane Armorer Gunner. The job duties included inspecting, repairing, and maintaining all aircraft armament, including bomb release mechanisms, airplane cannons, machine guns, and auxiliary equipment. He made daily inspections and repaired equipment such as bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, aerial gun sights, flare racks, and chemical carrying release mechanisms. He also installed armament equipment on airplanes, and placed bombs in bomb racks. The last portion was to man a machine gun position if combat occurs during flight. 

Family history states that Fred was originally ordered to report to the European theater and while in New York, his orders changed and was transferred to the 345th Bomb Group. Fred traveled to Camp Stoneman near San Francisco, California. This was a staging area for servicemen joining their units in the Pacific. On October 17, 1944, Cpl. Fred Richardson departed the United States.  By the autumn of 1944, the U.S. had pushed the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy out of the southern Pacific and began prepping for the liberation of the Philippines. The country had been under Japanese occupation since May 1942 after the Battle of Bataan. Invasion plans had been in the works since 1943, but the outlying territories needed to be retaken first. 

(Fred while on furlough. He left shortly thereafter to join the 345th BG)

History of the 345th Bombardment Group

Air warfare changed drastically since the First World War. Technological innovations created larger and faster planes with increased carrying capacity. Long and medium range bombers were capable of dealing out tremendous damage. The new B-25 Mitchell debuted in 1941 and the Army Air Force was eager to use it in combat. It was a medium range bomber equipped with twelve .50 caliber machine guns, a 75mm cannon, and could carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries. Each plane carries five crew members; pilot, navigator / bombardier, gunner / engineer, radio operator / waist gunner, and tail gunner. On November 11, 1942 the 345th Bombardment Group was activated under the 3rd Air Force and trained until April 1943 when they moved to Camp Stoneman and entered combat in New Guinea in June 1943 where it became part of the 5th Air Force. The group comprised of four squadrons:

From Left to Right: 498th Bomb Squadron ‘Falcons’, 499th Bomb Squadron ‘Bats Outta Hell’, 500th Bomb Squadron ‘Rough Raiders’, 501st Bomb Squadron ‘Black Panthers’

The unit was intended for service in the European Theater of Operations, but U.S. Army General George Kenney specifically requested them to redeploy to the south Pacific following successful bombing campaigns near Australia. New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water similar to skipping a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines. 

(Fred and his squad mates; he is on the far right with the cigarette in hand)

They took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. Biak was the next step in the unit’s path and after taking the island, could run missions over the Celebes Sea. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepared for invasion. 

(American pilots and aircrews were issued chits like these wearing them on their jackets. If they bailed out or were shot down, this would message any friendly persons that they were an American pilot and needed to return to their outfit. Fred had this one and was pinned in his WWII photo album.)

By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. On August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.

Throughout the Pacific campaign, the 499th squadron carried out its own specific missions. Fred left the U.S. on October 17, 1944 and arrived in the Pacific theater on November 23, 1944. The 499th conducted operations between Biak and the Philippines attacking Japanese shipping convoys and battleships. Between December 1944 and July 1945, Fred and his squadron flew from San Marcelino and Clark Air Fields hitting targets all over the Philippines. The longest range mission that they ever carried out was an attack on Saigon in southern Vietnam in April 1945. It was by far the most dangerous mission they ever undertook, but it earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation. 

(Billboard of the 499th Squadron. These were common at the airfields to show each unit’s war record and list of battles)

While in Ie Shima, Fred became part of the occupation force following Japan’s surrender. An old family photo album containing pictures from WWII includes some unique ones; photos of the Japanese surrender delegation. The images are quite small, but when seen through a magnifying glass, one can see the Japanese wearing traditional garments and presenting instruments of surrender. Unfortunately there are no captions on the reverse side of the pictures making it hard to determine when or where the photo was taken, but from judging the content, many pictures were taken in the Philippines and Ie Shima. Cultural landmarks and buildings place some early pictures in Manila. Fred took a lot of pictures of local people and he even collected a large amount of foreign currency and Army scrip. 

Between Fred Richardson’s personal achievements and assignment with the 499th Bombardment Squadron and 345th Bomb Group, he received a substantial number of awards, both U.S. and foreign awards. The following are the most complete listing of awards he is entitled to from World War II.

Aerial Gunner Badge: this military aeronautical badge was given to those who qualified and endured hazardous conditions as an aerial gunner. A winged bullet fixed on the standard observers badge, Fred received this badge for his military occupational specialty as an Airplane Armorer Gunner a B-25 bomber. 

Air Medal: Established in Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal recognizes acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Flight conditions, combat missions, and the number of sorties were taken into account when determining who received the Air Medal. Between October 1944 and December 1945, Fred received the Air Medal twice, giving him an Oak Leaf Cluster. Both awards were issued by a General Order from 5th Air Force HQ for meritorious service with the 345th Bomb Group. 

Good Conduct Medal: The Good Conduct Medal recognizes servicemen who served honorably for a specific amount of time. Criteria for the Army Good Conduct Medal has changed via executive orders in subsequent presidencies. The medal was also established during World War II and each service branch has its own version. The medal can also be awarded to any servicemen who completes at least one year of honorable service while the United States is at war. Fred met this criteria and received the Good Conduct Medal. 

American Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265, the American Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who were stationed in the American Theater of Operations (ATO). This includes the continental American territory and the surrounding waters of both North and South America. Servicemembers must have served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S., 30 days outside the continental U.S. within the ATO, or 60 days onboard a vessel in American waters. Having served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S. while stationed at Fort Sill, Fred received the American Campaign Medal. 

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265 along with the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who performed military duties in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater (APT). This includes air, naval, and ground operations. Service stars denote participation in a campaign. Because air operations were ongoing from the beginning to the end of the war (with the exception of some isolated campaigns) Fred received service stars for the following campaigns:

Air Offensive, Japan (5 June 1943 – 2 September 1945)

China Defensive (5 June 1943 – 4 May 1945)

New Guinea (5 June 1943 – 31 December 1944)

Bismarck Archipelago (15 December 1943 – 27 November 1944)

Leyte (17 October 1944 – 1 July 1945)

Luzon (15 December 1944 – 4 July 1945)

Western Pacific (17 April 1945 – 2 September 1945)

China Offensive (5 May 1945 – 2 September 1945) 

World War II Victory Medal: Created by an Act of Congress on July 6 1945, this service medal recognizes all personnel who served in the U.S. Armed Forces from December 7 1941 to December 31 1946. No minimum time in service is needed to award the World War II Victory Medal. Over 12 million service members are eligible for the award, making it the second-most awarded medal in the U.S.; the most being the National Defense Service Medal created in 1953. Having served in World War II, Fred automatically received the subsequent victory medal. 

Army of Occupation Medal: Established by the War Department in 1946, the AOM recognizes personnel who participated in any duties in occupied countries following the cessation of hostilities in both Germany and Japan. At first the medal was only for ground forces, but it was later amended in 1948 to include any Army Air Force units. The medal has an accompanying clasp for where the service member was stationed. The 345th Bomb Group served for six months on the island of Ie Shima, technically considered occupied enemy territory. This entitles Fred the Army of Occupation Medal with the ‘Japan’ clasp. 

Philippine Liberation Medal: The liberation of the Philippines was a major moment during the war in the Pacific. They were the first major U.S. possession to fall to the Japanese and thousands suffered as POWs. In commemoration of those who took part in the campaign, the Philippine government created the Philippine Liberation Medal. Initially only a ribbon, a medal was created later in July 1945. The PLM also included service stars similar to the APCM. Stars were awarded for the following criteria:

  1. Participation in the initial landing operation of Leyte and adjoining islands from 17 October to 20 October 1944. 
  2. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on Leyte and adjoining islands during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  3. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on islands other than those mentioned above during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  4. Served in the Philippine Islands or on ships in Philippine waters for not less than 30 days during the period.

The 345th did not participate in the initial landing operation on Leyte on October 17-20 (Fred was also en route to Biak from Camp Stoneman). Fred does meet the other three criteria so he received three service stars on the PLM. 

Philippine Independence Medal: After the Japanese surrender, the Philippine government wanted to recognize all those who served in both the initial defense of the nation and the subsequent liberation. The Philippine Independence Medal was created to recognize those who took part in either one of the conflict stages. Because Fred took part in the liberation campaign, he received the PIM. 

Presidential Unit Citation: President Franklin Roosevelt created this unit citation, (originally entitled the Distinguished Unit Citation) via Executive Order 9075. A unit citation was a new type of award for the U.S. military; it was meant to recognize the gallantry and heroism of a unit that endured dangerous conditions. The 499th received three PUCs for its entire wartime service; Fred served with the squadron when it received its third citation and his only one for actions over Indochina. 

Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: Similar to the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation, the PPUC was awarded by the Philippine government to recognize the meritorious service and heroic achievements to those who participated in any Philippine operations. Because Fred served with the 499th which operated in the Philippines, he received the PPUC. 

All U.S. Army, Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel who were honorably discharged also receive the Honorable Service Lapel Button, nicknamed the ‘Ruptured Duck’. This was given to all those that were honorably discharged during World War II. The award had a twofold purpose: to show proof of military service while wearing civilian clothing [the lapel button was not worn with military uniform] and to receive recognition from agencies and private companies that the wearer was a veteran and could receive benefits such as reduced fares or free services. Since Fred completed his service honorably, he received the Ruptured Duck. A diamond shaped cloth patch was also issued for a veteran that could be worn on their Class A uniform for a subsequent 30 days.

Fred’s separation document (discovered February 18, 2021) shows that he also received a weapons marksmanship badge. Recruits are tested on their weapons proficiency during basic training and are scored on accuracy, technical skills, and speed. There are three categories of badges; Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert. Individual weapons bars are attached on each badge denoting the level of proficiency with that weapon. Fred was awarded the Sharpshooter badge with the Carbine bar on October 7, 1943. 

Fred returned to the U.S on January 3, 1946 and was sent to Fort Leavenworth for separation. The Army was demobilizing thousands of troops a week, sending them to various locations across the country to expedite the process. On January 14, 1946, Fred was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Air Force. His wartime service was over. He served for two years, five months, and twenty-five days; a year and two months of which was overseas. 

According to family oral history, he completed forty-two missions with the 499th and made it out physically unscathed. The path he traveled took him across the United States, the entire width of the Pacific Ocean, and to foreign countries that a regular kid from Oklahoma might never have seen in his lifetime. Seven months after his discharge, he married Roberta Davis on August 18, 1946 and began a career with the Frisco Railroad. On 25 June 2006, Fred Laverne Richardson died from natural causes at the age of eighty-one. Four years later, Roberta joined him; together they both completed ‘well-finished lives.’

Jim Crow Followed us to England: The Battle of Bamber Bridge

Nearly every World War II history buff knows the story of the racial segregation faced by black soldiers and sailors. The U.S. Armed Forces were not racially integrated, resulting in many all black units and regiments. Integration wouldn’t happen until Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948. Their work responsibilities were also limited to support roles in logistics, janitorial, and food services. Many did not see combat action with the exception of a few armored units such as ‘Patton’s Panthers’. As Black History Month continues, many historians have re-investigated covered-up stories of racial violence and intolerance in the WWII era. Even as the nation fought to preserve democratic nations, the denial of civil and equal rights in the black community became a sticking point in the ‘Double V Campaign.’ Volunteer service by blacks skyrocketed during WWII; they had served in nearly every U.S. conflict since the American Revolution and did so to prove their worthiness of citizenship and freedom. Resistance from some senior white officers and institutional racism within service branches led to unequal access to facilities in military posts, bases, and airfields in the United States. The story was different in Europe. The British and French welcomed them with open arms and couldn’t reconcile with the segregationist policies placed on black servicemen. They were all there to defeat the Axis powers; that alone should make them all equals.

In the 1980s, maintenance workers in Bamber Bridge, England carrying out remodeling work found what appeared to be bullet holes. They weren’t recent and stories emerged from some of the locals who lived in the area during the war. It was the Battle of Bamber Bridge. The Axis never invaded the main British Isles, but what transpired in the small village over forty years ago?

“Negro soldiers draw rations at the camp cook house at their station in Northern Ireland. Detachments of Negro troops were among the latest arrivals with the American forces in Northern Ireland.”, ca. 8/1942 (Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951, NAID 535544)

In 1943, the tide of war was beginning to change for the Allies. German forces were expelled from North Africa and Italy was the next target. U.S. troops arrived in England and began establishing bases of operation and prepared for the coming invasion of France. During this preparatory phase, soldiers, sailors, and airmen conducted training drills, firearms proficiency, and classroom instruction. Not all took part in this endeavor though. Black servicemen were primarily assigned to logistical roles in quartermaster companies, food service, and mechanical work. Coinciding with these was the unequal treatment and denial of access to specific facilities in base and when servicemen were on leave. Local villagers and townspeople in England welcomed black servicemen and were befuddled by the ‘Jim Crow’ atmosphere practiced by their white comrades. Black servicemen, who were routinely discriminated against in the U.S. enjoyed a new degree of freedom in Europe where no racial codes or institutional racism against blacks were practiced by locals. Despite that, their white counterparts and superior officers brought many of the Jim Crow attitudes with them. Military police designated certain businesses and services for blacks only and did not allow them to integrate with white servicemen in town. Differing opinions on race between soldiers and civilians though produced deadly results.

On the evening of June 24, 1943, black servicemen from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Company arrived at Ye Olde Hob Inn, a pub near the edge of town. The 1511th was assigned to the 8th Air Force that operated multiple airfields in England and their primary duties consisted of making deliveries between posts. That evening, a small group of truck drivers on leave went to the pub for drinks and socializing. As the evening progressed, two white military policemen from the 234th Military Policy Company passed by the pub and spotted the group. They immediately barged in and pointed at Private Eugene Nunn. They noted he was wearing the M1941 field jacket and not his Class A uniform. Army regulation at the time stated that a soldier has to wear their Class A’s while on leave in a public place. They also charged him with going AWOL (absent without leave), but they all had their passes with them. Many of the pub tenants defended the them saying they weren’t causing any trouble and were in fact behaving civilly towards everyone. A black staff sergeant diffused the situation, but while the MPs departed, beer bottles were thrown at them (they did not see the suspect who threw the bottles). They called back to their superior officers who ordered them to bring in those who were ‘resisting arrest’. Shots were fired between the 1511th and the MPs which turned the incident deadly; Private William Crossland was shot in the back and died shortly thereafter.

“Pvt. Jonathan Hoag of a chemical battalion, is awarded the Croix de Guerre by General Alphonse Juin, Commanding General of the F.E.C., for courage shown in treating wounded, even though he, himself, was wounded. Pozzuoli area, Italy.” 3/21/1944 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985, NAID 531182)

Local villagers were left in shock. A racially charged incident like this leaving one person dead was frightening to them and they did not know what to expect next. Some black servicemen safely returned to the nearby airfield and when news spread of what happened at Ye Old Hob Inn, others began arming themselves with pistols and rifles. Their commanding officer, Major George Heris and Lieutenant Edwin Jones (the regiment’s only black officer) persuaded the men that they would seek justice from the white MPs for Crossland’s death. Around midnight, a small group of MPs arrived in jeeps and an armored vehicle with the intent to ‘put down a mutiny’ as described by a British police constable. A four hour firefight broke out between the 1511th and the MPs, leaving seven injured, but no additional fatalities.

A court-martial convicted thirty-two black servicemen guilty of mutiny and were dishonorably discharged. Some white officers wanted to cover up the violence quickly to prevent any drop in morale before the invasion of Europe, but others were not so quick to cast off this racist event. General Ira Eaker, commander of the 8th Air Force, squarely put the blame on the racist behavior of white MPs and their inexperienced, racist superiors. General Eaker conducted a thorough purge of 8th Air Force units, expelling any documented offenders of racist acts and integrated MP patrols. Despite his best efforts, news of the Bamber Bridge Riot was heavily censored both in England and the United States. Just a few days before, race riots in Detroit left dozens dead and wounded following months of socio-economic tension between whites and blacks. News of race riots in the U.S. overshadowed an incident like Bamber Bridge and memory of the fiery exchange faded with time.

Popular historical interest in the Bamber Bridge riot resurfaced when that maintenance worker found those bullet holes. Since then, scholars and historians have researched the history of racial antagonisms in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. While President Truman’s executive order integrated the military, racist behavior by whites towards blacks was and still remains a unresolved problem between all the service branches.

“Volunteer combat soldiers prepare for a day’s training in preparation for shipment to veteran units at front lines in Germany.”, 2/28/1945 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, NAID 531357)

Persons of Exceptional Prominence: Celebrities in the Military

How would you react after discovering someone you served alongside with in the armed forces became a famous celebrity? Maybe a senator, writer, astronaut, or actor? That would be quite a story to say, ‘I served with John Glenn in the Marines’ or ‘I knew Isaac Asimov when he was in the Army.’ How amazing would it be to make that claim?

World Heavyweight champ Joe Louis (Barrow) sews on the stripes of a technical sergeant—to which he has been promoted (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951) View Joe Louis’ OMPF in the NARA Catalog.

The U.S. Armed Forces attracts people from all walks of life. Many took career direction during their service. Some even put aside their professional careers to enlist in the armed forces. When a veteran achieves some type of public notoriety, their service record becomes the subject of special interest. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) retains the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for individuals labeled ‘Persons of Exceptional Prominence’ (PEP). This simply means that well-known public figures, i.e. politicians, scientists, celebrities, etc., have their records open to the public. Anyone can view these documents after following specific guidelines. You won’t see the original record due to preservation and security reasons, but the archival staff does reproduce the record.

Records for Persons of Exceptional Prominence are classified are Specially Protected Holdings (SPH). This constitutes an additional layer of security due to either the nature of work they did or the notoriety the attained in private life. Their military record becomes valuable and in order to prevent theft or vandalism, PEPs and SPHs receive distinguished protection.

Persons of Exceptional Prominence can also be exempt from some of the archival rules with the NPRC. When a service member has been separated from the military for 62 year from the date of final discharge, their record is categorized as archival. This means that now their service is public record and anyone can view it. This rule applies to all personnel records, not just PEPs. For example, you can request a complete copy of George S. Patton’s WWII service record, but not David Petraeus’ record; he was fully discharged in 2011. You could request a complete copy of Desi Arnaz’s service record (Ricky Ricardo of ‘I Love Lucy‘) but not MC Hammer’s service record since he was discharged in 1983 (Yes, the rapper and pioneer of hammer pants is a U.S. Navy veteran).

Identification photo of Bea Arthur. Before she was a ‘Golden Girl’ she was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II. View Bea Arthur’s OMPF in the NARA Catalog

Some records are more accessible than others. The National Archives manages a number of digitization projects. Scanning all types of records and documents are a priority for the agency. OMPFs for a select few personalities are fully digital and available for online viewing. A full listing is posted on the NARA website, but here is a snapshot of PEP service records that are fully digitized:

  • Charles Addams (Cartoonist, creator of ‘The Addams Family‘)
  • Spiro Agnew (U.S. Vice President and Governor of Maryland)
  • Alvin York (World War I Medal of Honor Recipient)
  • Maxwell Taylor (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ambassador to South Vietnam)
  • Ruth Streeter (U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Director)
  • John Philip Sousa (Musician and composer of American military marches)
  • Margaret Chase Smith (U.S. Representative and Senator from Maine; joined service while serving in Congress)
  • Francis Scobee (U.S. Air Force colonel and astronaut; died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster)
  • Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy, son of President Theodore Roosevelt)
  • Lafayette Ron Hubbard (Science fiction writer and founder of Scientology)
  • Jackie Robinson (Professional athlete, first black baseball player to play for Major League Baseball)
  • Ernie Pyle (Journalist and war correspondent; killed in action during the Battle of Okinawa)
  • Josephine Bowman (Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurses Corps)
  • Robert Peary (Artic explorer who reached the North Pole)
  • John Dillinger (infamous bank robber and Public Enemy No. 1 during the Great Depression)

OMPFs for PEPs contain all the same information as any other personnel records. Enlistment contracts, training documents, transfers, disciplinary actions, citations, and more are held in said files. For more information on how to view PEPs, visit the National Archives website; Persons of Exceptional Prominence.

Brigadier General James Stewart. After going to Washington as Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Force, served with distinction in Europe during World War II, and retired at the rank of brigadier general in 1968 (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Eternal Remembrance: National Cemeteries for the U.S. Armed Forces

A calm breeze carries through wide, green, rolling hills. Blades of grass slightly bend as the fallen leaves rustle about on the ground. A handful swirl about, settling against a granite headstone and obscuring the epitaph. The words read: ‘Unknown – U.S. Soldier’ stamped in the shield relief. Stepping back from the marker, what comes into view is an entire field of unknown soldiers. They are not alone however. They are in the company of others who served honorably in the armed forces.

Unknown Soldier – this epitaph is used to denote service members who could not be properly identified after their death. The most notable use of the title is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

The United States has an elaborate burial system for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery System, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and various cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service all comprise the different methods for interring deceased service members. During the American Civil War as private cemeteries were unable to accommodate the increasing number of Union dead, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who lost his son Lt. John Meigs, was pivotal in choosing locations. What resulted was arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, was occupied by the Union within weeks of the war’s opening. Generals used the mansion as a headquarters for three years and in June 1864, Meigs ordered the burial of soldiers in the Arlington grounds. Meigs heavily resented Lee joining the Confederacy and historians argue there were political motivations for establishing a cemetery on his property. Union soldiers were buried and monuments were erected in later years, rendering the mansion unlivable. The government originally purchased the land in an estate sale due to delinquent property taxes, but the Lee family argued that the tax sale was improper. In the 1882 Supreme Court case, United States vs. Lee, the court ruled in favor of the Lees and returned the grounds. The victory was short-lived however since the family never occupied the house again and sold the property back to the government for a large sum. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is maintained solely by the U.S. Army, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Cemetery.

Veterans and their spouses are entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. Depending on the current regulations, spouses can choose to have a separate headstone or have their epitaph etched on the rear of the veteran’s marker.

Following both world wars, the VA worked diligently to implement an administrative system that oversaw the maintenance of military cemeteries. In 1973, administration of military cemeteries passed from the Department of Defense to the VA and they established the National Cemetery System. The NCS comprises of 147 military cemeteries, with 131 under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Administration. Another 14 of these are controlled by the National Park Service (the majority of which are battlefields). While the most famous is Arlington; Jefferson Barracks, Fayetteville, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific all protect the remains of our deceased veterans. Veterans can interred at any active location (active defined as functioning and eligible for burials meeting environmental standards). Sites under the jurisdiction of the NPS are typically connected to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian War battlefields and are preserved for historical purposes. These include ones like Gettysburg, Andersonville, Little Bighorn, and Yorktown. Modern veterans are not buried at these sites dues to environmental damage that affected any historical preservation efforts.

The above marker is the current style for military interments. Older headstones that have fallen into disrepair or destroyed by vandalism are replaced with this design.

U.S. service members are buried not only in the continental U.S., but overseas as well. The American Battle Monuments Commission administers and operates military cemeteries in countries like France, Belgium, Philippines, Italy, Luxembourg, and Panama. This independent government agency is responsible for maintaining overseas cemeteries and their activities such as wreath, remembrance, and memorial ceremonies. A handful were established as temporary cemeteries during wartime (i.e. Normandy), but many were converted into permanent locations through partnerships with the host country. The AMBC administers these sites, but the physical territory remains under the jurisdiction of the host country.

A military marker is simplistic and straightforward in design and function. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms the name, date of birth, date of death, final rank at discharge, service branch, wartime service period, and personal awards. A religious designation symbol is placed at the top (if space allows, a personal description is allowed at the family’s request)

So how does a veteran become eligible for burial in a military cemetery? The basic criteria stipulates that a veteran must not have received a bad character of service discharge and provide the required paperwork (DD Form 214, Notice of Separation). A veteran who is killed while on active duty, especially in combat, are guaranteed a burial. National Guard and Reserve members must meet time-specific requirements or been mobilized at any point. What disqualifies a veteran from a military burial would be any of the following:

  1. Other than honorable discharge and lower; i.e. bad conduct or dishonorable.
  2. Convicted of capital crimes (murder, rape, child pornography, terrorism, etc.)
  3. Convicted of sex crimes
  4. Engaged in subversive activities against the United States
  5. Enlisted but never served (referred to as an Uncharacterized Entry Level Separation)

For more information on military burials, visit the VA Burials and Memorials Page.

These cemeteries are solemn, sacred places. Their symbolic value lies in with the soldiers who died serving the nation and are remembered for their deeds. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

These cemeteries and the memorials built to honor the past and living memory of the deceased and the conflicts are in many ways immortal. People can come and go, but the names are etched, stamped, and emblazoned for eternity in hallowed grounds around the world.

Americans, Germans, and French, Oh My: The Strange Battle for Castle Itter

Wars are filled with narratives of the gallant and brave. Stories of units like the 101st Airborne, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Richmond Greys, Special Air Service, and others fill dramatic accounts of pivotal historical events. They became immortalized in popular culture like ‘Band of Brothers‘, ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘, ‘Sands of Iwo Jima‘, and ‘Zero Dark Thirty‘ . But what about the more bizarre? Are there accounts that challenge how traditional views of our enemies? This post comes as a special request: ‘What about some the strangest battles of World War II?’ Well, I give you the Battle for Castle Itter. Fought three days before Victory in Europe Day, troops from the U.S. 12th Armored Division joined with Wehrmacht soldiers and French prisoners-of-war to defend Itter Castle from a contingent of SS-Panzergenadier hell bent on inflicting reprisals and stubbornly refusing to surrender. For the only time in the war, American and German troops fought together in what many historians have dubbed the strangest battle of the war.

Itter Castle rises above the small town of its namesake in Tyrol, a state in western Austria. The 14th century castle served many noble courts and was nearly destroyed in the German Peasant’s War, but in 1878, after years of decay, the present-day castle was restored. Following the Anschluss in 1938 (Austria’s annexation by Germany), the Reich leased the castle from its previous owner and then later seized by Heinrich Himmler in 1943, transforming it into a prison as a sub-camp under the Dachau concentration system. Its prisoners were primarily high profile personalities such as former French prime ministers, army generals, French and Austrian resistance members, and other political leaders. As the war progressed, more prisoners from Eastern Europe were transferred to Itter Castle for manual labor. No more than about fifty prisoners were ever held at the castle during the war. Almost no one at the castle thought that they would ever been liberated due to their remoteness and small size.

Soldiers of the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion and tank of the 22nd Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division, move through smoke filled street in Wernberg, Germany. Allied forces were capturing dozens of Germany cities, towns, and villages everyday as they pushed deeper into Germany (image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

As the Allies pushed into central Germany, the handwriting was on the wall for the Wehrmacht. Surrender was only a matter of time and troops were deserting for the Allied lines every day. However, diehard holdouts of Waffen-SS and Nazi zealots pressed the fight and refused to give in, even after Hitler’s suicide on April 30th, 1945. Four days later on May 3rd, a resistance member, Zvonimir Cuckovic, was dispatched from Itter Castle on the pretense of running an errand for the prison staff, but was clandestinely carrying a letter requesting a rescue from the Allies. He traveled over forty miles to Innsbruck, but the record end there. No one ever heard back from him. Following this loss and the death of the former commander of Dachau, Eduard Weiter (who fled to the castle after Dachau’s liberation and died suspiciously), prison warden Sebastian Wimmer and all remaining guards abandoned their posts. The remaining POWs seized the leftover firearms and their cook, Andreas Krobot was dispatched with a another message for liberation. He decided to bike to the closer town of Worgl only a few miles away and made contact with the local Austrian resistance forces. Within the resistance was Major Josef Gangl, a Wehrmacht commander who defected to the resistance along with some fellow soldiers. Gangl no longer believed in defeating the Allies nor supporting the Nazi Party, but with saving lives from the Waffen-SS and immediately reached out for help, both for local civilians and the Allies.

Captain John ‘Jack’ Lee Jr., a tank commander with the 23rd Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division, XXI Corps, and a reconnaissance unit of Sherman tanks were stationed barely thirteen miles away when Gangl contacted them. He presented an ominous picture on what would happen if the Waffen-SS breached the castle before the Allies arrived. Every prisoner would be summarily executed without question. Captain Lee and Gangl drove together on a personal reconnaissance mission of the castle and after requesting reinforcements from the 142 Infantry Regiment, the Americans and sympathetic Germans made their liberation move.

Left to Right: Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl and U.S. Army Captain John Lee Jr.

The first enemy they encountered was the logistics. Small, narrow roads and bridges blocked some of the Sherman tanks from traveling to the castle which forced Lee to leave them behind as a rearguard. This proved crucial though as it otherwise kept the majority of enemy forces from moving down the main corridor and overwhelming the castle’s defense. About thirty-six men arrived to evacuate the garrison and while the prisoners rejoiced at their liberation, they were less enthusiastic about the small size of the mission. Reports of whole Waffen-SS companies of 100 to 200 strong were in the area so how could they expect to make it out alive with just this handful?

On the evening of May 4th, Captain Lee moved every defender into position around the castle’s main keep and placed his personal Sherman tank, the ‘Besotten Jenny’, at the front entrance. He, Gangl, and another German officer, Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, wanted the prisoners to take shelter, but they refused; choosing to fight with the Germans and Americans. Throughout the night, SS patrols harassed and probed at the castle defenses looking for any weaknesses. Mortar rounds and sniper fire slashed about the fortress as the occupants prepared for the assault they knew would come at dawn. At approximately 4:00 AM, the 17th SS-Panzergrenadier Division launched their attacks from the north and west, hitting the castle with grenades and artillery. Lee’s Sherman tank held off the enemy for hours before it was finally demolished by an 88mm artillery shell. Before the battle, Gangl radioed to the Austrian resistance to send as many men as possible and request Allied artillery strikes. To his dismay though, only three individuals answered; two German soldiers and a teenage Austrian resistance fighter.

As the day wore on, Itter Castle’s defenders were running out of ammunition and hope. The rescue operation degraded into a last stand for the Americans, Germans, and French prisoners. Captain Lee needed a status report on any reinforcements from the 142nd Regiment, but radio communications were cut off. One prisoner though, a famous tennis athlete named Jean Borotra, volunteered to carry a dispatch by running through the SS gauntlet. He was quite literally their only hope for bringing back much needed troops and supplies, so Lee gave him the go-ahead. Borotra leapt over the castle walls, ran down the road, dodged a multitude of bullets, and successfully delivered the message at the regimental headquarters. He then made an additional request; a U.S. Army uniform in order to disguise himself from the Germans and rejoin the battle. By late afternoon, the tide of battle had turned and the SS quickly surrendered. Over a hundred enemy soldiers were taken prisoner and the escaped survivors surrendered two days later to the 101st Airborne in Rottach-Egern. For his courageous defense of Itter Castle, Captain Lee was awared the Distinguished Service Cross. Ironically, the only defender to be killed in action was Major Gangl. While moving former French prime minister Paul Reynaud to cover, a sniper shot Gangl in the head, killing him instantly. He was later venerated as an Austrian national hero.

Traditional historiography about World War II tells how the Allies proudly defeated the Axis Powers and triumphed in both Europe and the Pacific theaters. We constantly promoted our accomplishments and tended to overlook the nuances of those who actively resisted the course of our belligerents. For decades the story of the Battle of Castle Itter was practically a historical footnote as it didn’t qualify as a major operation, Germany had all but collapsed, and senior commanders were focused more on Berlin than other geographical areas. What makes this battle unique is not only the Wehrmacht teaming up with the Americans, but that party ideologies were overridden by the higher moral ground of saving human lives and preventing further atrocities. While the Waffen-SS saw their Wehremacht counterparts as traitors to the Nazis, the Americans saw them as comrades wanting to rescue themselves and the castle’s prisoners from certain death.

The reconstruction of Germany during the Cold War was painful; war criminals being brought to trial, Communist subterfuge by the Soviet Union, roller coaster economic recovery, and more tested the strength of German society. Even before the text on Germany’s instrument of surrender was typed up, American-German relations began healing just a little bit through the trials of battle on the walls of Itter Castle.

German and American troops celebrating their victory over the SS at Itter Castle.

Aerial Heroism: The History of the Air Medal

The 1949 film ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘ portrays a fictionalized 8th Air Force bomber crew fighting over Europe. Their hard-luck outfit suffered immensely from relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, but slowly they regain their courage and complete a dangerous mission when other squadrons are called back. Their story, coupled with real-life counterparts, illustrates the heroic achievement and valor accompanying the brutal air war. Beginning in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, and the War Department created several new awards and decorations for the U.S. Armed Forces. These were meant not only to recognize service in the theaters of operation, but for heroic achievement, valor, gallantry, and meritorious service. One personal award has undergone several changes since its creation in World War II; the Air Medal.

Michael J. Novosel: Medal of Honor recipient who completed over 12,400 flying hours, 2,038 combat hours, and was awarded the Air Medal a record number of sixty-four times

Established on May 11, 1942 under Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal was created with the stated purpose:

“…to any person who, while serving in any capacity in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard of the United States subsequent to September 8, 1939, distinguishes, or has distinguished, himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Executive Order 9158, May 11, 1942

The Air Medal (AM) criteria was slightly different from an earlier award honoring aerial service, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Candidates needed to complete a set number of operations under certain flight conditions. If they were exposed to enemy fire, the AM would be awarded more frequently. During the war, commanders occasionally altered these criteria to fit the conditions of the theater. European air space was deemed especially dangerous and under complete enemy control, while the Pacific theater was not. Therefore theoretically, an air crewman could receive more AMs and DFCs in Europe because of the assessed danger. At one point, a ‘score card’ system was in place to track the number of engagements and corresponding heroic achievements in order to differentiate between awarding the AM or DFC. This practice ended in August 1943 when the Army Air Force Headquarters ordered a re-evaluation of AM and DFC criteria. The number of flying hours alone was not an accurate determination and commanders needed to take into account the dangerous nature of operations also. The DFC was ordained as the higher award based on its distinction of recognizing aerial heroism above the call of duty. This re-organization did not diminish the AM’s significance though as it continues to recognize significant individual achievement and meritorious service in the air.

My grandfather’s Air Medal with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, circa 1945

In the tradition of awards and decorations of the Armed Forces, each service branch used similar appurtenances on the medals and ribbons (i.e. oak leaf clusters, service stars, etc.) but in later years and between different branches, awarding the AM evolved into a complex process. Between 1942 and 1968, the Army used oak leaf clusters (OLC) but were replaced with numerals to show additional awards. Nowadays when veterans request replacement medals and the AM is in their record, the Army retroactively applies numerals and not OLCs. Let’s see an example:

A Korean War veteran received the Air Medal along with 4 OLCs; if he were to request it today, it would be issued as an Air Medal with a numeral 5. When awards are shown in a record, the numeral is always the same as the total number of awards. As with others, the medal itself is always the first award. Need some help? Well….

Air Medal with Numeral 5

Let’s do some (long drumroll) MATH!

AM w/1 OLC = AM with Numeral 2

AM w/16 OLC = Am with Numeral 17

AM (6th award) = AM with Numeral 6

AM w/14 OLC & V = AM with Numeral 15 and “V” device

AM w/1 SOLC & 1 BOLC = AM with Numeral 7

Moving onto the U.S. Air Force, oak leaf clusters have been used since the branch’s establishment. This was to recognize aerial achievements rather than the number of missions. Combat duties, operations, and support missions are central in assessing these achievements. Interesting enough, the “V” device wasn’t authorized for the Air Force until October 21, 2004. The addition of the device was not retroactive however; only from that date onward can Air Force service members receive the device. This was done to recognize heroism in combat flight, but are not eligible for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

All the preceding information sounds easy when compared to how the AM is issued by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Numerals are preferred over OLCs and the “V” device has been worn since the 1970s. What sets the USN and USMC apart is AMs are awarded for individual action and ‘Strike/Flight’ by participating in aerial and combat operations. What does that mean? Strikes are missions (sorties) that directly engage the enemy, such as:

  1. Firing ordnance against the enemy, i.e. long range bombing
  2. Delivering or evacuating personnel
  3. Combat sorties that encounter enemy opposition

Flights are sorties that do not encounter enemy opposition. Search and rescue operations fall under this category since they are operating, but not against an enemy. Strike/Flight are also indicated by numerals as in the example shown below:

Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps Uniform Regulation Code

Here we see the arrangement of award issuance, strike/flight, and the “V” device for a USN/USMC medal. The service member received the award twice, was cited for valor, and participated in 38 strike/flight sorties. The number is not broken down into combat and non-combat missions; they are counted together. A veteran would have to request their service record and their unit records to determine the nature of each operation.

But wait, there’s more! Members of the U.S. Coast Guard can receive the AM under similar criteria as the U.S. Air Force. Aerial achievement and meritorious service are recognized and the “V” device is given only if the USCG member actively engages enemy combatants. The kicker for this service branch however is that they don’t use any of the previously listed appurtenances. Instead of OLCs or numerals, they use gold and silver stars to indicate multiple awards; silver for each one after the first and the gold representing five or more.

Why do the Armed Forces do things differently with these medals if they’re all used the same way? Answers to that have evolved in tandem with the evolution of the U.S. military. While minute details for criteria determining flights, strike, meritorious service, and heroism have changed, the spirit of the Air Medal has not. Thrusting oneself into the skies and facing the prospect of never returning to the runway is a frightening thought. Pilots and crews fly away and never come back. Their bodies vanish into the sea or burn up as the plane plummets to the ground. Perhaps this is why President Roosevelt created the Air Medal: citing those who propel themselves into the air and become heroes.

Apaches in the Pacific: The Story of the 345th Bombardment Group

Captain John Yossarian was crazy, or wasn’t crazy. I mean, he kept flying combat missions and that made him crazy. But he tried getting out of flying combat missions, so that’s not being crazy? Putting aside the Catch-22, one cannot doubt the fierce fighting over the skies of Europe and the Pacific in World War II. When you read about the survival odds of heavy bomber crews and airplane pilots, the level of carnage and death they faced was unfathomable. Stories of airmen not knowing the names of their fellow crew-members because they died so quickly were commonplace. The Pacific Theater was the United States’ first foray into the global conflict, and the longest. In 1942, the Japanese Empire stretched throughout the western Pacific, conquering the Philippines, sections of Southeast Asia, mainland China, and Oceania. With the success of the U.S. Navy at the Battle of Midway, Japanese expansion halted and the United States began to work its way through the Pacific by hopping from one major island chain to the next. Controlling the airspace was just as crucial as controlling the sea lanes and in April 1943 as plans to retake New Guinea and the Solomon Islands formulated, the first United States Army Air Force (USAAF) unit arrived in the South Pacific: the 345th Bombardment Group, the ‘Air Apaches’.

A B-25 Mitchell Bomber flying over during the Battle of Wakde Island, May 1944 (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Air Force)

Originally slated for service in the European Theater, the 5th Air Force and 345th was re-routed to the Pacific in order to conduct heavy bombing raids on Japanese occupied islands. Bombers were a new element in aerial warfare; they were larger, more heavily armored, and could travel longer distances. The B-25 Mitchell was the selected plane for the 345th, a medium-range bomber with twelve machine gun emplacements, making it a deadly gunship. Their payloads of 3,000 pounds of bombs were ideal for hitting targets likes ships and airfields; what the Japanese relied on for their Pacific expansion. The B-25’s were a signature aircraft for the USAAF as they were the same models used in the Doolittle Raids on the Japanese home islands on April 18, 1942. Generals pushed the envelope on maximizing the deadly use of the bomber and the 345th led the way during its Pacific campaign.

The 345th Bombardment Group patch

New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s bombing campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water like you would skip a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines.

Setting aside the campaign history for a moment; like modern U.S. Air Force units today, the 345th was comprised of multiple squadrons that each carried out specific missions. For its time in the Pacific, the four squadrons were:

  1. 498th Bombardment Squadron “Falcons”
  2. 499th Bombardment Squadron “The Bats Outta Hell”
  3. 500th Bombardment Squadron “Rough Riders”
  4. 501st Bombardment Squadron “Black Panthers”

These four units were the center of the entire group. From their formation in South Carolina in September 1942, the men who served in these squads did so throughout the duration of the war. When able-bodied men between 21 and 45 registered for the peacetime draft (known as Selective Service) they only anticipated serving the minimum one year commitment. When the United States declared war on Japan and Germany though, draft terms extended through the conflict. Draftees could expect to serve for as long as it took to defeat the Axis Powers; dishonorable conduct, injury, and death were the ticket out of the service. Similar to what the United States faced in the First World War, the country’s military lacked in size and armament in comparison to European nations. Rapid upgrades in military industry, expanding draft requirements, and federalizing National Guard units helped make up for lost time in 1942 as the country mobilized for war. With the construction of new medium and heavy bombers, the air war would take on more importance than ever before. Approximately four thousand men served with this unit and the training they endured was unlike what most servicemen faced in the 1940s. While the physical training was grueling enough, technical and flight training on using these new bombers was a novel challenge. Crews worked closely as a team to make sure every part of the bomber functioned and was defended by faster enemy planes.

Clark Air Field – The U.S. base was captured by the Japanese after the fall of the Philippines. During the Battle for Leyte Gulf, Japanese kamikazes flew from Clark and inflicted heavy damage on the U.S. Navy. When Americans recaptured the islands, Clark was used by the 345th to launch missions throughout the Philippines and into Southeast Asia, January 1945 (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Circling back to the 345th’s ongoing war, they took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country (heard from Gen. MacArthur’s famous address in Australia, ‘I shall return!’) and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepped for invasion. By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. That all changed on August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.

Awards were showered on the 345th Bombardment Group throughout the war. They earned multiple Distinguished Unit Citations (now called the Presidential Unit Citation), unit citations from the Philippines, numerous Air Medals, Distinguished Flying Crosses, and hundreds of Purple Hearts. They were one of the most decorated USAAF units in the Pacific Theater. But why exactly am I talking about this group? What else makes them stand out? This stems from a personal stake: my grandfather, Fred L. Richardson, served with the 345th and his squadron was the 499th ‘Bats Outta Hell’. As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced me (and millions of others) to work remotely, I had more time to think about my grandfather’s service. I knew tons of stories from childhood, but I decided that a shadowbox of his awards, photos, and other memorabilia should be erected. I obtained several old photographs he took while in the Philippines and even the original Air Medal he received in 1945, but his service record was long gone. The great fire at the old National Personnel Records Center in 1973 saw to that fate. Not to be dissuaded from a researching challenge, I assembled a working chronology of his service from the 345th’s history, the photographs, and the two surviving documents we had; his draft card and enlistment payroll record. On April 26, 1943, he signed his registration card and was drafted three months later. He officially entered the service on July 20, 1943. From here until about October 1944, there’s a gap that I cannot account for, but I do know from family stories and some of the notes on the back of the photographs, he was on leave in California before heading to the South Pacific. There’s a leave slip authorizing a trip to Australia in February 1945 and by August 1945, there are dozens of small photographs of the Japanese surrender delegation. I couldn’t believe what I saw seeing; could these be unpublished photographs from World War II? History was in my hands and now the plan is to digitize them following the completion of grandfather’s shadowbox.

Draft registration card for Fred L. Richardson – He signed it on his 18th birthday (Image courtesy of the Oklahoma State Archives via Ancestry)

The Air Apaches achieved a distinguished war record in the Pacific. They flew more missions than other flight squadrons and were a central component of the Japanese surrender. When I reflect back on the war stories my grandfather told me, I can’t help but think of what he and thousands of other airmen went through. They were heroes to many and he was, and still is, my hero.

My grandfather was pretty good-looking back in the day, yeah?