The National WWII Museum embarks on a unique seven-day, six-night tour of France, visiting sites from Alex Kershaw’s New York Times bestsellers—Avenue of Spies and The Bedford Boys—with the author himself serving as featured historian. Guests get an up-close view of the beaches of Normandy, while hearing stories of sacrifice about the “Bedford Boys” who came ashore with Company A, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division during the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Tour members also roam the breathtaking streets of Paris with Kershaw, who provides depth and context to the espionage that occurred there more than 70 years ago. Avenue Foch, one of the most upscale and exclusive streets in Paris, was home to Avenue of Spies protagonist Dr. Sumner Jackson and his family. Their address at Number 11 was both a meeting place for the French Resistance and a drop site for crucial information. High-ranking Nazis took up residence nearby putting the Jacksons in constant danger. Kershaw’s stories will bring to life the Jackson family’s courage at a time when “Never had so many psychopaths and sadists been based on one street in Paris.”
IN AUGUST 1944, THE LIBERATOR AND HIS MEN FOUGHT THROUGH SOME OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VILLAGES AND TOWNS IN FRANCE – PART OF THE CHAMPAGNE CAMPAIGN.
THE THUNDERBIRDS’ MARCH TOWARD the Third Reich resumed the next morning shortly after dawn. They pushed farther inland, past seemingly endless vineyards where fat grapes ripened. Despite four years of conflict, the pastel-shaded houses and lovingly tended orchards and gardens gave the impression of a prosperous region little affected by world war. As they moved north, men started to practice their high school French.
“Avay voo des oeffs?”
“Voolay voo cooshay aveck moi?”
“Avay voo champagne?”
“A la Victoir!”
“And damn toot sweet!”
Villages and towns fell in quick succession as the Thunderbirds conducted their own Provençal blitzkrieg through Salernes along the D561 to Varages, north to Pertuis, and on to Apt below the Grand Luberon Mountains. It was a dreamlike rush through bleached fields dotted with neat bundles of drying lavender, its scent strong in the hot mistral winds, and along dusty roads shaded by plane trees. Photographs taken during the giddy advance showed Thunderbirds ducking their heads into yellow-stoned fountains, surrounded by excited French boys in shorts and sandals. In some villages, partisans greeted them, feverishly smoking sour Turkish tobacco cigarettes, their pomaded hair glinting in the sun, as vengeful crowds gathered to slap and kick black-eyed collaborators and watch the Germans’ French mistresses have their heads shaved.
Unlike in Italy, there were no shoeless children begging at the mess tents at chow time. No more widows clad in black scavenging in the dirt with bony hands for cigarette and cigar butts. Local partisans provided key intelligence about the Germans and their movements, and often eagerly joined forces with the Thunderbirds as they advanced, flushing enemy snipers like sangliers— wild boars— from cedar forests and gorges of the Luberon Mountains. Some would stay with the regiment until the end of the war.
One day, as he charged deeper into France, Sparks apparently learned from scouts that a key bridge was undefended and decided to check it out. As he approached the bridge, he began to feel distinctly uneasy. It was far too quiet for his liking. Nevertheless, he continued down a hill toward the bridge in his jeep. A dozen Germans suddenly appeared. Sparks put his hands in the air to surrender. A German walked over to the jeep. Then a fist flew. Sparks’s driver is said to have knocked the German to the ground and gunned the engine. Before the startled Germans could react, he and Sparks had raced around a corner and disappeared from view.
Sparks joked that he now must hold the record for the shortest time spent as a prisoner in World War II. But the near escape left him determined to be better armed in the future in case he had to blast his way out of trouble. What he really wanted was a shotgun, like the one he’d used to hunt with back in the Arizona. It wasn’t long before his men had found an old French farmer, paid him for his buckshot-loaded scattergun, and handed it to a delighted Sparks.
Sparks kept his Colt .45 in a hip holster and carried the shotgun up front in his jeep. In one village, he found a craftsman who replaced the pistol’s standard grips with transparent plastic taken from a downed American bomber’s windshield. Sparks set a photograph of his son, Kirk, and wife, Mary, under one grip and a favorite pinup under the other. From now on, beauty would be his lucky charm.
FELIX SPARKS’S COLT 45
GERMAN CONVOY DESTROYED
STRAFING THE BEACHES – DUNKIRK AS SEEN FROM THE AIR
By Alex Kershaw
Photo: Flight Lieutenant Frank Howell, RAF 609 Squadron.
By May 26 1940, around 250,000 British troops, the rump of what remained of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), were surrounded in the French port of Dunkirk and being mercilessly attacked by Göring’s Stuka dive-bombers. From the air it seemed that the nearby beaches swarmed with a huge army of ants that rippled with fear as German pilots made strafing runs. The mood was grim, both on the sand dunes where starving, exhausted Tommies waited for rescue, and in London, where even in Churchill’s War Cabinet there was talk of a compromise peace with Hitler. Churchill ended all such defeatist sentiment, telling his cabinet in an emotionally charged meeting on May 28: “I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to come to an end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Churchill’s defiance was met with cheers and hurrahs. It was clear that he now had every one of his cabinet firmly on his side. “Quite a number,” he recalled, “seemed to jump from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back . . . had I at this juncture faltered at all in leading the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I am sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in.”
Just as the cabinet had rallied to Churchill, so would the nation. But first, something had to be salvaged from the disaster unfolding at Dunkirk. Senior commanders hoped that perhaps thirty thousand men, a fraction of the British Expeditionary Force, might be saved. In London, Ambassador Kennedy added his own assessment to the general air of doom, cabling President Roosevelt that: “Only a miracle can save the BEF from being wiped out or, as I said yesterday, surrender . . . the English people, while they suspect a terrible situation, really do not realize how bad it is. When they do I don’t know what group they will follow, the do or die or the group that wants a settlement.”
But all was not yet lost. The seafaring nation was beginning to respond to a call for all available vessels to make the hazardous Channel crossing and evacuate men from the bloodstained beaches. All manner of craft, from private dinghies to Thames tugboats, were headed toward Dunkirk. Above the beaches, Fighter Command’s Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons were also now in action, fighting with unprecedented aggression, many of their pilots furious at the sight of their countrymen being mowed down as they waded in long snaking lines toward rescue boats. Even veteran Luftwaffe pilots, who had readily strafed columns of refugees in Spain and destroyed Guernica, soon began to sicken of the slaughter. For twenty-four-year-old Captain Paul Temme, flying at three hundred feet above his victims, it was “just unadulterated killing. The beaches were jammed full of soldiers. I went up and down ‘hose-piping.’ It was cold-blooded point-blank murder.”
The fighting over Dunkirk would be a prelude to the Battle of Britain, and the Luftwaffe and the RAF took careful measure of each other. For the first time, the Germans encountered the full force of Fighter Command, and it was soon clear that the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes were just as lethal as the Messerschmitt Me-109, the Germans’ best fighter. Another thing was quickly obvious: the British pilots were as well disciplined and courageous as their foe in the air, confirming the warning of influential First World War veteran Theo Osterkamp: “Now we fight ‘The Lords,’ and that is something else again. They are hard fighters and they are good fighters.”
For many RAF pilots, Dunkirk was a chaotic and brutal baptism of fire. “The Me-109s were quicksilver,” recalled one squadron leader. “It would have been ideal to come against them as a controlled formation, but the Germans always split up, so somehow you did, too. Then it was every man for himself—which was all right if you were good.” Thankfully, some were very good indeed. They included twenty-eight-year-old Flight Lieutenant Frank Howell of 609 West Riding Squadron, a strikingly handsome, blond-haired former mechanic who, on June 1, 1940, was appointed a flight leader after two days of fierce combat.
In a remarkable letter to his brother, Howell provided a vivid account of what it was like to fly above the hell of Dunkirk: “The place was still burning furiously, a great pall of smoke stretching 7,000 feet in the sky over Belgium . . Thousands and thousands of A/A [anti-aircraft] shells were bursting over the town . . . I looked down to see salvo after salvo of bombs bursting with terrific splashes in the water near some shipping, and there was a Heinkel, only 500 feet below going in the opposite direction so I did a half roll, and came up its arse, giving it a pretty 2 seconds fire . . . All the way back to England I flew full throttle at about 15 feet above the water and the shipping between England and Dunkirk was a sight worth seeing. Paddle boats, destroyers, sloops, tugs, fishing trawlers, river launches . . . anything with a motor towing anything without one . . . I am indeed lucky to have got away scot free. Dizzy was killed and five other chaps are missing. One was my flight commander so I am now in charge of A Flight, and will get another stripe, and it’s a rotten way to get it.”
On June 1, Winston Churchill was back in Paris, again trying to rally the French and sharing with them the heartening news that more than 165,000 troops had been pulled off the beaches at Dunkirk. Distressingly, his exhortations to fight on to the very end appeared to fall on deaf ears. Churchill’s escort from Paris back to England was to be provided by 601 Squadron, otherwise known as the Millionaires’ Squadron because several of its pilots came from wealthy families. “Winston was ebullient as ever,” recalled an aide. “When we started back he insisted on pacing round the aerodrome to review [601’s] nine Hurricanes, tramping through the tall grass in the flurry of propellers with his cigar like a pennant.”
British Major General Sir Edward Spears remembered “nine fighter planes drawn up in a wide semi-circle around the Prime Minister’s Flamingo . . . Churchill walked toward the machines, grinning, waving his stick, saying a word or two to each pilot as he went from one to the other, and, as I watched their faces light up and smile in answer to his, I thought they looked like the angels of my childhood. These men may have been naturally handsome, but that morning they were far more than that, creatures of an essence that was not of our world: their expressions of happy confidence as they got ready to ascend into their element, the sky, left me inspired, awed and earthbound.”
One of these angels, Flying Officer Gordon “Mouse” Cleaver, remembered that morning somewhat differently.13 The night before, the Millionaires had become rip-roaring drunk: “There assembled at Villacou-blay just about as hungover a crew of dirty, smelly, unshaven, unwashed fighter pilots as I doubt has ever been seen. Willie [Rhodes-Moorehouse] if I remember right was being sick behind his aeroplane, when the Great Man arrived and expressed a desire to meet the escort. We must have appeared vaguely human at least, as he seemed to accept our appearance without comment, and we took off for England.”14 By June 4, the evacuation of Dunkirk was officially over with an incredible 338,226 Allied troops removed from the beaches to England. Göring’s promise that “not a British soldier will escape” had been ludicrous. He had simply been “talking big again” as General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Hitler’s General Staff, was quick to point out.15 In a week of almost constant combat above Dunkirk, the RAF had shot down 132 German planes for a loss of 99 of its own fighters, 5 from Flight Leader Frank Howell’s 609 Squadron. It was a remarkable performance, or as Churchill described it to his War Cabinet, “a signal victory which gives cause for high hopes of our successes in the future.”
The British Expeditionary Force had been saved by some 693 boats of all sizes, many of them “little ships”—dinghies, pleasure yachts, skiffs, tugboats—a quarter of which were sunk. But now it had nothing to fight with. Almost all the BEF’s armor and weapons had been left behind, leaving England practically defenseless. The evacuation of Dunkirk could certainly not be described as a victory, but it was nevertheless a powerful tonic to both the British people and the rest of the free world.
THE LIBERATOR – FELIX SPARKS, on far left, Naples. 1944.
In March 1944, Felix Sparks was finally able to take a break from war. A couple of weeks after losing his infantry company at Anzio, he visited Naples.
THE STREETS OF NAPLES bustled with an exotic mix of Allied troops looking for “I & I”— intercourse and intoxication. It was a surreal and frenetic city, covered in a thin film of volcanic ash from the recently erupted Mount Vesuvius, that Sparks visited that March for a few days of sorely needed rest and recuperation. Australians ambled in their wide-brimmed slouch hats; sinister Goums strutted in their brightly colored burnooses; and at every corner, it seemed, feral water-sellers in coats cut from stolen U.S. Army blankets offered a delicious and tangy lemonade, conjuring it up on the spot, wielding enormous iron lemon-squeezers, then adding a pinch of bicarbonate of soda to make the bitter juice fizz.
Even the hundreds of sadistic MPs in their bright white helmets, batons tucked under their arms, on the prowl for deserters and violent drunks, swore by the frothing limonata. It was the perfect hangover cure. “Biftek, spaghetti,” offered black marketers, profiting from the theft of an estimated third of all supplies landed at Naples, now the busiest port in Europe. “Verra cheap.” “Good brandy. Only five hundred lire.”
On busy streets like the Via Roma pimps and black marketers were almost as numerous as the beggars and emaciated whores. Naples was a vast open-air bordello, it seemed, where everyone and everything was for sale. “You want nice girl?” asked fathers. “Beautiful signorina.” Every few yards, olive-skinned men would tug on a GI’s sleeve, offering yet another temptation. For those with real money, not invasion currency, there were myriad brothels full of women of all ages and body types, dark circles under their eyes, most of them infected with gonorrhea if the warnings plastered on walls along all the approach roads to Naples were to be believed.
The Neapolitan strain of gonococcus was in fact so virulent that even the new wonder drug, penicillin, struggled to combat it. Every Thunderbird, it seemed, was determined not to die a virgin. None had an excuse, given that there were eighty thousand officially registered prostitutes in Naples by that March of 1944. No matter the rank, men fornicated with wild abandon, even if the bella signora was clearly middle-aged and pulled up her DDT-sprayed skirt to reveal a wooden leg.
In nearby Pompeii, they jumped off trucks dubbed “passion wagons” and headed straight past the famous ruins, along narrow cobblestoned lanes to a brothel reputed to be two thousand years old. “A massive plaster penis jutted into the street from above the entrance,” remembered one man. “A red rag was hung from it when the place was open for business.” Of the tens of thousands of Allied troops having sex in Naples that spring, the Thunderbirds in Sparks’s regiment were among the most enthusiastic, judging by the rate of infection with VD, which did not go unnoticed by the top brass, who were outraged that 15 percent of all American hospital beds were now occupied by “clapped-up” GIs. “We were taking more casualties through gonorrhea,” recalled the Australian journalist Alan Moorehead, “than we were through enemy action on the whole front-line.” Sparks would soon receive an acerbic note from his division commander, forty-nine-year-old Major General William Eagles: “Congratulations Sparks, your men have the highest VD rate in the division.”
Kershaw, Alex. The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau (Kindle Locations 1595-1622). Crown/Archetype.
75TH ANNIVERSARY STORY
To mark fall of Singapore, 15 February 1942.
“LAST FLIGHT FROM SINGAPORE”
By Alex Kershaw
I WAS STUNNED when I saw the battered chest, plastered with customs stickers, sitting in the center of a living room in Springfield, Massachusetts. I couldn’t believe my eyes when a relative of the superb WWII fighter pilot, Art Donahue, opened the trunk and I then looked inside. Here were the personal belongings of one of the American few – eleven renegade crusaders – who fought illegally in the Battle of Britain: his RAF wings, a scrap of fuselage from a downed German bomber, diaries, log-books, and long letters sent almost daily to Donahue’s family in St. Charles, Minnesota, throughout 1940-42.
At the bottom of the trunk was the manuscript of a book that Donahue wrote in the spring and summer of 1942. It was titled ‘Last Flight from Singapore’. I carefully read the yellowed, type-written pages, with Donahue’s scribbled revisions on the flimsy margins, and was awed by the tale this remarkable 29-year-old warrior told. To mark the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, on 15 February 1942, I thought it would be more than worthwhile to revive Donahue’s account of his valiant efforts to defend Singapore from the air.
The story begins in December 1941, a few days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which marked the United States entry into WWII – eighteen months after Donahue had first seen combat against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.
IT WAS A relief that be back in a cockpit rather than in some dingy Gibraltar bar trying to kill time playing darts. The smell of oil, burnished metal, and leather had always made Art Donahue feel better. He was delighted that early December of 1941 that he was keeping his flying skills honed through low-level patrols along the Spanish coast with 258 Squadron, based in Gibraltar. And there was always the off chance that he might run into easy prey: German Focke-Wulf Condors flying out of Cadiz to attack Allied convoys in the Atlantic.
On December 7, 1941, Donahue returned to his billet in Gibraltar after watching a movie. Before turning in for the night, he switched on his radio. At 11 p.m., he heard his first news report on the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Some of his fellow Americans serving in the RAF were deeply shocked, but they also celebrated the news of the Japanese attack until the early hours because it signaled the end of American neutrality.
In a letter I found in Donahue’s trunk, I read his reaction to the Japanese attack as he described it to his parents in Minnesota: “For the first few hours after I heard the news of the attack on Hawaii I seemed to take it quite casually. Then when it really began to sink home I found myself more really and truly mad at the Japs than I have ever been able to be toward the Germans—with all their crimes. Somehow, the fact that it’s your own people who have been attacked seems to make a tremendous difference.”
Donahue was in fact so enraged that he decided to apply for a posting to the Far East, but before he could do so he and 258 Squadron received orders to fly part of the way to a new posting which was being kept secret. Just before Christmas Donahue set out on a long journey across North Africa. In Nigeria, early in the New Year, he learned of his final destination—Singapore, garrisoned by some 70,000 front-line troops, including thirteen British and six Australian infantry battalions.
Donahue could not have been more pleased: now he would have a chance to strike back at the Japanese, who had bombed Singapore for the first time on 8 December. On January 29, 1942, 258 Squadron finally arrived in the British colonial outpost, finishing its marathon journey aboard a transport ship. There was no time for rest. Within forty-eight hours, 258 Squadron was in action, defending the island from Japanese dive-bombers. The squadron faced overwhelming odds and had to operate in terrible humidity without adequate fuel supplies, spare parts, or reserves of ammunition.
By February 15, barely a fortnight later, 258 Squadron had been reduced to a few bone-tired pilots and battered planes. Early that morning, Donahue led a search for Japanese invasion barges that had been spotted heading toward the mainland of Singapore. Flying as Donahue’s Number 2—his wingman—was British pilot Terrence Kelly. “You know what I need?” Donahue had asked Kelly just a few days before. “Just a nick. Just something that’ll get me home to an American squadron now we’re in the war.”
Donahue, Kelly, and four other pilots from 258 flew north toward the port of Pladjoe. Oil wells nearby had been set alight to prevent the Japanese from exploiting them. “The smoke rose for several thousand feet before, catching some air current, it spread away like a sign-post, a huge black swathe across the sky pointing to the target and we flew under it as cover,” recalled Kelly. “It was a strange atmosphere—above the queer black cloud, below the darkened jungle broken only by the turgid brown swathes of many rivers which made the Moesi delta.”
Donahue and Kelly spotted a small group of boats and attacked. But then they learned that their victims were not part of the invasion armada that had been reported. “I kept close to Donahue and he was puzzled too, looking this way and that,” recalled Kelly, “and then we came upon the barges.”
Donahue had never seen so many enemy troops so vulnerable to attack: “Often I had machine-gunned German soldiers, sailors, or airmen on the ground or in ships, but always where they either had a little shelter or concealment, or at least could scatter and throw themselves flat. These fellows had no shelter or concealment except the thin sides of their boats, no better than paper for stopping our bullets, and they were jammed in so tight that they couldn’t scatter or throw themselves flat or do anything except just sit up and take it.”
Donahue came in low, around a hundred feet above the water. He made a last check for Japanese fighters—Navy Zeros. The barges loomed larger in the amber glow of his reflector sight. He moved his thumb over to his firing button, wanting to send his first bullets a little high, knowing they would dip. Then he opened fire: “There was an abrupt shattering roar from the guns in my wings and then eighty ghostly white tracers snaking out ahead eagerly, toward the boat and its helpless passengers. They would know nothing more.”
Donahue’s wingman, Terrence Kelly, had the perfect view of the ensuing slaughter: “I probably saw the effect of Donahue’s attack much better than any of my own because I had fallen astern behind him waiting my turn and with nothing to do and not much to think about but watch. I really don’t believe Donahue missed a barge, his guns raking the convoy from head to stern. The bullets made an unforgettable pattern. There was a pincushion of water ahead of the nearest barge which moved along so that as the bullets raked through a barge what one saw was the pinpoints of light in the barge itself.”
Donahue had lost too much altitude, so he pulled the stick back and corrected, aiming at a barge farther in the distance. His aim was again perfect, its effect devastating. Tracers tore into the bodies of twenty tightly packed Japanese soldiers. He could see their faces as they died. Then he began to bank and turn away to attack another barge.
A 20 mm anti-aircraft shell hit Donahue in the calf of his left leg. He looked down in shock at two holes. “One [was] small and round,” he recalled. “The other [was] a gaping sort of thing an inch wide by a couple inches long, with raw red and blue flesh and muscle laid open, before the blood welled up and started streaming out.”
Donahue turned away sharply from the anti-aircraft fire toward an endless green carpet of jungle. The shock began to abate and his instinct for survival kicked in. He was almost a hundred miles from his base. He had a tendency to black out when he began to bleed. Could he stay conscious long enough to get home?
A few minutes later, Donahue began to feel light-headed. He grabbed his trouser leg above the wound and tried to twist it to form a tourniquet. But still his ruptured veins spurted and blood collected in a bright red pool in his heel rest, a metal trough underneath his rudder pedal. He looked at his altimeter, spattered with pieces of his flesh, and knew that if he faded away for even a couple of seconds he would crash. He gritted his teeth, his ears ringing, dots filling his vision.
I mustn’t faint, I mustn’t faint!
Donahue’s vision became blurred. He began to panic.
I am fainting—I mustn’t faint—I am fainting!
The seconds passed slowly. Donahue realized he was still awake. He could hear Hurricane’s Rolls-Royce engine purring. He wondered whether he should crash-land, and whether to shut down the engine before he did so. Then he had a smart idea: he would keep himself awake with extra oxygen. He let go of the stick, reached to his instrument panel, and increased his oxygen supply. Although flying just a few hundred feet above the jungle’s canopy, he was soon breathing enough oxygen to stay wide awake at forty thousand feet. Donahue still grabbed his torn trousers with one hand. He opened his throttle, letting go of the stick again for a second or two, and then checked his wound. He was still losing blood.
There was only one thing for it. “It seemed easy,” he later recalled. “I let go [of] the hold I had of my trouser leg above the wound, grabbed up the torn cloth right over it, twisted it, and then jammed my gloved fist, knuckles first, as deep as I could into the large hole, and held it that way.” Donahue almost blacked out. He tried to breathe more slowly so he could stay conscious. His oil and temperature gauges showed normal. They had not been hit. His reserve fuel tank was still full. Constantly, he turned his head, looking out for Japanese Navy Zeros, flying as low as he could above the trees.
The jungle finally gave way to rice fields and waterways—he was getting close to his home base. He looked down at his wound and saw that it had stopped bleeding: “The red rivulets down my leg and shoe seemed to be stationary, and the puddle of blood in the heel rest was no longer bright but dark, which meant that there couldn’t be any fresh blood on it. The pain, which never had been agonizing, had settled into a heavy ache as from a badly bruised muscle. My hopes of making it really soared.”
Donahue flew south, unable to recognize landmarks because they were obscured by smoke from bombings and many fires. If only he could spot a familiar railway line to lead him home. The weather had now closed in and he had to concentrate hard to avoid several rainstorms. Suddenly, there were the blessed rail tracks. Donahue banked slightly and followed them. And then there it was—his airfield. Now he would have to land with one hand: he dared not pull his gloved one out of the hole in his leg.
Donahue came in low, slowly wagging his wings to show that he was hurt. He let go of the stick for a second to lower his wheels for landing and then he eased off the throttle. Still too much speed. He used his left elbow to throttle back even more. Then the wheels hit the ground and he bounced violently for a hundred yards. “The feeling of triumph at having made it safely made the bad landing seem inconsequential! I felt almost boisterous as I taxied up to the watch office.”
The surviving pilots and ground crew of 258 Squadron ran out to Donahue’s plane and helped him out of the cockpit. A fellow officer dressed his wound, and he was rushed to the nearest aid station. Donahue suddenly feared that if he was hospitalized he would inevitably become a prisoner of the Japanese, who in a matter of hours would seize all of Singapore.
To Donahue’s relief, after a quick call was put through to his squadron, he was carried to an ambulance and driven back to his base. “A Lockheed bomber bound for Java was held up waiting for me at Squadron Leader Thomson’s intercession,” recalled Donahue. “Two hours later I was safely in bed, three hundred miles from the fighting zone, in the Dutch Military Hospital of Bandoeng, a beautiful city in the mountains of west central Java. I had all that I promised myself—a bed to sleep in, with clean sheets, and the prospect of breakfast in bed in the morning! In addition, I had a very pretty nurse to look after me.”
Donahue was lucky indeed. It is believed that the Lockheed bomber that arrived in Java with him aboard was the last flight out of Singapore before it fell to the Japanese. At 17.15 that day, 15 February 1942, as Donahue lay in a hospital bed in Java, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, commander of the Singapore garrison, formally surrendered to the Japanese. Around 80,000 Allied troops became prisoners of war – in Churchill’s words the “largest capitulation” and “worst disaster” in British military history.
ART DONAHUE’S thrilling account of the last hours of Singapore, lyrically described in the yellowing first draft manuscript that I found in his trunk several decades later, was published in hardback for the first time in 1943. Donahue never got to read it. After recuperating from his wounds, he joined 91 Squadron back in England as a flight commander and by August 1942 had become 91’s acting commanding officer, the first and only American in the RAF’s history to lead an all-British squadron. On 30 August 1942, Donahue failed to return from a Channel sweep over Ostend. An obituary in the London Times noted that Donahue “had joined the RAF in spite of considerable difficulties, personal and otherwise, not from any wish for adventure or personal advancement, but rather in the spirit of a crusader who had no illusions about what lay before him, and had counted the cost…He was a very gallant gentleman.”
It’s a great pleasure to invite you to join me on the National War II’s museum’s Soldiers and Spies tour, a unique and truly immersive experience that takes you back in time to many of the extraordinary places featured in my best-selling books, from the bloodiest sands in American history where the Bedford Boys landed to the grand avenues of the City of Light. I believe it’s the most inspiring journey you can make, one that honors the warriors who gave us everything – by making their stories truly personal and memorable – and celebrates their joyous liberation of the most beautiful and romantic city on the planet. We follow in the footsteps of the first wave of Americans to land in Normandy, paying our respects where 19 young men from one small town actually fought and died, also visiting other key sites on D Day such as St Mere Eglise and Utah Beach. After breaking out of Normandy, we explore the most sinister yet exclusive streets in all occupied Europe and then sample the eternal delights of a city that charmed even the most sadistic of Nazi occupiers. And we do it all in high style, staying in grand hotels, experiencing French hospitality at its most authentic and charming at the extraordinary Chateau Brouay, enjoying great wine and cuisine at my favorite restaurants, savoring stories of heroism and sacrifice that will stay with you long after you’ve sipped your last glass of champagne.
I’m very excited and truly honored to be your host. I hope you’ll accompany me on this wonderfully inspiring and deeply moving journey.
To mark the anniversary of the death of Captain Waskow, killed near San Pietro on 12 December 1943, I am posting Ernie Pyle’s deeply moving account and a beautiful letter that Waskow had upon him when he died – it was for his family and captures the immense nobility of man who gave his life for and in service to others….
CAPTAIN WASKOW BY ERNIE PYLE
In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Captain Henry T. Waskow, of Belton, Texas.
Captain Waskow was a company commander in the Thirty-sixth Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and a gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
“After my father, he came next,” a sergeant told me. “He always looked after us,” a soldier said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.” “I’ve never known him to do anything unfair,” another said.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down.
The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even partway across the valley below. Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden packsaddles, their heads hanging down on one side, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other, bobbing up and down as the mules walked.
The Italian mule skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies when they got to the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself and ask others to help. I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don’t ask silly questions.
They slid him down from the mule, and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half-light he might have been merely a sick man standing there leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside the road. We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.
Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more; the dead man lay all alone, outside in the shadow of the wall. Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain.
The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. “This one is Captain Waskow,” one of them said quietly. Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally, there were five lying end to end in a long row. You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody comes after them. The unburdened mules moved off to their olive grove.
The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Captain Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear. One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, “God damn it!” That’s all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came, and he said, “God damn it to hell anyway!” He looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left. Another man came. I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody was bearded and grimy.
The man looked down into the dead captain’s face and then spoke directly to him, as though he were alive, “I’m sorry, old man.” Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said, “I sure am sorry, sir. Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the captain’s hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there. Finally he put the hand down. He reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
The rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line end to end in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.
LETTER FROM WASKOW
“If you get to read this, I will have died in defense of my country and all that it stands for – the most honorable and distinguished death a man can die. It was not because I was willing to die for my country. … I wanted to live for it …
“To live for one’s country is to my mind to live a life of service. To, in a small way, help a fellow man occasionally along the way and generally to be useful and serve. It also means to me to rise up in all our wrath and with overwhelming power to crush any oppressor of human rights. That is our job, all of us, as I write this, and I pray God we are wholly successful.
“Yes, I would have liked to have lived – to live and share the many blessings and good fortunes that my grandparents bestowed upon me. A fellow never had a better family than mine, but since God has willed otherwise do not grieve too much dear ones. … I was not afraid to die. … I prayed that I and others could do our share to keep you safe until we returned.
“I made my choice, dear ones. I volunteered in the armed forces because I felt it my duty to do so. I thought that I might be able and might do just a little bit to help this great country of ours in its hours of need – the country that means more to me than life itself. If I have done that, then I can rest in peace, for I will have done my share to make this world a better place in which to live.
“Try to live a life of service …”
WWII’S GREATEST US REPORTER – ERNIE PYLE