My dad was a navigator on B-17's during WWII. He was shot down behind enemy lines and was saved by the Free French. This travel log includes a return to the site of the air battle over the Czech Republic and the site of the crash landing in France. The most amazing aspect was the reaction of the locals in both countries. The respect and appreciation for the Americans was overwhelming. They held special ceremonies to honor him with the town folk turning out in significant numbers. My dad was very touched by their sincere affection and appreciation. This trip was shared with my sister Candy and her significant other Stan. On with the excellent adventure...
September 12th to 23rd, 2002Prague to Paris
(9-12) It’s hard to believe that we arrived just yesterday…. We left Dulles on 9-11 – some angst about the date, and the airport was practically deserted when we arrived three hours before our departure! New security precautions were a roadblock for truck inspections and armed soldiers and mean looking German shepherds in the security area. The Red Carpet lounge was a welcome oasis for the long wait, but activity was back to a moderate pace by the 5:25 flight time. The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful, though sleep was fitful for Dad and I. Transfer from UA to Lufthansa for the last leg was smooth, with that flight taking just one hour to Prague – arriving early. We had to wait ~ one hour for Candy and Stan to arrive, since their Air France flight from Paris was late. After a wild minibus ride, we arrived in Prague about noon.
Hotel Betlem Club is a perfect location in the Old Town – clean and friendly. Our room on the first floor (2nd floor in the US) is delightful, with two large windows (plenty of sun and street noise!), 15-foot high ceilings, and a modern bathroom, complete with hairdryer. Candy, Stan and Dad have rooms on the 3rd (“attic”) floor with lower pitched beam ceilings and smaller windows. Dad asked “when would they be putting the bedclothes on?” --- He’s not used to the euro-style low beds with simple bottom sheet and duvet.
During the afternoon we took turns resting – the guys did a local Czech beer tasting and after unpacking we wandered through the narrow, interesting streets of the “old town” (Stare Misto). At 7:00, after a shower and change, we walked across the Charles Bridge to the “Little Quarter” (Mala Strana) where we were scheduled to meet Steve’s friend – Simona Agnolucci – at a restaurant called U Mecenase, located in a medieval wine cellar (Malestranske Namesti 10, tel 57531631)
The restaurant was fantastic – superb ambience and beautiful furnishings, with friendly staff, excellent service and authentic Czech cuisine. The groups’ choices (after a typical Czech salad of minced vegetables and cheese) included beef or pork tenderloin and Roquefort sauce, Goulash, and stuffed turkey – served with dumplings or potato pancakes. For drinks we started with a delicious Czech sparkling wine, had local wines for dinner (good, but not great), then the local Slivovitz (for the brave) and coffees. Dinner lasted a very pleasant three hours thanks to our delightful hostess.
Simona is a treasure who lights up a room with her beautiful presence – we were all smitten by her natural Italian beauty, intelligence, charm and humility. Only on gentle prodding did she reveal that she graduated from Stanford in 1998, met Steve during the year she worked at E-groups – then worked in NYC before coming to the Czech republic one year ago. She took a job with a prestigious British law firm with offices here because she “always wanted to learn a Slavic language!” (Born in Chicago to Italian parents, she’s lived many places and speaks fluent English, Italian, French and Spanish already!) Her excellent Czech got us some special service – not to mention the beautiful face and figure! Next year she hopes to attend Yale Law School – then spend an additional year of study in Paris, which will allow her to be licensed to practice in the US and/or any EU country. WOW.
She seemed to enjoy the gift bag of goodies (“like a care package from my mom!”) and, after a leisurely walk back across the Charles Bridge, with views of the city lights and illuminated castle, we reluctantly said good-bye. We hope she’ll come to visit!
Day one ended on the little hotel 3rd floor patio with a nightcap and very full bellies. Alas – sleep came easily for all but yours truly (perhaps the espresso?..)
Today, Sept. 12th, brought another day of perfect weather – sunny and cool. I skipped the hotel breakfast to get a little sleep (5:30 – 9:00), then at 10:00 we headed out for a leisurely walking tour – including Old Town Square (huge, with a fascinating variety of architecture, the famous Town Hall Astronomical Clock – and, unfortunately, too many tacky street vendors wrecking the ambience and the view of the Jan Hus statue), Wenceslas Square, and the Haveski open-air Market. The boys enjoyed yet another beer tasking (the Czech republic is known for great beer), while Candy and I did a little shopping. We had a wonderful late lunch at Restaurant U Plebana (recommended by Rick Steves, but discovered by Paul and Stan yesterday) right next to the hotel! Their local wine was very good, and the food delicious. We sampled salads, ham rolls with horseradish cream sauce, game pate, and outstanding thick potato mushroom soup served in yummy bread bowls. Stuffed – all but yours truly are now napping!… More tomorrow…
(9-13) After naptime, the troops assembled for a trip above the castle, where the view was said to be spectacular as the light began to fade. We set out at 6:00 for the tram station – a confusing place! We were sold 15-minute tickets for the short ride, but then didn’t know which direction to catch the #22. I asked a young man which direction, and he pointed left… so we boarded the #22 going that way…. But after > 30 minutes we realized that it was the wrong way! We got to see a lot of (Section 2) Prague that wasn’t planned – but then had to get off the tram and wait for another going the right way – retracing our route to the end of the line – with long-expired tickets – watching the lovely light fade behind the beautiful buildings. No photos – just memories.
Our destination was a restaurant mentioned in Rick Steve’s book with “the most beautiful terrace view of the city.” It was lovely – even with most of the sun gone – but too chilly for sitting outdoors. The restaurant – Ozivle Drevo – was located on the grounds of the Strahov Monastery above the Castle (not enough time or energy to tour either one). The style, per Rick, was stately “country farmhouse” and we were seated at a long table on church pews with cushions. The tablecloth was colorful cotton; we had a 5-candle candelabra – and little cheap paper napkins! Go figure! As we were sitting down, our waitress (who spoke no English) asked if we’d like “appertif?”.. from a towel-wrapped bottle she was holding. We said “certainly”, thinking it was complimentary since she poured each of us a tiny 1/3 sherry glassful. It tasted like a nice, smooth sherry, we agreed. When we got the huge menus, printed in four languages, it appeared to be an expensive, special place.
However, the only other people there were Americans and British – then a tour bus arrived just to have a beer (and their guide was paid a commission…. Hhmmm…) The food was less than spectacular – the onions floating in my onion soup were practically raw and the duck was overcooked. The only “delicious” meal of the five was Paul’s sole. The bottles of wine were extravagantly priced, so Candy and I had glasses of the local white wine @60 kc, Stan had beer, and Dad and Paul had gin @90 kc. When the bill arrived we were flabbergasted to discover that we had been charged 500 kc each for the “appertif” !!… What a scam! Paul complained bitterly – but all they would do was remove the “service charge” of 720 kc. The British group overhearing the lively exchange interjected that their Prague guidebook warned against accepting the offer of an appertif – apparently a common scan. (The head waitress, who spoke English, told us that it was “40 year old port” – not a chance!) So we learned a hard lesson – but that’s part of the adventure. Paul, Dad and I returned to the hotel by cab and Candy and Stan took the tram to Malastranka and walked back over the Charles Bridge.
We decided to check out that night to “play it safe” – and it’s good we did! They have to get bank authorization via phone (especially since the recent floods) – but thanks to Candy’s MBNA connection, we didn’t have to wait 30 minutes like a Canadian gentleman trying to do the same. We decided to have a nightcap in the adjoining defunct clubroom, drinking bottled beer and champagne from the hotel cooler. Lots of laughs – especially when Stan tried to call daughter Dana and left the message “Hi! This is mom…… I mean DAD…!”
We packed and hit the hay at midnight, then got up at 6:00 to meet our taxi-van at 7:00 to go to the airport car rental office to pick up our van at 8:00 for the next leg of our trip. Prague was wonderful – need to go back someday to see more!…
Saturday (Sept. 14th) morning we had an interesting drive to Kovarska through Czech countryside and lots of little towns and villages, winding our way to this town that no one had heard of (hotel, airport, etc.)! Jan’s directions were perfect, however, and we arrived in ~ 1 ½ hours at “Hotel Central” – 15 minutes before the official start of the reunion. Jan came to meet us briefly, then introduced us to Mateus to guide us to the museum. We dumped our bags and headed out on foot – just a 5-minute walk to the “Museum of the Air Battle over the Ore Mountains on 11th September, 1944 in Kovarska” for the 9th International WWII Airmen Reunion and celebration of the museum’s 5th anniversary.
The museum was a huge display of artifacts and memorabilia from the battle over Kovarska – part of the Allied raid on Ruhland – fought by US Army Air Force and Germans Luftwaffe. Jan Zdiarsky, the director, is a passionate ball of energy dedicated to locating both survivors and wreckage/remains from this conflict over his home town. (He teaches computer science in Prague during the week, and keeps an apartment in Kovarska to run the museum on weekends.) The “reunion” was amazing – an opportunity for veterans to establish dialogue and friendship. The Czechs (who escaped the German occupation to fly with the RAF) acted as “hosts”, but tended to keep to themselves. However, we heard a lot of their amazing stories as the day progressed (including being treated as traitors after the war, when the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia – putting some in camps for several more years!)
The most fascinating part of the reunion was Dad’s opportunity to meet three German Luftwaffe fighter pilots – Manfred, Helmut, and Deiter. They were extremely kind, open and interesting – and spoke enough English (along with Dad’s little German) that they could truly share stories. It turned out that there was a strong possibility that Manfred’s Fockewolfe and Dad’s B-17 may have actually inflicted serious damage on each other! It was a truly tragic battle for both sides. Dad’s squadron of 12 planes left from England on that memorable date: September 11, 1944 – headed for a raid on Ruhland, Germany. Apparently their fighter escort was delayed, and they were besieged by German fighters, resulting in the 11 other planes in his 349th squadron of the 100th bomber group being shot down (all were killed or captured). Dad’s plane was hit, too, and went into a spin, but came out of it (radioman bailed out and was captured)…. Eventually they made their way back across Germany without hydraulics, dumping everything they could to lighten the load (including manually releasing all but two of the 500-pound bombs on board – which they couldn’t reach)… and crash landing in German-occupied France because they didn’t have enough fuel to reach liberated Paris…. More on that later… Anyway, Dad’s bomber fired on and hit a Fockewolfe in the tail before/after that fighter hit them… and Manfred’s fighter was hit in the tail and he fired at and saw a B-17 (?Dad’s?) go into a spin and come out of it. It would be incredible if they really hit each other, with both part of the few lucky ones that were able to crash land and live to tell about it!
After the reunion, we walked to the town square for a moving Memorial Service, attended by most of the townsfolk (population of Kovarska = 500 – down significantly since the war). There were many speeches (from Jan, Dad, Charlie Stein -- an American veteran from another bomber group shot down and captured -- Manfred, and a representative of the US Embassy in Prague), wreath laying ceremonies, a fly-over, etc. Afterwards, the veterans were bombarded with requests for autographs by the locals (some to save, some to sell, we were told).
From there we went to the hotel for a delicious lunch --vegetable noodle soup, tender beef in gravy with potato-bread dumplings, wine, beer, etc. Conversation was lively with the Germans at our table – another Luftwaffe vet and the son of another – and locals who witnessed the battle as children (most hiding in the basement of the school). The next event was held at the school across the street (a plane crashed into it during the battle) where they had a competition for the school children and townsfolk in artwork and models pertaining to WWII.
The veterans were all seated at a long table and for ~ one hour took questions from the public. In summary, these veterans – then in their early 20’s – just “wanted the war to be over!” (Some who went to POW camps had to wait longer – and the Czechs, who left to fight with the RAF were later charged with treason when Czechoslovakia became communist in 1948 under the Russians and some were imprisoned until 1955!) Autographs galore were provided by the visiting “celebrities”!
After the prizes were presented for the local competitions, we had just enough time for a stop at the “pub” before heading down the street for a concert at the local church. (Dad opted for a nap.) The concert performed by high school kids from a town ~ 25 km away was outstanding, and the acoustics amazing. We returned to the hotel to wake Dad, had cocktails in the bar – then went to the hotel restaurant for dinner – more delicious meats and (cold) vegetables. When no one else appeared, we called Jan to discover that the rest of the group had gone to the museum – So off we went for another tour – more signings – and lots of fascinating stories. We learned that the Germans did not have a “tour of duty”, but were expected to serve until the war was over. Helmut flew over 50 missions and was shot down many times. When asked what he thought about the outcome, he claimed that they knew from the outset that they didn’t have a chance to win the war….
It was an exhausting, but incredibly special day. We all had a chance to meet some very special and dedicated people, and Dad had a chance to bond with his former “enemies” and bring some closure to the loss of so many of his friends and fellow airmen at this place (11 planes x 9 crew = 99 + l radioman = 100) – explaining the pain when he and the remainder of his crew (minus one severely injured gunner) finally made it back to an empty barracks in England over a week later… (I’ve left space here for Dad to record his thoughts… but to date he’s reluctant to put a pen to my journal…)
(9-15) We were able to “sleep in” at last, and met for breakfast at 8:30 – typical German fare (fruit, buns, bread, sliced meats & cheeses, cereal, yogurt & coffee). Then came our next dilemma – paying the hotel bill! The guy behind the counter spoke only Czech and German (same for the barmaids and waiters!) and we discovered they did not take credit cards! We had less than $20. in Czech currency – but finally, with my “survival Deutsch” and eventually some help from Jan, we got him to accept my Euro traveler’s cheques. The spartan rooms cost just $40.40 a night and dinner for 5 the night before was $38.00!