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A Day of Thanksgiving
For forty years after crash landing in a farmer’s field near Kiskunmajsa, Hungary, Victor Prescott and the other nine members of his crew lived their lives like the countless other veterans who returned home after WWII. They folded up their uniforms and memories and stored them away as they looked ahead to the business of their future.
Tied inextricably together by intense episodes of war, they kept in touch with Christmas cards and occasional phone calls. It came as a surprise to them in 1986 to receive an invitation from the Hungarian government to return, as guests of the government, to the village, and families who had hidden them from the Germans in a 35 day odyssey to return to their air base at Sterparone, Italy. Victor was one of five of the crew that made the trip back.
The group flew to Budapest and spent the night there before embarking on a bus ride through the Hungarian countryside to the site where the Victor had slid the B-17, named Sky Wolf II, to its last stop. When they arrived in the village the same farmers who had risked their lives in ‘45 to save the Americans by stowing them behind sacks of vegetables and in basements stood excitedly around the bus as Victor and the crew disembarked.
“We had an interpreter,” Victor told me. “But we didn’t have to worry about language problems, we didn’t need any words. Their reaction,” he paused to revisit the scene in his mind, “was wonderful. We shook hands. . . .”
The farmers and their families took the men out to the spot Victor had brought the Flying Fortress down on its wheels-up landing. “It looked a little different then, not covered in two feet of snow. They had set up tables covered with food for us to eat”.
One of the farmers told Victor they had dismantled the 104 feet wide, 68 feet long and 39,000 pound airplane in three weeks. Nothing, not even the bones, of the B-17 remained.
With all available metal being used in the war effort, the great mass contained in the airplane was a rare commodity. The families showed the crew some of the things that had been done with the metal and various pieces of the plane since 1945.
One man had made a gate to contain livestock; one had made roof gutters, one a metal dog house and another, a mail box. “And then,” Victor smiled, “there was the parachute silk that was used to make a wedding dress. Many of the women, not just one family, used that dress and passed it down to the next generation.”
“They gave each of us an artifact,” Victor continued. “They gave me a piece of glass from the radio compass.” And in that act the full circle of Victor Prescott’s B-17 crash landing became complete.
“You know, Mary, they invited us over there to thank us for liberating them in the war. But we were just a small piece of it. And then we thanked them for saving our lives. They didn’t have to do that.”
“True,” I told him. “But you were the men who fell from the sky and gave a face to the Allies.”
This weekend Victor and I will spend a little time together, rehashing more stories. We’ll talk about Thanksgiving with quiet thanksgiving, and what it meant to a different generation and what it means to us now.
As for me, I’ll thank Victor for his part in history and the sharing of a story that is one for the ages.
(Victor Prescott flanked by fellow pilots Lt. Colonel John Kalbert, USAF-Ret and Lt. Rory Polson, USN-M. Kalbert photo)
Victor Prescott’s B-17 Story, part II
Victor Prescott had one thought on his mind before the B-17 touched down in the farmer’s field on January 21st, 1945. Keep the nose slightly up, land on the belly and glide to a smooth stop. The entire crew agreed later that it was like a sled moving down the field. In two feet of snow the plane never touched the ground.
Victor climbed out the left cockpit window. Jake Grimm, 2nd pilot, climbed out the opposite window and the crew exited according to their emergency plan. Gathered together on one side of the fuselage, Victor said all he could think about was what the hell do we do now?
Heavy gunfire signaled the Germans and Russians were nearby. Two hundred yards across the field a row of farmer’s houses offered what might be protection, and in a few minutes several men ran toward them. When the men arrived Victor pointed to the American flag insignia on his sleeve, “Americanish” Americanish.” With the threat of the crew being taken as prisoners the farmers quickly divided the men into small groups and hurried them to the safety of their homes.
Victor and his Flight Engineer (FE) Bernard Boraten were hidden in a farm house basement behind burlap bags of vegetables. The farmers brought us food but we stayed hidden for the next three days, Victor told me. We could hear the Germans and Russians fighting. At last they were allowed to come out of hiding. They feasted on two large rabbits.
It was imperative to get to the Russian allies as quickly as possible, but no one spoke Hungarian. Bernard could speak Polish, and the farmers found a neighbor who did as well. Victor then explained he needed to get to the nearest Russian headquarters, but only if the Russians were in possession of the land.
Victor and Bernard were taken by horse drawn sleigh eight or ten miles to Keskimet, the closest town, and delivered to the Russian command. An English interpreter was provided and transportation to Bucharest for the crew was arranged. The interpreter would not be accompanying the crew, and asked what languages Victor could speak. “I can speak Spanish,” Victor said, without much hope that would be of any use. The Russian colonel looked at him, and then promptly rounded up a Russian pilot who could speak Spanish. The communications problem was once more resolved.
It took a month to get the crew to Bucharest. There they waited five days to be ferried back to Streparone, Italy by a British crew in a C-47. They arrived 35 days after they had departed on their fifth bombing mission.
It was back to work for Victor and his crew. On the same day they arrived back at their base, Victor’s wife Gwen received the dreaded telegram that informed her Victor was missing in action (MIA). Five days later she received a second telegram informing her that Victor and the crew was no longer MIA, but had returned to active duty.
Victor had begun the mission as the number one pilot on his B-17, and returned to find he had been promoted to flight commander. He would fly lead in the formations and take command of seven airplanes and the complement of roughly seventy crew members.
Victor flew 18 more missions, including the March 24, 1945 bombing run to Berlin, Germany targeting the Daimler-Benz Tank Works. Leading the high squadron Victor could see the 99th Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen, flying target cover. He watched as they and the men in the B-17’s below him fought off sixteen German ME-262 jet fighters. The mission inflicted grave damage to the installation and supplies. One B-17 was lost, and several sustained severe damage, but they made it back to base with nearly dry tanks.
Victory in Europe (V-E) Day was May 8th, 1945. With only 23 of his 35 missions complete, Victor remained with the 483rd. The B-17’s were re-configured to regular aircraft and he, along with the other remaining pilots on the newly minted “Home Bound Airlines” carried infantry men who had fought in the Europe theater to Casablanca, Morocco for air transport back to the States.
Victor Prescott was discharged from active duty in December, 1945. He had just turned 22 years old. He was required to join the active or inactive reserves. He chose inactive, but was called up to serve in the Korean Conflict.
Later, Congress passed a law that stated any one serving in the Armed Forces in two or more wars was entitled to receive a discharge from the armed services. Victor opted for the discharge.
In 1986 the Hungarian government contacted 2nd pilot Jacob Grimm and offered the entire crew an opportunity to return to be properly thanked for their part in the liberation of Europe. Victor returned to Hungary under very different circumstances.
Part two of three.
Victor Prescott’s B-17 Story
The following column is in honor of our nation’s veterans of all the Armed Services.
(Prescott, Grimm, Bratlee; Back Rw: Boraton, Crandell, Foster, Caspar, Gray, Sheppard
In July of this year I had the opportunity to sit down in our home with Victor Prescott, a WWII pilot, and listen to his remarkable story of service in a B-17 Squadron, flying missions over Europe from the 483rd Bombardment Group (H) stationed at Sterparone Air Base in Italy. His story was a compelling one. He was a 21 year old pilot and aircraft commander who, along with all his crew, survived a crash landing in a field of snow near Keskimet, Hungary.
To provide a bit of context, in the course of 13 months of combat, the missions of the 483rd were to bomb targets that were heavily defended by flak and fighter attacks. These included oil refineries, railroads and other infrastructure located in Austria, Germany, France, Hungary, and Poland.
During this time 760 crew members were shot down, 214 killed in action (KIA), 315 became prisoners of war (POW) and 231 evaded capture and returned to duty.
Additionally, the 483rd lost a total of 81 B-17’s during this period. One returned to base with 30,748 holes, claiming the title of “most holes in a B-17 after one mission.”
This was the fifth mission for 2nd Lt. Victor Prescott, and he commanded a crew of nine. The crew consisted of Jacob (Jake) L. Grimm, 2nd Pilot; Jack R. Bratlie, Navigator; Juan Santiago, Bombardier; Bernard Boraten, Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner; Charles K. Foster, Radio Operator; Kenneth Caspar, Ball Turret Gunner; James H. Gray, Right Waist Gunner; Billy G. Crandall, Left Waist Gunner; and A.C. Earl Shepherd, Tail Gunner.
On the morning of 21 January 1945 Victor received the following briefing: the target was the Loubau Oil Refinery situated approximately eleven kilometers south east of Vienna, Austria. The bomb load was four, two thousand pound bombs. The bombing altitude was thirty two thousand feet and their position within the formation was on the right wing of the high squadron leader.
The bomb run was aborted twice. On the third attempt their number two engine failed when they were hit by enemy fire and number three failed shortly thereafter. Victor increased power on the remaining two engines. They attempted to salvo the bombs but they were frozen to the bomb shackles in the bomb-bay. Victor ordered the flight engineer and right waist gunner to take crash axes to the bomb-bay and chop them out. By the time the bomb-bays were cleared they had lost over twenty thousand feet of altitude. The flight engineer attempted to pump gasoline from the failed engine fuel tanks to the good engine fuel tanks but couldn’t because the fuel transfer valves were frozen. Victor gave orders to further lighten the airplane by jettisoning as many things as possible, including machine guns, to reduce the rate of descent.
Shortly after the order to jettison the machine guns Victor ordered the ball turret to be dropped. There was a short pause and the voice of the ball turret gunner came out loud and clear. “Is it okay if I get out first?”
They entered three or four thousand feet of under cast with zero visibility conditions. The only working instrument was the altimeter. They regained control of their descent at about eight thousand feet.
Victor told the crew if they couldn’t break out of the clouds at 4,000 feet they were going to jump. They did break out at 4,000 feet and he told them “Jake and I are going to land this thing, but if the rest of you are going to jump, do it now.” No one did. Jake put the plane on auto pilot which allowed for a steady rate of descent.
Much to their surprise, Victor and Jake saw a snow covered field ahead of them. It appeared to be a good place to make a forced landing. Victor ordered the remaining crew to the crash landing position. Then 2nd Lt. Victor Prescott and 2nd Lt. Jacob “Jake” Grimm pulled off a smooth wheels-up landing in a farmer’s white field in the Hungarian countryside.
Part one of two.
(The Crew assembles again in 1983
The Words We Speak
In October of 2005 I penned my second column for The Island Guardian. It was a short piece about two lists I keep of friends who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. The first one is of those who have lost the battle and the second is one of survivors.
In the five years between then and now I am happy to have added several names to the second list and none to the first. Although I don’t write a column each year about breast cancer I do pull out my pink ribbon pin and wear it throughout the month. It was given to me by a survivor friend years ago.
In June of this year I received an e-mail from a woman living in Virginia who I met for a brief time in a social setting thirteen years ago. Her name is Sandy and she found me through the internet. She told me of a dear friend of hers who was preparing for a mastectomy and asked me to call this friend and speak to her of my experience. “I remember your positive attitude. Lori knows no one who has had to make these choices. Will you call her?”
I called Lori immediately and spent the better part of an hour listening to and answering questions for a woman whose life had been changed by a smear on a pathologist’s slide and the single word “positive” written next to her name. Her need and vulnerability took me back instantly to my own cancer treatment decisions.
After the first mastectomy I remember asking a volunteer from a program, Reach for Recovery, a simple question. When will I be able to sleep on my stomach? She gave me a kind and knowing look. You’ll know, she told me. One night you’ll roll over and be able to sleep like a baby. I’ve never forgotten the simple truth of that response.
A year later, after the second mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, I began my recovery. It didn’t occur to me in those first days following surgery, when women would ask about my health, that a chance conversation at a social dinner with Sandy would be remembered thirteen years later. And it never occurred to me that I would be able through that conversation to help someone I don’t know and will never meet.
When this column is posted I will be on my way to pass on my pink ribbon to a cousin whose recent breast cancer diagnosis and bi-lateral mastectomies is eerily similar to mine. We’ll talk, but the words we speak won’t all be verbal. There are some that will be spoken from the heart.
A Stitch in Time
I felt a distinctive nip in the air this early morning. Miss Spooky wasn’t the first one up, nudging me to climb on out from under the cover and make tracks to the kitchen. Nope, she remained somewhere under the quilt snoozing away as I tiptoed out of the bedroom.
Autumn is the time for quilts at our house. The one on our bed is a stunning arrangement of black, pink, red, green, blue, brown and pumpkin colors in a show stopping geometric pattern. John and Spooky enjoy its warmth. I love it because it was put together by my Mama.
In the later years of her life Mama sewed scraps together to make quilt tops. She didn’t have the space to do the actual quilting so she whiled away many happy hours combining colors, laying out patterns and stitching away.
When she died in 2005 Mama left me an old box of quilting material, various tops she had made, and pieces and patterns of all the quilts I have seen all my life lying on the beds of women in the Deep South. In that box was an old top made of scraps of my blouses, her blouses, my third grade dress, her old apron and many other tangible memories of our past. I turned it over and looked closely. It was sewn together in the days before we had a sewing machine. I bring it out now and again and hug it, or rub it against my cheek when I have the need.
At the bottom of the box was a collection of muslin sacks. The name, Dixie Lily Flour, was still faintly visible. I knew Mama had saved them to be used as the backing for the quilt of her dreams. I spread them apart and realized there were enough to make exactly that.
For five years I have kept that quilt top safely stored in my linen closet, waiting for the right woman who could hand quilt it for me and understand the depth of its meaning. Through a local island quilter, I found her.
And so one evening after dinner, at a time of day when John and I quietly read for a while, I pulled out my thimble, thread and needle.
“What are you doing?” John asked as we settled into our comfortable spots on the sofa.
“Sewing up these old flour sacks to make a back for Mama’s quilt.” Somehow I couldn’t call this one mine yet.
“Looks like a lot of sewing.” He studied the pile of material in my lap and at my feet.
“Not so much.” This wasn’t work. This was love and a thimble. John read and I sewed, tying a neat knot at the end of my thread and humming under my breath. There was a hole in one of the sacks and I carefully patched it.
A few days ago I packaged up this precious thing and sent it to Tecumseh, Oklahoma. There, a master hand quilter will stitch this part of my life together. Yesterday I received a phone call that it had arrived. Her voice told me what I wanted to hear, that the scraps, without thought to art and artistry, and the faded quilt back showcasing Dixie Lily Flower were a joy to behold.
“I’m so happy to have this,” she told me. “This is a quilt like I remember.”
In a few months I will receive this treasure back. I have a friend who has volunteered to sew the binding on with her machine, letting me finish off the quilt by hand. But I can’t do that. It will be awkward and time consuming, but I plan to hand sew all of it.
I want this to be a quilt without a single machine stitch in it, a reminder of a time when our hands were our tools, and with them we created warmth, love and a legacy from the scraps of our lives.
Mama would be proud.
Gulf Island Notes; Telegraph Harbour Marina
Long before sunrise I am settled comfortably into the captain’s chair on the flying bridge, both hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee.
Below me orange electrical cords snake along the dock and disappear into gray mother boxes. They are umbilical cords that bring a certain comfort. Previous nights at anchor in Montague Harbour have left us thirsting for replenishment.
The hatches on boats near us are open, doors too, catching and holding the night’s cool air. Our doors are open but covered in portable roll up screen doors that we have learned are essential for summer nights on the water.
A lone gull makes a fly by, a singular call, is there anyone else out there? It is greeted by one reply and then another until the first chorus of the morning greets a pink dawn. In time the sun comes in a rush over the tree line to splash brightness on a red hulled sailboat and soak up the remnants of last night’s dew.
The pilings here are sentries wearing the cone tipped hats of the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. In lieu of oil cans they are armed with baskets of red geraniums.
Finished with my coffee I walk past a sleek 39’ Beneteau sailboat, a crisp white and hunter green. The marina is full of boats, each with a name that begs to be asked for the story behind it. On my way to the office there is Twilight, Madrona, Escargot, Fascination, Longshot and Wigwam. They are sleeping now and one line from a nearby trawler is creaking, the only sound save a seagull flying by. The tide is out, and on a rock below purple starfish embrace in a group hug.
Telegraph Harbour Marina is celebrating 50 years of service. It sits like an old southern aunt, apron on and floured hands waving you in through the screen door, a banger, the absolute sign of a friendly establishment. In the yard a magnificent hydrangea bush is billowing in a petticoat of blue.
It is a family friendly place that serves pizza and dandy milk shakes. With a newly acquired liquor license, it offers wine that can be enjoyed from the chairs on the long front porch.
Telegraph Harbour is one of my favorite places. It pleases without discernable effort, exudes the best of attitudes toward boaters and welcomes visitors back before they leave.
A Waltz through the Gulf Islands
Regardless of the calendar, today is an autumn day. With a slow rain falling and a mist moving gently over the lake, I’m not quite ready for this. So a reflection on an earlier August trip to the Gulf Islands is a great way to hold onto summer for a few more days.
As an annual rite of summer passage John and I always visit our neighboring islands. We enjoy a combination of favorite harbors and marinas, as well as other coves and bays recommended by friends.
Loaded and ready to go we motor out of Snug Harbor early morning on a promising August day.
Sailboats and trawlers ply the waters of Haro Strait. We make a run to Bedwell Harbour for our customs clearance. The wind is calm and there are no boats ahead of us at the dock. John is back in less than ten minutes. Welcome to Canada.
We arrive at Ganges, our first destination, at that sweet spot moment when the marina over-nighters have left their slips and the afternoon boaters have yet to arrive. At the dock there is no breeze. This is a hot day of summer and exactly what we’ve been waiting for.
I’m impatient to prowl around Centennial Park, for Saturday at the Ganges Market is worth the trip alone. Each time we come we visit with David, a ruddy Scotsman whose cobalt blue bowls adorned with dragon flies are staples in my kitchen. It’s a bit difficult to navigate today. The park is teeming with folks of all ages.
We stop at every booth to see what the local artists have been up to. I am intrigued by the ‘Chow Boats’ by clay artist Melissa Searcy. The vibrant boats, chop stick oars and marine theme are what the market is about�"a unique creation from a gifted artist’s eye.
At the Black Sheep Bookstore, purveyors of the ‘Antiquarian and Nearly New’, I gravitate to the local authors and browse through the shelves of titles on life in B.C. I’ll come back tomorrow when there is room in my bag and buy a book, or maybe two. I’m always intrigued by how others live in these islands.
Finished with our shopping, John and I walk along the water’s edge and listen to the engine roar on a float plane gathering speed to lift off. Further along we see that the marina and harbor are now full of boats.
“Look.” John peers down at the Rotary Dinghy Dock where a double layer of dinghies have become white petals surrounding the dock’s wooden center.
“That’s a good indicator of how busy this place is.” I’m happy to see business is thriving here.
Later, our dishes and flatware join the muted sounds of dinners on the water. There is a tinkle here, laughter over there, followed by the scent and sizzle of salmon on a grill. Good things are happening in Ganges, B.C.
A slight breeze picks up as the sun goes down and carries on it the sound of a band at the Oyster Catcher Restaurant, playing not too loud, and never too late.
“Want to read?” John is ready to enjoy the evening. He arranges the chairs in the cockpit.
“That’d be great.” I wash the few dishes. This will be a tranquil way to end a summer day.
A mega yacht arrives and pivots for a starboard side docking. Crew members work in concert to tie the lines. A young man in an oxford shirt and tie guy leans over the railing to watch the process. A lithesome blonde moves about the upper deck.
John looks up from his book at the white behemoth. “Think they’re having more fun than we are?”
I re-arrange my feet on the cooler- turned-ottoman and sink deeply into my garish orange collapsible chair, a season end bargain sale item from a West Marine store on some former trip. I re-live this perfect day.
“Nope, not possible.”