Thursday, June 17, 2004

Daughter finishes her father's story

Somewhere in Germany, his B-24 lay in pieces

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Marilyn Walton and her father, Thomas Jeffers, look over items that residents of Blick, Germany, recycled from the wreckage of his B-24 bomber during World War II.
THOMAS E. WITTE for The Enquirer
Thomas Jeffers (front, far right) and his B-24 crewmates who were downed over Blick, Germany.
THOMAS WITTEfor The Enquirer
OXFORD - A small black patch of rubber.

A nondescript metal hook.

A slender aluminum tea strainer, the kind of thing one might find on a dusty shelf in an antique shop.

These are the most precious things Marilyn Walton owns, items that she stuffed in a suitcase and carried back with her from a trip last month to a tiny village in Germany near the Denmark border.

They are precious because they tell her the story of her father, Thomas Jeffers.

It is a story of heroism and sacrifice, despair and triumph.

It is the story of a 23-year-old bombardier in a B-24 who was shot down over that village called Blick, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, and taken prisoner by the Nazis.

And it is the story of a now 83-year-old man too frail to make the journey back to Germany.

"I wanted to go there myself and see where this happened and bring my father's story full circle,'' said Walton, an author of children's books who went to Germany in May with her husband, John Walton, a marketing professor at Miami University.

"And I wanted the Germans to know just who this man was who came down in their woods 60 years ago. It was something I felt I needed to do.''

The rubber patch came from the field where her father's parachute came down on June 18, 1944, as the young bombardier's B-24, nicknamed "Rhapsody in Junk'' by its 10-man crew, crashed in a ball of flames in the woods nearby.

One crew member was killed. The rest became prisoners.

Walton found the rubber patch and is convinced it came from her father's plane, not from the tire of some farm tractor. When she returned, she and her husband took the rubber patch to the Air Force Museum in Dayton and laid it on the tire of a B-24 on display there. "It was a perfect match,'' she said.

The tea strainer and the metal hook were gifts from an elderly woman named Gretchen Bartel, who lives in a 17th-century home near the crash site.

Bartel was 10 when Jeffers' plane was shot down over her home. She described to Walton how she watched the hulking B-24 fly low over her house and across a farmer's field. She saw a man jump from the plane's camera hatch - a man who could have been Lt. Jeffers.

In those days, Bartel told her guest over freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, metal was in short supply. German villagers would take the larger metal pieces from downed Allied aircraft, melt them down and make household items. She handed Walton the tea strainer and metal hook she had kept for 60 years. "These were made from your father's plane,'' she said.

It was the moment Walton had dreamed of, the moment she had waited for after 10 months of poring over military archives, countless e-mails and phone calls to German newspapers - all in search of information about that day in June 1944 when her father's life had changed.

"Over the years, my father had told us about his experience, about being shot down, about being a prisoner of war,'' she said. "But there was a lot he never talked about. I wanted to know it all.''

Her father, who had grown up in New York and Massachusetts, came to Ohio in the early 1940s as a young civilian engineer at Wright Field in Dayton.

There, he joined the Army Air Corps. After a year of training, he was sent to an air base in England. That's where, as a lieutenant and bombardier, he joined the 8th Air Force's 458th Bomb Group and was assigned to the crew of Rhapsody in Junk. He was on his third bombing mission when Rhapsody in Junk went down before it could hit its target in nearby Hamburg.

Early this year, Walton received an e-mail from a 14-year-old German boy named Matthias Martensen, who said his grandfather had been contacted by an employee of one of the German newspapers in which Walton had placed ads looking for witnesses to the June 18, 1944, crash.

His grandfather, Matthias said, knew three witnesses in Blick. If she were to come to Germany, Matthias said, he would be glad to act as her translator.

She took him up on the offer. Matthias asked his teacher for a few days off school - which she granted, on the condition he write about his experience for the school magazine.

So, as the Waltons traveled around Schleswig-Holstein, meeting Bartel and dozens of other Germans, Matthias and his grandfather went along.

"I learned a lot about the history of my country and about the history of the world,'' Matthias wrote in an e-mail to the Enquirer this week. "I have been very pleased to get into contact with Mrs. Walton and her husband, who are such nice and warm people. It was also great for me to help finding out more and more details about the plane crash.''

The Waltons also traveled to Zagan, Poland, where, during World War II, the Nazis operated Stalag Luft III, the prison camp featured in the book and movie The Great Escape.

It was where her father was imprisoned for 10 months. In January 1945, as Russian troops were approaching, Jeffers and his fellow POWs were ordered to embark on a brutal march through sub-zero temperatures and blizzard conditions to Bavaria. That's where, in April, they were liberated.

"Dad could never tell the story of seeing the Nazi flag hauled down and the American flag raised at his camp without breaking into tears,'' Walton said.

Jeffers stayed in the Air Force after the war, retiring from the service as a lieutenant colonel. Although he had made many trips to Germany over the years, he never returned to the scene of his capture. By the time his daughter and son-in-law left on their 10-day journey, he was too ill to travel.

On the day the Waltons crossed the Atlantic Ocean for their trip to Germany, Jeffers suffered a severe stroke. Since then, he has been at a nursing home outside Oxford, where Walton and her sister take turns sitting by his side.

He is frail and cannot speak. He has difficulty focusing.

But Monday, when Walton came to his room with the rubber patch, the tea strainer and the metal hook, his eyes followed her around the room.

She placed the tea strainer in her father's hand, leaned over him and gently kissed his forehead.

"Look, Dad, I brought your plane back to you,'' she said, stroking his white hair. "Part of it anyway. Rhapsody in Junk has come back to you.''


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