My second encounter with a crashed aircraft came just four months later on a snowy field south of newly liberated county town Rožňava. This time it was an American B-17 Flying Fortress which made a successful belly landing in deep snow. The bomber sustained extensive battle damage during its mission somewhere over Poland and could not return to its home base in Italy. Its fuselage was intact and, apparently, the crew survived and found refuge in the nearby forest.
I visited this aircraft with two of my classmates from Rožňava’s secondary school that had reopened after war’s frontal passage in January 1945. We were awed by the size of this huge four engine bomber. It was structurally intact; however, its insides were stripped of all instrumentation and other removable parts. There was plenty of visible battle damage from anti-aircraft artillery and perhaps even from some interceptors that might have attacked it from the air. I sat down in each crewmember’s seat and imagined how it must have been to sustain all that crippling damage. Still movable gun turrets fascinated me the most. Even though I had not yet flown in an airplane before I imagined how it must have been to defend this bomber against the swifter enemy interceptors that must have swarmed around such huge and slower moving airplane.
Seventy-six years later, in 2021, my brother forwarded me an article about a lady from Rakovnica, Helena Mišurdová, who was a nurse that helped two of the injured crewmembers of this aircraft. She hid them in the basement of her hospital until the Russians liberated Rožňava. This article was published in the 24 September 2021 issue of Ľítanie na Vikend. The story had a photograph of two turret gunners and revealed that their bomber was one of 31 that departed from Italian air base at Torretta to bomb targets in Poland. The bomber formation came under enemy attack while flying over Hungary and this Flying Fortress became one of its victims.
Much earlier, in 1953, when I was already a second-year university student in the USA, I visited my godfather Ľudovit Linczenyi in Canada during Christmas holidays. He was the older son of Paloma’s Lutheran minister who had been a democratic representative in the Czechoslovak legislature. He had to escape to Germany after the Russian supported Communist Party took over the government in February 1948 and he became a political target as an enemy of the state. Eventually, he immigrated to Canada. He informed me about how he and my father escorted two escaping American airmen of Rožňava’s Flying Fortress from Kobeliarovo to a band of partizans in a Súlová forest near my home so that they could lead them across the front line into Russian custody.
This revelation surprised me because our father never shared the event with our family. Godfather asked me to help him to locate the two airmen. Because part of my university education was Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) he thought that I could find out how to find such airmen. I was sure that I could help because I knew that Colonel Luther Bevins, commander of our ROTC department, was a former B-17 pilot. I also knew that he had flown in the B-17 bombers from a base in Italy. He did not recall the loss of this aircraft because there were too many of them.
The Colonel was confident that he could find out about the fate of the airmen. Godfather did not have their names, but he gave me their photograph that was of poor quality because it was taken by the light of a kerosene lantern. Their faces were too white and lacked distinguishing features. He learned after the war that their escape to the Russian occupied territory was not successful. They were captured by the Hungarians at the next safe house and turned over to the Germans. Because the Germans were known for treating American prisoners of war properly, Col. Bevins believed that they probably survived their German imprisonment. He wrote articles for some military publications with details of the crash and their unsuccessful evasion. He received a reply from only one magazine. It was the one that received the only existing photo of the airmen. The reply was that they were not able to publish the photograph because of its poor quality. Other magazines did not respond to the searching stories.
In 1990, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was safe for me to return to my native village, where I spent much time in the attic of the house in which I was born. There I scanned through family documents and photographs covering my 41 year period of separation from the family. One of the most significant documents I located was a short testimony letter drafted by my godfather in his capacity as a democratic representative of national legislature. It described how he and my father escorted two American airmen from a safe house in Kobeliarovo to custody of partizans on the way to the next safe house in Henclova, a small isolated village that was at that time very close to the Russian front line.
Here is a loose translation of my godfather’s document:
I hereby attest that Ján Garguš, born on March 10, 1908, in Ve ľká Poloma, teacher, currently serving at a middle school in Rožňava, continued in underground service after the cessation of the Slovak National Uprising against the occupying German forces. I joined with him in saving and hiding American airmen who were forced down near Rožňava. Two airmen were successful in evading and hiding in Kobeliarovo. We assisted them by delivering them to a partizan unit that would take them to a safe house in Henclová and then across the front line into Russian custody. Their safe passage did not succeed. They were captured by the Germans in Henclová.