The Day That Changed Everything

When I was growing up
everyone thought my father was really my grandfather. I didn't mind that much.
I knew that we were different, that my little family with my older father and
glamorous mother weren't quite like the other families we knew.

My father was really good at
making light of it. People would come up to us in restaurants when we were out
for a father-daughter pancake breakfast, and pat me on the head and ask,
"Is this your granddaughter?"

"Nope," my father
would reply with a twinkle in his eye, "she's my grandson's aunt."

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He was always like that —
lighthearted and confident that everything would end up okay. Even in the most
stressful situations he was able to not just stay calm, but to stay light and
balanced and trusting that things would work out in the best possible way.

I'm not sure if this was a
result of what happened on December 17th, 1944 or not, but I know that every
year on today's date my father took time to honor this date for the way it
changed his life and for the way it made him into who he was.

The story goes like this:

My father was 24 years old.
He’d enlisted in the Army Air Corps the day after the attacks on Pearl Harbor
and had been assigned the role of piloting a B-24 Liberator—a giant bomber
plane. He and his crew of 10 men spent a few weeks learning the mechanics of
the thing. None of them had ever flown a plane. Some of them had never even
seen a plane. They were kids. They’d grown up on farms and outside of cities,
boys from big families with brothers and sisters and chores. Most of them hadn’t
gone to college, few of them had ever left their hometown.

 Arthur Carlson, Vrooman
Francisco, Milton Klarsfeld, Edwin Howard, David Brewer, Abraham Abramson,
Clifton Stewart, Morris Goldman, John Modrovsky, and my father, Gerald Smith.
The name of their plane was Arsenic and Lace. In an old black and white group
photo they are lined up in front of the nose. Wearing uniforms and flight
suits, their chests puffed out, they grin into the camera. Half of them wouldn’t
return home.

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They flew to Europe in the
fall of 1944 and on October 17th they embarked on the first of 11
missions, dropping bombs over specific targets in Germany, railroad tracks and
oil refineries and the like. Stationed on the Adriatic Sea in Southern Italy,
every week they were sent out on another mission. By December they really knew
what they were doing, were able to communicate with each other throughout that
enormous, gleaming machine, yelling back and forth over intercom as the doors
in the belly of the plane swung open to release those heavy bombs.

On December 17th,
1944, my father’s crew was on a mission to bomb the Odertal oil refineries in
Germany. They were about six miles over the Czech city of Olomouc, when their
number three engine was shot out by a German P-38 fighter. My father
immediately issued a verbal command over the intercom to abandon ship.  Cliff Stewart, tail gunner, and John
Modrovsky, ball turret gunner, were the first to bail out from the tail,
leaving behind the two dead bodies of Abe Abramson, radio operator, and Edwin
Howard, flight engineer.

My father, pulling with him
his terrified co-pilot Vro Francisco, jumped head first out the bomb bay doors,
leaving behind the dead bodies of bombardier Art Carlson, and upper turret
gunner, Morris Goldman. The navigator, Milt Klarsfeld, who had passed out
trying to make it out of the plane, was blown clear when it exploded several
moments later, and he came to in the sky, pulling his ripcord as he fell
through the clouds. Similarly, my father hit his head jumping out through the
bomb bay doors, going unconscious for a few moments before also coming to, and
pulling his rip cord, the silky parachute floating him gently down through the
cloud cover to land in a snowy field about eight miles outside the town of
Olomouc.

He was captured by the Germans shortly after that and taken to a prison camp on the icy lip of the Baltic Sea, where he would live out the remaining six months of the war. When the war was over the Germans fled the camps and my father and some of the other officers raided the offices. My father found and stole his mug shot and a few other documents.

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For a long time when I was growing up I had a hard time listening to my father's stories. They were boring and dusty old things, words and descriptions that seemed better off in a text book somewhere than in our living room.

That changed as I grew older and I began to appreciate him for the man he was. For the last several years of my father's life I tape-recorded hours and hours of his stories. Everywhere we went I taped him. As we sat in restaurants or over the dinner table, each time he launched into a story about his past (which was often) I pressed the little red "record" button.

I haven't listened to any of those tapes in a long time, but my father's stories still resound in my head. They were a part of who he was, just as today's date was a part of who he was.

Every year on December 17th,
for as long as I can remember, my father toasted to his lost crew members. I
remember the way he’d lean back in his chair, a watery vodka martini in his
hand, raised high to those five men who never made it out of that plane. I
think it was something he was always aware of—this time he was allotted, the
places he got to go, the people he was allowed to love, this life he lived.

Please take a moment today, for my father, and for all the men and women like him in this world, and raise your glass high.

Dad Mountains

Is there a time in your family's history that changed everything?


15 comments

15 Comments

  • Antonia
    Posted December 17, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    totally totally amazing and what awesome insight to have recorded these stories! I have goosebumps!

  • Posted December 17, 2009 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Claire, as I scrolled down the page reading this I was struck absolutely dumb by the face looking at me in your father’s mug shot. You are certainly your father’s girl! I always love reading your stories about your family, and your father’s stories always strike a chord in me. He sounds like such a lovely–but determined and strong and heroic–man.
    I wonder…have you ever spoken with any of the families of the other men in your father’s past?

  • Posted December 17, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Tricia. I do lean towards my Dads side of the family looks-wise. Although I think I also emulate my mother, so its confusing.
    And yes, my father was in touch with all the other guys…and sadly, Ive lost touch with them since he died. Im not sure if any of them are still alive.

  • Posted December 17, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Antonia!

  • Posted December 17, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Well truthfully, whenever I see a picture of your mom, too, I think Holy smokes she looks just like her mom! too…I dont think I ever saw a picture of your dad so young so I think it was just striking to see.

  • Posted December 17, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Yeah…sadly I dont have that many photos of my Dad before I was born.

  • Posted December 17, 2009 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Claire, this is a wonderful post. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Posted December 17, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    p.s. Those photos of your Dad from the POW war camp: What a hunk!

  • Posted December 17, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Ha! Thanks, Andrea! And thanks for stopping by. Um, and thanks for that awesome party last weekend. Definitely the best holiday party of the season.

  • Joan Payne
    Posted December 16, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I will toast you Father and his crew tomorrow, such brave, brave young men. Clifton Stewart was a roommate of my Uncle(Robert W. Whitney) in Stalag 1.

  • Posted December 18, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Oh, thank you! I love it. Im so happy to hear from you. Email coming…

  • zuzana kucerova
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Claire, amazing story – today is Memorial Day 2012. I called from my home in Atlanta to my mother, she lives in Olomouc, Czech Republic. We start talking and she told me her old story about americans she saw after they landed with parachutes near Olomouc cemetery in December 1944. She was 12 years old at that time and thought that Nazists killed them…I checked internet today and have found not only names of crew but also that they they stories after they were captured. My mom was so happy that they survived a war! She remember one old lady who touched one american on his arm to thank him silently. To see americans in middle of “protektorat Bohmen und Mahren” was very incouraging for local people giving them streight for surviving nazistic occupation…thank your father and his crew!!!Zuzana from Atlanta

  • Posted May 30, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    How cool, Zuzana. Thank you for sharing your story!

  • James E Grady
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Today,I attended a 90th birthday for my 1st boss,Milt Klarsfeld,I was sifting the pages of information on his service during WW II,and was fascinated by the stories and tales of the “HEROES” he served with,including your dad.Thank God for them,and their service to our country,and world !

  • Posted August 19, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Wow, amazing! Wish I could have been there too!

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