[Back to Home Page]
[md] Today I am talking again with Michael Battilana.
Michael, let's talk about something completely different, something in your personal life.
Let's talk about your POW [prisoners of war] interviews, OK?
[mcb] That's surprising [expecting a software-related topic], yes...
[md] I think it's quite interesting, are you willing to talk to people about that?
[mcb] Yes, I am...
These are World War II veterans I am meeting. They were not prisoners, except, unfortunately very briefly, in one case. It all relates to some events which happened in my family's history during World War II. In Germany, in Freilassing, which is a town on the border with Austria. It's very near Salzburg, by the way. You can cross the bridge on foot, and cross the border.
My grandfather is from 1900, so he would be 108 now. He died at 97, in great shape. He was doing everything independently, up to the end. He was drafted in 1942, when he was already quite "old", and he went in a medical reserve unit, where he was trained as an EMT, for medical support. And he left his family alone while...
[md] This is in Germany?
[mcb] This is in Germany, yes. So, my grandmother, in 1942, was left alone, in the new house they had built. Because, you know, in the 1930s the economy was going quite well, in Germany, which was also one of the reasons why people were generally less critical than you might think now about the state of affairs in the 1930s.
[md] Especially since the 1920s had been so bad...
[mcb] Yes, you know, after World War I there was nothing, and even after World War II there was no food and nothing... We had photographs on my grandfather's wall, [from] 1918. He was there ,sitting with beer mugs with his friends, and he told me "You know, the mugs are empty, we just took those pictures because we did that as a celebration, but [in] the mugs there was no beer."
So in the 1930s the economy goes a bit better, and my grandfather, he had a business, he had a sawmill, and he used to prepare wood for ski factories. But he was drafted in 1942 when they started drafting everyone, even if he was already 42, and in 1945, towards the end of the war, in this village of my grandparents' something happened which left a sign for many, many years to come.
The village has been largely unaffected by the war. I mean, there was a railway junction, there were military materials, there was Hitler's Alps resort nearby, which had expanded over the years and which the Allied forced, well they had this theory that maybe at the end of the war it could be used as a retreat, you know. And so, the railway there also went on to that place.
You had sirens when there were planes approaching, but except for a few cases where there were fighter planes shooting a bit, there was no major thing, no bombings and so on.
Until, on April 16, 1945 some US fighter planes were on a mission in the Salzburg area, they flew back through the area, and they were hit by flak [?] and one pilot crash-landed. His name was Chester. And he was captured. So he survived the crash landing quite well. He was slightly injured, he was put on a truck, "paraded" through town, tied in rows. My aunt and other children at school were brought to this place where they would see him and they were told that they should spit at him. And afterwards the mayor and [some] who assisted him, they brought him in the woods and they shot at him.
[md] So by "shot at" you mean they killed him?
[mcb] They killed him, yes.
This mayor was also a local Nazi leader. He also had arrested my grandmother several times "because she was not a party member", in spite of the fact that she was alone with children, and my grandfather was away. And this left a sign, because, I mean, everybody felt guilty for this...
And the week after, on April 25, the town was almost destroyed. They were bombed, in what seemed one bombing to the people, they were actually bombed twice by two entirely different units, who did not know about each other. So in the afternoon the American planes came from France [and Belgium] and they bombed a target, and in the evening the Royal Air Force came from Italy and they hit the train station area, which was a wider area. And since they were also bombing later during the day, towards evening, night, it was maybe because of that less precise, and they hit a wider area. Also the target was wider, and the village was built around the train station area.
The result was that people connected these two events. Whether true or not true, it was written in [some] books that the town was "punished" as a retaliation for the killing of the American pilot. It was destroyed.
[md] How big was the village? What was the population of the village?
[mcb] A few thousand. I mean, there were "limited" casualties compared to the material devastation because they had been warned, there were alarms, and [almost] everybody was in the shelters. But still...
[md] The village was destroyed.
[mcb] My grandfather's house was burned down, his wood factory was destroyed... My grandmother and aunt, they went back to the burning house, and they went in just to rescue things...
My grandmother was like crazy, throwing pots out of the window of the kitchen, and my aunt, she went to my grandfather's room, and she got his ties. Because she imagined her father, when he comes back, he would need his tie. So she didn't get her doll, she got my grandfather's ties. So, when my grandfather came back, he had lost everything: health, work, the house which he had built... I mean, he had accomplished something which even I haven't accomplished: building a nice house like that, at a quite young age. And it left a sign. It took him some years to recover.
We were taught even as children that you can always lose everything. Things can change in life. There was a picture hanging on the wall, at the entrance, of how the house was after it was bombed. And more than just a sad story for us children, it was something also "interesting", because you imagine this... I imagined a single plane dropping a bomb, you know... It was a very simple thing.
We didn't know, was it British, was it American, what was it? Even the story about the pilot, my grandmother had seen him, my aunt had seen him, but who was he, was it really connected or not? We didn't know.
My mother's generation could not ask about the war. It was inappropriate. I was more free to ask things, from concentration camps to what the people knew or didn't know [about the camps], and so on... I was inquisitive and curious. Even after that, as an extension of my grandparents, I had this curiosity to know and see what they could not know and see. Which is, the people who actually were flying there [in 1945].
My grandmother thought [the bombing] was a punishment, my grandfather said "No, [the two events] were not related." So they had different opinions.
But we knew nothing.
Actually, for the story of this pilot the mayor had been sentenced to death by a war crimes tribunal. So on a formal side justice had been made. I am not looking for "justice". This is a story about people. And for some reason it stayed inside me as something...
[md] One of the other things we'd been talking the other day too, that "affected" you... Didn't you say that your grandfather didn't allow you to watch American movies? He was evidently quite bitter?
[mcb] That's right. He was also a prisoner of war before coming home. He was a prisoner in Italy first under the Americans and then under the British.
And he wouldn't allow us to watch American films on TV. If there was something American, we had to see something else.
We didn't quite understand this, but still it was one of the things like the pictures on the walls which made you think about this, and maybe want to know more.
So, in 2005, which is 60 years after these events, even the last documents which were "secret" for 60 years were opened. Previously, already in 1995, there were some 50-year terms which expired. Plus, you got the internet. And the fact that many of these people are still alive. And it allowed me to do some research.
I [first] found about this mission by the American forces in the afternoon of April 25. And the Pentagon, surprisingly, within a few hours, their historical section, they sent me documents and I could choose the pictures that I could request at another archive, for real microfilm copies. I saw the mission orders and reports, and so on. And I understood that it was more complex than I thought. Because this bombing could not have hit my grandparents' house. And it could not have destroyed the town as it was destroyed. So I again had to start from scratch. So I found out that there was another mission, by a completely independent unit which didn't even know about the other one... By the Royal Air Force, flying in from Italy. And their target was the train station area. And that's how I found George in the UK, who still was an active historian for his group. And he was a rear gunner on these planes. So in the rear of the bomber you had this gun, where you try to defend your plane from attacking fighter planes. That was a very dangerous job, because the fighter planes would come from below, and the first thing they would [try to] hit was the rear gunner. So then everything would be clear for them.
I met with George in the UK, and it was a very emotional meeting. I was surprised by how much need there still is for people to meet, to understand, to heal and to bring closure in these things. I mean, we still have people who feel guilty for that. And if they just got a chance to get together, it would be good. And so we exchanged photographs, and pictures, and we met in the UK. I am very thankful to him for this meeting, and for the other contacts he gave me.
Two days ago, near Toronto, I met with Peter, another rear gunner. He also has a vivid memory of that mission. Because it was their last mission, even if he didn't know at the time. It was one of the most important missions, because they were told, you know "All these Germans are coming up from Italy." And then there were trains amassing in the area, and there was Hitler's area in the Alps. So it was an increasingly important target. Also as they flew they did not know about this fighter plane pilot who had been killed the previous week.
And now let me tell you more about this. I did not know his name. In the town nobody I know knows his name. So I had to go through the Missing [Air] Crew Reports of the time period, both for the US and British forces. So I was able to find him at the end. And next weekend I am visiting one pilot who was flying with him on that day. That will be near Phoenix, Arizona.
So, just as you are keeping this oral history of [software] things, I started this week filming these meetings. With their permission. I am not used to doing this. It takes me a few minutes to even forget that there is a camera. But they have been very kind, and they helped me too, these gentlemen.
So I found the name of this pilot. He is now buried in New York. He didn't have [a] family [of his own]. He is from Cape Cod, actually, near Boston here where we are. I'll see if I find someone in the area in the next few days. But I did not find any relatives so far.
So I have witness accounts from the people who lived these days and it brings me back also to my family and it somehow brings a feeling of closure to this whole thing. And I wish that we [could] do more. I mean, as I said, the town felt guilty, feels guilty, my aunt she's still there, she remembers this. You were told to spit at him, and [then] he was killed, it's terrible. You can understand that even if it was not true that the two events were related, that they felt that they had been punished. It was even liberating, maybe, to believe that.
But I could not find any records about any relationship. The people on the other planes, on the fighter planes, saw their friend who was leaving the aircraft, and so they thought [that] maybe he will get captured, or whatever, but he was OK as far as they knew. There was a report about somebody killed, without name, in the following days, but probably it was not known until after the bombing. This is a personal story. I am doing it for personal reasons...
[md] So, what is your next step?
[mcb] Meeting with the friend of the fallen pilot, Chester. And I am shooting videos of this. Also of my family's memories. And maybe we can share this altogether.
[md] How does your family feel about this project?
Well, of course they are surprised that it's still possible to meet with these people. You know, its' as if time stood still, in a way.
But this is like it was in my grandparents' family: you went to the cellar, and they still had the things from those days. In a way, time stood still. And these gentlemen have very "fresh" memories of those days. They remember the events. They remember the feelings when they were in the air. Whether they were afraid or not, focused on the mission or not.
They remember seeing everything burning, on the flight back. They were on the rear of the plane, it was a clear night. [They remember] what they were feeling about that, about the people on the ground. And I'll tell you that even for them, they had to process this. And it was not easy. So, even now, talking helps, meeting helps, and doing that after so many years, it surprises me that it's still so alive, that it's still so beneficial to do this.
In any case, for me, I have to admit, it also brings back my grandparents a little bit. Because I grew up with their memories, so that's an extension of them. So many stories about the war, about what they were doing, about how it affected them, and so we exchange ideas. I mean... it's also emotional for me, sorry... to do this, an be there with the people who were there in those days.
[md] It's a very impressive story, thanks for sharing that with us, Michael.
[mcb] Thank you, Mike. And I have to say you inspired me in part about the "recording thing", you know, with your interviews. Because otherwise it would be lost...
Copyright © 2008 Michael C. Battilana