Sixty-nine years ago, an unknown pilot took this picture of my father, Lt. John T. Cravey, flying his P-51 Mustang. Look closely and you’ll see a second person behind him. This must have been autumn 1944, when he was a flight instructor at Key Field in Mississippi shortly before he boarded some ship somewhere that would take him across the Atlantic, likely to North Africa. From there he would probably fly to his home base destination, the U.S. airdrome in San Severo, Italy. He arrived in January 1944 at the height of the coldest winter in European history. What became known as The Battle of the Bulge was not yet finished in the Ardennes.
The mission of the fighter pilots at the airdrome was primarily to escort bombers to targets in Germany, where they were to bomb Nazi infrastructure. The fighters had their own targets as well, mostly in Bavaria around Munich, and those were often termed “freelancing.” In order to reach those rendezvous with the bombers and targets, the fighters flew over the southern Tyrol into Austria, near Innsbruck, and headed left toward Munich.
On February 22, 1945, he took off on a mission into southern Germany to fly with the bombers and do as much damage to rail lines and other targets as possible. As it turned out, this was a historic turning point in the War. The headline and body copy in a United Press report from London printed in a newspaper I can’t identify, said:9,000 Planes Pound Nazi Rail Lines: Greatest Air Fleet of War Deals Kayo Blow. In a massive coordinated attack, planned and mapped to the last detail, warplanes from all the air forces in the European theater blasted rail lines in western German and [other sites]. . . One Air Force spokesman said the unprecedented strike was aimed at ‘crippling German communications’. . . . Every kind of plane at the disposal of the Allied air chiefs was thrown into combat
The article notes that when the Russian Red Air Force planes over the Eastern Front were counted, the total in the air that day would be closer to 11,000 planes. After this air offensive, World War II was all but over.
Hitting the Silk
My dad’s first problem that February afternoon about 2 p.m. was that he took flak and had to turn back toward home base. The officer for whom he was wing man, Capt. R.H. Zierenberg, was accompanying him. He watched the whole thing. Dad’s second problem was that his P-51 engine conked out, and by now they were over the Tyrolean Alps. His third problem was that he had to bail out onto a 10,000-foot mountain peak. And his fourth problem, the most life-threatening, was the extreme cold.
In April, Capt. Zierenberg wrote my mother a long letter telling her everything he knew about dad’s bailout. At the end of the letter, he hand drew a map of the area where dad went down (pictured below). That was all he knew. And that was all mom knew. She spent the next few months relentlessly chasing information, much of which is preserved in the scrapbook she eventually put together.
His story is one of dedication, determination against all odds, and survival. How he survived his descent from Zukerheutl, the mountain he landed on, and the following few months in a forced march in the continuing cold to the German POW camp, Moosberg, remains as astonishing as it is unlikely. Nevertheless he survived.
My father’s POW picture
taken by the Nazis at a POW processing center
My sister’s and my story of discovering details of his survival and return to the United States and home in June 1945, which began only a year ago, is also as astonishing as it is unlikely.
Those are stories for another day. On this day I want to remember my father and my brother. Dad survived; my brother, Lt. John James Cravey, did not. His name is one of the 53,000 on the Viet Nam Memorial. I miss them deeply.