“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

WWII Hero, MIA for 70 Years, Comes Home

Special Introduction: I’ve shared a several posts over the past couple of years about the discovery of my father’s WWII P-51 fighter plane high atop a Tyrolean glacier. That story began 70 years ago in Feb 1945; dad bailed out, succeeded in descending the mountain, was cared for by some villagers in the valley below, and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp. His story reached a resolution of sorts this past summer when my sister and I visited the valley, got a view of the crash site and met with villagers who remember dad.

A parallel story about dad’s first cousin Peyton Mathis has been developing over those same 70 years. His story began a few months before dad’s plane went down, and now comes to its resolution this week. My first cousin Emory Kimbrough has done the research and made the contacts with the people involved in this story. Here it is:

 

By guest writer, Emory Kimbrough

 

World War II pilot, Major Peyton Spottswood Mathis, Jr., USAAF, will be returned home to Montgomery, Alabama, after seventy years as MIA on Guadalcanal. On the morning of January 1, 2015, the plane carrying Mathis’ remains will land in Birmingham, where a special escort will release the casket in a ceremonial transfer to the family and funeral director. An escorted motorcade to Greenwood cemetery in Montgomery will follow the transfer.

 

Mathis will be laid to rest next to his father and near his mother and step-mother in a formal military burial ceremony at 2 p.m., January 3, 2015, at Greenwood cemetery. 3-Mathis Portrait 1

 

 

As commanding officer of the 44th Fighter Squadron, Mathis was returning with his squadron on June 5, 1944, to Kukum Field on Guadalcanal, after a bombing mission on Japanese facilities was recalled. Mathis suffered an engine failure in his P-38J. After jettisoning his two 500-pound bomb clusters into the sea, he instructed his squadron to land ahead of him.

1-MathisGuadalcanalMathis on Guadalcanal

Mathis flew over the airfield and turned into a landing pattern. For unknown reasons he aborted his final turn and flew south. He was last seen from the airfield disappearing behind hills. Another pilot flying an A-24 saw Mathis’ fighter flip on its back and crash into a ravine. The squadron’s maintenance and engineering officer led a search party in a difficult four to five hour push through the jungle to reach the crash site. They found the aircraft nose-down in a swampy creek with only the tail booms exposed. Pvt. G. H. Hanna swam down six to eight feet to reach the submerged cockpit, but was unable to free Mathis. Exhausted and lacking tools, the search party returned to the airfield.

On February 10, 1949, a Graves Registration company attempted to locate and recover the remains, but the crash site could not be found. The P-38 had likely settled into the swamp, and the crash site was lost to history.

The mystery remained for seven decades until a farmer clearing land for planting saw some metal sticking up out of a swamp. The farmer, Eddy Aku, contacted Anders Markwarth, an Australian resident of Guadalcanal known for recovering military artifacts. Eddy led Markwarth to the swamp at night to keep the site secret from anyone who might harvest the metal without permission or respect for the pilot’s remains.

Aku and his cousin found remains at the site, and within days, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) arrived, beginning a year-long procedure to definitively identify the remains found in and near the cockpit. With the aid of local Solomon Islanders, JPAC constructed sandbag dams to pump out water for investigation and recovery. The remains were transferred to Hawaii. Evidence from forensic anthropology and military records would be investigated, along with DNA testing against a sample from a relative of Mathis’ mother, Laura Davis Mathis.

                                                       The JPAC team working at Maj. Peyton Mathis’ crash site on Guadalcanal

3-JPAC -Dam and Pump Efforts2-JPAC Work

Mathis had no children, but Peyton Mathis III, of Montgomery, whose father was Mathis’ half-brother, is named in his honor. He has been searching for over a decade for more substantial information about the war hero he was named for. Mathis had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Silver Star in North Africa before his tour in the Pacific.

Personnel who helped in the planning for Mathis’ return to Alabama include Karen Johnson with Mortuary Affairs at Fr. Knox, KY, and Major Robert Tindall, Casualty Assistance Officer, Ft. Benning, GA. According to Mathis III, the JPAC team was more thorough than he could have anticipated, explaining why the process took a year to complete.

“It is now quite clear why the I.D process and notification of the family is such a lengthy process. They are so thorough and meticulous that it is almost miraculous that we got our results as quickly as we did. We were given a bound report that documents all of the steps in the discovery and identification process and chronicles the events that started on the day of the crash, June 5, 1944 through basically the present, and Karen literally went through it page by page for our benefit,” said Mathis.

JPAC’s mission is to bring America’s fallen soldiers home, no matter the difficulty or cost. Their teams may go to the jungles of Vietnam and Laos, the deserts of North Africa, Europe, and Korea. These recovery missions sometimes require complex diplomacy, are often difficult, and sometimes dangerous.

Anderson Cooper recently aired a piece on 60 Minutes dealing with a WWII aircraft’s crash site and the pilot’s remains, as well as featuring the group that researches such sites.

 

                                        JPAC recovery missions sometimes require complex diplomacy, are often difficult, and sometimes dangerous.

                                                                                         4-JPAC Team  1-JPAC Work D

The New Year will begin the 70th Anniversary of the end of WWII, and the year will bring numerous memories, events, memorials, stories, and finally, celebrations. Unhappily, at the same time, the United States is losing its WWII veterans at a high rate. Estimates put the number at 1,000 a day. Some 16 million Americans from all walks of life served in the war to bring an end to the scourge of Hitler’s and Japan’s oppressive forces worldwide.

 

Photos provided by Emory Kimbrough (who restored the oldest pictures), Anders Markwarth, and the JPAC team.

 

 

Riding the AlCan to Grow Up in Anchorage


GUA1_Final-cropped
GrowingUpAnchorage.com is not a blog, but a group venture dedicated to preserving authentic
stories of life in Anchorage during the 1940s through the 1980s.  These are not the narratives
of the luminous historical figures in Alaska’s history; rather they are the memories of everyday
people who lived under rather extraordinary conditions.

Growing Up Anchorage invited me to contribute stories to this fun blog, and I was honored and pleased to join in. The twenty-three contributing writers represent locations and states from Florida to Moose Pass, Alaska; several are descendants of Athabascan Native Americans in Alaska; their memories and experiences are as varied as your imagination can make up.

My first post tells the story of how I learned that my father, a career officer in the U.S. Air Force, got orders to take us to Alaska, a place I had never located on a map. Simply getting there was an adventure of a lifetime: driving for six weeks from Alabama across this country, upward to Anchorage on the 1,700-mile AlCan Highway as it was in 1958 – unpaved, pot-holed, fire-smoke infested, and gorgeous.

If you look really, really close, you can see the royal            
blue Packard camouflaged by AlCan dust (below).             
PackardonAlCan-ed6AlCan-edWhen we got here, we still had a long trip ahead                                                                 

Please join us at this magical location.








The Meaning of Crashite Hunting: Real World War II Legends

In the second e-mail I got from Roland Domanig two years ago, September 9, 2012 – after my terse reply to the first one asking that he verify his identity, he wrote:

I assure that all is OK with me. One

Identity you see on my mentor’s homepage Keith Bullock

http://www.bullock.at/

. . . .

For third:

In short sentences: but more to follow

We visited your father’s crashite.

 clip_image002

The first photo Roland sent of the location of dad’s P-51 crash site on Übeltal Glacier

 

I looked up, turned my head to the window, and said, “What the hell is a crashite?” The e-mail continued:

 

We/I assume you are his daughter, as you delivered all info in your blog “Spittin Grits”, we had either [earlier?]. So there was 100% correspondence.

Could Lt. John T. Cravey be STILL WITH US? Was our question on tour when

Talking about this pilot.

Again I looked up and said, “Does he mean ‘crash site’? That’s impossible.”

 

Yet here we were. Here to see dad’s crash site, but driving back to Innsbruck, wasting a day, to pick up the infernal Hertz car. I used the time to ask questions.

 

“Roland, tell me again what motivated you to get so involved in finding and researching crash sites?” I was madly writing in my journal as we drove.

 

Roland laughed. I had asked this questions several times over the past two years of being in constant communication. It was clear that he spent a lot of time and energy (and probably money) on this “hobby.” A toll booth was coming up. He kept his eyes on the road. While talking and asking questions, I tried to look at the surroundings as we drove the Brenner Pass on a sunny day. A tunnel was coming up.

 

“For our or all ancestors we do this research as hobby. And we are happy if we find interested living -- and loving -- people to talk with them about this crash,” explained Roland. “Sometime we find crash survivor.”

 

I turned back to the scenery. There’s no way to get a clean sense of going through this pass, I thought to myself. Autobahn traffic. Speeds. Toll booths and 18-wheelers, four lanes on both the north- and south-bound sides. It’s about all your eyes can send to your brain.

 

“How did you get started?” I asked.

 

Then I thought to myself, you’re crossing over the Alps, dummy. Pay attention. My mind flashed with the memory of driving downward out of Glacier National Park in 1958 on our reassignment trip to Alaska. Winding downward at such a steep angle scared me. Living in Alaska for three years cured that. This brain flash directed me to dad, who was driving that downward spiral Glacier road: What would he think of this trip to see his crash site? How would he feel? How would he have felt when first getting the news it had been found? By Anton Volgger, of all people?  (Anton’s connection with dad’s story will come later.)

 

Anton (l) and a colleague at the debris field on of dad’s P-51 on Übeltal Glacier

clip_image004

 

“There,” said Roland, bringing me back to the Pass. “Mountain of dolomite. That is.” My sister Susan and I had wanted to visit The Dolomites, wherever exactly they are.

 

Off to the right, as if iced with white glitter-glue, the entire mountain glistened in the sun. What a sight, I thought. I guessed that it was some kind of marble or mineral. Suddenly this morning’s vision of Zuckerhutl in the unimpeded sunshine raced through my mind. I’ve got to practice remembering that sight, I thought.

 

Now I saw that there were many mountains of dolomite, all glistening, but it must be different from The Dolomites dad and mom talked about, and how beautiful they were. Yes, they’re different, I discovered. The Dolomites are located south of Roland’s hometown of Lienz, Austria, into Italy toward Bolzano.

 

Roland broke the reverie. “You see, interest happened when my aunt once told me about her experience with a going down bomber aiming at her house and almost making a victim of that crash. That bomber crashed near my town Lienz,” he explained. “That was 1999. I started research then after talking to mentor Keith Bullock. Anton knows about six crash sites; I do about 20.”

We were nearing Innsbruck. We were to meet Jakob Mayer, whom we had met at the Innsbruck train station. Jakob is, with Roland, in the inner circle of the crash site archaeologists, researchers, and historians who mentored under Keith Bullock.

 

After coffee, again at the Europa Hotel and after I picked up the car, we drove west to the outskirts of town to visit the crash site of B-17 “Priority Gal.” Jakob had been the moving force behind establishing a bronze plaque at the site in honor of the Flying Fortress’s pilot. The site was located on a slope of the mountain where events at the Innsbruck 2002 Winter Olympics were held. Jakob gave me a copy of the astonishing 2006 story published in a New Jersey newspaper.

 

Below: Jakob Mayer and myself at the Priority Gal crashsite

clip_image006 clip_image008

 

This B-17 Flying Fortress had taken flak over Munich. Two engines (out of only four) were on fire. Pilot Lt. Henry Supchak decided to aim for Switzerland rather than go down in Nazi territory. Over Innsbruck, still a long way from Switzerland, the plane took more flak. The crew couldn’t put out the fire in one engine, and flames were aiming for a fuel tank. Supchak ordered everyone to bail. Right then! The Priority Gal went into a nose dive. Centrifugal force pinned him down, keeping him from bailing. Then a sudden updraft righted the plane momentarily. He looked out and saw that Priority Gal was aimed directly at the town. In a split second he decided to trim the plane to far left, then jump. Priority Gal crashed on the outskirts, thereby saving the town and inhabitants, but wounding a small boy and his aunt as it crashed.

 

Supchak’s quick decision had also saved his crew members, but their ordeal was not over. They all spent the remainder of the war in two Nazi POW camps, including dad’s at Moosburg near Munich, where they and 80,000 other POWs would be liberated by George Patton’s troops April 29, 1945.

 

The story of the pilot of Priority Gal was legend in Innsbruck. His story didn’t end there either, thanks to Jakob Mayer.

 

At last, during the mid- to late 1990s and early 2000s, locked gates opened wide on the Internet. Quickly evolving technology sent unimaginable quantities of data to flow to the World Wide Web, allowing the internet to begin doing what it does best: opening new knowledge to the World. For so many researchers like Roland and Jakob and for many families like Henry Supchak’s, that accumulation of information could bring into the light some unknown corners and unanswered questions of World War II. Some stories would bring families and friends sadness, but closure; for others, joy at finally learning the real events and real roles played by their loved one, still living or dead, who helped bring an end to Hitler’s unspeakable ideas and actions.

 

Legends could become real.

 

Mayer was scouring the Internet about 2002, looking for the pilot of Priority Gal. About the same time across the Atlantic in New Jersey, Supchak’s daughter, Liz S. Hoban, had begun research on her father. Touchdown. Hoban and Mayer found each other in 2006.

 

At age 90, Supchak welcomed Jakob Mayer into his home in New Jersey and learned of the plaque and his legendary status. He reportedly said to Mayer, “You’ve added a new dimension to my life. Your communication with me has done more for me than you know.”

 

A year later Supchak traveled to Innsbruck to rededicate the plaque with his name on it. At that time he learned the rest of the story of the wounded little boy, Ander Haas: He grew up to be a successful hotelier, and he erected a plaque in Supchak’s honor at the foot of his hotel near the crash site.

 

clip_image010

Priority Gal, an American Flying Fortress, on the outskirts of Innsbruck

 

 

After returning home to New Jersey, Supchak, with his daughter Elizabeth Hoban, wrote a book, “The Final Mission: A Boy, a Pilot, and a World at War” available on line and in public libraries.

 

Roland had met Jakob in 2002 after reading in a news account about his research of a crash site; then he guided Jakob to mentor and researcher Keith Bullock. Jakob already knew about Anton Volgger and his trip to the crash site of dad’s P-51 Mustang in 1995, after which documents were lost for about six years. After Jakob introduced Roland to Anton; together they went to dad’s crash site on Übeltal Glacier. Then it took six or eight more years of researching the internet to find me at Spittin’ Grits.

 

Much earlier, in 1965 or so, an Italian man heard rumors of a crash site where he was living; then he heard a second rumor about a “war tragedy” having occurred as well. These rumors stuck in the “item of interest” area of his brain for more than thirty years. Then in 1999 he, Giorgio Pietrobon, found a record of the disaster in a Parish book. His “activity as an aeronautical researcher” had begun, he says in his book, “B-24 Sandman.”

 

Sandman 

 

Next: The story of the B-24 Sandman, one of the most iconic USAAF planes in World War II. See more images here.

 

Veterans Day 2014

Please see the Veteran Day post of last year: http://spittingrits.blogspot.com/2013/11/veterans-day-2013-saluting-two-lt.html

 

Next post tomorrow: Continuing the 2014 Trip Adventure to the Ridnuan – Ridanna Valley to discover more details of my father’s World War II Ordeal, to see the crash site of his P-51 Mustang, and to meet those who discovered the site and those who helped my father to survive.

Sonklar in the Morning: The Mountain

 
Window wide open, morning at the Sonklar in the Ridanna-Ridnaun Valley enticed our eyes and noses with a clear, sweet wake-up nudge. We heard cow bells. My feet hit the ground; I grabbed my iPhone, having no idea what I would see out the window. Unlike the oil painting, which might or might not have been there, the Mountain, Zuckerhutl, was there, looking west, but having arrived after dark, we had no orientation. Were we facing north, south, east, or west? Leaning out as far as I dared, I saw it, on the left, the highest peak I could see, a throne at the western head of the valley and all else only supplicants.
 
“Susan, here it is, the Mountain” I said. “And the Little White Church. I can’t believe it. Susan, it’s in one of dad’s shots of the mountain. Now we know for sure the orientation of those slides. We’re here. In person.”
 
I stared at this sight, this mountain, me, in person, not wanting my eyes to ever forget this moment. Zuckerhutl, at 11,500 feet and the tallest peak in the Stubai Alps, sat immoveable, containing the earth’s entire history; it felt like sure footing, the reason for making this complex trip. I breathed. Zuckerhutl was imbued with all we had thought we knew about our father and his ordeal nearly seventy years ago; with all that became known and all we would learn in the coming days; with all our assumptions about a man who was first our father and a distant second, a man, a whole person.
                   2-RidannaValley2014                                     01-my first view of Mountain
                                                          Two views to Zuckerhutl from the Sonklar                             

        6-2014-RidannaValley
 
The Stubai Alps closed off this Valley. There is no outlet except back the way we came, making the question of how dad survived an even bigger question mark.
 
We were facing north. Just across the valley floor, straight ahead, as the terrain began to climb, a tractor, leaning with the hill’s angle, was cutting the grasses and creating the sweet scent, maybe for hay. I wondered. A group of houses, white stucco with reddish roofs, brownish trim, and window boxes of cascading colors, sat huddled together, then one lone house of the same style nearby.
 
The land was green. Not apple or hunter or emerald, but pure and absolute green.
 
“I want to see,” said Joanna Leigh. I hoisted her up, keeping a tight grip.
       (Above) The green Ridnaun-Ridanna Valley
 
“That’s the mountain Grand John came down from, there.” I pointed.
 
“The one in the middle?
 
“Yes,” I said. “The tallest.”
 
“How did he do that?”
 
“I have absolutely no idea,” I said.
 
Before the trip was over, we would find out a lot more about how dad got down and how he survived.
 
The phone rang. It was Roland wanting to know what time we should leave for Innsbruck. “Crap,” I thought. “We have to drive all the way back to the Hertz office and pick up the wretched car.”
 
“Would about ten o’clock be ok?”
 
He said yes and that he would meet us at breakfast.
 
Roland met us in our dining room and showed us to our table, explaining in his halting English that this would be our table for the whole visit. Susan and I had liked the idea of our reservations at the Sonklar including breakfasts and dinners. We soon understood that they weren’t just being nice. If those meals were not included, no one would stay there or at any of the few other choices in the Valley, since there was nowhere else to have those meals unless you were willing to drive on those winding roads, in the dark, to wherever. It was certainly not like going down to the Gulf Coast, which would be a bust if you didn’t go out for lunches and dinners to restaurants or beach shacks for the freshest seafood around.
 
The setup is more like that on a cruise ship; you have the same table, the same waiter, your same bottles of unfinished wine or bottled water, and the same people at nearby tables.
                     
 
                     Views of the Sonklar: Our dining room         The dessert spread                       Toward the buffet area
                      9-SonklarDining                           13-SonklarDining             14-SonklarDining
Unlike a cruise ship, with its humongous, loud dining room, the Sonklar had several smaller rooms, lending a sense of familiarity. We saw the same people and families at each meal. I stood up at one meal and my chair fell backwards. I looked around at the other four or five tables. My own eyebrows raised and arms outstretched, I apologized. No one spoke English, but they nodded nicely and grinned a bit. The second time I did it, laughing in spite of myself, I grabbed my own head as if pulling out my own hair; they just laughed with me.
 
Being the only English speakers in the hotel was kind of fun, since Roland’s passable English helped fill the gaps, but I’ve wondered what our animated conversations sounded like to the others -- a crash site, Anton’s finding it, the glacier, the role of the huts in the mountains, everything.
 
We had a view toward the patio, heated pool and hot tub. Sun came in the windows and reflected off the warm light brown wood on walls, tables, chairs, and off the white linen tablecloths. I couldn’t ask what kind of wood, since no one spoke English.
 
Crucifixes decorated most of the wall spaces. Despite German being the primary language and the main social/historical background, the land is nevertheless Italian; the religion and churches are overwhelmingly Catholic, including the Little White Church. (See the October 3 post for a quick sketch of the social, religious, and historical make up of the Süditrol or South Tyrol: http://spittingrits.blogspot.com/2014/10/a-long-day-into-italy-over-brenner-pass.html .)
 
I pulled out my iPad and brought up photos to remind Roland that one of the earliest pictures he sent me was one of himself standing at the black wrought iron fence surrounding the church. He laughed and said, “That was about ten years ago.”
 
                                 Three views of Ridnaun-Ridanna’s Little White Church, Zuckerhutl in the background: Joanna Leigh and Roland 2014,
                            Roland about 10 years ago, and the photo my father took in 1950
                                 10-JoannaLeigh and Roland2014                   25-0514Roland church
                 
                                                                Ridnaun_0023                                                                            

 
Then I brought up the scan of dad’s 35 mm slide of that same shot of the church taken in 1949 or 1950 and explained that we didn’t know the orientation of the shot until now. The slides didn’t tell you which was top and bottom, so we scanned both sides, ending up with one of the church on the left of the frame and one with the church on the right of the frame. The same was true of all those slides dad had taken on that trip, of the houses being built, the three men “who had helped” him, official buildings, and other scenes.
 
“I want to get a picture of you and Joanna Leigh in that same spot,” I told Roland.
 
We had to leave for Innsbruck, for the stupid car, as it was to be our means of getting back to the Munich airport, which is some 40 miles northeast of the city. And the whole debacle of the Hertz car would get even stupider when we got to Munich to turn it in.
 
On the autobahn I quizzed Roland about crash sites, the research process, and his circle of other crash and aircraft archaeologists/researchers. We would meet his friend whom we met at the Innsbruck train station Jakob Mayer, and he would take me to a well-known and exciting crash site.
 
Roland said, “That is Anton over there cutting his hay. He must cover it before it starts raining again and rots it.”
 
We had not yet met Anton.
                                                                                                                         Anton cutting hay near his house, 2014
1RD-1making hay

Note: The next post will include the story of Priority Gal’s crash near Innsbruck and Jakob Mayer’s role in honoring the U.S. pilot of the plane. Future posts will look at other stories of crash sites and their meanings to survivors and to the families and friends of those who didn’t, as well as how the sites can help heal old wounds. Links to many more pictures start here: https://plus.google.com/photos/+JoannaCraveyHutt/albums 








A Dark Night to Sonklar

 

What I remember about the short drive from our turn off the autobahn at Sterzing-Vipteno to the Sonklar Hof is winding through darkness.

 

The headlights didn’t give up much of this Ridanna-Ridnaun Valley, the heart of our journey, where secrets would emerge in the light of day. Here we expected to see and feel the place where our father had appeared out of nowhere after bailing out of his P-51 into a 10,000-foot nothingness of clouds and somehow survived his descent in snow deep enough to drown in. The several roundabouts that Roland maneuvered in mostly darkness didn’t do much but disorient me. After what must have been the final roundabout, we began winding upwards sharply right, then left, then right, left again, back and forth, switchback after switchback, Joanna Leigh on my lap with a suitcase, Roland pulling uphill, Susan and Jakob Mayer in the car behind us.

 

Faint lights appeared in the distance. Soon Roland, slowing down, said, “We are here.” I could see very little of the hotel itself or whatever lay beyond the parking lot. I remember thinking that if someone was holding a lit candle in the distance, we’d see it in such darkness. The air and darkness were so complete and fresh that it seemed to have come from millenniums ago.

 

I would have to wait to put my eyes on the Mountain – Zukerheutl – that dad had survived.

 

I still felt disoriented as we entered Sonklar. The man who greeted us was like some kind of mirage, a German official from a black-and-white World War II movie. Jarring me out of fuzziness, he was talking loudly to Roland, and fast, in German. I handed him my credit card. I looked around the lobby and peered around a corner, wanting to see if the oil painting hung on some wall. Because it was late, people were not coming and going in the lobby. Then we walked over to the staircase. We’d be on the third floor, and I wondered if there was an elevator.

 

Dreading my own exaggerated emotions, good or bad, I expend a lot of energy on anticipating what is going to happen, a senseless exercise, I get that. I try to make this free-floating anxiety look and feel like “planning,” but it doesn’t really work, and anxiety was taking over. I think it is what’s left over from the trauma of the night I learned my 23-year-old brother was dead. In Vietnam. I got to Tuscaloosa tired from the day’s work and trip from Huntsville. Joe Lee said, “Your dad called and wants you to call him.” He said it so casually.

 

I called. Dad said, “we’ve lost John.” I went blank. I said “lost where?” He had to explain “lost.” The damage from the concrete wall I hit emotionally was permanent and became free-floating.

 

So, true to form, I put too much needless energy into anticipating whether the oil painting would be there or not be there. Infused with way too much symbolism, the painting was going to hyper-charge my emotions – overreacting if it was there, deflating if not there, either way, an omen of something.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Below: Dad’s 1950 photograph of the oil painting of Zuckerhutl at Sonklar  Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Research on the Sonklar revealed it to be popular as a winter resort, for sure, as the pictures and videos show, the steam of the heated pool and hot tub rising up against a snowy background. In the summer it is a health and wellness spa resort where physically fit families and hikers and mountain climbers, and hang-gliders vacation. As we started up the three flights with suitcases, I wondered how I could hide my lumbering for the next five days from all the young and fit, bounding up and down the stairs.

 

 

Ah, the last stretch. I hauled the monster bag up step by step, facing backward. I turned and looked up. Two stairs to go until the landing. And there it was. The oil painting unframed, about 7 feet across by 4 feet or so high, above a German cabinet. It hung just outside our room. I looked at it each time I came and went, as if it were a seeing and knowing totem that had lured us to the Valley and to the Sonklar.

 

                                                                  Below: My 2014 photograph of the same oil, now on the Sonklar’s

                                                                   3rd floor landing.

17-Oil-3rdFloorLanding

 

 

The 1950 Sonklar

This Sonklar is where mom and dad stayed in 1949 or 1950, when we were still living in Munich. We knew about this trip from having to watch home slides and movies a thousand times, but understanding dad’s strong need to come back was never revealed to us. At that time the Sonklar’s oil painting of Zuckerhutl was in the dining room. He shot it four or more times with his 35 mm camera. I shot it that night with my iPhone. It all felt spookily ordained, but I managed to corral my emotions and be grateful it was there, on our floor.

 

Many curious, unbelieving, eyes were on our Woodie in 1950 as it drove the winding road to the Sonklar; then the villagers saw that mysterious, strange airman who had shown up out of the snow to the mining community just above this level of the valley. Word spread quickly, the airman and his wife were there. Not only was he driving this big, wondrous Woodie, but he wore his official U.S.A.F. blue uniform.

 

The military had to ship all the belongings to the families of the allied forces, from their clothes to dishes and tableware, to the tables and beds and sheets and towels and all their furniture all the way up to their cars. There was almost nothing in Germany but destruction. Food to stock the military commissaries, goods for the PXes -- everything had to be shipped over. Frozen foods, still their new phase, had to be shipped over; I gag today remembering the grotesque frozen English peas and asparagus we had to eat.

 

And that’s why we had the Woodie overseas and why the military families had all their stuff.                                                                                              Our 1950 Woodie              Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

 

Mom and dad were able to travel in Europe a lot because of the household help they had. The German people needed work and food and clothes. We lived in German’s houses, us at 30 Fraunkimmsee Strasse, Herr Dahlmeir’s home. Annie helped with cleaning; I remember Oscar polishing all the copper mom had collected; Susan was born in Germany and Inge was her nanny and my brother’s and my sitter.

 

Military personnel wore their uniforms at all times, and that’s how I saw dad, always in his blue uniform; he had to wear it even when travelling on his own time. Always, whether in Paris or Madrid or the Ridanna-Ridnaun Valley or on the Isar River in Munich on a picnic. Wearing it was mandatory.

 

The Strange Airman

World War II was still new and fresh, destruction too close, and Allied occupation possibly only a substitute for what they had been living with. Even in this beautiful and closed-off Ridanna-Ridnaun Valley with its complex political make-up, people’s allegiances were unknown. Some villagers in the Valley thought that dad, in his blue uniform, was there on some kind of official mission; a few, war weary, suspicious, cautious, stayed away. Anton Volgger, (then about 10 years old) and his older brother Joseph (then a teenager) were there that day in 1950.

 

I first knew of Anton from the second or third e-mail I got so unexpectedly from the then stranger Roland Domanig, dated Sunday, September 9, 2012, almost two years ago.

 

The e-mail said, “Anton is now about 70 and he remembers the admirable tall young man, with short hair, mysterious and unique, adventurable. The villagers in Ridnaun talked silently, with hands in front of mouth about the strange American. South Tyrol was still occupied by the US, but people were save from the Italians.”

 

We would finally meet Anton the next day. For now, when we got in our room, we flung open the window onto the darkness, the air unmarred, only scented with nature’s cleanliness. We slept long and well under a down comforter.

 

Future posts: Anton, the Mountain, and the Little White Church.

More pictures: https://plus.google.com/photos/+JoannaCraveyHutt/albums

The Sonklar: http://www.sonklarhof.it/

 

 

 

A Long Day into Italy: Over the Brenner Pass

 
Roland had brought a colleague to the Innsbruck train station for us to meet. He had worked with Jakob Mayer for many years on crash site archaeology and research. Both had begun their tutelage years ago under Keith Bullock, their mentor. (More about Bullock in a post to come.)
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I was happy to meet Jakob. As Roland’s long-time colleague, I knew he understood very well the feelings and thoughts when a family member or crash survivor unexpectedly learned of the crash site, made the trip to see the site or a piece of the aircraft, and was determined to learn more details of what happened.
 
Because of Hertz’s upcoming screw up,  Jakob, Roland, and I would have a chance to visit the crash site of a U.S. B-17 Flying Fortress, “Priority Gal,” on the outskirts of Innsbruck, right where some skiing competitions of the 1972 Winter Olympics had been held. Jakob was one of the prime movers in having that site made a memorial and in finding – as unlikely as it was – the surviving pilot of that bomber.
 
Before returning home, I would have a much better understanding of the work and dedication that goes into unraveling the mystery of a U.S. aircraft downed in World War II enemy territory.
 
Meanwhile I had gotten a text from Susan saying that she would arrive at the train station shortly, so we waited. Then, pulling luggage behind us, we all walked over to the Grand Hotel Europa to talk, drink coffee, and eat Austrian desserts. Everyone seemed to know Jakob, who is in real estate in Innsbruck. Roland and I had to walk across the street to the Hertz office to get a car.
 
 We met Roland (back) and his colleague Jakob Mayer at the Innsbruck train station
 
Number Two to Hertz
And I don’t mean the number 2; I mean the other one. When we got to the door, it was locked. We banged in case someone was in the back. No one. We looked at the hours and sure enough, they closed at 5 p.m. It was about 5:20. “But I called them earlier and told them you’d be here,” said Roland. So there we stood. No car. They knew I was coming, so what was the problem here? I knew Roland had a small European car, but I didn’t know about Jakob’s. Guess what. It was also very small. The price of gas in Europe motivate people to buy small cars.
Back at the hotel and ordering more coffee, we tried to be rational and figure out what to do. I got out my paperwork and we called Hertz International, which I had tried to do before we left home. I had needed to know if we would be able to use the car charger plug in the rented car. In a curt manner and bored tone, the person on the other end said, “I don’t know.” Pause, as I tried to process; after all it was Hertz International. Then, “You’ll have to call the office where you’re picking up the car.” Funny thing about the office where I was to pick up the rental car.
 
“Surely you’re kidding,” I said back.
 
No, she wasn’t. That whole conversation seemed really stupid. Now it seemed even stupider. And, believe me, the Hertz stupidness would become a debacle in Munich before we left on our return trip for home.
 
The next decision wasn’t Flexibility: It was Physics. How were we going to get all of us and all of our luggage into the two small cars? The answer was, “We just are.” We did, but by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin.
 
Jakob had made dinner reservations in a restaurant he knew well, off the autobahn but well up into the Alps. It was dusk, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the views over the historic Brenner Pass, which marks the border between Austria and Italy. I had heard my mother and father talk about the Pass many times, especially when we lived in Munich after World War II (see previous posts) and they traveled to Italy. (Images of the Pass.) The Pass has been in use since the European Ice Age. It was a well-used route for the Romans and invading Germanic Tribes; during WWII, Hitler and Mussolini met here after agreeing to a treaty that lured Italy into the Axis countries against the Allied Forces. The carrot for Mussolini was land; the stick would have been an invasion into Italy. He could keep the Tyrolean lands that the despised Treaty of Versailles ending World War I had turned over to Italy. The irony of course is that the Fascists and Nazism were already in Italy, and Hitler was not known for keeping agreements.
 
(Here is a fun, but long, YouTube video that puts you in the vehicle driving the autobahn between Italy and Innsbruck. If you agree, give the videographer a thumbs up.)
 
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When we left the Trinfer Hof it was dark; the clarified air invited you to skip to the car, and I think Joanna Leigh in fact skipped. We stuffed ourselves back into the cars and got back on the autobahn. Once over the Pass we were in Italy, in the South Tyrol, Italy’s northern most province, its summer and winter playground, well known to Europeans and little known in the U.S.
 
After about 20 minutes or so, I saw the exit: Sterzing (German)-Vipiteno (Italian). In the past two years, after getting that first e-mail from a then-stranger, Roland Domanig, I studied maps of this area many, many times, and I knew we would turn right off the autobahn here, in the South Tyrol. Dark became darker and we could not see this town of Sterzing-Vipiteno that dates to the Romans. It is located at the junction of three Alpine passes, including Brenner, and became an important medieval trading post and mining town. It grew rich on silver from nearby mines until the 16th century. Many burger homes dating from that time are still standing.
 (Before) I had trout at the Trinfer Hof                                    (After)
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The South Tyrol—Südtirol
This area has a complicated history with a mostly happy ending. Its current social, cultural, and political stability is relatively new, dating from the 1960s and 1970s. If you ever decide to visit this part of Italy, here are some introductory facts that explain the area:
1. Currently, this gorgeous land sees nearly 6 million tourists each year, but has only 500,000 residents.
2. The population is comprised of three general cultural/ethnic groups most easily identified by their language: not quite three-fourths speak German, about one-fourth Italian, and less than five percent, Ladin (the language of the indigenous population of South Tyrol dating from the Romans).
3. Its political make-up stayed in a state of flux after World War I, when the infamous Treaty of Versailles took the South Tyrolean lands from the Austrian monarchy and turned them over to Italy, with the Brenner Pass being the border. This move explains the large percentage of German-speaking people. The Fascists took control in 1922, and Mussolini initiated a forced migration of Italians to this northern-most province, explaining the smaller percentage of Italian-speaking people, even though it’s located in Italy. His demands included the Germans having to give up their identity by not speaking the language, not dressing in traditional German clothes, and by banishing German teachers, political administrators, and other officials.
4. Then in 1939 Hitler demanded that the South Tyrolean people choose between returning to the Reich or staying, thereby giving up their German identity to become Italian citizens.
5. After WWII, at the demand of the Allied Forces, Austria and Italy signed the Paris Treaty designed to afford the South Tyrol special considerations in determining its social, cultural, and political identity. Nothing was implemented until the 1960s when the area saw violence erupting because of these differences.
6. Finally, in 1972 an agreement known as the Second Autonomy was signed by Vienna, Rome, and the Bozen Province, giving the different groups making up the population equal rights and protections. By 1992 under the watch of the United Nations, all the measures were implemented.

Today, the Südtirol is a stable and autonomous area of Italy. The population of 500,000 has a high birth rate, a low death rate, a very high life expectancy (80+ years for men, 85+ years for women), a low unemployment rate (a little more than 3%), a long history, an extremely varied and beautiful landscape, and fabulous summer and winter activities for the six million tourists who vacation in the area every year.
 
The South Tyrol and Sterzing-Vipiteno would have particular significance for my father in 1945.
 
Next stop, the Sonklar Hof where we would spend the next five days.










































The Plan: A Train Ride to Innsbruck

The plan was this: Since Munich’s Bahnhof, train station, was only two blocks from the Kings Center Hotel where we were staying, we would walk, which would coincide with check-out time and give us plenty of time to figure out the train logistics; we would meet Susan there at the station, as she would take the subway from the airport to the train station a little after 11 a.m.; we would rail to Innsbruck, meet Roland in person (for the first time), pick up the rented car we reserved months ago, and follow Roland on the autobahn over the Brenner Pass and into Italy to the Sterzing-Vipiteno exit. We’d turn right at Sterzing (coming from the Pass), and, if I was reading the maps correctly, it’s a short ride to our ultimate destination, the Sonklar hotel in the Ridnaun-Ridanna Valley. Simple.
 
Except when it’s not.
 
No way we could walk to the Bahnhof from the hotel with all the luggage, get everything up stairs, wander into shops to pass time, and get past whatever other barrier there might be. Then, “tweet,” a text from Susan landed on my phone. Problems with her flight from the U.S. and then the layover in Frankfurt wiped out any chance of getting to the train station in time to meet the 2 p.m. trip we had tickets for.
 
Great. Except when it’s not.
 
Suddenly it was time to punch either the Panic or the Flexibility button. I hit the Panic button. I, a 71-year-old grandmother, decided to sit down on the edge of the bed and cry, a wonderful example for my granddaughter.
 
Don’t even think about it.  I told Joanna Leigh we would go down to the desk and get help with these problems. I shot Susan a quick text, saying (ha ha ha) “sit tight. I’ll figure this out.”
 
Two incidents helped me out. First, the staff at this small hotel knew us; they had already solved a couple of things for me. Second, (and it will be hard to admit what I’m about to confess) thinking that this small hotel wouldn’t have a hair dryer, I had stopped at a local beauty salon, where no one spoke English and somehow made them understand I needed a hair dryer. The young woman nodded yes, she understood. She and an older woman went back to a storage room and came out with a new unopened hair dryer. I was delighted when she said 18 Euros.
 
She shook her head and wrote down the price on a piece of paper: 80 Euros. I nearly fainted, but I was in a bind. I paid. Please don’t do the conversion. It’s disgusting. When we checked into the hotel, there was a hair dryer. Feeling completely stupid, I took it down to the desk and gave it to the man in charge; he said, with a wide grin, his wife needed a new dryer.
 
Great.
 
I explained our plight and he said, “I will call you a taxi to take you to the Bahnhof.”
 
I protested that the driver might get angry over a two-block trip. He said, “No, it’s his job. Don’t worry.”
 
Then he brought up on the computer the train schedules to Innsbruck. There were plenty of choices. I texted Susan with times and said that we’d go on but wait for her in Innsbruck at the train platform. She was pretty grumpy. My nerves were hanging out.
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I tipped the taxi driver adequately, as indicated by his behavior, not his English, and we went to find the right platform. At the platform, we walked up and down looking for the right car. Joanna Leigh pulled her carry on and took turns helping me with mine. The “monster” piece, the largest one in a set, was the problem. I wondered if I could get it on the train and put it somewhere on the floor, as I wouldn’t be able to put it on any overhead spot.


 In the King Center Hotel waiting on the taxi that would take us to the train.
That’s the Kings Center bear on my shoulder.
 
 We got on a car that had seat numbers 25 and 26, as printed on our tickets. One person offered help with the “monster,” and I accepted. We plopped down in our seats and a nice young man helped with the overhead pieces. The Age Card wasn’t necessary; it’s obvious. Sometimes it takes getting out of your element and environment to see the truth of a thing. No one was going to take me for a 55- or 60-year-old anymore. I’m an old grandmother and I look it. “Accept the help graciously and get over yourself,” I thought to myself.

 
A lovely family got on as the train was filling up – a pretty mother and two cute children. She came up to me and indicated we were in their seats. Again, no English, but it became clear to me somehow that she must be right; it became clear to her that I had no idea what to do about it, as both our sets of tickets said #25 and #26. By then the train began pulling out. I looked up, looked toward the door and the space between cars. I looked pitiful. She indicated “never mind.” She sat down with her little boy, about 5, in her lap and her daughter in the second seat. Speaking in a kind of sign language, we learned that our girls were both seven. By now the train had picked up speed and the ticket-checker came into our car. I said, “I think we’re in the wrong seats.”
 
He said, “No, you’re in the wrong car.”
 
Great.
 
She again indicated again that it was ok.
 
Then Joanna Leigh got my iPad and began playing games. The little boy got interested, then the daughter. Things were going to work out. We both kind of laughed in a knowing way, that sometimes a language barrier didn’t really matter.
 
Theirs was the stop before Innsbruck. When they got ready to get off, she indicated up on the hill was where they lived. Joanna Leigh said, “Wait a minute.” She got a stuffed bear that the Kings Center Hotel had given her and presented it to the little girl.
 
Really, everything was fine. We both had a good time watching the kids play games. We said our good-byes as they got off. They waved.
It wasn’t long before the engineer announced the Innsbruck stop. The same fellow who had put luggage in the overhead, got it down; then he helped get it all off the train onto the platform.


On the train in seats #25 and #26









Then I heard, “Joanna, Joanna” in a German accent. Finally we were to meet Roland face to face after two years of constant communication by e-mails and a growing friendship.

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At the Innsbruck train station: (left to right)Susan, Roland, Jakob Mayer,
and Joanna Leigh (no duh!)

Going into Italy, next.




 



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