a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, November 11, 2011

A gunner's survival in Nazi territory

Alex Antanovich Jr. is shown at a World War II unit reunion decades after his incredible wartime survival story.

By Scott Beveridge

Allied air assaults over France and Germany during World War II were seeing their greatest successes in the last week of May 1944.

The daylight bombing raids were targeting strategic German-held railroads to cut off enemy supply lines, while others were pounding the French coast to drive back enemy forces.

Nearly one thousand heavy bombers were flying the missions that also were aimed at airfields and chemical and fuel stations.

The B-24 Liberator, LONI, carrying a crew of nine, however, did not fare so well. It crashed on May 30, 1944, near Rheine, Germany, after three of its four engines failed and the entire crew had bailed from the plane.

Eight crew members were captured and held by the Nazis as prisoners of war.

Meanwhile, U. S. Army Air Force Sergeant Alex Antanovich Jr. of Cokeburg, Pa., evaded capture.

He would be led by civilians to members of the antiwar movement in Holland, where he was fed, clothed, and sheltered for the next ten months.

“I was in constant fear,” said Antanovich, recalling his story that had the makings of a suspenseful war novel.

His plane had taken off that day at 6:53 a.m. from Mendlesham, England, carrying fifteen, five hundred pound bombs.

More than eighteen thousand B-24s, their wingspans spreading a 110 feet wide, had been produced in Detroit, Michigan, by Consolidated Aircraft Corporation for the war effort.

They created the largest air fleet of its kind at the time.

Antanovich, who was then 21 years old, had been trained to fire all of the plane’s ten machine guns. World War II bombing crews faced some of the worst dangers in combat.

“They were shooting at us,” he said, while discussing his military experiences when he was eighty-two years old.

“You could lose your life on takeoff. You’re loaded down to capacity. There’s no place to hide.”

He had received his training at Blythe Army Air Base in California. His crew used LONI to fly to England, following a route over Florida, South America, Africa, and Wales.

The crew called itself the League of Nations Inc. because its members all hailed from different ethnic backgrounds.

They gave the plane its identity by combining the first letters of the crew’s nickname.

Antanovich entertained himself on the flights to England by watching the lights in the cities at night.

“I was going to fight a war.”

Little else was on his mind.

He had only been in England for a month and on four previous missions to Germany when his plane crashed.

It dipped from formation with two of its engines smoking before it reached its primary target.

Other members of the 34th Bombing Group flying in nearby planes then lost sight of LONI; no one reported seeing any parachutes. The sixty-six-foot-long plane’s legacy was cut short before an artist had the time to paint its name on its side.

“When the pilot said to bail out, I was in the tail of the plane. The pilot said to throw stuff out to lighten the load. A short time later, the tail gunner who stayed on the intercom said: ‘Bail out,’ and away he went.”

Antanovich was afraid to jump from the plane, having never done so before during his military training.

“Why jump if you may never have to?”

Being the last one left in the tail of the plane, Antanovich looked over the bomb bay to see what the pilot and copilot were doing, hoping they were gaining control of the flight.

The copilot was readying for his jump, and Antanovich knew he had no choice but to do the same thing.

“I went to the Lord.”

He believed in God, but was not an especially religious soldier.

“I asked the Lord for help. I got a warm feeling over my body. I walked right over to that escape hatch and away I went. I lost my fear.”

Over the course of the next several days, nearly everything Antanovich did  went against what he was taught to do in the event he became missing in action.

When he regained his bearings on the ground, he realized he had become separated from his crew.

He had been told to run in such a situation, and to keep on the move for twenty-four hours.

“I went deeper into the woods and covered my parachute and started running.”

He came upon a house, and went in another direction, only to spot another.  At that point, he went into the thicket and decided to attempt sleep.

“I thought, ‘Where am I going to run to?' If I kept running, I could have gotten killed.”

Several hours later, he awoke to the sound of a boy pumping water and decided to start walking again.

He found himself back where he hit the ground and hid the parachute. He made the right move because he stumbled upon a friendly stranger while walking across a bicycle path. He whistled to get the man’s attention, asking him in French if he spoke that language.

The man shook his head, no.

Antanovich then asked him if he spoke English, and again, the man shook his head, no.

Antanovich pulled out a pocketbook that was part of his survival kit and designed to translate English phrases into the German language.

He used it to inform the stranger that he was hungry, and in exchange, was given a handful of sugar.

He also learned he was near Rheine, Germany, after showing the stranger one of the maps from the gear he carried. He was forty miles west of his B-24’s target and twenty miles east of Germany’s border with Holland.

“I said: ‘I’m American."

The stranger, who turned out to be a Prussian, then flapped his arms in the air as a signal that he understood Antanovich was an airman.

The man then pointed Antanovich in the direction of German-held Holland.

Antanovich set his compass and walked the remainder of the day and well into the night.

Tired and weary after nightfall, he decided to make a bed of pine needles under a tall pine tree, where he slept his first night in Germany.

Antanovich was unarmed. He understood that German troops were killing American soldiers on sight because the country was quickly depleting it resources.

The Germans barely had enough supplies to care for their own soldiers. He had no idea just how much danger he was facing on his first full day in enemy territory.

That same day, one of Hitler’s shadow men, the Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, approved criminal combat methods under a German lynch law.

By doing so, Bormann gave his seal of approval to mob justice, instructing German civilians to kill any Allied soldiers they encountered.

The next morning, Antanovich came upon railroad tracks and decided to follow them straight toward Holland.

That could have been seen as a mistake, as well, because German soldiers were guarding the rail lines. He ducked for cover into the woods upon spotting a man in the distance.

That was when he stumbled upon a man and woman milking cows, a couple who helped him to reach safer quarters.

“I said I was an American and I was hungry.”

The couple gave him a sandwich; his only food in two days. They took him to to a house and introduced him to an English-speaking woman.

“She said: ‘I know a man who knows a man who knows where to find the underground.’”

The woman made a telephone call before escorting him by bicycle to a crossroads to meet another contact.

“She said she didn’t want to see him or him to see her.”

His survival kit also contained silk maps of Holland, France, Spain, and Belgium, as well as three cigarettes.

He had been advised to hold on to his belongings. But instead, he gave everything away to those who helped him along his way, except the maps of Holland and Belgium.

“Anything I had they asked for, I gave it to them,” he said. “I had a full pack of Camels. They told us not to smoke American tobacco because it was sweeter smelling and (the enemy would) recognize it.”

He even shed his Army Air Force uniform for civilian clothes as a disguise after reaching the underground.

His journey eventually took him to the home of Otto and Elisabeth Montagne on the outskirts of Hengelo, Holland.

They were among many anti-Nazi couples in that area who secretly shielded Allied soldiers who became separated from their units.

Their visitors usually stayed in their home for three or four days until plans were made to return them to England, through France, Spain, and Portugal. Spain temporarily held such MIAs as illegal immigrants before sending them to Portugal and England, Antanovich was told.

That escape route, however, was closed after Allied forces stormed Normandy, beginning June 6, 1944, in what became the largest amphibious invasion in history.

Antanovich’s parents, Alex and Mary, received word on June 16, 1944, from the War Department that their son was missing in action.

His younger brother, John, was part of an Army Air Force B-17 flight crew serving in the United States.

During his time in Holland, Antanovich was hidden in 16 different houses; some for a few hours and others for a month or two.

He found himself sandwiched under trapdoors on occasions when German troops searched from house to house, looking for railroad workers to help them reopen supply routes.

The Montagnes shared their home with him and three other soldiers for seven months.

Mrs. Montagne provided them with clothing from a nearby textile factory, giving them identical dark blue shirts with vertical stripes to identify them to others involved in the antiwar movement.

The men even wore wooden shoes and distinguishing hairstyles and mustaches to appear as local residents.

Mrs. Montagne often walked with a cart great distances to gather enough food to feed her guests.

Food was being rationed, and each house was permitted to use electric lights for one hour a day. Two rabbits from the barn provided dinner for Christmas, a meal that also included cheese crackers and pudding.

Antanovich and his companions lived out their long days in boredom, either reading, holding conversations, or learning to speak Dutch.

They sometimes occupied their time by playing games of Battleship, using scraps of numbered paper as game pieces, or singing songs around a piano.

The Dutch liberation effort, meanwhile, began to intensify by March 1945.

Resistance fighters ambushed Nazi General Hans Ratter on March 6, 1945, and more than one hundred Dutchmen were killed in retribution two days later.

Antanovich spent that month hiding in a hut in the woods with an armed member of the Canadian Royal Air Force.

Hitler’s army was under attack from all fronts.

“You could hear the gunfire getting close,” Antanovich said.

By the end of the month, Allied forces were racing across collapsed German defenses. On April 1, 1945, they had German troops surrounded in the Ruhr basin, while British troops rolled into Hengelo that same day.

Antanovich was rescued by members of the Welsh Guard after walking arm-in-arm to freedom with a young Dutch woman.

He was taken to the Guard’s headquarters in Brussels before being sent to a U.S. military facility in Paris, France.

“I had no identification.”

He was later returned to England to be identified by members of his bombing group, only to find all of his possessions gone.

To his relief, he was told the other members of his air crew had survived German prison camps.

On April 24, 1945, his mother was told by the military that he was returned to active duty and being rotated back to the United States.

Following the war, Antanovich went home to rural Washington County and married the former Betty Porter. The couple had two sons, Alex and David, who died in childhood, and a daughter, Yvonne.

He worked as a coal miner in Beth-Energy Corporation’s Cokeburg Mine, from which he retired in 1985 after working in the coalfields for twenty-four years.

He said it was amazing to be part of such a great generation, one that witnessed serious hardships and major triumphs.

“The men of today will never compete with, compare with what we went through. We went through the Great Depression. We saw the TV come in. When I was a kid, farmers were working with horses ... the doctor would come in a horse and buggy.”

Antanovich also began attending church after returning home from the war.

One day while reading the Bible, he came upon a verse in Psalms that states: “I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

He said those words offered him the best explanation for his surviving such a dangerous, incredible experience during the war.

(This story was written for a 2005 oral history project at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh.)


Mathias said...

Great article. What an Amazing man.

Rachel said...

Really good article and the picture of the plane is really interesting too. Its amazing to hear stories from world war II.