Martin B-26 Marauder Pilot
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|By Betsy Q. M. Tong
Crew members of a B-26 bomber shot down and held prisoners by Germany nearly 50 years ago performed a final mission last weekend, reuniting to honor their commander - a Brookline man who has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
In an emotional meeting Saturday at the home of pilot Don Epstein, who has been battling his cancer for a little more than a year, the six men - who traveled from as far away as Texas - traded war stories, caught up on each other's lives and generally basked in the joy of their reunion.
The six had not been together since shortly after being taken captive by Germans in occupied France in July 1944. Forty-seven years later, faced with his cancer diagnosis, Epstein became obsessed with the idea of seeing his comrades one last time. He began a dogged search for his war-time companions.
"Quite frankly, this is keeping him alive," his wife, Margaret Philbrick, said before the reunion. "He is so determined to see them."
Because his illness has affected his ability to communicate, copilot Herbert Zweig of Rochester, N.Y., gently assisted Epstein as he reminisced and badgered his airmen into position for photographs. The crew jokingly argued about who took the most heat from Epstein when he commanded the B-26.
The crewmates' adventure began in January of 1944, when the Army Air Corps assigned them to Shreveport, La. In addition to Epstein and Zweig the crew included navigator bombardier Horace D. Dow, radio operator Bernard Adamski, engineer Wayne Austin and gunner J.J. Farrell. They called themselves "The League of Nations" because of their diverse ethnic backgrounds.
En route to action with the 386th bomber group in England, the men flew a B-26 on a circuitous route from Louisiana to Puerto Rico, Brazil, Casablanca, Ireland and England. The journey took nearly two months because the B-26 could fly only 4- to 5-hour stints.
Known as a "Mae West," the highly maneuverable B-26 had a short wingspan that offered "no visible means of support," according to Austin, 70, of Putney, Vt.
It was on their eighth mission, on July 12, 1944, that the men were told to bomb a railroad bridge in occupied France. Three formations of 12 planes each spread across the gray sky, with Epstein and his crew flying at the rear of one as "tail-end Charlie."
Over France, clouds obscured the planned target, so the bombers sought alternatives: other railroads, fuel tanks and munitions dumps. But they found nothing and headed back to England.
Running low on fuel, Epstein obtained permission to break formation and land at the nearest airfield in England. But, descending through the clouds, the airmen found themselves over the coast of France near Calais and under fire.
German bullets silenced first the plane's left engine, then its right as Epstein and Zweig scrambled to land among the barbed I wire and mines strewn along the each. Epstein said he remembers feeling oddly detached as he watched the wet sand rush toward him.
Through "brute force" Epstein and Zweig managed to wrestle the bomber to rest on its belly' as bullets continued to pierce its ship. In the remarkable landing, only Adamski was injured, suffering a twisted ankle and wounded dignity after getting his leg and head stuck' in a window while trying to get out of the plane.
With white handkerchiefs in their upraised hands, the six tried to surrender as the Germans continued their barrage. Finally, two German lieutenants and a squad of soldiers who Epstein and his crew, guessed were about 13 years old took the crew into custody. In the waning days of the war, Germany had lost so many men it was forced to conscript youths.
"The Germans told us, "For you the war is over,"' Epstein said. Added Zweig: "I, for one, thought, 'Amen.'"
After several days during which they were held in a farmhouse, a truck arrived to take the men to an interrogation center in Frankfurt. Dow recorded their movements, scratching a list of dates and cities into the back of his belt buckle.
In Frankfurt, the officers and enlisted men were separated, with 2d Lts. Epstein, Zweig and Dow sent to a camp near Barth, Germany. There followed 10 months of what they described as aching boredom before their liberation in May 1945.
The enlisted men, Austin and Farrell, now of Norwood, were crammed in boxcars with 150 to 900 other men for three days, finding solace in an occasional bucket of water that the Germans provided. Because of his injury, Adamski was sent a hospital where a French cleaning woman ministered to his ankle.
For the duration of the war, the men endured what Adamski termed the "black hunger march" as the Germans drove columns of 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners away from the unrelenting advance of Russian guns. Subsisting on tea, potatoes, and even the meat from a horse killed in an air raid, they trudged. When Adamski returned to the United States, he weighed only 93 pounds. Later, the German government reimbursed him with about $700 in "malnutrition money."
By May 1945, the Soviets controlled northern Germany, but Dow said, in the era prior to the Cold War, no one knew whether these liberators would allow the Western prisoners to go free.
Finally, the men were evacuated to France and from there returned to the States.
Back home, the six put their part in history behind them until Epstein began his search. He remembered Dow came from a town near Tyler, Texas, and after numerous calls to directory assistance, he found his former navigator's brother.
With the same determination, Epstein sought his other comrades, finally reuniting them all in his home.
"I never thought we would do it. I never thought we would get all six together again," Epstein said.
"It won't happen again," Zweig said.
Epstein summed up everything simply: "We are a part of history."