An American Tailgunner in “Hell”

“Just existing became what was important,” says 87-year-old Frank Kravetz of Pittsburgh, captive of the “hell-hole” that was Nuremberg Prison Camp. “Yet even as I struggled with the day-to-day sadness and despair, I never once had any regrets that I signed up to serve.”

An extended tour of Nazi camps as a wounded POW scratching for survival wasn’t what Frank had in mind when he signed up to serve his country in World War II. He refused his parents’ wishes to stay home; they already had two sons overseas. Frank was eager to fight for the freedom his Slovakian parents had secured in America. It was the least he could do.

Francis Albert Kravetz was born October 25, 1923, in East Pittsburgh, near the Westinghouse plant that provided income and aspiration for an entire community. Every morning he shoveled soot that drifted onto the porch from the steel mill. He lived a happy life. But then war came. Frank enlisted in the Army Air Corps. If he was going to help Uncle Sam beat the Nazis, he would do it from an airplane—and he did it very well, as a tail-gunner.

Frank’s life as a soldier took a dramatic turn on November 2, 1944 in a bomb-run over Germany. He crammed into the tail of a B-17, wedged inside a flak jacket. The target was Merseberg, a major industrial area. He flew amid an air armada of 500 heavy bombers—each carrying eighteen 250-pound “general purpose” bombs—escorted by 900 fighter planes.

While the Americans were ready for business, so was the Luftwaffe, which set aside every aircraft to defend Merseberg. Frank’s plane came under hot pursuit by German fighters. Frank took them on with a twin .50 caliber machine gun manned from the tail. It was a dogfight, and Frank was shot and badly wounded. His B-17 was filled with holes, the engines destroyed. The crew had to bail, quickly.

Frank was bleeding profusely and could barely move. His buddies tried to get a parachute on him, but it opened inside the plane. They wrapped it around him, taking care not to cross the chords, and tossed him out. To Frank’s great relief, the chute opened. Instantly, the deafening chaos quieted, and Frank floated like he was on the wings of angels.

The tranquility halted with a rude thump as Frank hit the ground and tumbled like a shot jackrabbit. German soldiers seized him.

Thus began “a lousy existence,” or, as Frank dubbed it—“Hell’s journey.” Destination: Stalag 13-D.

How did he survive? “All I can say is that the good Lord was watching out for me,” Frank says today.

Liberation came April 29, 1945, by General Patton’s 3rd Army. Grown men wept with joy, embracing their liberators, falling to their knees. Frank was among them; that is, the 125 pounds that remained.

Frank returned home to Pittsburgh, hitchhiking all the way from New York. He unceremoniously arrived at his folks’ door, no trumpets, no dramatic background music. He hugged his mom and dad, went inside, and sat down.

Frank soon thereafter married his sweetheart, Anne. They’ve been happily married ever since. He also got active as an ex-POW, eventually becoming national director of American Ex-Prisoners of War.

I talked to Frank one day last August. We chatted about a friend of his who had recently died, another WWII veteran gone. I told him it was critical that vets like him relay their message to the current generation.

Frank needed no convincing. “The current generation,” he said, frustrated, “they don’t know!”

To ensure they know, Frank wrote a book, a riveting account of his ordeal, titled, Eleven Two: One WWII Airman’s Story of Capture, Survival and Freedom. The title refers to November 2, a date with multiple meanings in Frank’s sojourn.

Assisted by his daughter, Cheryl, the book is a vivid account of the nitty-gritty, day-to-day details of an American POW held by Nazis, from the monotony to the terror, from the hunger and wounds that wouldn’t heal to the rock that was his faith.

For too long, guys like Frank didn’t tell their story. “We didn’t talk about it,” he explains, “It was too tragic…. So I just moved on. I just moved on.”

Frank is now willing to share. There are others like him, and they won’t be around much longer. A decade or two from now, they’ll be nearly extinct.

If you know a Frank who hasn’t told his story, help him. Get a pen, a video camera, whatever, and get him talking. As Frank says, “they don’t know.”

They need to know. Men like Frank Kravetz have no regrets, but we’ll regret not pausing to record their history.

 

A version of this article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Paul Kengor

By

Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of many books including The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage (2015). His new book, A Pope and a President explores the extraordinary relationship between Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and their joint effort to defeat Soviet communism.

  • Tom

    Thanks for this reminder on Armistice Day, of the brave yong people that risked their lives for our freedom. Freedom comes at a cost.
    It is extremely regrettable that this post is put on the same footing as an earlier post celebrating those that collaborated with Germans, under Vichy, (article by Mr Crocker III) as a reason to be “proud” to be catholic.
    Also re: “East Pittsburgh, near the Westinghouse plant that provided income and aspiration for an entire community”. After a century, this plant was closed in 1988, by what is now CBS (Viacom) corporation. Corporate responsibility and innovation through hard work started by Westinghouse ‘s founder, George Washington, was replaced by easy corporate greed, cheered on by modern day Phalangist/Vichy/Ayn Rand “Catholics”.

  • John Zmirak

    I’m no expert in the history of the Foreign Legion, but I do know quite a bit about Vichy. The regime began as the legitimate government of France, and was universally recognized as such except by a few tiny bands of brave resistors… not including the Communists–Stalin was then allied with Hitler, so French Communists like Sartre duly collaborated until Operation Barbarossa was launched. Then they tried to grab control of the Resistance, as a lever for seizing France after the Liberation. Indeed, at war’s end, they used “epuration” as a pretext for gunning down countless innocent Catholics on the Right, as eyewitness Thomas Molnar (RIP) told me.

    It took some time for most Frenchmen to become alienated from the regime that was recognized by the Church, the US government, and most governments in the world. It took the increasing aggressiveness of German demands (forced labor), AND the despicable extremes of crackpot anti-Semites (men who couldn’t get elected dog-catcher before 1940) whom the Germans helped put into power. (Something similar happened in Croatia, which the Nazis put under the control, essentially, of a crank fascist mafia.)

    It was the anti-Semitic campaign that alienated most bishops and the vast majority of the clergy, as De Lubac documents in his “Resistance to Anti-Semitism” book (Ignatius). Sure, there were plenty of anti-Semitic Catholics… a residue from the bitter war between Church and State that began in 1870, included the ugly fraud of the Dreyfus prosecution, and the criminal seizure of all Church assets and schools (and the expulsion of religious orders) in 1905. The pro-Nazis tried to use legitimate Catholic grievances against the corrupt and oligarchical Third Republic (whose anti-clericals denied women the vote explicitly BECAUSE back then they were too pious). Mostly, these Nazi and pro-Nazi campaigns failed, and the tragic Petain was more and more despised.

    We can thank God that a great man like De Gaulle stepped forward to lead France down a middle path, saving it from becoming either a German province, a Soviet puppet, or (much less evil) an American reclamation project.

    The Foreign Legion, serving by definition far from home, can hardly have been expected to be up to date on all political developments in Metropolitan France, such as the appalling deportations of Jews. Should we blame the American troops in Vietnam for Kent State (or Roe v. Wade)? For not mutinying in response? It was a desperate, ambiguous situation for Frenchmen. Some great men, like theologian Garrigou Legrange (Pope John Paul II’s first big influence) mistakenly chose Vichy. Many French Catholic modernists who bravely opposed the Nazis went on to help demolish the Church after Vatican II. Like most of human history it is (to cite a novel by Mauriac, who resisted) a “viper’s tangle.” To congratulate yourself for your purity from the safety of modern America is the part of a Pharisee.

  • Tom

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the measured response. You are right, anti-clericalism was rife in France, but that does not excuse Vichy.

    A month after signing the Armistice following Frances defeat, Petain was named head of Vichy and the first anti-Jewish statutes were passed (July 1940). That same month, under the orders of Churchill, French navy ships were sunk off the coast of Algeria. More anti-Jewish statutes, effective in the “free zone”, followed from 1940 to 1941.[1] From October 1940 on, these including laws on arrest and detention of Jews that were non-French nationals. Recently authenticated documents on laws passed in October 1940, show that Petain helped draft and make these harsher,[2] most likely in preparation to his meeting with Hitler, at Montoire, on October 24 (the “handshake picture”). On October 30th, following that meeting, Petain stated his intention to collaborate with Hitler:

    “…I went freely at the Furhrer’s invitation. I received from him no “dictat”, no pressure. A collaboration is envisaged between our two countries. I accepted its principal. The modalities will be discussed later…”

    “…C’est librement que je me suis rendu à l’invitation du Führer. Je n’ai subi, de sa part, aucun “dictat”, aucune pression. Une collaboration a été envisagée entre nos deux pays. J’en ai accepté le principe. Les modalités en seront discutées ultérieurement…”[3]

    In April 1942, Rene Bousquet became Vichy’s secretary general of Police, and negotiated a deal with the SS Chief for France, Karl Oberg. In exchange of keeping the French Police independent, he agreed to arrest Jews. Mass arrests and deportation followed, under his authority. This included the infamous Velodrome D’Hiver arrests in July 16-17 1941.[4]

    For all his faults, President Chirac had the guts to say, 53 years later:[5]

    “…France, nation of Enlightenment and Human Rights, land of refuge and asylum, France, that day, accomplished the irreparable. Failing at her word, she delivered those in her charge, to their executioners. After they were taken to the Velodrome d’Hiver, victims had to wait several days, in terrible conditions that we now know, before being sent to one of the transit camps – Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande – established by Vichy authorities. The horror, however, was just beginning. Other raids, more arrests followed. In Paris and in the province. Seventy-four trains left for Auschwitz. Seventy-six thousand Jews were deported from France, never to return. Towards them, we keep a debt that is imprescriptible….”

    “..La France, patrie des Lumières et des Droits de l’Homme, terre d’accueil et d’asile, la France, ce jour-là, accomplissait l’irréparable. Manquant à sa parole, elle livrait ses protégés à leurs bourreaux. Conduites au Vélodrome d’hiver, les victimes devaient attendre plusieurs jours, dans les conditions terribles que l’on sait, d’être dirigées sur l’un des camps de transit – Pithiviers ou Beaune-la-Rolande – ouverts par les autorités de Vichy. L’horreur, pourtant, ne faisait que commencer. Suivront d’autres rafles, d’autres arrestations. A Paris et en province. Soixante-quatorze trains partiront vers Auschwitz. Soixante-seize mille déportés juifs de France n’en reviendront pas. Nous conservons à leur égard une dette imprescriptible…”

    btw “imprescriptible” means “not capable of being lost or impaired by neglect, by disuse, or by the claims of another founded on prescription” (webster)

    Although I am not French, nor a historian, I am a little familiar with French Catholicism. I went to a Catholic French school and did the baccalaureat. To me, St Therese de Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld, Marian apparitions, like Rue du Bac are examples of the best of French Catholicism. I think it is no coincidence that France was largely spared from recent Church scandals (God willing, it will stay that way). Many French Catholics, including bishops, helped Jews during WW2. Many were honored in the “Righteous amongst nations” memorial, in Israel.[5]

    However, many were not so brave, many just waited out the war, and yes, many supported Vichy for all it was worth. I also know the “other side”. SSPX bishop Williamson was not an accident. Many think like he does, his mistake was to do it in front of cameras. And it’s not only SSPX. One of my class mate’s dad was a “para” in Indochina, and had businesses interests in Western Africa. Some of his views would make the best of US supremacists blush. Complicity between the Chuch and Vichy was acknowledged by the French episcopate, in their statement of repentance in 1997.[6] They said, in part:

    “…Nevertheless, while may be true that some Christians – priests, religious and lay people – were not lacking in acts of courage in defense of fellow human beings, we must recognize that indifference won the day over indignation in the face of the persecution of the Jews and that, in particular, silence was the rule in face of the multifarious laws enacted by the Vichy government, whereas speaking out in favor of the victims was the exception.

    As François Mauriac wrote, “A crime of such proportions falls for no small part on the shoulders of those witnesses who failed to cry out, and this whatever the reason for their silence.”[7]

    France was not freed by De Gaulle, but by Allied forces. The myth of the “Liberation of Paris” by the “French” for the “French“ is one of most successful PR/Marketing campaigns in world’s history. Fr Maciel was good at this kind of con, but De Gaulle, un-matched. Most of the “French” soldiers of the Free French army were form French African colonies,[8] because there were not enough “real” “French” people to make a “French” free army. But, gasp, after Paris was “Liberated”, there is no way they were going to have them “multicultural ethnics” in a celebration parade, not pink-cheeked enough. That would have broken that myth.

    De Gaulle said on the 25th of August 1944.

    “..Paris, Paris defiled, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! Liberated by herself, liberated by her people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and the backing of the whole of France: that is to say, the France that fights. That is to say the only France, the real France, eternal France.”

    “..Paris, Paris outrage, Paris brisé, Paris martyrisé mais Paris libéré ! Libéré par lui-même, libéré par son peuple avec le concours des armées de la France, avec l’appui et le concours de la France tout entière : c’est-à-dire de la France qui se bat. C’est-à-dire de la seule France, de la vraie France, de la France éternelle…”

    Really? “Defiled” by whom? who was “martyred”? “support of the whole of France”? Really?

    Of course, not a word of gratitude for those that came from the prairies, Pittsburgh’s factories, or those that came from the “colonies”, and risked their lives. Later De Gaulle showed more of his brand of “gratitude”, by pulling France out of Nato command. More than 3000 Canadian soldiers died on the shores of Dieppe alone, not to mention those that died on D day. Instead of saying thank you on Canada’s 100th birth day, he came in 1967 and declared “Vive Le Quebec Libre”. De Gaulle’s self-inflated arrogance, is one of the major reasons of ungrateful French anti-Americanism to this day, imo. Yes, De Gaulle was a lesser evil, he did unite France resistance, he prevented a communist take over, but hero worship him? I don’t think so.

    There was the “epuration”, followed by a national amnesia, for a generation. One thing you said is correct. Not only the “right wing” was involved. That is another myth. After the war, Bousquet got a slap on his wrist, and later had a successful business and political career. Mittterand, who was a low level Vichy functionary, and later became Socialist President, protect his buddy. Contrary to Chirac, he refused to admit the culpability of the State. Bousquet was finally brought to trial in 1993, but was conveniently assassinated just before he could testify (his assassin is now free).

    And so it was, for 4 years during the occupation. The darling of Western “intelligentsia”, Jean Cocteau, enjoyed dinner parties with his very “intellectual” German officers friends (you know, DeGaulle’s “martyrdom”). Jacque Prevert, an other darling of same “hipster” crowd, was running after his “nymphets”. They even had time to do movies, that “very hip” Hollywood types now call the “best film ever made” (les enfant du paradis), and the “best cartoon” (la bergere et le ramoneur/le roi et l’oiseau). BCBG (bon chic bon genre) Catholics were extolling Petain and “Travail, Famille, Patrie”. All this, while people like Frank were risking their lives, perched in glass bubbles, fully exposed to enemy fire.

    You say you know a lot about Vichy? What are your sources, John? The reality is, no one can be an expert on Vichy, because it’s a taboo subject, to this day, amongst the French. The entire society was implicated, from the left to the right, religious and non religious (religious certainly had their niche). They never really came to terms with what happened. With the WW2 generation now dying off, shameful secrets are buried. Of course there are exceptions (Chabrol, Lelouche…). But one thing is clear: one can not dissociate Petain from Vichy, any more than one can dissociate Vichy from atrocities committed directly by them, or because of their collaboration with evil. Petain was not even particularly religious, neither were people like Bousquet.

    The only lesson to take from all this, is to be wary when people in the Church try to hitch rides with extreme politics. In this case, it was to the far right. A decade or two later, it was the extreme left, with people trying to equate Christ with Marxism. And now the pendulum has swung back again.

    Recently I went to a book signing of “Quiet Hero” by Rita Cosby, the TV journalist. Her father was in the Polish resistance, in the Warsaw uprising. While De Gaulle was talking about Paris being “martyred”; her dad, who was a teenager, was fighting in a group of 180 resistance fighter, that had 3 guns between. The Warsaw uprising succeeded, they got the Germans out of Warsaw, but help never came. Soviets just waited on the other side of Vistula, for Germans to come back and get rid of the possible “opposition”. The allies never came to the rescue. But the Germans did return, they killed who they could, demolished and burned the city, brick by brick. Then the Soviets “liberated” Warsaw and imprisoned those that survived. JP2 was also on the side of this Polish resistance, people that did not cave in front of evil, no matter what (even if phalangist/Vichy/Ayn Rand “Catholics” tried to take advantage of him, later as Pope).

    But you know what, on this veterans day weekend, I would like to salute my grandfather, and his brothers, that fought the Bolsheviks. One of those brothers was an officer in the Austrian cavalry, before WW1. He later commanded a successful a charge against the Bolsheviks for Poland, after he told his soldiers to use shoe polish for camouflage. He was killed point blank by a German soldier in WW2, when he scolded that soldier for not showing respect to an officer. This is also to my father and his brother, that could have stayed in the west, but fought in the Polish underground; my father was later imprisoned by the Soviets. This is to my uncle Tony, who was captured by the Soviets, then released to the regrouped Polish army under allied command. He fought in Tobruk and Montecassino, under General Anders (who’s plane “crashed” at the end of the war). This is to my godfather, who was commander during the Warsaw uprising. Warsaw was demolished, but these people did not comprise with evil. Warsaw was rebuilt, and Poland is now doing fine compared to the rest of Europe, even if they never got a Marshall plan red cent.

    This also to all the ordinary people that fought on the other side, who acted honorably, showed decency and mercy.

    This is to my fellow choir singer, who gets text messages during choir practices from his military sons “..will be hitching a ride on a transport to Kabul in a week, just want to let you know that I am ok….”

    There is a need for revisionist rehabilitation of Petain and people of his ilk, like there is need for bed tics. And what was the 1 # reason to be a catholic? Truth? Hum…

    All the best.

    Tom

    PS: France it not the only one with her dirty secrets. When WW2 was declared over, polish soldiers and officers that were stationed in England were not allowed to march in the victory parade (a bit like those Africans in Paris). Why? Brits did not want to upset Uncle Stalin, by allowing few of these pesky “ethnics”, this time from “backward” Poland, to march. Also I think we will have to wait a long time before we see a movies by Spielberg et al. on FDR’s lack of action to save the Jews during the war, the silence of the NYT, etc.. but that is an other story.

    PPS: translations (other than the French Episcopal text), are mine; sorry if they are not perfect.

    1) http://www.fdn.fr/~fjarraud/loivichy.htm;

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/jewish_deportation_01.shtml

    2) http://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/2010/10/03/01016-20101003ARTFIG00082-l-original-du-statut-des-juifs-accable-le-marechal-petain.php

    http://uk.reuters.com/article/2010/10/03/uk-france-petain-idUKTRE6920ZH20101003

    3) http://www.europa.clio-online.de/site/lang__en/ItemID__7/mid__11373/40208215/default.aspx

    4) http://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/politique/la-vraie-vie-de-rene-bousquet_492437.html?p=2

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1993/jun/09/france.paulwebster

    5) http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article_interactif/2007/05/15/les-discours-de-jacques-chirac_910136_3224_2.html

    6)http://www.akadem.org/photos/contextuels/2056_juste_gerlie_9.pdf

    7)http://www.bc.edu/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/texts/cjrelations/resources/documents/catholic/french_repentance.htm

    http://catholique-nanterre.cef.fr/connaitre%20et%20annoncer/judaisme/bibliographie/DeclarationDeRepentance.htm

    8) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7984436.stm

    • John Zmirak

      Dear Tom,
      I’m sorry if I was unclear. I have no brief at all for the leaders of Vichy, or those who knowingly took part in any atrocities. I was speaking of ordinary people (like the soldiers of the Foreign Legion, which is how we got on this subject) who should not be judged retroactively as if they had perfect knowledge or a time machine. It was a confusing time, and those who turned against Vichy often did so over time. My sources were Robert Paxton and Eugen Weber–neither one an apologist for the French far right.

  • RoxanneRoxanadana

    All their stories need to be told. Too often we forget that the Holocaust came from the German conquest of Europe. It was the conquest of continents, by Nazi Germany in Europe & Imperial Japan in Asia, that was the SUPREME CRIME. Let us never forget heroes like this man.

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