Alles ist kaputt! The end of Hitler's war
Interview with Harry Mazer
398th, 602nd Squadron, Waist Gunner
By Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Patrick Timothy Mullikin wrote the following article about Harry Mazer that appeared in The Barre Times/Montpelier Argus on January 28, 2008. Mr. Mullikin is on the Times Argus staff and provided permission to the 398th Memorial Association to place a copy of his article on the 398th web site.
EAST MONTPELIER - Had the war in Europe ended just two weeks earlier, Harry Mazer, then a 19-year-old B-17 waist gunner assigned to the 398th Bomb Group in Royston, England, would be telling a far different story.
Granted it wouldn't be nearly as compelling as what really happened to him.
On the other hand, more families - those of his seven fallen crewmembers - would have been able to share happier memories over the years.
But in war it's all a matter of luck, good and bad.
On April 25, 1945, Soviet and American troops met at the River Elbe, near Torgau, Germany. That meeting was the death knell for the Third Reich. For Germany the war was over.
That same day, Mazer's B-17 Flying Fortress, Godfathers Inc., took off from Royston on a routine bombing raid over German-occupied Czechoslovakia. After the June 6, 1944, Normandy invasion, Mazer says, the Army Air Corps bumped up the number of missions a crew was required to fly from 25 to 35.
As luck would have it, this was Godfathers Inc.'s 26th mission.
While flying over the city of Pilzen at 25,000 feet, the bomber's right wing was shot off by German gunfire, and the crippled plane went down.
Sitting at the kitchen table of the renovated East Montpelier farmhouse that he shares with his wife, writer Norma Fox Mazer, white-haired-and-bearded Harry Mazer, 82, travels back 60-plus years to a time, he says, when he and other young men were eager to enlist.
"This was our war to win. We knew we were going to win. There was no question in anybody's mind."
Mazer's story is punctuated with laughter and tears.
Eager to enlist
After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, 16-year-old Mazer was ready to sign up, and in 1942, at 17, he was accepted into the U.S. Army Air Corps Cadet program where he had aspirations of becoming an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
In July 1943, at age 18, he was called into active duty. Although he washed out of the cadet program, Mazer was hellbent on being a member of a B-17 crew and ended up in Las Vegas, where he trained as a waist gunner. At 5 feet, 11 inches, Mazer was too tall to be a ball-turret gunner.
"I did get down in there, but my knee was around my ear," he says with a laugh.
After months of training, the nine-member Godfathers Inc. crew left the United States in December 1944 for 398th Bomb Group in Royston, England, to join two squadrons of B-17s and one squadron of B-24s.
"None of us wanted to be on a B-24. We called them death traps."
He remembers, vividly, his first mission: Feb. 3, 1945. "We flew over Berlin, which was a very difficult target. I was so ignorant. I was absolutely enjoying myself. I wanted to see everything that was happening."
Down like a maple leaf
One of the day's sites stayed with him for the remainder of his missions.
"As we were going over Berlin, I see one of our planes below me, from another unit, split in half. The tail went down like a maple leaf, just went twisting down. It was at that point that I got scared. And I stayed scared from then on - till the end of the war."
When his squadron returned to Royston that day, and for the next 24 missions - which translated to a mission every other day, he says - the crew celebrated with a shot of cognac: A toast to the success of the bombing raid and to their safe return. "That was a good feeling when we saw the Channel and we got back to the 398th."
As for the targets? Mazer says he felt no guilt or remorse.
"I was glad the bombs were hitting their cities. In theory we were hitting military targets - munitions plants, railroads. The attitude was we want to get the job done - and come home. We want to beat the Germans, and after we beat the Germans, we want to beat the Japs. That's the way we talked." As the war in Europe wound down, Mazer says, so did the bombing missions.
When orders finally did arrive - for mission 26 - it was for a bombing raid on a German industrial complex in Pilzen, Czechoslovakia. Mazer remembers it as "a huge armada of bombers - 600 planes on that mission."
Clouds obscured Godfathers Inc.'s view of the target, so the B-17 made a second pass at the target and was hit. The right wing was ripped from the Flying Fortress' fuselage.
Clouds below me
In a matter of seconds, Mazer crawled to the door and pulled the release. It stuck fast. With his back to the door he threw his tall frame against the door, which then gave way.
"I fell out of the airplane - only one foot got caught in the doorway. I swung by one leg, the tail assembly right above my head." When he straightened his leg, he fell free from the plane on his back.
"I was looking from left to right. I wanted to see where I was going. There was great pressure. My ears were ringing. My goggles were hammering me in the face. There was a dense layer of clouds below me. I said, 'Harry. You don't know where the ground is,' and I pulled the chute."
He blacked out from the thrust of the opening chute and when he came to he was floating.
"It was a beautiful day, a magnificent day, but I was worried about being shot at from the ground."
To speed up his descent, he tipped his chute, which caused it to collapse.
"I hit the ground hard. I went down on my knees."
Mazer landed on the top of a hill and, as he had been instructed to do, was busy burying his chute when two Germans in blue uniforms, members of the Luftwaffe, crested the hill. One carried a submachine gun, the other a carbine. Mazer had a .45 pistol in a shoulder holster under his flight suit.
"I put my hands on my head and shouted, 'Kamerad,' which means 'I'm friendly. I'm not going to fight.'" He surrendered his pistol.
Thirteen days before the war in Europe was to end, 19-year-old Harry Mazer, a Polish Jew from the Bronx, was taken prisoner of war by a defeated enemy, an enemy on the run.
Cursed and spat at
Mazer was marched through the village, where the townsfolk cursed and spat at him, to a spot in the woods and told to sit.
"I thought I was going to be shot. I said goodbye to my parents and girlfriend."
Instead, Mazer's captives took him to an airbase, up a flight of stairs, and told him to sit on a wooden bench. On the wall was a portrait of Hitler. The base commandant burst in the room and began cursing Mazer.
No more than a half hour had passed since he bailed from the B-17.
"I thought: This is real. Moments earlier I thought this wasn't really happening. I thought I was in a dream."
A few minutes later, Godfathers Inc.'s ball-turret gunner, William D. O'Malley, was dragged in by his captors. The two crewmembers pretended not to know each other. The Germans wanted to know where the two had come from, says Mazer, who spoke Yiddish and was able to understand their rapid-paced German. "Berliners talk a mile a minute."
For the next several days Mazer, O'Malley and four other POWs, including a P-51 pilot ("a stupid jerk" who had been chasing German planes and was forced down) began trekking across Czechoslovakia and Austria under the watchful eyes of five German guards assigned to them. Their final destination, if there had been one, was never made clear.
"We were a group trying to survive, including the Germans," Mazer says. Their first stop was at a hospital in the city of Klaatau, then part of the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia annexed by Germany in 1938.
Mazer says the Germans at the hospital were interested in the American POWs and kept repeating, "Alles ist kaput." Everything's finished. We've lost the war. Alles ist kaput."
The Russians are beasts
The sergeant in charge of guarding the six POWs told Mazer: "Deutsche haben Kultur. Amerikaner haben Kultur. Ruski nicht Kultur!" Translation: Germans are civilized. Americans are civilized. The Russians are beasts.
Mazer says the Russian Army was the most powerful force in Europe at this time, an Army filled with enormous rage all aimed at Germany.
The following day, as his group was being loaded onto a truck, a Russian plane flew overhead, strafing the ground below.
Mazer admits his memory is a little sketchy as he tries to piece together those final days of the war in Europe. He remembers marching through a Czech village where a girl gave him a hard-boiled egg, crossing the Danube River into Austria and finally arriving at a German bivouac where two German deserters (Austrians serving in the German Army) joined his group of prisoners. The deserters were sentenced to be shot the next day - the day Germany surrendered.
At this German camp, the six POWs and two Austrians were locked in a ground-level classroom, Mazer recalls. One guard stood outside the classroom door and another was posted outside a window.
During the night, he remembers hearing the Germans talking in the corridor: "Ruski kommen. Ruski kommen." The Russians are coming. The Russians are coming.
"We were on the Ens River between Linz and Salzburg (in Austria). The Russians were on one side, and (Patton's Third Army) were on the other side."
The Germans were gone
That next morning, May 7, Mazer looked out the window. No one was there. "The Germans were gone. They'd left camp; so I climbed out the window."
The six American POWs and the two Austrians found a car ("I think it was one of Hitler's first VWs"). With the Americans inside and the Austrians riding on the front bumpers, the car headed out the camp gates and onto the road. "There were thousands of Germans," Mazer says. "They had thrown their guns away. This was the day of surrender." The war in Europe ended officially on May 8, VE Day.
The VW continued on, driving through the advancing U.S. Army, until it reached the main army camp. There the six POWs, minus the two Austrians, were loaded onto trucks headed to Munich. It was in Munich that Mazer and O'Malley, the only survivors of Godfathers Inc., parted ways. A third crewmember, Mike Brennan, had managed to bail out on April 25, but either did not survive the fall or was shot, Mazer found out later.
In Munich, Mazer was put on a plane and sent to camp Lucky Strike in Janville, France.
"I became part of that great mass of ex-POWs." The first thing he did at Camp Lucky Strike was head to the telegraph office to send his mother a telegram letting her know he was OK. Weeks earlier she had received word her son was missing in action. "Oh how she suffered," he remembers. "But she was lucky. She got me back."
After a few weeks at Camp Lucky Strike, Mazer flew back to Royston.
"I reported to squadron headquarters. They said: 'Your crew is gone. The squadron is gone.' We didn't talk about what had happened. Nobody was talking about it. It was just a dreadful thing that happened."
Love for my country
When he finally made it back to the Bronx, he met a friend of his mother's at the subway station who said to him in Yiddish: "Your mother's waiting for you."
"I came up to the apartment, and my mother sat there holding my hands. And she said to me: 'Your hands. They look so old to me.'" He had turned 20 on May 31.
Mazer was discharged from the Army in October 1945, and a few weeks later he was enrolled in Union College, an independent, liberal arts college in Schenectady, N.Y. He and Norma have spent most of their adult lives as writers of young adult fiction, and Mazer's war experiences have cropped up many times in his writing, including "The Last Mission," a fictionalized account of his bailout and capture.
Of his time in the Army Air Corps and those final days of the war in Europe, Mazer says, "These were some of the most important moments of my life. It was a transformative period of my life. I entered the war idealistically with a belief in the importance in defeating Hitler. I had a visceral hatred of Hitler."
Mazer is silent.
When he continues speaking, tears begin to well.
"In a sense, I believe that I died, a part of me died in the war, and I was reborn. I'm not nationalistic. I love my country. In my heart I'm proud of my service.
- 398th Mission: 3 February, 1945 Berlin
- 398th Mission: 25 April 1945 Pilsen, Czech
- 398th Veteran's WWII Personal Histories See 602nd Squadron list.
- Original Mazer Article in Times Argus by Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Personal History Information
- Veteran: Harry Mazer
- Waist Gunner, 602nd Squadron
- Date of Personal History: January 2008
- Author: Patrick Timothy Mullikin
- Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Patrick Timothy Mullikin