veterans day remembrance

A Veterans Day remembrance: My father survived war, and took its secrets to his grave

On April 2, 1945, Richmond native Stanley Todd and a dozen other American POWs stood before a Nazi SS firing squad. At the last moment the execution was canceled. Decades later, his family is still trying to find out why he was spared.

Special to the Herald-LeaderNovember 11, 2012 

We arrive at the Austrian military headquarters in Graz, the country's second-largest city. Driving through the gates in an Austrian Army van, we are guests of 1st Lt. Georg Hoffmann, a reserve officer who is a historian investigating war crimes committed against Allied airmen during World War II. As we pass the covered entranceway, Hoffmann points to the waist-high stone wall just inside the compound — it's the spot where my father and a dozen other airmen faced a Nazi firing squad but somehow lived.

Stanley Todd, then 22, son of a farmer from Richmond, Ky., had entered this same gate in the back of a Nazi troop carrier in the spring of 1945 with other captured U.S. airmen.

The red-roofed Bavarian-style buildings that today serve as the command post for the Austrian Army were built in the early 1940s to house senior SS officers and soldiers.

It was not a place where any American would want to find himself in the closing months of the war.

Taken into the Graz-Wetzelsdorf SS garrison, my father and 12 other men, including seven of his B-24 crew members, were shoved against a stone wall, stripped to their waists, and told to keep their hands over their heads. A group of riflemen appeared, with a cart to wheel away the bodies.

Then, for reasons still unclear, a senior SS officer ordered the firing squad to disband, and the airmen were marched to a holding cell in a nearby barrack.

We consider this a miracle in our family history, and it is one we are especially mindful of this Veterans Day after visiting this spot in May.

It had been a mystery to historians Hoffmann and his colleague Nicole-Melanie Goll of the University of Graz. The two have spent more than five years documenting some 739 U.S. crashes over Austria and Hungary during World War II. They have traced more than 2,300 airmen who died and 6,300 other airmen who came to the ground over the countries in 1943-45.

A key focus of their research has been atrocities committed against U.S. airmen. But after years of research, including numerous interviews of witnesses and an exhaustive review of available Allied and German documents and records, Hoffmann and Goll cannot explain why the executions did not take place.

As we learned this past year, the April 2, 1945, firing squad incident is still part of "an open war crimes case," according to Hoffmann. That's because on the same day, just a few hours later, the SS troops carried out a mass execution of more than 200 people, including Hungarian Jews, British, Russian and French POWs, as well as freedom fighters and partisans on the SS barracks property.

This ill-fated group arrived about two hours after the group of airmen, Hoffmann said. "They were brought to the eastern part of the barracks, and all of them were shot there that night. The corpses were thrown into some bomb craters. So looking on all this, I think your father was lucky to survive that day."

On our May trip to Austria to explore our father's war experience we walked among the bomb craters at the former SS compound; the site has been excavated, and the bomb craters are now part of a memorial to those who were killed.

My brother Stan Todd of Richmond, our father's namesake, joined us on our trip. My husband Michael and I brought our two children James and Natalie, now in their 20s, so that they might understand more about their grandfather's history and the sacrifices made in a different time.

Our trip also included a visit to the idyllic Austrian village of Kindberg where his plane had crashed, killing his pilot Raymon Spehalski, and where eight of the surviving nine crew members were captured. We met with the town's mayor and a local newspaper columnist who had witnessed the crash as a young boy.

Like many World War II veterans, my dad never really talked about his war experience.

As he was dying of prostate cancer a decade ago, I tried to ask him questions after locating a 1945 newspaper clipping about the firing squad and finding the Missing Air Crew Report where I learned the date of his crash, March 26, 1945, for the first time.

(Ironically, I got married on March 26, 1983.) I wrote a story for the Lexington Herald-Leader about my father's prisoner of war experience that was published just five days before he died in 2002 at the age of 79.

Even then, try as I might, I never got much information from my father. Now, I know I wasn't even asking the right questions.

Around Veterans Day for the last several years, I've found myself wondering about my father's experience. Last November I stumbled across a message Hoffmann had posted on an online military forum seeking relatives or living crew members of my dad's crew.

Hoffmann and Goll had spent nearly two years working on the SS barracks Graz-Wetzelsdorf war crimes case when we first connected last November.

The human remains in the bomb craters were discovered in 2010, as part of the historians' investigation, when the long-forgotten bomb craters were excavated at the direction of Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos. The Austrian government erected a granite memorial stone and held a commemoration ceremony at the site last December.

Among the incredible documents Hoffmann and Goll unearthed at The National Archives and other locations is a report in French from a French spy (masquerading as a U.S. airman) who had ended up with my father's crew in the firing squad line and who noted my father's assistance in trying to saw through the bars of a prison cell earlier.

Hoffmann also located a hand-drawn map of the barracks with blue dots marking the place where the firing squad was lined up and also a photo of SS leader Willi Schweitzer who was believed to be among the perpetrator group.

Interestingly, the researchers also found a full transcript of an Austrian war crimes trial from May 1948 in Salzburg. The U.S. government had actually charged Schweitzer for "encouraging, siding, abetting and participating in the wrongful killing of about 13 American airmen" on or about April 2, 1945. He and others were acquitted, after defense lawyers argued that the execution of the airmen never occurred. Strangely, no one at the war crimes tribunal seemed concerned with the hundreds of Jews, Russians and others who were massacred under Schweitzer's command.

Our family knows more than ever now, thanks to Hoffmann and Goll and connections we've made with other families who have preserved and shared photos, writings, letters and other documents with us. We are inspired by the bravery of these men and grateful for their service during World War II. We salute the life of Raymon Spehalski, the pilot who saved his crew that fateful day when he told them to "hit the silk, boys."

I'm also reminded of the words of Paul Hartal, a well-known Canadian painter, poet and author. Hartal says his life was saved because of the bombing mission over the Strasshof railyards that was the last of the war for my father and his crew. The bombs upended the cattle car on the tracks where Hartal, then an 8-year-old Hungarian Jewish boy, was loaded with his mother and sister headed to another concentration camp. It was his sister's fourth birthday.

"Their lives and mine are connected through the whimsicality of fate and the capriciousness of history," Hartal wrote. "I have admired the courage of freedom fighters in the Second World War, especially the bravery of those young aviators who flew dangerous missions risking their lives to liberate the world from the claws of evil. They are my heroes and brothers."

We will continue our research, but know that we will never have all the answers of that long-ago time.

Still we are left to wonder about what my father truly experienced and might have witnessed or heard. Why were my father and the others spared that Easter Monday 1945?

Was it because my father and others in the group had been registered as war prisoners?

Was the decision not to execute the Americans somehow linked to the mass execution at that very place a few hours later? We may never know. And if our dad knew, we still might not have learned the answer even if we had asked the right questions.

While we talked in his room just days before he died, my father made it clear there were some lines he could not cross, even in those last days.

"Some things are best left in the past," he said, closing down the conversation. "It was hell."

Becky Todd York, a former Herald-Leader reporter, is a native of Richmond, Ky. She and her husband Michael, another former Herald-Leader reporter, live in Vienna, Va., outside of Washington, D.C.

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