Among the names of the Allied World War II airmen included in Austria’s just released Missing in Action: Failed to Return commemoration book is Second Lt. Raymon Spehalski. The 21-year-old Pennsylvania pilot guided his B-24 hit by flak until his crew was able to parachute out safely, but he did not survive the crash over Kindberg, Austria, on March 26, 1945. My late father, nose gunner Stanley E. Todd of Richmond, Ky., then 22, did.
Each Memorial Day, our family pauses to remember Spehalski with gratitude. It was Spehalski’s effort and skill that saved my father and the rest of the crew. This year we join the Spehalski family in appreciating the tribute by the Austrian government to say thank you to all the young Allied airmen whose bravery helped liberate Europe and Austria from tyranny and dictatorship more than 71 years ago.
The commemoration book now posted online by the Austrian government includes for the first time names of 1,582 U.S. airmen who died in Austria during World War II — and the time and place of their death. The comprehensive accounting of the loss of all Allied airmen is the result of research and information compiled by Austrian historians Dr. Georg Hoffmann and Dr. Nicole-Melanie Goll over more than eight years.
Our family — and our country — owes much to Hoffmann and Goll for what we learned about what happened in that chaotic time. Like many WWII veterans, my father talked little of his war experience. Nearly a decade after my dad’s death in 2002, I wanted to learn more, and came across a message posted by Hoffmann on a military forum looking for family or members of my father’s crew.
Hoffmann and Goll arranged a May 2012 visit for my family at the crash site where Spehalski died and to the former SS barracks in Graz-Wetzelsdorf where we learned my father and other members of his crew faced a firing squad, but were then spared. I wrote about this in a story in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Veterans Day in 2012. As I learned then from the two researchers, my father was one of 63 Kentuckians shot down over Austria during WWII; 23 were killed in action, including one who is still missing.
Since then Hoffmann and Goll have visited the United States a number of times to do additional research, spending time at the National Archives in College Park, Md., not far from where we live outside the nation’s capital. Hoffmann’s doctoral dissertation about the violence against WWII Allied airmen (including my father’s story) was the basis of Hoffmann’s 2015 book Fliegerlynchjustiz published by a prominent German publisher last fall.
Hoffmann also was part of the curator team for an Austrian national exhibit, “41 Days. The end of war 1945 — Culmination of Violence” (and featuring a photo of my father and his crew). The exhibit was displayed prominently for three months in 2015 on the outer castle gate on Vienna’s Heldenplatz, commemorating victims of National Socialism at a central Austrian memorial site, and later in the year in Graz. It will appear in Linz, Austria’s third-largest city, this year.
As Austria’s Secretary of Defense and Sports Hans Peter Doskozil notes in the book’s foreword: “This is an important new contribution that brings a whole group of victims out of obscurity, commemorating their names in Austria. The book is a worthy epitaph. It gives the soldiers’ families a chance to know for certain what happened to their loved ones and reminds us of the terrible consequences of dictatorship, war and violence. It shows how important it is to remember as a way to prevent such events from taking place again.”
Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States to remember those who have lost their lives in the armed services. Americans also are encouraged to take part in the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time (duration: one minute). The time 3 p.m. was chosen, because it is the time when many Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday.
Memorial Day events
Camp Nelson National Cemetery: 6980 Danville Road (U.S. 27), southern Jessamine County, 11 a.m.
Kentucky National Guard Memorial: Boone National Guard Center, 100 Minuteman Parkway, Frankfort, 2 p.m.
Lexington Cemetery: 833 W. Main Street, Lexington, 11 a.m.
Mill Springs National Cemetery: Zollicoffer Park, Ky. 235, Nancy in Pulaski County, 9 a.m-1 p.m. with memorial service at 11 a.m.