Pressemitteilungen Mobile Register ( Mobile, Alabama, USA), 01.12. 2002 

Frank's German mark

by Gene Owens, Staff Columnist

With a blast his B-17 began to disintegrate. Staff Sgt. Frank Lewis unloaded his bombs short of the target that day in 1945, and bailed out over enemy territory. He and two american pilots joined up during captivity and eventually made it back to safe hands, leaving behind mysteries that German historians have only recently solved.


For 57 years, that craters outside Oranienburg, 10 miles north of Berlin, had been a mystery to the townspeople. Frank Lewis of Mobile unraveled it for me Friday over morning coffee at Carpe Diem on Old Shell Road. On April 10, 1945, Staff Sgt. Frank Lewis was flying his 34th mission aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress - the plane the Germans called, derisively, the "Flying Coffin." A togglier does the same thing a bombardier does but without an officer's insignia on his uniform. One more mission, and he would be going home. He had already landed at a wing and a prayer once when his previous B-17 was hit over Leipzig and limped to an emergency landing in Luxembourg. 

Now his four-engined aircraft was part of the 398th Bomber Group en route to Oranienburg. Its target was an ordnance depot belonging to the SS - the elite and often sadistic force dedicated personally to Adolf Hitler. Lewis sat in the nose of the aircraft, ready to release its load at a signal from the lead bomber. Its bomb bay open, the B-17 lumbered in formation towards a target, only 90 to 120 seconds away. Then an Me-262 - Germany's newly minted jet fighter - streaked down from 7 o'clock high, its new 30 mm cannon firing incredible fast. Lewis felt the big plane shudder and saw its No.3 inboard engine fly away from the wing, then drop. From where he sat, he could see the ball turret gunner's arm severed. Later, he learned that the waist gunner was killed instantly. "When we were hit, I salvoed my bombs," he said. That meant the entire load was dumped at once. Then he curled up tightly and tumbled out the small door that led from the aircraft into the sky. The plane exploded.


German historians reunite two American WWII fliers

After his parachute opened, Lewis checked himself. He was floating down from 26.500 feet. His eyebrows were gone, and his face was scorched. His fleece-lined boots were missing, having fallen away when the parachute opened. He was swinging from a silken dome, suspended in total silence, trying to discern the details of the terrain toward wich he was descending. "At 7.000 feet, I heard a poping noise," he said. "I looked down, and there were three farmers shooting at me." Lewis knew that german civilians had been known to kill Allied personnel shot down over their land. They had witnessed the horror of carpet bombing  - including the fire bombing of Dresden - and had no sympathy for the men who had been raining destruction on them. Three other crewmen had bailed out of this plane. Two survived; civilians killed the tail gunner. 

Lewis hit the ground, rolled, shucked off his harness and ran barefoot away from the farmers. "Fortunately, I spotted three soldiers and surrendered to them," he said. The soldiers took him to a nearby house and confined him to a back room. "I heard them on a phone trying to find out what to do with me. Two little German girls came to the window where I was. I shooed them away, because I knew they'd be in trouble if they were caught talking to me. I can see them right now..." 

While Lewis was descending toward captivity, other dramas were playing out in the skies. Capt. Richard Tracy and Lt. Joe Peterburs were flying P-51 Mustangs when the Me-262 pounced. The dogfight cost both American pilots their planes. A 13-year-old German youth named Werner Dietrich, watching the aerial combat from the cover of a ditch, saw one Mustang go down.


Captivity in the subway

Lewis' captors took him into Oranienburg, where they caught a train for Berlin. Strangely, the American flier was not handcuffed or bound. They arrived in the German capital at 10.30 p.m. The Third Reich was in its death throes. "The utter destruction of the city was unimaginable," he said. But when they descended to the subway, they where in a different world. "It was brilliantly lit, tiled, and you could eat off the floor," he said. He was first quatered with members of the Luftwaffe - Germany's air force. " The air force guys were really nice to me," Lewis said. Although he was confined to a room without companion, he ate in the Luftwaffe mess hall "just like everybody else."

On his fith day there, he met Tracy. They stayed in Berlin two more days, then were put on a civilian train, where they rode in a first-class car to Luckenwalde Prison. At Luckenwalde, Lewis encountered a trader who located some shoes for him. And Tracy introduced him to a fellow Mustang pilot named Joe. They had been shot out of the sky on the same day. Soon, the three men deceided to escape. They strolled out in the predawn darkness, climbing through the fence at the rear of the prison camp, some 75 to 100 yards from the guard tower. "We walked out of the prison as if it were high noon," Lewis said.

Not longer after their escape, they encountered a tank formation. The big red star on the armored vehicle told them that they had made contact with the Red Army, attacking from the east. Lewis and his companions yelled "Amerikansky," and the Soviet troops let them approach. They were Mongolians from the Asian portion of the Soviet Union. "They were drunk," said Lewis. "They didn't look like they'd had a bath in a week and smelled the same way. They were carried American submachine guns but weren't wearing helmets." The Americans escapees were in several firefights between Germans and Soviets. During one of them, Joe became separated from Lewis and Tracy. It would be 57 years before Lewis would hear what became of him.

They eventually encountered a Russian general, who refused to release them to return to their own lines. But the Red Army was moving in the right direction - toward the Elbe river. It was there that the Russians and Americans joined up. "One morning about 10, they came to get us," said Lewis. "We crossed the Elbe River on a pontoon bridge (Gen. Dwight) Eisenhower had built." An American general was giving a big banquet for his Soviet allies, and the Soviet general  took Lewis and Tracy with him. There he presented them as gifts to the American general. Lewis returned to his base in England after hitching a series of flights from the continent. He arrived in London penniless and without identification - his lice-infested prison camp clothes had been burned. He conned a bus driver into taking him to a Red Cross station about seven miles from the base, and the Red Cross staffer closed the station to drive him to the base entrance.


The war's loose ends

After the war, Lewis graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in industrial management. He went to work for International Paper Co. and was transferred to Mobile during the 70's with a position in industrial relations. The war was a distant memory for Lewis until last May, when he received a letter a letter postmarked Oranienburg. It was from a 34-year-old man named Mario Schulze. Schulze was a member of a group of amateur historians who had been researching World War II crash sites and trying to determine the fates of the crews. he had obtained Lewis' adress from the 398th Bomber Group Association. He asked him for a brief description of the events of April 10, 1945.

Lewis responded and soon he heared from Schulze again. Werner Dietrich, who had witnessed the dogfight as a 13-years-old boy, had been trying for years to identify the pilot of the Mustang he had been seen shot down that day. In 1996, he persuaded a German TV documentary program to excavate the crash site. Using the plane's serial number, he discovered that the pilot was Peterburs, and eventually located him at his home in Colorado Springs. Peterburs gave a detailed account of his downing and capture. When Schulze read Peterburs' account, he realized that the details dovetailed perfectly with Lewis' account. He wrote both Lewis and Peterburs.

One day last spring, Lewis was having breakfast at his home in the Spring Hill section of Mobile when the telephone rang. "I'm Joe Peterburs, " came the voice on the other end. "Joe, thats enough," said Lewis. " I'm the guy." The correspondence continued with Schulze, and the two American men were featured prominently in articles in the Oranienburger Generalanzeiger, Schulze's local newspaper. Schulze would like to find the two German girls - now around 70 years old - who peered curiously into the room where Lewis was held. Lewis doesn't know what happens to Tracy. He was about six years older than his companions, wich would make him 85 today if he is still alive.

After Lewis told his story, Schulze knew the mystery behind the crater. When Lewis was hit, he dropped all of his bombs on one spot, a minute and a half to two minutes from the SS ordnance depot. He didn't hit his target, but he left his mark.