Today I can say with the clearest perception of reality and un-metaphorically (out, out damned cliché) that I am snowed under. Another wad of Arctic air has shoved its way into the U.S. all the way to the Gulf Coast. Right now I'm looking out my window at snow falling, and the temperature is about 20 degrees (F) with a wind chill that makes it seem like 10 degrees. My 9-month-old all-black kitten, who was rescued from a city culvert last June, is berserk, not knowing whether to fly out the cat door into this unknown white land or run around the house, stopping at a window or two to chase her own tail.
To many people in the U.S. and around the world, this kind of weather is less than no news at all. But it's news in Alabama. Traffic is stalled everywhere from here in Tuscaloosa to the coast. We’re waiting for Joanna Leigh’s #40 school bus to finally get her to the bus stop after the school system dismissed classes because of the weather.
News value aside, it's a good day to think about this day 69 years ago, when my father, Lt. John T. Cravey, landed at San Severo Airdrome, Italy, in 1945. January 1945 was still the in the throes of the coldest winter on record in Europe, and the famous Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes was only a month-old memory. Those troops who managed to survive that battle would never forget it. In these last 69 years, that World War II conflict has become a legend and a symbol of the Allies' determination to prevail.
I don't know how cold it was that January 28 at San Severo Airdrome, but records show that the US Army Air Corps personnel did a lot of playing in the snow, having serious snowball fights, in January and February. P-51 sorties were at a minimum. It was likely muddy or frozen mud, so there wasn't a lot of flying over the Tyrolean Alps into Austria en route to Munich and the surrounding area to bomb targets, mostly railroads, oil depots, factories, and any infrastructure that the Third Reich was barely holding on to at that point in World War II.
Way Across the Pond
We are not sure when dad left Key Field in Meridian, Mississippi, to be transported someway -- we aren’t sure how -- to New York, where he would board an unknown ship, cross the Atlantic, enter the Mediterranean, and land somewhere -- we’re not sure where -- and get to the San Severo Airdrome to begin his tour as a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot flying tactical and escort missions over the Alps into Germany to finish off the Nazi War Machine. He must have spent Christmas somewhere en route to his destiny. The trip to the air bases in Italy took a month or more.
Our scrapbook indicates that my mother never heard from him after he left her until Western Union called her in June with the telegram from him saying he was in New York and would be home in a week or so. He must have been a sight – having lost about 50 or 60 pounds off his 6-foot, 3-inch frame. None of the other communications, including letters from the POW camp or his commanding officer, arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, until after he returned home. Skinny but alive.
As he stepped onto the muddy ground in San Severo, he was not likely wondering what his future was going to be. He was there to do his job. Besides, the guys were probably in a major snow fight. The rain of the past several days had turned to snow.
Unbearable cold, snow, ice, and near starvation awaited him. About three weeks after he arrived at San Severo, he would take off from the pierced steel “runway” as the wing man for Capt. Roger Zierenberg, head for the Munich area, bomb and strafe, head home, and not be able to get back.
Fortune was standing on the top of Zuckerhutl alpine mountain, calling him down. How he survived that bailout, treacherous descent, transport to Balzano (Bozen), Italy, then to the POW records unit, his wintery march southward to the camp, and the starvation conditions he and the others faced is still a mystery to us. The odds said he should not have survived.
Dad’s POW photo taken at the POW distribution center
Found: A Cravey
About 18 months ago, I got the initial cold-contact e-mail from an unknown Austrian man who had been looking for a Cravey family member for some years. When I finally decided it was not a hoax e-mail and responded, he sent the next e-mail telling me that he and some other mountaineers/hikers had found dad’s crash site on a glacier in the northern Italian Tyrol. About ten years earlier.
The production plate from his P-51 peeking out of the snow and ice led to the identification of the plane’s being dad’s Mustang. That incredible and shocking e-mail has sent me, my sister, Susan, and our first cousin, Emory Kimbrough, on our own journey searching through records, the Internet, scrapbooks, pictures -- everywhere we can think of – to piece dad’s story together. We will succeed. Dad’s story will be told.
Now, Roland (the Austrian), other crash site “archaeologists, U.S. family members of other survivors, historians, and others communicate regularly. Roland has become a dear friend.
I am hoping to get to Lienz, Austria, this summer to see the place where dad’s story played out.
Meanwhile, Joanna Leigh’s bus finally arrived about an hour late. She came in, threw her backpack down, put on boots, and headed for the snow. That lasted about 10 minutes. We’re slurping hot chocolate with marshmallows.
How dad survived in something like -20 degrees for two or three nights on a mountain in the Alps seems like the plot of a fantastical myth. It was, however, reality to the max.