U nder a clear blue sky in Wesel, the sun’s beams hit the Rhine River on Good Friday. A cargo vessel lumbered by. The soft chatter of adults and contagious laughter of children’s play filled the air with calm.
There’s virtually no trace of WWII in Wesel today. It was leveled by the war’s end: ninety-seven percent of its buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing. Wesel’s train station was one such casualty, where bombs left the train tracks a tangle of deformed steel. Undisturbed, though, was Hitler’s portrait, hanging defiantly below the Wesel station sign. It was Hitler’s seemingly indefatigable Third Reich that brought the largest Allied airborne invasion to Wesel in the war’s final act.
I arrived at the train station in Wesel a lifetime after it was destroyed. I’d traversed the width of Germany earlier in the day—from Berlin west to the Rhine. Families filled the train, escaping from the city for a long holiday weekend. Crossing the country, I perked up at the many stops I knew too well for never having visited: Hanover, Hamm, Dortmund, Essen.
I’d first seen these names scribbled on the back of an American Savings and Loan notepad. These were the places that haunted my grandfather for a lifetime, even though he never stepped foot in any of them. Wesel, a tiny town abutting the Rhine an hour north of Cologne, was forty-first on that list.
At golden hour, I sat on the east bank of the Rhine in Wesel at a buzzing beer garden, sipping a glass of crisp wine, appreciating the two years it took to get here. Across the river, I focused on the remnants of a brick bridge, one of the few traces of what happened here a lifetime ago.
Seventy-four years before I arrived, my grandfather Wallace Truslow, whom everyone called Wally for short, passed above the smoldering remains of this bridge in his B-24 bomber, its freshly twisted iron protruding from the water. Smoke and haze blanketed Wesel that afternoon at the tail-end of WWII.
Just east of Wesel, seven-year-old Heinz Godde was startled by the terrifying thuds of Allied bombs that reverberated through the tin grain silo he called home. He’d already fled home once as the war closed in on Germany.
At the end of the Allied air armada stretching four hours long, my grandfather Wally’s ten-man B-24 crew led a formation of heavy bombers during this final invasion of Germany. After crossing the Rhine over Wesel, he faced a barrage of small arms fire from church steeples and hospitals. Machine gun fire tore through the aluminum skin of his bomber, jingling like pop rocks. Bullets tore into his right thigh, unleashing a torrent of blood and pain.
Flying low, the B-24s were slow, easy targets for enemy flak guns, the anti-aircraft gun that was the bomber’s fiercest predator. From a corn field outside Wesel, a flak battery shot indiscriminately at the formation of B-24s my grandfather’s crew led. Tracer rounds zoomed past Wally’s bomber before the two identical aircraft on either side of him took direct hits. Twenty-year-old Bob Vance braced for impact on enemy soil. The belly of his B-24 bobbed up and down before slamming into a field, breaking in half, and exploding.
On the other side of the Rhine River, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood on the balcony of the Wacht am Rhein Hotel flanked by Allied top brass. He was hellbent on watching the final invasion of Germany, called Operation Varsity, from the front lines. He’d waited six long years for Allied forces to cross the Rhine into Germany, the heart of the Third Reich, and the symbolic beginning of the end.
Churchill marked the occasion by urinating in the Rhine and climbing on the rubble of the bridge that I gazed at seventy-five years later, in a very different Wesel.
Wesel was the climax of my journey to find out the role that my grandfather played in WWII. Wally’s fateful mission over Wesel would also prove to be the climax of his internal war—a battle he took to the grave twenty years ago.
Growing up, nothing about my grandfather was typical. He bled shrapnel from his leg until the day he died. Tiny pieces of lead from the bullets that struck him would surface through his thigh, requiring regular trips to the doctor to be cut free. His family knew neither how nor when this wound was inflicted, only that it happened in the skies over Hitler’s Europe and was the cause of the Purple Heart medal hidden in his sock drawer.
All that Wally said in his lifetime about the war could be counted on two hands. The short of it was he’d flown on a B-24 crew dropping bombs on enemy-occupied Europe, and he stayed past his tour of duty. His untreated PTSD was an unspoken truth in the family. I knew Wally only after his mind was ravaged by a dozen strokes and dementia that only intensified his psychological condition. He struggled to speak and moved robotically. I was eight when he passed away.
My own memories of Wally are few, so second-hand memories shared after he was gone colored my opinion of him. Inevitably, these anecdotes highlighted his idiosyncrasies: a penchant for eating cold beans from the can, an insatiable sweet tooth, a distaste for crowds and socializing, and unmatched stubbornness—he once refused to stop for bathroom breaks on a twenty-four-hour road trip.
In the twenty years after Wally took his war to the grave, I rarely thought of him. But in 2018, his memory resurfaced; his war story asked to be recovered. It was Shipdham, a tiny village in England, that brought Wally front and center in my life. It was a place I’d never heard of when my dad, Wally’s son, mentioned it in passing: “Could we add a side trip to Shipdham during our upcoming European adventure?”
I’d later learn that no place was more important than Shipdham in Wally’s war. Hailing back to the twelfth century, the quintessential English village of two thousand inhabitants transformed into a B-24 base during the war. Shipdham was where every one of his wartime missions began and ended. It was Shipdham that Wally yearned to see once again when he was shot over Wesel.
Where Wally’s war began, so too did my journey to find his role in it. Shipdham was the spark—a story he didn’t want told, a story he spent a lifetime trying to forget, a story he took to the grave.
Planning a side trip to Shipdham left me wondering about the air war fought from this makeshift base. I was shocked by the horrific conditions: unpressurized bombers, negative fifty-degree temperatures on eight-hour missions, anti-aircraft fire that could pinpoint a bomber four miles high, and fighters keen to knock bombers back to earth. It was a hell I could not see Wally in. How did the ordinary man I knew fight this extraordinary battle?
“Wally’s fateful mission over Wesel would prove to be the climax of his internal war—a battle he took to the grave twenty years ago.”
I was desperate to find Wally’s place in the history of the Eighth Air Force, but finding any trace of him in the war was nearly impossible. He kept almost no records from the war; he told the family almost nothing of his service; he’d lost touch with his crew. The ultimate gut punch was learning his military records were burned in a tragic 1973 fire at the National Archives’ Personnel & Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, along with eighteen million others. I chased Wally’s story for months, navigating through a maze of archives and databases, but I was left empty handed.
So I leaned into my profession as a data scientist, looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack—Wally’s wartime missions. For over a year, I mined a million data points about the men who served at Shipdham. It began when I found the wartime missions, and it was complete when I was able to match the missions to enlistment records and combat losses from the National Archives for each of the five thousand men Wally served alongside.
At long last, I found fragments of my grandfather’s war.
Cleaning and crunching the data, I saw the man I’d pegged as ordinary as something entirely different. His survival in the war was statistically improbable. Wally once revealed he’d flown over forty missions, staying beyond his tour of duty because he didn’t have a wife or children at home. None of his family knew just how impressive a fact that was. The data I mined revealed that Wally flew more missions than over ninety-nine percent of the thousands of men he served alongside at Shipdham.
When Wally got home from war, like most in his generation, he did his best to put it behind him. But he couldn’t forget it—the black puffs of flak ripping through skin and steel, B-24s engulfed in flames, the smell of scorched skin, and the footlockers of downed airmen emptied in the early evening at Shipdham. Wally survived the war, but he spent a lifetime trying to escape the memory of it.
Dementia drew bright lines around the war in Wally’s final years—his nightmares intensified. Fifty years after his homecoming, he woke in his California home, put on a baseball hat, and told my grandmother he was going to save the women and children in Germany before bolting out the front door. With the help of police, my grandmother searched the neighborhood for him. Hours later, when Wally was found curled up in the backseat of their car parked in the garage, he laughed and said he’d learned how to escape Wesel, Germany.
The shrapnel he bled from his leg came from Wesel. What had Wally seen in the war that haunted him forever?
A year before Wally died, a man named Burns called looking for him. There was no one Wally respected more than Burns, the sage, skilled command pilot of his B-24 crew. It had been fifty years since they had last spoken. Despite Burns’ efforts to find Wally, it was too late. The strokes had robbed Wally of speech. When my grandmother asked Burns why the crew hadn’t stayed in touch, he hesitantly shared that they had. Since the war, yearly Christmas calls, reunions, weddings, and funerals brought them together. But they never could find Wally.
And I was too late to find Wally’s crew, the men who he trusted with life and limb, the men who could have helped piece together Wally’s war better than anyone else. The last of his brothers in arms passed away in 2015.
How could I piece together Wally’s war in vivid color when he took all traces of it to the grave? When those who’d lived it were gone? The data scientist in me said it was statistically improbable, but the months ahead that led me to Wesel would prove otherwise.
By March 1945, the buildings of Wesel dating back to the Hanseatic League, now Swastika-draped, were replaced by bomb craters. Six-hundred civilians were killed in February alone. Wesel’s population decreased ninety-two percent by the war’s end.
The few who remember pre-war Wesel have a complicated relationship with the war and their memory of it. Most aren’t keen on memorializing the circumstances of its destruction— toppling Hitler came at the expense of their homes and livelihoods.
Over a year after I first learned of Shipdham, England and the war Wally fought from there, I stepped foot in Wesel. It was an overnight pitstop on a month-long pilgrimage through Europe retracing the steps of the Forty-Fourth Bomb Group. After a year of emotional archeology, digging for fragments of Wally’s war, I had a better idea of his harrowing moments over Wesel, as well as the forty missions he flew leading up to it.
It was an unseasonably hot April day when I arrived at the Welcome Hotel Wesel on the east bank of the Rhine. When I handed over my passport at check in, the clerk stared at my name, then made a peculiar motion with his arm. A moment later, a man I did not know appeared beside me.
His hair was white and wispy, and he dressed sharply in a pressed green sweater and collared shirt. In the lobby cafe, an espresso dotted the neatly folded newspaper where he’d been waiting for the arrival of an American woman.
“Heinz?” I asked. He nodded his head. I hugged this stranger who’d called Wesel home for a lifetime.
Heinz led me through the lobby to the back of the hotel, which abutted the east bank of the Rhine. He pointed to the remnants of a brick bridge on the opposite bank. His hands motioned intensely, punctuated by an occasional English word, the language barrier crystallizing. “Montgomery,” he said eventually. That I understood, a reference to the famed British Commander during WWII. The bridge was so nicknamed because German forces destroyed it as Montgomery’s forces approached the Rhine in an effort to thwart the Allied advance at the tail end of war. The exploded bridge was still fresh when Wally crossed the Rhine seventy-four years earlier.
Heinz led me back through the hotel to his compact VW in the parking lot. Weaving through a maze of country roads, we headed northeast, away from the Rhine. In my lap, I unfolded a map of Wesel with a highlighted route to the crash site that I struggled to follow. Heinz effortlessly navigated the backroads of the place he’d called home for eighty-one years. En route, he tried to piece together, in broken English, French, and Latin, the story of who I was and how I was connected to the WWII crash site where he was taking me. Our words were few, but full of intent.
Fifteen minutes later, we turned onto a dirt road bifurcating farm fields. To the right, high electric pylons crossed through the crops, and a forested area abutted the manicured fields. When we reached the thicket of trees, Heinz flipped the ignition off. “We’re here,” he said.
He moved slowly, reflecting the somber nature of this unmarked final resting place for a coterie of American airmen. I followed him on a narrow foot path into the untouched woods. Birds hummed nearby. Heinz left the path and began weaving through the trees. Leaves crunched below my feet. At a copse of birch trees, Heinz stopped, turned to me, and said once more, “here.”
This hallowed ground looked no different from anywhere else in the woods, other than the fragments of a B-24 I knew were buried beneath my feet, the final resting place for two bomber crews that took off from Shipdham alongside Wally’s crew and never returned. I’d brought with me two plaques to leave here in memory of the sixteen men lost. Heinz looked on as I tucked each under a rock at the base of the trees.
When Heinz was born in 1938 on the eve of war, the Nazis already had their clutches on Wesel. Swastikas hung at every turn. To get married in Wesel, men had to sport the party uniform. Freedom of the press disappeared and fanatic Nazism flourished. Nazi Party Leader Joachim von Ribbentrop’s Wesel roots were worn like a badge of honor in town. Before Heinz’s first birthday, anti-Semitism fomented, and the Jewish synagogue in Wesel was burned to the ground on Kristallnacht, a nationwide pogrom against Jews.
In January 1945, Heinz turned seven and celebrated another austere wartime birthday, the only kind he knew. Wesel had been lucky up until then, surviving five years of war relatively unscathed by Allied strategic bombing. But, the final months of war would bring it to total ruin.
In February 1945, the bombing began. Wesel was consumed in fire and smoke. Heinz’s family fled before their home was leveled. Ten miles east of the Rhine, his family of six, including his pregnant mother and aging grandmother, were housed in the grain silo. German soldiers fleeing the Allied advance camped out on the farm, too.
On March 23rd, Heinz once again woke to the terrific roar of bombers and watched as flames engulfed Wesel squarely where his father worked as an air raid warden in the basement of a fifteenth century Prussian Fort. His father was responsible for sounding the alarms when enemy planes approached. After the Allied attacks, he pulled dead and wounded from the flames. Heinz looked at the plumes of smoke in horror.
At Shipdham Airbase in England, twenty-one-year-old Wally and his crew were in the throes of a top secret briefing for a mission unlike any other. With forty missions under his belt, Wally had flown more than nearly every airman on base. His crew had been designated lead of the formation, which was also the position German flak gunners most viciously shot down.
But the mission to Wesel, Wally learned during briefing, would, unusually, drop no bombs. Instead, the B-24s would carry supplies to Allied airborne troops landing in Wesel just before.
Instead of flying the typical four miles above earth, Wally’s crew was to fly at treetop level for the supply drop. The Eighth Air Force Headquarters called it a daring mission. In reality, it was reckless. The B-24 bomber wasn’t designed to fly low and crews weren’t trained to do it.
In the briefing room at Shipdham, the airmen were told to expect light enemy resistance. In reality, sixty thousand enemy troops were positioned in Wesel, waiting for their arrival.
When the air armada came into view over the Rhine, it appeared to go on forever. The sky was dense with every variety of Allied aircraft—transports dropping gliders and paratroopers, fighters, and bombers. Four hours after the first Allied transports reached Wesel, Wally’s crew crossed the Rhine into enemy territory.
British Field Marshal Montgomery’s battle cry on the eve of Operation Varsity was conjured: “Over the Rhine let us go. And good hunting to you all on the other side. May the lord mighty in battle give us the victory in our last undertaking.”
It would be ten minutes of hell for Wally’s formation to reach the drop zone, take a skidding turn, and cross the Rhine once again. Time suspended when the run on a target began. The bomb craters over Wesel were still smoking. If he’d had time to think, Wally would have been stunned by the destruction. Small arms fire caught the B-24 crews by surprise immediately. Wherever a building remained standing, be it a church bell tower or a hospital, a German shot at Wally’s formation. Bullets ripped through the aluminum skin of their bombers from all angles.
The B-24s were sitting ducks. At fifty feet, they lumbered by the enemy. “A well thrown rock by a one hundred and eighteen pound weakling would present a serious danger to the planes and crews,” reflected an airman on the mission.
At 1:07 PM on March 24, 1945, Wally’s formation reached the drop zone and shoved out twenty-five hundred pounds of supplies from each bomber in eight seconds flat.
The first tragedy of the day struck a bomber adjacent to Wally's. During the supply drop, Anibel Diaz, a gunner shoving supplies out the tail of his bomber, got tangled in the static lines attached to the supply chutes and was ripped out. The fifty-foot fall from his bomber to the ground below was swift, but he tumbled like a weed on impact. It was impossible to survive.
There was no time to dwell on Diaz. It would take unwavering focus to get out of Dodge. Wally’s crew led the formation in a sweeping turn back towards the Rhine, away from the enemy. As the formation straightened out on a direct path off the target, they flew on a trajectory directly above a flak battery concealed in the fields below. The German flak gunners looked up at the incoming stream of “gigantic monsters,” guns readied, waiting for the perfect shot.
At point blank range, the flak guns unleashed hell on Wally’s formation, scoring direct hits on the bombers on either side of his crew. To the left, the Chandler crew had two engines on fire and part of their tail shot off. To the right, the Crandell crew took a nasty engine hit that unleashed an inferno of flames that ripped the engine from the wing.
The Chandler crew crashed first. The B-24’s fuselage bounced along a field as Chandler, the pilot, fought to regain control, and just as he did, an electricity pylon laid just ahead. He turned sharply. The wing clipped the ground, pulling the bomber earthward in a violent spin. On impact, the bomber broke in half, then exploded in a tremendous inferno seconds later.
Meanwhile, Crandell’s crew also fought to regain control. Down an engine, with a mangled wing, they climbed in altitude, almost two-hundred feet vertically. Then, they stalled and dove nose first to earth. The explosion was immediate, a red flash. Then, a plume of black smoke rose like a geyser. Unlike Wally, Crandell had a wife and child he left behind stateside. His two-year-old daughter Jan lost her father in the blink of an eye.
In five minutes, two bombers and sixteen men from Wally’s formation were gone.
At the crash site in Wesel, I stood with Heinz on the hallowed ground where the black plumes erupted seventy-four years before. I felt a flood of the past and present. In that copse of trees, the last two years of digging for needles in a haystack that led me here flashed by. I felt the overwhelming sadness of this unmarked place where sixteen young lives were lost, and I wondered why it was them and not Wally.
Heinz and I walked silently out of the woods. “It was a terrible time, but we are friends now,” he said gently when we reached his car. I felt paralyzed by his words, unsure until that moment how Heinz felt about bringing me here. We were both acutely aware how the scars of war from a lifetime ago still feel fresh today. I looked Heinz in the eyes, recognizing I was not alone in fighting back the emotion bubbling over from a knot of guilt, gratitude, pain, and forgiveness that we were unraveling together. What would Wally think of me touching down in Wesel, finding solace with a wartime enemy, turned friend?
The path to Heinz and Wesel was meandering. But, it began in earnest with two earth-shattering findings. First, there was Super 8 color footage of the mission over Wesel captured from a bomber in Wally’s formation. It purportedly showed both crashes. Second, two airmen on Chandler’s crew miraculously survived the crash, even though they’d been thrown from the bomber on impact.
For the better part of a year, finding either proved elusive. And in a twist of fate typical of this stranger than fiction story, it was connections with the Chandler and Crandell crews that led me to the crash site and the footage I’d long sought.
“What would Wally think of me touching down in Wesel, finding solace with a wartime enemy, turned friend?”
The first break came when I tracked down and cold-called the younger brother of Crandell, the pilot killed over Wesel. Joe Crandell wove the pieces of his brother’s story to find his crash site with the wartime footage of the mission, visiting shortly after in the year 2000. He agreed to send me a map that would lead me to it, but warned it was difficult to find. When I asked if Joe knew anyone in Wesel who could show me the way, he described a man he’d never met named Heinz.
Crandell received a card from Heinz and his wife some years after he left a plaque at his brother’s crash site in Wesel. The German couple wrote that they’d noticed the plaque on a bike ride, and they were now leaving flowers at the site regularly, which they wanted Joe to know.
“How did they know to contact you?” I asked. Joe explained he’d left his address on the back of the plaque, and indicated I should do the same if I left something to honor the crew behind. Armed with Heinz’s address, I posted him a letter, hoping this shot in the dark would get me to the crash site in Wesel. Inspired by Crandell’s tale of connecting with Heinz, I created my own plaques in remembrance of the crew to leave at the crash site, including my contact information, wondering if it would lead me to another thread of Wally’s war.
Finding the footage of the mission over Wesel led me across the country to Ontario, California. After a prolonged search for the two survivors of the Chandler crash, I found a ninety-six-year-old Bob Vance whose details matched that of one of the Chandler crew survivors. I called the phone number listed in the White Pages. A woman answered. When I asked to speak with Bob Vance, I expected her to say I had the wrong number. She didn’t. A moment later, Bob Vance was on the phone.
A month later, I sat in his living room in southern California on a quiet cul-de-sac framed by the San Gabriel Mountains. We spent two days together. He didn’t much like talking about the war, even now. But he’d kept meticulous records of it. He showed me the POW tag strung around his neck after he was captured in Wesel. From his shed, Bob pulled the flying boots he’d worn when he crashed.
When Bob gave me the Super 8 footage of the missions I’d long searched for, it was not excitement I felt but nerves at finally seeing the horrors over Wesel in vivid color. In the grainy video, I saw Wally’s bomber come into view for a few sweet seconds. It bobbed in the air, flying low over Rhineland fields.
I could envision inside the silver fuselage Wally’s ten-man crew, still shocked and adrenaline racing: hours from home base, hours deep into the mission, years deep into the war. In fifteen minutes, they’d lost so much.
For all that I uncovered about those fifteen minutes of hell over Wesel, I never did uncover the exact circumstances of Wally’s Purple Heart. I know 20 millimeter machine gun fire tore into his left thigh, but not precisely where or when it happened.
The wound would have been messy, bloody, and painful on the ground. In the air, it would be agonizing. With no medical care beyond what his crew could offer, he writhed in pain on the two-hour journey back to Shipdham.
Wally was lucky to make it back at all, even blood-soaked with bullets and shrapnel lodged in his body. His wounds too serious to be treated on base, an ambulance rushed him to a nearby field hospital that specialized in treating the most gruesome flak wounds.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Wally’s mother, Helene, received the telegram every mother dreaded: her son had been wounded over Germany.
The torn envelope and yellowed telegram are one of the few artifacts of Wally’s war. It was this scant Western Union message that was the first breadcrumb back to Wesel, on the hunt for the story behind Wally’s Purple Heart. At first blush, I wondered why Wally had been the unlucky one of his crew to be hit.
But when I watched the Super 8 footage of the mission that Bob Vance gave me, I saw the war through Wally’s eyes for the first time. It reframed everything I knew about his war and thought about him as a man. Watching the Chandler and Crandell crews shot down within inches of my grandfather’s bomber, I saw Wally as lucky. The shrapnel in his leg didn’t kill him. His survival over Wesel and throughout the war was against all odds. Statistically, he shouldn’t have lived. But he did.
After the war, Wally’s memories of war intensified with time, cracking him from within. He struggled to survive surviving. Silence was the only weapon left in his arsenal. He evaded his crew’s lifelong bond and their many reunions. He stayed far from the inside of a B-24. He didn’t speak of the war. All in an effort to contain it, to lock it away.
Heinz was newly seven years old when Victory in Europe Day marked the end of war on May 8, 1945. It was the first period of peace Heinz would know in his lifetime. After I left Wesel, Heinz and I corresponded via email about this tumultuous period.
Despite the calm that peacetime suggests, Germany remained in chaos. Heinz’s family was left homeless by Allied bombings that leveled their Wesel home. Newly-freed POWs, marauding through Germany, took revenge on civilians. Heinz’s family lived in constant fear.
Ten days after the war’s official end, Heinz’s very pregnant mother gave birth in a cellar. With no medical care available, Heinz’s father—a lawyer—assisted with the birth.
The first years post-war were replete with suffering and deprivation far worse than wartime. The Reichsmark was worthless. Food rations were catastrophic. Heinz remembers, "The Cardinal of Cologne declared that it was not a sin for people to steal coal from the railways for their heating." Twenty people, Heinz’s family included, crammed into a single home.
There was no school for three years. In 1948, when he was ten, Heinz finally returned to the classroom. Most vivid amongst his post-war memories is his gratitude for the pea soup and cornbread served by American forces at his school.
It wasn’t until 1951 when Heinz’s parents were able to rebuild their family home that had been leveled six years earlier.
For Heinz, in war and peace, Wesel would always be home.
In the late afternoon, I said farewell to Heinz with a warm embrace and retreated back to the bank of the Rhine. Sipping that glass of crisp wine, I was lost in the barges floating down the glistening river, the laughter of children and parents enjoying the Easter holiday, and remnants of Montgomery’s bridge that hinted at the city that once was. The sun set over the Rhine, and I boarded the train from the platform at Wesel early the next morning.
The seasons changed. Leaves fell from the copse of trees at the crash site in Wesel, blanketing the plaques I left there six months before. That fall, I received a letter from a woman named Jan, who’d just returned from Wesel. She’d visited the crash site of her father’s crew for the first time, and while there, she found the plaques I’d left for Crandell, for her father who left for war when she was an infant and never returned. She hoped we could talk.
Wally took his war to the grave. A lifetime later, I formed friendships across generations and geographies, bonds formed in the darkest days of war, recovering what he had lost.