Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger
This is not going to be easy to read. It was not easy to write. This story is about Frank Kirby Cowan, and 167 other allied airmen from World War II. Their story is unique in a way that the stories of all the other thousands of fliers from both sides of the conflict are not. Our paths first crossed on August 23, 1946, but that is a story for another day.
Kirby was a young man from Harrison, Arkansas. His father was an engineer for the railroad, and Kirby planned to follow in Joe Cowan’s footsteps. Then a war happened. Like so many thousands of other Americans, Kirby joined the service following the attack at Pearl Harbor. Kirby joined the Army Air Corps, and was assigned to B-17 bombers as a radio operator. He said he had never flown in an airplane until he joined the Air Corps. He remembered his first experience flying in an airplane very well. The Air Corps did not waste time with orientation flights or sightseeing. Kirby’s first experience in an airplane had him standing up in the back seat of an AT-6 Texan, shooting a machine gun at a practice target being towed by another AT-6.
After finishing his training, he was assigned to the 339th Bomb Squadron, 96th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. Their B-17 was called Horn’s Hornets, because the pilot was named Horn. In those days, losses were high, and Horn’s Hornets ran out of luck in 1944. Their B-17 was cut in half by an anti-aircraft shell. There are no known photos of what happened to their airplane, but this image of similar damage to a B-24 illustrates it.
Kirby said, “When the engines unloaded they made a sound I had never heard an airplane engine make before. With no load on them, they started screaming. We started tumbling end over end. I was pinned to the inside of the plane by the G forces. I got a glimpse of the tail section falling away. The tail gunner didn’t have a chance. For a second, we stopped tumbling, so I took a Brody out the back where we were cut half in two. There were three of us that got out.” The remaining six crew members either were killed by the flak shell, or could not get out. The pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, and flight engineer were trapped in the nose of the plane.
Kirby went on, “Of the three of us that got out, one guy was shot in his parachute. He didn’t make it to the ground alive.”
After he landed, Kirby was alone, not knowing where the other surviving crew member was. He knew the Germans would be searching for him, so he began looking to hook up with the French Resistance. Eventually he made what he thought was a good contact. Unfortunately it wasn’t. His contact was this man, Jacques Desoubrie, French traitor and double agent for the Gestapo. Desoubrie was paid 10,000 francs for each allied airman he turned over to the Gestapo.
Kirby was sent to several prison camps and wound up at Fresnes Prison with the others where they expected to be shot. The German Foreign Office expressed concern about shooting prisoners of war. Instead, they suggested that enemy airmen accused of being terrorists not be given the legal status of POWs. Since they were no longer considered prisoners of war, they were shipped from Fresnes, just outside Paris, to Buchenwald concentration camp by train. After five days in the crowded boxcars, they arrived at Buchenwald on August 20, 1944. When the men were marched through the front gate at Buchenwald concentration camp, one of the guards pointed at the huge chimney nearby. Kirby was told when he went in the gate; the only way he was going to leave was up the big chimney.
A total of 168 Allied airmen were sent to Buchenwald. All the airmen sent to Buchenwald were classified as a “Terrorflieger” (terror flier). This meant they were not accorded a trial or hearing, and were deemed to not fall under the rules of the Geneva Convention. Kirby was not accorded prisoner-of-war (POW) status, but instead treated as a criminal and spy, as were all the other airmen held there, and sentenced to death.
The “terror fliers” heads were shaved, they were denied shoes, and forced to sleep outside without shelter for about three weeks. They were given one thin blanket for three men. They were assigned to a section of the camp called, “Little Camp,” which was a quarantine area. Prisoners in the Little Camp received the least food and the harshest treatment.
After a short time, the men figured out who was the ranking officer of all the prisoners. Squadron Leader Phil Lamason, a Lancaster bomber pilot from New Zealand, was the most senior officer. Lamason called everyone together after their first meal together and made a speech, saying,
“Attention!… Gentlemen, we have ourselves in a very fine fix indeed. The goons have completely violated the Geneva Convention and are treating us as common thieves and criminals. However, we are soldiers. From this time on, we will also conduct ourselves as our training has taught us and as our countries would expect from us. We will march as a unit to roll call and we will follow all reasonable commands as a single unit.”
Kirby said they all marched together to “appells” (roll calls) in military drill formation, which angered the guards. They maintained military discipline under the worst conditions imaginable. Two of their number died. They were subjected to mock executions, and never knew when one of the trigger-happy Gestapo guards might mow them down. They had been advised hanging would be the method of their execution, and to expect to be hung using music wire instead of a rope for a noose.
Phil Lamason and the leaders of the prisoner’s tried to negotiate with the Buchenwald commandant, Hermann Pister, for a transfer to a POW camp. Pister refused to budge off the position the men were terrorists, would not get a trial, would not get more humane treatment, and would be executed with a few weeks.
At great personal risk, Phil Lamason managed to smuggle a note to a trusted Russian prisoner, who routed the note to the Luftwaffe. They felt the Luftwaffe would be more sympathetic to their situation than the Gestapo and SS. The Luftwaffe would not want their downed fliers treated in a similar fashion; and moreover, had the political connections to get them taken to a camp run by the German air force, despite the fact all the airmen’s papers were stamped “DIKAL” (Darf in kein anderes Lager), which meant, “Not to be transferred to another camp.”
Two Luftwaffe officers appeared at Buchenwald, ostensibly to inspect recent bomb damage. One of the prisoners spoke fluent German. When the Luftwaffe officers approached the prisoners, their representatives stood at attention and saluted smartly. After a brief conversation about flying and other details, the Luftwaffe officers were convinced the men were fellow aviators. They sent messages up the chain of command, until it reached Hermann Goering’s desk. By all accounts, he was beyond enraged. Goering was a former airman himself, an ace fighter pilot in WWI. He was concerned that his own Luftwaffe airmen should be treated well if they became POWs. He was also one of the few officers who had the political and military clout to take on the Gestapo and SS. Goering forced Himmler to release the 166 surviving prisoners to custody of the Luftwaffe. They were taken to Stalag Luft III, run by the Luftwaffe. 156 airmen were released at once, on October 19. Ten were too ill to move immediately and were taken to Stalag Luft III over a period of several weeks.
Lamason had kept a secret to himself in order to keep morale up, but had learned they men were scheduled to be executed at Buchenwald on October 26, only seven days after the Luftwaffe rescued them from Buchenwald.
Kirby told me, simply, “Hermann Goering saved my life.”
After the war, the Buchenwald survivors were questioned by the military, and some were accused of lying. They were ordered to never talk about their experiences, and most never did. Some who did tell after they got home were accused of lying, so they quit talking about it. Most of the airmen kept in touch with each other as best they could.
After the war, and all the POWs were liberated and returned home, Kirby Cowan resumed life in the quiet northwest Arkansas town of Harrison. He followed in his father’s footsteps and went to work for the railroad. There is more to the story. When Kirby graduated from Harrison High School in 1941, his dad gave him a ring with a red stone in it. He was wearing it the day he was shot down. German guards took his ring, coins and other personal possessions when he was processed into prison.
Kirby married his sweetheart, Cloteen, in 1945. They had been married about a year when a box came from the War Department. It was his ring. The young couple had it appraised, learning the red stone was a ruby. Kirby wore it until it no longer fit his finger. He had it attached to a necklace chain, which Cloteen still wears.
The Airmen of Buchenwald had meetings and it was decided they needed a pin as the emblem of their organization, which they called the KLB Club. One of the men, Bob Taylor of the RAF, created a design depicting a naked, winged foot, representing the barefoot condition of the airmen while in the concentration camp. The foot is chained to a ball bearing the letters KLB (Konzentrations lager Buchenwald). There is a white star surround, the symbol of the Allied invasion forces. KLB Club members used their Buchenwald prisoner number as their club member numbers.
I talked with Kirby and Cloteen’s son, Joe, a few days ago. He searched for the KLB Club pin but could not find it. Cloteen remembered he had a KLB Club windbreaker with the design on it, but it was given away several years ago.
Frank Kirby Cowan, KLB 78271, died on December 23, 2009 at the age of 87.
Phillip John (Phil) Lamason, KLB 78407, died May 12, 2012 at the age of 93.
Jacques Desoubrie was executed for his crimes in 1949
Hermann Pister, SS #29892, was arrested in 1945. He was tried for war crimes by the American Military Tribunal at Dachau, along with 30 other defendants. The charges were, “..participation in a ‘common plan’ to violate the Laws and Usages of war of the Hague Convention of 1907 and the third Geneva Convention of 1929, in regard to the rights of Prisoners of War.” He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Pister died in Landsberg Prison of a heart attack on September 28, 1948 while awaiting execution.
Willie Walderam, Royal Canadian Air Force, KLB 78402, wrote a poem about the experience.
I’ll think of you dear KLB
Again some future day,
When the world is gay and free
And I am so far away.
Of those long appells in pouring rain
With neither boots nor shoes,
And the SS guards who counted us
Hitting whom they choose.
When I bounce my children on my knee
I’ll think of the Gypsy kids,
Who, instead of wearing ball and chain,
Should have been wearing bibs.
When I Lay in my cosy bed at night
I’ll think of your hard boards,
With a single blanket to cover us,
And fleas and lice in hordes.
Ironically, I’ll think of how
You took our dog-tags from us,
‘Nix soldat-civil’ you said,
Smiling fanatically at us.
Yes, you gave us soup and enough black bread
To etch out a mere existence,
Enough to keep us wanting more
And weaken our resistance
How two of our number lost their lives
For lack of medical aid;
You wouldn’t even give them food
To help save them from the grave
And then: after eight weeks spent in your filthy soul,
Which seemed to me like years,
The Luftwaffe came, took us away,
I felt like shedding tears
And so to all you Konzentrators,
A toast I offer thee;
Here’s wishing you a happy life,
And to Hell with KLB
An award-winning documentary was made about the Lost Airmen of Buchenwald. It aired last December on the Military Channel, but was edited to fit the TV time slot. A DVD of the full-length documentary Is available for purchase from the producers.
Chasten “Chat” Bowen, KLB 78336, one of the airmen interviewed for the documentary, went back and took his grandchildren.
I wrote this for Kirby, all his fellow airmen, and all those who died in the horror of the camps whose names we will never know. Kirby was my friend.