My Grandfather, the World War ll Hero
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
More and More often when I think of the Man that inspired me most, I think of my Grandfather. (James Earl Jones)
In the small town where I live, I have the honor of being known as Robert Stauffer's oldest Granddaughter. My Grandfather’s legacy is an immense source of pride to my entire family. He was larger than life; a revered war hero known for juxtaposing dauntless bravery with a gentle soul. I can not count the times someone has said to me, "Your Grandfather was a great man! They don't make them like that anymore."
Before my Grandfather passed away he articulated his regrets about not having taken the time to sit with me while I wrote his biography. "Don't worry Pap," I promised," I will write everything down for you and tell your story." I made this promise over 20 years ago. I am ashamed to admit that life got in the way and I am just now sitting down to pen his fascinating story.
My 6’ tall Pap was the tallest man I knew. I thought he was a giant. He had slicked back hair like The Fonz and never left the house without his fedora and tweed blazer. My sister and I were elementary school aged when our friend innocently asked, "How come your Pap only has one hand?" We became very angry. "You take that back!" my little sister yelled. We were livid because my Grandfather didn't need two hands. He had one hand and one stump and could still cook the best lasagna in the world, play the piano beautifully, beat everyone in the neighborhood at Badminton, recite every Kipling Poem ever written, dance with Grandma, chauffeur us all around in his tank-sized Cadillac and climb a ladder while using an electric hedge trimmer. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that stump was also lethal. It only took a couple of spankings to convince us that we better turn our misbehaving butts into angel wings. Jokester that he was, he shocked quite a few staring children with his teasing, "This is what happens when you bite your nails." My younger brother recalls the time my Grandmother decided that her two youngest Grandchildren should have real coconut milk. My Grandparents exposed us to everything they could and left us wanting for nothing, so she sent my Grandfather to the commissary for a coconut. My Grandfather had no idea how to open tropical fruit. He held it with his right stump and with his left hand murdered that coconut with a knife, a hammer, a chisel and finally a saw. My Grandfather was frustrated because the coconut kept rolling away and falling onto the floor while my angry Grandmother yelled, “ You stupid one-armed fool, you can’t even open a coconut!” Yes, my hot-tempered Grandma Stauffer was a character in her own right!
I can still see my Grandfather sitting at the kitchen table smoking his unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes, drinking his strong black coffee, and reading the Penn National Horse Racing form. He was even more content if he was surrounded by his seven Grandchildren. We did not need to be entertained by smartphones, video games, computers or a television because we were in the presence of a master storyteller. He would push aside his racing form, delaying for another day the wealth he was going to acquire when he finally picked the winning ponies, to “spin us a yarn.” We would listen with wonder and admiration as he relayed the tales of his heroic days as a World War II soldier. My Grandfather was funny and engaging and we were captivated by every detail. Sensitive to our young ages and the trauma we might possibly feel, each emotional story would end with his random tips of humorous wisdom such as, "Peas make you pretty,"or "Broccoli puts hair on your chest." I really didn't think a little girl needed hair on her chest, but Pap was so wise that a hairy chest must be a good thing, right??? My Grandmother would roll her eyes calling him, "A master bullshitter," but we thought otherwise. We adored him and we begged him to tell us the same stories over and over. "Tell us about the time you swore at the Nazi," one of us would request. "Hey Pap, tell us about the time you tried to cut your arm off with a razor," someone else would call out. Grandma would shake her head in disgust. Personally I think she was faking her disapproval; I think she was the proudest of us all.
I am not an expert on World War ll or military history. Here are the stories as I remember them. With the help of my family, I have been able to piece together this abbreviated glimpse into my Grandfather’s saga.
My Grandfather was the radio operator on a B-17 in the 728th Squadron of the US Army/Air Force. His crew's assignment for 22 missions was to drop bombs on an oil storage site in Germany. On his first mission he was shot down. Fortunately his entire crew was able to safely make it back to base. He was completing his last assigned mission over Tauenbrueck Germany on a stormy New Years Eve in 1944 when the nine member crew of That’s All Jack was hit by enemy fire. My cousin Dawn's research has allowed us to see that night through my Grandfather's eyes.
His first wound was to his upper right arm. The careening plane lost a hatch and was on fire. The last words heard from pilot Kasimer Traynelis were,” Bail out fast and good luck!” My Grandfather’s arm was paralyzed and he feared he could not pull the rip-cord on his parachute. As he stood there deciding if he should jump, the decision was taken from him because the plane rolled and he was thrown through the missing hatch. For the rest of my Grandfather's life he wondered who pulled his rip-cord.
My cousin, Robert, recalls his speechless fraternity brothers gathered around a campfire listening as he relayed the horrors my Grandfather experienced on that hellish jump. Enemy machine gun fire was all around him and a piece of anti-aircraft shrapnel temporarily blinded him. He broke his hip as he crash landed in a field. He was alone, seriously injured and sightless. He was discovered by a young German boy. Pulling out a chocolate ration he had in his pocket, my Grandfather bribed the boy to conceal him. With the help of the boy and his father, my Grandfather was carried into a barn where he spent the rest of the night.
My favorite of all of my Grandfather's stories is a "ghost tale" of sorts. As my Pap lay in that barn convinced that he was dying he called to the person that he loved most in the world, his Mother. He called her by name, "Sarah, it is Robert. I love you. I'm sorry I won't be coming home. I really tried." In Cherry Tree Pa, my Great Grandmother, Sarah McClimate, awoke in the middle of the night to hear my Grandfather calling to her. My panic stricken Great Grandmother alerted my Great Grandfather, "Oh my God Horace, wake up! Robert is at the front door and he is hurt and crying." A groggy Horace Patchin Stauffer tried to explain to his hysterical wife that it was impossible for their son to be at the front door because he was in Europe flying his last mission. He assured her that Robert would be home soon. She was relentless in her request. Giving in to her insistent pleas he finally crawled out of bed to look out the front door. Reluctantly he returned to bed to console his wife. They resigned themselves to the heart breaking conclusion that my Grandfather's ghost had been to visit them. They were certain that he had ironically died in combat on his very last mission.
Although he was very ill, he had lived through the night. Only one of my cousins and I can recall this chapter of my Pap's story. We remember him saying that his sight had returned but he could not walk, his arm was still paralyzed and he had an excruciating headache. The farmer and his son told him that his arm was infected and it would need to be cut off or he would die. I suspect they were desperate when they decided the best way to do this was to get him drunk and give him a butter knife? My Grandfather got so drunk that he passed out. He made zero progress on his first self-amputation attempt. He and his still gangrenous arm awoke to a full out Gestapo interrogation. It appeared that the candy had been wasted since the family had reneged on their promise to keep him hidden.
Perhaps my Grandfather's survival this far into his hellish nightmare was in part due to his ability to speak some German. The Nazi soldiers decided not to kill him because they thought there might be a chance that he had valuable intel. They treated him horribly but left him alive and transported him to Obermassfield, a POW hospital. My research has uncovered that Obermassfield was originally a boys school that was turned into a poorly run septic POW hospital. At one point there were over 500 patients with one British Doctor and 6 British orderlies staffing it. Despite his cries for help, there was no one to help him, and his injured limb continued to rot. Here he found a guardian angel, an older German nun who convinced him to begin his own amputation. She was certain that the Gestapo wanted him to live for the time being. She did not think they would let him bleed to death. With her assistance and the straight razor she smuggled to him, he did the unthinkable. He always teared up at this point in his story. He did not get far during his second self-amputation attempt because he passed out. When he woke up a few days later, his hand was gone. His fairy nun-mother continued to look out for and protect him. She sat by his bed and read to him. She snuck him raw eggs and cigarettes. He spoke fondly of her and tried uncessessfully many times to find her after the war was over.
On Feb 13, 1945, the decision was made to send my 6’ tall and now 90 pound Grandfather to Oberursel POW camp. He was so weak he could barely walk. He tried to tell a Nazi officer that there was no way he could make the long trek to the train station on foot. The verbal battle continued until he called the soldier a, “der Scheiskerl” and was promptly beat with the butt of a rifle. As Pap lay on the ground his appropriately addressed son-of-a- bitch-tormentor kicked him in the head until he knocked all of his teeth out. To add to my Grandfather’s humiliation he was transported in a baby carriage to the station. On Feb 23rd he returned to Obermassfield with no teeth and rifle butt wounds to his face and jaw. Medical records indicate that his stump was also infected and the sutures had come loose.
On March 9. 1945 my Grandfather was sent to a POW camp in Memmingen. He would not and could not talk about what his life was like at this camp. My Aunt Lynette recalls the only story from that time period. The Commandant was ordered to kill all of the prisoners in camp but refused knowing that Allied forces were on their way. The camp was liberated by Patton's Army in April of 1945. One of his liberators threw my Grandfather a can of baked beans and a gun. My grandfather thew the gun back calling out, " This war is over to me! " As the other POW soldiers ran from the camp as fast as they could, my Grandfather sat down to eat his beans. He knew it would be a long trek to freedom and he was too wise to do it on an empty stomach. My sister recalls that my Grandfather often talked about how it was the best can of baked beans he ever ate.
Soon after my Grandfather returned home he met my Grandma in the Officer's Club in Erie Pa. He asked her to dance because, “Martha Brickell was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.” They married and had three children, Robert ll, Lynette, and my Mother, Bonnie Dawn. He earned his Bachelor's degree in English Education at my Alma Mater, Indiana University of Pa and soon after moved to Camp Hill where he worked at the Mechanicsburg Navy Depot until he retired in 1971. Seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren would soon listen to and retell his story.
Today, I live in my Grandparents house. I sit down for dinner at that same table that my Grandfather handicapped the horses and entertained us with his war stories. My Pap would approve of my husband sitting in his old seat at the head of the table, assisting his Great-Granddaughter, Josephine Marie, with her homework. On cold damp days I can still smell his unfiltered cigarettes. Twice in my adult life I have been seriously ill. It is my Grandfather visiting my dreams that has given me the strength to get better.
Forgive me Pap for taking so long to fulfill my promise. I hope that my memories of your stories are accurate. I miss you! Thank you for being my hero....and thank you...for everything!
A special thank you to our family: Bonnie Easton, Lynette Heffinfinger, Robert Stauffer lll, Christine Casner, Dawn Freeland and William Easton ll for reminiscing and sharing their insights and memories.
If you would like to learn more about The 728th Squadron check out the American Air Museum in Britain