IPSWICH — As the burning B-24 Liberator plummeted toward the Austrian Alps, turret gunner Tony Jezowski was desperate to drop down and bail out. But as he moved he felt something catch.
A part of his parachute had hooked onto some bit of torn metal. As the G-forces increased, he could neither locate the trouble nor break free.
With fellow crew members bailing, he was losing hope. Tail gunner Charlie Sellars, engulfed in flames at his post, wasn’t getting out, and now it looked as if Jezowski would be left to die with him.
Then he saw co-pilot and 2nd Lt. Robert Kurtz pacing the catwalk between the bomb bay doors and furiously slapping at his burning bomber jacket. He needed to put the fire out before he jumped, lest a rush of air feed the flames and engulf him.
Kurtz’s son Jim explains what happened next: In its last moments, as the Sugar Baby neared earth and the interior smelled of gas, burning flesh and fear, Robert Kurtz heard the cries of his turret gunner. He reached out “without a second thought” and disentangled the parachute cords.
The two men dropped from the bomb bay doors together, floating toward the ground as their ship exploded, disintegrated and fell flaming onto the mountain, “where it burned for two days,” says Jim.
Jezowski would live to be 91. Jim Kurtz, 65 and from Ipswich, tells this as part of “The Green Box,” his memoir of his father and his World War II service. How he knows all these things is a story almost as incredible as his father’s.
Robert Kurtz survived imprisonment in Stalag Luft III, the fabled “Great Escape” camp. But he came home to his wife, Peggy, in White Plains, New York, weakened. He died of a massive heart attack in 1952 at age 33. Jim was only 2.
A box of secrets
With four sons to raise, Peggy would never remarry. “He was the love of her life,” Jim explains. Over time he learned that his father had never spoken of the war. His mother, after so much worry and pain, had a similar attitude. The couple had married just after Robert was drafted, in the days leading up to the war.
“Keep your chin up, honey,” reads his telegram on Dec. 7, 1941, “I love you always.”
In the attic was a green, tin box containing mementos of his time in the Army Air Corps. Young Jim was told to stay away from it. At age 8, he disobeyed, discovering, among other things, the Purple Heart and Air Medal. But that was all he learned.
“For 50 years I didn’t know anything,” he says. It wasn’t until he was winding down a career in the lumber industry that a series of extraordinary events caused his father to take definitive shape before him, almost like a ghost.
“I received a letter from Gerd Leitner in Ehrwald, Austria,” he explains. On Aug. 3, 1944 Leitner, then a boy, had watched a furious air battle break out right over his town. The 465th Bomb Group had flown out of Panatella, Italy on a mission to destroy the Dornier Werkes at Friedrichshafen, Germany, a site manufacturing V-2 rockets, ball bearings and liquid oxygen. Returning, Kurtz had chalked up his 20th mission.
Their formation was lagging behind, says Jim, when they were attacked by German fighters. In minutes every ship was gone, including eight bombers and five fighter planes. “(Leitner) saw this. ... And it became an obsession for him to research the battle.”
Invitation to Austria
Over the years, he explored crash sites high in the mountains. He reached out to veterans of the battle, Germans as well as the many Americans who parachuted to safety. Eventually, he decided to erect a monument inscribing names from both sides. Thus, Jim was invited to Austria for an Aug. 3, 2001 ceremony by a man who had seen his father shot down.
He wasn’t there long before he met a woman who described an August picnic on an Alpine hillside. A ragged, bleeding American staggered over a rise only to be set upon by furious Austrians. Anger at bomber crews was fierce, and she remembered thinking they would kill him.
But Lt. Kurtz had an ace up his sleeve, a tiny slipper retrieved from his jacket, the shoe of his baby son. He held it out and the beating stopped.
Jim Kurtz also had an unpleasant encounter with a former Luftwaffe pilot named Oskar Bosch, who announced that he was the man who had downed the Sugar Baby. “I don’t blame him for that,” Kurtz says, “but he was so happy about it. ... He came up and put his nose right in my face and said, “Ja, it was shooting ducks in a pond.”
In the days after her husband’s capture, Peggy Kurtz knew only that he was missing. Robert saw decent treatment at the German prison camp, run by mostly good-natured Luftwaffe veterans. But as the Russians approached, the Americans were hustled into a nightmare forced march. At one point, starving and diseased, they were jammed into cattle cars. At Moosburg in Bavaria they were finally liberated by Patton’s Third Army.
While in captivity, Robert Kurtz ran the prison newspaper. A story he’d written years earlier had been accepted by the Atlantic magazine. In it, he described the kindness of Americans as he hitched, in uniform, from California to New York to see Peggy. All this triggered something in his son, who explains, “I always wanted to write.”
He put three years into “The Green Box,” not including the research. (It’s available on Amazon and at firstname.lastname@example.org.) In the search for his father, Jim met some of his crew. They filled in a lot of the gaps in the story.
And when he was told bombadier George Britton had never received his Purple Heart, Jim joined a campaign that resulted in Britton’s receiving the medal shortly before his death. When an Austrian turned over a wedding ring from the crash site, Kurtz concluded it could only have belonged to Charlie Sellars and delivered it to a surviving brother.
In Austria he visited the Sugar Baby crash site, retrieving a piece of the co-pilot’s seat. Then came a stunning revelation from another child of the war.
American Debbie Beson told Jim that his father had saved her father’s life. All the more remarkable is the fact that she hadn’t known this until a few days before she left the States. Tony Jezowski had never spoken of his wartime experiences. But because his daughter was going to Ehrwald and might meet Jim, he wanted Robert Kurtz’s son to know of his father’s moment of incredible heroism.
And to have it remembered.