Veteran helps town reconcile
By JORGE SANCHEZ
© St. Petersburg Times,
INVERNESS -- As a child, Ann Franklin remembers hearing "Daddy's war story" many times.
"It's something I grew up with," said Franklin, referring to the day when her father Sidney Brown embarked on his sole combat mission as a tail gunner on an American bomber during World War II.
The B-24 bomber was shot down, and most of the crew was killed by an enraged mob of Germans whose village had been hit the night before by the British air force. Brown, 19, was on his first combat mission. Only he and another man escaped.
Franklin, a prekindergarten teacher at Forest Ridge Elementary in Hernando, recently accompanied her father and stepmother, Dorothy Franklin, back to the village of Ruesselsheim, Germany, where the slayings occurred Aug. 26, 1944.
There, she took part in a healing experience, as the village residents offered an apology to her father. The weeklong event included town forums, speeches and personal meetings with residents.
The apology put Brown, a Gainesville resident, into the national spotlight. The story was picked up in newspapers throughout Germany and Europe, and Brown was featured on NBC news during the Labor Day broadcast.
Speaking from his daughter and stepson's home in Inverness, Brown said he was willing to help the people of Ruesselsheim.
"The whole town was not really in agreement to the apology; there was some opposition," Brown said. "But I felt most of them had a sense of guilt over it happening in their hometown.
"Most of the folks that had anything to do with it are probably passed on. But the general feeling I got was they were asking for forgiveness and I've long since said I had no animosity in my heart over what happened. That's why I went," he said.
Ann Franklin said she felt like a witness to history.
"There were a lot of highs. It was very emotional," she said. "We were given pictures of the town after it was bombed. Knowing that it was just this one little town in Germany, it made you understand. It was easy to understand how these people felt that day.
"It was a horrible thing they did. But it came out at the trial that all the people had no criminal records of any kind. They were all members of the local parish. They had never done anything like that before; it was just the excitement of the mob. It was quite an emotional experience."
Ruesselsheim was a military target because it had an automobile plant which made the Opel car. The Nazis had taken the plant away from General Motors and converted it into an airplane manufacturing plant, Brown said.
Brown's ordeal started as his B-24, Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am, flew a bombing raid over Hannover. After dropping the bombs, the plane was hit and heavily damaged by antiaircraft fire, Brown said.
The pilot put the plane on autopilot and the crew bailed out. They were soon captured.
The train they were on stopped in Ruesselsheim because the tracks were destroyed. The prisoners were marched through the town when they were set upon by the mob.
Four of the six were shot. Only Brown and crew member Bill Adams survived. Adams died in 1988.
The attack set off a chain of events that would keep Ruesselsheim under the shadow of the crime until the apology.
First, seven villagers were indicted and tried during the Nuremburg war trials. Five were sentenced to death and hanged.
In the early 1980s, the book Wolfsangel, which detailed the mob killings and the trials, was published by Augusto Nigro. A Wolfsangel is a hook used to trap wolves and is also the coat of arms for Ruesselsheim.
The issue resurfaced in 1992 after a local painter was commissioned by the city to paint a mural for the city government building.
After learning of the killings, the artist drew in some ghost images representing the dead U.S. airmen.
"That caused a big controversy, and the painting was at one time taken down from the city hall building," Ann Franklin said.
"It turned out to be a very complicated experience for them. They wanted healing but had to deal with the fact that it had been hush-hush for so very long," she said.
Acknowledging that Europe and Germany have a much longer history than the United States, both Brown and Franklin said they hoped this new chapter of the tragedy would offer final relief.
"Things don't fade away as quickly over there," Franklin said. "There's a lot of tradition."
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