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Archive Report: US Forces
1941 - 1945

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.

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15th Air Force
23.08.1944 724th Bombardment Squadron (H) B-24J 42-51729 2nd Lt. Robert L. Beach

Operation: Markersdorf airfield, Austria

Date: 23rd August 1944 (Wednesday)

Unit: 451st Bombardment Group (H), 724th Bomber Squadron (H), 49th Bombardment Wing, 15th Air Force

Type: B-24J

Serial No: 42-51729

Code: ?

Location: Sankt Aegyd am Neuwalde, Austria

Base: Castelluccio Field, Italy

Pilot: 2nd Lt. Robert Leon Beach O-701861 AAF Age 23. PoW * (1)

Co Pilot: 2nd Lt. Philip W. Pratt Jr. O-714171 AAF Age 22. Murdered (2)

Navigator: 2nd Lt. Herbert Oswald Klossner O-718341 AAF Age 23. PoW **

Bombardier: 2nd Lt. Robert W. Jensen O-706618 AAF Age? PoW ***

Front Gunner: Sgt. Michael John Callanan 31311058 AAF Age 21. Murdered (2)

Engineer: S/Sgt. Benjamin Russell Ransom 32666465 AAF Age 22. PoW ****

Ball Turret: Sgt. James La Verne Cooper 16063864 AAF Age 27. PoW ****

Right Waist Gunner: S/Sgt. Kenneth Frederick Brust 36743133 AAF Age 20. PoW ****

Left Waist Gunner: Sgt. Donald Virgil Kelly 17073851 AAF Age 21. PoW ****

Tail Gunner: Cpl. George Machison White Jr. 13042162 AAF Age 21. PoW ****

The B-24 had 10 crew positions. Crew complements evolved during the war and generally comprised 9 personnel who were typically, but not always, Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier, Navigator, Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, Radio Operator/Waist Gunner, Nose Gunner, Ball Turret Gunner/Radar Operator, Waist Gunner, Tail Gunner.

* Stalag 7a Moosburg, Bavaria (Work Camps 3324-46 Krumbachstrasse and 3368 Munich).

** Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang, today situated in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.

*** Stalag Luft 3 Sagan-Silesia, Germany, now Żagań in Poland. (Moved to Nuremberg-Langwasser, Bavaria).

**** Stalag Luft 4 Gross-Tychow, Pomerania, Prussia now Poland (Moved from Stalag Luft 6 Heydekrug. Moved to Wöbbelin near Ludwigslust and then to Usedom near Swinemünde).

REASON FOR LOSS:

On the 23rd August 1944 B-24J 42-51729 joined a force of 133 Liberators to bomb the Markersdorf airfield, near Sankt Pölten in Austria.

Nearing Vienna the formation was attacked by about seventy enemy fighters. Some forty of these fighters attacked the aircraft of the 451st BG over a period of 15 mins with rockets and cannons. Overall the bombers and escort fighters claimed twenty-five enemy aircraft destroyed and fourteen probables, however, the 451st BG lost seven Liberators with 29 personnel KiA and 41 becoming PoWs.

Three witnesses from aircraft in the Low Flight, positions #1, #2 & #6, saw 42-51729 being attacked by German fighters and peeling off to the left of the formation with #3 and #4 engines, tail turret and elevators ablaze. One witness saw the aircraft enter a spin and the right wing detaching at about 3000 ft below the formation. The number of parachutes seen to open ranged from none to four. B-24J 42-51729 was last seen at a position approximately 70km SW of Vienna at 12:20hrs.

German reports have the aircraft crashing on a wooded slope 2km NE of Sankt Aegyd am Neuwalde, some 70km SW of Vienna, Austria.

2nd Lt. Beach later reported that the German fighter attacks shot out the elevator controls, right wing fuel tanks and started a fire on the half-deck. He then gave the order for the crew to bail out and to his knowledge all of the crew bailed out safely but were dispersed over a wide area.

After he was captured, T/Sgt. Brust was asked by his German captors if he knew 2nd Lt. Pratt Jr. and Sgt. Callanan. Although he was not told what had befallen them, he was under the impression that they had perished. The remainder of the crew met up with each other as PoWs or knew that other members of the crew, other than 2nd Lt. Pratt Jr. and Sgt. Callanan, had survived and were liberated after the war.

(1) After being liberated 2nd Lt. Beach returned to the United States. He was discharged from the USAAF on the 26th November 1945 and rejoined the Michigan State Police. Sadly he died in a tragic accident on the 8th January 1948.

He was involved in a fatal accident on the former Independent Sugar company property while the River District Excavating company was demolishing buildings for salvage. Trooper Breach who was “helping out” was tugging on the bucket of a crane when the boom struck a high tension power line, sending several thousand volts of electricity through the crane. A Timothy F. Bibeau who was pushing on the other side of the crane bucket was thrown to the ground by the shock but not injured.

Above: Funeral service for Robert Beach. (Credit The Times Herald, dated Saturday January 10th, 1948).

(2) The circumstances leading to the deaths of 2nd Lt. Pratt Jr. and Sgt. Callanan were determined by a Military Commission convened in Salzburg, Austria from the 16th to 24th July 1947.

One Czechoslovakian and one Austrian national were each charged on two counts with participating in the killing of a member of the US Army at or near Mürzsteg, Austria on the 23rd August 1944 and with participating in the killing of a member of the US Army at or near Frein an der Mürz, Austria, on the 23rd August 1944.

The two accused were:

Fritz Thaler, who was a Czechoslovakian engineer and a former SS-Untersturmführer (2nd Lt) and Walter Bockhorni, who was Austrian and a former SS-Oberscharführer (Sgt). Both were members of the Waffen-SS serving with the SS Motortechnische Schule (Motor Technical School) in Frein, Vienna.

This was an SS unit engaged in technical research (the nature of the technical research is unknown) located at a former paper factory which was being converted into an experimental laboratory during August 1944 and was still under construction at the time in question.

The court heard testimony from a number of witnesses including Thaler and Bockhorni, whose testimonies were the prosecution’s main source of evidence for the alleged crimes.

He testified that an American bomber was shot down in the vicinity of Frein on or about 23th August 1944 and that six airmen from that aircraft were taken prisoner and delivered into the custody of his unit on 23rd and 24th August. He claimed that he personally delivered these men to the gendarmerie post in Mürzsteg, but that two were killed following their capture.

He described that during the afternoon of the 23rd 2nd Lt. Pratt was brought to the Aumann Inn at Frein where he was questioned and then taken to Mürzsteg by Oberscharführer (Sgt) Irmer and himself between 18:00 hrs and 19:00 hrs. While they were driving in the direction of Mürzsteg from Frein an der Mürz their car, a small Fiat, developed a crack in the radiator which necessitated a stop for temporary repairs in an area known as Totes Weib.

Totes Weib is the name of a waterfall located just over 1km from Frein an der Mürz. The section of road adjacent to the waterfall curved sharply for a distance of approximately 200 metres and was bound on one side by a steep rock wall and on the other by the Mürz river which flowed approximately 4 metres lower than the surface of the road which was guarded by a wooden rail fence.

Thaler testified that Irmer lay on the ground at the front of the vehicle and inserted a pointed wooden splint into the crack in the radiator and that he, Thaler, was kneeling next to Irmer watching him in order to make sure the radiator was well plugged.

2nd Lt. Pratt was sitting in the back of the car and asked to get out and although he spoke no German and Thaler no English, the accused, by gestures of his hands, indicated that he was to stand next to the car, and it appeared that the prisoner understood him.

However, Thaler claimed 2nd Lt. Pratt moved away one or two steps at which time he immediately got up and drew his pistol. He claimed that the airman "continued running" away from the car toward the fence on the river’s edge. The airman briefly turned round but continued “running” at which point Thaler fired three or four shots at the airman. 2nd Lt. Pratt was between 5 and 10 metres from the car on the right side of the road near the fence when he collapsed and died at once.

A prosecution witness, a Maria Grafeneder, testified that she was cycling to Frein and stopped at the Totes Weib where she saw two SS men standing by their stationary car and an American airman sitting in the back of the vehicle. Whilst there she saw the airman slowly alight from the car and take a few steps away from the car, he had his hands tied behind his back. The airman stopped in the middle of the road about 4 to 6 metres from the car and looked up at the wall of rock adjacent to the road when a shot rang out and he collapsed. She saw the two SS men move the airman to the side of the road and then return to their car. She claimed that the airman was still alive at this time but did not make any noise. Approximately 10 minutes later a second shot rang out after the airman had been moved to the car.

It should be noted that in the Review and Recommendations paper, when retelling her evidence, she does not mention whether she testified to have heard any shouted warning from Thaler or Irmer, or not.

However, under cross examination Thaler was forced to admit that there was no real possibility of escape, nor had he shouted for the airman to "Halt."

He, with the assistance of Irmer carried the body back to the car and placed it on the back seat.

Examination of the body found two gunshot wounds, one in the back of the head, and one shot grazing the upper arm, or shoulder.

After the repairs to the radiator were complete, because of a broken starter motor, they had to push the car to start it after which they drove on to Mürzsteg and delivered the body of 2nd Lt. Pratt to the gendarmerie post. Thaler described the incident to the commander of the post and stated he would submit a report to higher headquarters.

Thaler also spoke to a Dr. Wingerl about performing an autopsy of the body but was told that due the time of day it would be performed the following day.

Georg Hoffmann’s research determined that the autopsy of the body showed that 2nd Lt. Pratt had been shot in the back of the head, in the heart, and in the armpit by three pistol bullets. The shots, it was discovered, had probably been fired from a distance of only a few metres (Ref 1. Page 207).

He then in the company with Irmer, returned to Frein arriving at approximately 20:00 hrs. On arriving there he was informed by Bockhorni that another airmen had been captured and that assistance had been requested in picking him up.

Thaler and Irmer in their Fiat proceeded to a hut located close to a feature named ‘Im Taschl’ where they interrogated the airman before returning with him to Frein. En route they stopped for a short while on the road in Frein and deliberated where to take the airman, because it was already too late to take him to Mürzsteg.

They decided to take the airman to a disused paper factory, and what was to be the SS Motortechnische Schule, 2 km from Frein. After they arrived Thaler and the prisoner exited the car and Irmer drove to a small area at the back of the building to park the car. Thaler waited until Irmer returned and then the three of them went to the rear entrance of the factory which was still open but blocked by two wooden planks. Thaler then ordered Irmer to fetch the guard from the entrance and when Irmer did not return immediately, he took the prisoner into the great machine hall.

There he wanted to start a turbine and generator in order to turn on the factory lights. Thaler had his flash-light in the left hand and his pistol in his right hand. A little in front of the turbine, he claimed Sgt. Callanan, who was to his left front, put a leg in front of him so he almost fell as he slipped in some water on floor.

Thaler claimed that he fell to one knee and the airman jumped away to his left. He stated that he dropped his torch but held onto his pistol which he aimed at the airman and opened fire after Irmer, who had at that moment appeared, had fired a shot. Thaler had not noticed that Irmer had returned. Thaler fired between three and four shots and Irmer fired one shot with his carbine. Two of Thaler’s shots struck Sgt Callanan as did Irmer’s shot.

Georg Hoffmann’s research confirmed that Thaler entered the building with a flashlight in his left hand and his pistol in his right. Irmer followed the two men only a few minutes later when he suddenly heard a shot from the hall. As he entered the room, Thaler was kneeling on the floor and had fired more shots at Callanan, who immediately slumped down hit. Thaler later stated that the airman had tripped him and attempted to escape, whereupon he immediately fired again without warning. Sgt. Callanan was hit in the back of the head at close range and was probably killed instantly, as a later autopsy showed. (Ref 1. Page 209).

Sgt. Callanan's dead body fell approximately 4 to 5 meters from where Thaler was positioned. Thaler stated that he and Irmer then returned to Frein where he directed Irmer to take the necessary steps for the burial of the airman in the Frein cemetery.

The court found Thaler guilty of the charges and sentenced him to 25 years imprisonment commencing on the 24th July 1947. In September 1947 a recommendation was made for his term of imprisonment be reduced to 13 years which was overruled.

Georg Hoffmann was of the mind that if one looks at the respective situations, both consistently show conspicuous features: Due to the landscape conditions in the middle of a mountain valley, 2nd Lt. Pratt’s possibilities of escape were not only limited, but de facto non-existent. Although Thaler had the opportunity to react differently in this instance and in the case of Sgt. Callanan he nevertheless decided to use this weapon immediately, without shouting a warning, firing a warning shot or attempting to seize the fugitives. Rather, he immediately fired lethal shots at point-blank range, hitting Callanan and Pratt in the back of the head. (Ref 1. Page 361f).

The Reviewer’s recommendation on the 18th May 1951 was for clemency and consequently Thaler’s 25 year prison sentence be commuted to time served. He was variously reported to have been paroled in May 1955 or at the end of 1957.

Note: The U.S. closed their War Criminal Prison at Landsberg on the 9th May 1958. The British handed over their Werl Prison to a German governor in 1954. The last war criminal was released from Werl in 1957.

Bockhorni was acquitted of the charges.

It was reported that Oberscharführer (Sgt) Irmer was not “available” at the time of Thaler’s trial. It appears he had been tried by the People’s Court at Vienna, 25 April 1950. It is speculated that he may have been in hiding under an assumed name until that time.

Burial Details:

2nd Lt. Philip W. Pratt Jr. Air Medal, Purple Heart. Lorraine American Cemetery Plot D, Row 14, Grave 25. Born on the 27th June 1922 in Kallispell, Montana. Son of Philip Washabaugh and Allene Belle (née Leader) Pratt of Lewiston, Saluda, Idaho, USA.

Above Funeral service for Sgt. Callanan Credit: The Boston Globe, dated Wednesday August 25th, 1948

Sgt. Michael John Callanan. Purple Heart. Repatriated and interred in the St. Mary’s Cemetery, Stoughton, Massachusetts. Born 3rd March 1923 in South Boston, Massachusetts. Son of William and Noran Callanan of Canton, Norfolk, Massachusetts, USA.

Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew. Thanks also to Traugott Vitz for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’.

Reference:


1. Fliegerlynchjustiz (Fallstudie VII: Erschießung in Frein an der Mürz (23. August 1944) - Georg Hoffmann. pp 206 - 211, pp 361f.






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