World War 2
I am not much of a joiner and I usually go out of my way to avoid becoming a member of an organization. However, I have been a Rotarian for 30 years, and the story of Rotarian Nicholas Winton who died this week at 106 makes me glad I joined:
Independently of Operation Kindertransport (see sidebar), Nicholas Winton set up his own rescue operation. At first, Winton’s office was a dining room table at his hotel in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Anxious parents, who gradually came to understand the danger they and their children were in, came to Winton and placed the future of their children into his hands. Soon, an office was set up on Vorsilska Street, under the charge of Trevor Chadwick. Thousands of parents heard about this unique endeavor and hundreds of them lined up in front of the new office, drawing the attention of the Gestapo. Winton’s office distributed questionnaires and registered the children. Winton appointed Trevor Chadwick and Bill Barazetti to look after the Prague end when he returned to England. Many further requests for help came from Slovakia, a region east of Prague.
Winton contacted the governments of nations he thought could take in the children. Only Sweden and his own government said yes. Great Britain promised to accept children under the age of 18 as long as he found homes and guarantors who could deposit £50 for each child to pay for their return home.
Because he wanted to save the lives of as many of the endangered children as possible, Winton returned to London and planned the transport of children to Great Britain. He worked at his regular job on the Stock Exchange by day, and then devoted late afternoons and evenings to his rescue efforts, often working far into the night. He made up an organization, calling it “The British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children’s Section.” The committee consisted of himself, his mother, his secretary and a few volunteers.
Winton had to find funds to use for repatriation costs, and a foster home for each child. He also had to raise money to pay for the transports when the children’s parents could not cover the costs. He advertised in British newspapers, and in churches and synagogues. He printed groups of children’s photographs all over Britain. He felt certain that seeing the children’s photos would convince potential sponsors and foster families to offer assistance. Finding sponsors was only one of the endless problems in obtaining the necessary documents from German and British authorities.
On March 14, 1939, Winton had his first success: the first transport of children left Prague for Britain by airplane. Winton managed to organize seven more transports that departed from Prague’s Wilson Railway Station. The groups then crossed the English Channel by boat and finally ended their journey at London’s Liverpool Street station. At the station, British foster parents waited to collect their charges. Winton, who organized their rescue, was set on matching the right child to the right foster parents.
The last trainload of children left on August 2, 1939, bringing the total of rescued children to 669. It is impossible to imagine the emotions of parents sending their children to safety, knowing they may never be reunited, and impossible to imagine the fears of the children leaving the lives they knew and their loved ones for the unknown.
On September 1, 1939 the biggest transport of children was to take place, but on that day Hitler invaded Poland, and all borders controlled by Germany were closed. This put an end to Winton’s rescue efforts. Winton has said many times that the vision that haunts him most to this day is the picture of hundreds of children waiting eagerly at Wilson Station in Prague for that last aborted transport.
The significance of Winton’s mission is verified by the fate of that last trainload of children. Moreover, most of the parents and siblings of the children Winton saved perished in the Holocaust. Continue reading
Lieutenant j.g. Aloysius Schmitt had just finished morning mass aboard the USS Oklahoma. Acting chaplain of the Okie, a Sunday meant a busy day for him, a relaxed day for almost everyone else on board the ship. Since they were in port and the country was at peace a Sunday was a day of rest. Besides, the port was a tropical paradise. Life was good for the crew of the Okie.
Father Schmitt, born on December 4, 1909, was an Iowan, about as far from the sea as it is possible to be in the US. Studying in Rome for the priesthood, he was ordained on December 8, 1935. After serving at parishes in Dubuque, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming, Father Schmitt received permission to join the Navy and was commissioned a Lieutenant j.g. on June 28, 1939.
On December 7, 1941 at 8:00 AM the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor began. The Oklahoma and the other battleships on battleship row were the primary targets. Alarms began to sound on the Oklahoma, and the ship was hit almost immediately by nine torpedoes from Japanese torpedo bombers. The ship began to list badly and every sailor knew that it was probably just a few minutes before the Okie would capsize. Continue reading
Withywindle at Athens and Jerusalem has a spectacular reminiscence by reporter Ernie Pyle of his encounters with Clark Kent during World War II:
We were on a press plane flying from England down to North Africa just after the troops landed in forty two. The ride was bumpy and we were passing around a bottle of whiskey. I offered it to this big man in the back, and he said, “No thanks, Mr. Pyle, I’m tee-total.” But he said it in a friendly way that didn’t seem stuck up at all. I said, “You know my name, but I don’t know yours. Who are you?” Somebody else said, “You don’t know him, Ernie? That’s Clark Kent, the one who did all those Superman stories.” I whistled, because those had been good pieces, and because I could see how young Kent must have been when he wrote them. I took a longer look at him. Big man, handsome man. He looked like he could have been a football player or a movie star. Half Johnny Weissmuller, half Gregory Peck. “I liked those,” I said. “I always wondered how you got that particular interview.” “It wasn’t easy,” Kent said to me solemnly. “First I had to find out where his favorite bar was. Then I had to buy him a drink. And he wouldn’t talk to me until I put a cape on.” He looked at me so seriously that I knew this was God’s own truth—and then he grinned, that wonderful smile that lit up his face and made everyone fall in love with him, even sergeants soaked in vinegar who weren’t that fond of their own mothers. I whooped until my guts hurt and after that he was the best friend I had in the war. Continue reading