I heard this blood-curdling loud sound many times
before, although my experience of air raids until
then was not bad at all. It seemed almost as if the
worst part of an air assault consisted in the ominous
cry, in the unnerving scream of the sirens. They
roared in a doleful moan, foretelling gloom, death
and destruction in a spine chilling hysterical wail.
Be that as it may, this time the sirens were right.
A horrific air strike followed. Bombs began to fall.
They burst into deadly flying pieces with deafening
noise. The cattle wagon started to tremble and
shake as if it was preparing for take off.
This carpet aerial assault occurred in March 26
of 1945, on a sunny day under blue skies.
Although The Second World War reached its
final stages, fierce fighting continued to rage on
the battle fields. Mighty forces of the Soviet Red
Army advanced towards Berlin, swinging into
Action over swiftly changing fronts.
In Austria, Russian troops of Marshal Tolbukhin
and of Marshal Malinovsky prepared to strike
Vienna. Facing an unstoppable Soviet offensive,
The Nazis decided to evacuate the prisoners from
The Strasshof lager,20 km northwest
of the Austrian capital.
One day yelling German
soldiers marched us to the railway station.
My mother carried my little sister
in her arms. It was Vera's birthday, March 26.
She just turned four years old of age. I was then
a month away from becoming nine.
I paced alongside with them, in a crowd of
hundreds of frightened prisoners.
When we reached the marshalling yards, the Nazis
pushed us onto crammed cattle cars and locked
the doors. We sat on the floor and waited for
the train to depart. But the train did not move.
Instead, all of a sudden, the sirens began to howl,
warning of the danger of an immanent air raid.
It did not take long and the aerial bombardment
started. Formations of American B-24 Liberator
aircrafts dropped murderous carpets of 100 lb
general purpose bombs that blew up in infernal
blasts of furor.
The rumbling detonations were unbearably loud.
The bombs exploded with ear-piercing thunder,
Causing devastation, panic, and shock.
People were screaming in ultimate terror.
Mother pulled Vera and me under her protecting
arms. We all lied on the wagon floor as mother tried
to shelter us with her body. A dreadful hell opened
its bloody gates. It wanted to tear us into pieces by
flying shrapnel, to swallow us in melted asphalt, to
consume us in flames of fire.
As we were lying on the floor of the cattle car,
Around us outside a clamouring rain of hellish fires
were raging; the marshalling yards were blasted by a
horrible hurricane bursting in thunderous explosions.
The earth quaked. The train trembled, engulfed in
the stridently sweeping storm of a blazing inferno.
Immersed in head-splittingly deafening detonations,
mighty shell shocks shook the wagon. The ground
was moving. The box car swayed and wobbled as if
it intended to take off from the tracks.
The Strasshof air raid was a close call.
Limb tearing shrapnel burst through the freight car
wall above our bodies as we were lying on the floor.
We narrowly escaped unharmed, as our car was
perforated by maiming shrapnel. Sharp pieces of
metal from the exploding bombs penetrated the
wagon walls. They made gaping holes in the box
car, almost cutting it in half at waist height.
Mother saved our lives as she dragged Vera and me
lying us down on the car floor. Amid the bomb blasts
she tried to protect us with her own body. The air raid
lasted only a few minutes but it seemed to continue
forever. When finally the guards unlocked the wagon
doors the first things that struck me were the fires.
The railway station was ablaze. There was blood and
devastation everywhere. People were moving here and
there in confusion. We stood for a short while beside
the train and then I saw a wounded girl of my age
carried away on the back of a woman. I used to play
with that girl.
An ammunition train in the vast marshalling yards
of Strasshof had also been hit during the bombing raid
and exploded like a colossal flame thrower. The bombs
of the attacking American planes had struck several
freight cars of our train.
The blasts smashed the woody shell caskets
of the box wagons as if a giant nutcracker
were crushing mammoth walnuts. Wagons tumbled
over and derailed. Railway tracks melted and broke
to pieces. Their metal bars pranced in the open air,
rose towards the clouds in twisted curls and spirals
like huge paper clips coiled and deformed by
the invisible hands of titans.
The ear-piercingly loud explosions, the flames of
the burning railway station, the infernal scenes of blood
and devastation, remain hauntingly etched in my memory.
It was the first time that I saw dead or severely wounded
German soldiers, their bodies and uniforms covered
in blood. Instead of the habitual arrogant expression,
their face now reflected dejection and defeat. Suddenly it
dawned on me that the soldiers of the 'master race'
were as vulnerable as anybody else.
When the sirens began to howl the Nazi guards left
the inmates locked inside the cattle cars of the train
and ran for cover. The subsequent bombing raid killed
or maimed many people on the train. During the attack
some survivors climbed out of wagons that were
cut open under the impact of the blasts and ran in
panic across the rails to the open fields. When the raid
ended the guards hunted them down and shot them
dead one by one.
The air raid prevented the Nazis to deport
the prisoners to another camp. It interfered with
their plans for the intended "final solution',
the extermination of the Jews who were still alive
at the end of the war.
Ironically, in the horrible bombing attack we came
within an inch to death, but it probably also saved
Poet's Notes about The Poem
On March 19,1944, Hitler's armies occupied Hungary. It did not take long and the then eight year old Paul Hartal and his family were deported to Nazi concentration camps. He was liberated from the Strasshof slave labor lager by the Russians in the spring of 1945. Two weeks earlier, on March 26,1945, the US Air Force bombed the Strasshof marshalling yards in the vicinity of Vienna. Unbeknownst to the pilots that hundreds of Jewish prisoners—among them Paul Hartal, his mother and sister—were locked in box cars of a freight train, the American planes destroyed the marshalling yards in a dreadful carpet bombing raid in which many people died. Ironically, the bombing almost killed the future poet, too, but at the same time it probably also saved his life, because it interfered with the ‘final solution' plans of the Nazis in the camp.
An amazing part of this story pertains to an emotional meeting that took place many years after the war. In the spring of 2004 Paul Hartal met in San Diego with Hal Rout and Larry Rosenberg, American aviators who participated in Mission 203, the bombing of Strasshof. Rout was the co-pilot and Rosenberg the bombardier of a B-24 Liberator in Mission 203. Ironically, Lt. Rosenberg, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, happened to be a Jewish raider of Strasshof. The 'reunion' was reported by Fox News in California on March 27,2004.
For further reading:
Arthur Lightbourn, 'Three men whose lives crossed during WWII meet almost 60 years later in RSF',
Rancho Santa Fe Review, April 8,2004
B. A. Lanman and L.M. Wendling, 'On Heroic Wings', Foreword by President George H.W. Bush, San Diego: The Distinguished Flying Cross Society,2012, pp.64-67
Paul Hartal, 'Liberation', The 461st Liberaider (US Air Force) , June 2002, Vol.19, No.1
Becky Todd York, 'A Veterans Day Remembrance: My Father Survived the War, and Took its Secrets to His Grave', 'The Herald Leader', November 11,2012
How I Met the Bombers Who Bombed our Train?
As the years passed by, I became interested in the wider historical background of the dreadful personal experience of the air raid at Strasshof. I was particularly intrigued by the question of the identity of the attacking aircrafts. Who were the aviators whose dreadful bombs brought us within an inch of our lives? And what were their stories?
Many years after the war I began to research the bombing raid on Strasshof and to my immense excitement I have found information about the raiders. Moreover, through the 461st Bomb Group I was able to establish contact with aviators who participated in the bombing of the Strasshof marshalling yards. In the spring of 2004 an exciting and emotional meeting took place in Rancho Santa Fe in California where bombers and bombed met and embraced in freedom and friendship. Here I met Lieutenant Hal Roup, the co-pilot of a B24, and Lieutenant Larry Rosenberg who was the bombardier on the same plane in Mission No.203.
The recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Larry Rosenberg is an American hero. Since he is also a Jew, the story gains an additional touch of irony. Larry Rosenberg was decorated for exceptional bravery as he saved his crew and his aircraft in an earlier bombing raid. This was on December 17,1944, in the attack against the Blechhammer synthetic oil refinery located in the Auschwitz camp complex. In the course of the raid a bomb had jammed in an open ordinance bay of the B-24 Liberator, endangering both the crew and the plane. Larry crawled out into the freeze at high altitude without oxygen mask and parachute and successfully released the bomb.
However, over Strasshof the aircraft of Larry and Hal had been struck by German anti aircraft fire. The flak knocked out the propellers of an engine and soon flames engulfed another. In spite of the impairment, the pilot, Second Lieutenant Lloyd R.Heinze continued to fly the crippled B-24 to a target, while bombardier Larry Rosenberg looked through his bombsight and released a string of 100 pound bombs. Leaving behind the skies of Strasshof, the aircraft could not return to its base in Italy. The crew was forced to make an emergency landing at a small airfield near the Hungarian city of Pecs. They landed uninjured but were immediately surrounded by menacing SS troops. The soldiers with the death's head insignia on their helmets turned to be Bulgarians who switched sides and now operated under Soviet command.
On March 26, which was Vera's birthday, a formation of two dozen B-24 Liberator bombers took off from Foggia airfield in Italy. The target of this air raid- Mission No.203 - was the bombing of the Strasshof marshalling yards. Hal Roup was the co-pilot on a plane flown by Lloyd Heinze, with a crew of ten that included the bombardier Larry Rosenberg. Blasting their targets with 100 lb general purpose bombs, the B-24 planes did an 'excellent job', an air force report commented on the results of the mission. But the bombers had no idea that one of the trains hit on the Strasshof railway tracks was filled with Jewish prisoners.
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