When the Buzzz Job landed in Hungary

WAR MEMORIES

March 09, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

"Roosevelt! Stalin! Churchill!"

This is how young John Thomas, hands up in the air, his eyes bugging out of his head, pleaded for his life.

"Roosevelt! Stalin! Churchill!"

It was in the manual. It had been drilled into his head: If you are shot down behind Russian lines and you meet a Russian with a gun, tell him you are an ally by invoking the names of the allied leaders.

"Roosevelt! STALIN! Churchill!"

But it wasn't working. The Mongolian with the rifle -- a large Mongolian, a one-man horde with an overgrown Fu Manchu, a big yak hat and a yak-lined coat, bandoleers bouncing everywhere -- did not understand. All he did was grunt and thrust the rifle.

Thomas had just stepped out of a crippled B-24 that had just made an emergency landing on a grassy field near a battered frontline landing strip in Hungary. It was March 8, 1945. The Mongolian sentry was the first to meet the plane. Thomas had just been appointed spokesman for the crew. It was his job to explain that the American bomber, attached to the 454th Bombardment Group at San Giovanni Air Field across the Adriatic Sea in Italy, had been hit by German batteries and needed to make repairs. But before that, Thomas had to keep from getting shot.

"Roosevelt! Stalin! Churchill!"

It was time to try the scarf. All airmen wore a silk scarf emblazoned with the American flag and a declaration, in several languages, that the bearer was an American whose country would be terribly grateful for any assistance that might be offered.

"Gently, oh, so gently," Thomas recalled, "I reached into the inside pocket and pulled the silk scarf out. Flapping it open, I looked in vain for any writing that would indicate the Mongolian language, and much to my dismay, there was nothing for this guy to read."

So Thomas raised his arms again.

"Roosevelt! Stalin! Churchill!"

Just then, a jeep full of soldiers arrived, and a Russian officer stepped out. Thomas remembers that he looked like Don Ameche, only stockier. Thomas continued to plead. "Roosevelt! Stalin! Churchill!"

As soldiers surrounded the crippled aircraft, the Russian officer stepped up to the young John Thomas, met him chin to chin, and, in clear English, said: "It appears that you are experiencing some difficulty."

This is how John Thomas, happily retired and living in Catonsville these days, tells the story of his most memorable mission during World War II -- the day Buzzz Job landed in Hungary. But the encounter with the Mongolian sentry is not the best part of this old war story, which we relate partly because of its anniversary -- 47 years ago yesterday -- but mostly because it's just a great yarn, and John Thomas, a funny, big-hearted man, knows how to spin it.

"The Russian major who had greeted me turned out to be the aircraft maintenance officer of the base," Thomas remembers. "It didn't take him long to start hitting on us, begging for help to escape from the Russian Army. It was almost impossible to do anything with this man around continually asking us for political asylum."

All Thomas, his pilot and crew wanted was to repair their beloved Buzzz Job -- it had sustained engine and fuel line damage during its bombing run -- and fly back to Italy. The plane had landed at an airfield about 60 kilometers southeast of Budapest, near a farming village called Kesmet.

The Russian major never left John Thomas alone. "His story went like this," Thomas says. "His parents were Russians who had immigrated to the United States, settling in Ohio. Many years later, the parents, with their son, returned to Russia to visit relatives when suddenly war broke out. The family was trapped. The son, being the offspring of Russian parents, was immediately conscripted into the Russian Army."

So, with that story, the major kept working on Thomas. The major wanted the young flight engineer to help him get back to the United States. As Thomas discovered, the people in the little town near the airfield felt exactly as the major did. They had lived under the oppression of two armies during the war, that of Germany and the Soviet Union. The Hungarian villagers, Thomas wrote in his memoirs, "came up to us on the streets and in the little town square, trying to get us to help them get into the United States, or away from the Russians. It was really a pitiful sight."

After making Buzzz Job airworthy again, the crew was ready to depart. A crowd formed around the bomber to see the Americans off. It was Thomas' job to keep everyone away from the plane and its propellers as the crew went through its final preflight checks. "Everything looked good," Thomas recalls. "We received clearance, poured the coal to Buzzz Job and bounced merrily down the grassy runway. . . . We went screaming across the field, wiggled our wings, climbed for altitude and headed home."

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