Ramblings of a Ranger- The Greatest Generation and World War II
From the Summit Lake Ranger Station Log Book, Lassen Volcanic National Park: ...today was really special...got to hike with Steve...we started from the Sulphur Works, up bare earth and around geothermal areas, into fir groves, to reach a big steam vent area that roars and sputters with steam, mud, bubbling gases...across into the area below Ridge Lakes, finally to Ridge Lake, a swim, back down to the old Chalet, across to Mill Creek Falls, and up a steep hike to Crumbaugh Lake. Over to the Kings Creek Picnic Area... it was a rich and satisfying day- the smell of sweet lupine, warm dust, fir trees; the delicious taste of clear, cold, sweet water flowing from hidden sources- tonight is the full moon and it is a beauty...
A long time ago a man went off to war, as did so many young men of that time. He was born in another century, and fought in a Great World War that matched evil dictatorships against the free peoples of the world. And for a long time it was not clear which side would win. This was way before I knew him as my father, or, more aptly, before I became his son, the youngest of six children. In that long ago time, he was a first lieutenant, and flew a P-38 Lightning (you've seen one? That awesome double tail... lightning out of the sky!) against the Nazi Luftwaffe, the European Theatre of war. Part of the 428th Fighter Squadron, the 474th Fighter Group, stationed in England, he flew many missions until a fateful day on July 6th, 1944, when he and his squadron engaged in a fire fight against German planes over the fields and farms of Normandy, France.
June had been a devastating month for the Luftwaffe. And, on the ground, a month after the D-Day landing, the Allies, led by the Americans and British, were pushing eastward, towards Berlin and the end of Hitler's Third Reich. Nevertheless, on July 6th, 1944, eleven German aircraft were on a mission over Normandy and found themselves in an area with four P-38's of the American 428th Fighter Squadron- which were providing top cover for the 429th, who were simultaneously undertaking a strafing mission.
There was a short and violent battle in which two of the P-38's of the 428th were shot down (my dad, and another pilot, Robert J. Rubel, 474th Fighter Group, 428th Fighter Squadron, who was my dad's best friend and who died that day), as well as two German FW-190's. Ace German pilot Wolfgang Ernst, with many kills to his credit, described the end of the firefight: "I had just shot down a P-38, when I, in turn, was hit I had to bail out, but I waited until the last second, before jumping; we all knew the Americans did not hesitate in machine-gunning our pilots when hanging from their parachutes. I got out of the cockpit, and the air current caught me and I hit the rudder. My right arm was broken from the impact. Shortly afterward, the parachute canopy opened and I eventually landed...by chance, German Field police arrived and the locals disappeared."
Ernt's assailant was Lt. Robert C. Milliken in a P-38 of the 429th Fighter Squadron. Robert Milliken recalls, "I first saw minute tracers and then two explosions and then the planes involved came into view. I saw one P-38 in a dog fight with four FW-190's... we climbed to 10,000 feet and attacked. There was a parachute in the air..." Historian Gary Koch records more of Milliken's story: Long after the war, I learned that the FW-190 pilot was one of Germany's leading fighter aces. He was severely injured bailing out, but recuperated and returned to the air. He shot down several more Americans. I've often regretted my decision to spare his life. I had him dead in my sights. There's no doubt that i could have shot him off of the wing as he got out of the cockpit. If I had, several American families would still have their sons. The ledger was balanced a bit by the addition of the P-38 pilot shot down and shot at in his parachute. On August 6, 1944, my squadron moved to France. We were based at A-11 south of Isigny. Eighteen days later James S. Frederick came looking for me, but I was on leave in Paris or London. Frederick was the P-38 pilot in the parachute. He wanted to personally thank me for shooting down the 190 pilot who had been strafing him. He witnessed much of my fight as he was descending. He saw the German bail out of his plane and was close by when the German landed. Frederick told my tent mates that he had attempted to shoot at the German, but he couldn't cock his .45 caliber pistol. His hands were too badly burned. The German dodged another bullet. After telling his story to my tent mates, Frederick had to leave the base. To this day I have not had the privilege of personally meeting him or communicating with him.
Now on the ground in German-occupied territory, and with badly burned hands, face and ankles, from escaping the P-38 that was flaming and melting around him, my father's efforts to stay alive were certainly not over. Frenchman Jean Claude Clouet picks up the tale:
Forgive me as I don't know how to start the story. Anyway, let's first thank God, (historian) Gary Koch, and the AAF forum. When this dogfight occurred over our heads on July 6th,1944, I was only three years old and I saw the parachute of your father coming down and disappearing behind the trees. (I still have this picture in my mind). My mother recalled me later that I told her, "Look at that big daisy up there." She then took me inside as the aircrafts were roaring, chasing and shooting at each other, you better stay sheltered inside a house than outside. The following day my mother found your father's equipment and parachute hidden in bramble bushes in one of our fields. She brought it back home, hid the chute and mae west (a flotation device) and burnt the rest of the equipment such as flying helmet, glasses and gloves...a shame. You must keep in mind that the Germans were staying all around, you better not keep home something compromising. They came and visited the farm buildings but found nothing. The Germans had been searching for your father but he did not come to the farm, he went the opposite side through the forest. He landed 500 yards from the buildings. By going straight through the forest he made the right choice and was then helped by the French underground resistance. The result of this dogfight, which lasted almost ten minutes, was four aircraft shot down. Two P-38's and two FW-190's. The first P-38 came down in flame and the pilot (Robert J. Rubel) was killed at about two miles from my home. The other P-38 (your father's one) crashed a little farther. Robert Milliken, flying a P-38 from the 429th fighter squadron is attacked the FW-190 who had shot down your father and he shot him down at his turn. Bob Milliken has been ignoring until I told him that he shot down the German leader, Wolfgang Ernst, a German ace with 28 victories. This aircraft crashed 1/2 mile south of my home...your father and the German landed only a half a mile away from each other... he(your father) went through the woods and found an empty cottage which was open and hid himself in a cupboard... he was then put in hands of the French underground resistance and was hidden in the forest and with families with three other escaped airmen until the 13th of August. i know all of the places where he has been hidden but sadly all of these people have passed away.
My father, James Shaw Frederick, corroborates the story with his first-hand written account: at about 1615 hours on the afternoon of 6 July I came approximately 2 kms N of Mortree. After gathering up my chute and hiding it in some nearby blackberry bushes, I began running away from the forest in which i might have hidden because i saw Germans, or what appeared to be Germans, in the distance. In a few minutes I saw a little cottage which I decided to watch, and while watching, I bandaged up my burns as best I could. After waiting almost half an hour I went up to the cottage. Since the door was locked, I entered through the window, crawling immediately into a cupboard-like bed. Soon, the owner came to whom I explained my presence and my injuries. Having satisfactorily explained my presence, she fed me and contacted the resistance, who came to see me bringing with them F/L Murray, a Canadian Spitfire pilot, 1st Lt. Reid, an American Thunderbolt pilot, and Jim MacPherson, A Canadian parachutist. While they were there two Germans started up the walk toward the cottage. Fortunately madame was able to head them off. When they had left, the resistance took me to their hideout in the forest where I remained until about noon of 8 July. At that point the resistance took me to a nearby village where I was hidden in a barn for about 5 days (13 July). On that day I was taken to another family with whom I remained until 25 July. Interestingly enough the next room to where I was being hidden was being used by the Germans as a workshop to repair one of their tanks which had broken down on the road nearby. On the 25th I went back to the cottage where I had gone when I first came down and was there until the 28th of July. On that day I was taken to a friendly family in a nearby village for one night. The following morning a rumor of 'Gestapo' in the village began going around so I was taken to...the forest nearby. With these people were Murray, Reid, and MacPherson...Murray and Reid left on August 10th, going south in an attempt to find U.S. troops. MacPherson and I decided to go out to try and contact American troops on the evening of the 12th, but the French urged us to stay one day longer. his turned out to be the most fortunate since the French 2nd armored division rolled through the next day. Having seen them pass by, we set out for Mortree, 3 km away, where we contacted the American 5th armored division.
And so, my father met up with American forces, kept alive by his own will to survive and the overwhelming kindness of others.But there is so much more to the story! The sheer terror, the excitement, the fear of being hunted, the air war and being shot down and burned, in pain... all those powerful emotions had to take a toll, take a piece of soul away. Having to be helped and hidden by total strangers, while wounded, where do you go in enemy territory? To think that at any minute one could be captured, tortured, shot? I know that there was damage done to this hero, because I lived with him, growing up, and saw, we all saw, that there was lasting pain and deep sorrow. My brothers and sisters and I are grateful to have met up, via the internet, with others who know parts of James Frederick's story that shed light on who he was, how he survived this ordeal. It is a powerful thing... this knowing.
Jean Claude Clouet, now an old man in France, tells us more: Then I grew up and made a promise to myself: try to identify who were these two Americans who were shot down here and honor the one who gave his all for our freedom. Most of French people cultivate the need to remember as they do not want those who died for our freedom to be forgotten. I started real searches in 1990 with difficulties as the U.S. documents we had stated that the two P-38's has been shot down 70 km SE from here... I have searched for years and finally found one witness saying that he had found and gathered Rubel's remains which were buried in the cemetery in Montmerrei. That was the very beginning, I was then able to undertake the necessary steps to honor (Lt.) R. Rubel and my promise. On july 6, 2003, 59 years later at the same date we were able to erect a stele (monument) in his memory close to the place where he died.I invited Bob Milliken and he came from Wyoming with his son, Greg, to attend the ceremony. They stayed a few days with me before visiting Normandy. I took him to the place where the FW-190 he had shot down had crashed (the German ace Ernst). Using a metal detector we have been able to find a breakers box with German printed informations still readable on it. Bob took it back home as a souvenir. It was Bob's first victory, he ended the war as an ace with 5 victories + several more (airplanes) damaged... i called Bob to tell him that Frederick's family had been found. After the war my mother used your father's parachute to make shirts for me and my sister. That is one thing that you ignore for sure. During this was and years after we have been missing of everything, except food, as my family was living on a farm. The only artifact I kept from your father was his mae west (flotation device). When I was a kid I used it to learn swimming in a nearby pond. I kept it until 2003, hoping to find a member of your family who should have wished to have it, finally it was given to a museum. That's all for now, if you want to know more, just let me know. Excuse my English. Best Regards. JC CLouet.
I think I can speak for my family, JC, when I say that there is no one in the world more deserving of that mae west, and good for you for putting it to a useful purpose. The person who is at the center of this story being revealed to us is historian Gary Koch. The following are excerpts from e-mails sent to family members by Gary.
Gary Koch: A few years back, I was trying to locate a 429th FS pilot who had been shot down... none of the surviving veterans ever heard from him after the war and he never attended any of the reunions... I located his son in Los Angeles... sadly, his son told me how his father ended up a recluse, eventually passing away alone in 1985. In 2007, I got to meet this pilot's 91-year old sister... what she told me made everything perfectly clear. After her brother's midair collision with a German Bf109, and bailout, her brother managed to escape/evade the Germans (until) an American Tank Destroyer battalion rolled through the village liberating it and her brother... he had to fight as a ground soldier with this unit until conditions permitted his safe return to the 474th. His sister told... of how her brother was forced to slit the throat of a teenage German soldier after he had jumped into his foxhole during an advance on the enemy's position. She feels this incident was the prime cause of his psychological problems later in life... several other vets I have interviewed have related similar stories of seeing things no one should ever have to see... but you can be extremely proud of your father and his service during the war. Hell, I'm proud of him and I never got to meet him. I'm glad that JC and I have lit a spark for your family to find out more about your father's wartime experiences. Perhaps it will provide some solace by understanding what he may have gone through during that traumatic time during his life.
Our new friends, JC Clouet, Gary Koch, Bob Milliken, have sent other e-mails during the flurry of information coming to us about our dad; copies of declassified documents, flight records and the like, photos of people long dead, memories of an adventure far from home. One more e-mail from JC Clouet stands out: I just want to tell you, just before I forget, that Bob Milliken, when he came here for the Rubel's ceremony, had offered a plate to the city hall of Montmerri in the name of the 474th Fighter Group to thank the people f the village + a photo of your father and Rubel. They are displayed on the wall inside the city hall... JC.
Imagine that! In a far-off country, from a long ago war, photos of Lt. Robert Rubel and my father stare down as a reminder of the price of war and the cost of freedom. I look at the glass case of my dad's that is hanging on a wall: photos of a young soldier who looks a lot like me, and of a man in full flight gear in the cockpit of a P-38, a Purple Heart medals and other medals and insignia. it's kind of funny to think about our parents, living full and eventful lives before they ever brought us into the world. I am thinking a lot about Lt. James Frederick these days, like a Memorial Day every day. It's good to see him as a hero, though I believe that most of the time heroes aren't born, they are created at the time and place of some reckoning; some event happens and that person reacts, acts from the heart, as well as the head.
My dad would be in his early 90's now... he's been gone more than half that time span. He was a hero, as were many soldiers coming home from WWII... and I wish he had been able to live the long life of a noble hero. But, whatever his demons, be they demons of post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), you know, of "seeing things no person should ever have to see" there is this immutable fact: my dad took his own life in September, 1965, when I was six years old. What he left behind for us was an incredible love of nature, of wild places... I imagine him wandering up into the rugged east side of the Sierra Nevada, where he loved to roam, finding comfort and peace in nature, in spending time alone... I sure inherited that love from him. I'd like to think he would be proud of my national park ranger years, of my teaching years, as I have a new appreciation for his war epic.
There was never a Good War or a Bad Peace said Benjamin Franklin, and I know what he meant... for those who give their lives, or lose a piece of their lives in the pain and suffering, nothing can make up for the sacrifice. To remember these brave and honorable people is to remember our own freedom and keep that faith going through all the long years... maybe some day there won't be other wars, and other dead or injured for us to remember and honor. In the meantime, celebrate their effort by embracing freedom! Thanks for reading. (The elements of this story came together starting in 2010 and I thank my sister, Diane, and my brother Scott, for their work and interest to open this story up. Thanks also to Gary Koch, Bob Milliken, and JC Clouet!)