World War II Articles and Stories

Local Man Survived Two Ships Sinking in WWII

Estherville Daily News, Tuesday, September 7, 1999

By Nathan Christophel

For most, remembering the past is a difficult thing.  However for some, the past is something to be remembered.

Irvin Dalen, a U.S. Navy  veteran and Estherville resident, is one of only three survivors in the destruction of the merchant marine ship the SS James Oglethorpe during World War II.

With two Purple Heart medals to tell his story, Dalen has seen hardships that most of today’s society wouldn’t have the first clue about.

“When I went back to Hawaii after the bombing of the USS Franklin, I was given a choice.  I could be reassigned in the U.S. or I could stay in Hawaii until the war was over.  I chose to stay in Hawaii because I figured it was the closest to heaven I was gonna get,” Dalen said.

Dalen, originally from Graettinger and a WWII veteran, is one of only three people who survived the sinking of the Oglethorpe during a German attack on March 16, 1943.

In 1942 Dalen, only 18, headed to boot camp in Great Lake, Ill.

Dalen was then sent to Gulfport, Miss. for eight more weeks of training before he was assigned to the Oglethorpe in Savannah, Ga.

Dalen spent six weeks mounting artillery and loading cargo onto the ship before heading to New York to pick up planes, vehicles and more supplies.  After the cargo was loaded, the ship set sail for Liverpool, England.

Dalen, a gunner captain aboard the Oglethorpe, sailed out in a convoy of 45 ships.  The convoy, escorted by U.S. forces, was met half-way across the Atlantic by British destroyers which took over the escort.

At approximately 11:24 p.m. on the night of March 16, 1943, the Oglethorpe was struck by a German torpedo which started a fire in its number one hold.  Two more torpedoes hit the ship in the mid and stern sections, crippling the ship completely.

Dalen and two of his shipmates were thrown overboard when torpedoes hit the hull of the ship.

Dalen, only with earphones and his light, was able to see the lights of four other crewmen in the water.

“The water was five degrees below zero, which wasn’t bad for salt water,” said Dalen.

The ship sank off the coast of Iceland on the 17th of March 1943, shortly after midnight.

All in all, 18 of the 45 ships in the convoy were sunk by a German wolf pack.

Around 12:30 a.m. the HMS Pennywort, out of England, threw a net over Dalen and the four men and brought them aboard.

“The water wasn’t bad when you were in it, but when they pulled you out, you froze like a fish,” Dalen said.

The crew checked for pulses and covered them with a blanket.

Pronounced dead, Dalen woke the next morning to find the crewmen taking dog tags, wristwatches and billfolds from him and the other men.

When the crew of the Pennywort discovered there was still life in Dalen, he was taken below deck for medical attention.

Out of the 26 Navy men and 45 Merchant Marines aboard the Oglethorpe, only three crew members survived.

Dalen, Tolly Brown, and one of the ship’s cooks.

Four days after the sinking of the Oglethorpe, the Pennywort arrived with the survivors in Londonberry, Ireland where Dalen spent five weeks in the hospital.

After Dalen was released, he went to Glasgow, Scotland and then on the Liverpool.

There he boarded the Queen Elizabeth and sailed back to the U.S. for a 30 day survivors leave.

Dalen returned to his home town of Graettinger and stayed with his father during his leave.  “I enjoyed every minute of it,” Dalen said.

Although, not all of his leave turned out as well.

During Dalen’s ‘time off’, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined to his bed.

When Dalen returned to duty, he was sent to Providence, R.I. where he was to be assigned to the USS Intrepid.

The Intrepid, one of the 25 SE class aircraft carriers built, was four city blocks long and brand new.

After a brief stay on the Intrepid, Dalen was transferred to Newport News and assigned to the USS Franklin.

The Franklin, another SE class carrier, had a crew of 3,600.

After its shakedown cruise, the Franklin was sent to the Pacific war front with Dalen still aboard.

On March 6, 1944, only a year after the sinking of the Oglethorpe, the Franklin was struck by a Japanese Kamikaze plane.

The Kamikaze hit the flight deck, the most dangerous place on the carrier, while Dalen and three other crewmen were working on a plane.  Two of the crewmen were killed by the explosion and Dalen was wounded.  In fact, Dalen still has two of the 18 pieces of shrapnel imbedded into the bone of his leg.

Fifty-four were killed and 65 were wounded that day.

The Franklin sailed back to Bremerton, Wash. For repairs and Dalen received a 30 day survivor leave to go home.

When Dalen got back to Bremerton, he boarded the repaired Franklin and they sailed to Hawaii and then on to the South Pacific.

On March 19, 1945, Japanese fighters sneaked in and dropped two 500 pound bombs on the Franklin.

Dalen, an engineer, was below deck.  When the bombs hit the ship, Dalen hit the deck.  When he got up he was surrounded by smoke and flames.

He tried several ways out, but finally had to go down another deck where he made his way to the Franklin’s fantail.

Dalen and 50 other crewmen climbed up the hatch just in time to see the ship’s 1,000-pound bombs starting to explode.

Dalen and a friend threw a life preserver overboard and jumped into the water.

Dalen and the other crew members watched from the water as the Franklin burned and exploded for nine hours, drifting closer and closer to the Japanese home front.

The crewmen were in the water for 4 ½ hours before a lifeboat picked them up.

Dalen then caught a freighter back to Hawaii where he was given the option of being reassigned in the U.S. or staying at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii until the war was over.

Dalen came out of the service ranked as an Aviation Machinist Mate Third Class and came home to Graettinger.

For his efforts and time spent in the service and in the war, Dalen has won two Purple Hearts, one WWII medal, seven battle medals, one Atlantic/Pacific medal and an American Campaign medal.

When asked what he learned from his experiences in the service, Dalen said with a chuckle, “To never get aboard a Liberty Ship.”

After all that Dalen has been through, the one date that sticks out the most in his memory is June 4, 1947, the day he was married to Margaret Westagard from Graettinger.

They’ve been married for 52 years and have eight children, 15 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Dalen, now 76 and retired, has been a member of the Estherville VFW for 45 years and lives with his wife in a house he built next to Fort Defiance.

When asked if everything he suffered through was worth it, Dalen said, “I don’t know.  The youngsters of today really don’t realize what we veterans went through for this country.”

“Praying when I was in the water is what I remember most from the service.” Dalen said.  “Prayer has gotten me through a lot.”

So, as the next millennium draws nearer, if Dalen can go fishing with his sons Jerry and Rodney on the weekend and not be worried about the future, what’s the big hype about Y2K anyway?

 

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN   

WAR CRIMES 

 

In several chapters in this book is already briefly mentioned how airmen who had bailed out of their disabled bombers or fighters, were treated after their landing by the German military and civili­an population. Some were treated well, their wounds were bandaged and they were often nourished before they were sent to the collection points. Others were beaten and kicked by civilians and often barely ­rescued by military officials before a worse fate awaited them. One typical case, that of S/Sgt Royce E. Ball of the 445th Bomb Group, is already covered in the Merseburg chapter. Another case is that of the crew of 1/Lt Rudolph Stohl of the 457th Bomb Group. An interesting account of the crash is given by then twenty-one year old Dutchman Leen Stolk. He had been summoned by the Germans for forced labor in Germany, after they effectively closed down “de Verenigde Touwfabrieken”, the Dutch factory where Stolk worked. He had to leave Maassluis, close to Rotterdam, in October 1942 and was put to work in the Borgward factory in Bremen, where halftrack armoured personel carriers for the German Army were built. During his stay in Bremen, Stolk kept a diary, in which he freely and quite understandably somewhat biased, voiced his opinion about his experiences. This is an excerpt of his notes for Sunday May 28. The Whitsunday was obviously a day off from work in the factory.

“Got up at 10 o’clock and went to the Weser river to swim. Beautiful warm weather. At 1 o’clock air raid alarm.  Dressed and went to the bunker until 2 o’clock. Then on to the Bremer Kampfbahn (soccer fields, author), the soccer match is called off, as it’s still air raid alarm. All of a sudden there is heavy flak fire, a big bomber dives down and keeps circling around. It keeps circling, then suddenly it drops three men with parachutes, then another three and finally two, that makes eight. The flak fires like mad, they put a crossfire on that plane. But apparently it is looking for a place to land, has to make a crash landing, then drops two bombs. We saw another man jump out, but he was too close to the ground for his chute to open and he fell to his death. We saw the plane disappear and a few moments later a big black cloud. At 4 o’clock the ‘all clear’ was sounded. At 5:30 o’clock we went to camp Weserlust. There we spoke some other boys, among them Leen Ditmars. They were in Osterholz, visiting the grave of a friend from the work camp who recently died. As they were there, the firing began. Behind the graves some airmen came down. A German came towards the boys on a bike and said “help to search for those pigs”. The boys made off, not wanting to help to search for our friends. And behind the grave they saw one, with his hands up, but he was shot from behind by a German, the dirty dog. He then undid something that apparently chafed on the wound on his hip. He regularly wiped the blood away, which gushed out. His legs were tied up and he was thrown on a cart. The boys said he was a handsome guy with black hair, a Canadian. He looked at them with wide eyes. What would have gone on inside this poor guy’s head, he surrendered and still they shot him and threw him on a cart despite his wounds. The boys wanted to speak some English with him, but others stopped them. A German, who spoke English, said something like ‘you will never get back to England’. Other airmen had surrendered and stood with their hands raised; Germans came out with rifles and rubber sticks and hit the airmen in their faces with these, dirty dogs these Germans. They were tied up, loaded in a sidecar of a motorcycle, a leg which dangled out was kicked in and when they drove off, they were still hit on their heads with sticks, it was horrible! An officer stood aside and watched and said ‘Calm down people, soon three more of these dogs will arrive’. Some airmen were hit in the face by a little woman, one warded off the blows and was immediately beaten up. It really drove you mad, according to the boys. The aircraft has burned out behind the Borgward works in Sebaldsbrück. The brave pilot continued to fly straight through the crossfire from the flak until all his men had left. As the boys walked back, they encountered some Russian women, who said ‘There lies a dead Tommy’. That was the man who bailed out last and who fell to his death. Some Germans stood near the dead airman, on his belt was a pistol, and a leather case with compass, maps, chocolate, chewing gum and rolls of candy. The next day I met Wassilie (a Russian also working in the Borgward factory, author) and he told me that the chute of the pilot opened just in time, just above some trees. After he landed he shot at some Hitler Jugend and NSKK-people (National Socialist Motor Corps, author), as they were shooting at him with small caliber rifles.”[1]

The wounded man who landed in the cemetery was waist gunner Sgt. William Bemus, who had actually received his wound while bailing out of the stricken plane, as extensively described in Bemus’ own words in the chapter about the Dessau mission. The man whose parachute for onlookers on the ground apparently did not open was radio-operator Walter Waggoner. He was killed aboard the plane and his body fell out of the aircraft in its final spins, through the hole in the bottom that presented itself after the ball turret had been dropped earlier. However, Stolk’s observations about the rough treatment of the surviving crewmembers is backed up by the facts. In 1947 two men, Otto Rueger a then forty-three year old baker, and Wilhelm Schroeder, a fifty-six year old police sergeant were sentenced to three and two-and-a-half years imprisonment for ‘deliberately and wrongfully encourage, aid, abet and participate in commencing assaults upon members of the United States Army, who were then and there surrendered and unarmed prisoners of war in the custody of the then German Reich.’[2]

In this instance the fliers came away with bruises and dog bites. However, in a number of cases, there is little doubt that a luckless American flier was killed on the ground before anyone could come to his rescue. Since many of these instances were not witnessed by others than those directly involved in the crime, there was no trial for war crimes in these cases, after the war had ended. We have read for example about Ray Wampler, of the 445th Bomb Group, who was "shot while escaping" by a military policeman. And about James Singleton, of the 351st Bomb Group, who was shot while still floating down in his parachute. About Forest L. Knight, of the 390th Bomb Group, who was seen alive in his parachute by fellow crewmembers and who inexpli­cably died on the ground. These are some of the known events. But how many airmen really died on a foreign field, beaten, stabbed or shot to death will forever remain unknown.

The single instance in which I have been able to trace the trial and actual conviction of the German, responsible for the death of an helpless American airman shot down on May 28, is that of Richard Wegmann. He was accused, and later found guilty, of the murder of Leroy D. Cruse, the tail gunner of Lt Clyde W. McClelland's B-17 of the 351st Bomb Group. This one case is presented here in great detail to sketch the tragic events. It also shows how just plain bad luck with one's landing place could mean a cruel death instead of a prisoner of war camp and eventual return to families and friends in the United States after the war.

McClelland's B-17 had been struck by flak over Dessau, and was finally abandoned by its crew about 50 miles northeast of Frankfurt. All crewmembers managed to leave the doomed ship by para­chute, and Cruse was observed by others to be all right at that time. Ball turret gunner Nathan L. Williams stated:

     "Cruse was the first out of the waist, I was the second to jump. His chute opened and he landed in a clearing about a block from where I hit. The last I saw of him, he picked up his chute and waved to me. Then I went down on the other side of the little patch of woods between us. I am positive he was in good health the last time I saw him. I never heard or saw him again after that."[3] 

What happened is told by Eva Weitzel, a thirty-nine year old housewife from Elm, whose testimony I found in the National Archives. She recalled in September 1945:

     "I was standing at my kitchen window, looking out, when I saw a plane come down low from a wave of planes. As I was looking I saw somebody jump and I said: 'My God, there!! Somebody jumped out' and while I looked I saw three people jump out. They went out in all directions. I took my child and was standing in the yard. I then saw a crowd coming down from the direction of Kirschenkubel, escorting an American flier. Well, I had never seen a parachute in my life before and I took my child and I went over in the direction they were coming from. When I got there, I saw the parachute was being carried by the pilot and it had just fallen apart on him, on the ground; he was just kneeling down, putting it back together again. I heard Dollefeld say: "Hurry up, get that stuff toge­ther,   ­so we can get going." By that time, two men came down from a little side-road. They came up running. One was Wegmann, as I was later-on told; in fact, he said himself who he was. The other one was just a short distan­ce behind Wegmann; he was limping. And when they got near the crowd, in fact, they were running quite fast, then I saw Wegman take a weapon which he carried off his shoul­der. He just pushed his way into the crowd, and I just held on to my child, I don't know why, it all happened so fast, and I heard a shot. That was just as the American flier was going to cross the road. Then the American ran across the road into the field approximately three or four meters; he broke down with his hands raised up and letting out cries and saying something, I don't know what. I don't understand English. And then I heard the second shot; I think he shot him right into the body then. The American then was rolling on the ground, crying and hollering from pain; it was something terrible; I can still hear it. Maybe I was dazed by it, I don't know. I ran up to Wegmann and said: "Why did you shoot that man, he gave no resistance whatsoever" and Wegmann looked like he was crazy and he was sputtering something. I turned around, grabbed my child, wanted to get away from it all and he ran up to me and he, Wegmann, said: "Are you a German woman; how can you have sympathy with an air-gangster?"

     I turned around, grabbed my child and ran towards home. I was very excited, the child was crying and everybody seemed to be in an uproar and I heard, as I left, somebo­dy say: "Why don't you finish that poor man?", I don't know what person said that and then I heard another shot. I ran back again and looked at him, I don't know why I did it, but I was so excited that I did not know what I was doing. I grabbed my child again and ran towards home and for some reason or other I came back again and looked at the body and I'm sure that Wegmann fired the last shot. He had a great big gun in his hand. When I came back I looked on the ground and I saw a cartridge case. I picked it up and I said; "I'll keep that as remembrance; I'll never forget it anyway to my dying day". Then a car pulled up and I saw two men come out of it; one was Lutz. Later on, I heard that the other was Geschwindner. And I saw where Lutz shook hands with Wegmann and said somet­hing, but I don't know what he said to him. Then I heard Wegmann say, "Let's go, we'll get another one", and he and another man that limped left the crowd. They went up the hill called Kalkwerk, and then I heard when Lutz and Geschwindner called over Moller, who had come down the hill at the time and said: "What, you are afraid that an American will shoot you; you're just a coward", or somet­hing to that effect. And then they were going, from the way it looked, to bury the American on the place where he was shot, but by that time my husband came along and he said; "No don't you bury that man in front of my wife and my child's eyes; we have to live nearby; take him where he belongs, to the cemetery". By that time, the police came out and policeman Kahler said: "That's a soldier and he is going to be buried where the rest of them are buried and that's in the cemetery", and they picked the dead soldier up and went away with him. And then I left and went home and I was all excited for some time to come." [4]

The body of luckless Leroy D. Cruse from Terril, Iowa, was buried in the Elm cemetery. Immediately after the war, official investigations started into his killing. Already on September 5, 1945 his body was exhumed and an autopsy performed. This autopsy clearly showed that Cruse was killed by a shot in the head, that the range of firing had been very short and that there was another bullet wound in the abdomen.

Richard Wegmann was traced in Elm, then arrested and interrogated on September 28. It appeared that he was a twenty- four year old farmer at the time of the crime. He had served in the German Army from 1938 until he was wounded in action during the invasion in Poland in September 1939. He was di­scharged from the Wehrmacht in 1941. Since that time he had been working on the farm of his parents. His only brother had been killed during an air raid by the Royal Air Force on Frankfurt in 1941.

During his trial the reason for his discharge from the German Army became clear. The wound he had received in Poland had been a steel splinter in his head. This had resulted in spells of unconsciousness, temporary loss of memory and him becoming very nervous and excitable. The family doctor, who was one of the witnesses for the defense of the accused, summarized the period between 1940 and 1944 as:

     "serious weaknesses as far as the brain's capacity to work is concerned, with effective aberrations, extreme irritation, excitability and typical sensibility to weather" [5]

A further medical examination showed that the steel splinter was still lodged in Wegmann’s brain. It was easily removed in the Internee Hospital 2 in Karlsruhe on March 7, 1946.

The final trial took place in Dachau on June 10 and 11, 1946 and despite all efforts by Wegmann’s advocate the General Military Government Court senten­ced him to death by hanging.

However, after a petition for clemency, claiming insanity at the moment of the crime, the Judge Advocate recommended the commutation to thirty years imprisonment on December 23, 1946. Later the sentence was reduced to twenty-five years. Wegmann behaved well in prison and when his father was killed by an accident on his farm in 1954 the sentence was reduced to "ten years imprisonment, commencing May 13, 1945" and he was released shortly thereafter.

 

[1] Diary Leen Stolk, through G.L. Hammer, November 22, 1998.

[2] Trial 12-57, Record Group 153, Washington National Records Center.

[3] Trial 12-1967: Record Group 153, Washington National Records Center.

[4] Trial 12-1967: Record Group 153, Washington National Records Center.

[5] Trial 12-1967: Record Group 153, Washington National Records Center.

 

 

 

Description: Lorenzo Ybarra Banegas

Lorenzo Banegas
A-Btry., 515th CAAA
April 15, 2000

 

 

Survivor went from small-town life to face ravages of war

 

     
 

Lorenzo Banegas A-Btry., 515th CAAA April 15, 2000

Survivor went from small-town life to face ravages of war

. . . .From the hot, dry climate of the Mesilla Valley to the hot, wet jungles of the Philippines and back, Lorenzo Ybarra Banegas is a survivor. . . . .Banegas was born and raised in San Ysidro, a little farming village about three miles north of Las Cruces, on May 22, 1919. . . . .With the winds of war brewing in early 1941, Lorenzo tried his best to join the Army but three times was told no too thin, flat feet. . . . ."I could have gotten a deferment not to go in the service because I was a farmer, but I wanted to go. Three times the doctors told no," Banegas said. Finally, Banegas said a doctor offered to "fix his papers."

. . . .Soon, Banegas was headed to Santa Fe for his swearing in. From there he was sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso for training. . . . .After about six months, his unit was shipped to the Philippines were they arrived at Clark Field on Sept. 16, 1941. There the unit trained and Banegas performed duties operating search lights and generators. . . . .He recalls hearing the news about Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. . . . ."We thought the Pearl Harbor announcement was training," Banegas said. "Later, when we saw the planes, we thought they were American Navy planes. We started waving at them. They started to drop things from the planes, and we thought they were leaflets. We began to run toward them before we realized they were bombs." . . . .And so it was that he ended up in war. . . . ."My platoon sergeant was killed by a bomber about the third day of the war," Banegas said. . . . .Banegas said he saw the man lying down. He tried to help him up, but when he turned him over, the sergeant's face and stomach were completely ripped open. . . . ."From then on, I couldn't eat, I got that smell of gunpowder and human blood in my nose and I couldn't eat for about two weeks," he said. . . . .The Americans were steadily moved further and further along the Bataan Peninsula. They were running out of food and many were sick. . . . ."I was so sick that when I saw the bombs coming down. I didn't care. I figured malaria or bombs, I'm going to go either way," Banegas said. . . . .The American troops—soldier, sailors, marines, nurses—held off the Japanese for more than three months before being surrendered April 9, 1942. . . . .Banegas said, at first, he thought he would only end up a prisoner for two or three months at most. Instead, he spent 3 1/2 years as a POW, working in the fields in the Philippines and later in a coal mine in Japan. . . . .He said he did not consider escaping. . . . ."It was too hard to escape, and you would have to find a Filipino family to feed you. And if the Japanese found you, they would shoot the whole family," Banegas said. "We were barefooted. It was hard to walk from the camp to where we worked, it was about a mile to a mile-and-a-half." . . . .He said he contracted diphtheria, which caused callouses on his hands and feet to peel off, leaving a bloody, pulpy mess. . . . .Eventually, his diphtheria worsened. . . . ."I was there in the working area. The diphtheria caused my feet to swell up, my tongue swelled and there was pus on top of mouth. I couldn't swallow so I gave my ration of rice to my friend," Banegas said. . . . .He remembers being taken away to the "Zero Ward," the name for the small infirmary in the camp. . . . ."They called it the 'Zero Ward' because zero percent would come back. When I got sent there, they hugged me like I wasn't coming back," Banegas said. . . . .He said he was so sick the American doctor who administered to the prisoners offered to give him three shots of medicine instead of the normal one dosage. Banegas agreed, feeling as if he would not make it three days normally required for administration of the shots. . . . ."About 24 hours later I began to feel better, enough to swallow. But I was completely terrorized because I could not see because my eyes were blurry," Banegas said. "They put me to sleep between these two fellows, and I woke up in the night and wanted to turn over, but the one fellow's arm was on me so I tried to lift it and when I did, I found it was cold and stiff and I knew he was dead. . . . ."Then I turned to the fellow on the other side of me, and he was dead too because his eyes and mouth were wide open. I was begging for someone to come in and move me because I didn't want to stay there between those two fellows." . . . .Despite the odds, Banegas returned from the Zero Ward. . . . .Despite the trials of his war experiences in foreign lands, Banegas remains the epitome of a small-town American hero. . . . ."I was born here and raised here, and I hope I die here," Banegas said.

Las Cruces Sun News

 

 

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