By Peter G. Chronis
Around Veterans Day, classic war movies began turning up on television - "The Great Escape" aired in October. That film reminds me of the elusive facts about the fate of a cousin whose plane was shot down over Germany in World War II.
Until a few days ago, war-crimes victims were distant strangers in sterile histories of World War II. But as the facts of my cousin's death came into brutal focus, victims of Nazi war crimes were no longer so anonymous.
"The Great Escape " is about a dark episode late in World War II when 50 POWs who made a mass breakout from a German POW camp were recaptured and executed. The film depicts the grim reality of life in Stalag Luft III - nothing like the absurdity of the "Hogan's Heroes" TV series that made prison camp seem like a holiday spa and the German captors look like buffoons. Far from it - POWs got meager rations and the Luftwaffe troops guarding them were anything but fools. Still, the Luftwaffe commandant of the camp and his staff generally followed the Geneva Conventions with regard to the POWs, according to the nonfiction book that inspired the film
My cousin, 2nd Lt. Peter Mandros Jr., was only briefly a prisoner of war before being executed by a Standartenführer in the Sturm Abteilung or SA. He never marched in Veterans Day parades; never married or raised children; never traded war stories over beers at an American Legion post; never rough-housed with us at postwar family picnics.
Peter was a navigator on a B-17G that was shot down July 28, 1944, on a mission to Merseburg, Germany. He was in the 511th Bomber Squadron, 351st Bomber Group.
I was a few days shy of a year old when Peter's plane was shot down, so I knew of him only as the Hollywood-handsome young man in an Army officer's uniform in a family album. But I also knew he never came home from the war. His mother, Theía Antonía, often tearfully talked with the grown-ups, about her hope that somehow, Peter would return. (Theía is Greek for aunt.)
Peter was born Aug. 7, 1922, in Pittsburgh. He grew up in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh and had an older sister, Irene, now deceased, and a younger brother, George, now 90 years old. He graduated from Peabody High School and had enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh before leaving to enlist in the Army Air Forces in November 1942. He won his silver wings as navigator at San Marcos, Texas, and went overseas to Britain in May 1944.
Peter was one of more than 79,000 American service members reported missing or unaccounted for at war's end, out of 16 million who served in World War II. At one point, Theía Antonía was told Peter was in a POW camp liberated by Soviet forces, but his fate was unknown. So in September 1959, Theía Antonía posted herself at the entrance of the downtown Pittsburgh hotel where visiting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was staying. Her hopes for some answers came to naught.
A dozen years later, Nicholas N. Chronis, a cousin and a career Army officer then stationed in Germany, discovered Peter's grave in a U.S. military cemetery in Belgium. But if the Soviets had liberated the camp, how did Peter come to be buried in Belgium?
What prompted my search, though, was that a year and a half ago, I found an online item about U.S. airmen executed right after being shot down over Germany and was shocked to read that Peter Mandros had been "assassinated by an SA Standartenführer," equivalent to a full colonel.
That sliver of information, communicated to another cousin, Peter Krelis, who lives in the Pittsburgh area, was news to the family, he said.
Further research cast more doubt on the Soviet liberation scenario. For starters, "The Great Escape," a 1950 book about the March 24, 1944, breakout from Stalag Luft III written by former POW and Spitfire fighter pilot Paul Brickhill, notes that as the Red Army advanced deeper into Germany in 1945, the Luftwaffe moved U.S. and British POWs to other locations several times, perhaps hoping to use them as bargaining chips with the Western Allies. This despite an order by Adolf Hitler to execute all POWs.
The 1963 movie, starring Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, James Garner and Charles Bronson was based on Brickhill's book about how Allied prisoners, mostly British, began digging tunnels in an elaborate plan to escape the heavily guarded compound. Names were changed and time frames compressed, but other details of the escape were accurately depicted. The POWs had made civilian clothes from uniforms, masterfully forged Nazi travel documents and identity papers, manufactured compasses, produced maps, and concocted field rations for the escapees.
The real-life ramrod of the effort was Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, a South African-born Spitfire fighter pilot who hoped to get a couple of hundred POWs out to cause massive manhunts that would divert German personnel and resources from the front. But only 76 prisoners made it out before guards caught on and thwarted the POWs awaiting their turn through the tunnel. All but a handful of escapees eventually were recaptured. On orders from Hitler, 50, including Bushell, were executed after falling into the bloody hands of the Gestapo or the SS.
But the Soviet liberation narrative wasn't the only inaccurate one:
Another account said that Peter's B-17G was attacked by German fighter planes and crashed. Several crew members had bailed out; six survived and were taken prisoner; three were killed in action, according to that online narrative, which said Peter's parachute supposedly hadn't opened properly and he was killed. Peter's place of death is given as Bauerheim, near Friedberg, Germany.
Further investigation disproved those narratives, as well, when I discovered a document from a war crimes trial held at Dachau in February 1947. The document was a review of the conviction of SA Standartenfürher Willi Rieke for murdering 2nd Lt. Peter Mandros Jr., who survived the downing of his plane. It described Peter as "an unarmed, surrendered prisoner of war." A summary of evidence said Peter was captured near the village of Bauerheim and taken to the mayor's office. Soon, Rieke and another SA member, Karl Schenk, arrived by automobile, took custody of the prisoner and drove away.
"The automobile was driven to a small bridge over the Usa River on the outskirts of Fauerbach, Germany, where it stopped and RIEKE with the flier got out. Immediately, RIEKE shot the flier, and after the flier fell beside the car, RIEKE fired more shots into the flier's head or neck. The flier still showed signs of life. RIEKE returned within ten to twenty minutes and fired another shot into the head of the flier."
According to the document, Peter was buried in the cemetery at Friedberg, Germany.
Schenk had testified that after they left the scene, Rieke told him that, if he were asked, to say that the flier was shot while trying to escape.
Rieke's actions chillingly mirrored Brickhill's description of how some Great Escape POWs were executed. A military tribunal convicted Rieke and sentenced him to death, and, after review in August 1947, the sentence was upheld. Rieke was hanged in October 1948. Schenk, who also had been accused in the case, was acquitted.
It's worth noting that Rieke got far more justice than his victim or any of the other Allied airmen murdered by the Nazis.
Peter's story deserved telling rather than remain just another file in some dusty archive. His tragic fate reminds us that war is like the spreading ripples from a pebble tossed into a pond that leaves many casualties: the fallen and their kin.
Peter G. Chronis is a retired Denver Post writer.