Hogan’s Heroes, the CBS sitcom about life in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II, debuted September 17th, 1965. Our family was living in Burnt Hills, New York, a small, bedroom community upstate just a few miles north of Schenectady. I was fifteen years old and just starting the 10th grade.
On that Friday evening, I was uneasy as our family gathered in front of the television to watch this new comedy from the same network that produced, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, and The Munsters. I knew that, unlike the fictional Colonel Robert E. Hogan, my father had been an actual prisoner in a German POW camp during the war.
Also, at Stalag Luft I, where my father was imprisoned, people actually died. People he knew. So, I was uneasy.
I was nervous for my father… Nervous the way only a fifteen-year-old boy can be nervous for a father who never really talked much about the war. I knew he had been a pilot and I knew he had been a prisoner for a year and a half and from reading books and watching movies, I assumed war and POW camps were not generally what most people would consider great source material for a sitcom.
My fear was that this television show was going to trivialize what my father and thousands of allied prisoners like him had been forced to endure. And because of that fear, I was nervous and indignant and fifteen.
Growing up, my father was a hero to me. Gentle and soft spoken, I never heard him raise his voice. I never ever heard him swear… Not “hell”, not “damn”, not once. He didn’t need to. He lead our family the way I imagine he lead the nine men under his command in the Boeing B-17 he piloted on missions over Europe in the fall and early winter of 1943… Without yelling, without demanding, without berating… Just by calm, quiet example.
For 1st Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr., and his crew, the flying portion of their war came to an abrupt end Monday afternoon November 29th, 1943, halfway through what would have been their ninth mission. At around 2:45 P.M. local time, they were somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 feet over the German naval installation at the port city of Bremen, Germany. They had just finished their bomb run.
It all happened very quickly. First they were hit by anti-aircraft fire followed immediately by a head on attack by an echelon of 10 twin-engine enemy fighters. The injuries inflicted upon their Flying “Fortress” were swift and severe. All four engines were critically damaged, along with most of their control system. For the two young men in the cockpit, their worst nightmare had suddenly turned very, very real.
Earl Bason had been my father’s copilot since the end of crew training in Walla Walla, Washington back in July of that year.
Dad had gotten his full crew the beginning of June and for seven weeks they had trained as a unit. Then, just before the Parks crew shipped out for England, Earl had replaced dad’s original copilot, Tommy Hudson.
Hudson, a college junior from Oakland, California, had enlisted in April of 1942. My father had enlisted almost a month before on the 21st of March. During WWII, aviation cadets were organized by classes with the number designating the year they would graduate. The first class of pilots in 1942 was “43A”. Dad was in the second class, “43B”. Tommy Hudson was in “43D”. That meant that even though Tommy had graduated, he had a couple months less time in training than his pilot.
In June of 1943, right after his crew was first assembled, dad, who was six months younger than Hudson, wrote his mother that his new copilot, “seems like just a kid”. In the same letter, he also told her that Tommy liked being a copilot and that the two of them got along “fine.”
Almost two months later, near the end of July, the Army Air Corps finally deemed nine of the ten members of the Parks crew combat ready. Tommy Hudson stayed behind for further training and 2nd Lt. Bason was assigned the right seat opposite my father. It is one of the cruel, inescapable consequences of war that small changes like this are often the difference between life and death.
Earl flew with the Parks crew, came home, married, raised a family, and built a successful business. Twenty two year old Tommy Hudson, who seemed like just a kid, eventually joined the crew of 2nd Lt. Allen Powell from Spokane, Washington, Powell was just a year older than his new co-pilot.
On January 5, 1944, just before noon, Tommy, Allen, and six other members of their crew died when they were shot down on their seventh mission.
Their group’s target that day was a German airfield at Merignac, France just west of the city of Bordeaux. Fifty miles from their target, a little south of Cognac, a swarm of enemy fighters descended on their formation. Within moments the Powell bomber was severely damaged and its tail gunner fatally wounded.
Barely in control, the pilot rang the alarm bell three times in quick succession giving the penultimate “Prepare to abandon ship” signal. Then, for ten minutes, he and Hudson struggled to keep their bomber flying as they worked on a way to get it and the crew back to England.
Severely damaged and under constant fighter attack, eventually, bailing out became their only option. Just as Powell gave the final command to abandon ship, a 20mm canon shell exploded in the cockpit. The B-17 went wildly out of control, fell 17,000 feet, and with its full bomb load still on board, exploded violently on impact with the pastoral wine-producing countryside of Medoc. Only two crew members managed to get out of the plane and parachute to safety.
So, back in Walla Walla, as the Parks crew prepared to leave for England and the war, it was Earl Bason who drew the lucky seat next to 2nd Lt. Parks. However, at the time, Bason considered his assignment anything but lucky.
Earl, like my Georgia born father, was a southern boy. He grew up in the little town of Mebane, North Carolina.
When the war broke out, Earl was working in a textile mill in nearby Burlington as a hosiery boarder. I have no idea what a hosiery boarder does but it sounds like the kind of job that would make going off to war seem like a good idea.
Most American boys who came of age in the 1920s and 30s had been raised on heroic tales of daring World War I flying aces, the Lafayette Escadrille, white silk flying scarves, and “We fly at dawn!”. Earl was no different and dreaming of high-speed, individual combat, on January 7th, 1942, exactly one month after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army Air Corps to be a fighter pilot.
For 18 months, Earl trained to fly the fastest, most nimble, single-engine fighters America had to offer. Then, in July of 1943, someone, somewhere in the military chain of command, made a random notation on a random piece of paper and Earl was re-assigned to fly a B-17… A lumbering, four engine, 30-ton behemoth whose sole purpose… Whose sole duty was to fly slow, straight, and level across Europe while every German, with the means to do so, tried to shoot it down.
And then, just to make the whole thing perfect, they made Earl second in command… Subordinate to a guy from Georgia for Christ sake, a guy who was a year and a half Earl’s junior.
Throughout his life, it was my father’s considered opinion that, although a great friend and a highly skilled copilot, Earl was never truly happy in his work.
Whenever their bomber formation had a fighter escort, Earl would gaze longingly out the window, and jealous of the fighters’ speed, maneuverability, and independence, he would roundly and eloquently curse the authors of his misery… “The fucking United States Army Air Corps”.
Back in Germany, high above the northeastern suburbs of Bremen, Earl and my father quickly took stock of their rapidly deteriorating situation.
Three hundred and sixty B-17s left England that day to do their part in strategically depriving Germany of its ability to wage war. Over 200 had turned back because of bad weather. Now, having dropped their bombs, the 154 Fortresses that made it all the way to the target, started a slow, sweeping, right hand turn for home.
It was rapidly becoming clear to Earl and my father they were not going with them.
With all four of their powerful, 1200 hp, Wright Cyclone radial engines inoperable and most of their controls shot away, dad and Earl’s bomber began drifting earthward and away from the protection of the formation. No longer turning for home, they were not only headed down, they were also headed deeper into Germany and they were still under attack.
As the reality of this final insult sank in, Earl poked his now useless control yolk with a heavily gloved forefinger, and growled into the intercom, “Isn’t THAT a pretty Goddamned thing.”
In a crippled aircraft, the only real currency you have is altitude. The longer you stay with the plane, the faster that currency disappears. Wanting to give his crew all the advantage he could, Lt. Parks skipped the “Prepare to abandon ship” warning, punched one long ring on the alarm bell and barked over the intercom, “Bail out, NOW!”.
He then pointed at his copilot and jerked his thumb back over his shoulder indicating that meant Earl too.
The crew exited the aircraft exactly as they had been trained. Gordon Rodemerk, 27, the tail gunner, and the two waist gunners, Wes Wright, 25, and Frank Waizeneger, 23, bailed out the starboard emergency exit just aft of the waist guns. The radioman, twenty three year old Blakesly Seward, helped twenty one year old ball turret gunner, George Gera, get out of his turret and buckle on his chute. They then followed Rodemerk, Waizeneger, and Wright out the waist exit. Earl, the twenty three year old copilot and Glen Richardson the twenty eight year old top turret gunner and oldest member of the crew, left through the open bomb bay while the bombardier, twenty three year old Joseph Rudolf Albert Antoine LeBlanc (“Frenchy“) from Montreal, Canada, and the navigator, twenty two year old John Sweeney, bailed out the port side exit in the nose.
Only then did my father leave his position and buckle on his parachute.
Lt. Parks stepped onto the six-inch wide walkway across the open bomb bay to get a better look through the radio room into the waist of the plane. After confirming everyone there was gone, he turned back toward the cockpit and dropped through the opening directly behind the pilot and copilot’s seats into the crawl space under the flight deck that led to the bombardier and navigator’s positions in the nose. Once there, after determining that LeBlanc and Sweeney had also left, dad paused in front of the open exit they had used moments before to make a final check of his equipment.
He ran his hand down the right side of the parachute pack feeling for the D-Ring he would have to pull to release the chute. To his great dismay, it wasn’t there. Looking down, he discovered the D-Ring on the left side of the pack. In his haste, he had attached the parachute to its harness upside down. As his now pilot-less bomber continued its descent, he had to take the parachute off, reverse it, and buckle it back on.
Finally ready, he simply crouched then rolled forward into the frigid 45º below zero slipstream and plummeted toward a very uncertain fate four miles below in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
When my father dove out of his doomed bomber, he was a month shy of his 22nd birthday and the youngest member of his crew. He would spend the next 18 months, through two Christmases and two birthdays, as a prisoner of war. For a year and a half he would wake up each morning not knowing when and, more ominously, how his imprisonment would end.
A little over 20 years later, in upstate New York, the Parks family settled in to watch the premier episode of Hogan’s Heroes. We took our assigned positions, my mother, my younger sister, and I on the couch, my little brother on the floor, and my father in his recliner.
My anxiety level spiked as the show’s opening music began but, moments later, to my surprise, dad started laughing. He laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed until there were tears in his eyes.
Then, when the first commercial came on, he looked at me, caught his breath, and shaking his head, chuckled, “I don’t remember it being this funny”.
In my life, I have never laughed so hard nor have I ever loved him more.