Our upcoming trip to Italy and Austria has provoked some puzzlement from friends. Everyone can relate to going to Italy. Sunshine, pizza, Roman antiquities, wine, the Pope, olive oil, and of course, George Clooney lives there. But, Austria? It isn’t even ski season.
If driving through the Alps, eating pastries, and cool architecture isn’t enough, and it is for me, there is also a more personal if somewhat morbid purpose. On July 26, 1944 my uncle Richard Luebke was killed in Austria. Of course, it was during wartime and he was a B-17 pilot, and there were plenty of other young men who did not return but throughout my youth I felt the loss of this particular soldier even though it happen over a decade before I was born.
My mother was only 10 when her brother died. She had two older brothers, both enlisted in the military. When I look at photos of my uncle Dick I can see that he was the most outgoing of the brothers. He was a good looking fellow and in his uniform he was quite the dashing officer. From February until spring of 1944 he flew with 457th Bomb Group out of Glatton, England.
I don’t know why, but I suspect that he volunteered to go to Italy. The 15th Air Force had suffered numerous losses in the Italian campaign and were in dire need of experienced airmen to shore up crews made up of new recruits.
The 301st Bomb Group had been active throughout the North African campaign but now based in Lucera, Italy they were in a great location for bombing runs that would take them up to the industrial areas in Austria, Germany, and to the oil refineries of Ploesti, Romania.
When the army notified my grandparents that the plane had gone down they told them that some of the crew had parachuted to safety and that it was a good likelihood that the remaining crew members were now POWs. When the war in Europe ended and German records were checked his name did not show up. The returning POWs waited to get fattened up at Camp Lucky Strike. But, Dick wasn’t among them.
There are letters to my grandmother which refer to her mounting frustration but still nothing. The plane went down in a part of Austria that was under Soviet control for several years after the war. In 1950 and 1951 investigators searched and found remains from other planes but not my uncle’s. With no formal resting place the Army put his name on the wall of the missing at the National Cemetery in Florence, Italy. My grandparents had a plaque placed at the National Cemetery at Ft. Snelling in Minnesota, where they are now buried.
Several years ago the Bookseller and I went to Italy and paid a visit to the cemetery in Florence. Like all military cemeteries the white marble crosses stand in sharp contrast to the green grass and the deep blue sky. I stood in front of the wall and looked out over the rows of crosses and up to the hills and the olive trees. I thought about my mother and my grandmother. How my grandmother rarely talked about Uncle Dick and how my mom refused to watch the movie, Memphis Belle.
A wall in Florence and plaque in Minnesota doesn’t bring much solace. My mother, my other uncle, and my grandparents have all passed on and maybe, if there are answers beyond the grave, they finally know the truth. But, for me, that day in Florence sent me on a quest.