Those few weeks in January 1945 changed forever the lives of Sky Wolf II’s crew, Jack Bratlie, the heroic Kiskunmajsa villagers and of course Aniko Pasternak.
Everyone visiting Lyon Air Museum has a reason for coming, and a story to tell. On Friday, November 3, 2017 Aniko Pasternak, nee Juhasz-Vedres, entered the museum and immediately walked up to our B-17. I was a docent that day. I approached her and said, “Welcome to our museum, would you like a tour? Any particular World War II interests?”
She responded, “I came specifically to see your B-17.”
Aniko Pasternak visits B-17
My curiosity piqued, I asked her if she would share the reason for her enthusiasm for B-17s.
“When I was a young girl my grandparents loved to tell me about the crash of an American B-17 bomber during World War II and how they rescued the crew members and hid them from nearby German soldiers,” Aniko remembers. She then shared this most intriguing and interesting story:
Aniko’s grandparents, Istvan and Maria Juhasz-Vedres, lived in the rural village of Kiskunmajsa in southern Hungary, which was close to the German eastern front where the Russians were closing in. Fighting was taking place just a few kilometers from the village.
Several villagers heard the unexpected sounds of an airplane approaching. Rushing forward they watched as a B-17 crash landed on the snow-covered field next to their village. They saw the dazed airmen crawl out and head toward them, pushing their way through the snow. Istvan and Maria and their neighbors, fearing the threat of nearby German soldiers, hid the Americans so they wouldn’t be captured. Language was a challenge. Fortunately, one of the villagers who had served during World War I ended up in England and spoke a little English. With his help they were able to convince the Americans they were friends and meant them no harm. The crew were dispersed among the villagers, each taking one or two of the fallen airmen into their homes, hiding them in barns and cellars.
The B-17’s navigator, Lt. Jack Bratlie, was harbored by Aniko’s grandparents. He and the other crew members were safe, warm and well-fed. Bratlie reveled that he slept in a real bed and ate meals served on a table covered with a white tablecloth.
Understandably, the downed crew were eager to get back to their unit. If they could get to the Russian side of the battlefront they believed they could secure transportation to an American base. The villagers made the necessary arrangements. The Americans were taken by a horse-drawn sleigh to the town of Kecskemet, controlled by Russians, and then by the Russians to Bucharest, Romania. It took a month to get the crew to Bucharest, where they waited five days to be ferried to Streparone, Italy, in a British C-47. They arrived back in Italy thirty-five days after they had departed on their bombing mission.
While waiting for transportation to Italy the crew met Captain Paikoff, a Russian Army officer stationed in Bucharest. He expressed his appreciation and very deep and hearty feelings to the crew: “My dear friends you represent the light of the new generation of your country. In your company I admired your self-respect and deep-set feelings towards your country. You are all well-disciplined, cultured and reserved people. Thank you my dear friends. In your future flights, hammer Germany with no mercy. Place your bombs exactly on the targets, destroy the fascist beast—Germany! Each of your raids shortens the war and more quickly brings about the beginning of happy peace, friendship and wealth to the people of the world.” Captain Paikoff probably wasn’t speaking for the Russian government, but his sentiment does show the comradeship of a different time.
Sky Wolf II’s last flight. The following account of the fate of Sky Wolf II (B-17 #44-6199) assigned to the 483rd Bombardment Group comes from the narrative written by Lt. Jacob Grimm, the co-pilot. On January 21, 1945, at 0815 hours, Sky Wolf II, under the command of Lt. Victor Prescott, took off from Streparone Air Base and joined the Fifth Wing over Termoli, Italy. They headed north toward the target: Lobau Oil Refinery located in Vienna, Austria. Upon arriving at the IP (initial point) the lead ship was unable to drop its bombs. Under heavy and intense but inaccurate flak, the formation circled for a second run. The lead ship successfully dropped its bombs this time. Lt. Santiago, Sky Wolf II’s bombardier, hit the toggle switch. The bombs failed to release—they were frozen to their racks. Flying at 27,400 feet altitude, the outside air temperature was a minus 60 degrees. Lt. Santiago and one of the waist gunners entered the bomb bay and began kicking the frozen bombs to free them. Luckily they succeeded in breaking the ice free and the bombs fell.
Just then the number two engine began to smoke and oil gushed forth from the failing engine. Lt. Prescott hit the feather button, but it only slowed the propeller and caused the ship to vibrate. At the same time the number one engine began to “run away.” The pilot pulled the throttle back but did not feather the propeller, hoping it would be of partial use later.
The stricken B-17 immediately headed for an airfield in Russian-held territory in Hungary. To make matters even worse, the number four engine was running short of gas and attempts to transfer fuel were useless because the fuel transfer valves were frozen. With two failed engines, and a third about to stop running, finding a landing spot was crucial. Luckily, a stretch of level ground lay ahead. Lt. Prescott made a crash landing (wheels up). After covering 350 yards the plane miraculously skidded to a stop, in eighteen inches of snow, with only slight damage to propellers and flaps. One by one, the shaken crew crawled from the now silent and crippled aircraft and frantically began to search for a safe haven. They weren’t sure where they were. They had crash landed in Hungary, within the sights and sounds of the German-Russian battlefront that was to close for comfort. The crew of Sky Wolf II were declared MIA (missing in action).
The rest of the story. Like many rescue and survival incidents, the crew and their newfound friends in Kiskunmajsa formed a special bond, one that grew even stronger over time. The villagers told the story over and over carrying the bond forward year after year. The crash landing itself was local knowledge, but wasn’t shared beyond the people who experienced it and the few who remained curious about it.
The US government ordered Sky Wolf II survivors not to disclose the details of the ill-fated mission, which had been classified SECRET. They respected that order and didn’t talk about it, even to family members or at squadron reunions after the war.
In 1982, the pilot, Victor Prescott, found out that the mission had been declassified. He and other crew members were eager to meet the villagers who had saved their lives. He wrote a letter to the parish priest in Kiskunmajsa asking if anyone still remembered the incident. At Sunday Mass the priest read Lt. Prescott’s letter. Hands went up, “Yes I remember that day.”
Jake Grimm, the co-pilot, began communicating with a few villagers in hopes of eventually reuniting. A small group headed by the local museum curator took charge of organizing a visit. In 1986, five Sky Wolf II crew members visited Kiskunmajsa for a reunion. When the local communist government learned that former US military visitors would be mingling with the locals, they took over arrangements and closely supervised reunion events and the Americans’ activities.
Aniko Juhasz-Vedres, just fourteen at the time, encouraged by her grandparents attended a reception at the local communist party’s clubhouse, the only event where crew members actually interacted with their original hosts. A local “guide/translator” was assigned; he closely followed the agenda given to him. The reunion was more of a “dignitaries-type” visit—not even close to the reason Sky Wolf II’s crew had traveled to Hungary.
Aniko believes that Sky Wolf II’s crew didn’t realize how communism really worked at a personal/local level during their 1986 visit. “They weren’t permitted to do anything on their own and personal visits into villagers’ homes weren’t allowed…. I seem to recall speeches and toasts and laughs, and waiting for the translator to make sense of what was being said…. Sadly, we really had no idea if the translator was being truthful.”
Top left crew members with villagers. Bottom left Aniko and her grandparents.
Top right Marion Bratlie with Aniko’s grandparents. Bottom right Jack Bratlie and grandparents
At the reunion Aniko met the crew’s navigator—Jack Bratlie—who she had heard so much about from her grandparents. This started a friendship that has continued for over thirty years. The story, and the visit of the American warriors to Kiskunmajsa, made a great impression on Aniko.
Although not able to read, write or speak English, Aniko began corresponding with Jack Bratlie, who lived in Tacoma, Washington. “I bought an English dictionary. I translated his letters, one word at time, into Hungarian. And then I carefully and painstakingly wrote return letters in broken English. I dreamed of visiting Tacoma but travel was very expensive. Remember, Hungary at that time was a Russian Eastern Bloc country, and most of the people were very poor.”
Lt. Jack Bratlie
“My parents wanted me to visit America and finally, in 1989, now seventeen, I traveled to Tacoma.” The Bratlie family were great hosts taking her around Washington state, Idaho, Oregon, and even to Disneyland. “It was wonderful,” she said. The Bratlies had five children—one more was no problem. After returning home, Aniko and Jack continued to exchange letters.
The soviet domination lasted until 1989, when Hungary finally became an independent democracy. Aniko remembers the significance of voting for the first time in the free post-war elections in 1990.
In 1992, Hungary’s Department of Defense organized an international commemorative event to celebrate the World War II air war in Hungary. Pilots from Russia, Romania, Great Britain, the United States and other countries attended. Under the leadership of the former museum curator (an attorney, writer and resistance founder who subsequently became a senator) Aniko and friends of the Kiskunmajsa Museum of Local History organized a second visit and reunion in Kiskunmajsa.
Jack Bratlie and villagers
Five crew members attend reunion
This visit was so different in many ways. For example, Aniko remembered, there were lots of eye opening conversations about life in post 1945 Hungary and reminiscing about the first reunion where open conversations were stifled. They ate Hungarian food, visited the crash landing site and the surrounding farm houses and they were able to walk around the village unescorted. “Jack even asked to see the house where the postmaster’s daughter lived in 1945—she must have made an impression on him.”
The visitors learned their B-17 had been disassembled and the parts used for many purposes, including fences, gates and even a wedding dress fashioned from one of the parachutes. They visited the commemorative display in the town museum, which housed pieces of their airplane and the wedding dress. Some of the airplane’s small structural pieces were cut up and mounted on wooden plaques that were given as personal gifts to each crew member. Crew members also received plaques commemorating the reunion. Aniko posited, “In a way the villagers and crew members were reunited.”
While working in Budapest in 1994, Aniko met her future husband who was visiting Hungary, as the borders had opened up for visits, trade and foreign investment. They moved to San Francisco a few years later where they currently live. She maintains her friendship with Jack Bratlie, the only surviving Sky Wolf II crew member. And, her passion for B-17s is stronger than ever.
Jack and Marion Bratlie with Aniko 2008
Article Written By Lyon Air Museum Docent Bill Lindsey. For more on the museum, click here.
Thanks to Aniko Pasternak for sharing her incredible story and for completing several edits. Thanks to Jack Bratlie for sharing pictures, narratives, correspondence and for spending time discussing his remembrances.
Grimm, Jacob. Narrative of B-17 forced to crash land in Hungary on 21 January 1945, Official part of the 483 Bomb Group history, Historical Research Center, Maxwell Air Force Base.
Interview, Aniko Pasternak, November 3, 2017.
Interview, Jack Bratlie, Sky Wolf II navigator, November 16, 2017.
Letter from Captain Paikoff to Sky Wolf II crew, Bucharest, Romania, February 8, 1945.
Kalbert, Mary. “A Day of Thanksgiving,” The Island Guardian, November 24, 2010, http://www.islandguardian.com/kalbert/.
Kalbert, Mary. “Victor Prescott’s B-17 Story,” The Island Guardian, November 11, 2011, http://www.islandguardian.com/kalbert/.
Kalbert, Mary. “Victor Prescott’s B-17 Story Part II,” The Island Guardian, accessed on November 10, 2017, http://www.islandguardian.com/kalbert/.
483rd Bombardment Group (H) Association, accessed on November 13, 2017, http://483rdbombgroup.org.