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For 60 years, Staff Sgt. Kazmer Rachak didn't know what happened to his crew mates. He assumed they died in a fiery crash.

Rachak and his B-17 navigator, 2nd Lt. Quentin Ingerson, jumped from their plane as it started to spin. No one else followed.

Rachak landed in a field, was captured by Germans and served 11 months as a prisoner of war.

He liberated himself from the Nazis, a feat that could easily have gotten him killed.

But that's not the story Rachak wants to tell. It's not his war service he finds compelling or memorable.

What he hopes people remember is what happened to the seven men who stayed in the plane.

On Aug. 4, 1944, Rachak's "Flying Fortress" passed over Bremen, Germany. Lost in clouds, during a change in formation, the plane above Rachak's came down on his engines. Debris flew everywhere. The dome where Rachak sat was crushed.

His bomber started dropping out of control, and Rachak knew what was coming.

This could only end in destruction.

He and Ingerson moved toward the back and jumped. Seconds later the plane nosedived, preventing the others from bailing out.

As the two men freefell toward the ground, unbeknownst to them, their pilot, 2nd Lt. Harvey Walthall, managed to steady the plane. He flew it until the plane hit water and skidded onto sand, stopping on Borkum, a tiny spit of land in the North Sea.

Soldiers from the German island met the American men at their plane.

They marched the airmen across the island and into town, where men from the town's civilian workforce beat the airmen with their tools and hands.

Moments later, a German guard whose wife and three children had been killed by an American bombing raid in Hamburg, heard about an American aircrew captured in Borkum.

Filled with rage, he pushed his way into the crowd surrounding the Americans. He walked up to Pvt. Erich Langer, who had fallen, and shot him as he lay on the ground.

He followed the other airmen into town and fired on them. Five died. He shot the sixth as the final airman ran to a house for cover.

The same day, on mainland Germany, German guards took Rachak to an interrogation facility and later a POW camp.

There he joined the masses of American POWs fighting starvation. Rachak couldn't forget the other men on his plane.

He memorialized his fellow soldiers on a handkerchief. Using thread from a traded pair of argyle socks and his parachute, Rachak sewed each of their names, as well as his bomb group and squadron's insignias, onto the cloth. He refused to forget the soldiers he thought died like so many other airmen.

In February 1945, the Germans led Rachak and other soldiers from his POW camp on a three-month march through Germany. They marched in groups of several hundred, camping and retreating from the advancing Russians.

One evening in May, the POWs passed several French peasants. The French had been taken as slaves to work in German fields in place of Germans who were fighting. Many of them were sent home, walking back to their lands in France.

The dirt road forked, the POWs heading right, the French peasants veering to the left.

Rachak looked at his marching partner, another soldier from Alaska named Gus.

Gus, you see that fork in the road? You see the guys pulling the wagons? Those guys are Frenchmen, they've been told to go home. Are you game to go with me?

OK with me, he responded.

Rachak and Gus slid over to the Frenchmen. Looking back, Rachak doesn't know if guards saw them leave or not. If they did, he wonders if the war was close enough to the end they didn't care if two Americans left.

Then again, they could have been shot.

By midnight, the Americans and French reached a town lit by a large fire. A barrier blocked travelers from entering the town.

Voices called out to them from behind the barrier, asking for identification.

The voices were American.

Rachak made it home a month before the rest of the POWs from his camp.

He moved back to Colorado, went to school and started a life as a woodworker and later a pattern-maker.

Then in 2002, his phone rang. An American was calling to ask him what he remembered from his 486th bomb group. Rachak recounted the mid-air collision, his jump, and his assumption that the other men died in a crash.

The man, who had been part of their squadron after the war, told Rachak what happened. Rachak's understanding of the events comes from some of the villager's accounts and the ultimate investigation.

"That's the horror of it," Rachak said from his Casper home. "For all those years I couldn't tell people what happened for sure to those troops."

At the time, Rachak said people on the island felt ashamed, reluctant to talk about the killings.

A war-crimes trial convicted six people in the town of violating the Geneva Convention. Half of them were put to death.

Sixty years later, a group gathered to build a memorial to the murders. They invited Rachak and Ingerson, the plane's navigator, to attend.

The two went to Borkum to see the gravestone standing in the local cemetery. The town's people were kind to the two retired airmen and wanted, as much as possible, to amend what happened so many years ago.

No, it's not Rachak's 20,000-foot freefall, 11 months as a POW or daring escape he wants people to remember. He hopes people remember the seven men, their horrific fate and what can happen in a time of war.


Staff Sgt. Kazmer Rachak

Age: 90

Unit: 486th Bomb Group, 832nd Squadron, Air Force

War fronts: Atlantic Theatre

Family: Married with three children

His words: On escaping the Germans: "Thinking about it, I could have been shot or anything in that time. But, no, we made it."

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