If you've ever wondered why Tim Russert got so passionate when he questioned presidents and politicians about values and character and the truth, he would have told you it comes from the man he called "Big Russ." They say you can't go home again. In some ways, Tim Russert never left the town, the times, the teachers in the place he always thought of as home. Read an excerpt from his book, "Big Russ and Me."
My Father’s War
“It was a lot tougher for the guys who died.”
Not long ago, I took part in an online conversation hosted by the Washington Post. As I sat at a computer, people around the country sent in questions about "Meet the Press" and other topics, and I did my best to answer them. Near the end of the hour, somebody asked if there was one individual whom I would especially like to interview. The person who submitted that question was probably expecting me to name an elusive political figure, or perhaps a fascinating character from history, such as Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus, or my first choice, Jesus Christ. But I took the question personally, and answered it immediately and from my heart: more than anyone else, I would like to interview my dad.
Big Russ has never been much of a talker, especially about himself. Part of it is his modesty: talking about himself probably feels like bragging, which he dislikes in other people and goes out of his way to avoid. It’s not that he’s silent, because Dad is a sociable and friendly guy, and in the right setting, and with people he knows well, you can get him going on any number of topics—politics, baseball, the Buffalo Bills, television, the best kind of hot dogs, and how Canadian beer tastes better when you buy it in Canada. But, like so many men of his generation, he won’t tell you much about his life, his thoughts, or his feelings.
When I was a boy, I knew that Dad had been overseas in World War II, and had served in what was then called the Army Air Force. But whenever I asked him about the war, he avoided my questions and tried to change the subject. When I persisted, he would say, “I’m not a hero like those guys in the planes. I stayed on the ground and just did my job.”
Every summer, our family used to rent a cottage for a week at Wasaga Beach in Ontario, where Dad, a strong man who loved the water, used to let my sisters and me lie on his back while he swam. One morning, when I was five or six, we were on the beach in our bathing suits when I noticed that Dad had several scars on his back. I had probably seen them before, but this was the first time I really noticed them. When I asked Mom why they were there, she told me that Dad had been injured in a plane crash during the war.
So of course I went over and asked him, “Dad, were you really in a plane crash?”
“Yeah,” he said, but the word was barely out of his mouth before he jumped back in the water. Even at that age, I could see that he was running away—or in this case, actually swimming away—from my question.
As the years went on, especially on Memorial Day, when we went to the local cemetery to plant little American flags on the graves of war veterans, I sometimes asked him about the war. Although I desperately wanted to know what had happened, I was careful not to push too hard. It was clear that he didn’t want to talk about it, and I imagined that I might feel the same way if something that terrible had happened to me. Every time I asked about the war, he would parcel out another detail or two. One year he said, “Everybody did their job, and I did mine. I was a parachute rigger.” Another time, referring to the crash, he said, “It was a foggy day, really bad weather.”
When I was in high school, the two of us were in the basement one day when Dad walked over to his desk, opened a drawer, and took out a manila folder. He handed me a yellowed clipping from the October 27, 1944, edition of the Southport Weekly, an English newspaper. The headline read, U.S. BOMBER CRASHES IN FLAMES AT AINSDALE, and the article described the crash of a B-24 Liberator at an air base in England. I read it quickly and zeroed in on the key lines: “The plane, which had been circling round as though preparatory to landing ... somersaulted into a field, immediately bursting into flames. When the plane crashed it broke up, and some of the airmen were thrown clear.”
More from TODAY.com
Did German co-pilot suffer from depression?
Reports surface that Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot of the doomed Germanwings flight, was suffering from a “personal life cr...
- 'Happy' dancing kid at steals the spotlight at basketball tournament
- Want to be 105? Check your genes
- 'Spampocalypse': Mass-email chain sparks emotions, jokes and a picnic
- Romney talks boxing, going 'all Putin on' Savannah in first Meerkat
- Did German co-pilot suffer from depression?
Dad, I realized, had been one of them.
“This is amazing,” I said.
He looked at me and said, “It was a lot tougher for the guys who died.” Then he took back the clipping and put it away without another word. The conversation was over.
A year or two later, he told me about the Polish kid from Chicago who had saved his life when their plane went down. Dad has no memory of this, but he learned later that when the plane hit the ground, he and several other men had been thrown clear. Dad, who was badly hurt and evidently in shock, had climbed to his feet. With his clothing engulfed in flames, he had started stumbling back toward the burning wreckage. Bullets from the plane’s machine guns were bursting in all directions, but Dad was dazed and oblivious to the danger. Billy Suchocki, a friend of Dad’s and a fellow passenger on the flight, whose clothes were also on flre, was being helped by two British railway men who had run to the scene of the crash. As they rolled Billy on the ground to suffocate the flames, he pointed to Dad and yelled, “Help him! Help him!” The railway men ran to Dad and pulled him out of further danger.
One Christmas, when I was home from college, I looked up Billy Suchocki’s phone number in Chicago. I wanted Dad to be in touch with the man who had rescued him, and I knew he would never make that call on his own. With Dad’s permission, I dialed the number and put the two old army buddies on the phone. I heard only Dad’s end of the conversation, which was brief and unemotional. They wished each other a Merry Christmas and talked briefly about Red, the dog who went overseas with them, and who returned home with Dad after the war.
After the call, which seemed so casual in view of what had happened, I said, “Dad, this guy saved your life, and you’re joking about a dog? Why didn’t you thank him for rescuing you?”
Dad looked at me thoughtfully and said, “He knows, and I know.” Then he lowered his head. Enough had been said.
Later on, Dad told me a few more details about his experiences during the war, but I still hesitated to ask him about the crash. Years later, when my friend Tom Brokaw published "The Greatest Generation Speaks," a follow-up to "The Greatest Generation," the story of that brave and selfless generation of Americans who came of age during the Great Depression and then went on to fight for freedom and democracy in the Second World War, Dad opened up a little more. Brokaw had been kind enough to mention Dad in the book—which was a little ironic, given its title—and Dad was pleased to be acknowledged. He told me that the army experience had been good for him, that it had helped him become more disciplined and had taught him in a dramatic fashion that everyone has a role to play.
There was so much more I wanted to know about Dad’s experiences during the war, but I have always respected his wish not to talk about it. Eventually, I realized that I could learn some of the details from other people, including Billy Suchocki and several other veterans from the 446th Bombardment Group, which Dad had been part of, and from a book about the 446th by Ed Castens, one of its members. Then, in early 2003, I received a letter out of the blue from Ron Tompkins, a resident of Bermuda whose older brother, Alva, had died in the crash that had almost killed Dad and Billy Suchocki. Mr. Tompkins, the seventh in a family of eight children, had been five when his eldest brother had been killed, and had spent much of his adult life investigating the accident. He had made two pilgrimages to the airfield where the plane went down and was in touch with several of the survivors. He sent me a packet of information that made it clear that this terrible event, which killed ten men and left ten others badly injured, could easily have been avoided. But before I had a chance to meet him, his son Christopher wrote to tell me that Ron Tompkins had died.
Dad had enlisted in November 1942, at the age of nineteen. “All my friends had joined,” he told me, “so there was nobody really left in the neighborhood.” Was he being modest, or was his decision to enlist really that casual? After being poked, prodded, and questioned at the induction center, he was sent off, by train, of course, to a training camp in Fresno, California, where he learned how to march, how to salute, and above all, how to be patient. Like millions of other recruits, he soon learned that the army’s unofficial slogan was “Hurry up and wait.”
Hoping to become a pilot, he volunteered for the Army Air Force, where he was disappointed to learn that his eyesight wasn’t good enough for him to fly. It must be a family trait. When I was three, I had to wear an eye patch as a way of strengthening my weak eye. The first time Dad saw me with it, he shook his head and said, “I guess you’ve got my eyes—and not just the color.”
After basic training, Dad spent several weeks at Chanute Field in Illinois, where he took a course in parachute rigging—packing and inspecting parachutes that the air crews wore on every mission while hoping never to need them. Parachutes in those days were made of silk, which is both light and strong, and men who used them to escape from a damaged plane became members of an unofficial society known as the Caterpillar Club, not only because silk is made from the cocoons of caterpillars, but also because the transformed creature emerges from the cocoon with the ability to fly. It used to be that apprentice parachute riggers were not certified until they actually “jumped their chutes”—that is, jumped out of a plane with a parachute that they themselves had inspected, repaired, and packed, but that requirement was dropped in 1941 to save time. There was a war to fight, and the Americans were needed overseas as soon as possible.
Dad passed through bases in Utah and Arizona before being sent to Lowry Field in Colorado, where the 446th Bombardment Group was activated on April 1, 1943. At Lowry, Dad and some of his pals met up with Red, a big red chow with a black tongue. Red was not a friendly dog, but the men were fond of him and were determined to bring him overseas. They had little hope, however, of smuggling a large dog on the long train ride to New York, and even less of sneaking him onto the ship that would transport them to England.
Somehow, they persuaded a bombardier on one of the flight crews to take Red over on a B-24. It wasn’t easy: at first, when the pilot tried to get to his seat, Red wouldn’t let him into the cockpit. When Red finally relented and the pilot settled in, Red settled in right behind him. On one of their many stops en route, Red noticed a long line of bags in front of a building; perhaps inspired by the challenge, he proceeded to pee on every single one. Despite his outrageous behavior, or maybe because of it, the crew continued to bring him along. When they landed in Dakar and a Senegalese soldier tried to stab Red with a bayonet, the crew intervened to spare his life. During a stopover in Marrakesh, Morocco, they took Red with them to the movies, where he curled up in a plush chair that they later learned was reserved for the mayor; when the movie ended, Red left his calling card in the mayor’s seat. When the flight crew arrived at their home base in England, Red was reunited with the parachute group. But Red wasn’t the only dog that made the trip from Lowry Field; a female named Whitey on one of the other bombers delivered a litter of pups en route. It was widely believed that Red had something to do with this development, but Red wasn’t talking.
Dad and his fellow soldiers in the ground unit took a slower route to England. In October 1943, they traveled by train from Denver to Camp Shanks, New York, their last stop before going overseas. It was a long, tedious trip, as their train was often sidetracked to allow much-needed military equipment to make its way to port cities on both coasts. They were moving through western New York when Dad looked out the window and realized that the train was passing through his own neighborhood in South Buffalo. He yelled out to some waving onlookers, “Tell Frank Russert that his son Tim is on this train, and we’re going overseas!” The message got delivered to his parents.
Camp Shanks was on the Hudson River, just north of Manhattan, where they would soon board a ship for England. From this point on the men were not allowed to make phone calls or send letters. The precise arrival and departure dates of troop ships was a closely guarded secret, giving rise to the famous expression from that era, “Loose lips sink ships.”
From Camp Shanks they were taken by truck to excursion boats that ferried them south to Pier 90, where they boarded the famous Queen Mary. It was Winston Churchill who had proposed using the enormous luxury liner to transport troops across the ocean. Gen. George C. Marshall, the American chief of staff, hadn’t wanted to risk putting thousands of men on a single ship with too few lifeboats, but Churchill prevailed. As Dad and his unit prepared to board, they watched as huge supplies of food—good food, the kind they hadn’t seen in quite a while—were loaded onto the ship. At least we’ll eat well, Dad thought. “But once we sailed,” he told me, “the rations they gave us were so meager we couldn’t believe it.” Shortly before they reached their destination, Dad spotted a group of English crew members having dinner. “They were eating like kings,” he said. Knowing how Big Russ feels about food, I’m surprised that he didn’t organize a mutiny.
As the men of the 446th Bombardment Group boarded the ship, a band played and Red Cross volunteers passed out coffee and doughnuts. Soon they were moving past the Statue of Liberty and into the ocean.
The ship, repainted camouflage grey, and known as the Grey Ghost, was able because of her great speed to evade German submarines and torpedoes. As long as she was moving fast, the troops on board were relatively safe, and for that reason she was under strict orders not to stop for any reason. On one crossing, the Queen Mary sailed past a group of lifeboats with men aboard, but kept moving at top speed. The Americans were under strict orders to make sure that no light could be seen emanating from the ship. One night, someone in Dad’s group brushed up against a curtain, accidentally exposing a flicker of light. “The whole group of us spent the night in the slammer,” Dad said.
During normal times, the Queen Mary carried eleven hundred passengers, plus a sizable crew. When Dad’s group made the crossing there were more than fourteen thousand men on board, which was not unusual during the war. Berths were everywhere—stacked six high in lounges, function rooms, and even in empty swimming pools. The men slept in shifts. They were fed twice a day, also in shifts, and were given only a few minutes to eat. To ease congestion, all pedestrian traffic on board was one way: to move forward you walked on the starboard side; to move back you used the port side. All passengers had to wear life jackets in case they were attacked. There was no smoking, and even chewing gum was forbidden because it was hard to remove from the decks. The weather was rotten and many of the men were seasick. When I think about the crossing, I can’t imagine how men of my own generation would have fared on board.
As the ship approached its destination, but long before it reached land, British ships and planes came out to protect the men from possible attack by German U-boats and planes. (Hitler had offered a huge cash reward and an Iron Cross to the captain or pilot who could sink the Queen Mary, but the ship made eighty-six crossings without once being attacked.) On November 3 they docked at Greenock, in the Firth of Clyde, not far from Glasgow, Scotland. Trucks carried the men to trains, and trains took them to Flixton, their new home, in England. Station 125, as it was known, was one of many air bases on the eastern coast, not far from the English Channel and two miles from the sleepy village of Bungay.
When they arrived in England, the great majority of these men had never before set foot outside the United States, although a few, like Dad, had been to Canada. They were given a publication from the War Department that reminded them, among other things, that they were guests of Great Britain, and that England and America were allies. It sounds obvious today, but if you lived in South Buffalo in the 1940s, it was a reminder worth hearing. “If you come from an Irish-American family,” the men were told, “you may think of the English as persecutors of the Irish, or you may think of them as an enemy Redcoat who fought against us in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.” If that’s what you think, they were told, think again; this wasn’t the time to bring up old grievances. The pamphlet went on to explain that the British were more restrained and private than Americans, and that it would be a mistake to interpret their reserve as hostility. “Don’t be a show-off,” the visitors were told. They were also advised to keep in mind that Britain had been at war since 1939, and that the Americans had come from a country where food was still plentiful and the lights were still burning.
The men of the 446th were part of the Eighth Air Force, whose mission was to fly over Germany and bomb a variety of industrial and military targets. Every morning, weather permitting—and often in bad weather, too, including snowstorms—planes from each base took off for missions over Germany. When they lined up on the runway, taking off at thirty-second intervals, the entire base shook. The men used to say that when the Eighth Air Force took off, so much weight went into the air that all of England rose six inches. After the bombers crossed the channel, their targets included ports, bridges, chemical plants, U-boat installations, aircraft factories, oil refineries, and virtually every other part of the Nazi war effort. Casualties were very high: the 446th lost fifty-eight planes in combat and another twenty-eight in other mishaps. Often, the men came back and reported that the flak was so thick you could walk on it. Returning planes were often full of holes and carried men who had been injured during the mission. When they landed after a bombing run, everyone on board was offered a shot of whiskey. Even takeoffs were dangerous: the B-24s were so heavy with bombs and fuel that the slightest mistake could cause a crash and kill the entire crew.
Parachutes were inspected after every mission and repacked whenever it was necessary. Because they were made of silk, they were susceptible to damage from mold and fungus. They could also be damaged on board, where they might be exposed to fuel or hydraulic oil. As a parachute rigger, Dad was responsible for inspecting and repacking the chutes, and for fitting the harness to the crewman. This had to be done carefully, because a badly fitting harness could cause real pain in a man’s nether regions.
Each of the ten men on a B-24 was given a parachute shortly before takeo?, and they had all heard the old joke, “If it doesn’t work, bring it back and we’ll give you a new one.” In fact, the parachutes did work; the tragedy was that many men never got to use them. If your plane was hit, it could be hard, or even impossible, to get out. If the plane started falling, the crew would be pushed to the ceiling. Pilots did their best to keep the aircraft steady enough so the men could jump, but if your plane had lost a wing, you were done for.
If you jumped, almost anything could happen. When your parachute opened, you might drift gently down to earth. You could also pass out from the lack of oxygen. You could come down hard into a tree, or you could hit the ground with so much force that you were knocked unconscious. On your way down, you could be shot at by soldiers or civilians on the ground. Or you might be using a parachute that, for some reason, failed to open. If your plane was hit, your immediate survival depended on men like Dad, who had packed your chute. Your life was in their hands.
If and when you landed safely behind enemy lines, your ?rst task was to gather up your parachute and hide it. Your second task was to avoid being captured. Along with a parachute, each member of the ten-man flight crew was issued a first-aid kit that was supposed to contain morphine and Benzedrine (but often didn’t), along with maps, foreign currency, a compass, and a “Mae West”—an inflatable life jacket worn around the neck. Some men who used their parachutes were rescued. Others became prisoners of war. Still others were killed by farmers or townspeople as soon as they landed.
When you talk to the men who flew in these planes, or you read about the harsh and freezing conditions they endured, even on missions that returned safely, it’s easy to understand why a mechanic, a cook, a driver, an ordnance man or a parachute rigger might be reluctant to talk about his experiences. “In my job I wasn’t in danger,” Dad told me. “German bombers would fly over, but they didn’t bomb our base when I was there.” For a while, a lone German plane flew over the base every night to bomb the runway; the men called its pilot Bedcheck Charlie, but he wasn’t considered much of a threat. When they went into London, however, Dad and his friends saw buzz bombs—jet-propelled armaments that the Germans sent over the Channel in swarms. They made a buzzing noise until, at a predetermined time, the engine shut off and the bomb fell to earth.
How did all this affect Dad? On the base, the ground crews and the air crews lived in separate quarters, and some of the flyers referred to ground crews—especially the officers—as paddle feet or pencil pushers. These were not terms of endearment. And what was it like for the ground crew when a plane failed to return? Or, in Dad’s case, did the plane crash at Ainsdale make these other questions irrelevant? Billy Suchocki told me that when Dad was in the army, he was popular, happy, and full of good humor. He was that way after the war, too, but I find it hard to believe that the crash didn’t affect him or change him in some fundamental way.
And what was life like at the air base? One thing is clear: everyone complained about the food, especially the powdered eggs, which were served from enormous cast-iron vats. There was no butter, just orange marmalade. The men had plenty of meat, at least in theory, but most of it was Spam, or imitations of Spam, which was baked, breaded, or fried until the Americans were sick of it in any form. Once, on a visit to London, Dad and his friends went into a restaurant and ordered Welsh rarebit—which is often pronounced rabbit—in the hope of finally enjoying a good meal. They expected rabbit, and were deeply disappointed when the waitress brought them a concoction made mostly of melted cheese. Another disappointment for Dad, and for many other young Americans, was that the excellent English beer was always served warm. Dad gave up beer altogether, which for him was a sacrifice; during the war, he made do with scotch and soda. When he came home he switched back, because, as he put it, “I couldn’t afford scotch on a beer budget.”
Because the bombing missions over Germany were so dangerous and so stressful, about halfway through their tours, flight crews were given a week of rest and recuperation at various rest homes, sometimes known as flak shacks, that were operated by the Red Cross. Here the men could relax out of uniform and were free to ride horses or play golf or tennis. The food was good, too, with bacon and fresh eggs for breakfast and steak and ice cream on the dinner menu. The Palace Hotel in Southport was the largest of the Eighth Air Force’s rest homes, and on the morning of October 25, 1944, a B-24 left Flixton to take some of the men for a well-deserved vacation on the other side of the country. Several others on board had completed their missions and were on their way home. There were a couple of other passengers as well. “They asked if anyone wanted to go,” Billy Suchocki said. “Your dad and I went along for the ride.”
The plane took off in mid-morning. Just before 1 p.m., the pilot, Donald Cheffler, circled the landing field at Birkdale and began his third and final approach. “Cheffler was told not to land,” Lloyd Furthmyer, a survivor, remembered. “The visibility would have made any sane man not land. There was a fleld twenty miles away where the conditions were good, but he was blockheaded and determined to land.”
Another survivor, named Bert Dice, recalled that he heard copilot Alva Tompkins shouting to Cheffler, “You’re too low, you’re too low!” Cheffler responded, “Shut up!” and banked sharply to the right—so sharply that the wing hit the ground and the plane flipped over. According to an eyewitness on the ground, “One of the wings went straight up in the air, and the next moment the plane was a mass of flames.” Cheffler, Tompkins, and five others were killed instantly. Three more men died the next day.
The moment the plane went down, three railway men who were working nearby ran to the wreckage and carried several of the passengers away from the crash site. One of them was Billy Suchocki. Another was Dad. Billy has never forgotten what he saw: “I can close my eyes any time of the day, and I still see your dad stumbling back toward that burning plane.”
Dad remembers the first two approaches, but not the crash itself. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in the hospital with bad burns and a broken jaw. The nurses brought him steak, but he couldn’t eat a thing because his jaw was wired. Later, during his long recuperation, he became friendly with a young nurse named Margaret, and when his condition improved, they went out for a walk together. When he came back, one of his hospital buddies told me with a wry smile, the rubber bands on his jaw were all broken. So I guess Big Russ really was a young man once.
There is no question that Cheffler took an unnecessary risk when he insisted on trying to land the plane in bad weather. They had taken off with eight hours of fuel on board, which was more than enough to return to Bungay if a safe landing at Ainsdale or another nearby field was impossible, so he was certainly prepared for that contingency.
It’s tempting to focus on the pilot, but there were heroes in this story as well. Dad told me that the British doctors and nurses were extraordinarily kind and attentive, and I feel grateful, too, to Billy Suchocki and the railroad men who put themselves at risk to save several of the passengers. I don’t know what went on in their minds, but they chose to love their brothers, and I’m thankful they did. Dad’s father had started out as a train man, so a train man brought him into this world, and other train men, on another part of the planet, kept him alive in it.
Thanks to Ron Tompkins, and to some of the survivors of that accident, I have learned everything I could about that day, and I have relived that awful flight in my mind. When Billy Suchocki described what had happened, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the roaring fireball of a crashed plane and the badly injured young man who was going to become my father staggering toward his death. Only because his army buddy and two total strangers stopped him, do I have the honor of having Big Russ as my dad.
The plane crash took place about a month before Dad’s twenty-first birthday. What was he thinking and feeling in that hospital bed? Was he angry at the pilot? (I am, but he probably wasn’t.) Was he feeling sorry for himself? (I doubt that, too.) Did he blame himself for going along on that ?ight? (Possibly.) Did he wonder why he was spared when ten other men died? (That seems more likely, but I don’t really know.) No matter what he was going through, it was an awful lot for a young man away from home to absorb, especially in a society where you didn’t discuss your feelings. But he did say this: “I was thankful, because I knew my experience could have been a lot worse. Some of my friends suffered like hell.” Didn’t he realize that he, too, had suffered like hell? Even after that terrible accident he retained his innate optimism.
Dad’s bravery and his stoicism are in such stark contrast to the scenes we see played out every day in newspapers and on television, where people can’t wait to describe their pain and their agony in front of an audience. Dad wants no part of that. Despite everything he went through, he considers himself fortunate. After all, he came back from the war when many men did not. He spent the war thinking about terrifying scenarios, doing what he could to try to save the lives of men who were forced to bail out of a falling plane over enemy territory. He prepared parachutes for men in the worst of circumstances, but he never had to use one himself. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Dad felt blessed and grateful that he was able to make a contribution.
It wasn’t just Dad, of course; it was a whole generation that embarked on a mission they had never even imagined, much less prepared for. When duty called, they answered immediately. They performed bravely and well, and if they complained, they did so with humor. Learning about Dad’s experience in the war has made me more aware of the many men, and women, too, who sacrificed and did their part to defeat the German and Japanese armies. They didn’t talk about it; they just did it.
“When I look back on it now,” Dad told me not long ago, “it was worth giving up three years of my life rather than be ruled by someone like Hitler.” If that scenario sounds improbable half a century later, it’s only because our side won the war. It’s easy to forget that Germany and Japan were mighty adversaries, and that when World War II began, America was almost totally unprepared for combat. Had events occurred in a slightly different way, we would be living today in a vastly different world.
It wasn’t until 1980, when I was thirty, that I really began to understand how Dad’s generation had affected the course of history. I was working in Washington when I was offered a fellowship to visit Europe for five weeks. I wasn’t sure I could spare the time, but my boss encouraged me and finally insisted that I go. I had never been overseas, and except for Dad during the war and my ancestors who were born there, nobody in my family had ever been to Europe. When I arrived in Germany, I decided to visit Dachau, the site of the notorious concentration camp, which is not far from Munich. As much as I had learned about World War II, and about the Holocaust, nothing prepared me for what I saw and felt at Dachau. The remnants of the camp were still there, including the barracks, the gas chambers, and the ovens where the bodies were burned.
Suddenly, another visitor, a short, older man, came running up to me. He threw himself at my knees, grabbed my ankles, and started sobbing. Then he stood up and started talking to me in Polish, of which I understood not a word, except for “American,” over and over again. I nodded yes. Then a woman came over and began to translate. This man was a Jew who had been a prisoner at Dachau when it was liberated by the Americans. He had come back to visit for the first time in thirty-five years, and when he saw me, looking like an American, he was overcome with grief and gratitude. Over and over he kept saying, “Thank you, America. Thank you, America.” He was crying, I was crying, and so were the other tourists who had gathered around us. He led me to a marker where one of the buildings had been, and he motioned for me to take his picture there.
It was hard to believe what had actually happened at Dachau, and being there did not make it any easier. But my encounter with this survivor, the embrace of this man who was liberated and saved from certain death, touched me to my core. I thought of Dad, and of all the other young Americans who went overseas in World War II to save the world from the tyrannical Nazi regime. When I returned to Munich, I went straight to the post office, and for the first time in my life, I placed an overseas call. I wanted to tell Dad what I had just experienced. And I wanted to thank him for going to war.
Excerpted from "Big Russ and Me," by Tim Russert. Copyright 2004. Miramax. All rights reserved.