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Short-Wave Radio Monitors Let Families Know of Their Capture

By Thom Wilborn

As originally appearing in Disabled American Veterans magazine, July / August 1998 ed.;
reproduced in ontheshortwaves.com with permission.

They sat in dimly lit rooms far into the wee hours of morning. Their faces illuminated by the faint, yellow glow of a short-wave radio dial, they carefully tuned through crackling frequencies during the dark days of World War II to listen to the propaganda broadcasts from Berlin, the enemy capital nearly 4,000 miles away. They were everyday citizens who independently served as ex-officio intelligence agents, sometimes finding hope and joy for the families of American and Canadian POWs in the enemy broadcasts designed to create only despair and disillusionment.

Each night, these few Americans closely listened to the broadcasts of "Axis Sally," waiting for information about soldiers and airmen taken prisoner by the Germans. The broadcasts included names of POWs, sometimes service numbers, hometowns, and the names of family members.

For short-wave listeners like Irene Walters of Patchogue, N.Y., Ida Smith of Prairieton, Ind., and Leroy S. Schum of Redding, Pa.; POWs like Army Sgt. Frank Davis, Army pilots Lt. Col. Donald Hillman and 2nd Lt. Ralph Peters, Army Bombardier 2nd Lt. Stewart Cooper, and Army Cpl. William Helenthal; and their families at home Ñ the broadcasts were a godsend.

Sgt. Davis was a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division fighting at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He was critically wounded during an assault on a German gun position, an action in which nine members of his 12-man platoon died. Sgt. Davis was rescued by medics and taken to the 101st Division Field Hospital that was quickly overrun by German forces. Alive, but his wounds untreated, he was taken prisoner of war. The Davis family was notified by the U.S. War Department that he was badly wounded and missing. His fate was unknown.

Mrs. Walters, Mrs. Smith, and Mr. Schum were the first to spread the word that Sgt. Davis was alive. They were among the 38 Americans who listened to "Axis Sally" that night in early 1945 when the Germans broadcast that Sgt. Davis had been captured. Listening to the early morning broadcasts on the East Coast, Mrs. Walters quickly wrote a postcard to Sgt. Davis' family, letting them know he was alive and a POW. Virginia Phelps of Kinnebunk, Maine, said her late mother Ida Smith, who then lived in Prairieton, Ind., also sent a card to the Davis family. Mrs. John Schum of Shillington, Pa., said her late father-in-law, Leroy Schum, also was among the 38 individuals who sent letters and telegrams to the Davis family.

Today, Mr. Davis seeks to dedicate a memorial to recognize the hope and joy these Americans brought to worried and distraught families. "Each operator thought they were the only one doing it," said Mr. Davis. "They had no organization at all," but they quickly got the message of hope out to families.

Mrs. Walters, the wife of a New York newspaperman who often worked late into the night, said she happened to come across the "Axis Sally" broadcast early one morning and saw the opportunity to bring hope to worried families. With a brother stationed at an unknown location, she was acutely aware of the gnawing anxiety that a lack of information could evoke.

Dutifully listening in every night for years, she passed along information about captured American soldiers and airmen. Mrs. Walters monitored broadcasts that were sometimes interrupted after 15 or 20 minutes or sometimes lasted an hour. "The broadcasts came in very clear," said Mrs. Walters. "The house was quiet. The kids were asleep. It was very quiet."

After a broadcast, Mrs. Walters wrote postcards to the families of the POWs, telling them their son, husband, or father was safe. "I wrote them the same day, right away, early in the morning," she said. "I gave the cards to my son to mail on his way to school." Mrs. Walters wasn't aware that 37 others had mailed letters to the Davis family that day. "I didn't know anyone else was doing it," she said.

The responses she received from families were quick and overwhelming totaling more than 1,000 letters during World War II. "They thanked me for sending the cards," she said. "They were so appreciative." One father in Texas donated several hundred dollars in her name to the American Red Cross. Not all her messages arrived in time, however. "One letter from a banker in Canada said that the card didn't arrive in time for the mother to know that her son was alive," said Mrs. Walters. "I thought that was sad."

Despite the instances of sorrow, most of the grateful messages from the families of POWs were filled with elation. Army 2nd Lt. Ralph Peters was the pilot of a B-17 shot down by anti-aircraft fire on Sept. 22, 1944, during a mission to bomb a Tiger tank factory in Kassel, Germany. A member of the "Fame's Favored Few" 326th Squadron of the 92nd Bomb Group, four crew members of Lt. Peters' crew bailed out safely, but the other pilot, whose legs had been shot away, could not bail out. Unwilling to abandon the critically wounded pilot, Lt. Peters, the bombardier, navigator, and an enlisted gunner remained on board the damaged bomber to render assistance. Lt. Peters, flying a burning bomber with only one of four engines working, crash landed near Keil, Germany. The wounded pilot died shortly after the crash landing and Lt. Peters became a prisoner of Stalag Luft I. The War Department notified his family that he was killed in action, but a German radio broadcast identified him as prisoner of war. His mother, Mrs. Nancy Peters, received 65 letters and telegrams from short-wave radio listeners with the news. Mr. Peters, a DAV Ohio Chapter 11 life member, said his mother was "elated" with the news. "She was so happy," he said. "She couldn't answer all the letters, but she certainly was grateful." It was more than a month later that Mrs. Peters was officially notified by the War Department that her son was alive. "She never gave up hope," said Mr. Peters.

Mrs. Lloyd Hillman said the call informing her that her husband, Army Lt. Col. Donald E. Hillman, was alive was "a gift from heaven." Lt. Col. Hillman, the Deputy Group Commander of the 365th Fighter Group of the 9th Air Force, was shot down Oct. 7, 1944, near Cologne, Germany. Flying a P-47 "Thunderbolt," Lt. Col. Hillman was chasing a German plane that attempted to land at a camouflaged landing strip. Suddenly surrounded by intense anti-aircraft fire, he pulled away to regain altitude, but he soon began to smell smoke. "I didn't know I was hit," he said. Moments after directing the squadron to continue with the mission, fire broke out aboard his aircraft and Lt. Col. Hillman safely bailed out only to be threatened by angry German farmers on the ground. It was the crew of a nearby German anti-aircraft battery that saved his life and took him prisoner.

Mrs. Hillman said she received a phone call from a short-wave radio operator in Georgia about two weeks after her husband was taken prisoner. "I had no idea if my husband was alive or dead," she said. "You can imagine how I felt." About a month later the War Department notified her that her husband was a prisoner of war. Today, Mr. Hillman is a member with DAV Wash. Chapter 43.

Stewart Cooper, a life member of DAV N.J. Chapter 43, was a bombardier for the 339th Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group aboard a B-17 shot down Sept. 27, 1943 by German aircraft near Enden, Germany. Four attacking Me-109s shot up the cockpit with 20mm canons and a rocket had blown away the nose of the bomber. 2nd Lt. Cooper bailed out of the mortally wounded bomber and immediately passed out. He recovered consciousness in midair and pulled the parachute release ring. He immediately looked around for other chutes and, seeing none, looked toward the ground. He saw that his left leg had been traumatically amputated, possibly by the bomber's propeller when he bailed out. Once on the ground, Lt. Cooper was given first aid by a German farmer and later picked up by a German ambulance. In the ambulance was his pilot, who also had lost a leg during the combat. Lt. Cooper spent the next five months in a German hospital recovering from his wounds. In Nov., 1943, a German doctor was able to get a message broadcast that Lt. Cooper was alive and recovering from his wounds. Until that time, he was listed as missing in action. The German radio message was picked up by Sanford Lowe in New York City, who sent a telegram on Nov. 26, 1943 to Lt. Cooper's mother, Jessie Cooper, in Cedar Grove, N.J. It was the first message she received that her son was alive. "She thought it was a miracle," said Mr. Cooper, "because it came before Thanksgiving." Mr. Lowe later sent a second telegram to Mrs. Cooper when Germany announced her son was included in a POW exchange in Sept., 1944. "During the war, Mr. Lowe sent more than 10,379 letters and telegrams to families of POWs," said Mr. Cooper.

One of the earliest beneficiaries of the work by short-wave radio operators was Army Cpl. William H. Helenthal. A member of the 109th Engineers Battalion, Cpl. Helenthal was captured in North Africa in February 1943, by Nazi-sympathizing Arabs. He spent more than two years as a POW in Italy and Germany. Although he was initially listed as missing in action, his mother, Mrs. Anna Helenthal, received many letters from short-wave operators informing her of his whereabouts. Mr. Helenthal, 82, now lives in East Moline, Ill., and is a life member of DAV Ill. Chapter 14 and his wife, Mary Helenthal, is a DAV Auxiliary member. She said the messages from the short-wave radio operators came as "good news" for her mother-in-law. "I know she took it pretty good and she wrote back to them all," said Mrs. Helenthal. "One was a Catholic priest in Pennsylvania."

Those who monitored the short-wave radios happily shared in the joy they brought to others. Mrs. Phelps said her late mother listened to the broadcasts, hoping for word about her son, who was listed as missing in the Pacific. "Whenever she heard something about a POW, she would send a postcard to the family," Mrs. Phelps said.

After surviving nearly four months as a POW forced into slave labor, Mr. Davis was liberated by Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army, finally treated for his wounds, and sent home. A half century after World War II ended, Mr. Davis discovered the messages from the short-wave operators in his mother's personal effects. It was the first time he knew of their evidence. "It was the first time I laid eyes on them and it was amazing," said Mr. Davis.

He wrote the 38 operators who had sent messages to his family, but only Mrs. Walters and the surviving families of Mrs. Smith and Mr. Schum replied. Fearing the role they played during the war would be forgotten and lost to history, Mr. Davis began to campaign for a memorial to commemorate their contributions to the families of POWs.

Mr. Davis has asked for the help of Delaware Sens. William V. Roth, Jr. and Joseph R. Biden, who said "it is important to 'save' this significant portion of World War II history." Now Mr. Davis is undertaking the enormous task of identifying other living short-wave radio operators, the families of deceased operators, the families who received cards and letters from operators, and the POWs involved. Mrs. Walters has a complete record of all those she wrote, and Mrs. Phelps kept the wartime letters of her mother. However, "a nationwide sampling of these World War II 'Homefront Heroes' needs to be documented, so they can be properly and permanently acknowledged by all Americans, present and future," said Sens. Biden and Roth in a joint letter asking for the DAV's help.

Anyone with information about short-wave radio operators during World War II may contact Mr. Davis by telephone or fax at (302)994-0109, or by mail at P.O. Box 6207, Stanton, DE 19804.