From the time their B-17 Mr. Five by Five crash-landed north of Paris on July 14, 1943, SSgt. Dick Lewis and Sgt. Ossie Asiala had been protected by the French resistance. After several weeks they were betrayed to the Germans while executing their escape plan through Paris. In his personal memoir, Richard H. Lewis of Wilmington described what happened shortly after:
Uniformed sentries stood at the building entrance. Over their heads hung a red and white flag, broken by the jagged black design – the swastika! Gestapo Headquarters I thought.
At the rendezvous to begin to execute their escape plan from France, Lewis, who would years later move to Wilmington and his tail gunner buddy, Ossie, met Lt. Frederick “Fritz” Marston, a 1941 graduate of Friends School in Wilmington. All three, along with the resistance fighter who was assisting them, were now confronted by the Gestapo interrogator:
One of the guards ripped open the lining of Marston’s jacket and the letters from the Underground fell out onto the floor. “Where did you get these letters and what are the real names of the traitors who gave them to you?” he shouted in perfect English. “I don’t know,” Marston said. “Liar!” the officer screamed, swinging his arm against Marston’s head, knocking him to the floor. “Take your choice; answer my questions and cooperate or face the firing squad.”
Marston was silent as he got up off the floor and stood at attention again. “Are you going to answer?” Marston shook his head. “My name is Marston; my rank is lieutenant, United States Army Air Corps, serial number……” The statutory answer enraged the officer. He hit him again as Marston struggled to stay at attention.
Soon the Gestapo officer turned his attention to Dick and Ossie. Lewis wrote:
The entire scene was played out over and over again as he cursed us and slapped us and threatened to have us shot. I wondered how and when it would all end. It felt like we’d been there forever, but as I morbidly watched the wall clock it seemed like it wasn’t moving at all. We had actually been there only about an hour and a half. Ossie reminded me later that we had both given our names, rank and serial numbers, but I didn’t even remember that. Only that screaming, hateful face seemed real.
Dick Lewis, Ossie Asiala and Lt. Marston all survived the ordeal of capture and interrogation followed by two years as POWs; Lewis and Asiala in Stalag 17B Krems, Austria and Marston at Barth, in northern Germany.
As it turned out the approach of freedom was also a dangerous time as the German guards force marched the POWs from Krems westward through the Alps ahead of the approaching Russians. For eighteen days and over 200 miles, Dick and Ossie, along with 4,000 other weak and ill POWs, struggled to survive with little food or shelter.
Forty years later at the urging of his family, Dick Lewis, then retired from Dupont and living in Chalfonte in Brandywine Hundred, recounted the war experience he never talked about to friends and family in his book, “Hell Above and Hell Below.” Most weekdays he would meet his friend and co-author Bill Larson at the old Royal Exchange restaurant in the Branmar shopping center. They would linger for hours as they transferred Dick’s memories from spoken words onto paper. In the epilogue of the book he raised a number of questions that had plagued him for years – one of the questions:
What happened to Lt. Marston?
That is one of the mysteries. He said he had been shot down on the Le Bourget mission on July 14, 1943. Neither Ossie nor I can remember his Bomb Group which he mentioned that day just outside Chateauroux. We’re not even sure that his name is “Marston.” We went through a lot together and I hope if he reads this book, he will contact me.
I remember the night Dick Lewis knocked on my door and proudly handed me a copy of his book, one of the first 300 copies published by Delapeake Publishing. I devoured the 162 pages over the next two days and went over to congratulate him on his deeply moving account. I knew he had been through a lot during the war but he never talked about the hard part. He liked to talk about his reunions and his friends, but I don’t recall ever having heard him refer to Marston. That night I mentioned to Dick that I knew a man named Fritz Marston; that I caddied for him as a boy at the old Rock Manor Golf Club and later at Wilmington Country Club. Years later I learned that he was the father of a friend, Ginni Burawski, who lived in Wilmington.
Although it seemed like the longest of long shots I called Ginni that evening and asked her if her father had served in the military during WWII. Yes, she said he flew B-17s during the war. I asked if he was ever shot down. The answer was yes – he was captured by the Germans and spent the final years of the war as a POW. I remember my pulse quickening as I asked her if he was still living and if it was possible to get in touch with him.
Minutes later I was across the street ringing the Lewis’ doorbell. He opened the door and I handed him Lt. Marston’s phone number – he was alive and well and living in San Diego!
After 43 years the courageous airmen who faced the Gestapo interrogators and gave them only name, rank and serial number were reunited by phone at opposite ends of the country. Of course the great irony was that they had both lived in Wilmington for a couple decades. One can only imagine how many times they must have been in the same restaurant or supermarket or perhaps rubbed shoulders at the annual veterans’ day ceremony. By the time they made contact, they were on opposite coasts.
Fritz Marston died in October 2010. In addition to his stellar business career the obituary mentioned his service and his time as a POW. It also said he had connected in recent years with fellow WWII veterans and that a plaque was engraved in his honor and service to our country and placed on a memorial wall at the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla, California.
Beloved by family and friends, Richard H. Lewis made a huge impact on my life and many others. He died January 30, 1998 and is buried in the Delaware Veterans Memorial Cemetery. Last year my wife Sharon and I purchased a memorial brick in his honor at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans engraved with his name, rank and the name of his B-17, Mr. Five by Five.
I believe only 600 copies were printed of “Hell Above and Hell Below.” I expect mostly purchased by fellow surviving airman and POWs. The book opens with the shot up B-17 plummeting out of the sky with the heroic Captain Kee Harrison at the controls trying to angle them into a belly landing in a French wheat field. From escape and evasion, beatings and intimidation to the trying experience of Stalag 17B, “Hell Above and Hell Below” reads like a Hollywood script. In fact the experience was captured again by a French author, Loic LeMarchand in a book published in 2008, “Bel Atterrisiage Captaine!” (“nice landing, captain”). LeMarchand’s family owned the farm where the Five by Five came down on Bastille Day 1943.
A native Delawarean, John Riley lives in Greenville. He is Director of Government Relations for Ashland. An Army veteran, his favorite pastime, in addition to golf and grandchildren, is the history of World War II.