The Tail-Gunner’s GrandsonMay 01, 2017 02:16PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Filmmaker Ben Drickey's lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That's when he documented his grandfather's return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.
Drickey's video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.
Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters' stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.
On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.
Fetters' chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.
Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane's crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane's manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.
“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.
“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend's camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.
With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.
Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.
He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”
The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.
“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”
Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.
After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.
She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.
“My grandfather said, 'No, no, no, let's go,'” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn't come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn't know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”
As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he'd come too far not to go back, so he did.
“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.
He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.
The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.
“I'm so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.
“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.
His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”
Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.
His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.
Visit torchwerks.com for more information.
This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.