The origins of the Cold War are mysterious. The Cold War was in full throttle when the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin in 1948. Symptoms of the East-West conflict appeared in communist challenges to Greece and Turkey in 1947. But when Winston Churchill warned of an “Iron Curtain” during a speech in Fullerton, Missouri in 1946, his admonition was greeted with skepticism. Yet an obscure incident involving the 327th Fighter Control Squadron suggests that the Cold War actually began during World War II.
The 327th Fighter Control Squadron, a unit of about 300 men, was part of the American Ninth Air Force. Composed of radio truck operators and ground controllers, the outfit guided fighter pilots to their targets and directed them back to base when they were lost or hit.
Usually several miles behind combat troops, the 327th Fighter Control Squadron landed on Omaha Beach a few days after the start of the Normandy invasion and was on the front lines in eastern Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. The 327th Fighter Control Squadron also participated in the Rhineland Campaign and was part of the American Occupation Army in postwar Germany.
All members of the 327th Fighter Control Squadron received the Fourragere of the Belgian Government for heroic service during the Battle of the Bulge, and the Meritorious Unit Service Plaque for performance of duty in the face of exceptionally difficult tasks.
In the summer of 1945, my father was a sergeant radio truck supervisor in the 327th Fighter Control Squadron. He was stationed in and around Weimar in eastern Germany, which was about to become Russian occupational territory. The Americans would have to leave. Germany was being divided into British, American, and Russian Zones.
Fenmore Seton was a first lieutenant in the 327th Fighter Control Squadron. Several weeks after the outfit had left Weimar, Lt. Seton’s Commanding Officer asked him to return there to pick up and pay for 300 copies of the Squadron’s history, “Record of the 327th Fighter Control Squadron.”
The “Record” had been written by Squadron officers. The authors left a 47-page manuscript and photographic plates for publication at the Knabe Printing Company in Weimar.
Because the Russians were America’s allies in the war against Nazi Germany, Lt. Seton thought that his assignment would be a simple, pleasant task. He had no idea that he was about to embark upon a harrowing journey. Seton described his ordeal in an article in the June 2002 edition of The Ninth Flyer, a newsletter of the Ninth Air Force Association.
According to the article, Lt. Seton made the 100-mile trip east to Weimar in a small truck with a driver. The driver, a Cpl. Javornicky, spoke decent Russian and would act as the lieutenant’s translator.
The two Americans were greeted at the border by Russian guards who pointed their guns at them and told the airmen to leave. Seton, through Javornicky, asked to see an English-speaking Russian officer. After keeping the pair waiting for a half-hour, the officer gruffly told the Americans to depart immediately.
Lt. Seton said that he was there to retrieve his squadron’s history that members of his unit had ordered a few weeks earlier from a print shop in Weimar, and that if the situation were reversed, the Russians would be welcomed into the American Zone to pick up their histories.
The Russian officer remained unsympathetic, prompting Lt. Seton to request a meeting with a higher-ranking officer. Seton and Javornicky were then escorted into the Russian Zone by two Russian vehicles, each carrying three armed soldiers. After a 20-minute drive, the Americans were detained another 20 minutes before they could see a Russian colonel who spoke good English.
In his article, Seton recalled that when he finally met with the colonel, he politely explained that he did not think that the colonel’s subordinates understood the harmless nature of Seton’s assignment and that he would only stay in the Russian Zone long enough to retrieve his squadron’s history. According to Seton, the Russian colonel replied by repeatedly slamming his fist on a desk and bellowing, “I say no; Eisenhower says no; and [Soviet Occupation Commander] Zhukov says no!”
The Americans were then promptly escorted out of the Russian Zone.
Shortly after Lt. Seton told his commanding officer what had happened, the information was relayed up the American chain of command. But the army brass refused to get involved: the Russians could do whatever they pleased in their occupation zone. Lt. Seton’s superiors suggested that the 327th Fighter Control Squadron publish its history in American territory.
In 1946, an abridged version of the “Record of the 327th Fighter Control Squadron” was published sans photographs in the United States.
Fenmore Seton retired from the Air Force as a major. According to a New York Times obituary, he was a noted philanthropist during his later years and was honored by the first President Bush for his work with the disabled. Mr. Seton died at age 85 on May 26, 2003.
But the story doesn’t end here.
When he was nearly eighty, my father wondered whether the original “Record” was ever published, or if the manuscript and photographic plates could be retrieved from the print shop in Weimar. Since I had some experience in corresponding with European agencies, he suggested that I try writing to the Weimar City Archives.
I had recently completed a lengthy and arduous job retrieving genealogical information from various German parishes for a probate proceeding and was reluctant to begin another transatlantic project. I declined my father’s request, reasoning that the effort involved was not worth the time, especially since the squadron’s manuscript and photographic plates had probably been destroyed or lost decades earlier. It was a decision that, to this day, I deeply regret.
In the fall of 2008, I received a shocking email message from Ed Zander, a German expatriate living in Canada. Mr. Zander is a very knowledgeable amateur historian who grew up in Weimar during the 1940s. After complimenting me on my website, Mr. Zander informed me that copies of the original version of the “Record” had been located.
My website promotes my wartime novel, Dear Mom, Dad & Ethel: World War II through the Eyes of a Radio Man, which I co-authored with my father, Eli Ellison, who died in 2004.
Mr. Zander referred me to Bernd Schmidt, chairman of U.S. Veterans Friends, Germany, an organization based in Weimar. Messrs. Zander and Schmidt subsequently provided me with a copy of Mr. Seton’s article and additional information on the lieutenant’s ill-fated attempt to retrieve the “Record.”
In a September 15, 2008 email, Mr. Zander informed me that Mr. Schmidt had learned that about 30 of the 300 copies of the 1945 version of the “Record of the 327th Fighter Control Squadron” were discovered hidden in the floorboards of the Knabe Printing Company during construction work being performed there in 2000.
A letter from Mr. Schmidt dated September 20, 2008 indicates that the first few paragraphs of Mr. Seton’s account are incorrect. Those paragraphs state that Gerolf Zahn, an East German, found copies of the “Record” in a pile of old books in 1961. In addition, Seton refers to Mr. Schmidt as “Smith.”
Another inaccuracy in Mr. Seton’s article concerns the month in which Mr. Seton said he tried to get the “Record” from the print shop: June 1945. In a September 14, 2008 email, Mr. Zander pointed out to me that Mr. Seton must have returned to Weimar in late July 1945 because the Americans left the city around July 3. An examination of my father’s V-mail letters supports Mr. Zander’s view.
According to Mr. Zander, copies of the 1945 “Record” were obtained by Mr. Schmidt, the U.S. Air Force Museum, the German Federal Archives, and the Weimar City Archives. According to Mr. Seton’s article, Mr. Schmidt provided the former army lieutenant with a copy of the original “Record.”
As I am writing this article, a copy of the original “Record of the 327th Fighter Control Squadron” is sitting a few feet away from me, courtesy of Bernd Schmidt. A thin, hardcover volume, its fragile pages show only slight signs of age.
For me, the recovery of the original “Record” is bittersweet . I’m glad to have a long-lost piece of American history in which my father participated, but I’m sorry he’s not around to enjoy it.
The 1945 “Record” contains numerous rare photographs, including those of soldiers manning an operations block and a radio truck; shots of Verviers and Liege, Belgium, front-line towns during the Battle of the Bulge; pictures of wartime Weimar; a picture of a pontoon bridge across the Rhine River; and a series of group photos of about 100 members of the 327th Fighter Control Squadron.
A blue-and-white map tracks the Squadron’s movements throughout Western Europe. I was able to scan all but a small portion of the map from the original “Record.” A complete black-and-white version from the 1946 “Record” is available online.
Despite its factual hiccups, Mr. Seton’s article is a vivid, heartfelt account of his scary experiences in the Russian Occupation Zone. To be sure, there were other indications of Soviet aggression towards American interests in 1945, such as Stalin’s pressuring Turkey for control of the Black Sea Straits and the establishment of a Soviet-style government in northern Iran. But America paid little attention to these developments. Perhaps she would have been interested in them if the Air Corps had listened more carefully to a young lieutenant whose squadron was denied a cherished piece of its history.