By ANDREW MCGINN firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: It has come to our attention since this story was published that Dean Autenreith was, in fact, a member of the 493rd Bomb Group at the time of his death.
According to 493rd BG historian Darren Jelley, Autenreith had been transferred from the 351st Bomb Group sometime in May 1944. However, the 493rd BG only holds one document for Autenreith, showing his promotion from sergeant to staff sergeant.
Family in Jefferson were apparently unaware of his transfer and always believed the squadron number inscribed on his memorial at the Brittany American Cemetery in France to be incorrect.
As the plane’s co-pilot would later explain, it’s difficult enough to judge height over water — let alone at night.
But there were few good options aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress of the 493rd Bomb Group: with one of the four supercharged Wright Cyclone engines belching flame, they could either ditch at sea and take their chances or else all be killed when the gas finally exploded.
Everyone got into position to ditch.
It was well after midnight over the North Atlantic, making the pilots’ task that much harder. When the crippled American bomber finally met the fast-rising ocean waters below, it struck with such a “terrific impact,” the co-pilot would later say, that the warbird snapped in two.
The lighting system, too, went dark, undoubtedly adding to the terror.
Within just 10 seconds, the sea managed to swallow both halves.
Typically, a B-17 carried a crew of 10, but this one had 19 on board.
“Amid such confusion, there were only eight men who escaped,” Lt. Leo Harsh later explained in a letter written to a young woman in Jefferson, “none of whom was your husband.”
And of the eight who escaped, the co-pilot wrote, four more would die of exposure as they bobbed in the ocean for 11 hours.
For men who were lucky to make it past their fifth mission, this wasn’t a particularly unusual way to die. B-17s were lost all the time in World War II. On Oct. 14, 1943, alone, 60 were shot down in an attack on the Reich’s ball-bearing plants in Bavaria.
What still makes this one all the more tragic is when it happened — the war in Europe was over. These guys, including Staff Sgt. H. Dean Autenreith, were literally on their way home.
They’d beaten the Nazis, only to be done in by gremlins.
Scores of elementary kids in Jefferson would come to have Mrs. Autenreith as a teacher in school. But the only Mr. Autenreith in town would eventually be the son who never knew his father.
The death of Dean Autenreith on July 5, 1945, just shy of his 29th birthday, would arguably set in motion a series of events that culminated just this past fall with the announcement that the Greene County Community Center and the Greene County Medical Center would receive a combined $1.2 million from the Rory Autenreith Trust.
Following the death of her husband, Vivian Autenreith would commit herself in the years ahead to caring for their only child, Rory Dean, often with the help of her unmarried sister, Velma Radebaugh. All three have since passed, but it was Radebaugh’s death in 2019 at 98 that finally triggered the distribution of funds in Rory’s name: $845,570.61 to the rec center, $402,785.31 to the local hospital.
On this Memorial Day, we can only assume how different their lives might have been had the B-17 carrying Staff Sgt. Autenreith successfully completed its transatlantic journey.
Former Greene County sheriff Steve Haupert, a longtime collector of World War II books and military artifacts, fears we’re losing our understanding of that era as quickly as we’re losing the men and women who won the very freedom so many of us now accept as a given.
It was a hard-fought victory secured solely through sacrifice, and it’s no longer altogether certain that we could do it again.
Just imagine, if you will, being subjected to blackout drills during World War II. By today’s standards, some people would argue that it’s their “right” to keep their lights on if they want.
But is that freedom or selfishness?
Haupert hopes that by keeping the stories of men like Dean Autenreith alive, we’re able to learn anew some old lessons — that pulling together for the greater good makes us stronger and that fostering a cult of personality is fraught with risk. And that the Holocaust did, unequivocally, happen.
“There’s a history there you need to pass on. It’s up to us to do that,” Haupert explained recently. “People need to read the truth, whether they understand it’s the truth right now or not.”
Many of the items in Haupert’s safekeeping have a local connection — including a German bayonet ferried home by future elementary school principal Magnus Nelson and a prized Boker fighting knife owned by Bernard Dittert, to name just two things in his vast collection.
For years, Haupert and brother Dave farmed the Radebaugh family’s land north of Jefferson. Knowing Haupert’s interest in World War II, Velma Radebaugh bestowed on him items pertaining to her brother-in-law, Dean Autenreith, including two 1945 Western Union telegrams to Jefferson: one from July informing Vivian Autenreith that her husband was missing and one from December confirming that he had drowned.
Admittedly, Haupert said he didn’t take the time to go through the items like he should have until more recently.
That’s when he discovered what may, in fact, be the most poignant item in his entire collection — a letter dated Oct. 10, 1943, from “Somewhere in England” to a son the father scarcely knew.
It’s clear the letter home from Dean Autenreith to “my dear son” on occasion of Rory’s first birthday that month came to hold special meaning in the family.
After all, Dean Autenreith tucked a neatly folded $10 bill inside, and the 1934-series tender remains right where he placed it, more than 77 years later.
A Creston native, Dean Autenreith was already in the Army Air Force when Rory Dean came along in October of 1942.
A surviving letter to “my dearest wife” on June 6, 1942, from Chanute Field in Illinois is more typical of the banality that once filled reams of paper in the era before email and texting.
“Tuesday, no Monday, the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball team played here,” then-Private Autenreith wrote his expectant wife in Jefferson, her hometown. “They used the gym as the dressing room so I saw all the important names you read about.”
“I might add,” he wrote in closing, “that in the last 30 days, the name Air Corp has been officially changed to Air Force. Something is always changing.”
As a B-17 instrument specialist, it can probably be assumed that Dean Autenreith was among the men whose boots rarely left the ground. But once at Polebrook in England, it took everyone doing their part to ensure that B-17s with nicknames like Hitlers Headache, Lucifer Jr., Devil’s Mistress, Murder Incorporated, The Big Bitch, Screw Ball, Spit Ball and Gremlin’s Delight could rain hell on Nazi factories, refineries, airfields and V-weapon sites.
Despite being aboard a B-17 of the 493rd Bomb Group when he died, Autenreith was actually a member of the 351st Bomb Group, whose most famous member was Capt. Clark Gable — the King of Hollywood himself — who made a recruitment film about aerial gunners, “Combat America,” during his time at Polebrook in 1943.
Hitler purportedly offered a sizeable reward for Gable’s head.
Over three years at Polebrook, the 351st dropped 20,778 tons of bombs on Nazi targets in Europe.
Four days before “Black Thursday” — the name given to Oct. 14, 1943, after an astonishing 60 B-17s failed to return home from a daylight bombing raid over Germany — Dean Autenreith decided to explain his absence to his son back in Iowa.
“It seems that we are ‘kinda’ strangers right now,” Dean Autenreith confessed to Rory, telling his son it was pleasing to hear that he was becoming a “very strong and good little man.”
“Just keep it up,” he continued, “and remember that our ‘mommy’ is precious to both of us, and as we both love her we’ll both try to keep and make her happy. How about it? OK then — it’s a gentlemans agreement.”
Then came the words that reveal the true tenor of the era — penned to a child who couldn’t yet read.
“This old world may seem rather crazy to you now, and I’ll agree with you — rationing, strikes, war and all the hardships that it means,” Autenreith wrote. “I’ll agree too that some of us older people have made a lot of mistakes, but we’re going to try to give you a free and peaceful world to grow up in and then you will have your opportunity to try and correct and improve on what we’ve done.
“I guess that’s why I’m not with you now, but the outcome of this will be very important. We can and shall win and the sacrifice that we make now is the most important now. You and I and many millions of others must have the right of freedom and self-expression. This is not really a war of peoples but a war of ideas and ideals.”
“I guess that’s the reason I’m not with you,” he continued. “This may not make sense to you now, but maybe someday it will.”
Victory in Europe — V-E Day — would finally come on May 8, 1945, with the unconditional surrender of the Nazi regime.
In the euphoric rush to get home, Dean Autenreith hitched a ride aboard a B-17 bound for Gander on Newfoundland, Canada. It was late in the evening on, of all days, July 4.
Two hours after leaving Lajes Field in the Azores, an engine caught fire, a turn of events that could only have felt cosmically unfair.