It is a balmy winter night. Music is playing. People are laughing, drinking and dancing with friends. Still, for many gathered at the Phoenix Club, the largest German-American club in the region, there is a sense of disquiet.
In the past weeks, the tonnage of high-explosive bombs released over Iraq has exceeded even the combined Allied air offensive of World War II, designed to end Hitler’s domination of Europe. Yet while most Americans following the Gulf War coverage are watching cockpit display screens tracking military targets, they are generally being spared the more devastating images.
People like Klaus Bricke, 58, Dorothea Bigelow, 62, and Liselotte Bonsteel, 63, were children at the time, but they still remember the rumblings of planes, the explosions, the sirens. They talk about family members and friends who were killed, of homes destroyed during the Allied bombings of World War II.
“The bomb damage that I see now on the news looks very similar to what I saw,” says Bricke, who lost his father and aunt in bombing raids in 1944. “Towns like Dresden, Hamburg or Bremen were virtually destroyed. The firestorms caused heat in excess of 1,500 degrees. You could be in the cellar and that wouldn’t help.
“This thing we have now (in the Gulf) is kind of hard to believe--that you have bombardment practically 24 hours a day,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine how civilian populations, or military, can sustain that. And for how long.”
Bricke was 11 when the heaviest bombing descended on his home in Mannheim, an industrial city on the Rhine River.
The raids were so frequent that his family would huddle in their basement instead of attempting the 10-minute walk to the nearest bunker. Once a bomb hit directly in front of the house, ripping off the front and leaving a crater as wide as the street.
Bricke’s sister was wounded by shrapnel while still in the basement.
“If it had hit our house directly it would have gone right through to the basement without any doubt,” Bricke says. “My father went up to inspect the damage and found out that incendiary bombs had hit the house too and the roof was starting to burn. With the help of a few neighbors we were able to put it out.”
While his parents and neighbors attempted to save what was left of their home, the young Bricke was sent to the hospital five minutes away to see how his grandmother had fared during the attack.
“They brought the wounded to the hospital; the fatalities they layed in the front,” Bricke recalls. “I walked through the front yard and you saw all the people there. Corpses without limbs, heads and so on. Of course they chased me out right away but that’s a thing that is a lasting impression.”
With both their house and the headquarters of his father’s cigar-manufacturing business destroyed, the family put together a makeshift home in one of their factories in the relative safety of the nearby countryside.
That too was destroyed.
“The bombing raid was supposedly against a nearby sugar factory,” Bricke says. “Instead of hitting the sugar factory it hit the town. We lost all our belongings again.”
Toward the end of the war, Allied air superiority was also such that “practically the whole sky was full of aircraft,” Bricke says.
He describes riding a train to school that would often travel no more that a few kilometers before fire from Allied planes would force students to evacuate, running for shelter into nearby woods.
“We, of course, in this age thought this was a big adventure. We didn’t see how serious it was,” he says.
“The air forces were so superior that they were flying very low and shooting at whatever moved,” he says. “Man, horses, cows--these were all military targets. Sure you were afraid, but by peer pressure you didn’t show it. Everybody wanted to be a hero, or act like one.”
In 1944, Bricke’s father was struck by a burning timber while putting out flames in a neighbor’s house and died three months later. An aunt disappeared in a bombing raid over the city of Bremen. It was 22 years later during the excavation of a building that her remains were found and identified through dental records.
Bricke, who now lives in Laguna Niguel, says it isn’t the destruction or the death that has affected him as much as the realization that he had been deceived by his country’s leadership.
“We saw after the war, piece by piece, what happened under the Hitler regime,” he says. “At this time we didn’t know, at least not to this extent, particularly not a young boy. That experience changed me as it has changed the younger generation in Germany who now demonstrate for peace.”
It was 1944, Berlin, and Dorothea Bigelow was 16.
“My dad insisted that I go to what was called the bunker. Whenever we would hear on the radio that so many waves of airplanes were on their way to Berlin, I would take my suitcase and run for 20 minutes,” Bigelow says. Meanwhile, her parents sought shelter in the less secure apartment basement.
An unfinished subway station under a cemetery, the bunker to which Bigelow fled held 2,000 people, standing room only, for the duration of the raid.
“You could hear when the bombs were hitting the cemetery,” Bigelow says. “When I would come out I always felt very scared because I would see the burning all over and I wouldn’t know if my parents were alive or not until I got back home.”
After the bombing would cease, Bigelow says, it would take at least an additional hour for the masses of people to make their way out of the bunker.
“A lot of times I would just get home and would hear another air raid warning and would just turn around and head back,” she says. “It was wave after wave. I remember getting up sometimes seven or eight times a night.”
“When you grew up with this, it became an everyday event,” she says. “We would take games with us in the basement. I remember my mom pushing my head down when we would hear the whistling sound of the bombs coming down. We were getting to the point where it was just something you lived with. Sometimes we would almost welcome it because it would get so late that we wouldn’t have to go to school that day. We were just kids. You adapt.”
Earlier, during some of the heaviest bombing, Bigelow, like most Berlin children, was sent to relatives in the countryside.
“The government wanted all the children out of Berlin because there was too much burning,” she explains. At Christmas in 1943 while she was living with her grandparents, Bigelow’s parents came to visit for the holidays. Upon returning to Berlin, they found their apartment demolished. “After our apartment was bombed, all that was left was one corner where the piano was standing. I brought that piano with me to America.”
Bigelow returned from the countryside to Berlin in 1944. It was at that time that they lost the family business. “It was a printing business,” she says. “That bothered my dad the most, and he was never the same. When he lost the business that he had worked to build up all his life, it was worse than when we lost the apartment.”
Later in the war, Bigelow’s father was drafted into a military corps called the Hilfspolizei (translated literally as “help police”). It was the job of this group to try to put out the massive fires left by incendiary bombs. While putting out a fire, Bigelow’s father became trapped in a room and suffered serious smoke inhalation.
He died in September, 1945. “We lost it all and that left mom and I,” she says.
Shortly afterward, the war and the bombing was over. At that point all Berliners were required to register--a head count of sorts to try to determine what was left of the city’s population. “I remember walking for hours and hours--there was no transportation anymore--walking through nothing but bombed-out buildings that they had shoved aside to make a path. There were parts of Berlin where nothing was standing.”
“War broke out when I was 12 and most of the bombing started when I was 14,” says Liselotte Bonsteel, who was then living in Frankfurt.
“At that time we had bombing every day. The sirens went off so often it got to the point where you couldn’t even undress to go to bed,” she recalls.
“On the street I was living, we had 28 houses and when everything was over we had four standing,” she says.
Bonsteel was living alone with a grandmother. Her parents lived across town but it was her job to try to keep her grandmother safe while the city around them fell.
“When the war broke out they made sure that every woman and child knows what to do,” she says. “We all had to go to training for first aid, for civil defense and for fires. I think this is how we saved many lives. Our house was bombed and I ran upstairs and put sand on the bomb and shoveled it out the window. That’s how the house was saved. The roof was burned but that was all.”
Bonsteel’s childhood was lost to the responsibilities of dealing with the bombing and then the aftermath.
“Of course we had no water, no gas, no electricity. This went on sometimes for two weeks, sometimes a month,” Bonsteel says. “They cannot repair it when every time they start, it got bombed out again. The young ones and the ones who can went to the Red Cross soup kitchens and got hot soup and meals and brought it back for everyone to share.”
Even amid the chaos and destruction, Bonsteel was able to count herself among the lucky ones. “We were fortunate that our home was not destroyed,” she says. “My grandmother and I had at one time 20 people living with us in a two-bedroom apartment because we wanted to help them and there was no other place for them to go. People were sleeping on the floor--anywhere they could find a place until they could find shelter somewhere else.”
And now, the Anaheim woman says she still has memories of the bombing.
“The flashbacks come back after a while,” she says. “It takes a long time to get this out of your system. Once in a while I wake up in the middle of the night and think ‘Oh, my God.’ I’m so thankful I’m in this country. You have no idea.”