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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2005

Scholar's skills aid quest for dad's past

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

"I'd like to see you fly one of these crates for nine hours on one of these raids [while] in prop-wash from hundreds of planes in the bomber stream ahead of you. I never before had such a complete whipped feeling. Take a shot of whiskey after each mission and get drunk on one shot ..."

- 2nd Lt. Wade D. Pratt, in a letter to his parents on March 3, 1945

---

G. Michael Pratt is famous for finding buttons and bullets and other tangible links to battles past.

But for all his work in pinpointing, excavating, and cataloging the shards of local history, one of his most cherished artifacts is the crank of a B-17's landing gear - a piece of junk, really, but the material culmination of a lifelong search to better understand his dead father.

Over several decades, the man best known for shading in the historical detail of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, other military skirmishes, and European settlement of the Midwest had spent endless hours over old documents and in trans-Atlantic phone calls. This spring, the work connected men around the globe in their shared fascination of a single B-17 that crashed on a drizzly evening near the end of World War II.

His quest also led to a celebration in March along the brick streets of a tiny Belgian village, where Mr. Pratt and his wife, Patty, were the unsuspecting guests of honor.

"It was incredible," said Mr. Pratt, a Heidelberg College professor. "Americans have no idea - I had no idea and I'm a historian - the emotional connection the Europeans had to the Americans, the Allies."

On a recent afternoon, the archaeologist stood in his family's kitchen in Rossford mulling this question: If it hadn't been for his need for tactile connects to history, would he have been as relentless in finding where his father's B-17 fell from the sky 60 years ago?

He paused, brushing his fingers over the cool metal of the hand crank. His father fought cancer for years, dying when Mr. Pratt was only 16.

"One of the emotional parts for me is that I never knew my dad, adult to adult," he said.

"Now I'm a puzzle solver. I want to know stories. And I hadn't thought about it until recently, but did I need to know about this part of my dad's life because it's my work? Or is this what I do - is this my work - because of my dad?"

If the latter is true, Mike Pratt's future began five years before he was born, in dark skies over the Belgian-French border.

---

"Dear Dad, Your own kid has seen a little action, too I crash landed my ship in Belgium on the [20th] of Feb. The ship was wrecked, but none of my boys were hurt "

- Lieutenant Pratt, March 1, 1945

---

The Feb. 20, 1945, bombing mission over Nuremburg, Germany, had gone as planned that day, but clouds churned around the B-17 that carried 2nd Lt. Wade Pratt and his crew of eight others, splitting them from their formation.

High head winds drained their fuel tanks. Disoriented, unsure if they had passed beyond enemy territory, Lieutenant Pratt, the pilot, spotted a steeple. He began circling, lowering the unwieldy behemoth toward a tiny clearing.

Slamming into the earth, the aircraft groaned, twisted, and skidded across the field, its ball turret lodged in a drainage ditch.

Bruised but otherwise uninjured, the crewmen leapt from the plane and scattered, the sound of the rain hissing off hot engines. They didn't know if German soldiers awaited, recalled turret gunner Bob Guidi from his Massachusetts home.

"I looked up and it was like the movies where the cowboys are on the plain, and over the hill comes a row of horses and Indians. I look up and there's this row of people coming to us. We start yelling, 'Americans, Americans!' They're yelling, 'Belgique! Belgique!' " he said.

Friendly soil. Relief.

As darkness crept over the hills, the crew was fed baked ham and homemade bread. Later that night, they were transported back to American hands, leaving behind the twisted wreckage of their aircraft.

For them, the encounter was a brief and miraculously injury-free chapter in a war that had seen unspeakable horror. Within days, they were assigned another plane to fly another two dozen missions.

None of the crew recorded the location where they had crashed that day.

None of the villagers recorded the names of the crew.

---

"It's not being fired at that bothers you, it's the worry. It's knowing that you have 34 more [missions] to go, then 33, 32, 31 and so on Lady Luck, Stay with us just a few more."

- Lieutenant Pratt, undated

---

Nevertheless, the plane that had scarred the Belgium field that day also was etched into the memories of villagers. The wreckage would be captured in the following days in black-and-white snapshots - children in a nearby waterway on the B-17's life raft, a teenage girl on its wing, and a young man with a pistol, presumably taken from its interior.

The U.S. military lost thousands of bombers during the war, but none had touched the people of Petigny, Belgium, like Lieutenant Pratt's. Scavenged and disassembled, it was a symbol of sorts of their country's recent liberation. Silk parachute material became handkerchiefs; the plane's tiniest pieces were made into jewelry, said Claude Roulin, who lives near Petigny.

He'd heard of it from his parents and a few years ago stumbled upon a Web site about the 100th Bomb Group, to which the B-17 belonged. An excited Mr. Roulin posted to the site photos he'd collected of the wreckage.

Growing up in Middletown, Ohio, another boy - a few years older than Claude - learned of the crash from his father.

After the war, Lieutenant Pratt met and married a girl who understood his nightmares that trapped him in a downed plane.

"He would thrash around and fall to the floor," recalled his wife, Jane Pratt, now Jane Ruscher.

Mr. Pratt taught his three boys the radio lingo of a pilot but not about the deadly cancer doctors found in his abdomen. Mike was 16 and grabbing a Coke from the refrigerator one Sunday afternoon in October, when his mother walked in the door.

"He's dead, boys," she said. "Daddy died."

---

"Sometimes I feel that I've wasted the best years of my life in the Army and other times when I think of the time and experiences and friends I've had, I wouldn't have changed it for the world "

- Lieutenant Pratt, while waiting to return home, Christmas Eve, 1945

---

Mr. Pratt was in graduate school in the 1970s when the phone rang at his mother's Middletown house. It was the radio operator from the B-17 crew, searching for old buddies.

The call renewed for Mr. Pratt an interest in his father's history, and he suddenly asked for the wartime letters he knew his father had written to his parents.

The neat penmanship brought into focus someone he didn't know: a terrified young man in the middle of war. "I realized I was already older than he was when he wrote them. I could hear him talking tough, even though he's a scared kid," Mr. Pratt said.

He eventually went on to work at Heidelberg College, leading high-profile research of the Maumee-area sites of Fort Miamis, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and most recently, a forgotten cemetery at the former Miami Children's Home.

And he continued trying to pinpoint the location of his father's crash, eventually stumbling across the photographs Mr. Roulin had posted on the Internet. On March 26, the archaeologist and his wife flew to Belgium to meet him.

What the Pratts didn't know was that Mr. Pratt's discussions with Mr. Roulin had sparked old discussions again. Residents around the Petigny crash site dug out old photographs, compiled a book, and dusted off forgotten pieces of the aircraft.

"Different people [said], 'I think I have a piece in my cellar,' or 'I have a piece in my back room,' " Mr. Roulin said.

The connection had, for them, solved a 60-year mystery about the men they helped deliver back into American hands. The day after they arrived, aged villagers hugged the Pratts, introducing themselves as the children and young men and women in the old photographs around the wreckage.

A parade and a marching band wound through the streets to the crash site. The mayor spoke. Cameras clicked. And someone handed Mr. Pratt a pair of scissors to cut a ribbon to unveil a heavy stone monument that now stands near the field, memorializing the crash.

When a band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Patty and I both lost it," Mr. Pratt said, his voice still coated with emotion.

Sixty years after the dark clouds over Petigny spat out Lieutenant Pratt's B-17, his son had a new appreciation of his father's brief, but still-resonating, place in history.

That short encounter in 1945, he said, underscored for residents around Petigny "that while their country was being destroyed and occupied, young men came from all over the world and laid down their lives to save them."

Contact Robin Erb at: robinerb@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.



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