Earl Kesler: Back to Budapest

November 11, 2000November 8, 2007 

The last time Earl Kesler was at Ferighey Airport in Budapest, Hungary, bombs were landing instead of planes.

That day, he was an injured American airman, his plane shot down during the raid, trying to find shelter as the world exploded around him.

Fifty-six years later, he came back to say thanks.

Kesler, 79, of Harris Township spent a weekend this September touring the airfield he bombed in 1944 and meeting relatives of the Hungarian hospital staff who nursed him to health after he bailed out.

During his stay, he talked to the widow of one doctor, the daughter of another and the niece of a nurse. All had responded to a Budapest newspaper ad seeking people who had cared for Kesler.

He wanted to share his story, to show his gratitude for the help long ago, particularly from one doctor who befriended him.

"I credit this guy with saving my life, no doubt about it," Kesler said. "He took special care of me."

Wilna Kesler, 78, accompanied her husband on the trip. All the years they've been married, almost 55 to be exact, she has known about his "warm spot" for the Hungarians.

"I had picked up on the fact that he always felt that they had not abused him," she said. "They had taken care of him the best they could."

Shot down

On July 2, 1944, Kesler was a 23-year-old B-24 Liberator navigator from West Virginia, a second lieutenant attached to the 513th Squadron, 376th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force in Italy.

But that clear and sunny morning, he also was in trouble.

Just as his bomber released its load over the airfield, a flak burst hit directly in the bomb bay. Four of the 10-member crew died instantly. With the plane plummeting, Kesler found himself trapped in the nose compartment.

"Then it seemed to spin me clear," he said.

He opened his parachute in time to slam down on top of a concrete roof. Shrapnel had ripped both his legs. All around the airfield, fragmentation bombs were exploding.

"I thought people were shooting at me," Kesler said. "I didn't know what was going on."

Managing to clamber down a twisted steel ladder, he hid in the house until the raid ended and Hungarian soldiers found him. One gave Kesler, whose legs were bleeding, his belt for a tourniquet.

They took Kesler first to an aid station, then to Military Hospital No. 11, a five-story building in downtown Budapest. Along the way, he was interrogated. Someone tried to tear off his dog tags. A few locals, angry about the bombing, yelled and even spat at him.

"While I didn't know the language, it was clear what they were telling me," he said.

Others were kinder. One priest, talking to Kesler while he lay on a pallet, was both happy and perplexed to learn he wasn't from Chicago.

"Finally, I found out that their propaganda told them that all American airmen were recruited Chicago gangsters," Kesler said.

Another priest said a prayer for Kesler and made the sign of the cross, even after learning he wasn't Catholic. For the next 18 weeks, the hospital was his home.

Nurses and a pair of doctors who spoke English oversaw the 35-bed ward filled with Allied airmen. Kesler remembers their friendliness and dedication. Guards would bring patients food from nearby groceries. The doctors, Kesler said, saved many lives with even scarcer penicillin obtained from the Red Cross.

One doctor named Szukovathy once came in late at night, dressed in evening clothes, to quell Kesler's severe fever.

Kesler believes the same doctor also kept the Germans from taking him away too soon. "He would say, `Oh no, not Kesler. He has an infection.' "

Wilna Kesler said one of the nurses asked if Kesler had a comb for his unruly hair. He had nothing.

"She reached into her pocket and got her personal comb, broke it in half and gave it to him to comb his hair," Wilna Kesler said.

By early November, Kesler's legs had healed but conditions had deteriorated. The Red Army was approaching and the Germans, in a panic, evacuated the hospital. The patients tried to reassure a frightened nurse.

"With tears streaming down her cheek, as they moved us out, she planted a kiss on each of our cheeks," Kesler said.

A bottle of whiskey, courtesy of a doctor, provided farewell toasts. Then they were gone, bound for the trucks and trains that carried them to Stalag Luft 1, a prison camp near the Baltic Sea. Russian forces liberated them in May 1945.

Return trip

Kesler returned home, underwent surgery, married and started graduate studies in dairy science at Penn State. After his degree, he joined the faculty and worked for 36 years, retiring in 1984. He and his wife raised three children.

Three years ago, Kesler, who builds homes for Habitat for Humanity, read a notice in a magazine for former prisoners of war. Hungarian historians researching the air war over their country were looking for participants.

The only veteran who responded, Kesler contacted the group's liaison, a British historian named Arthur Harris. Harris, in turn, notified a Hungarian aviation historian named Geza Zianko. Kesler sent Zianko an account of his last mission, and a steady correspondence ensued.

One thing led to another, and Kesler told Harris about wanting to return to Budapest. Harris' wife then asked a friend to place an ad in the Budapest paper to find anyone who knew Kesler during the war.

The results left everyone but the Keslers -- who knew nothing of the ad -- in shock. Harris called the Keslers.

"He said, `You're not going to believe this. It's like a fairy tale,' " Wilna Kesler said.

They had wanted to see their son, Alan Kesler, an accountant who lives in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Budapest was only a few hours away by car so Zianko and others arranged a meeting.

On Sept. 8, they arrived at the Hyatt Regency in Budapest. Hungarian television crews, tipped off by the ad, were waiting. A female reporter asked Kesler why he returned.

Recalled his wife: "She just melted."

The next day, the Keslers saw the airfield. Zianko pointed out where Kesler's bomber crashed. Years ago, the building he landed upon had been demolished.

That morning, they also met the hospital staff's descendants. "Each of them had some stories to tell about," Earl Kesler said.

He learned that the Germans later had sentenced Dr. Szukovathy to death after a nurse accused him of collaboration. Later, she recanted and told the doctor that, since she saved his life, he had to marry her.

He did, but she died eight years later. The doctor remarried, and his career continued until a fatal car accident in the 1970s.

The Keslers heard other tales: the late Dr. Placsko, who practiced for years after surviving a Communist prison; the nurse who married at the end of her long, happy life.

Wilna Kesler said the Hungarians took to each other after discovering their common history. "We saw friendships blossoming like mad over there," she said.

All were there because of one flak shell and many caring people, because of luck both good and bad. People worried that Kesler might become emotional, but he took the trip in stride.

"It was really exciting, but there were no emotions to speak of -- too long ago," he said. "It was just a friendly visit."

His wife suspects something else, though.

"He's always felt grateful, and always wanted to thank them deep down," she said.

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620 and crosenbl@centredaily.com

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