May 28, 2012
Winthrop Worcester and his granddaughter, Heidi Klise, discuss a replica of the B-17 plane that he flew during World War II. Klise's Senior I.S. focused on her grandfather's wartime experience.
WOOSTER, Ohio — Winthrop Worcester didn’t have to go to war. As an engineer, he qualified for deferments that could have kept him stateside, but he couldn’t stand watching from the sidelines, so in November of 1942, he left his job and walked into a local recruiting office in Pittsburgh to volunteer for active service.
Like so many of his comrades, Worcester’s remarkable story of survival, which included nine months as a prisoner of war in Germany, has largely gone untold — until this spring when his granddaughter, Heidi Klise, made him the subject of her senior project at The College of Wooster. Klise, a history major, was searching for a topic for her Independent Study (Wooster’s nationally renowned senior research project, which matches each student with a faculty mentor in pursuit of topic that results in a thesis-length paper, performance, or exhibition of artwork) when she realized she had an excellent historical resource in her own family.
“I originally thought about doing something on the space program or something else from the sixties,” says Klise. “Then it hit me; my grandfather has a great story, and I want to help him tell it.”
Worcester, 91, and Klise, 21, got together last fall with an audio recorder to talk about the unique position of 15th Army Air Corps, which he served with during World War II. The famed 8th Air Corps in England received most of the acclaim during the war, but Klise was determined to shed some long-overdue attention on the exploits of the 15th. Based in Italy, Worcester and his crew carried out strategic bombing raids — 37 in all — of oil fields, manufacturing plants, and transportation centers in southern Germany, as well as Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Southern France.
Then, on a fateful day in July of 1944 when, as Worcester would learn years later from his granddaughter’s research, he was part of a mission that was “botched from the start.” Worcester’s crew flew a mission over Memmingen, Germany. Adverse weather conditions and breakdowns in communication prevented their fighter squadron escorts, which had included the Tuskegee Airmen in the past, from getting there on time, meaning that the B-17 group was on its own. Suddenly German Luftwaffe appeared like a swarm in the sky from one o’clock to five o’clock, and shot down Worcester and his crew. All 10 crew members parachuted and survived, but were imprisoned and subjected to daily interrogations. Eventually, he and his fellow airmen would receive a Presidential Citation, but during that period, the future was frighteningly uncertain.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Worcester, who now resides in Akron. “We weren’t treated that badly, but we refused to give them anything beyond name, rank, and serial number. They didn’t really push too hard (for information).”
Gradually, the allies took the upper hand, and in April of 1945 — one year after his first combat mission, Worcester and his comrades were freed. “We were liberated by the Russians,” he says. “We could hear them coming. We suspected that the Germans had deserted their posts, so we jumped out of a window, climbed over a double barbed-wire fence and made our way back to Camp Lucky Strike in Paris.” It was there that the ex-POWs were greeted by a General named Eisenhower. “He said he would get us home,” says Worcester, “and he did.”
Worcester’s service came to an end, but the wartime memories never did. “I didn’t think so at first, but the War undoubtedly affected my life,” he says. “As recently as 10-15 years ago I would be asleep in a chair but still fighting the enemy in a dream.”
Worcester’s waking memories of the War were even more vivid, and he was able to share them with great clarity and detail in conversations with his granddaughter. “When Heidi approached me about sharing my War experiences, I was 100-percent for it,” he says.
Klise took advantage of her grandfather’s wealth of knowledge, but she also did extensive research elsewhere. She received a Copeland Fund Grant for a trip to Warner Robbins, Ga., where the Air Force Base Museum is located. She was surprised by the access she had to detailed information about her grandfather’s squadron and its mission. She also discovered some information that she later shared with her grandfather. “I think she knows more than I do now,” he quipped.
“I’ve always had a lot of pride in what my grandfather accomplished,” says Klise, “and I was always interested in his stories from the War. Now we have even more to share together. It has been a very rewarding experience.”
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