By Wendy Langhans
This weekend, as we celebrate the 4th of July, we pay a special tribute to those who have and are now serving our country. This weekend my family is also celebrating my father’s 88th birthday. Ansel Burton Bratberg served in the Army Air Corps during WWII, flying 42 combat missions in a B-17 over Europe. So, in honor of those who returned (and those who did not), here is his homecoming story.
October 18, 1945, was the “BIG DAY”! I received my discharge papers and left Sioux Falls for La Crosse, Wisconsin on a Greyhound bus. As the bus headed east through the countryside, I thought about my many combat friends who had lost their lives on those bombing missions…the red flares from the planes coming home with dead or wounded aboard, the ones who would never see home again. So young…forever young.
I thought about my friends who died in the skies over Germany, going down in flames or exploding in a ball of fire from a direct hit from enemy fire. I can still picture those anti-aircraft shells – the “Black Dahlias”, the “Flowers of Death”. They exploded in the midst of our formation, flinging angry charcoal-red metal into our planes. I was struck a few times by anti-aircraft fire, but my flak suit did its job. I began to realize how lucky I had been to survive.
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Air combat is so unpredictable. Our crew flew in the same box formations, the same 60-degree-below-zero cold, the same 25,000 feet of altitude. We fought the same ME 109’s and FW 190 German fighter planes. We flew into the same heavy anti-aircraft barrage over the target. Yet we survived while others didn’t. Why did some planes go down while others survived?
As the bus neared La Crosse I realized that I had to put those memories behind me. “Garbage” them and hope time will turn them into faded memories. “You’re a “civilian” now…a new life. Get on with it.”
I left the bus station about 10 PM and walked to a tavern on Third Street – a couple of cold “Old Style’s” should be able to change my attitude. The bar was packed with military men. I ran into a couple of my River Falls college classmates and we had a pleasant talk about our college days and our college friends who were in the service. A fellow from a nearby town offered me a ride. Around midnight, we left the tavern and he dropped me off in Holmen…just a two mile walk up Long Coulee to our farm.
It was a warm October evening. The sky was cloudless and a bright harvest moon, shining on the oak bluffs, highlighted the nearby birch and sugar maple trees. The coulee shimmered in its autumn splendor. The shocked corn stood in long rows in the moonlight like sentinels guarding the orange pumpkins that lay on the edge of the fields. Dairy cows were still grazing in the night pastures. The familiar farm buildings stood along the road, sturdy and strong, even as their weathered features showed the effects of time.
It was one o’clock in the morning and the coulee was asleep. The night stillness was interrupted as a slight soft breeze rustled the leaves in the trees along the road. I could hear the faint call of Canada geese as they flew south from their breeding ground in the northern tundra to their winter home. The night air had the tangy sweet smell of fermenting fruit, vegetables and flowers. It was all so pleasant.
It was also surreal. Hadn’t I had walked this road hundreds of times before, coming home from High School basketball practice in the autumn evenings? What was wrong? Had I been too blind to see? To busy to stop and smell the roses? Had the war changed me? I must admit there were times, especially after a rough mission, that I had serious doubts I would ever see this coulee again.
About a quarter mile from the farm, I heard a rustle in the grass in the ditch along side the road. I stopped abruptly, thinking it could be a ‘coon or a skunk. (Don’t get into a urinating contest with a skunk…you will lose.) To my utter amazement, a black and white terrier emerged from the undergrowth. It was Zipper, my younger sisters’ dog.
My sisters Elvah and Pauline loved Zipper and he returned their love. In the morning, Zipper would see them off to elementary school and in the evening, he would race up the road to greet them. Zipper was also my friend; he followed me through the fields and meadows and loved to hunt squirrels with me in the fall.
Zipper crawled out of the ditch, with his head lowered and wagging his tail. He walked slowly towards me, as if to say, “Where did you go? Where have you been? I have been waiting and waiting for you.”
I lost it – I broke down. I sat in the middle of the road, petting him while he licked the tears flowing down my face. He did what the war couldn’t – he broke me down. How did he know I was coming home? How did he know it was me?
After I regained my composure, I stood up. Zipper bounced around in excitement. He looked at me while wagging his tail. It was as if he were saying, “I forgive you. Come along, now, we have things to do.”
“Welcome home, Burt.”
Airman Ansel Burton Bratberg. (1942)
Paying respects at the American military cemetery in Madingly, UK. (2004)
Upcoming Outdoor Events:
Every Saturday at 11:00 AM & 1:00 PM. Family Nature Walk (11) and Animal Show (1) at Placerita Canyon.
For more information, click here.
Saturday, July 3, 6:30-8:30 AM. Morning walk. East & Rice Canyon. Calling all sleepyheads. Get a head start on the weekend and explore your neighborhood. For map, click here.
Trail Maintenance Schedule. Come join our volunteers as they help maintain our trails. Contact Steve at email@example.com for time and place.
Wednesday mornings, July 1, 14, 21 & 28.
Saturday mornings, July 10 & 24.
You can listen to stories like this every Friday morning at 7:10 a.m. on “The Hike Report”, brought to you by your hometown radio station KHTS (AM1220) and by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.