(FOX 2) - "Haben sie Das Pistol?"
That was the first question Dick Klein was asked after parachuting out of the B-17 bomber that was shot down by German artillery during World War II. It was his first mission in the European Theater during the war. He would be taken prisoner and sent to a camp north of Berlin.
Klein doesn't talk about his tenure during World War II. Not that he has any reservations telling people about his experience - if anyone asked, he'd answer. His story, while shorter next to those that took part on D-Day, remains a remarkable one.
It's also one he carries with a ‘guilty conscience' and bothers him on holidays, when he thinks about his comrades who never got to celebrate special days with their family. And for decades Klein's story as the bombardier aboard the ‘Strictly GI' on Sept. 9, 1944 and his subsequent capture laid dormant in his brain - reserved for anyone curious enough to ask but unknown to any who didn't.
Then, 75 years later in mid-July a news release reporting the location of the ‘Strictly GI's' crash site was discovered, prompting a search for any descendants of those aboard the plane. Not two days later, the people searching for any relatives would be gifted an even greater surprise - instead making contact with one of the few that survived the crash.
Klein is a Detroit-native. Prior to his enlistment, he had earned his high school degree in 1941 and was working at a technical company in Detroit. When his turn came he enlisted in the military and his first mission committed him to a bombing raid over the small German town of Ludwigshafen.
It would also be his last.
"Naturally, it was emotional. I had never faced anything like that. I had my fingers cross, know what I mean?" Klein said. "Once you get into it, it's pretty natural. Then you start seeing all that flak on you - you realize how it can get."
Klein had a front-row seat to the explosions in the sky - as the bombardier of a B-17 bomber he was placed at the very front of the plane, beneath the pilot. He was told if you can see the smoke when flak started coming up you were alright. But if you're seeing fire, look out.
Despite the success of the ‘Strictly GI's' initial bomb over their target, the trip was a rough one. "On the way there, we were clobbered pretty badly, transmissions knocked out, one of the windshields was cracked," Klein said. "The ship was hit bad."
So bad the crew had to change formation because the pilots had no visibility. While the exterior had taken a beating on the way there, the fatal blow to the plane would come on the way back. After descending a few thousand feet, they got hit again - this time the gas tank on the starboard side. Smoke coming from the cockpit moved to the back of the plane, clouding their vision.
The pilots gave the call to exit the plane and they parachuted out. A Missing Air Crew Report shows the pilot, co-pilot, navigator and the bombardier all survived, while the four turret gunners and the radio operator died. It would be months before Klein would learn the fate of his fellow crew members.
"That was about it. I landed in a small down, they were there to greet you," said Klein. That's when German soldiers asked: "Haben sie Das Pistol?"
Klein would spend days in one town, then a few more across the river in another town as a POW. When the Germans interviewed him, they asked about the B-29 Superfortress - a beast of machinery introduced during World War II. The next nine months were then spent at a camp in the city of Barth, which was about 180 miles north of Berlin.
There he would remain in captivity for nine months with an estimated 2,000 other prisoners until the Russian army made it to Germany. Months later he would be flown back to France before getting shipped home to Boston. After the war, he married and got an engineering degree and started work at Ford, dividing his time between the headquarters and another office in Dearborn. He'd also later work for Boeing.
He received an European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal, a Prisoner of War medal and a Good Conduct medal.
"I never took them out of the boxes - I got a guilty conscience about it," Klein said. "Other guys hear that and they say ‘oh, you're a rookie, you never did anything.' At the same time, I have a very guilty conscience about the other five guys we lost. The circumstances are, we got out and they didn't."
Despite the degradation that Klein has felt only flying one mission and losing more than half the crew aboard, not everyone thinks he "never did anything." More than half a century later, a German group dedicated to re-discovering the sites of World War II plane crashes found the impact site of the Strictly GI. "We do not want the names of the airmen, and this historical and tragic site to be forgotten," write Erik Wieman of Projekte Luftkrieg in an email.
Despite the historic nature of these events, Wieman said time is of the essence to find those sites and tell these stories. Every year that that passes, fewer witnesses remain to help in the search.
"In a few years, it will be much more difficult to find these sites because there will be no more eyewitnesses left. So we try to find as many sites as possible, before they are forever forgotten."
It's not only the number of witnesses that are declining - so are the veterans who fought in the war.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans compiled statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and estimates of the 16 million Americans that served in World War II, only 496,777 were still alive in 2018. Figures like those serve as the impetus for initiatives like Projekte Luftkrieg to cement the past through memorials like the one being planned for the Strictly GI. A memorial stone is to be planted at the crash site of the Strictly GI.
A tribute to the speed that news can travel, Wieman's request to find relatives of the plane's crew helped find Klein and his family in a matter of days. The resurgence of his feats in Germany have prompted Klein and his family to return to his scrapbook and dust-covered boxes with associated memories from the war.
Klein doesn't intent to visit the memorial site when it is unveiled. He never traveled back to Germany after the war. Now 97 years old and retired in California, he lives near his daughters who are hearing parts of his story for the first time.
"It's opened up new avenues again, it's opening more questions for me," Klein said. "I'm still haunted on holidays (thinking about who we lost), but I don't dwell on it too much.