I was born in 1952, during Korea, but too late for World War II. Still, it’s stories about the Greatest Generation that get to me, because both my father and grandfather were in that war, and for once it isn’t all hype (as it can be for sports figures). Some of these men and women really were heroes. I watch a lot of reruns of Combat! starring Vic Morrow, a show that was on when I was young and impressionable.
And then there are World War II books. I came to The Final Mission: A Boy, a Pilot and a World at War (Westholme) by Elizabeth Hoban and (her father) Lt. Col. Henry Supchak via a circuitous route.
Jim Allyn, a wizard of a multi-instrumentalist and producer, recently appeared on my WPKN radio show. I knew Jim’s wonderful work on mandolin and other instruments from the first few Terence Martin albums. He has just completed his first album, Backyards of the Brave, and I was immediately taken by the song “Priority Gal.”
It’s a true World War II story. Allyn’s wife’s uncle, Henry Supchak, was a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber pilot in the European theater of operations. He flew “Priority Gal supported by a crew of eight. He was on his 33rd combat mission, about to be sent Stateside, when on July 31, 1944, his plane was shot up over Neustift, Austria.
With no hope of reaching neutral Switzerland, and shrapnel embedded in his right knee, Supchak ordered his crew to bail out. “I was alone in a crippled bomber with no hope of reaching England,” Supchak writes in the book.
“I released myself from the seat and glanced up through the caustic fumes enveloping the cockpit. “Priority Gal” was headed straight toward a village at the base of the Alps. Her current course would wipe out most of the town and its residents.”
It didn’t matter that this was enemy territory. The village was full of non-combatants—civilians, women and children.
“Instinctively,” Supchak and Hoban wrote, “I jumped back in the seat and readjusted the controls to a maximum leftward flight pat and flipped the wing trim tabs. Forcing the extreme turn was not an easy task and it took some muscle and no room to spare to get my ‘Gal’ to make a 90-degree turn. Her riveted metal seams groaned in protest to the drastic maneuver, but she cooperated and veered clear of the village.”
Supchak bailed out, and landed in an Alpine knoll, where he was quickly arrested. His dramatic change of course had been witnessed on the ground by a six-year-old shepherd boy, Ander Haas. Even at that age, he recognized that this airman had saved their village, Neustift. He and his aunt made their way to the German outpost where Supchak was held, distracted the guards, and slipped food to the prisoner over the course of several days. He might have starved to death otherwise.
Miraculously, the whole crew of “Priority Gal” survived the jump, and all were in prison camps until the end of the war. Supchak suppressed the bad memories of the prison camp after the war, but repeated bad dreams eventually convinced him he needed closure. Supchak lived a very long life that included 20 years of service as a process engineer at the Ford Motor Company, and he eventually went on the road and looked up all the surviving members of his crew. Only one died before that reconciliation could occur.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ander Haas—by now a successful developer of Alpine resorts—hadn’t forgotten about the airman who saved his village. He erected memorials to “Priority Gal,” and dug up parts of the buried plane. And when Supchak was 91 years old he went back to Neustift for dedication ceremonies. It’s all in the beautifully written book. I read it (in China!) and recommend it highly.
Jim Allyn and I talked about all this on the radio show. He was particularly taken by the fact that Haas’ bar has a drink—a strong one—called the Henry Supchak. So here’s a video of the song, and the lyrics are below. Supchak is no longer with us, but what he did will live on forever.
“Priority Gal” by Jim Allyn (used by permission)
Twas in the year of ‘44, the last day of July/Twenty thousand feet and falling/over German countryside/the plane they call Priority Gal was spinning in dive/and out jumped eight brave souls/as one remained at the controls
Here’s to all we knew so well/the Bride of Mars, the Memphis Belle/Jack the Ripper, Old Maxine/Careful Virgin, Sweet Seventeen/and to you old friends and pals/and the man who flew Priority Gal
There’s a little town in Austria/where they drink all night long/and there’s one they make called the Henry S./and they make it good and strong/for long ago, as that plane dove/‘twas Henry at the wheel/spinning as he gripped it tight/somehow he set those wings aright/five hundred feet above the ground/with one last turn he spared that town/he spared that town
Here’s to all we knew so well/the Bride of Mars, the Memphis Belle/Jack the Ripper, Old Maxine/Careful Virgin, Sweet Seventeen/Lady Luck, the Nine-O-Nine/Desperate Journey/Bachelor’s Bride/Just Plane Lonesome, Red Wing, Nightmare/Anxious Angel, My Baby/My Prayer/and to you old friends and pals/and the man who flew Priority Gal