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December 18, 2012

Col. George Lesko, Passed Away June 30, 2008, Father to Greg, WWII POW

Cleveland, OH
446th Bomb Group
Co-pilot of B-24 - "Ginger"
Stalag Luft I, North II Compound. 

"It is with a very heavy heart that I tell you that Col. George Lesko passed away on June 30, 2008.  He was the best!   I will miss him terribly. Rest in peace my friend. Parish sympathies are extended to Marge Marvin and Eleanor O’Kresz. Their brother George Lesko, 84, was buried this past week in Missouri."

George was shot down on August 26, 1944 on a bombing mission to Ludwigshaven, Germany.  In August, 1998, the French village of Schoeneck, France, where "Ginger" crashed, erected a granite monument to honor George and his crew for their efforts to liberate France.  It was around this time that George learned that four of his crewmembers had been executed by the SS shortly after bailing out of their plane in 1944.  The SS men responsible for this were tried in the Nuremburg process at the end of the war.  They were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.  
    George remained in the Air Force and retired as a Colonel at Whiteman AFB in Knob 
Noster, MO and lived in Warrensburg, Missouri. During his service he received 
recognition as an Air Force Command Pilot and was awarded membership in the 
B-47 1000 hour club.  He also received the highest grade average in the Air Training 
Command Missile Supervisors and Planning course.  George was awarded the Air Medal , 
Purple Heart, Congressional Prisoner of War, WWII Victory Medal, three Theatre of 
Operations, Germany Occupation, and Good Conduct Medals.   In 1992 he moved 
to Lee's Summit, MO where his son, daughter-in-law and 2 grandchildren live. Currently 
his business card reads that he is a board member of "Livewell, Dolittle and Sitmore". 
    On March 11, 1999 the House of Representatives of the State of Missouri issued House 
Resolution No. 378 honoring George Lesko for his lifetime achievements.  
    George was with the group of former POWs to return to Barth, Germany in April 2000 

and at that time he fulfilled a wish he had made to himself on that day in May 1945, when 
he was flown out of Barth.  That wish was to pilot a plane back into Barth one day. See 
photo below.
George Lesko landing plane in Barth, Germany - 2001
George landing plane in Barth 
April 18, 2000!

Scroll below to read newspaper account of the village of Schoeneck, 

France honoring George and his surviving crew in August 1998. 
Crew of Ginger - WWII B-24 shot down
The Crew of "Ginger" 
1/Lt.    Ralph V. Schaffer --------- KIA
2/Lt.    George Lesko -------------- POW
F/O     Norman Phillips ----------- POW
Sgt.    Jack W. Staton ------------ KIA
T/Sgt. Charles E. Wyatt ---------- KIA
S/Sgt. Frank W. Loichinger ---- MIA
Sgt.    Albert H. Lang ------------- POW
Sgt.    Ted Zemonek -------------- KIA
Pvt.    Jack A. Maxwell ----------- KIA
Sgt.    Willard R. Fetterhof ----- KIA
Phillips, Lesko and Lang with LaSalle

As heroes who risked their lives in the liberation of France, Phillips, Lesko, and 

Lang rode in the 1940 LaSalle that the American Embassy owned in the 1940's, and 
were treated like royalty by the French citizens of Schoeneck
Memorial to Ginger Crew in France
Surviving Ginger crew mates together again
"Ginger" crewmembers, Norman Phillips, George Lesko and Al Lang together again.

The following article appeared in The Kansas City Star on February 3, 1999. It recounts the history of  George Lesko and his return to Schoeneck, France the site of the crash of his B-24 plane during World War II. George and his surviving crew members were honored by the village for their efforts in liberating France during World War II.  
Newspaper article on George Lesko's return to crash site

newspaper article on George Lesko
George Lesko newspaper article. WWII crash

newspaper article brings closure


The crew of "Ginger", shot down near Saarbrucken.

Standing, 1/Lt Ralph V. Shaffer (pilot) MIA, 2/Lt George Lesko (copilot) POW, F/O 
Norman Phillips (navigator) POW, Herbert Rubin (Bombardier), not on this mission,
 but was KIA in Holland on another. Kneeling, Sgt Charles Wyatt (engineer) KIA, 
Sgt Ted Zemonek (waist gunner) KIA, Sgt Frank Loichinger (radio operator) POW, 
Sgt Albert Lang (ball turret gunner) POW, Sgt Jack Staton (nose gunner) KIA, Sgt 
Willard Fetterhoff (tail gunner) KIA.
 Not pictured but on board Ginger: Pvt Jack Maxwell (waistgunner) KIA. There is a 
story about this crew: The pilot was never found, Wyatt's chute apparently didn't 
open, he was KIA, Zemonek, Staton, Fetterhoff, and Maxwell (a ground crewman 
on his first flight who was filling in for Rubin) were shot by SS police auxiliary the 
day after bailing out. Loichinger, Lesko, Lang, and Phillips survived the war as POWs. The latter three reunited at the crash site in France, 26 August 1998, for a dedication of a memorial to Ginger, her crew, and the allied 
war effort. Photo 
courtesy of Tim Shaffer.


Die Liberator des Piloten Vincent Shaffer (links hinten) stürzte am 26.08.1944 nach einem Flaktreffer bei Ludwigshafen im lothringischen Dorf Schönecken (Schoeneck) ab. Alle 10 Besatzungsmitglieder konnten abspringen.  Einer fiel beim Absprung in Gersweiler (Stadtverband Saarbrücken) in die Saar und ertrank, vier von ihnen wurden  von einem Saarbrücker SS-Kommando bei Klartenthal (Stadtverband Saarbrücken) erschossen.
The LIberator of pilot Vincent Shaffer (on the crew photo back row, far left) crashed on 26 August 1944 near the village of Schoeneck in Lorraine (France) after being hit by flak over Ludwigshafen. All 10 crewmembers managed to bail out. One of them parachuted into the Saar River near Gersweiler (Saarbrücken County) and drowned there, four of them were shot by an SS commando near Klarenthal (Saarbrücken County).

Wochenspiegel, Ausgabe Saarbrücken, August 1998Eine Mahnung für Frieden und VölkerverständigungEin Denkmal in Schoeneck erinnert an Kriegsdrama
(ob). Copilot George Lesko, 76, Navigator Norman H. Phillips, 75, und der obere 
Rumpfturmschütze der im August 1944 über Gersweiler abgeschossenen „Ginger" 
vom Typ Liberator B-24 H, Albert H. Lang, 77, erlebten tiefbewegt die feierliche Enthüllung
 eines Mahnmals in Schoeneck mit, das für alle kommenden Generationen an Frieden 
mahnt. Ca. 2000 Menschen aus den deutschen Nachbargemeinden Gersweiler und 
Klarenthal, sowie die Bevölkerung der französischen Gemeinde Schoeneck nahmen Anteil.
Das Denkmal steht unmittelbar an der Absturzstelle der „Liberator", die am Hang 
nach Stiring-Wendel in Schoeneck am Boden zerschellte. Zahlreiche französische 
Veteranenvereine säumten in ihren schmucken Uniformen und mit prächtigen Fahnen 
den Zugang zum Denkmal. Amerikanische und französische Offizielle erinnerten in beiden 
Sprachen an den unseligen Zweiten Weltkrieg der für die zehnköpfige Besatzung der „
Ginger" zum Drama wurde. Bewegend das Abspielen der amerikanischen und französischen Nationalhymnen.
Wir erinnern: Am 26. August 1944 schrieb der Saarbrücker Schüler Sepp Nuscheler als Luftwaffenhelfer in sein persönliches Kriegstagebuch: „Heute konnten wir eine Liberator abschießen. Gleich nach der zweiten Gruppe stiegen neun Mann der Besatzung aus. Nicht allzuweit von uns rutschte die Maschine dann ab.”  Die Liberator war auf dem Rückflug von Ludwigshafen, wo sie ihre vier Tonnen schwere Bombenlast abgeladen hatte. Bereits angeschossen, erfüllte sich ihr Schicksal durch die in Klarenthal stationierte Batterie der Luftwaffenhelfer. Die viermotorige „Ginger" torkelte noch  um den Schoenecker Kirchturm, ehe sie dann  endgültig abrutschte und 'am Boden zerschellte. Vier amerikanische Flieger überlebten den Absturz. Drei davon standen jetzt an einem Mahnmal, in dem ihre Namen für die Ewigkeit ein graviert sind.
Die Dramatik der Einzelschicksale der Crew schilderte der Schoenecker Historiker Raymond Engelbreit in der von ihm verfaßten Broschüre „Le Drame de L'equipage du Ginger". Engelbreit hatte außerdem eine Ausstellung zu diesem Ereignis arrangiert.
Die Überlebenden erinnern sich: Copilot George Lesko: „Über 50 Jahre hatte ich keine Kenntnis über das Schicksal meiner Kameraden. Vor 13 Monaten hörte ich erstmals davon, daß es Menschen jenseits des Ozeans gibt, die das leere Blatt meiner persönlichen Lebensgeschichte wie ein Puzzle zusammensetzen. Das leere Blatt ist endlich gefüllt".
Norman H. Phillips: „Als die Einladung kam, hatte ich zunächst große Angst, eine Rede halten zu müssen. Am Denkmal habe ich sie dann trotzdem gehalten. Ich bin überwältigt von  dem, was wir hier an  der deutsch-französischen Grenze erleben durften. Ich hätte es mir niemals träumen lassen, daß einmal mein Name auf einem Denkmal verewigt würde. Mir fehlen die Worte".
Albert H. Lang: „Die schreckliche Erinnerung an das Saarbrücker Gefängnis Lerchesflur sind jetzt  überdeckt von der großartigen Freundschaft, die uns von den Menschen der beiden Nationen entgegenschlägt. Dennoch: In mir sind dramatische Gefühle".
Die Landtagsabgeordnete Anita Girst (CDU), die sich um eine Beteiligung von deutscher Seite  einsetzte: „Mich beeindruckte die Haltung der drei ehemaligen  Flieger, die unsere Freundschaft ohne jegliche Ressentiments und ohne Bitternis annahmen. Ich finde es etwas schade, daß die deutsche Nationalhymne am Mahnmal fehlte. Das Mahnmal in Schoeneck wird uns alle daran erinnern, am Aufbau echter Freundschaften zwischen den Völkern mitzuarbeihten. Die Überlebenden der 'Ginger' gaben uns ein Beispiel".
Die Einweihung des Denkmals wurde zu einer eindrucksvollen Demonstration für den Frieden.
Le Républicain Lorrain, 24.08.1998
Inauguration d’une stèle
Schœneck se souvient
Hier à Schœneck, une stèle a été inaugurée en l'honneur d'aviateurs américains dont le bombardier s'était écrasé sur la commune en 1944 Trois rescapés étaient présents.
FORBACH. — Ce dimanche 23 août 1998 restera à jamais gravé dans les mémoires de George Lesko, Norman Philips et Albert Lang. Ces trois vétérans américains, survivants du crash d'un bombardier américain survenu le 26 août 1944 à Schœneck, n'étaient jamais revenus sur les lieux de ce drame jusqu'à vendredi dernier. Depuis ce jour, ils sont les invités d'honneur de la population de la petite commune frontalière de Moselle-est. Hier, ils ont assisté à l'inauguration du mémorial érigé en l'honneur des dix membres d'équipage du Liberator B 24-H de I'US Air Force.
Larmes perlant au coin des yeux, doigts caressant furtivement la pierre de granit portant leurs noms et ceux de leurs camarades disparus, les trois vétérans ont eu le coeur qui battait la chamade à bien des moments de la cérémonie. Il y a peu encore, ils n'auraient pas songé vivre pareil moment. Aujourd'hui colonel retraité de l'US Air Force et copilote du bombardier en 1944, George Lesko confiait sa surprise devant une telle gratitude. «Jamais, je n'ai entendu parler d'un tel hommage en faveur d' aviateurs américains. C'est un magnifique honneur qui nous est fait.»
Un honneur qui leur était pourtant dû comme l'a rappelé dans son allocution, Paul Fellinger, le maire de Schœneck. «Cette stèle témoignera de notre reconnaissance à ces hommes venus nous libérer,  nous rendre notre identité et nous permettre de retrouver notre mère Patrie. Si nous rappelons aujourd'hui ce souvenir, c'est aussi pour sensibiliser les jeunes qui n'ont pas connu la guerre afin qu'ils prennent conscience de ses atrocités et que plus jamais n'ait lieu pareil désastre.» Afin que ce devoir de mémoire soit complet, George Lesko, Norman Philips et Albert Lang avaient été conviés samedi, à l'inauguration d'une exposition retraçant la bataille des airs sur l'Allemagne et le destin des membres de leur équipage.
Beaucoup de Schœneckois, de personnalités civiles et militaires et d'anciens combattants, entouraient hier George Lesko, Norman Philips et Albert Lang pour l'inauguration du Mémorial des aviateurs américains.
Que retiendront George Lesko, Norman Philips et Albert Lang de ce dimanche 23 août 1998? Difficile de le dire tant les trois rescapés du crash du bombardier américain survenu le 26 août 1944 à Schœneck, ont été émus jusqu'aux larmes lors de l'inauguration du mémorial érigé en l'honneur des membres de l'équipage du Liberator B 24 H. Sans nul doute, ils penseront tout d'abord à cette pierre de granit où sont gravés leurs noms et ceux de leurs camarades disparus, au pied de laquelle ils ont déposé une rosé. Les trois vétérans se rappelleront également de ces jeunes enfants de la commune qui les avaient précédés pour déposer des fleurs devant la stèle. A cet instant, ils ont peut être pensé que ces gosses auraient pu être les petits-enfants de leurs six copains à jamais disparus. Ils resteront aussi impressionnés par cette foule qui se pressait autour du monument, ce recueillement qui l'habitait, quand furent lus successivement à haute voix, les dix noms gravés dans la pierre.
Les Schœneckois voulaient leur témoigner leur gratitude. Ce fut fait,  simplement, par  le maire. «Cette stèle témoignera de notre reconnaissance à ces hommes venus nous libérer, nous rendre notre identité et nous permettre de retrouver notre mère Patrie. Si nous rappelons aujourd'hui ce souvenir, c'est aussi pour sensibiliser les jeunes qui n'ont pas connu la guerre afin qu'ils prennent conscience de ses atrocités et que plus jamais n'ait lieu pareil désastre», déclara Paul Fellinger, avant que ne retentisse la Sonnerie aux morts et l'hymne américain.
Une cérémonie émouvante qui concluait un séjour de trois jours déjà riche en moments forts. Comme lorsque le mitrailleur Albert Lang s'est retrouvé dans cette forêt de Sarrebruck au dessus de laquelle il avait sauté en parachute, lui et les neufs autres membres du Ginger. Dès son arrivée, le copilote George Lesko s'étonnait lui de tels remerciements plus de cinquante ans après la fin de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Et il avouait que ce voyage comblait «un vide dans sa vie». Quant à Norman Philipps, le navigateur du bombardier, il ouvrait tout de suite le livre de ses souvenirs du 26 août 1944, vendredi, lors de la réception en mairie. Puis, il s'inquiétait presque aussitôt du sort de la population schœneckoise lors de cette noire période.
Durant ces trois jours, les habitants de la commune auront découvert des anciens combattants au cœur simple. Des aviateurs qui ne souhaitaient pas qu'on les traite en héros mais qu'on les considère juste comme des vétérans venus rendre un dernier hommage à leurs copains disparus. Cette ultime mission est désormais achevée et de la plus belle manière qui soit.
En présence de trois rescapés, une stèle a été inaugurée à Schoeneck en l’honneur des membres d’équipage d’un bombardier américain qui s’était écrasé en 1944.
Paul Fellinger, le maire de Schoeneck, a rendu un vibrant hommage aux survivants du crash et à leurs camarades disparus.
Kansas City Star, February 3, 1999 Veteran visits site where crew was lost by Alan Goforth special to The Star
The last time George Lesko saw the B-24 bomber "Ginger", it was gliding toward its 
final meeting place just outside Schoeneck, France, as he parachuted into Nazi Germany.
In August, he and the two other surviving crew members stood at the spot where the plane 
crashed and were honored by the citizens of Schoeneck. That crash more than a half-century
 ago changed Lesko's life in ways, he only now can appreciate.
"It took so long for this to happen," said Lesko, of Lee's Summit. "It was very, very touching.
" Lesko grew up during the Depression in Cleveland. His father died when he was 13, 
and he worked odd jobs to help support his mother. As soon as he was old enough, he joined
 the Service.
"I drove to Steubenville, Ohio, to become a naval aviator", he said. "When I got there, the 
enlisting officer was closed for lunch, so I walked across the street and joined the Army Air 
Corps. I was lucky -- I earned $75 a month and sent half of my pay to my mother."
That was in the fall of 1943. By the following May, he was in the European theater of 
operations. Although the tide was turning against the Nazi regime, the fighting remained 
intense. The Nazis issued orders to shoot any downed pilots trying to escape. Lesko was 
part of a 10-man crew flying bombing missions out of Ipswitch, northeast of London. Most 
missions over Germany, flown in 18 plane formations, lasted six to eight hours. Each crew 
member was trained for any function on the bomber. Lesko, at age 20, was co-pilot on 
"Ginger" the day of the crash.
"Our target was the Farben chemical works in Germany," he said. " We had hit the site 
before, and we knew it was a tough target."  The crew dropped its bombs, and before the 
bomb bay doors closed, Lesko spotted fire from 88-mm guns.
"I saw a burst 300 yards in front, then one 150 yards away," he said. "I knew we were right 
in line for the next one." He was right. One of the four engines was knocked out, and the 
crew bailed out when the plane dropped to 10,000 feet. The plane crashed in Schoeneck,
a town of several thousand people just across the French border. After surviving machine 
gun fire on the way down, the crew landed in hostile territory. Lesko and the other two 
survivors, Norman Phillips and Albert Lang, landed close to each other.
"Our parachutes were hung up in trees." he said. "We cut ourselves down and buried our 
firearms, because we knew we would be shot if we were caught with them. The fellow who 
caught me was 16 years old. I was sent to a civilian jail for five days."
Other crew members were not as fortunate.
"The others landed three or four miles away," he said. "Five or six of them were captured by SS agents, marched into the forest and shot in the back of the head. One landed in a river and drowned, then was shot anyway."
As a lieutenant, Lesko was sent to an officers' POW camp near the Baltic Sea. Even though he believed the war was winding down, he never stopped coming up with schemes to escape. He ran one idea past the "escape officer," a veteran prisoner who gave advice on the feasibility of escape plans.
"I had a great plan to skate the Baltic to freedom," he said. "I was raised on skates in Ohio. When the Red Cross sent some skates, I hid them under my mattress. I was going to use them to cut the barbed wire fence, walk a mile to the sea and skate the 60 miles to Sweden. The escape officer liked the plan, but then told me that the Baltic doesn't freeze over in the winter.
"The prisoners learned the war was over on a short-wave radio they had battered for cigarettes. Lesko, who had been imprisoned for 10 months, remained in the Air Force. He retired as a colonel at Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, Mo. In 1992, he moved to Lee's Summit where his son, Greg, owns RSVP video productions.
He didn't talk much about his experiences in the years after the war, and he was haunted by questions of whether he could have done more to save his crew members. "Lots of things that happened were too unreal for people to understand, even my wife and son," he said.
The citizens of Schoeneck also had to come to terms with the crash. Many who were children at the time came to realize that the crew was there to help liberate their country and had put the plane on a course to spare their town.
One of those children, Raymond Engelbreit, grew up to be a historian. He organized efforts to erect a monument to the men on the mission and tracked down the surviving crewmen.
Lesko was contacted in June 1997. He, Phillips and Lang attended the dedication Aug. 23, 1998. Media from all over Europe covered the event, and Greg Lesko documented it on videotape. The crewmen were escorted in a 1940 LaSalle that had belonged to the U.S. embassy in France. Lesko was overwhelmed by the hospitality.
"French traditions are not too shabby," he said. " We would sit down for lunch at 1 and not get up until 4. And I've never been kissed by so many women."
Lesko has been kept busy answering mail from all over the world since the event. It is almost enough to threaten his position as a board member of "Livewell, Dolittle and Sitmore," as his retirement business card reads. Most important, the remembrance brought closure to Lesko and his family.

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