Paul  Kengor

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“Just existing became what was important,” says 87-year-old Frank Kravetz of Pittsburgh, captive of the “hell-hole” that was Nuremberg Prison Camp. “Yet even as I struggled with the day-to-day sadness and despair, I never once had any regrets that I signed up to serve.”

An extended tour of Nazi camps as a wounded POW scratching for survival wasn’t what Frank had in mind when he signed up to serve his country in World War II. He refused his parents’ wishes to stay home; they already had two sons overseas. Frank was eager to fight for the freedom his Slovakian parents had secured in America. It was the least he could do.

Francis Albert Kravetz was born October 25, 1923, in East Pittsburgh, near the Westinghouse plant that provided income and aspiration for an entire community. Every morning he shoveled soot that drifted onto the porch from the steel mill. He lived a happy life. But then war came. Frank enlisted in the Army Air Corps. If he was going to help Uncle Sam beat the Nazis, he would do it from an airplane—and he did it very well, as a tail-gunner.

Frank’s life as a soldier took a dramatic turn on November 2, 1944 in a bomb-run over Germany. He crammed into the tail of a B-17, wedged inside a flak jacket. The target was Merseberg, a major industrial area. He flew amid an air armada of 500 heavy bombers—each carrying eighteen 250-pound “general purpose” bombs—escorted by 900 fighter planes.

While the Americans were ready for business, so was the Luftwaffe, which set aside every aircraft to defend Merseberg. Frank’s plane came under hot pursuit by German fighters. Frank took them on with a twin .50 caliber machine gun manned from the tail. It was a dogfight, and Frank was shot and badly wounded. His B-17 was filled with holes, the engines destroyed. The crew had to bail, quickly.

Frank was bleeding profusely and could barely move. His buddies tried to get a parachute on him, but it opened inside the plane. They wrapped it around him, taking care not to cross the chords, and tossed him out. To Frank’s great relief, the chute opened. Instantly, the deafening chaos quieted, and Frank floated like he was on the wings of angels.

The tranquility halted with a rude thump as Frank hit the ground and tumbled like a shot jackrabbit. German soldiers seized him.

Thus began “a lousy existence,” or, as Frank dubbed it—“Hell’s journey.” Destination: Stalag 13-D.