By Errol Castens
TUPELO – T.C. Gibbs looks into the tiny round mirror on his wall – a magic mirror, really – and sees a reflection of a lifetime.
It’s the portrait of a young man, fresh out of his hometown of Fulton, going to fight for his country.
As the focuses changes it shows the same man, still young but much more experienced, who had flown 24 missions over Germany as nosegunner on a B-24 bomber – the “Liberator.” Gibbs can see the plane shot down, he and fellow crewmen parachuting onto the frozen landscape of coastal Holland, and the gut-wrenching realization that the Nazis were taking them prisoner.
The magic mirror also shows an older man – Gibbs’ present-day self – both amazed and grateful for the nearly 63 years he’s lived since that ordeal.
In the background are reflected countless others: a loving family that longed for his return, the crewmen who became his fellow sufferers, even present-day friends whose loved ones were lost in circumstances only slightly different from his own.
Oh, and with all those reflections are the Dutch people who encouraged Gibbs and his comrades to endure – the Dutch people who, to this day, consider American military men their heroes.
Casualties were high among B-24 crews in general. One more mission, and Gibbs’ crew would have been through dodging flak and fighter planes. But when their plane encountered an antiaircraft battery on its way back to England on Jan. 28, 1945, they doubted they’d see sundown, much less February.
“We were blessed,” he recalled in a severe understatement. “We all got out of the plane.”
Not only did they all survive the ordeals of the crash and war prison, but each man of the ten-man crew lived into the 21st Century.
“We lost our first member about four or five years ago,” Gibbs added.
Gibbs landed near a farmhouse, where he was eagerly taken in, and the farm family retrieved another airman after he landed hard on their barn. The Nazis, though, quickly burst in and took the two men as prisoners of war. All 10 crew members were taken to the mainland, then transported to a camp in Nuremberg. Late in the war, the biggest challenge for the soon-to-be-defeated German forces was a lack of resources.
“Overall, I’d say the Germans treated us decently,” he said. “They had no food, so we had no food.”
On a march from Nuremberg to another camp at Moosberg, the prisoners found an unexpected bounty.
“Some of my buddies let me down into the farmer’s potato bin,” Gibbs said. “I took off my longhandled underwear and tied up the ends and loaded them down with Irish potatoes.”
On that same march, homemade radios brought the news that Gen. George Patton’s forces were closing in, and that President Franklin Roosevelt had died.
They were only in Moosberg a few weeks.
“By the end of the war, we heard there were 110,000 prisoners there, and the rumor was the Germans were planning to use prisoners as trading material,” Gibbs said. “I know that Sunday morning we heard these guns going off, and we looked up on the hill and there were American tanks shelling this town of Moosberg. That was a joyous day.”
The once-starving prisoners made themselves literally sick on the suddenly plentiful food. Within a few weeks, though, they had sailed past the Statue of Liberty and landed on American soil, where they were feted at a banquet whose servers were German POWs and not long afterward, at home on leave.
“My mother and dad and my oldest brother and sister met the bus in Columbus,” Gibbs said. “That was quite a homecoming.”
After finishing law school, Gibbs was recalled from the reserves for the Korean conflict. This time, however, his duty was stateside.
“When I go to Roswell Air Force Base, I was assigned to the Judge Advocate General. It was really easy duty,” he said with a laugh. “I just had to sit there and listen to someone else complain.”
Four decades in the insurance business provided Gibbs and his family a good life, but World War II is still, as it is with many veterans of his era, the defining event of his life, and he’s continued membership in the 8th Air Force Historical Society.
That interest resulted in meeting fellow Tupeloan Adrian Caldwell, whose dad, Leroy Liest, a B-17 tailgunner, is missing in action. His plane crashed just offshore near where Gibbs’ plane crashed.
Adrian Caldwell and her husband, Robert, developed a close friendship with Gibbs and his wife, Ann, and this fall the two couples went back to Holland, Germany and Belgium to see where fate had visited both families.
“This summer T.C. said, ‘I’d love to go back one more time,’ and I said, ‘Well, let’s just plan it then,’ and so we did,” Adrian Caldwell said. Having researched the hunt for her father’s plane for years, she was in touch with historians and Schouwen Island residents.
They visited several sites important to the Allied effort to free Europe from the Nazis, including the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial at Margraten, where Leroy Liest’s name is engraved on a marble wall, along with other servicemen missing in action. Its care is an indication of just how appreciative the Dutch remain for America’s liberating efforts.
“It’s breathtaking to see it on Memorial Day,” Robert Caldwell said. “Every grave – 8,301 graves – will have an American flag and a Dutch flag, and most of them will have flowers.” The Caldwells are among many civilians both American and Dutch who still continue the hunt for the wreckage of Liest’s plane offshore.
The sobering highlight of the trip was returning to the site where USAF B-24 #42-78486 crashed on Jan. 28, 1945, in what is now a sugar beet field. Several carloads of local residents, including people who witnessed the crash, met the Gibbses and the Caldwells there, showering them with flowers, gifts and greetings. One man, a teenager in 1945, had climbed into the wreckage and shot the plane’s 50-caliber machine gun. Wim de Vrieze, a historian, provided maps and photos to put the event in context, and his wife, Ana, marked the exact crash site with an American flag.
“They have not forgotten the war,” Adrian Caldwell said.
After local newspapers reported Gibbs’ visit, even more area residents were enchanted.
“We were having dinner and couldn’t read the menu, so a gentleman turned his chair around and was going to help us,” Adrian Caldwell recalled. “He asked where we were from, and why we were there; we said we’d brought our veteran friend, and he said, ‘Oh, it is you! It is you! The one in the paper! It is you!’
“He said, ‘I teach 14-year-old boys, and tomorrow I will tell them about you.’”
One white-haired lady, a mere girl when Gibbs’ plane had crashed, kissed his hand and said in broken English, “Thank you for liberating us.”
The Americans spoke to several Dutch groups, earning similar adulations from each visit. The Mississippi-Netherlands friendships continue through Christmas cards, e-mails and even a visit from Dutchman Dennis Notenboom to Tupelo next year.
A new reflection
One other new friend is Ina Yiljam. As a 14-year-old girl, she had gone through the wreckage of Gibbs’ plane with her father, looking for food and anything else worth salvaging. German soldiers ran them off, but not before she had pocketed a metal signaling mirror. For the next 62 years it was one of her family’s heirlooms.
“She said her children and grandchildren treasured it,” Ann Gibbs said, “but she told them (when we visited), ‘No! It belongs to the veteran!’”
Today, T. C. Gibbs looks in that mirror and sees one more reflection.
“On that march from Nuremberg to Moosberg, we’d stay at these barns,” he said. “One day we stopped, and here comes this pretty little German girl, 7 or 8, with blond hair and one leg.”
To a man, the prisoners dug through their meager provisions for a bit of food or some trinket to give the heart-melting child.
“Here she was, one leg missing, and smiling at the people who – well, any one of us could have toggled the bomb that blew her leg off,” he said.
While Hitler’s defeat was just as necessary after that meeting as before, the little girl showed the soldiers a new cost to the conflict.
“Civilians suffer more than the military do. At least we expected to suffer,” T. C. Gibbs said. “I think that night every man in our group saw the futility of war.”
Contact reporter Errol Castens at 281-1069 or email@example.com.