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Chapter 5 - 1943 - Age 14



Elek Sipos, 1942, age 13. Taken about a year before the start of the following history.


I.    Summer 1943

A.     Status of Hungarian Air Force

[Victor’s note: After World War I ended, the Western powers enacted the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 to punish Hungary and other countries that were on the losing side of that war. Among other things, Hungary was forbidden from having military aircraft. However, a secret group of military flyers was established pretending to be civilian flying clubs. As a result of the 1938 Bled agreement, the restrictions were removed and the Royal Hungarian Air Force (Magyar Királyi Honvéd Légierő (MKHL) was formally revealed, and the army's aviation service was reorganized and expanded.]

 

When the war against the Soviets [WWII] started, this Royal Hungarian Air Force only had an "air power" of 162 aircraft. [It left much to be desired.]

 

For example, in August 1941, nine MAVAG Heja (“Hawks”) fighters left the City of Szolnok, but only seven arrived to the battlefield. In July 1942, 12 more Hawks left from Szolnok, but only 9 arrived on the front. Later, another 11 Hawks went against the Soviets. One of these was flown by István Horthy [the older son of Horty Miklos, Regent of Hungary, i.e., Hungary’s leader], who crashed and died.


So, these 27 planes scarcely deserve to be mentioned as being part of an "air force" because they did not represent any meaningful power.

 

But towards the end of the war, Germany occupied Hungary on 19 March 1944. They took over the airports and flooded them with thousands of military aircraft, mostly Messerschmitt BF-109 and Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters. The Hungarian Air Force came under command of the Germans high command and many Hungarian pilots flew alongside the Germans.

 

Some of the ground crew needed to maintain these aircraft consisted of Hungarian air force soldiers, and there was a growing need for more trained people. To meet the ever-increasing demand, the military established the Hungarian Royal Air Force Training Academy in 1942. After its first year, it was already a great success, and it was seeking applicants for the new academic year.

 

B.     Application to the Academy

After I read a recruitment notice for this academy in the summer of 1943,[1] my friend Gyuszi Silagyi and I applied for admission. We were not alone, many young people dreamed of getting into this academy. Thousands of youth throughout Hungary applied for one of the 300 openings, so it was clear they had to have incredibly strict entrance requirements.


Admission to the academy required two things: (1) graduation from Middle School,  and (2) passing the strict physical education requirements. I had already graduated Middle School by the summer of 1943, so that was taken care of.

 



The first part of the physical fitness test required getting screened at a military hospital in an applicant’s home town. This initial screening was not specific to flightworthiness, but just for general medical fitness so that they could start to weed out the applicants. We knew the next round of examinations would be far more strict, and to pass that, there could be no underlying medical problems whatsoever.


I went to the hospital where my mother worked as a military nurse. This saved me enormous time because while hundreds of other applicants waited for days to get it, my mother escorted me from ward to ward. In just a few days, I was all finished and pleased to learn I had passed. Sadly, my friend failed because he had a slight color-blindness, he could not distinguish between pastel red and green in dim light. In everyday life, this was meaningless. But for pilots, it was considered important. And even though we were not training to become pilots, we had to satisfy all health requirements that applied to pilots.

 

My poor friend was very upset, but he almost certainly ended up better for not having gotten accepted to the Academy. He avoided a great deal of suffering during the intense military training, including hellish treatment at the Academy, and then getting sent to the front lines against the Russians. Who knows if he would have survived that. He ended up becoming working for Máv [the Hungarian Railway System] as a traffic officer, where he throughout his life.

 

Academy classes started in early September. But first I had to pass the medical examination at the Székesfehérvár Air Hospital, where the requirements of the special flight physical had to be satisfied perfectly, because this is how they cut down thousands of young men to only 350 who passed.

 

But even this 350 was too many. The Academy only had 300 openings for first-year cadets – a fact they repeated to us often. So we knew 50 of the 350 medically-qualified applicants still had to be cut.

 

II.   Autumn 1943

A.     Arriving at Academy

All 350 applicants were admitted, and we could not imagine how they would whittle that down to 300. Nobody volunteered to leave, especially not after passing the rigorous physical examination process that had started with about 10,000 applicants.


 

The first thing they did was hand out a burlap sack and they instructed us to fill it with straw. They also gave us a smaller bag that we were also told to fill with straw, and which we then learned would be our pillow.

 

We were housed in a new, modern, three-story brick building. There were 200 students on each floor, plus additional rooms for training officers. We took our sacks and pillows upstairs rooms to the rooms where we had been assigned. Each room had ten iron-framed bunkbeds. Each bed had five 15cm wide planks on which we placed our straw sacks. We were also given two white sheets and one blanket. This was our bedding. With 10 bunkbeds, each room housed 20 cadets. Each sergeant had his own room that was the same size as ours.

 

The furniture in the rooms appeared homie, and actually quite luxurious. One corner of the room had a tea kitchen, the other corner had a toilet, wash basin, and shower room. The hallways were 3 meters wide. The floors throughout were made of some molded, marble-looking hard plastic that was shiny as a mirror.

 

Each of us had two shelves on the wall between the beds to place our helmets, uniforms, robes, and mess kit.

 

We each got a two-part aluminum mess kit, a bigger bottom part in which they served our soup, and the flatter top part on which they served casserole or noodles. This was painted camouflage outside, and white inside. We also had a canteen with a lower portion (about half the height of the canteen) that could be removed and used as a mug without opening the canteen itself.



The shelves had hooks to hold our rifle and spade. We also received a green chest, with a locking lid, that fit into very strict dimensions. We had to keep all our personal belongings in it. The chests for both the upper and lower bunk occupants were kept under the lower bunk.

 

On the first day, we met our sergeant. We started to call him Tojo.[2] The real Tojo was a Japanese minister, and we called our sergeant that because he was as precise as a Japanese minister. But there was a major difference. Our sergeant was an absolute sadistic animal, and I cannot believe that any educated Japanese minister could be so sadistic.

Tojo’s first confrontation with us involved our burlap sacks. When we had first filled them with straw, they were misshapen messes. Well, Tojo let us know with a dizzying fit of screaming that they were unacceptable. He yelled at us what an acceptable sack should look like, and he put us to practice immediately.

 

The secret to a well-stuffed burlap sack is how it gets stuffed with straw through the half meter opening. When properly stuffed in all eight corners, it becomes like a matchbox. In short time, we stuffed our sacks so full that they became very stiff. In fact, it had to be so stiff that when Tojo threw a coin, it had to bounce into the air. If the coin did not bounce high enough, we had to keep stuffing.

 

Each student also received a wooden bar, about 1 x 5 x 80 centimeters. From this we had to whittle a straw stuffing rod. This rod was placed on the upper right side of the sack, but it had to be placed so it could not be seen.

 

On that first day, Tojo taught us many things. The first and most important commandment was that we must obey every single order, immediately and without thinking. We were told that if we did not, it might have deadly consequences. Nobody was permitted to question if an order was smart or logical, but like a beast we must obey completely. Unfortunately, in a very short time, we came to realize what this meant. The second commandment was to package up any thought or concern about ourselves and send it home. Absolutely nobody was allowed to feel self-pity or have any concern about their own welfare. The third commandment was that at any time, for any reason, any instructor could enforce discipline however they chose; they could use any tool to inflict any amount of physical force to compel discipline. Soon we will see what this meant in practice.

 

At absolutely all times, yelling replaced normal speaking volume. Even if everyone did everything perfectly, they always yelled at us as if everybody were deaf.

 

We were told that every night we would be asked, “Who wants to quit and go home?” They explained that the 350 cadets had to be reduced to the 300 authorized slots. To accomplish this, they filled our days with intense, punishing exercises that would have put the French Foreign Legion to shame.

 

Day after day, many cadets broke down and stepped forward from the line when asked if they wanted to go home. I desperately wanted to step forward and go home, but I did not because I thought it would bring shame on me. I also did not know what I would do if I went home. My family had not money to send me to school anywhere, and I had no desire to become an apprentice even in thought. So for these reasons, I always clenched my teeth and stayed in line.

 

After about 10 to 12 days of this, our numbers had finally been reduced 300 cadets, and they announced we were now ready to begin our actual training.

 

B.     Life at the Academy; Tojo.

We learned how to salute, march, left face, right face, reverse, parade march, and goose march where 300 marched together. Later we learned to march with guns, and then different ways to handle our rifle. We went to the shooting range and learned to use hand grenades and machine guns, to climb over obstacles, and various techniques for hand to hand combat.

 

The worst part of training was Tojo. With or without any reason, was constantly hitting us with a large stick that all sergeants carried. We were beaten if we were unclean or failed to follow some order. But the goal of all this bloody whacking was not to teach us order and cleanliness because we were already orderly and clean. Instead, it was intended to break down any ability we might have to care about our own feelings, these relentless beatings were part of their process for carving blind robots out of us, robots that would blindly follow any commandment whatsoever

 

It was never difficult for Tojo to find a reason for a beating because the practice field was all clay and sand. During exercises we became dusty from head to toe, and whenever they inspected to see if our necks or ears were clean, it was an absolute certainty that our necks were dirty and our ears full of dust. And for this, the sergeant had sufficient reason to chastise us.

 

Multiple times during training, in the middle of the day he ordered all of us to the washroom, where we were ordered to stand half naked by the sink. There, he stood with a scouring brush in each hand and made us go to him. He would then scrub our ears until they became bloody messes. This is the kind of stuff he did. This is why I call him a sadistic animal, because this has no connection to training, either in a military or civilian setting. It is no wonder that on a battlefield, many sergeants were shot in the back. Finally, the leadership no longer allowed sergeants to go to the front line with those who they had trained. And in fact, we cadets would often discuss, that if they sent us to the front with Tojo, we would shoot him down like a mad dog.

 

A favorite pastime of this pig Tojo was to have “room checks” every week. This consisted of us making the entire room, and everything in it, clean as a cup. Tojo supervised everything, and he then searched through everything, went through everything under the bed, and if he discovered even a single particle of dust, then later that night, maybe around 2-3 am, he would conduct a “fire drill.”

 

When this happened, he went into that room where he had found dirt, and he yelled out, “Fire Drill!” When we heard this, we only had minutes to throw everything out the window, all of our clothes, our burlap sacks mattresses, our bedding, everything. Absolutely nothing could remain in the room other than the empty shelves. He measured our time with a hand-held stopwatch, to see how long it took to throw everything out the window. After this, we had to stand at attention and await further orders. Those further orders usually started with him yelling at us, berating us for how poorly we had performed, and telling us that we needed more practice, and that he would provide that.

 

Afterward, when the room was empty, he would usually give an order that in 20 minutes he would conduct a “room check”. So then, like crazed animals, we had to run down the stairs, outside, and grab armfuls of our bedding, clothing, and everything else, and then repeat this until we had recovered everything that we had just thrown out the window. And as crazy as it sounds, within 20 minutes we were ready for the room check.

 

Once, in the neighboring room, the sergeant crawled under a bed and found a small piece of straw on the floor. As punishment, in the middle of the night, he shouted an alarm to that room. He placed the piece of straw on the middle of a blanket, and he ordered four cadets to carry the blanket by its four corners while the other 16 cadets, in full combat-readiness, escorted the “dead” piece of straw to the practice field’s far end. There, they had to dig a grave and perform a burial ceremony. This stupidity lasted about two hours, and because reveille (morning wakeup call) was at 5:00 am, that room barely slept at all.

 

In the second company (of 100 cadets), there was an Lieutenant of Italian descent called Guelminó Opál, who was also a sadistic animal. A cadet was standing in line, and this Lieutenant stabbed him in the thigh with his knife, causing the poor kid [probably 14-16 years old] to be rushed to the hospital. This same animal also used the butt of his rifle to smash in the ribs of another cadet.

 

And for doing such horrible things, these officers did not get the slightest punishment, not even a verbal chastisement. It is impossible to write in words how much we hated those sadistic animals. There was absolutely no benefit to such inhuman torture. This treatment did not make us better, smarter, nor more disciplined soldiers; it only filled us with hate and loathing.

 

C.     Christmas break, 1943

Basic training lasted until December 20th, and soon after that we were dismissed for a 10-day Christmas break that included Christmas and New Year's Day.

 

My Christmas break was very pleasant after three months of French Foreign Legion type training. It was great to have delicious home cooking and to visit friends.

 

Everybody besieged me with questions about military topics, about which I did now know more than most other people, because the topic of flying was so new that the average person did not understand it. The German method of lightning warfare was also terrifying to many, and it felt good to understand it well enough that I could explain the essence of it. Everyone admired our handsome uniforms, and our soldierly, respectful, strong, brave behavior.

 

It felt good to be different from the civilian 15- to 16-year-old school boys, because my soldier’s uniform commanded respect, even if it was worn by a child. These few days of freedom flew by quickly.

 

III.             Early 1944

After Christmas break, in early 1944, we returned to the Academy. Many big changes awaited us.

 

Most of our days were spent in the classroom, with only one day each week of practical training.

 

We really enjoyed the classroom learning because we began to understand our future as a specialist in an advanced field. I applied to be an engine mechanic because I enjoyed flying and working on motors. I was still too young to think about becoming a pilot, so I thought as an engine mechanic, I could work with both flying and engines.

 

Studying was very difficult because I had to learn both flying and engine mechanic work, and for that reason, it was an even greater honor that I had finished first in my class.

 

This was accompanied by my athletic accomplishments, where I had progressed far in the sport of fencing. As I will explain later, I reached my high point in fencing in the summer of 1946.

 

Tojo did not conduct any classroom teaching, so we first saw him about a week after we returned.

 

We had completed our basic training and now started the real instruction, where they would train us to become specialized flight officers during the next 3 1/2 years.

 

In a typical week, Sunday was our free day.

 

Monday was our sport day, when we went to an enormous sports arena next to the Székesfehérvár train station. Here they had all kinds of sports equipment, and we learned how to participate in many sports, including gymnastics, floor exercises, wrestling, boxing, shotput, javelin, discus, hammer throw, triple jump, high jump, rope climbing, rock climbing, etc. In a nice, systematic order, we got a basic understanding of all of these.

 

Tuesday through Friday had classroom work. That left Saturday for practical experiences like warfare training, shooting practice, familiarization with weapons, and the like. We enjoyed this time because were learned an enormous amount about things we previously knew nothing about.

 

A.     Platoon Leader

After about three months, we were graded on our academic aptitude, sports ability, and practical skills. Each class consisted of a platoon with about 33 cadets.

 

I got first place in my platoon. This earned me a First-Class rank, for which I received a double gold stripes that I wore on the collar of my shirt, jacket, and cap. This showed everyone I was the top in my class and the squadron leader.



But the rank meant so much more than I imagined at first blush. Nobody was permitted to threaten or abuse a First Class platoon leader, not even verbally. If there was a serious problem  that truly deserved punishment, the greatest punishment would have been to remove the rank, but that never happened.

 

Every Sunday, those given leave had to check in with the platoon leader. Instead of taking leave, cadets could request permission to fly, and then they would be permitted to fly in a warplane for a few hours.

 

On Saturdays when we practiced warfare, the platoon leader led the group, as a sergeant-in-training. If the platoon received some exercise as punishment for whatever reason, the platoon leader could step out and did not need to perform the punishment. At the mess hall, the platoon leader went to the head of the line and got food first. And even when we were told we could not get seconds, platoon leaders could.

 

When it came to saluting, two gold stripes were the equivalent of a sergeant’s rank, so I only had to salute sergeants and higher ranks. I did not need to salute corporals, other platoon leaders, and common soldiers. But others had to salute us as if we were sergeants. And if they neglected, they could receive stiff punishment.

 

B.     Morning Gatherings

Every morning the company lined up and the captain (or sometimes a lieutenant) gave the daily announcements and whatever other instructions.

 

Next came the interrogation. Standing before the entire company was a row of soldiers who been charged or otherwise ordered to stand there. For example, if the night before a soldier had failed to salute to an officer, or even just a sergeant, they could be ordered to appear at the interrogation the following morning for failing to show proper respect. The captain would then certainly mete out some punishment, which might mean having leave privileges revoked for a month, or to do disciplinary exercises, or kitchen duty for one, two, four weeks. In more serious circumstances it might even involve jail time.

 

If soldiers did not appear at the interrogation, the punishment could become very severe. The Hungarian army was abnormally strict about such discipline. In fact, many new soldiers committed suicide because they could not handle the brutal, merciless training.

 

Thereafter, I studied with even more determination to keep my platoon leader position; I would not have it for the entire world. The instructors, captains, and others treated me differently, almost as if I were a man.

 

By the end of the first year, we could see how much we had learned. Classroom instruction was very enjoyable for those who enjoyed studying. A major area of focus was propulsion engineering and photography, which were flying positions. The gunner master, navigator, mechanic, fuel specialist, and ground crew positions did not fly.

 

Outside of our main focus areas, we also had to learn how to fight, to use weapons and hand grenades, and not only for military school, but also so that we could be sent as infantry soldiers at any time if were needed to defend against our enemies.

 

I enjoyed taking leave on Sundays, although I sometimes traded that for some flight time. When not flying, I visited the Arany family, the father was a train-engineer and they were good friends of my parents. They also had a 16-year old son, Jonas, that I had a great time hanging out with; he was also studying to be an engine mechanic. I’ll write about them more later. The friendship between the parents had lasted many years. Every summer Jonas visited us in Debrecen for a month and I visited him for a month in Székesfehérvár. We had done this for the last 6 to 8 years, so when I arrived at the [Salt Lake] Flight Academy, which was only about 5 kilometers from Székesfehérvár, it felt like home when I went to visit them.

 

The other kids usually went to a movie, dancehall, or to saloon and bordello at the edge of the city, where prostitutes entertained male visitors. Sometimes the traffic was so great at the bordello that there was a line out to the road, as if it were a movie theater.

 

I never went there because my mother, as a nurse, had taught me from the age of 10 years what was permitted and what wasn't, what kind of diseases I could get, and how difficult they were to treat. Knowing this, I had no desire to get mixed up with such women. And it was a good thing, because a few days after visiting the brothel, many young soldiers had to visit the barracks infirmary. At that time, we did not even have antibiotics, and a simple gonorrhea diagnosis could mean a long and painful treatment. A syphilis diagnosis was worse, and caused big problems, sometimes even death.

 

C.     The Muddy Canal

In the spring of 1944, we finally avenged ourselves a bit with Tojo. On a mildly warm spring-like day, Tojo had devised a new method to make our lives miserable.

 

About 5 kilometers from our practice field was the Muddy Canal. This was an irrigation canal, about 15 to 20 meters wide and 1 meter deep, flowing with muddy water, which is how it got its name. The water was very cold in the spring, but that’s exactly why Tojo liked it, because it would be different from his everyday form of cruelty on the practice field.

 

This day, instead of letting us go to lunch, he ordered us to march down to the canal. Once there, he ordered all of us to strip down, completely naked. So we did. All of us stood bare naked next to the canal, awaiting his next command. We did not wait long.

 

“Into the water!”

 

We could not believe what we said. Jump into that freezing, disgustingly dirty water?

 

But a command was a command. We had to obey, immediately and without thinking. So we all jumped into the freezing, dirty canal water.

 

Meanwhile, Tojo stood on the shore and watched with great satisfaction as we shivered miserably in the water. He was wearing his nice dress uniform, with sidearm, and many ribbons and awards on his chest. To an ignorant onlooker, he probably appeared to be a kind, warm-hearted, brave soldier.

 

He also had his short English pipe, which he puffed away on. We knew this pipe well because often he would empty the ashes from it right onto our heads.

 

We do not know exactly how it happened, but all of a sudden, Tojo flew into the air – with his clothing, pipe, and all – and he landed in the freezing, dirty water of Muddy Canal.

 

A few cadets rushed to him and held him underwater for about a minute. Someone grabbed the pipe from his mouth and threw it far away from the canal; it was never seen again. When Tojo stood up in the water, everybody else was in the water; nobody was on the shore.

 

Tojo quickly climbed out of the water, his clothing and shoes dripping wet. It looked like he’d immediately have a seizure. He just stood there and looked around in every direction. But he saw nothing. We ourselves had no idea which cadets threw him in. Almost certainly, one or more from our group had crawled out of the water and gotten to him.

 

We were finally ordered out of the water. We put on our dry underwear, clothing, and shoes, all while Tojo shivered dripping wet.

 

Then he walked home alone. He didn’t intend to walk home alone, but that’s what happened. When we first started out together, he commanded us to run, then to stop and lie down; then to get up and run, lie down, run, lie down, run. But each time he told us to run, we got farther away from him, until we “did not hear” any further commandments, so we just continued to run as quickly as we could.

 

Tojo was left alone screaming his orders while we ran away. And because he did not run, he arrived at the barracks a good half hour later. When he arrived, we had organized ourselves into rows to await his arrival. He then had to let us get lunch, while he went home and changed.

 

For weeks thereafter, Tojo held many interrogations. But nobody said anything, and nobody knew anything about who had thrown him into the canal.

 

Summer vacation started a few months later, and after that we never again saw Tojo again. But we always had a lingering satisfaction that in some small way we had gotten some revenge for all the inhumane treatment, beatings, yelling, and everything else that animal did to us.

 

IV.            Spring 1944

A.     German Occupation

Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria tried to break their allegiance with Nazi Germany. Romania was ultimately successful during King Michael’s Coup, and Bulgaria was also successful.  But geographically, Hungary was right in the middle of the main German supply lines.  Hungarian highways, railroads, and flight paths provided the shortest distance for Germany to support its troops in the east.

 

On March 19, 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary. On a normal afternoon, the entire Academy used to gather in the practice field. But on this day, German armored vehicles and guards surrounded the 600 students. The German vehicles had mounted machine guns. Then the academy commanders appeared, surrounded by more German guards and high-ranking German officers.

 

Our commander announced that the German high command had occupied Hungary, and that our military school must swear allegiance to the German high command and to Hitler as its commander-in-chief. We were told that if anyone felt unable to swear such an oath, they must step forward and the Germans would immediately terminate them.

 

Nobody stepped forward. And with that, we followed the lead of the Academy commander, and we all swore the oath. From that day forward the same laws applied to us as to German soldiers.

 

Everything else continued as before, but after the occupation we saw many more German soldiers and German airplanes. Throughout the entire country, every key position was assigned by German command. Airports were swamped with German equipment and aircraft.

 

B.     Increasing Air Raids

Aerial attacks against Hungary increased dramatically, the British dropping bombs by night, the Americans by day. The American B-17s were escorted by P-51 Mustang fighters and twin-boom P-38 lightning fighter planes. The bombers’ military goal was to destroy train stations and railway junctions, while the fighter planes shot at anything that moved or looked suspicious.

 

To escape the air raids, we would run 2-3 kilometers into the nearby forest day and night. German ME-119 and FW-190 fighter planes took off from our airport, and we watched stunning air battles fought at 6, 8, 10,000 meters elevation. More than once we saw them shoot down B-17 bombers, or P-51 Mustangs, and they would crash around us in the forest or farms.

 

On one occasion, a wounded B-24 Liberator was flying alone back toward the West, and it flew precisely above our airport at about 2,000 meter elevation. The German anti-aircraft guns opened up, and the bomber blew up in the air.

 


But amazingly, the tail-gunner escaped and opened his parachute. When he reached the ground, he surrendered.

 

Two days later, another cadet and I were commanded to escort this American to Szombathely, the local military headquarters from where they would take him to a prison camp. We traveled by train to Szombathely [Western Hungarian city near Austria], which was about 150 km away.

 

The passengers gave the American soldier food, drinks, and pastries, which we allowed. We also let the passengers talk to him. Through one, a teacher who spoke English well, we learned the American was an 18-year old student sport pilot who had come to Europe as a flying scout. He had asked to join a bombing crew, and they made him a B-24 tail gunner. His plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire and had to turn around. They did not notice our airport and flew right into its airspace, where they were blown apart by more AA fire. The explosion was so severe it saved his life by breaking the plane apart, allowing him to escape the tail.

 

C.     June 1944 Debrecen bombing

In the months after the German occupation, daily air raid sirens sounded in Debrecen. At first, the paniced public would always run to hide underground. But the bombers always flew by Debrecen without dropping bombs.  After a while, people didn’t even pay attention to the sirens, and just considered it a pointless waste of time.  

 

In reality, Debrecen had no important military objective. But it was an important  crossroad of much traffic, and thus an important part of German resupply lines. The Allies wanted to destroy the traffic area with a massive carpet bombing raid.

 

Then, on Friday, June 2, 1944, around 9 am, the sirens sounded again.  But as usual, most people did not even look toward the sky. It was an everyday occurrence to see formations with hundreds of planes fly over Debrecen. It was not worth wasting a few minutes to look. And anyway, the Americans flew so high, often at 10,000 meters or higher, that nothing could been seen with the naked eye other than contrails, and after a few months this wasn’t very interesting.

 

But that day, even if somehow had looked when when the sirens sounded, it would have been too late. By then, the bombs were already whistling down among the people and it was too late to run.

 


And the bombing was not all. The fighter planes escorting the bombers came down and shut an enormous number of men with their machine guns. In just the neighborhoods near the train station, almost 1,000 people were killed by the fighters’ machine guns.

 

Four bombs hit my housing block, which was on the 3rd street over from the station. Three bombs blew up three homes, and a fourth slammed into the courtyard. Two people in the houses died, and they had to dig my mother out of the rubble.

 

A few houses from mine, Rosie Csatári’s mother died when a bomb slammed into her kitchen just as she started cooking lunch.

 

So on June 2, 1944, Debrecen received its first huge air attack as the Allies tried to destroy its train station. But the carpet bombing was dropped from such high altitude that the bombs “slipped” with the wind, and the intended target did not receive a single bomb.[3]  But the neighboring three roads were wiped from the face of the earth.



It was awful to hear about the Debrecen bombing on the radio. They explained in detail how the carpet bombing intended for the train station had wiped the nearby neighborhood from the face of the earth, and they said that thousands had died in the attack. [Elek certainly knew this is where his home was; where his home was.]

 

It was only a week later that I received a letter informing me that everyone in my family had survived the bombing.

 

Everyone whose home had been completely destroyed by bombs was given a Jewish Home. A few months earlier, when the Germans occupied Hungary, they immediately rounded up the Jews. Debrecen had many Jewish families taken from the city, and officials had sealed up their homes. As charity, the government gave these homes to those who had lost their homes in the bombing.

 

My parents were given a Jewish home, but my mother refused to move in. Instead, they moved to a small village [Josza] about 10 kilometers away where they rented a room and set it up as a temporary home.

 


From the rubble of our home, they salvaged furniture, cookware, bedding, the sewing machine, stove, couch, dishes, clothing, and many other things.

 

D.    July 1944, Summer Break

Our school ended in early July. After the first year, everyone received two months’ vacation and went home to their families.

 

When I got off the train at Debrecen, I was speechless from what I saw. Outside the station building there was nothing but rubble, awful rubble everywhere, with burned-out homes, bombshells. The devastation was everywhere.

 

I walked to to the house in Jozsa because there was no other method of transportation available. I was very happy when I arrived home. It was very good to be home, to rest, to eat delicious things and to otherwise do nothing.

 

Every two to three days, I walked into Debrecen to visit with my friends and acquaintances, who were in the Jewish homes. There I could rest and wash.

 

But based on my mother's insistent pleading, I never once slept in one of those homes. I went instead to the Josza home and slept with my family.

 

More than once, there were midnight bombing raids on Debrecen. When the sirens sounded, we went to the garden and hid in a bunker that had been dug out of the ground. And even though the earth shook with the bombs, we felt relatively secure.

 

Around mid-August, during a bombing raid in the middle of the night, the Jewish housing block received a direct hit. Everything was blown apart and burned down. My mother's fear and premonition had been correct.

 

Meanwhile, six of us were sleeping in a single room: my dad, mom, sister, grandpa, and future brother-in-law.

 

E.      Grandpa’s Tobacco

My Sipos grandfather, who was the vineyard’s gardener, lived with my parents and smoked a pipe with raw tobacco. Raw tobacco is just tobacco taken straight from the plant, broken up by hand, and stuffed into a pipe, without any additives.

 

I had always been impressed by how people smoked their pipes, and cleaned them out. So,  I decided to try it.  I got a pipe and sucked on it, but I did not feel anything. I thought it might work better after doing it twice, so this time I stuffed raw tobacco into the pipe and smoked that as well.

 

I do not know what I expected from all of this pipe smoking, but I still didn’t feel anything at all. Well, not until about 10 minutes later, when I started to feel a little strange. Then, about 5 minutes after that, I was overcome with such an intensely sick feeling – nausea, headache, dizziness – that I thought I would be dead within minutes. The massive dose of tobacco had caused nicotine poisoning, which I did not even know was a thing. From that time forward I have been unable to even look at a pipe without feeling sick.

 

I spent the next few days trying to recover from the horrors of pipe-smoking while I enjoyed resting and doing nothing in the boring little village of Jozsa.

 

F.      Red Army Invasion of Romania

Meanwhile, the Russian-German war took a dramatic turn. On August 20, 1944, the Red Army’s 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts launched the huge attack against the German and Romanian troops known as the Second Jassy-Kishinev Offensive.

 

On 19 August 1944, Romania moved to become an ally of the Soviets. This is the exact kind of traitorous, villainous, spineless treachery that has characterized the Romanians since the First World War. An endless number of books and writings testify that Romanians are nothing but underhanded weed people, who deceived all the great powers. And despite being expressly forbidden from doing so, they invaded Hungary and its capital Budapest. They robbed everything.

 

It got so bad that the Supreme Council was forced to send a military detail from five nations to halt the terror being committed against the Hungarians by these garbage, scumbag Romanians. These scumbags had abandoned the Germans in Ukraine, and then opened up passes for the Red Army through the otherwise impregnable Carpathian Mountains. They allowed the Red Army’s mechanized divisions to pass from the City of Brasov on September 4, and to go west through southern Transylvania.

 

On September 7, 1944, they allied with the Soviets and declared war against Hungary. The Romanians sent 20 battalions – about 500,000 soldiers – to attack the Hungarians, who could barely send 1-2 divisions to defend against them. This meant the Romanians and Soviets had at least a 20-to-1 advantage at that time. [4]

But everywhere they fought, the Hungarians smashed Romanians. They occupied Kürtös and marched into Arad. The Romanians fled in a completely disorganized manner, abandoning weapons, ammunition, and food. Of the 50 Red Army T-34 tanks that had broken through, Hungarian Colonel Koszoru’s armored division destroyed 28 of them and then occupied Borosjeno [Romanian city of Ineu].

 

The military maneuvering of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús’ tank divisions ranks among the most successful Hungarian accomplishments of World War II. The Red Army broke into the Uz valley on August 28, 1944, with enormous numerical and technological advantages. It was defended only by poorly equipped Transylvanian guards from the 3rd Hungarian Army. The Transylvanian-Hungarian frontier quickly collapsed. The Transylvanian’s later erected a memorial in the Uz Valley and planted a headstone in the nearby Csikszentmárton [Sanmartin] to remember all those who defended Transylvania. A dozen German soldiers also died with the Transylvanians, and this memorial also mentions their names.

 

After this Romanian treason, an endless number of Red Army soldiers continued to pour into the Carpathian basin. The sudden invasion of the Russians into Transylvania, and their rapid advances, created panic among the population. Anyone who had relatives in Transdanubia [Hungary east of the Danube], and the means to do so, quickly escaped with a few suitcases.

 

G.    September 1944, Tapolca Airbase and Lesencsetomaj

My summer vacation was supposed to last until the end of September. But during the first few days of September 1944, I received a telegram to immediately report back to Székesfehérvár Academy. So, the next day, I returned to Budapest on the military express train.

 

The Academy was buzzing with activity. Returning cadets were getting organized under the direction of platoon commanders, and we were being sent to different air bases.

 

My section was sent to the Tapolca Military Airbase, which was the base for German Ju-87 "Stuka" dive bombers.


 

With the exception of a few Hungarian pilots and officers, everyone else was German. This did not bother me because I spoke German well, and it quickly became a very useful skill.


They housed us academy cadets in the nearby village of Lesencetomaj, just west of the city of Tapolca. The village rested along a hillside, in the region known for its famous golden-color and honey-sweet wine.

 

In the village, they converted one of the local school building’s classrooms into a sleeping room. We got along very comfortably in this room. Every morning and evening, a German truck transported us back and forth between the 6 km distance between the airport and our new lodgings.


 

Our day-to-day work as a ground crew consisted of supplying the planes with fuel and ammunition and doing any other work that was needed. It was not hard work, the food was good, and the German pilots loved us academy cadets.

 

The planes seldom flew in the afternoons, so we usually got home by 3 to 4 pm. I had been ordered to organize physical fitness activities for the platoon during the rest of the day, however I saw fit. After about a week of this,

 

I discovered nobody was supervising us, so I decided that everyone should make themselves useful in the village. At that time, I did not know there was a English phrase for this: public relations.

 

One of the Lesencetomaj village leaders worked at the airport’s finance office. As one of the few Hungarian soldiers at the base, he visited us at the school building the first day we arrived.  Because I was the platoon leader, he invited me to his house, which was only 100 meters from the school.

 

I told the rest of the cadets to go around the village, get acquainted with the residents, and return home by 10 pm.

 

With Dobor Jozsef, Master Sergeant, I went to his house and learned that his wife, Sipos Manci, was one of two Sipos families living in the village.

 

Well, this was interesting because I did not think that I’d run across any Sipos family here, let alone two families. Her father was Kálmán Sipos, whose older brother József Sipos lived in the neighboring house.

 

Mr. Kálmán was a master carpenter along with his son Kálmán. His younger son Elemér was a truck driver.

 

Mr. Józsi Sipos was the richest person in the village, and he had two sons and two daughters, Jóska, Lajos, Anna and Éva. They were charming people, full of kindness and goodness.

 

From the first moment, they treated me like their own child. From that day forward, I spent all my free time there.

 

The other members of my platoon also found families that welcomed them and took them in as if they were family members.

 

We helped with farming work, including harvesting, thrashing, and such. Even though we only had a few hours in the afternoon, and on the weekends, we were able to do a great deal of work for these farmers whose children had been sent off to war somewhere. I’m sure it was very helpful for them to have 31 young cadets whom destiny had sent their way. This way, we were earning all the delicious food they shared with us so kind-heartedly.[5] 


Mr. Jozsi had a vineyard on two hill, and also 8 to 10 acres where he grew wheat, corn, and all kinds of other food and animal feed.

 

I learned what long and hard hours of work are required to produce the few hundred liters of wine that supported an entire family. These families, with their 6 to 8 members, provided a great service to society with the fine wines they sold at the market.

 

But I also observed how freely they lived, and how happily they worked 14-to-16-hour days when it was required. In the winter, when the weather made outdoor work impractical, they rested and performed inside work, like maintaining their equipment and preparing for the following years’ work.

 

For two days each week, we were assigned to serve at the Tapolca Airport’s Armory and at an airplane parts storage facility near the train station. And on those days, we could not work in Lesencsetomaj.

 

This Sipos family will appear again later in my life, even 50 years later. Life creates some interesting connections, and this is an example from my life. Elemér and Éva Sipos were involved in my life in 1994.

 

 FOOTNOTES


[1] He turned 14 years old on April 4, 1943.


[2] This is almost certainly a reference to Hideki Tojo, a famous Japanese Minister of War during WWII.  Just watch Tora Tora Tora! and you'll get a sense of him.


[3] Victor: That is not exactly true. This was the first of many Allied bombing operations known as “Operation Frantic.”  The ojective was the Debrecen marshaling yard (the huge expanse of rail switching lines next the station).  The station building remained largely intact, but it was not the objective.  The raid involved 130 B-17s, escorted by 70 P-51s.  The website at https://tinyurl.com/DB1944Bomb shows photos of the bombing and describes it as follows:

 

“A total of 130 planes would hit Debrecen with more than 1000 bombs between 8.46 hrs and 9.00 hrs. The damage would be great but the loss of life was also enormous. Whole streets in the proximity of the railway areas would also be destroyed. Almost 1200 death and close to 700 seriously wounded would be the direct human impact of the bombing with hundreds of buildings (including many regular houses) completely destroyed.” 


[4] [Victor: This anger toward the Romanians for treason is interesting because it is directed at Romania acting in an unprincipled manner, but really, all he cared about the impact on Hungary. This event is known in history as King Michael’s Coup, in which King Michael I conspired with the Romanian Communist Party to remove Prime Minister Antonescu and to turn on the Nazis. This was certainly traitorous toward the Nazis, but the handwriting was already on the wall. Antonescu had warned Romania’s Nazi allies that the German/Romanian position was untenable and he recommended retreating to a more defensible line. The Nazi general Friessner refused because Hitler would not permit any retreat. Even without the coup, the Red Army almost certainly would have steamrolled through Romania and Hungary, although it might have taken a few extra weeks. Thus, the Romanian coup was likely reasonable for self-preservation.  In fact, as Elek correctly writes later, the Hungarian government also sought to switch allegiances to the Allies, which would have been the same “traitorous” act, but Hungary could not pull it off.  Perhaps Elek would have considered any act against the Germans to be treason.


[5] Victor: As I read this, I can’t help but believe that it was the village leader of Lesencsetomaj who set up the arrangement whereby the cadets were each taken in by families whose men had been sent off to war, and these cadets provided critical farming labor in the autumn, in exchange for being fed and treated with the kindness of a family member.  It is hard to imagine that any 15-year old boy would have had the foresight or wisdom to fortuitously organize such a beneficial system that benefitted everyone just in the name of public relations.  But I do consider it likely that the village leader, who is described as being an exceptional fellow, would have quickly realized how beneficial such an arrangement would be for everyone.  It is also not hard to believe that when Elek wrote this 50 years later, such a detail might not have been particularly memorable.

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