Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Finding Napa or Napa Finding Me” October 2006.
Finding Napa or Napa Finding Me – Irv Baum
By JoAnn Busenbark
Irv Baum is a humble man. “There are thousands of other people with stories more interesting than mine.”
We think his story is very interesting. Born in Monticello, New York, Baum grew up hearing about World War I from his father. After learning about the mud and exploding shells that plagued infantrymen, he decided if he ever enlisted it would be into the Air Force.
Baum graduated high school in 1941. College plans were interrupted by December 7, 1941, “The day that will live in infamy,” when the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor.
“I was accepted into the Navy Cadet program in September of 1942,” says Baum, 83, about the Navy’s pre-flight school. “It was in Miami, Florida and in those days of limited travel, it was the farthest I’d ever been from home.”
When he completed that program, he went to Nashville, Tenn. as an aviation cadet and graduated a qualified pilot in July 1943.
“I trained for three or four months with the 8th Air Force in England,” says Baum. “My crew was fanned out, but we flew five missions together and I flew 12 missions in all.”
Northeast of Paris on the return from a mission, the B17 Baum was piloting lost power in an engine.
“As we lagged behind the rest of the squad, four Messerschmitt planes headed straight toward us, firing,” recalls Baum. “We called for fighter support and when they showed up, we went lower.”
As an air battle raged above the limping B17, Baum concentrated on staying the course.
“Our radioman, who had a clear view above us, hollered that one of the planes was going to hit us. It hit the tip of the left wing and we immediately tilted 65 degrees to the right. The co-pilot was so good, he took us off autopilot so we could control the tilt.”
Gas flew out and hit the disabled Number One engine and a fire broke out.
“We had to bale out over occupied France,” says Baum. “We were 20,000 to 22,000 feet up. I was the last one out and I don’t remember hearing anything. I hit the ground in a plowed field and my navigator landed close by.”
A child yelled at them to run one way, so they ran in the opposite direction, towards a stand of trees.
“It was just a small patch of woods and as soon as we got through the trees we ran into two French gendarmes (policemen),” says Baum. “We thought that was a good thing, but they pulled their rifles and indicated we should put up our hands. A few minutes later, a Wehrmacht officer came up. To this day, my navigator and I talk about how the German officer paid the gendarmes as he took us off their hands.”
The officer flipped out Baum’s dogtags. “You are Hebrew?” he asked Baum about the “H” on his tags.
“In a moment of crisis, it’s amazing how fast and sharp you can think,” says Baum. “One of my friends’ mother was a minister for the Pilgrim Holiness Society. I told him that was my religion and if I’d been Jewish, there would have been a ‘J’ on the tags.”
The slow-witted, pistol wielding officer accepted that explanation and loaded the pair onto a wagon headed for Brunne.
“When we arrived, they fed us four fried eggs with a slice of ham and the mailman and a maid shook our hands when the Germans weren’t looking. A Luftwaffe officer showed up and said in perfect English, ‘We will take you now.’ Then for the first time I heard the phrase that every POW hears, ‘For you, the war is over. Just relax or I will be forced to shoot you.’”
“I was in isolation for two days, with no shoes, no belt. Food was a slice of bread and thin vegetable soup with ersatz coffee. Then I met the interrogator.”
Baum’s instructors had told the airmen that if they were captured their interrogator would give them a story about how he really lived in the U.S. and that he’d been called back to Germany for an emergency and had been trapped there when war broke out. That, indeed, was what the interrogator said.
“My interrogator’s English was so perfect he could have taught in a college. He gave me Red Cross forms to fill out to notify my family and asked about my crew. I told him I didn’t know them, that I was just the pilot for the day. He asked if I was a spy and I said I had dog tags and that meant I wasn’t a spy. He told me that when he had shot the last spy, he had so many dog tags on him that when he fell down it sounded like the Bells of St. Mary’s.”
“I kept repeating that according to the Geneva Convention, all I had to tell him was my name, rank and serial number,” says Baum. “He said I’d change my mind. It was their habit to interrogate at a time when you’d miss the noon meal, in hopes that the next time you’d cooperate. I found out later that he was upset because an underground jet engine factory had been bombed.
“He got nasty and told me there was a good reason my airplane went down and called Jewish people sinister. Once, at three o’clock in the morning, I was told to get out of my cell and walk down the hall, I was surprised when one of our aces stepped into the hall. There were five of us together and they marched us to a firing squad. I wasn’t frightened of dying, but worried about my poor mother. We lined up and I closed my eyes. The leader said to the squad, “Ready. Aim.” Once again, thinking clearly in a crisis, a tech sergeant whispered to me, ‘They’re not going to shoot, otherwise the directions would have been in German.’”
Baum was finally put into the general barracks and had his first good meal of Spam and potatoes. The POWs were a mixture of U.S. and Royal Air Force. He wasn’t there long when all 250 of them were hustled into the two air raid shelters on the grounds.
“They were worse than nothing, only four feet down with heavy doors.”
They lay down and Baum heard a grunt and an explosion. One man standing near the door was killed. They listened for half an hour to the explosions before being told they were evacuating that shelter for the other.
“Going through the yard was like going through the rings of hell, fire roared like a blow torch, multistoried building were exploding, there was a cacophony of noise. When it was daylight we poured out and the smoke and ash was unbelievable.”
The camp was uninhabitable. After a three kilometer march and another train trip, the group arrived at Stalag Luft III. “It was the night after the Great Escape. And there my story ends.”
After gentle prodding, Baum takes up his story again, and lets talk about being liberated by General Patton’s Third Army. He stayed in the Air Force for 30 years. He became an Arabic interpreter and translator for the first U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, Cavendish Cannon.
“He was the finest man and knew Arabic better than I did,” says Baum of Cannon.
He moved to Tripoli, Libya to be translator and interpreter for Eisenhower appointee John Tappin. “Tappin was a true ambassador,” says Baum.
Because of his service career, Baum knew California, and after retiring from Sperry Corporation he talked to his old POW roommate Sid Miller, a California real estate agent.
“He said Napa was an up and coming town. My wife, Maria, and I came in August of 1989 and it was very warm. Maria didn’t think she’d want to live where it was so warm. We were staying at the Clarion and asked about where to get a Mexican dinner. The person suggested the Red Hen Cantina, but warned us that we’d need a sweater because it got chilly in the evening. That was all we had to hear.”
They moved to Napa in January of 1990 and have fun here hosting their six children and 11 grandchildren.
“We enjoy traveling and attending military reunions,” says Baum. “I joined Kiwanis, which was the best thing I ever did.”
And that’s where the second phase of life begins for this humble man.