It promised to be an easy mission the morning of March 4, 1945 — or as easy as a long-range bombing raid inside Nazi territory in the waning weeks of World War II could be.
The weather was perfect for the flight from Italy across the Alps into southern Austria. Army Air Force 2nd Lt. MacDonell Moore and his B-24 crew had carried out a dozen similar runs under harsher conditions. No German warplanes had been spotted.
"We were happy before we took off, because this was to be our last mission before going to a rest camp in a few days," says Moore, 91, of Catonsville.
But the instant they dropped their bombs, all hell broke loose.
A cannon shell smashed into the B-24's nose; a second sheared a wing. Moore took the time to help five buddies leap from the flaming aircraft before forcing himself out through its bomb bay at more than 22,000 feet.
Had he not delayed his jump by those few seconds, Moore would likely have floated to earth near the four crewmates who would be paraded before crowds of civilians and then shot to death. They were victims of Fliegerlynchjustiz — "lynch justice for fliers" — a campaign ordered by the Nazi high command that historians are only now bringing to light.
Moore would live through the day, one of two members of the B-24 crew to survive. In the following weeks and years he'd learn little about what really happened. But a team of Austrian historians has studied the incident for years — and will share its findings at a memorial ceremony at the site of the executions Monday.
Moore is too infirm to make the trip. But he says he's deeply grateful for the public nod to a group of men whose sacrifices might otherwise be lost to history.
In his Catonsville home, he adjusts himself in his favorite overstuffed chair.
"They're worth remembering," he says.
Like many who have been in combat, MacDonell "Mac" Moore has rarely spoken of his wartime experiences. Even family members are just learning the details.
Those who do hear the stories say they'd make a spine-tingling movie — if only the details were less hard to believe.
He was born to a well-to-do family in Danbury, Conn., on March 12, 1925. He recalls enduring no special hardships during the Great Depression. He was gifted in school, and played hockey, football and golf.
He met the girl he would marry when he was 12.
"I wouldn't change a thing on that front," he says, and smiles in the direction of the former Betty Ann Fennell, sharp and bright-eyed at 92.
When a team of Army Air Corps recruiters came to Danbury looking for potential pilots in 1943, they told young Mac he was qualified for a special training program even though he hadn't been to college.
Eager to join the war effort, he signed on.
"Much to his surprise, and my grandmother's dismay, he was called to duty two months before high school graduation and left for basic training in Biloxi, Miss.," says the couple's son, MacDonell "Don" Moore III.
Within 18 months, Mac Moore had learned to fly the heavy B-24 Liberator bomber, become commissioned as an officer, bonded with the men who would become his crew, and married Betty Ann at an Army airfield near his final training stop in Savannah, Ga.
By Dec. 16, 1944, the 10 airmen — part of the 484th Bombardment Squadron of the 15th U.S. Army Air Force — had relocated to an Allied airbase in Cerignola, Italy, staging ground for an intensive campaign of bombing missions aimed at military, industrial and transportation targets in the southern part of the Third Reich.
Lead pilot James Crockett, 24, also a Second Lieutenant, thought so much of Moore's skills that he had the 19-year-old serve as pilot for half his crew's first dozen runs.
All were dangerous forays toward such heavily guarded Austrian centers of industry as Vienna and Linz.
Moore's tone in recalling them is as calm as he must have been in the cockpit.
They returned from one run with 189 bullet holes in the aircraft — a number he says was not out of the ordinary.
"You just hoped the bullets didn't hit you where it counted," Moore recalls.
For their "lucky 13th" mission, the target was a rail yard in Graz, the second-largest city in Austria.
The feelings of the Austrian people about the National Socialist party and its expansionist aims were deeply mixed.
The Nazis had annexed their nation under the threat of force in 1938. For many, they were hostile occupiers. But by drafting more than a million Austrians into their army, they wedded many to their cause.
It was onto this ambivalent landscape that Moore parachuted on March 4, 1945.
The plunge alone was hair-raising.
His ripcord failed twice on the way down. It opened only when he was 300 feet above the ground. He landed in a shell crater on the outskirts of Graz.
It scared him, of course, when a crowd appeared as if out of nowhere, surrounding him. One visibly angry man pointed a gun at him. Others in the crowd subdued the would-be assailant and dragged him off.
By the time a local cop arrested Moore and led him to a makeshift jail, he didn't know what to think. That night was even more confusing.
Moore listened as men who appeared to be SS officers argued with others in what seemed to be Austrian military uniforms. A man Moore believed was a Graz policeman slipped him a note.
We're Austrians, not Germans, it read. Whatever you do, don't talk to anyone.
"Verstehen Sie?" the man whispered.
Moore nodded that he did understand.
After the Nazis left, the cop and a man who seemed to be an Austrian lieutenant marched the prisoner out of his cell to a crossroads. They handed him his belongings and pointed in the direction of what they said was Yugoslavia.
When they told him to start walking, he obeyed.
"I was sure they were going to shoot me in the back," he says.
He had no way of knowing that four crew mates had met a worse fate less than four miles away.
'It's about remembering'
As a boy growing up in Graz in the 1980s, Georg Hoffmann gave more thought to sports than he did to the air war that had scarred his homeland in 1944 and 1945.
He'd heard the grownups argue about it. Some recalled the Allied airmen as liberating heroes. Others saw them as invaders who killed too many Austrians.
Mostly, he says, they hid their feelings on the matter.
Hoffmann was on his way to soccer practice one day when he noticed an artifact that would bring them to the surface.
It was a small stone memorial, half-hidden near a railroad crossing.
"Here on this place killed a Nacifacist three amerikan pilots," the inscription read in tangled English. "Strassgang March 4, 1945."
What, he wondered, did the words mean? Who had been killed here, and why? The old-timers he asked would go silent, change the subject, or tell him no such killings ever took place.
In time, Hoffmann would know more about what happened that day than those who had survived it — and illuminate its connection to history.
Hoffmann, 37, now a history professor at the University of Graz, and a colleague, Nicole-Melanie Goll, were working with the Austrian government to document the locations of Nazi atrocities a decade ago when they happened on files that contained details related to the fates of Moore and his crew.
They made some of the discoveries at the U.S. National Archives and the University of Maryland at College Park.
The files included something the stone had not: Names and photos. It took Hoffmann and Goll five more years to complete the rest of the picture.
By the time Moore had begun his walk through the woods, it turns out, not three but four of the comrades he hoped had found sanctuary were dead, victims of a program conceived by one of the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and authorized by Hitler.
Interviews with witnesses confirmed that Sgt. Levi Morrow of Emory, Texas, Sgt. Charles Westbrook of Mississippi., Sgt. Steven Cudrak of Ford City, Pa., and Cpl. Harold Brocious of Dayton, Pa., had all landed about three and a half miles south of Moore. The sight of their chutes drew the attention of locals.
Each was surrounded by a crowd of civilians and shot at point-blank range by a Nazi SS officer — at least one man as he begged for his life.
All ended up in a pile of corpses at a place called Strassgang — the railroad crossing where Hoffmann would find the stone.
Under the Geneva Conventions, downed airmen are to be treated as combatants and, if captured, protected as prisoners of war.
No one knows who placed the stone there, or wrote its slightly inaccurate inscription. But Hoffmann has learned it has been vandalized, removed and returned several times since the end of the war.
Seventy-two years later, he, Goll and a team of about 40 high school students in Graz have designed a statelier version, one that would include the name, photo and story of each crew member — and, they hope, spark a fuller, more meaningful discussion of the air campaign over Austria in World War II.
It won't be ready by the ceremony on Monday — the team hopes to raise the funds to complete it by year's end — but they'll be on hand at Strassgang to show the crewmen's photos and read their names aloud at the site.
Officials of the Graz and Austrian governments, the U.S. ambassador to Austria, and members of the Austrian military are scheduled to attend.
"[Our project is] important because for too many years we have ignored the fact that these allied soldiers have been brutally killed," said Aram Darvishzadeh, a student at Kirchengasse high school in Graz. "The murder of allied pilots didn't just happen in Graz but in [the] whole [of] Austria. Sometimes the captured were even killed by civilians.
"It's not about blaming ourselves for mistakes our ancestors made. It's about remembering and talking about this topic to ensure that it won't ever happen again."
Moore returned to Danbury after the war, having endured captivity in two Nazi prison camps, a 16-mile forced march, and a succession of narrow escapes that somehow always worked out in his favor, all within a six-week span.
On April 29, 1945, just days before Germany would surrender to the Allied Forces, he was a prisoner at Germany's largest POW camp, Stalag VII-A at Moosburg, when an armored tank unit attached to Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army shot its way in and liberated the place.
Moore was only feet away when Patton himself rode in, his famous pearl-handled pistol at his side, and gave a speech the Marylander has never forgotten.
"He looked at these thousands of scrawny, dirty, dehydrated prisoners and said, 'You guys look damn good for what you've been through,'" Moore says, and laughs.
He moved to Baltimore with Betty Ann and their three children in 1953. In the years since — working as a salesman, a stock broker and more — he has become a grandfather to 12, great-grandfather to 14 and great-great grandfather to three.
Hoffmann details the Nazi orders to kill downed airmen in his book Fliegerlynchjustiz, published in 2015.
Goebbels' aim, he showed, was to create scenes in which civilians appeared to be rising up in spontaneous indignation against foreign "terror fliers."
The book details the fates of two other crew members, 2nd Lt. Oscar Ness of Seattle and Staff Sgt. Kenneth Haver of Ohio, both of whom died in the crash. The bodies of two others, 2nd Lt. Henry Bottoms of Margarettsville, N.C., and Sgt. Carl Ober of Elizabethtown, Pa., were never found.
In the 2016 book Missing in Action — Failed to Return, Hoffmann and Goll document the fates of the more than 1,600 Allied airmen who lost their lives when their aircraft went down over Austria during World War II.
At least 70 were Americans were executed.
Austrian defense minister Hans Peter Doskovil hailed the work.
"This is an important new contribution that brings a whole group of victims out of obscurity, commemorating their names in Austria," he wrote in the foreword. "It shows how important it is to remember as a way of preventing such events from taking place again."
The Moores met Hoffmann and Goll several years ago when the scholars came to the United States for a reunion of the 484th Bomb Group.
The Moores came away impressed, Mac says, and continue to follow their work.
"I'll be thinking of them Monday," he says.
©2017 The Baltimore Sun
Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.