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Friends for life

80 years later, families of POW, German sergeant remain close

The plain brown parcel arrived in his mail not long after the war ended, and it immediately took his memory back to Feb. 6, 1944, the night his brand new B-17 bomber was hit by enemy flak and anti-aircraft fire over enemy lines.

As he leapt that day from the blazing bomber, Julius “Sam” Bass wondered if this was the end of the line for him. He was parachuting from the doomed plane, named “Padded Cell II,” along with his crew, directly over an occupied German airfield near Bricy, France, some 60 miles south of Paris.

As German bullets whizzed by the Laurel native, Bass recognized the enemy airstrip. It was the very same one he and his men had mercilessly bombed the previous day. He braced himself for the iciest of receptions, should he make it to the ground alive.

The young pilot came to a rest with a resounding thud at the feet of a waiting German Luftwaffe — equivalent to the German Air Force — sergeant. As Bass would later write, “For me the war was over.” But his life might be as well, he thought.

Almost immediately the situation went from bad to worse, as an SS command car came screaming to the scene with three angry SS officers, who insisted on taking Bass with them to be intensely interrogated, likely meaning his death. They argued with the Luftwaffe sergeant vehemently, until the sergeant took out his Luger pistol and told the SS that Bass was an airman, and therefore he was his prisoner and he was not going anywhere.

That German enlisted officer was Hubert Winklmaier. Bass would later write that “Hubert Winklmaier’s courage in confronting the three SS troopers on my behalf might have been instrumental in my being able to (tell) this story.” In other words, it saved his life.

Eighty years later Winklmaier’s daughter Barbara Diefenbach found herself in Laurel on a sunny Friday afternoon telling the rest of the story, alongside 97-year-old Laurel icon Jimmy Bass, the youngest of Julius Bass’ four brothers and also a World War II veteran. Several years ago Diefenbach married and moved to Washington state, where she resides today.

It was her first visit to Laurel. “I just had to come and see Jimmy Bass,” she said. She was contacted not long ago by Laurel resident Angela Houston, who volunteers at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Laurel along with her daughter. A zoom call was suggested, but Diefenbach decided more than a zoom call was needed.

Winklmaier was a communications specialist for the German Army, and on that fateful day in 1944 he was sent to make repairs to the damaged airstrip inflicted by Bass and his crew the day before.

When Bass came crashing down to earth, he did so with a broken shoulder and facial burns. After a brief interrogation with the camp commander, he passed out and the Germans loaded Bass on the back of a truck to be sent to a Luftwaffe field hospital. When he came to on the way, Bass remembers Sgt. Winklmaier leaning down to whisper into his ear what he thought was, “I will write you after the war.” But Bass wasn’t exactly sure, as he was drifting in and out of consciousness.

“He had torn off a piece of Sam’s parachute and wrote his Mississippi address on it,” Diefenbach said. “Dad kept the parachute piece and a four leaf clover that Bass had with him when he crashed, but returned a small bible to his pocket.”

And that was that.

Bass spent the rest of the war as a POW, finally returning to the U.S. to continue what would be a long and illustrious Air Force career. Once Winklmaier received word that the war was finally over he loaded up a litter of German shepherd puppies he had been nursing along with the puppies’ mother in a sidecar of a motorcycle and drove it all the way to a friends farm in Austria to find peace and solace.

“Julius didn’t talk much about his experiences in the war,” his brother Jimmy Bass said. “But the only reason he lived through that war was Hubert (Winklmaier). He saved my brother. I would have loved to have met him.”

Soon after returning to America, Bass became unsure of what he actually heard from his German captor in the back of that truck. Did he say we would write? Or was it something else in broken English and German?

When the parcel arrived, he had his answer.

Inside, the letter was wrapped in the very section of Bass’ parachute Winklmaier had saved from their first meeting on the battlefield, and to verify that he was indeed the airman who saved him that day he enclosed it as well.

“Your lucky leaf of trefoil gave fortune also to me, I returned healthy at home and now the post is free and so I will write you my adventures,” the first sentence of the letter from Germany read. In the one page typed note Winklmaier refers to Bass as his “first and last prisoner.” It was the very first communication between the two men since that day Bass was shot down and loaded into the back of the truck.

The letter between the two former combatants is on display at the Veterans Memorial Museum on Hillcrest Drive in Laurel.

“Dad was in the war from day one,” Diefenbach said. “He didn’t like to talk much about it, but he always liked to talk about the good stuff.”

She did recall her father sharing at the dinner table that he had saved a soldier who had been shot down. She isn’t certain what happened to the rest of the captured parachute that brought Bass back down to earth that day, but it is believed to have been given to a German girl to make a wedding dress out of after the war.

What began soon thereafter the letter found “Sam,” as his friends called Bass, was a lifetime friendship between the two men, as well as their families. Bass began sending care packages to his German friend, who was initially struggling like many others after the war. Until, finally, Winklmaier wrote Sam that the packages weren’t needed anymore, he was able to enroll in engineering school and he began a long and successful career with Volkswagen.

Later in the 1960s, the two had somewhat lost contact with each other. Bass was busy as a career Air Force man always on the move, retiring as a lieutenant colonel and then going to work for Delta Airlines. Winklmaier was sent by Volkswagen to oversee operations at their plant in Uganda. But one day, chance intervened yet again in the friendship.

An Air Force pilot who knew Bass was assigned to serve in an airlift operation to Uganda, where he happened to encounter Winklmaier. After sharing some of the story, the pilot told Winklmaier where his long lost friend was then stationed, and once again the two began to exchange correspondence. It seems that they were now twice destined to be good friends and comrades.

In December 1968, Winklmaier and his wife Sonja, now working for Lufthansa Airlines and having easy access to travel, made their way to Florida to visit the Basses at their home. This would begin numerous visits between the two friends and their families that continued even after the Winklmaiers later settled again back in Germany. Bass and his wife Mary made trips to their village in Neuenhaus.

“Sam would always give me a subscription to Reader’s Digest as a Christmas present each year,” Diefenbach said. The children of the two soldiers also became great friends.

As their emotional visit wound down, the daughter of the German sergeant and the brother of the American airman gave each other a long and meaningful hug. Each was proud of the unlikely friendship of their loved ones that brought the two and later their families together in the most unique of circumstances.

The story of Winklmaier and Bass was forged almost by chance 80 years ago, halfway across the world on a battlefield where either of the two combatants could have killed the other if fate had twisted in another direction that day.

And although Winklmaier (1991) and Julius “Sam” Bass (2011) have passed away, their improbable story will live on forever.