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Word War II airman murdered in Austria gets memorial

Aug. 4, 2013 - 04:48PM   |  
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POCATELLO, IDAHO — The name of an Idaho airman murdered by Austrian Nazis in 1944 is remembered on a memorial to victims of the National Socialists in that country.

The Idaho State Journal reports Sgt. William James McCurdy’s name is on a memorial in Austria’s Drau Valley. McCurdy, from Pocatello, was shot by Austrian militia members after parachuting from a damaged B-17 bomber in November 1944. According to reports, he was approaching the two Austrians with hands raised in surrender when he was gunned down.

Idaho State University philosophy teacher William “Bill” James McCurdy, the dead airman’s nephew and namesake, recently received a phone call from an Austrian historian, one of the most emotional phone conversations of his life, about the memorial and his uncle’s prominent place on it.

“It was like a ghost from the past,” Bill McCurdy told the newspaper.

Sgt. William James McCurdy, a flight engineer stationed with a crew at a base on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, had once played bass violin for his high school and a local band, Gene Burton’s Big Band. According to the family’s story, passed down from generation to generation, he was just a couple flights shy of reaching the magic 50-mission mark that would have allowed him to be removed from front-line action.

But on Nov. 16, 1944, as his plane flew southward following a raid on Munich just over the border in Germany, the entire seven-member crew was forced to bail out. Six survived the war as prisoners; the story of what happened to McCurdy is contained in the 2012 book, “From Memory into Remembrance,” by the Austrian historians Anita Profunser and Peter Pirker.

Two Austrian militia members, Anton Taurer and Franz Wilker, had been ordered “whatever had fallen out of the heavens should be returned to the heavens.” They shot McCurdy in the stomach just as he’d been bundling up his parachute. He died minutes later.

Transcripts from the war crimes trial of Taurer and Wilker spell out that bleak moment on the wintry field in Austria.

“At the time of the shot, the American was facing the accused with is arms raised in surrender,” the trial record states of the proceedings in which the two men were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Only a few years later, the sentence was reduced and the men were freed, according to the book.

“My grandmother grieved pretty hard,” Bill McCurdy recalls. “She had already lost two sons — one was stillborn and the other died at nine months.”

McCurdy’s body was originally buried in the Drau Valley, near where he was killed. He would be listed as missing in action until 1946 when his father and mother received word his remains had been recovered and buried at a U.S. military cemetery in France.

Now, Bill McCurdy is hoping to make a trip to the Drau Valley, possibly next year, to visit the memorial, which includes small drawers for visitors to leave items of remembrance.

He plans to deposit these lines from a funeral speech given by Pericles, the Athenian leader, following the first battles of the Peloponnesian war:

“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart.”

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