Veteran Ed Reith Passes Away
I lost a friend this past weekend – Ed Reith, a WWII veteran whose company I enjoyed quite a lot. Below is a summary of his personal story (the original account compiled by a friend of mine, Tony Kelly).
Ed Reith was born near industrial Weisbaden in 1923. His father died when he was 11, and his mother was left to support him and his two sisters and brother as a maid and house cleaner during a time when many in Germany (and the US) were very poor. At around the time his father died when he was 11, Ed took his first job working as a delivery boy for the local baker – paid in day-old bread. In 1936, he began a strained apprenticeship with a tool and die manufacture who was worried that Ed would learn all he knew, and quickly surpass him in ability!
In 1939, at the age of 16, Ed landed his first real job working for Lufthansa Airlines in a suburb of Weisbaden as a mechanic on JU-52′s, the mainstay of the commercial fleet.
His brother joined the Army, where he ended up serving in North Africa – for three days – before being captured by the British and spending the rest of the duration of the war in Canada in a prison camp in Canada.
Half of his classmates entered the Kriegsmarine, with a further 9 serving on U-boats. Of those 9, only two survived the war. His fascination with aircraft led to to Ed lying about his age, and he became the only member of his class to join the Luftwaffe. Because of his limited schooling, he was unable to become a pilot, and so he was trained as a Flight Engineer, and by August 1940 found himself flying in JU-88 A-4 bombers in the Battle of Britain. He flew 87 missions, 85 of which were night missions, six of which were over London, and twice was forced to bail-out.
In 1941 he was at home on furlough and became quite sick. It turns out that many men of his unit had contracted Typhoid fever, and his home doctor was ordered to quarantine him. Upon his recovery, he was found to be unfit for flight service, and given three options: Join the Fallschirmjaegers [Paratroopers], join the Flak [Anti-Aircraft], or return to the airbase as a guard. To become a guard felt like a demotion, and as Ed told me once ‘I was twice forced to jump out of a good airplane. This was not a good thing!’, so his logical decision was to join the Flak.
Ed would take joy in referring to his unit as one of the ‘Fire Brigades’ that was sent to critical parts in the line. He once told me of a vet he had met later in life, who was very proud of the unit (Ed would not say what unit the vet was from, but I assumed at the time Ed was insinuating that it was an SS unit or ‘GroSDeutschland’, the regular Army division of some repute) who had said that *his* unit was one of the Firebrigades. When Ed said, “No, my unit was the Firebrigade.” the veteran was taken aback, and asked him what unit was he a part of – Ed responded, and the other vet quickly confirmed him, ‘Yes, you are right. You *were* the firebrigade.’ As it was, the Russians had a special name for the 9. Flak Division – the ‘Red SS’, because of their Red Collar tabs (denoting Artillery). it was often his units batteries that were the last to retreat across bridgeheads in the face of the Russian onslaught.
In the summer of 1944, Ed’s battery was transferred to Romania, where his battery ended up being on the receiving end of one of the massive B-24 raids on the Ploesti oil fields. Up until this point, the bomber formations Ed had encountered were never this large. During the attack, Ed was frozen with fear, and [later recounted] that he shit himself in fear. He was later brought before his battery commander who took him aside and asked why he didn’t fire his gun. Had his commander not known Ed for the last two years of the war, he insists he would have been courtmartialed.
As the war became bleaker and bleaker, his unit eventually subdivided into small battle groups and attempted (like many other Germans) to fight their way to the Western Allies, knowing what awaited them if they surrendered to the Russians.
On May 9, 1945, he and his companions surrendered to a unit of US regular infantry near Pizek, Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, this location was beyond what would become the border that was agreed upon between the Russians and the Western Allies, so the US troops turned Ed and his companions over to the Russians and retreated west.
Ed spent 3 years in a Russian work camp, and returned to Germany at the age of 25 weighing 82 pounds.
He was a good man. A stubborn man. A complete pain in the ass, as he would give us his opinion whether we wanted it or not. When he wanted to talk to you, he’d point at you with his cane. But he loved to see us, loved to talk to us, and we loved him for it.
Ed Reith – 1923-2008
I’ll miss you, Ed. I’ll even miss your cane.