This past April, Airman Dick Bedford of Fairport returned to Weimar, Germany for the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp to commemorate the capture and release of Allied airmen wrongly imprisoned there during WWII.
A fighter pilot, Bedford was shot down by the enemy during WWII. He joined the Aviation Cadet program of the Army Air Corps in 1942 just after Pearl Harbor to become a flier instead of being drafted as a foot soldier at the age of 20.
Of the 168 Allied airmen imprisoned at Buchenwald in the summer and fall of 1944. Bedford and three other soldiers are still living. At 92, Bedford recalled his flying days, including two flights on D-Day and his subsequent capture and imprisonment.
“As soon as I got my wings in November of 1943 and 41 days after I was married, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant and sent to England. Assigned to the 353rd fighter group, I was sent as a replacement pilot because the squadron periodically lost pilots. I flew a P-47 Thunderbolt out of England’s Raydon Field to Germany, France and Belgium, mostly escorting bombers but sometimes flying missions to hit ‘targets of opportunity’ such as bridges, tunnels, convoys and trains,” says Bedford.
Bedford flew directly over Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, during the invasion of France, along with other pilots in an attempt to keep the Germans from advancing to the front. He flew 55 missions during the war.
“It was shortly after D-Day, on June 12, that I got into a fight with German aircraft ME-109, and lost. Shot down, I bailed out of my aircraft, west of Paris, in enemy territory and found a place to hide.”
Bedford evaded capture for two months, finding refuge with French families while in hiding. He was found out shortly after he took a ride from a “well dressed couple driving a shiny black Citroen” who turned out to be double agents. They dropped him off at an apartment in Paris on July 23, which led to his arrest a few days later. A knock sounded on the door near midnight and the Gestapo took him away in handcuffs. The driver was paid for every American he turned in to authorities.
Bedford was thrown into Fresnes Prison in Paris.
“On August 15, less than ten days before Paris was liberated by the Allies, we were loaded into boxcars—80 men in each car. Ours was the last train to leave Paris before it was liberated. We thought we were headed to a POW camp but instead, we arrived at Buchenwald Concentration Camp,” says Bedford.
Bedford and several others were lined up en route to Buchenwald, and with machine guns pointed at their backs, were told they were to be shot.
The Allied airmen were scheduled to be executed at the forced labor camp on October 24. Three days before their date of execution, a high-ranking German military officer wearing an Iron Cross who, they later found out was Hannes Trautloft, a top airman of the Luftwaffe, came to the camp and ordered the men be sent to Stalag Luft III near Sagan, Germany, a POW camp.
“Our captors didn’t want us liberated so they moved us often during our imprisonment.”
Bedford described forced marches in the dead of winter. On April 29, 1945, General Patton’s 14th Armoured Division liberated Bedford and his fellow soldiers. The war was over. On June 4, 1945, Bedford was on a train returning home to Rochester.
After a year in captivity, having lost 70 lbs., Bedford returned home to his wife, Doris, who didn't know if he was alive or dead until six months after his capture when Bedford was given a black postcard while in a POW camp to send to her.
Bedford is a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for seeking out and engaging the enemy, three time recipient of the Air Medal, the NYS Conspicuous Service Cross and, most recently, the Medal of Honor — presented him to him by the president of France. Bedford says he accepted what was dealt him, learned to live with what happened and has held no grudges.
Bedford took his entire family to Germany for the anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp by Allied troops in April, including his daughter, Bonnie Bedford-White, who has designed two illustrated books based on her father’s life and experiences with the assistance of Bernd Schmidt, who provided most of the documentation about Bedford’s incarceration.
While in Weimar with his family, Bedford toured Buchenwald for the first time since his capture, including its crematorium, library and educational facilities. He spoke to 11th graders at a local school and gave a speech during the commemoration events honoring the thousands lost at Buchenwald in which he said, “I hope our future generations never have to experience what we did.” A memorial stone honoring the Allied airmen was also unveiled.
Buchenwald was the site of one of the largest concentration camps within Germany. Between 1937 and 1945, more than 250,000 people from more than 50 countries, primarily Jews, were imprisoned there. It’s estimated that 56,000 people were killed at the site, according to survivors. Most of the early inmates of Buchenwald were political prisoners, however,in 1938, Germans sent almost 10,000 Jews there. Also interned were criminals, Jehovah Witnesses, gypsies and German military deserters.
A sign reads: “The crematorium is a central testimony to the crimes of the National Socialists. For former inmates and their relatives, it also symbolizes the grave which was denied the victims in an attempt to blot out all memory of them.”
Buchenwald and other sites remain as a testament to the perils of racism and the crimes against humanity that unbridled power can spawn.