The Story of 1st Lt. Russell T. Kaufman, USAF; a WWII Veteran, combat hero, a Nazi Camp POW. A real ‘top gun,’ an officer and a gentleman
(a WWII Veteran, combat hero, a Nazi Camp POW. A real ‘top gun,’ an officer and a gentleman.)
August 11th, 2010
Written by Chaplain Bill Rhetts
Today I had lunch with a hero. That is Russell T. Kaufman (aka Russ.) Russ is very humble, but his story demands respect and must be further told. Russ was a WWII Veteran that was shot down in his plane; consequently he became a Prisoner of War (POW) in a German Nazi camp. Here’s his story, emphasis added on ‘including but not limited to.’
In 1919 Russ was born in Louisville Kentucky. He was raised by his mother Rose and his step father. He advised his mother was a “good Christian woman.” He first remembers going to church when he was six years old. However, Russ advised he did not become a Christian himself until many decades later.
I asked Russ to share some of his memories as a child in the early century. He still remembers the first time his eyes caught glimpse of a fire engine. He was fours years old. They did not have sirens back then, but they had a bell ringing on the fire engine. He then watched the fire engine as it was enroute to a call. The engine was only two horse power. It was literally pulled by two horses. The horses pulled an apparatus that held the steam engine powered compressor, which pumped the water.
Around 1928 (age 10) his mother let him walk to the movies. He advised audio sound tracks had not yet been invented, so all movies were “silent movies.” He advised sometimes a lady would be on the stage playing a piano providing some sound effects. I asked him how much a movie cost then. He advised “only ten cents.” Russ smiled saying “sometimes my mom would give me a quarter. Then I’d go purchase the movie ticket, sodas and candy. I sure loved licorice.”
One of Russ’s most pleasurable memories as a child was “when I was ten, I had my own pony. Her name was Nellie. I loved Nellie and we rode together all year long.”
Russ advised he was an amateur “golden glove boxer.” He won many matches. (Moving fast forward.)
Russ advised his first career was with the fire department as an “engineer.” Although unlike the aforementioned fire engine (when he was a boy,) this one had an engine.
Over the years Russ has met a lot of famous people. He told me that before he married his first wife, he dated a very popular woman (popular in a decent way.) That was Hollywood actress Jean Ruth Hay (aka Beverly.)
During WWII Jean was “the first female disc jockey” and the first “global DJ.” Her radio show called ”Reveille with Beverly,” encouraged and recognized wartime veterans all over the globe. Tantamount to what Bob Hope did for the veterans. Jean was featured in many Hollywood movies. She passed away on 09-18-04.
Russ still remembers a specific Sunday they spent together on Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles.
I went through Russ’ photo albums, and noted that all his girlfriends were gorgeous. He replied smiling, “you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a princess.”
In 1944 Russ married for the first time. Immediately after his wedding he joined the United States ARMY. Sadly, his wife divorced him during his ARMY tour. Russ advised, “she was unfaithful, and she later died at the age of only 38.”
In the year 1943 Russ lateraled from the ARMY to the United States Air force. He then became a pilot.
In September 1944 Russ was sent into battle. A horrific battle that became known as WWII.
Russ advised the Commander and Chief then was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He advised “General George C. Patton was our General.” He added “Patton was one of the best Generals we [America] ever had.”
Russ advised his personal assignment was a “fire bomber pilot, assigned to the 19th Tactical, 362 group, 379 squadron.”
“For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” Deuteronomy 20:4
I asked Russ to describe his mission. He advised “As a Lieutenant I was in Command in Paris France.” He advised “my mission as a pilot was to destroy everything that was on the ground, ahead of General Patton.” He advised “I bombed tanks, pill boxes, everything rolling.”
Russ advised that he was thankful that he had an assignment that caused less collateral damage than others. Russ advised “I flew 30 combat missions. On everyone, I was shot at.” He added, “I had so many close calls.” He advised, “I could hear the Germans tracking us.” He further explained, “I could hear the Germans radar humming in my headsets.”
Russ advised on another mission he could see the Germans “red tracers coming at us. When you’re in a pinch, it’s Oh my dear God!” He advised “I just prayed I didn’t get hit.” Russ advised even knowing that then he merely just believed in God, he prayed a lot.
“The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him; He also will hear their cry and save them.” Psalms 145.18-19
Russ specifically remembers his last flight mission. It was Jan 14th, 1945 at 10:00AM. To prevent the Germans below from seeing him, he was flying above a line of clouds. He then saw a “break in the clouds, so I went down to shoot them below.” However, he admits he made a pilot error. I asked him to better explain.
Russ advised “I was flying at 250 MPH, when I should have been flying at least 350MPH.” He advised his too slow of speed made it easier for the enemy below to acquire a target on his plane. Russ advised, “my plane was then shot and I had to eject.”
I asked Russ what type of artillery struck his plane. He advised “probably a 40mm cannon. It blew up my planes wing.”
Russ advised that as his plane was going down “I hit the eject button and ejected.” Russ visibly struggled with this; he added “to this day I don’t know if I did the right thing.” He advised he wondered if he should have gone down with the plane. Russ looks back at his decision now, and believes “that was Gods way of taking me out of the war sooner than it may have been.”
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.” Proverbs 3: 5-6
Russ advised his ejection was near fatal, because his flight elevation was very low when he ejected. He advised, “as soon as I ejected I immediately released my parachute, I then hit the ground within 20 to 30 seconds.”
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
Russ advised as he was parachuting down “I saw half a dozen German soldiers running to my landing spot.” He advised they were “heavily armed” and he knew he didn’t have a chance to engage in a gun battle with them. So “I threw my 38 pistol down in the snow. They got me right away.”
Russ advised the location he was captured was the famous “down in the Valley of the Bulge, near the Belgium border.” Russ was captured by German Nazi solders, and now became a Prisoner of War (POW.)
Russ advised the Germans took Russ into a home in France, which had been taken over by the Germans. He recognized one of the American POW’s as his friend. He advised, “a big SS Soldier came in; he threatened to shoot my buddy in the head, so I kept my mouth shut.”
Russ advised he didn’t eat for three days. To make matters worse this was the “coldest winter this continent experienced in over a hundred years.” He advised “the water in my canteen was frozen.”
Three days later some Germans marched him and other POW’s far away to a “theater.“ The soldiers forced him to walk at gun point. He advised “that is when I met Harry Fisk, we became walking buddies.” He advised Fisk was a “fighter ace.”
“Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up.” Ecclesiastes 4: 9-10
After this long journey on foot, the Germans took Russ and Fisk into the theater. He soon learned that just before this happened the famous “German Actress Marlena Dietrich had just finished a performance there.”
Russ advised that during his captivity inside this theater he became very ill with
“pleurisy.” Russ kept praying to the Lord that he would not be inflicted with any other diseases. He was not even able to brush his teeth during his captivity, amazingly thou he didn’t get any cavities.
He advised his friend Fisk and another unknown soldier planned an escape. However he told them he was not well enough to escape, and could not walk so far, so he stayed behind.
Russ advised that Fisk and the unknown solder escaped, but were caught ten miles away from the theater. He advised, “when they brought them back I was laughing because had I escaped with them, I would have had to walk ten miles back with them.”
Russ advised the Germans moved him and his comrades to many different Nazi POW camps. However one in particular he will never forget.
On 04-17-45, Russ and about 1,000 other American POW’s were marched at gunpoint thru the snow into a “little German Lutheran church,” which had been turned into a POW camp. Russ advised he again prayed so much to God to heal him from his pleurisy; and from further harm. Russ advised at that time he was not a born-again Christian “but there aren’t no atheists in fox holes” he said.
I asked Russ what he ate when was finally able to. He advised daily he had “two slices of bread, tea and a potato and a half.” He advised later “the Germans shot and killed a horse. They let me have some of the horse meat.” Russ was very thankful for that.
“Continue praying, keeping alert, and always thanking God.” Colossians 4:2
Russ advised God answered his prayers and gave him his strength back. Russ and several others then secretly planned another escape. I asked Russ what was his plan. He advised there weren’t many options, so their plan was “to take off and run thru the woods, and try to locate a clandestine radio in Nuremberg to radio for help.”
Russ advised they executed their plan and “five of us ran thru the woods.” Three days later they were liberated.
I asked Russ to tell more about that “38 pistol” which he threw in the snow as his parachute descended. He advised before that flight mission, he no longer had his military issued Colt 45. So he walked to a “French retailer” that he learned was selling guns on the “black market.” He didn’t have the cash but he had some cigarettes. He advised cigarettes during the war were worth a lot of money. Therefore, “I traded my three packs of Lucky Strikes for a 38 caliber pistol.”
I asked Russ to tell me what was the worse part of his POW capture and imprisonment. He advised his brother Maurice later told him that his mother did not know he was a POW. Russ’s mother and brother were only told he was Missing in Action (MIA.) He advised many of his comrades were Killed in Action (KIA,) and many were MIA. Therefore, he knew his mother had not yet known if he was KIA or POW.
However his mother had “so much faith” in the Lord, he later learned his mother told Maurice “Oh I know Russy’s alright.”
On 05-02-59 Russ married a beautiful lady named Shirley. Russ and Shirley are still married today. Russ surely loves his wife Shirley.
Russ and Shirley began searching for churches and to know more about God. After trying multiple churches and denominations, they came to a church here in the Inland Empire, CA. Russ advised they surrendered their lives over to the Lord, received Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. He said, “the Lord saved me.” After being born-again, he and Shirley went to Israel, and were baptized in the Jordan River.
Russ said “when I flew planes, boy I thought that was as close as I could get to God.”
Russ enjoys a personal relationship with His heavenly Father thru His Son Jesus Christ. He advised sometimes he talks to God on a personal level such as this “God this is Russell Kaufman in Mentone!” He reads “a Bible verse every morning.”
Occupations after the Military
Russ was a postal carrier and then became a flight instructor. Russ had uniquely acquired many great skills, training and knowledge from his combat missions. He advised, “I had a ball training others.”
Ironically as myself and Russ sat in this coffee shop together, one of his former students walked over to shake Russ’s hand. That former student told me that thanks to Russ, he is now a flight instructor.
I asked Russ what his age was today. He advised 91. He then smiled and chuckled saying “had I of known that I’d live beyond 80, I would have taken better care of myself.”
He advised he is the oldest living male in his family. However, he said “I hope to meet my grandmothers’ age of 97.”
I asked Russ if there was any thing else in particular that he’d like to accomplish, before he passes onto eternity in heaven with the Lord. He advised, “I still want to finish my book I’ve been working on.” He advised his book is almost completed. I encouraged him to do that.
Russ is in great shape and very mobile. Mentally he is as sharp as a razor. He advised “Gods been so good to me.” He advised just ten years ago he and his wife Shirley were still water skiing (in his eighties.)
I asked Russ what he does in his spare time now. He advised, “I love nature. Even scorpions and tarantulas.” He enjoys sitting in his yard with Shirley as they “hand feed wild raccoons and possums every night.”
Russ advised that he and Shirley have two sons together.
I asked Russ what his favorite Bible verses were. He advised “John 3:16 and the 23rd Psalm.”
”For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16
”The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” Psalm 23
Note: 1st Lt. Russell T. Kaufman (USAF) was the 15th recipient of our “Meritorious Service Award.”
Regretfully I did not save all of his WWII photos, when I shut down my previous blog. Thankfully I saved the article.
According to the National WWII Museum, “900 WWII vets are dying per day. The rate is declining as the number of World War II veterans decreases.”
In March 2013, Russell and Shirley’s son passed away. I spoke to Russell for a while.