Durbin vet reflects on life behind enemy lines, and those who helped him

This photo of Dabney Kisner was taken in 2015 when he was preparing to celebrate his 95th birthday. File photo

Dabney Kisner will celebrate his 100th birthday January 13. In honor of that occasion and in gratitude for his example and his service, we reprint the following article.

November 10, 2002
By Heidi Zemach
Special to the Sunday Gazette-Mail 

Lloyd “Dabney” Kisner, of Durbin, is best known in his town as an avid outdoorsman, with stories to tell about the bear that attacked his beehives or the fish that almost got away. But his experiences as a bombardier-navigator in World War II and his many close brushes with death make a story that beats them all.

On September 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, a Belgian government official signed certificates on behalf of his people honoring Kisner and other American veterans for helping to liberate their country nearly 60 years earlier.

The framed Belgian certificate, and two small Caterpillar Association buttons recognizing Kisner for escaping from a damaged plane in a parachute, are on display in his backcountry trailer home in Durbin, Pocahontas County.

On December 13, 1943, four B-26 Marauder bomber groups dispatched 216 aircraft in a series of flying formations over Holland to deliver 400 tons of bombs on a key Luftwaffe facility, the Amsterdam-Shipol airdrome. The 323rd Bombardment Group was on its 13th bombing mission, and Lt. Kisner was camped out in the nose of the plane as it flew straight into a large, black cloud of an anti-aircraft barrage. The exploding flak penetrated the plane, hit Kisner in the face and stomach and knocked out one of the plane’s engines.

Thanks to his bulletproof flak suit, Plexiglas safety glasses and a plucky pilot who flew the damaged plane to safety, Kisner survived to tell the tale.

As the crippled plane burned, the crew dropped its bombs. Then the pilot turned around and flew it back over the North Sea toward England, where Kisner and the rest of the crew bailed out in parachutes. Kisner landed in the middle of a minefield, where he remained unconscious and unaware of the danger while British mine experts helped an ambulance crew safely reach him and take him to the hospital.

Ten days later and just discharged, Kisner was back up and flying another mission. It was a massive Allied attempt to knock out the Germans’ newly tested big gun at Calais, France. The airborne fight was intense. Kisner remembers watching helplessly as the plane next to him was struck and plunged toward the ground.

“When you looked out and saw the airplane going down and there wasn’t any parachutes – well we called that ‘buying the farm,’” he said. Whenever a soldier was killed in action, he explained, the government gave their families $10,000 — about enough to buy a farm in those days.

The bombing runs had, by now, become terrifying, and some airmen refused to go on any more runs, he said. A few times, Kisner flew in the place of a young “boy” who was scared. One day, a plane he was thought to have been on was shot down. His parents received a false “missing in action” telegram for the second time before the truth was sorted out.

“I was scared all the time. If you weren’t drinking, you were scared,” Kisner said, and plenty of drinking and bar fights took place every night after a bad bombing mission.

On May 25, 1944, Kisner again escaped from a burning plane by parachute near Leige, Belgium. The B-26 he was aboard, the Dragon Wagon, was on its 57th bombing mission when it was hit by German flak. Both engines were knocked out and the plane was ripped to pieces when the crew bailed out, Kisner said.

As he drifted over small country villages, Kisner watched the people below, pointing upward and following on their bicycles the parachuting airmen. (The rest of his crew was caught and taken to a German prisoner of war camp, where, Kisner later discovered, they remained for the duration of the war.)

Kisner landed in the middle of a street. He said some of the hundreds of Belgians who watched his descent ran to his parachute and started fighting over it. But a few helpful villagers pointed toward a field on the edge of town where he could escape. As the frightened American flier approached a fence around the town, a pretty girl grabbed and kissed him, leaving a lipstick smear that he later thought was blood. Kisner said he climbed the fence and ran through the high wheat until he found an abandoned mine, pointed out to him by sympathetic farmers, where he could safely hide. Some children soon found him in the darkness and fed him bread and drink. He waited there until the Belgian underground arrived.

Kisner was later moved to a barn to hide, along with another rescued American flier, an engineer named Andy Marcin from a downed B-17 Flying Fortress. They were given new clothes, new identities and fake work documents. If asked, they were to be Flemish coal miners.

The two GIs were hidden for almost a month in the home of “Mr. and Mrs. Barbe,” who risked their lives and those of their two children for doing so.

Meanwhile, atrocities occurred all around them, according to Kisner.

Dabney Kisner with fellow airmen of the “Lady Liberty” B-26 bomber in 1944. Back row, left to right: Richard E. Robinson, pilot; R. L. Oakley, co-pilot; Lloyd E. “Dabney” Kisner, navigator/bombardier; Front row, left to right: H. G. Graham, engineer; L. Arthur, radio operator/waist gunner; Martin P. Dishong, tail gunner.

One day, as German occupiers loaded a large group of Belgian prisoners into a truck to be taken to a prison work camp, a girl suddenly knelt in the middle of the street to pray. A Gestapo soldier took the butt of his rifle and bashed in her head. They left the girl lying there dead in the street, Kisner said. That day, friends in the Belgian underground held a prayer service in her honor in the Barbe’s home.

Another time, the Americans were sent up into the attic to hide as German soldiers filled the streets below. As they listened to the din and wondered, German soldiers broke into the home of a nearby Belgian family, whose father had ties to the underground, and shot the children. The mother jumped out of an upper window to her death, with a baby in her arms, Kisner said. Another prayer service took place at the Barbe’s house.

The atrocities greatly scared the Barbes. Soon thereafter, the American GIs were moved to another safe house.

They were taken on a bus headed to an area closer to Germany. The underground felt a trip in that direction would be safer for the Americans, who would not be suspected as escapees. Nazi soldiers, returning home, packed the seats and the aisles. One badgered Kisner, sticking his gun muzzle into the frightened American’s nose, and trying to get him to stand up. Amazingly, “Chief,” an underground leader accompanying the escapees, got the German to back off.

The American soldiers were hidden in a restaurant basement until a new safe house could be found.

One day, Kisner was given a cow to drive – and the two airmen drove it to a nearby slaughterhouse, straight under the noses of two German guards. The slaughterhouse, meat market and adjoining farmhouse would be their hideout for several months. The farmhouse belonged to Louis Fechir, who had a wife and three children, and needed the kind of extra help that only Kisner, a rural West Virginian, could provide. Kisner said he became the “main gear” in the slaughtering and butchering operation, but steered clear of places where he could be seen.

“I lived in that house three months and never saw the front of it ‘til I rode up in a tank,” he said.

When not working in the slaughterhouse, the airmen hid up in the attic, But, at night, the Fechirs closed their shutters and let the GIs come down to eat dinner and socialize with the family. Kisner said a particularly bright spot in his life was getting to know a pretty and fiery underground activist named Marguerite “Mimi” Brixko, who lived next door. Brixko played cards and entertained the GIs with stories, and taught Kisner to speak French.

One day a local villager tipped off the Germans that someone was hiding in the Fechir house. Before the German soldiers arrived, Brixko took Kisner to her own house next door and hid him in a small closet under the stairs. Kisner remembers his heart beating loudly as the soldiers opened doors and closets, searching the house and walking up the stairs, right over him.

Another time, men broke into the Fechir house and stole things. Kisner thought the burglars were German soldiers, so he ran downstairs, through the meat market, slaughterhouse and barn, finally hiding in the doghouse, until the danger had passed.

One night as German planes flew overhead, the underground recruited Kisner to signal to an American plane using Morse code and lights from the middle of a dark field. The plane mysteriously arrived, dropping off men, radios, guns, ammunition and other badly needed supplies to the Belgian underground.

The last time the German soldiers came searching for hidden Americans, Kisner was taken to a bakery, about six miles away, where he stayed and worked, baking in the kitchen until American forces finally arrived on September 11, 1944.

The older he becomes, the more the 82-year-old Kisner wonders why the Belgians would risk their lives to save others. He has never asked his rescuers, but Kisner said he thinks he knows why. Not only did they like and admire the Americans, who they hoped would one day rescue them, but they despised the German occupiers, who didn’t think twice about killing citizens and innocent children, he said. Hiding an American was a good way of fighting back, Kisner said.

Unlike the other Americans in hiding, Kisner also believes that his rural Pocahontas County background came in handy. It helped him to become useful to rescuers living in rural farming areas of Belgium. It also helped him remain anonymous and, ultimately, to survive.

After the death of his wife, Kisner learned of Mimi Brixko’s address in Belgium, and they have been writing lengthy letters to one another ever since.

On her 80th birthday, Kisner phoned Brixko and spoke with her for the first time since the war. Communication, in halting French and English mixed with tears, was difficult, he said. But being remembered and thanked obviously meant a lot to Brixko, according to Kisner. He said it also means a lot to him.

Heidi Zemach is a contributing writer to The Pocahontas Times.

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