Kisner: “They couldn’t catch this old hillbilly”

On the left, a B-26 Marauder bomber flying a mission over Europe in World War II. On the right, Frank resident Dabney Kisner, who served as a bomber/navigator on a B-26 crew during the war. Kisner's position was in the plexiglas nose of the aircraft, where he operated a .30 cal machine gun and a Norden bombsight. G. Hamill/Government photos.
On the left, a B-26 Marauder bomber flying a mission over Europe in World War II. On the right, Frank resident Dabney Kisner, who served as a bomber/navigator on a B-26 crew during the war. Kisner’s position was in the plexiglas nose of the aircraft, where he operated a .30 cal machine gun and a Norden bombsight. G. Hamill/Government photos.

(See last week’s edition for the first part of this story)

Frank resident Dabney Kisner spent four months behind enemy lines in World War II, successfully avoiding capture by German forces. When 3rd Armored Division tankers finally rescued him, the 23-year old airman told them, “they couldn’t catch this old hillbilly.” With the assistance of Belgian partisans and civilians, Kisner successfully avoided capture – but not without some terrifying close calls.

After hiding in a coal mine for three days, Belgian partisans arrived and took Kisner to a hiding place in a barn, where he met another airman in hiding, Andy Marcin, of Pittsburgh, a B-17 Flying Fortress engineer. At the barn, the partisans gave Lieutenant Kisner and Tech Sergeant Marcin civilian clothes and fake passports. For the next four months, Kisner would be known as Andre Kirkoven, a Flemish coal miner and laborer.

“When I got to the barn, they gave me a bowl of the best potato soup I’ve ever had in my life,” said Kisner. “I begged for another bowl but they said ‘no, it’s too dangerous.’”

From the barn, the two airmen were taken to a hiding place in the home of the Barbe family, brave civilians who sheltered Allied forces under the certain penalty of death. During their month-long stay with the Barbes, the airmen witnessed barbaric German atrocities.

On one occasion, Germans were rounding up civilians to be transported to a prison work camp. As the occupying soldiers led a group of prisoners to a truck, a girl knelt in the street to pray. A German soldier shot her dead in the street.

“I wanted to kill those damned Germans, but there was nothing I could do,” said Kisner.

On another occasion, German troops stormed into a home near the Barbes. Kisner and Marcin were ordered into their attic hiding place, where they observed the goings-on below through a tiny window. Gunfire rang out in the nearby home. Then, Kisner saw something so shocking, he didn’t comprehend what he had seen.

“I thought somebody threw a bag of laundry or something out the window,” he said.

The Barbes later told the airmen that the father of the nearby home was a member of Belgian partisan forces (the “underground”). The shots that the airmen had heard were the Germans murdering two of the man’s children. The mother of the home, with a baby clutched in her arms, jumped from an upper story window to their deaths in the street. This was the “bundle” that Kisner had seen plunging to the ground. The Barbe family hosted a prayer service in their home for the murdered family.

With the Barbes understandably unnerved and the danger of discovery growing, the underground moved the two airmen to a new safe house. Hiding in plain sight, Kisner and Marcin, along with two underground fighters, boarded a bus that was traveling toward the German border. The underground believed a trip toward Germany would raise less suspicion.

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A World War II Army Air Force recruiting poster features a squadron of B-26 bombers on the attack. Government photo.

Still, even a small group of fighting-age males was reason for concern to German forces. Soldiers on the bus, perhaps less focused on enforcing security in Belgium because they were on their way home to Germany, harassed and questioned the underground and the airmen. One soldier stuck a rifle in Kisner’s face and told him to stand up. Somehow, the intrepid underground leader defused the situation and convinced the Germans they were civilian workers.

After briefly hiding out in a restaurant basement, Kisner and Marcin were told their new safe house would be with the family of Louis Fechir, the owner of a slaughterhouse and meat market on a small farm near Liège. The two airmen impersonated farmers and drove a cow from the village, through a German checkpoint, to the Fechir farm. There, they would remain for more than two months, impersonating slaughterhouse workers. At night, the fugitive airmen retired to a hiding place in the attic of the Fechir farmhouse. During the day, they tried to stay out of sight while working in the slaughterhouse.

During his stay at the farm, Kisner became friends with the Fechir family and a local underground member named Marguerite “Mimi” Brixko. The brave, young beautiful Belgian girl mesmerized the young Americans, entertaining them with stories and card games. She taught Kisner to speak some French. Kisner contacted Brixko years after the war, following the death of his wife, and the two stayed in touch through letter writing. On his 80th birthday, 15 years ago, Kisner made a phone call to Brixko and the two reminisced and cried. Madame Marguerite Brixko passed away in June 2011.

German troops frequently commandeered meat from the Fechir market and sometimes searched the property for hidden Americans. Kisner and Marcin sometimes went into hiding at the Brixko house, where the family had fashioned a secret cubbyhole underneath a stairwell. Kisner remembers peeking through cracks in the stairs and seeing German soldiers passing directly over his head as they ransacked the house.

When it got too dangerous to remain at the Fechir farm, the underground separated Kisner and Marcin and took them to different hiding places. Kisner was placed into hiding at a bakery about six miles away, where he would remain until the area was liberated by the 3rd Armored Division – the “Spearhead Division” – about three weeks later on September 11, 1944.

“I heard the tankers were in Liège, so I kept looking for them,” said Kisner. “One day, way up the road, I could see a tank coming. I looked at it and I could see that it had a star on it. Boy, was I happy. Down over the hill I go and I was hiding. I didn’t want them to think I was a German soldier or something.

“But I walked out when the first tank went by and they told me to stop. They started asking me questions. They asked me who my favorite movie star was and I told them Betty Grable. They asked me where I came from and I pointed to the sky and said, “up there.” One of the other boys said, “we’re all from up there” and they told me to jump up on the tank.”

Kisner rode with the tank crew to the Fechir home, where he introduced the liberators to the valiant civilians who had sheltered him for two months.

“I never saw the front of that house until I rode up on a tank,” he said.

After a visit at Louis Fechir’s, a sergeant told Kisner he had to go see the tank battalion commander.

“He said, ‘the Colonel is just raising hell because you haven’t showed up. He’s just dying to talk to you.’”

Kisner was taken to see the tank battalion commander, a Lieutenant Colonel Arbuckle.

“We went in a jeep to the command post and I went inside,” said Kisner. “In a minute, this Colonel came out and said, ‘where in the hell is Kisner?’ And I said, ‘right here.’

“’Where the hell you been, man? Get in here. We got to talk to you. How did you get away?’

“I told him, ‘they couldn’t catch this old hillbilly.’”

The commander congratulated Kisner on his successful escape and quickly refocused on battles ahead.

“He asked me how many Germans had come back through this area,” said Kisner. “I told him, ‘for two weeks, they have moved stuff at dark. All night long the ground trembled.’”

Kisner told Arbuckle about the heroic partisan, Brixko, who was summoned and provided valuable information on German troop movements.

Arbuckle told Lieutenant Kisner that he would be sent back to Paris, where the Allies were in complete control, but that he would perform a mission along the way.

“He said, ‘We’re going to give you a general to take back to Paris,’” said Kisner.

Kisner, given a rifle, but still in civilian clothes, and a driver drove the German general to Paris in a jeep.

“I told him to get in that jeep and he didn’t want to go,” said Kisner. “But I looked at him like I meant business and pointed my gun and he got in the front seat. I sat in the backseat and kept my gun on him.”

Along the way, the Americans protected the general from angry Belgians and French, who wanted to lynch the high-ranking Nazi.

“We took him to a camp where there were acres of German prisoners in a big field,” said Kisner. “It would be like from Durbin to Bartow clear full of prisoners.”

Before departing the tank battalion, 3rd Armored Division soldiers had given Kisner another mission.

“They told me to go to Paris and buy a bottle of champagne and put their names and their wives or girlfriend’s name on the bottle and have a good time,” he said. “I suppose that was for good luck. Before I left, I had the names of 20 soldiers and their wives and girlfriends.”

After completing the prisoner transport, Kisner was lodged in a Paris hotel in use by Allied forces.

“I turned the general over and I went and got a room,” he said. “Then I went to get a sandwich somewhere. Then I went to the bar in the hotel. The bartender spoke English and I told him what I was going to do and he said ‘okay.’ So, I had my list and I got out my money. And I’d buy a bottle of champagne and I’d write their name on it. I paid for it and he’d pop the cork – there was something on the ceiling he was aiming for. I must have been an hour or more just putting all the names on those bottles.

“I opened up the bottles and just put them on a table in the bar. There wasn’t nobody sober when I left. We’d open up the bottle and read off the name and make a toast. I drank a lot of the champagne. For two days after, every time I drank water, I had a problem.”

Kisner was re-united with his bomber unit, which had deployed across the English Channel to France during his time on the run. With bizarrely rigid adherence to regulation, the Army required Kisner to buy new uniforms (soldiers receive a clothing allowance as part of their pay).

The war was nearing its end and the young lieutenant was not ordered to fly more combat missions. Instead, he was placed on an aircraft headed back to the United States.

“When we landed in New York, I got down on my hands and knees and swore I would never leave again,” he said.

Kisner has not departed American soil in the past 70 years.

Coincidentally, the author of this article is a veteran of the 3rd Armored Division, 1986-1989.

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