By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: October 19, 2009
A curious Swedish teenager and a historian in Oklahoma helped return a worn leather wallet to a World War II veteran living in Keene, more than 65 years after he lost it in the wake of a fierce air battle.
The wallet arrived at Robert H. Brookman’s apartment earlier this month, bringing an end to a long and incredible journey that began in April 1944, when Sgt. Brookman was a 19-year-old tail gunner on a B-17 bomber flying over Germany.
Enemy fire hit the bomber, named “Bottled in Bond,” severely damaging the aircraft’s engine, and its pilot set a course for Sweden, a nearby neutral country. The bomber was hit again with anti-aircraft fire as it descended into Sweden.
“I’m out there at the end of the aircraft. I don’t know nothing. I’m just listening to the intercom,” said Brookman, now 85. “I was scared. I wanted to jump out. I wanted to leave. I’m not a hero.”
The bomber crash-landed, sliding on its belly across a field. Brookman walked away with minor facial injuries, but said his assistant gunner, Sgt. Joseph L. Masqula, had his “head blown off,” either during the fight over Germany or as the bomber entered Sweden. He said he never learned why the Swedes fired on the bomber.
The Swedish Army watched over Brookman and the rest of his crew after the harrowing landing. It also assigned soldiers to guard the downed bomber until it was repaired or salvaged for parts.
While guarding the plane during a moonlit night two days after the crash, Bo Andersson found a wallet near a tree stump — how it got there remains unknown. Andersson, then 20, slipped the wallet in his pocket, according to Gary D. Simmons, the historian from Oklahoma.
Years later, Andersson brought the wallet out from its hiding place in an old cabinet and showed it to his children, telling them the story of how he came to find the war souvenir. One of Andersson’s children, Tord, grew up and had a son of his own, Emil, who heard the story of the wallet while visiting his grandparents.
Fascinated by the wallet and the mystery of its contents — an immunization record, bicycle registration, loan payment receipts, an off-base pass, B-17 crew member pass, utility blade, a photo of a young woman and the name and address of an Army nurse scrawled on a scrap of paper — Emil Andersson, 18, decided the story from his grandfather wasn’t enough. He wanted to find the wallet’s owner.
He tracked down Simmons, who has a Web site chronicling the history of the Ardmore (Okla.) Army Air Field and Air Force Base, where Brookman was stationed before his deployment, and asked for help in his quest.
After six months of searching online records, which indicated Brookman lived in the Monadnock Region, and talking with local historians and town officials, Simmons finally found Brookman’s contact information.
“It was a good feeling to know he was alive and that there was a possibility of returning his long-lost wallet after 65 years,” Simmons said.
Simmons had found the right Brookman. But Brookman was suspicious when he first heard from Simmons: A Swedish teenager has my wallet? You’re calling from where? Oklahoma? What’s this all about? Is this some kind of scam?
“I would have been a little suspicious, too,” Simmons said. “He didn’t know me from Adam.”
But when Simmons detailed the contents of the wallet, Brookman lowered his guard.
He’s holding the wallet now, sitting at his kitchen table on a raw, rainy Sunday afternoon. His wife, Nora, sits on the couch behind him, watching TV. He has the contents of the wallet spread out on the table in front of him. His left hand is wrapped in gauze; he says he broke one of his fingers during a recent fall. He says he has colon cancer. The items from the wallet seem foreign to him, dug up from a time capsule from another life.
“Christ, I can’t remember all this stuff,” he says. “It will probably mean more to my great-grandchildren than it does to me.”
The young woman in the photo and the Army nurse, Barbara Kolas — he doesn’t remember her, doesn’t know if the name matches the photo. The name means nothing to him now, buried deep beneath the layers of all those years.
“I don’t know why all this is coming up. Everything was fine,” he says. “I don’t need it.”
But Emil Andersson did. He tacked an ending onto a story that had been passed down from one generation to the next.
“I have to say that I’m stunned by (the) information you got!” he wrote in an e-mail to Simmons. “Me, my father and my grandfather are very happy that you found all this.”