By Tom Morrow
Every life is about history, and, for an Iowa country boy I’ve seen and experienced more than my share of 20th century history.
As a journalist I was privy to numerous events, celebrity and historical figures. Had I not ventured out of that small Midwestern farming community, I would have missed a lifetime of wonderful experiences of meeting and writing about fascinating people.
Writing the exploits of World War II veterans often was mind-boggling. Some of those stories are incredible. Probably the incredible story was that of the late Bill Ryherd of Oceanside.
Bill was a B-26 bomber pilot. He had made numerous bombing runs over Europe, but the fateful flight on Aug. 4, 1944 – his 36th mission – put him on a path that even a Hollywood scriptwriter would find daunting.
To make a very long story short, Bill bailed out of his burning bomber over southern France, was picked up by the French resistance, made his way to Paris and just as he was getting prepared to be taken on to Spain, one of the resistance fighters turned him into the Gestapo, the German secret police.
Bill, who had donned civilian clothes, was loaded onto a train with political prisoners and soon found himself in the infamous Buchenwald death camp. Thanks to the persistence of a Luftwaffe commander at a nearby German airfield, Bill and 187 other Allied fliers were released from the death camp and sent to prison camps for captured Allied fliers.
“We ended up in Mooseburg in southern Germany,” Bill told me.
Gen. George Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army liberated the POW camp.
“We saw Patton come through the front gate of the prison camp standing up in a Jeep, those silver pistol glistening in the sun; I thought it was Jesus Christ himself coming to rescue us.”
During my 40 year career of meeting and interviewing famous people, there are a few who would be candidates for having dinner with. We all have those thoughts, but I’ve had the good fortune of actually doing it many times. Well, in the case of famed movie director Billy Wilder, it was breakfast.
One weekend in April 1984, I conceived and staged one of the biggest parties ever staged at the Hotel del Coronado where I was director of communications. It was the 25th anniversary of the hit comedy “Some Like It Hot,” which was filmed at the hotel in 1958. I had a good number of surviving actors and writers as guests that weekend, including Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis. The world press covered the event. I had all of the major TV networks, including one from Australia, another from Germany, and journalists from nearly all national publications. It was rivaled only by the hotel’s centennial celebration four years later.
After the event, Lemmon called me and asked if I’d join him and Billy for breakfast. How could anyone turn down such an invitation. It was just the three of us. Only one did the talking.
“When you’re with Billy, you just listen,’ Lemmon explained. “I’ve never spent one minute with Billy that wasn’t absolutely fascinating.”
Lemmon was right. Wilder was, indeed, the most interesting and brilliant person I had ever met. Definitely one those “Most Unforgettable Characters” geared Reader’s Digest. Over breakfast on the hotel patio overlooking the Pacific (if the folks back in Iowa could only have seen me then) we didn’t talk movies. Billy was holding court and the conversation ranged from politics to art to cigars. Two of the most fascinating hours of my life. If you want to read what an historic figure Billy Wilder was, try Googling him – fascinating life of a man who escaped Nazi Germany and became one of the world’s great filmmakers.
More about my history in later columns.
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