Weekly Feature

2018-11-08 / Lifestyles

Seeking recognition for veterans of a secret mission

Project 19
by JENNIFER WATERS West Seneca Editor

The American Legion Middle East Post No. 1 installs a new member on May 17, 1943, at Gura. Photos courtesy of John Swancara, “Project 19: A Mission Most Secret” The American Legion Middle East Post No. 1 installs a new member on May 17, 1943, at Gura. Photos courtesy of John Swancara, “Project 19: A Mission Most Secret” World War II was two years old, and America was still described as a “neutral nation.” By the fall of 1941, Britain was being pushed to the brink of disaster in North Africa. Time was running out, and so were the combat ready planes of Britain and its allies.

Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, requested help from the U.S. because the Royal Air Force’s planes were being shot down in North Africa faster than they could be repaired. There was a great need for a repair base in that region to continue the strong attack against the Nazis.

At a meeting of the nation’s top U.S. airplane manufacturers, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized Project 19 to respond to the need overseas, and the Douglas Aircraft Co. was selected to manage this project.

Frank J. Lemke was a machinist for the Airplane Division of the Curtiss-Wright Corp. in Cheektowaga at this time.

He and many of Curtiss-Wright’s other local employees volunteered to go on this 18-month mission to Africa. In total, there were more than 2,000 volunteers across the country. In the middle of the night, Lemke and many others crammed into a World War I troop ship and took a 50-day journey to an abandoned Italian air force base in Gura, located in the hills of North Africa. Their mission was to repair aircraft so that they would be battle-ready once again and to assemble new aircraft.

John Swancara wrote the only book detailing the mission. “Project 19: A Mission Most Secret,” which outlines the efforts of volunteers, from the construction of the base in Africa to the conclusion of the Allied efforts.

Frank Lemke, third from the left, back row, stands among members of the Douglas Police Force on Aug. 24, 1942. A variety of items were taken up as weapons by the brigade. Frank Lemke, third from the left, back row, stands among members of the Douglas Police Force on Aug. 24, 1942. A variety of items were taken up as weapons by the brigade. Norman Lemke, of Center Road, is seeking recognition for the more than 2,000 civilians who served in Project 19, including his father.

Lemke said he first discovered the mission in a newspaper clipping and has been researching the men and women involved since 2002.

“These guys were working there ... all the way up until 1943 where Rommel was finally defeated,” he said. “In this whole time, these guys are putting all these things together, doing all this work, doing everything, and they’ve never been recognized. They went through a lot.”

The Project 19 mission was entrusted to Douglas Aircraft Co. before Pearl Harbor, according to Swancara’s book. More than 2,000 American civilians arrived in Eritrea just as the Afrika Korps led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of German troops in North Africa, was pushing into Egypt.

“When they arrived in Africa, they took them by truck way inland to where the base was, and it was an old Italian air force base, which had been bombed. It was just a pile of dust. They had to make all their own equipment,” Lemke said.

Equipment was being shipped from the United States, but ships were being torpedoed, and most of the equipment did not make it to Africa. Many of the men and women were also lost at sea. Despite the time shortage and myriad problems, the project was soon doing its duty and was well underway when Dec. 7, 1941, changed the entire situation and the importance of the job.

“The civilians established an entire American city, repaired untold numbers of fighters as well as assembled hundreds of P-40s for the United States Army Air Forces.

The project went on to repair B-24s, B-17s and develop critical fixes. It also developed bomb sights, gun sights and other ‘mundane’ jobs, encompassing all of Africa eastward to India,” Swancara said in his book.

“They were putting planes together, getting them fixed up as fast as the planes were being shipped from the United States in these big mammoth crates. They’d come over, put the planes all together, paint them with the British colors plus the English insignia. Then they’d test them to make sure they flew right and everything. Then the English pilots would come in to take the planes and fight Rommel. This went on for the duration,” Lemke said.

Africa provided more than war conditions for those serving. Swancara describes the unguarded base being under attack from German forces, natives and four-legged predators.

“This is my father right here, the shortest man in the group,” Lemke said, pointing to a photograph in Swancara’s book. “They had to make their own police force because the United States couldn’t give them any protection. The English didn’t bother. They sent a group of African troops, two Jeeps with guys on it. They were supposed to protect these guys. They came into the camp, got out and had their tea and biscuits; then they got back in their Jeeps and disappeared.”

Lemke said his father never spoke a word about his involvement in the war.

“My brothers and I would ask him questions about what he did during the war, and he wouldn’t answer us. When we found out about this, I quizzed my mother about it a little bit, but she didn’t even know that much about it. So then I got working with this, and it’s been really interesting to get into,” Lemke said.

Armin Meyer, a retired U.S. ambassador to Iran, Japan and Lebanon, served as a C-47 radio operator, involved in flying RAF engines from Cairo for repair and returning them to the Western Desert. He contributed to the book by Swancara.

“As John accurately discloses, the project covered all aspects of keeping RAF and USAAF aircraft operational to stop Rommel, [without] which would have changed the outcome of WWII. Swancara’s research underscores the fact that massive civilian and military support is essential for those who must risk their lives in front line combat,” Meyer writes.

After the Germans were defeated in Africa, Project 19 was officially closed. American civilians had the choice of enlisting or returning to the U.S., and Frank Lemke decided to return home.

In the winter of 1943, he was on a freighter returning to the U.S. when the ship he was on was torpedoed off the coast of South Africa. He was later picked up near Sao Paulo, Brazil, after 42 days in a 22-foot lifeboat with 25 crew members.

Lemke arrived back in Buffalo and became a hydraulics instructor with Curtiss-Wright’s airport plant. He died July 16, 1955.

Recognition of Frank J. Lemke came for the first time on June 12, 2018, in the form of a Congressional Record on behalf of Rep. Brian Higgins.

Swancara said the official military project records are lost in some file cabinet on some closed military base, somewhere in the world.

“Few letters or reports have been found that gave mention of a ‘job well done’ to the hundreds of civilian and military participants in Project 19,” he writes. “Mr. Donald W. Douglas authorized the distribution of a medallion and certificate acknowledging the war efforts of each participant. Mr. Harry Merrick managed to save his certificate and shares it with the many that never received either.”

“I know there’s still some of them alive, but most of these guys are in Florida,” he said.

Norman Lemke’s hope is that someone local will relay the tale of what Project 19 did in Africa to aid efforts in the war and connect him with veterans from the mission.

“I would like to get this out in the public and see if there’s still people alive, or families of these people, that I can get in touch with, to sit with them and talk about their experience during this time and what they had to go through. I think it will make them feel better, too, knowing that there’s somebody out there trying to get them recognition,” Lemke said.

Lemke said gaining recognition for the volunteers has been difficult in many regards because the members of Project 19 are not considered to belong to either the U.S. or English military.

“The brick pathway that West Seneca has, I cannot put my father’s name there because he was not considered a veteran, because they volunteered to be there, and they were not in any part of the service. But, if you look at a page in the book, it tells you they were veterans,” he said.

The American Legion also believes the group never existed, despite proof held by Lemke.

“In Africa they had an American Legion post, Post No. 1,” he said.

A photo in the book shows members of Project 19 wearing American Legion hats, inducting new members.

Lemke said the American Legion will not recognize the group without an official charter.

“One of these guys has the chart er,” he said, pointing to the photo. “That’s what I’m trying to find now.”

Lemke is taking his mission international, working with members of Parliament in England to verify that these men and women were part of the British war effort in Africa.

“A lot of people think that I’m only doing this for West Seneca. I’m not. I’m doing it for all the areas. Every one of these guys came from somewhere like West Seneca or Niagara Falls, where the biggest plants were. I remember as a kid my father used to take my brothers and I up there to drive around, and it was nothing but airplanes parked, ready to be shipped overseas,” he said, recalling childhood fascination.

Anyone with information on Project 19 or its members is asked to contact Lemke at 674-5663.

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