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Search for Nazi flag reveals coincidences

It's one of Jeanne Torrence's favorite pictures of her dad. She can imagine the jubilation he and the other prisoner felt hauling down the Nazi flag that flew over Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany.

The guards had cleared out a day before Russian troops liberated the camp and its 7,000 airmen on April 30, 1945. Somehow, Lt. Charles Suprenant wound up with the flag. He posed with it and other members of the crew of the Lady Barbara, a B-24 bomber he had been piloting when enemy fire blew it from the sky 14 months earlier.

Over the next several years as he built a successful career in the Air Force, he kept the flag locked among his most treasured possessions. On rare occasions, Jeanne and her brother, Buddy, got to take it to school for show-and-tell history lessons, where fellow students examined the giant swastika and its evil connotations.

Buddy graduated from high school and entered the Citadel at Charleston, S.C., hoping to follow in his father's footsteps. Lt. Col. Suprenant retired at MacDill Air Force Base in 1964 and a year later, while visiting his son, donated the flag to the military college's museum.

In 1968, Buddy earned his commission. Two years later, he was at the controls of a C7A Caribou dropping supplies to Marines near Kontum province in Vietnam when a rocket destroyed the plane, killing all aboard. Lt. Charles "Buddy'' Suprenant was just 23, the same age his father had been when shot down over Germany.

Jeanne, 10 months younger than Buddy, went on to a career as media specialist at Ridgewood High School in New Port Richey and taught history lessons to students using memorabilia her father had brought home from the war, including photographs of the Nazi flag. She and husband, Al, a popular local attorney, taught the same lessons to their sons, Matt and Ryan, emphasizing their good fortune. In 1985, they took their sons to Charleston to see the flag their grandfather had liberated.

"You could feel their pride,'' she recalled.

In 2009, Matt attended a conference in Charleston. Now 35 and a member of the University of South Florida library faculty, he was excited to visit the museum at the Citadel's Daniel Library where he had seen the Nazi flag as a boy.

It had vanished.

Some years earlier, the Citadel president had ordered items not specifically related to the university no longer be included in the museum collection. Some items were returned to families or sent to other museums. Officials located an index card for the flag, but it offered no clue as to where it had gone.

Jeanne Torrence retired from Ridgewood High in 2010. She gave up finding the flag. Then last year, Steven Donohue, who lives on Florida's east coast, found her on the Internet. He said his father, Walter, had died in 1986 but left a copy of that same photograph of the two POWs holding the Stalag Luft flag. He had been part of the 11-man crew that went down with the Lady Barbara. He had been with Suprenant when they snatched the flag.

Donohue's interest in finding the flag initiated a fresh search last year at the Citadel. David S. Goble had just assumed direction of the Daniel Library after years running the South Carolina state library. He didn't know it when he started the search, but would soon find his own special meaning in the missing flag.

His father, Lt. Woodruff W. Goble, had been a B-17 pilot, shot down on his second flight over Germany in 1944. He too was imprisoned at Stalag Luft 1.

"I don't know,'' Goble wrote, "but I feel fairly certain that Dad saw the flag that Charles Suprenant liberated when it flew above the camp."

He had attended the Citadel, too, graduating in 1969. "I wish I had known that something so close to my family history was here when I was a cadet," he said.

Goble noted another coincidence. His brother, also named Woodruff, was a Marine aviator shot down in Vietnam in 1968, the same year Buddy Suprenant died in combat. While searching for the missing flag, Goble checked the 1968 Sphinx, the college's yearbook, and found a picture of Cadet Suprenant. "I do remember him,'' he said.

Sadly, Goble concluded the flag is gone. He noted its "cool factor" and surmised somebody might have taken it during the transfer of items from the museum.

Jeanne Torrence worries that it might have found its way into the hands of neo-Nazis, but she hasn't given up hope that it will turn up someday.

"Stranger things have happened," she said.

Search for Nazi flag reveals coincidences 02/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 28, 2014 7:09pm]
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