A Belgian native visiting Oregon this month is returning items connected to the Portland family of a B-17 bomber pilot killed in Belgium during WWII.
Ghent and Brussels University professor of ethology Frank Ödberg is visiting Oregon to connect with his longtime friend David Noakes, Oregon State University professor of fisheries and wildlife, in August, but at the same time, he’s taking advantage of the opportunity to meet the family of an American soldier who died during World War II. After Austin Mack’s death on May 24, 1944 when his B-17 crashed, his remains were buried in a US army cemetery in Neuville, close to Liege, Belgium.
Ödberg’s grandmother, who had been caring for and hosting American, Canadian and British soldiers after the liberation of Ghent in September 1944, also took it upon herself to care for a number of foreign soldiers’ graves, including Mack’s (his body was later repatriated to the United States). Her care for and connection to these soldiers extended to building relationships with many of their remaining family members, often through exchanging letters.
Ödberg, who was born shortly after the war, was given his first teddy bear by the mother of Austin Mack, and among his collection of family memorabilia is a large scrapbook of photos, letters, newspaper cuttings and dried flowers from Mack’s families and others. Realizing that nearly seven decades later, that memorabilia would be important to his family, and learning that several family members lived in Oregon, Ödberg decided that during his trip to the Pacific Northwest, he’d connect with that remaining family and deliver a particularly personal item back into the Mack family’s hands, Mack’s uniform badge, the wings he wore as an aviator bomber.
With help from his friend Noakes, Ödberg successfully contacted remaining family members and will be visiting them in early August.
“I deem the right place to keep it is with his family,” Ödberg said from his home in Sint-Maria-Horebeke, Belgium. “So I framed it and will return it when I’m in Portland.”
Mack’s nephew and namesake Austin Mack was surprised to receive a call from David Noakes in April, and was at first a bit suspicious.
“As David continued with a description of events following my uncle’s death and the connection between Frank Ödberg’s grandmother and mine, I realized soon that this was not a prank or scam,” he said. “Thus began the revelation of events and circumstances in Belgium following Austin’s death that I was previously unaware of.”
Mack said his grandparents had six children, including four boys, all of whom served in various branches of the military during World War II. He has a letter his uncle wrote to his brother (Mack’s father) just before he was killed.
“He wrote about how dangerous it was, how he did not have too many more missions to complete, but that if his time came he was ready to go,” Mack said. “The tone of the letter is almost light-hearted.”
His uncle’s photo and medals hang in the Mack household. Now, Mack’s wings will be joining the assembled tribute.
“In times of stress, I would look at the picture of him and wonder what kind of man he was. What would he do? I think I know, and I think Frank knows.”
~ Theresa Hogue