After a long debriefing, and a great deal of soul-searching, Robert Hogan decided to take an honorable discharge from the army and return to the states. He was living at his parent's home; renewing old contacts, doting on his nieces and nephews, and spending important quality time with his mother and father. The colonel was offered a promotion to a one-star general after the war, but the promotion was declined. The anger and remorse he suffered, after discovering the full extent of the Nazi atrocities, would have consumed him if he had remained in Europe. For now, he needed closure, time to think, and time to come to terms with the last three years of his life. Hogan was uncertain of where to go from here. A return to flying was essential; perhaps in a civilian capacity; but, for now, he was relearning how to enjoy a life with clean sheets, a comfortable bed, and the ability to do what he wanted, when he wanted. Only the occasional nightmare interrupted his solace.
His former command would not, and could not fade away. He had, unfortunately, lost men, both in the Air Corps, and in Stalag 13, and Hogan made every attempt to personally visit the families of those he lost, make a personal phone call, or send a letter. It was difficult for him, but it was, he knew, the right thing to do.
During the final winter of the war, several prisoners had succumbed to illness. Hogan had immediately completed the task of personally notifying each family, and the relatives, although obviously heartbroken, were grateful. But one other prisoner, one very close to him and his main team, had been killed during a mission. By some miracle, he was the only one taking part in the clandestine operation that had been lost. The operation was never discovered, and no one else had even been seriously injured. But, his family did not know the truth. It would be hidden from them until Allied Command decided to release the details, and that was out of Hogan's control. However, in November, a few details had been leaked, and Hogan was notified to expect newspaper stories to be published within a few weeks. He asked for, and was given permission to personally visit the man's family, and deliver a letter he had been carrying with him for almost a year.
Hogan easily found Olsen's parents' address and phone number in Manhattan, and called the parents. He was now on a train heading towards New York City, and for the entire trip, flashbacks consumed him. So much so, that he didn't even realize when the train had come to its final stop.
The Olsens lived in what appeared to be a nice neighborhood in the Upper West Side. Hogan rang the bell next to the name on the listing in the lobby, and waited to be buzzed in. He took the stairs up three flights, rather than the elevator, and in an attempt to gather strength, paused outside the door. He then knocked. Both the mother and father answered the door.
"Mr. Olsen? I'm Robert Hogan," Hogan said, as he held out his hand.
The father shook Hogan's hand. "Please come in, Colonel, and call me Joseph. This is my wife, Krista." He ushered Hogan into the living room, which was off the long hall to the left.
"It's a pleasure to meet you. I wish it was under better circumstances. I'm now a civilian. Call me Robert."
"Let me take your coat. Please sit down."
Hogan handed Olsen's mother his coat, and took a seat.
A young woman, whom he assumed was Olsen's sister, entered the room. He rose and walked over. "You must be Sara. Your brother told me a lot about you."
"Yes," she replied. "Thank you for coming."
Hogan smiled. She blushed and sat down.
Hogan walked over to an end table that held several family pictures, and a photo of Olsen in his uniform. "May I?" he asked.
Mrs. Olsen nodded. He picked up a family picture. Olsen looked to be about fourteen, Sara six. "Dusseldorf?" Hogan asked.
"Yes," she replied. "Before things got bad."
I better get to the point. Hogan had put the briefcase he was carrying down by an armchair. Reaching into it, he pulled out a thick envelope. He removed Olsen's dog-tags and a small sealed envelope. "Joseph, Krista, Sara," he began. "I've made it a point to try to contact the family of everyone that was lost under my command. Since you were sort of close by," he continued, "well, I needed, in this case, to come in person." He sat down in the chair, and the parents took a seat next to their daughter.
"We appreciate it." Krista replied. "But why is my son any different from any of the other boys?"
"We lost some men during the last winter in the prison camp. The winter was very bad; rations were short. We did everything we could. The Kommandant, he was humane, he tried his best, but sometimes, the best isn't enough and we were so close to the end." Hogan stopped and wrung his hands.
"I see that pains you, Robert," Krista said gently.
"Your son wasn't any better than anyone else in the camp," Hogan continued."Every man in that camp was my personal responsibility. But, there is something that is different in his case, and you need to know why. Very soon, some information may come out in the press or newsreels. You may get a phone call from a friend, or reporter, anyone who knows Brian was in Stalag 13."
"I don't understand," Joseph said.
"Stalag 13 was not a normal prison camp." Hogan took a deep breath, and then continued. "For over three years we were operating a sabotage, espionage, and rescue operation in the camp; right under the noses of the Germans."
"What do you mean?" Joseph asked intently.
"We had tunnels underneath the camp that opened up into every barracks and the outside. We rescued over 700 Allied airmen and, with the Underground's help, smuggled them out of Germany…And escaped prisoners-of-war, deserters and some Jewish refugees, too few of them, unfortunately." Hogan waited for the bombshell to hit.
"You smuggled people out of Germany?" Krista spoke so softly, Hogan could barely hear her.
"Yes, and we conducted sabotage, reconnaissance, and intelligence operations. We sent the information back to London. This information helped the Allies. I can't go into all the details."
The father was trying to process the information, Hogan could tell. Sara and Olsen's mother looked confused.
"If you had tunnels going outside the camp, you had the means to escape. Why didn't you?"
"Yes, sir, we did. Any prisoner sent to Stalag 13 was given the opportunity to leave. All of the prisoners were volunteers."
Olsen's mother gasped. "Brian could have…"
"Left? Yes, ma'am. But he stayed." Hogan looked down at the floor, and then up at the family, as they grasped the news that their son could have come home and chose not to.
"He decided to continue fighting the war from there. We all did," Hogan stated.
"Were you sent there to start this operation?"
Hogan was impressed by the father's acuity. He shook his head. "No. The operation started by accident and then mushroomed. Your son was involved from the very beginning. His knowledge of the outside, customs, the language, the area, was essential. I honestly don't think it would have gone as far as it did without him."
"How did he die? Please tell us the truth." Krista was on the verge of breaking down.
"He was on a sabotage mission with three of my other men. They ran into a patrol, and Brian was shot. They managed to get him back to camp and my medic worked on him, but the injury was too serious. There was nothing we could do. I'm so sorry." Hogan handed them the envelope. "This is a letter I've been holding since then. It explains what really happened and what Brian meant to all of us. You don't have to read it now."
The mother's hands began to shake and she then began to cry. Her daughter tried to comfort her, while the father stood up and walked over to the Colonel. "Did he suffer?"
Oh, God. Hogan thought. That's exactly what Oscar asked me, that night. He stood up. "No, and he wasn't alone, either. We were all there. I, uh, was holding his hand when he passed." Hogan's eyes started tearing. He blinked a few times to clear them. "I have some more personal items to give you." He reached into the envelope and removed a few pictures. "This is where he is buried. Brian became very close to a German couple. They were both members of the Underground, and he stayed there when he was outside of camp. You know, we all called him our 'Outside Man.'" Hogan smiled."They became his surrogate parents, I believe. I hope you don't mind. He's buried on their property. Now that the war is over, they made a proper marker. And this is his girlfriend, Heidi."
Joseph, now numb, took the pictures and handed them to his wife.
Hogan then removed some more items. "Your son was considered a combat casualty. I have his medals." Seeing no movement, he placed them on the end table. The family, he could see, was now in shock.
It was Krista who recovered first. "Robert. We have some pictures. They came with his personal items that the army returned." She walked over to the bookshelf and opened a box. Hogan glanced at the pictures she handed to him. "Who is everyone? The photos weren't labeled."
He began to point to the men. "These are some of the men from our barracks. This is James Kinchloe. He is from Detroit. He worked our radio. This is Peter Newkirk. He is from London. And this is Louis LeBeau. He's from Paris. He was a chef and he could make a gourmet meal out of Red Cross rations. And this is Andrew Carter. He is from North Dakota. Brian was the one who brought him into camp. Carter escaped from Stalag 5 and he stayed." Hogan looked at the next picture. He chuckled. "This is our barrack's guard, Schultz. He really wasn't bad. You know, he owned a toy factory before the war. These are men from some of the other barracks in camp. This is McMahon. Your son taught him German. And this is our medic, Joe Wilson."
"Is he the one who tried to save our son?" Krista asked.
"Yes, ma'am." Hogan handed the photos back to Krista. "I want to let you know, that if you wish, I can arrange for your son's remains to be sent back to the states."
Krista looked at her husband.
"I don't think we can make that decision right now," Joseph said.
"Of course," Hogan replied. "I'll leave you a number where I can be reached, and you can let me know what you decide."
"Joseph. I think I might like to meet this couple." Krista looked at Hogan."Robert, what were their names?"
"The Schnitzer's. Oscar and Greta."
"Yes, I would like to meet them. Once it's safe to go into Germany again, I would like to try and find my relatives, and to see where Brian was…" Krista choked on the sentence and sat down.
"Have you heard from any of your relatives? It was very hard for Brian, knowing he was so close to some of them. But it wasn't safe for him to contact them. I'm sorry, but those were my orders," Hogan explained to the couple.
"That's understandable." Joseph had gone over to his wife. He sat down next to her, and began to rub her back, trying to offer some comfort. "We regained contact with several friends and relatives, but some families have not been heard from. Cousins in Berlin and several families in the Eastern portion. And our Jewish friends and acquaintances from when I taught at the university…"
Hogan didn't comment. He waited a moment for the family to regain their composure and then spoke. He had to choose his next words carefully. "Brian went through a hard time when he was captured. More so than most. The Germans discovered his background and well, when he came into camp, he needed time to get over the experience. It wasn't physical," he quickly added. "But, he needed help, and we were all there for him. I wanted you to know; because he was one of the bravest young men I have ever met. It was difficult at first, but he recovered, and became an essential part of my espionage team. Any officer would have been proud to have served with your son." There was nothing more Hogan could say at the moment. Sensing it was time to leave, he stood up. Reaching into his wallet, he pulled out a card with his name, address and phone number. "Here is where I can be reached." He handed the card to Joseph. "Call me when you decide to make the trip to Germany, and I'll contact the Schnitzer's for you."
Greta hurriedly left to get his coat.
"Thank you for coming." Sara, who was holding a picture of Olsen and Heidi, followed Hogan to the door. She was holding back tears.
He took her hand. "You're welcome."
"Brian spoke very highly of you in his letters," Joseph said. "I can see why."
"I appreciate that."
"Do you think you will ever go back to Germany, Robert?" Krista asked.
"I don't want to say never," Hogan answered, "But it's too soon. Right now, I don't think I can. Be safe." And with that he left the apartment. Hogan entered the stairwell, and stopped before heading down the three flights. He took a moment to regain his composure, and after wiping away tears with his sleeve, he walked down and out into the busy streets of Manhattan. Streets that weren't covered with rubble and empty shells of buildings. He turned the corner, grabbed a cab to the train station, and headed home.
a/n For a complete look at Olsen's story, his background, and an explanation of how he became close to the Schnitzer's and Oscar's niece, Heidi, please read "The Outside Man."