Jangling quarters in his hand, Lt. Ken Micko anxiously waited in line for a pay phone at a naval port in Norfolk, Va., on June 26, 1945. A bomber co-pilot from St. Paul, he’d been sailing home for a week at the end of World War II after 45 days that spring as a Nazi prisoner of war.
It had been three months since his last letter from his pregnant wife, Doris. She was 20, he was 22 and they hadn’t seen nor spoken to each other in eight months.
“When the call went through, it was such a relief to hear her voice,” recalled Micko, now 98, from his home on Gull Lake in northern Minnesota. “I didn’t know if we had a boy or a girl or if Doris was even alive. She could have died in childbirth for all I knew.”
When she told Micko that their daughter, Diane, was born on March 18, 1945, he “almost jumped out of the phone booth.”
That’s because while Doris was delivering their first child at Miller Hospital in St. Paul, Ken was parachuting out of his flaming B-24 over Berlin. An anti-aircraft shell had exploded in the plane’s bomb bay.
“I’ll never forget Diane’s birthday, that’s for sure,” he said during a recent phone call with his daughter, now 75, on another extension.
“I’ve heard this story since I was a child, but I didn’t really absorb all the horrors my dad and mom went through,” Diane said. “They were barely 20, suffering and making such sacrifices. I learn more details every time.”
Micko didn’t know his plane was on fire until a radioman “poked me on the shoulder and pointed to the bomb bay, which was engulfed in flames.”
As he stepped down a burning catwalk, sure the plane would explode any second, Micko suffered burns to his eyelids and forehead before taking a headfirst plunge out of the flaming plane.
“It wasn’t much of a swan dive,” said Micko, who tried and failed to convince a frightened crew member to jump. “We couldn’t stick around with all that fire, so I had to let him go.”w
Straightening his arms and legs to quell his head-over-heels midair tumble, Micko’s problems were far from over. He couldn’t find his parachute’s ripcord, until he wiggled out of his flak suit and chucked his oxygen mask. Suddenly, he floated down from about 12,000 feet “with a nice view of Berlin.”
Crashing on a city sidewalk, Micko thought he’d broken his legs. He was bleeding heavily from a head wound possibly suffered when he jumped from the burning plane.
A group of German civilians, waving guns and shouting, soon began “kicking me around a little.” Then Berlin police “rescued” him from the mob and marched him through the bombed rubble to the police station and then a makeshift hospital.
More than 75 years later, Micko has nothing bad to say about German citizens. “I don’t blame them for being mad at us,” he said. “We were destroying their cities and homes and life — it was their Nazi leaders who were the real enemies.”
He feels indebted to one German in particular — a nurse named Sigrid Lubert, who stayed with him that first night at an air raid shelter — changing his bloody pillow, forcing him to drink water and eat dark bread and salami.
“She was about my age and kept asking, in good English, for my address so she could get word to my wife that I was alive,” Micko said. For a while, he refused to divulge anything but his name, rank and serial number. Finally, as he was being transported on a stretcher to a hospital, the nurse ran along with a pencil and paper and he shared Doris’ address.
A few days after Diane was born, Doris received a military telegram informing her that Ken’s plane had been shot down over Berlin and he was missing in action. Not until May 8, when victory in Europe was declared six weeks later, did the nurse’s letter arrive in St. Paul. Written in German and translated by Doris’ mother, the letter said Micko was OK. He keeps that letter in a file at his East Gull Lake home.
“I’ll never forget Doris coming to pick me up at Fort Snelling in her father’s 1936 green Ford,” he said. “Diane was about 3 months old and cute as a bug’s ear.”
Doris and Ken went on to have two more daughters and a son, along with 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. A 1940 Cretin High School grad, Micko worked for 20 years at Brown and Bigelow in St. Paul before he and Chris Fjelstad formed their own vinyl ring binder business. Doris and Ken moved Up North in 1977; she died in 2013 at 88.
Micko credits his good health and sharp memory, at least in part, to the fruits and vegetables Diane brings over frequently from her home on a nearby smaller lake.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.