On a cloudy, summer night in 1968 in Memmingen, Germany, a young, American woman paced around her home, closing down the small, military flat for the day. Her husband, a member of the German Luftwaffe (Air Force), was off participating in a training exercise in the German Alps while she stayed home to care for their 1-year old son.
Around half-past 9 p.m., the woman felt herself grow nauseous. She brushed off the sickness at first, deciding it was probably because she was eight-months pregnant with her second child. However, moments later, a knock sounded at the door, and she was overcome with a wave of worry.
Two military officers stood in the doorway, and the cool, night air drifted in behind them. “Wir haben die Funkverbindung verloren,” they said. “We lost radio connection with your husband.”
The woman shook, and another wave of violent nausea hit her. “Is he OK? Is Oskar OK?”
Neither man’s face gave the woman any inclination to her husband’s fate, and she shuddered as they replied, “Ich weiß nicht. We do not know.”
The officers ushered the woman inside without an invitation to enter, and proceeded to offer her sleeping medicine while she waited for news of her love. “Nein,” she said firmly, despite her quivering hands. “I cannot, I am pregnant.”
After a sleepless night, the officers returned the next morning. The woman flung open the door, expecting Oskar to be standing there, a little battered and bruised but still in one piece, a smile on his face and a laugh on his lips. “Mein Leibling,” he would say, “Hello, my beloved. I am here.”
Instead, the men shook their heads and said simply, “He did not make it.” The woman felt her vision blur, and the floor of her flat –– no, their flat –– slid out from beneath her.
He didn’t make it? How could that be? He had just been here, walking around their home, playing with their son, kissing her cheek and telling her how much he loved her. How could he be gone, just like that? Without even meeting their unborn child?
History of the Crash
Exactly 50 years have passed since a German F-104 crashed, claiming Karl Oskar Klenk’s life at age 25. His death, according to official military reports, happened because of an error with the plane. The German Air Force commemorated his life on June 11 atop the mountain his plane crashed into, Hochgrat, near the town of Oberstaufen. A memorial was also held on June 9 at Oskar’s graveside in Stuttgart, Germany, where more than 100 family members, friends and comrades paid their respects to him.
During a training exercise over the German Alps in Bavaria on June 11, 1968, Oskar’s inertial navigation system failed. He contacted ground control to ask for help. The weather was stormy, which made visibility poor.
The officers on the ground informed Oskar of the necessary procedures to re-program his instruments, however, they failed to instruct the young pilot to fly higher to miss the mountain. Oskar followed their directions, continuing his flight while re-configuring his navigation system, but because of the plane’s failure and the severe weather, crashed into the side of Hochgrat, one of the highest summits in the German Alps.
Thirty members of Oskar’s family made the 1,834-meter trek up the mountain on the 50th anniversary of his death in 2018. A small memorial was held at the site of the crash, which is marked by an iron cross. The second mayor of Oberstaufen, Mr. Geißler, spoke about Oskar’s contributions to his country and the tragedy that was his death.
“He died at this place in brave and professional conduct of duty –– for a free and prosperous world,” Geißler said during the memorial. “Oskar’s comrades have promised his wife and all the family members not to forget Oskar and keep him and his achievements in honored memories.”
Among those who attended the memorial was Oskar’s wife, Ruth Klenk-Janzik, as well as the daughter who never had a chance to meet her father, Kathryn “Katie” Brammer. Katie Brammer’s four children and husband also came from Arizona to hike Hochgrat, along with Ruth’s other daughter from her second marriage, Jacque Torson, and her husband. Oskar’s son, Karl Michael “Mike” Klenk, and his wife and children were unable to travel to Germany on this occasion, however they have visited the crash site in previous years.
“The greatest purpose for this trip is to show my children their heritage and their family,” Katie Brammer said, “and so they can be proud of their grandfather the way I’m proud of my father.”
The Unforgiving F-104
Unfortunately, Oskar’s crash while flying an F-104 Starfighter was not an isolated incident. According to the BBC, German pilots nicknamed this plane the “Widow Maker” or the “Lawn Dart” because of the number of issues the Luftwaffe had with it.
The BBC reports that the Starfighter’s wings were small so the plane would excel in acceleration, rate of climb and top speed. However, because of their size, the wings could hold neither landing gear nor fuel. The plane also did not possess an effective radar, and it only contained a cannon and heat-seeking missiles, meaning it was best flown in clear weather.
Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona was one of the places these planes were test-flown, as the state boasts nearly 300 days of sunshine year-round. Oskar, who completed his military training as top gun, was selected to train in the States, and it was in Phoenix where he met his future wife, Ruth Klenk-Janzik.
While the Starfighter excelled in fair skies, many issues arose when German pilots returned back across the Atlantic, and this was when the number of crashes began to grow.
The BBC reports that despite the errors with the plane, “European countries in the NATO alliance were in desperate need of new aircraft to counter the Soviet Union’s vast air forces.” The F-104 was considered a “jack-of-all-trades,” and with more than 3,000 F-104s ordered by various countries, millions of dollars were spent on this seemingly safe and reliable jet.
Oskar’s family recently learned that the cause of his crash was not pilot error, but rather the failure of the plane. Despite the loss of her father to the Starfighter, Katie Brammer no longer blames the German military, and has instead chosen to see this discovery as a source of healing.
“I never blamed my father for dying,” Katie Brammer said. “When I first found out about the F-104, I did spend some time angry at the military for allowing not only my father but other pilots to fly the defective aircraft … but I don’t blame anybody anymore. There was so much money put into that aircraft, they didn’t want to give up on that plane. It wasn’t my father’s error, and it’s been a miracle to find out that that wasn’t his fault.”
Life after the Crash
Shortly after her second child, Katie Brammer, was born, Ruth Klenk-Janzik moved her family from Memmingen, Germany back to Phoenix, Arizona. More than 14 years later, Ruth Klenk-Janzik married another German pilot, Jergen Janzik. The couple had two more children, Matthew Janzik and Jacque Torson, before divorcing in 1988.
Having grown up never knowing her father, Katie Brammer said her grief during the memorials is different than that of her mother or of Oskar’s family members.
“I never got to hold him or touch him,” Katie Brammer said, “and they did. I don’t have the same grief because I never got to experience what he was like.”
When she was younger, Katie Brammer said she was sometimes ashamed that she didn’t have a dad like everyone else.
“It was sometimes embarrassing if there was a father-daughter event at school or at Girl Scouts. I didn’t have a father to come with me,” Katie Brammer said. “When I got a little older, it was embarrassing that he died, so I would just tell people that my parents were divorced, because that was more accepted.”
Despite having to overcome those emotions, Katie Brammer and her brother were no stranger to their German family and their home-country. They would often travel overseas to visit relatives and learn about the place they came from and the people they would have been raised with. Katie Brammer refers to these memories as the “German recipe,” because each part of the German culture and people came together to form her heritage.
“Everything I learned, I took back in my heart and took it back home,” Katie Brammer said. “And that’s how I lived and live in my marriage and as a mother. I always want my home to be cozy, and that’s called Gemütlich. It’s a German word for coziness and well-being, and there’s not really a word for that that translates exactly in English. That’s the way that the German life is for me.”
For Katie Brammer, as well as her mother and the rest of their family, Oskar’s death was tragic and heartbreaking, but it was not the final page of their story.
“It wasn’t an ending,” Ruth Klenk-Janzik said. “Oskar’s death was just the beginning.”