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James D. Conrad

James D. Conrad's life is characterized by remarkable resilience, bravery, and survival amidst the challenges of World War II. After his return from the war, Conrad met his wife, Harriet L. Phalen. Together they settled in the town of Wrentham, where they resided for 53 years while raising their four children: Jim, Bill, Jane, and Jennifer.

Major James D. Conrad

Conrad's residence at 230 Franklin Street, a notable landmark in the community, holds a special place in the hearts of many Wrentham residents. This unique property encompassed six acres of land adorned with horses, goats, and flourishing vegetable gardens, creating a wonderful environment for family life. Although the house has since been sold and the land divided, a significant portion still remains under the care of the family trust. In the following account, we delve into the captivating story of James D. Conrad's life.

230 Franklin Street, Summer 1955.

Born on April 16th, 1916, in Saugus, MA, James (Jim) Conrad was a second-generation immigrant from Germany. Conrad's roots traced back to his grandfather, who embarked on a journey to the United States and settled in Amsterdam, NY, working as a broom maker. It was Conrad's father who later ventured to Boston, where he established his own broom business, the John Conrad & Son Factory, located in Everett, MA, near the present-day Encore Casino.


Fate dealt a harsh blow to the Conrad family during the challenging times of the 1928 recession when a devastating fire engulfed their broom business. Undeterred by this setback, James pursued his education at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), where he excelled in sports. In 1938, he graduated from UNH and went to work for Bird & Sons, a roofing and siding company based in Walpole. However, driven by a sense of duty and patriotism, he soon after enlisted with the infantry, embarking on a new chapter of his life.

Ruins of the broom factory after the fire.

Major James Conrad was a B-24 pilot assigned to the Eighth Air Force, 448th Bomb Group, and Squadron Commander of the 715th Squadron based in Seething, England during World War II.


After completing his flight training which began in Montgomery, Alabama, and subsequent training in Wendover, Utah and Sioux City, Iowa, Major Conrad received his multi-engine pilot rating and transitioned to his base in England in the Fall of 1943. During his time as a pilot, Conrad flew 25 combat missions in Europe, serving as a command pilot on 14 of those missions.

Taken during flight training.

On July 11, 1944, a D-day campaign was carried out by the 448th bomb group, led by Command Pilot Lt. George Wilson, targeting Munich. Thirty-three bombers took off under clear skies, with excellent escort. However, as they approached the European Continent and moved deeper into Germany, they encountered increasing cloud cover, making the flight challenging.


Despite the absence of enemy fighters, the formation faced intense and accurate flak and rocket fire upon reaching the target. Lt. George Wilson's B-24 and three other aircrafts from the 712 Squadron were hit, leading to their unfortunate downfall. Conrad, leading the Pathfinder Force (PFF) aircraft, was also struck by a rocket in the lower middle section of the fuselage. However, the mission was continued, and the bombers released their payload upon Conrad's signal.

Major James Conrad flying center, January 1944.

In an attempt to head for the nearest place in England, Conrad left the formation and shortly afterwards one engine cut out. He told his crew that if he could make it to the English Channel, he could ditch the plane and the British Air/Sea Rescue would pick them up. As he tells it:


"The other three engines were being fed by the cross-feed from all four tanks but we were losing altitude and in a few minutes all engines stopped. We couldn't see the ground so the crew was ordered to jump. I was the last person out of the plane because if I ever saw the crew members again they would hate me for not giving them a chance to escape.


Six of the fourteen guys that were on the plane were later listed as killed in action and one was reported as a prisoner of war. I don't know what happened to the others. After they had bailed out I left the controls and while deciding whether to jump feet first or dive through the open bomb bay doors the question was settled for me when the ship turned over and I fell out.

Major James Conrad and his crew. James is in the far back, left.

I started to pull the parachute rip cord and then remembered the Germans were shooting parachuters so I waited until I went through the clouds. When I came out of the clouds I wasn't far above the ground and just had time to pull it and have one or two swings before I hit the ground in the village of Leissel. I landed hard on my rear in a wheat field so I wrapped up my parachute and ran like hell for about a mile through the wheat.


I was wearing a British green flight suit and no hat. I didn't have heated boots on because you could lose them while jumping and a lot of guys refused to wear them for that reason. I just had on my brown G.I. shoes and they were a problem. Nobody on the continent wore brown shoes.


When I came to the edge of the field I was close to a little village of about a dozen houses. On the road there was a little gate, like a toll gate, with two or three farmers standing there but they didn't offer any assistance so I thought, to hell with them, and I kept going.


As I was walking through the village I saw German soldiers laying and standing around cleaning rifles. It was too late to change my mind so I walked right down the street past them expecting any one of them to challenge me. When I was leaving the other side of the village they started to call to me and two guys started after me on bicycles. I ran through the fields and hedgerows to lose them and I saw a small pond with slime and vegetation on the surface and willow trees growing along the edge. I threw myself into the pond and although it was July it was cold in that water. I dug myself into the slime and covered myself with weeds and stayed there until I thought I was safe.


When I came out I went to a hedgerow and looked around the corner, and I was looking right in the face of one of my pursuers. He said some commands in German but I said, "bull-shit" and started running. Why he didn't shoot me I'll never know. Maybe he thought I was Romanian or some kind of foreign worker. How I got away I don't know.


As soon as I could I took one of the benzedrine pills I had in my escape kit to stay at peak and used the little compass to get a bearing to get away from the coast because the Germans were expecting an invasion and the best thing to do was get the hell out of there.


I have no recollection of where I lost my escape kit, just that it disappeared. I ran for a long while and then I crawled through a wheat field on my hands and knees. I couldn't stand up or I could be seen. I must have walked on my knees for two miles. I came out onto another road and met some Belgian peasants and there was a lady on a bicycle and she beckoned to me to follow her.


We came to another village and a lady came out of a doorway and gave me some bread. Some people would give you food and drink but they wouldn't take you in because if they got caught they got shot. That night I stayed in a chicken coop and wrapped myself in some burlap bags to keep warm. The chickens made so much noise I thought everybody in town must have known I was in there. I got some eggs but I wasn't hungry enough to eat them raw, yet.


All the next day I traveled and made some approaches but no one offered me help so I stayed in some little shack that night. I found some onions in a field the next day and that was it that day.


I knew I had to make a contact and that's when I came to two houses and just by luck I chose the right one for the other one housed collaborators. I saw an old lady looking out the window and I knew she saw me but I ducked back into the bushes and then showed myself again. After that a man opened the door and I went in.


Using high school French and gestures I told them I had come from "up there". They kept me there that night and the following day I was visited by a man who had lived in Canada. He spoke good English and tested me to be sure I wasn't a German trying to trap them. He wanted to see my identification bracelet which I didn't have but I had dog tags and other items that reassured them.


He was a baker and he told me to stay there and he would come back and get me the next day. I got some crankcase oil to put on my brown shoes to turn them black, because my shoes were a give away. Later I was given a pair of wooden shoes because that's what all the farmers wore around there.


There must have been some German activity in the area because he didn't come until several days later. His name was Georges Deschrevel and when we left we went out the back through the fields and in an orchard he whistled and when he got a whistle back we met his son Josef. He had been watching the German sentries and knew it was clear so we went up this bank on one side, across the border, and down the other side. We must have walked twenty kilometers until we came to his little farm in the village of Beveren Yser.


The Eighth Air Force knew I was alive and where I was a week after I went down. They were planning to bring in a light plane to get me out, me and a couple of Colonels who were hiding out in that area, but the Allied Invasion front in Normandy, France was so fluid they decided it was too risky.


We had something to eat and he put me up in the barn with his son who had been hiding out there for fourteen months to escape being taken for slave labor. His other boy, Josef, worked for the German Co-op and that's how he kept from being taken. I stayed there for some time and there was a lot of German action around us but Georges would come in and talk to me and he said there were other evadees in the area. A big British Lancaster had gone down one night, they only carried a crew of six, and some of them, I never saw any of them, were in the area.


The underground gave me money, they had bundles of it, so whenever there was something I could buy, I could pay for it. One night a guy came in and he was the head of the state police in that area. This guy had on a Belgium Gendarme uniform with a blue tunic, blue trousers with the red stripe and a hat with the flat peak. He brought one of those uniforms for me but right then he said we had to wait until things quieted down and he would get me out of there. He showed up again in about a week and had a bicycle for me. He said he wanted my dog tags but I said I'd be in trouble without them. He said, "What do you think I'll be in?", so I gave them to him.


Every night a German lieutenant with two handsome police dogs came and set up a machine gun position right in front of the house and when we left there we had to ride right past them. We must have traveled 40 kilometers on those bicycles. I'm in the Gendarme uniform and naturally he is too. He is the numero uno, the Chief. He told me to follow his example so when we left I did everything he did, if he saluted I saluted.


I stayed one night in the Chief's house near Ypres, Belgium, and the next day we rode right into the outskirts of Ypres. When I went back 25 years after the war, they made me an Honorary Citizen of Ypres. I remember one morning my son Jim and I were drinking cognac and smoking big black cigars with the local Burgomeister in the Town Hall. Jim was 17 at the time and his eyes were turning over.


We stayed at the Chief's house and he had a picture on the wall and on the back had the names of six or eight flyers that he had helped escape. When we went into Ypres I noticed that the people would smile, and I guess they knew who I was because this wasn't his first trip. We met this guy walking towards us wearing a suit and his name was Lucien Desmuel and he ran the hotel in town. He took me into the hotel and started bringing in all these wild looking guys who were members of the White Brigade, the Belgian underground. They were tough looking birds.


Everyone brought a jug of cognac with them and they were always drinking. It was tough to stay sober. I had a room upstairs and later they named that room for me, the Maj James Conrad Room and I stayed in that room 25 years later. I gave him my wings and all the insignia to other guys. After the war, our government didn't recognize them, they didn't do anything for those guys to the best of my knowledge, and they put their fanny right over the tail board for us.


I stayed in the hotel for about two weeks. I'd be upstairs and the Germans were downstairs, raising hell just like any tap room around here. They didn't have any plumbing upstairs in the hotel so I had to go downstairs to go to the toilet in the yard so there was always a chance I could be seen. I left the hotel some time after that with two out-riders and me in civilian clothes. We went right through a whole German Division and ended up in the village of Mennin, Belgium.


I stayed there 5 or 6 days with an old Belgian couple named Boudelette and I lived well. A meeting was set up with Pol Bille and he arranged for me to get a Carte Identite. I had my picture taken for it and it was an authentic Belgian card, issued by the same authority that made the cards for all the civilians. I was to be a deaf and dumb cobbler. All I had to do was keep my mouth shut and I'd get by alright, but I never had to use it. I never got challenged. He had a 1940 Oldsmobile in his barn but he didn't dare show it or he would lose it. Bille later was put in a concentration camp. He got out when the war ended and I saw him 25 years later on my return visit.

At the Boudelette household, 1944. From left to right: Mrs. Boudelette, James Conrad, Mrs. Bille, Pol Bille.

Bille brought in this old couple who were to take me across the border. The old man would be walking across the street and ahead of me and the woman would be behind me. I was told to do just what they did. If they stopped and looked in a window, I stopped and looked in a window. There were Gestapo all over the place with their black armbands. When we got to the border, the guard on the French side shook hands with me! The underground had guys working as guards on the border on both sides. We had skirted the border, going back and forth apparently, all the time I was in that area.


Now we're in Halluin Nord, France. There I stayed with this Marquis chief whose name was Julien Vandenkirkenhoven and he was tough. He had two guns in his pockets, two in arm holsters, two in his waistband and handgrenades. He was on the local "most wanted" list. His brother-in-law was one of the border guards. His mother and father lived down in the village. If there was any German activity up there where Julien lived, I'd be down staying with his parents.


I know when I stayed with the Marquis chief, they just had a new baby, and I took care of the baby, washed the dishes, because I wanted to make sure they used plenty of soap. They'd say they had a "circular" water system, they peed in one hole and pumped it out of another. They gave you the best they had but when I came out of there I weighed 145 lbs and I weighed 205 going in.


When the Germans started to move back away from the advancing English Army their tanks would be pulling two or three trucks because there wasn't any gasoline for them. One day the Chief came roaring up the hill in a big Mercedes with his henchmen. They had just shot up the former German owners and now they had a car. It was just like a movie. They came up the hill and said the Germans were coming and went roaring back down the hill. The guy's wife had me help her put a machine gun in the baby carriage under the blankets. They were going to stop these damn Germans I guess, I don't know what they were going to do. I didn't participate in any of this stuff because I'd be in the way I guess. These guys would fool around with hand grenades, toss them back and forth and I wanted to get the hell out of there, I'd made it so far. They were wild, but they were the ones that fought the Germans. The FFI (French Forces of the Interior) in that area were opportunists who put on the arm band when the fighting was over.


We'd be at the kitchen table and he'd say, "Jacques, Jacques, come here". My name was Jacques Gagnon on my identity card. I used to have a girlfriend with that name so I took her last name. He called me to the window and there was a big glare in the sky. They were burning the wheat fields and the buildings of the collaborators trying to keep everything out of the reach of the Germans. The canals went through there and barges were going back and forth carrying rockets and they would burn the barges. They were raising hell in general, as much as they could, and a lot of them were getting caught. When they did they were kaput, shot, right away.


One night he came rushing home and said there was a lost British motorcycle rider in town. General Montgomery had finally got off his can and started moving his armies up towards Calais. We all went downtown and I ran into two Americans and one Australian. One was a fighter pilot so they sent the fighter pilot on the back of the motorcycle and they brought up some tanks to get the Germans out of a copse of woods where they had holed up on the edge of town.


The French underground had a banquet for us, all the evadees, the Russians and all the other foreign forced laborers, and they gave speeches and there was plenty of booze, Calvados, Cognac and wines. They had things hidden away behind walls in their cellars and places like that.


So later this navigator, his name was Cornman, and a radio operator, Atkins, and an Australian, four of us, jumped on a truck going back down the Red Ball highway. On that highway I remember we passed the Canadian WWI monument on Veamey Ridge. All of a sudden the truck pulls over and the driver says, "0.K. lads, throw out the boxes". The boxes were full of sand and he poured some gasoline on them, lit them and we made tea. We stopped the war to have tea. You could see a string of trucks, all stopped, having tea.


After that we kept moving down the coast to Lille where we almost landed in the can because the French would hear us say yeah, yeah, which they mistook for ya,ya, and they thought we were Germans. At about Roubaix we checked in with the Allied Military Government. Then we went down to Nancy where the DC-3 Dakotas were flying in gasoline from England. We flew across the channel on one of them and landed at Hesden, which later became Heathrow Airport.


The 448th only had 140 of the original 740 men we started with, and at the end of the war there were only 50 left. I didn't know what happened to the other people in my plane until long afterwards. Six of them were killed but I don't know the circumstances, only one was taken prisoner by the Germans, and the others somehow managed to get home alive.”


After returning to Boston, Conrad received four different offers from commercial airlines to pursue a career as a pilot, all of which he turned down. Instead, he decided to return to his first employer, Bird & Son, to work in Sales. It was then that he met Harriet, the love of his life, and settled in Wrentham in 1951. Conrad's youngest son, Bill, remembers his father's reasoning for declining the airline offers: "sooner or later, the more time you put in the seat, the more chances you have for the lines to cross”, suggesting that he had served his time flying and cheating death. He never piloted a plane again after 2000 hours of flying.


Jim Conrad was happiest when he was home tending his six acre farm at 230 Franklin Street in Wrentham. He always had his horses, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, and chickens to keep him busy. An annual ritual was the planting of two acres of vegetable gardens. Cutting the hay was a twice per year ritual. There was always plenty of activity at his farm that was enjoyed by the whole neighborhood. It certainly was an active place. For his service in the Army Air Corps, Major Conrad was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and three Oak Leaf Clusters. The Flying Cross is the highest medal awarded to a pilot.


After 53 years of living in Wrentham at 230 Franklin Street, Harriet passed away on April 8th, 2003, at the age of 85. Jim followed her on March 11, 2004, at the age of 87. Today, their children, Bill and Jane, reside in Wrentham, while Jim and Jennifer have found their homes in Texas and Mansfield respectively. You never really know the quiet heroes who live amongst us in the quiet town of Wrentham.

Jim and Harriet Conrad in the late 1990's at the Conrad Farm in Wrentham.

Conrad's four children: Jennifer, Jane, Bill. and Jim

The Conrad Family

Plaque at James D. Conrad's gravesite in the Wrentham Cemetery.

Jim Conrad throughout the years. Also pictured with two of his grandkids, Libby Longley (Renner) and Jim Renner.

230 Franklin Street in 1986.

Jim with his dad, John Walter Conrad, in Wrentham.

Jim at the Conrad Farm.

If you drive by Franklin Street today, you might see Jim's son, Bill, riding the same blue tractor around the property.

Letter sent by Conrad to his parents once he arrived in France.



Conrad receives honorary citizenship from Ypres, Belgium (also known as Ieper). Jim Conrad Jr. and Sr. traveled to Europe after Jim Jr. won an essay competition, where the winning prize was a trip to Europe.

230 Franklin Street in the late 1890's.

 

By Bill Conrad and Grey Almeida, June 2023.

Source: James D. Conrad, 0-365492, Major, Pilot and Squadron Commander, B-24s. Prepared by Joseph J. MacDougald, Wrentham Historical Society.



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