OSAGE -- When the late Rob Lenz of Osage learned about the extent of his dad’s service record during World War II, he wept.
“He said, ‘My father was a hero,’” said Rob’s widow, Linda Lenz.
Sgt. Thomas D. Lenz, a radio operator and aerial gunner, completed more than 30 flights over Nazi-held Europe. He was awarded an Air Medal and five oak leaf clusters for his courage and skill.
Rob died two years ago. One of his last wishes was for his father’s World War II items be donated to the Mitchell County Historical Museum.
The items have been on display at the museum for several months. They are expected to remain there at least through the end of April.
Several sheets of paper detailing Thomas D. Lenz's life and war record are included in the display.
After graduating from Otranto High School in 1941, he worked as a machinist in California before entering the Army Air Force in 1943.
During Lenz's flying missions, he spent more than 150 hours at an altitude of more than four miles, where a minute without oxygen would result in death.
He flew in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero.
In a newspaper article, he described one of his early attacks on an airfield.
"Flak wounded the navigator, K.O.'d one of our engines, knocked out the hydraulic system and sheared bomb bay doors," he said.
On another bomb run, Lenz narrowly escaped death when his foot got caught underneath a bomb while he was alone on the catwalk.
He was in danger of either having his foot crushed or being hurled to the earth along with the bomb.
Fortunately, a cloud moved over the bombing target so the bombs weren't dropped, and the navigator happened to see Lenz -- who was running low on oxygen and losing consciousness -- in time to revive him so he could get his foot loose.
The crew then made a second run and dropped its bombs.
Rob Lenz was Thomas D. Lenz's only child. Thomas D. is survived by two grandsons, Anthony Lenz and Nicholas Lenz, as well as three great-grandchildren.
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Starla Cassmann, curator at the Mitchell County Historical Museum, said the Thomas D. Lenz display is "very special because of all that poor man went through."
It also tells the story of a Mitchell County resident, so it is "dear to our hearts," she said.
Whenever there's a personal story like that behind something displayed at a museum, it makes it all the more fascinating, according to Cassmann.
She said you can look at an object in a museum, but without a story, "it doesn't grab you."
Thomas D. Lenz’s father, Thomas P. Lenz, was in the Army Air Corp during World War I and spent time in France.
He was stationed near the front lines as it was his job to retrieve downed planes as well as to repair and maintain vehicles.
He went to the site where the a flown by Baron Manfred von Richthofen – more commonly known by his nickname, “The Red Baron” – was shot down. He salvaged a piece of fabric from the plane, as well as an Iron Cross.
Roger Lenz, Rob Lenz's uncle, has donated these items and others to the Mitchell County Historical Museum.
They are in a display that is expected be remain at the museum until November.
The family recently found an old ammunition box containing mementos from Thomas P. Lenz's time in Europe during World War I, including ration books and photographs.
One of the photographs is of a portion of "No Man's Land" -- the ground between both sides' trenches.
The box even contains a well-preserved biscuit that was part of Thomas P.'s rations.
Thomas P. also used the box to save the letters his son, Thomas D. Lenz, sent home from World War II.
Linda Lenz said she "got a kick" out of how the younger Lenz would send separate letters to his father and to his mother -- sometimes on the same day.
Cassmann said the Mitchell County Historical Museum's Review Committee will evaluate the box and its contests to determine if they should be displayed.