Minnesota News

High on an Austrian mountain, a Minnesotan finds pieces of his family’s past in a WWII bomber wreck

A person holds a framed black and white portrait
Ruth Hovland holds a portrait of her uncle, 2nd Lt. Richard Rossman, in her Minneapolis home on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

I crouched down on the rocky ridgeline 4,700 feet above the village of Volders and brushed the dirt off a small, circular artifact, straining to read the words “LIFT THE DOT” on its worn surface.

Patches of rust-colored shrubs and jagged juniper bushes peppered the mountainside around me, circling the twisted wreckage of the World War II B-24 Liberator I was examining.

The bomber was called the Powder Ann, one of a fleet of B-24s with the Fifteenth Air Force’s 98th Bombardment Group. The plane and its crew of 11 airmen were returning to base after striking targets in Germany and Austria when they were shot down on a freezing December night in 1943.

Bits of debris lie on a rocky outcrop
Wreckage from the Powder Ann is visible on the rocky mountainside above Volders, Austria, pictured on Oct. 11, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Nine crewmen died on the mountain. The surviving two were captured by Nazis and held in a prisoners-of-war camp until the end of the war. The bomber’s pilot, one of the nine who perished that night, was 24-year-old 2nd Lt. Richard Rossman, a Minneapolis native and my great-uncle on my mother’s side. 

I surveyed the lonely outcropping, a scar of rock and debris in an otherwise idyllic alpine setting. I thought of my mom Ruth, who spent years investigating Richard’s story — contacting relatives of the men he had flown with, piecing together the events of that night in 1943 and finally visiting the crash site, a trip she made with my dad in 2018. 

He had died before she was born, but she remembered how her parents, my grandparents, hung Richard’s military flag each Memorial Day to honor his sacrifice. What had pulled Ruth to this spot in Austria? What fascinated her about this man she knew only from photographs and a flag?

A town with a river lies in a deep valley
Innsbruck is seen from a mountaintop near Volders, Austria, on Oct. 11, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘Full of the dickens’

Richard Rossman was born in Minneapolis in 1919 and grew up with his four siblings, including my grandmother, Martha, on Aldrich Avenue a couple blocks from Minnehaha Creek. According to my mother, he was Martha’s favorite.

“She lit up when she talked about him,” Ruth said in an interview at my parents’ house Monday.

The two siblings made an inseparable and mischievous team, Ruth recalled. She described a story her mother once told her, when as children, Richard snuck Martha into the Boulevard Theater on Lyndale Avenue through a bathroom window so she could watch the latest Shirley Temple movie.

“I think he was full of the dickens, rambunctious,” she said.

Richard was not particularly interested in school but enjoyed athletics. By one account, he won a California state high school swimming championship in Riverside, Calif., before returning to Minnesota in his early 20s.

A black and wine photo of 10 men standing in front of a plane
The crew of the Powder Ann, a World War II B-24 bomber, pose for a photo at their base near Brindisi, Italy, in November 1943. 2nd Lt. Richard Rossman stands in the back row, far right.
Courtesy of Ruth Hovland

Ruth recalled that Richard volunteered for the Air Force while he was living in Minneapolis. After relocating to Texas for training, he graduated from advanced flying school in January 1943.

Ruth never knew what drove Richard to become a pilot, but she vividly remembers finding a photo of him as a child holding a toy balsam airplane and “I’d imagine flying was something that captured his imagination.”  

By November, he had deployed to Brindisi, a town on Italy’s Adriatic coast, with the Fifteenth Air Force as a B-24 bomber pilot. 

Although my mother never met Richard, she carried strong memories of him from her childhood. Every Memorial Day, my grandparents displayed Richard’s military flag to honor his sacrifice.

“I have this memory of going up into the attic and bringing down his perfectly folded flag,” she said. “And helping my dad, who was also a World War II veteran, hang it out my bedroom window.”

A person stands in a cemetery in a photo in an album
A photo album showing a photo of Martha Richter, standing in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery and holding a portrait of her brother, Richard Rossman, lies open on a table in Ruth Hovland’s Minneapolis home on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Knowing how important Richard was to Martha, Ruth arranged a trip to St. Louis in 2005 so her mother could finally see his gravestone in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. 

“It was a really hard experience for my mom, to even go to the grave site,” Ruth said. “But after she got there, there was this release of finally being able to witness the space. Her love for him stayed with her forever.”

Martha died in 2007, but Richard’s story continued to call to my mother.

In 2012, while helping Ruth clean out her parent’s belongings in the process of selling their house, I found Richard’s passport at the bottom of a cluttered box in the corner of their basement.

Later, we discovered a scrapbook Martha had compiled when Richard became listed as missing in action shortly after the Powder Ann was shot down. In it was his Purple Heart medal, his military portrait and letters from Air Force personnel. 

“All of the items that I found that were connected with him had an energy,” Ruth said. “So when you found the passport, I was just like, ‘Wow!’ Blown away.”

“When we were going through with my sisters to figure out who gets the China or the baby grand piano, it was like, I really wanted to be the safe keeper of Richard's things.”

‘Oh, yes. Here it is!’

Soon after the scrapbook discovery, my mother’s search for Richard’s story accelerated.

At a 90th birthday party for one of her aunts, she reconnected with a cousin who had contacted the children of one of the Powder Ann’s surviving crew members.

It was through exchanges with Justine Staub, daughter of bombardier and 2nd Lt. William Jeffries, that Ruth first learned that the crash site in Austria still existed.

Not only did the site exist, but historians from across Europe had volunteered to bring the Jeffries family to visit the wreckage in 2008. 

In 2015, Ruth received a package from Staub that made her heart stop. It was a piece of the wreckage from the Powder Ann crash site. “I was just bowled over,” she recalled.

In 2018, she decided she wanted to make the journey to the mountaintop herself. 

“I just knew it was time,” she said. “It’s just one of those things that needed to be the next step.”

Rusty debris sits nestled on a mountainside
Wreckage from the Powder Ann is visible on the rocky mountainside above Volders, Austria, pictured on Oct. 11, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

No signs or memorials mark the spot where the Powder Ann crashed into the mountainside above Volders. There’s no hiking trail or map. The site itself sits on a farmer’s private land at an elevation of 2,085 meters, more than a mile above sea level.

To get there, you need the farmer’s permission to drive through the locked gates just past the Krepperhütte, a hut overlooking the Inn Valley halfway up the mountain, and when the road ends you have to bushwack another half-mile through steep and rugged terrain until reaching the debris field. 

When I made the pilgrimage in 2023, I actually recorded the hike on the GPS tracking app Strava so I could remember how to find the site.

Ruth and my dad Craig planned their trip to Austria over Richard’s 99th birthday, which fell on June 6, 2018. 

Through the Jeffries family, my mother reached out to Harald Stadler, a professor at the University of Innsbruck, and historian Karl Wurzer, who helped coordinate their visit.

A man stands outside a grey concrete building
University of Innsbruck professor Harald Stadler poses for a photo outside his campus office building on Oct. 11, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Stadler has made it his personal mission to document each family’s visit to the Powder Ann crash site and preserve their story as a part of the region’s history.

“When Ruth contacted us, it was really amazing,” he said when I interviewed him at the crash site in October. “For us, it’s very important that relatives of the airmen come to us and visit this place.”

“I found out later that Harold wasn’t exactly sure where the crash site was,” Ruth laughed during our interview on Monday. “We took a very circuitous route there.”

Three people hike up a mountainside
Kat Hovland (from left), Karl Wurzer and Harald Stadler hike through steep and rocky terrain toward the Powder Ann crash site near Volders, Austria, on Oct. 11, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

At one point, she said, Stadler doubled back and finally let out a relieved “Oh, yes. Here it is!” 

When she finally saw the wreckage for the first time, Ruth said she needed to take a moment to pause. 

“To witness those pieces that were something closely connected with Richard, it’s tricky to describe the power of that.”

During her visit, Ruth brought cakes and candles to mark Richard’s birthday, and she even convinced her local guides to sing a round of “Happy Birthday” on the mountain, both in English and in German.

Six years later, when my wife Kat and I visited the crash site, it was Stadler who brought a candle for us to light, printed with the photo of Richard standing with his Powder Ann crewmates.

We took pictures and toasted the crew with a bottle of schnapps Stadler had stashed in his jacket.

“When you texted me a picture of you on the mountain at the crash site, it was just like I was there. I could feel the wind blowing,” Ruth said.

“I really never know where it’s gonna go next,” she added when I asked if she ever thought I would make the trip myself. “I think that's the power and beauty of this whole process.”

Four people hold tiny cups as they say a toast
Kat Hovland (from left), Ben Hovland, Harald Stadler and Karl Wurzer toast the crew members of the Powder Ann with local schnapps near Volders, Austria on Oct. 11, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

On Monday, Memorial Day, Ruth will continue the tradition and set out Richard’s flag. It’s so long that it nearly brushes the tops of the plants below when she hangs it from the deck.

Ruth said she doesn’t have any expectations about the future of Richard’s story, but if she were to dream big, she hopes she could make contact with more of the families of the other Powder Ann crew members. 

“It’s been such an incredible gift,” she said, “the love that his story has generated.”

Richard left me with a gift as well. Through helping Ruth investigate Richard’s tale, she passed down the passion for storytelling, curiosity and dedication that drives much of the journalism I do today. For my mom’s love and Richard’s sacrifice, I’m immensely grateful. 

A woman hangs a large American flag from a wooden deck
Ruth Hovland hangs Richard Rossman’s memorial flag from the back deck of her south Minneapolis home on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Correction (May 24, 2024): An earlier version of the story had an incorrect date. The article has been updated.

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