‘Masters of the Air’ tells the story of my grandpa, who still inspires – USA TODAY

I made a beeline upstairs, flung open a suitcase and instead of grabbing clothes, I frantically searched for passports, birth certificates and … the shoe.

Chloe Melas  |  Opinion contributor

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“You can replace things, not people,” the fire chief said as he looked into our eyes. My husband and I were motionless, standing in a few inches of water in the center of our living room. Our furniture was turned upside down. The ceiling in our kitchen had caved in. The smell of smoke was becoming unbearable. Our 100-year-old Tudor home, into which we had poured our savings, was unrecognizable.  

Hours earlier, my husband and I were curled up to watch a movie in front of our cozy fireplace. Our two boys were finally asleep, but before we could get too comfortable, I noticed thick smoke hanging underneath our living room floor lamps.  

We called 911 and whisked our children out of the home without shoes or proper winter clothing on a cold January night a few weeks after ringing in 2020.

I bolted out of the home carrying my baby in my arms, while telling my toddler to “hold mommy’s hand tight!”  

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Two hours later, I was in a living room I didn’t recognize. I knew the fire chief was speaking to us, but I couldn’t hear any of it. I kept replaying the night.

The chief’s voice finally broke through the buzzing in my ears, “If your husband hadn’t gone into Leo’s room, this would have been a very different weekend.” I knew what he meant. We had narrowly escaped death. It was sheer luck that we were alive.

The chief gave me a nod and reluctantly allowed me to gather a few items before leaving our house, not to return for nine months.  

A death march wearing wooden clogs

I made a beeline upstairs, flung open a suitcase and instead of grabbing clothes, I frantically searched for passports, birth certificates and … the shoe. 

Specifically, a wooden clog that belonged to my grandfather, Frank Murphy, a navigator in the 8th Air Force, known as the “Bloody 100th” during World War II.

Veterans Day: Women served in WWII long before we valued them in the military. My mother was one.

The shoe was part of a pair he wore on what he described as a “dark, bitterly cold winter night” on Jan. 27, 1945, after Adolf Hitler ordered the evacuation of all American and British prisoners of war due to the advancement of the Soviet Army. 

My grandfather wrote after the war that they grabbed their pitiful belongings and began to walk in the deep snow to a “God-only-knows-where destination.” They marched for the next three days and nights, in subzero temperatures. Grandpa told me stories of how men would collapse in the snow from exhaustion and would plead with one another to keep going.

On the march, grandpa traded his shoes with a fellow soldier because his leather soles were soaked. We don’t know what happened to the other clog, but I safeguarded the remaining wooden shoe for decades. 

A week shy of what would have been the 75th anniversary of that horrific experience, I faced my own tragedy. I clutched his shoe because it symbolized hope and perseverance, and because it was the only thing I owned of my grandfather’s. 

As I walked out of my home that night, I thought about how in the dead of night my grandfather had somehow marched in those boat-like clogs and then was crammed into a boxcar. German soldiers refused to open the boxcar’s doors to allow in even a bit of sunlight or fresh air.

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He eventually arrived at a prison camp, where he would live for the next three months in what he described as a “living hellhole of all hellholes.” 

I laid in a bed at my in-laws’ house next to my son Leo, staring at my suitcase, with the shoe on top. We were thankful to be safe. “If grandpa could persevere, then I no doubt can get through this,” I told myself. 

A few years before his death in 2007, my grandfather wrote that he and his men were just “ordinary Americans,” and that they would have “laughed and rejected outright any suggestion of their being patriots or heroes.” 

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks will tell the aviators’ story

Whether they felt as though they deserved the title or not, they earned the right to be remembered. My grandfather, covered in lice, weighed only 122 pounds when he was liberated on April 29, 1945, by Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. But he was one of the lucky ones. He survived. 

His story and that of his fellow men will be featured in Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s “Masters of the Air” this spring on Apple TV+. 

I’m now back in my house. The fireplace is gone, but the home is full of love and the shoe is proudly displayed on a shelf. 

Grandpa said it comes down to the luck of the draw, but what he taught me is the will to carry on, even in the face of life’s darkest days. 

CNN entertainment reporter Chloe Melas has written a new foreword to her grandfather Frank Murphy’s memoir, “Luck of the Draw: My Story of the Air War in Europe,” to be published in February. Follow her on Twitter: @ChloeMelas