In the last months of World War II, Lt. Theodore Q. Balides navigated a squadron of American bombers over a city he believed was Freiburg, Germany. The planes dropped 24 tons of explosives, killing five people and destroying a cluster of homes.
But the town was not Freiburg, and it was not in Nazi Germany. The Americans, 50 miles from their presumed target, had bombed Zurich in neutral Switzerland.
An errant bombing was far from unusual during World War II. But what then happened to Lieutenant Balides and his pilot, Lt. William Sincock, may have been unprecedented.
Soon after returning to their base in England that sodden March day in 1945, the two young officers were court-martialed and apparently became the first American soldiers ever criminally prosecuted for an act of friendly fire, the unintentional killing of those not the enemy. According to military officials and historians, they were also the last.
That may soon change. Military prosecutors are seeking a court-martial against five Air Force officers, including a pilot, for the downing of two U.S. Blackhawk helicopters over Iraq in April.
The pilot, Lt. Col. Randy W. May, has been charged with negligent homicide in connection with the deaths of 26 people. The military equivalent of a grand jury hearing, at which the officers conducting the hearing will decide whether to go ahead with a court-martial, will begin tomorrow in Germany.
The two episodes, a half-century apart, stand as twin exceptions to a rule in U.S. military history. The rarity of the prosecutions underscores not the military's intolerance of friendly fire, but its acceptance of such incidents as the regrettable but unavoidable outgrowth of war.
Ted Balides believed in that proposition. He flew 27 missions over Europe, many of them under attack by the Germans. He did the best he could, and he believed that was all anyone would expect. Ultimately, his faith was vindicated when he and Lieutenant Sincock, who died in 1970, were acquitted.
But ever since, Ted Balides has submerged the stain of Zurich, fearful that the tragedy would destroy his military career.
At age 72, with a twisted back and shuffling gait, he is breaking his silence. Two weeks ago, a reporter told him of his singular link to Colonel May. Immediately, he contacted the colonel's attorney, hoping his story could be used in the officer's defense.
The military, he said, needs to be reminded that warfare is frightening and messy, and that young men risking everything for their country cannot be considered criminals.
"We go to war," he said recently in Alexandria, Va., where he now lives. "We fly these flimsy planes. We risk our lives on a daily basis. Sometimes we make mistakes.
"If you crucify anyone for that, no one will ever go to war."
'The fog of war'
The U.S. experience with friendly fire predates the union itself. Col. George Washington of the British Army was fired on by his own troops during the French and Indian War. Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by Southern pickets at Chancellorsville. In the worst incident, 600 U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded in Normandy when Allied bombs fell short of their target in 1944.
The military may view such incidents as tragic, but it has also seen them as the inevitable mistakes that arise from "the fog of war."
Popularized by the 19th century military theoretician Karl von Clausewitz, the term refers to the essential unpredictability of combat. War, Clausewitz said, is not precise and mathematical but their opposite -- chaotic and confusing and swept along by intense emotions, by terror and hatred and fear.
"There's a lot of negligence in war," said Zane Finkelstein, a retired member of the Army's Judge Advocate Corps. "Time after time, artillery units drop rounds on their own units. Planes bomb their own troops. In warfare, accidents and unusual circumstances are normal."
What to do about friendly fire has always been a dilemma. In combat, quickness and decisiveness are attributes; delay and deliberation can put one's own troops in danger.
"People can be made to be so cautious that they become ineffective in combat," said Ivan Oelrich, who directed a congressional study of friendly fire after numerous incidents during the Persian Gulf war.
That risk is the reason some regard the prosecution of Colonel May as not only surprising, but wrongheaded. "It's a dangerous precedent to try to criminalize something that went wrong in the fog of war," said Jonathan Tomes, a former military prosecutor. "When you're talking about fighter planes, a five-second delay could mean a Sam Seven [missile] up your tailpipe."
There is also surprise over the military's apparent desire to brand Colonel May a criminal. When disciplinary action is taken in a friendly-fire case, it is usually through administrative penalties, which are sufficient to destroy a career. During Desert Storm, for example, a U.S. fighter pilot was forced to retire for obliterating two armored vehicles and killing two U.S. soldiers.
The Air Force also did not court-martial two U.S. pilots who fired on a column of British vehicles during the war with Iraq. Nine British soldiers were killed in the attack, leading to a British coroner's finding of "unlawful homicide" against the pilots. The United States refused to turn the pilots over for trial or even to identify them.
Mark Stephens, a London attorney who represents the families of the British soldiers, said that case is similar to the incident involving Colonel May, who was flying an F-15 fighter jet in a designated "no-fly zone" over Iraq when he identified two Black Hawk helicopters as enemy aircraft. Among the 26 killed on the helicopters were 15 U.S. soldiers and 11 foreign nationals who were on a United Nations relief mission on behalf of the Kurds in northern Iraq.
In both incidents, Mr. Stephens said, the pilots were in no imminent danger and had time to make proper identifications before firing.
Mr. Stephens believes the United States is prosecuting Colonel May after realizing its error in the British case. "The Americans have learned their lesson but can't admit a past mistake," he said.
Some say Colonel May undoubtedly has learned his lesson, too. "Destroying his career would have been enough," said Henry Karlson, an Indiana University law professor and former Army judge. "Obviously, he didn't want to knock down a friendly aircraft. What purpose is being served in turning him into a criminal?"
'A good bomb'
Ted Balides was awakened shortly after 1 the morning of March 4, 1945, for the preflight briefing. Takeoff from Wendling, on the North Sea coast, was scheduled for 5:55 a.m. The target was a tank depot in southwestern Germany.
He was a 23-year-old first lieutenant then, the fiercely patriotic son of Greek immigrants. This would be his 24th mission over Europe.
Flush with his generation's patriotism, he had joined up more than two years earlier, an electrician from Queens with the rubbery face of Jiminy Cricket. He had picked the Air Corps because of a recruitment poster showing a soldier with a bayonet through his chest. Preferring a more elegant death, he had decided to fight his war from the air.
He trained as a navigator after washing out of pilot school. In February 1944, he was sent to Westover Field in Massachusetts, where he was assembled with his crew, headed by pilot William Sincock, a University of Michigan graduate.
After training on the B-24 Liberator, a bulky, heavily armored bomber, the crew members were sent to Wendling. Soon, they were making bombing runs over Europe and were considered so proficient that they were designated a lead crew.
Everything about the March 4 bombing runs was fraught with tension. The German fighter planes were notoriously expert, and the flak from the ground, bursting in great black clouds, seemed unending. "We used to say it was so thick you could walk on it," said Mr. Balides.
Even more dangerous was the risk of colliding with one of the hundreds of Allied planes circling in formation.
For Murray Milrod, the radar operator on some of Lieutenant Sincock's missions, the worst moments came right before the bombing.
"When we came near the target, we scattered pieces of heavy silver paper," said Mr. Milrod, a retiree in Lake Worth, Fla. "The theory was that the paper would throw off their radar. As the paper would go out, we'd all get a knot in our stomachs, because we knew their artillery would start up."
After takeoff on March 4, 1945, Lieutenant Sincock and his crew found that the navigational and radar equipment of their plane, ,, one of nearly 1,000, was inoperable. The crew returned to base, switched planes and took off again, now half an hour late.
Over Verdun, France, the designated formation area, the whole division was in disarray, and many planes were turning back. Visibility was terrible, with heavy cloud cover and the exhaust of hundreds of planes. Worse, the Germans were jamming radio signals from the ground, and the radar pictures were faint.
While Lieutenant Sincock took his plane through twists and turns trying to dodge flak and get into a formation, Lieutenant Balides sat behind him trying to plot their location. His method was to calculate wind and air speed and try to take fixes from ground locations.
The poor visibility, the faulty equipment and the maneuvering of the bomber were too much. "We had no idea where we were," Mr. Milrod said.
Hitting the primary target was out of the question. Eventually, though, Lieutenant Sincock, now leading five other bombers, attached himself to another bomber group, which signaled that it was about to make a bombing run on Stuttgart.
But the planes in front suddenly made a sharp turn and Lt. Sincock lost them. Disgusted, he turned toward home. But he instructed his crew to look for any suitable target, observing the wartime axiom, "Any bomb on Germany is a good bomb."
Lieutenant Balides then made his critical mistake. Believing he was near Stuttgart, he attempted to plot his coordinates but transposed some digits. The error led him to conclude that the bomber was 25 miles northwest of its actual location.
Ten minutes later, the radar operator announced that they were approaching a sizable city. Someone asked whether it could be Freiburg. Lieutenant Balides said Freiburg was consistent with his chart readings.
The pilot didn't trust the radar and ordered Lt. George Barger, another navigator, to look for breaks in the clouds to make a visual identification of the target.
Lieutenant Barger managed a partial view of the city. He saw a patch of woods, a highway, a railroad and a small stream, all
consistent with Freiburg's features. "I am positive that is Freiburg," he said.
One last thought caused Lieutenant Balides to hesitate. "I told [Lieutenant Barger] that Freiburg was very close to our front lines and to be sure we hadn't crossed the Rhine for fear of bombing our own troops," Lieutenant Balides later said. Lieutenant Barger replied, "We definitely have not crossed the Rhine river. I see it on the other side of town."
What he apparently saw was the Lake of Zurich.
Satisfied that he had an appropriate target, Lieutenant Sincock ordered the bombs dropped. The attack was over 60 seconds later.
A halfhearted case
The crew's misfortune that day was partly the result of timing. The United States by then had run out of ways to apologize to Switzerland.
By March 1945, the United States had been bombing Switzerland for months. The Americans called the bombings inadvertent. The Swiss weren't so sure, suspecting that U.S. fliers were showing their displeasure that German transports were permitted to cross Switzerland.
The U.S. claim probably had more credence. According to a recent study, with heavy cloud cover nearly half the bombs dropped by the United States landed more than five miles from their targets. Some bombs fell as much as 1,000 miles off target, according to evidence at the 1945 court-martial.
A pattern was soon established in the bombings of Switzerland. U.S. planes would drop bombs. The Swiss would complain. The Americans would apologize, agree to reparations and promise to stop.
But the bombings continued. One U.S. diplomat found himself laying a wreath on the graves of Swiss victims of U.S. bombings at almost the same moment U.S. planes were destroying a nearby town.
The attacks were drawing attention at the highest level of the U.S. military, according to historian Richard Davis. After a February 1945 bombing in which 16 Swiss died, Gen. George C. Marshall ordered Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to make sure it didn't happen again.
Ten days later came the attack on Zurich, the deepest infiltration yet into Switzerland by U.S. bombers. Most bombs landed in an open field, but a group of homes was hit, killing five people and leaving 22 homeless.
Furious, General Marshall cabled Gen. Carl Spaatz, head of the U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe: "The successive bombing of Swiss territory now demands more than expressions of regret."
Even before they returned to base after the bombing, Lieutenant Balides knew he had miscalculated. After receiving ground signals again, he could tell he was 30 to 40 miles off course. Back in Wendling, the crew was called into headquarters. Shortly thereafter, the pilot and navigator were charged with criminal negligence.
Mr. Balides no longer remembers whether he was angry. But he was incredulous. "They were going to send a guy to jail for protecting his country?" he asked. With a life sentence in the balance, he was also scared.
The case against him seemed halfhearted from the beginning. After an initial review of the evidence, an investigator concluded, "It doesn't appear from the evidence available . . . the charge can be sustained. . . . The decision to bomb appears to have been based upon the best available information."
Jonathan Helmreich, a historian at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, where he was a colleague of William Sincock, investigated the episode as a favor to his friend. Dr. Helmreich suspects that the court-martial was partly a show trial, an attempt to assure the Swiss that the bombings were accidental.
"This was the one the Americans could clearly show was an error," said Dr. Helmreich.
The most telling sign of the Air Forces' ambivalence about the prosecution came within days of the Zurich bombing. Lieutenant Sincock's crew was grounded, but Lieutenant Balides was hand-picked for a pinpoint bombing mission over Germany. The pilot and bombardier were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses; Lieutenant Balides was denied his medal because of the charges.
On June 1, the court-martial began at division headquarters in Horsham St. Faith, England. Presiding was Col. James Stewart, better known as Jimmy Stewart, the actor who was a decorated bomber pilot during the war.
The prosecutor's case was matter-of-fact. His witnesses, seemingly reluctant, were uniformly nonjudgmental. And the prosecutor himself never expressed outrage or urged the jury of officers to convict.
The defense lawyer made an impassioned plea. He never mentioned the fog of war, but that was the image he evoked.
"It is our position that [the bombing of Zurich] was the unhappy, but nevertheless normal, consequence of a combination of circumstances consisting of the adverse weather encountered on that day, the very severe maneuvering which this crew, as well as others, had to engage in for survival, the stress and strain of an operational mission, the malfunctioning of this equipment at their command and, lastly, an aggressive attitude on the part of this crew to salvage something from an apparent mission failure."
The two-day trial ended in acquittals for the two officers. The war having ended a few weeks earlier, they soon flew home. In his pocket, Lieutenant Balides carried Jimmy Stewart's autograph, a memento from his time in the dock.
'Haunted by demons'
Ted Balides remembers getting a call in the early 1960s from the man who had prosecuted him. "He was writing a book and said there might be a movie." Mr. Balides said. "I didn't want anything to do with it. If I had any notoriety then, it would have killed me."
He was back in the military, having been recalled for the Korean War. By then, he knew that he preferred the military life, so he applied for a commission. One of the questions on the application was whether he had ever been court-martialed. He knew that if he answered yes, he would never get the commission, so he raised the problem with an Air Force lawyer. The question was changed to "Have you ever been convicted by court-martial?"
It was the only time the Zurich bombing ever came up, and Mr. Balides had a long and satisfying career, retiring in 1977 as a full colonel. Along the way, he married and had three children. Today, he sells real estate in Alexandria.
Friends of William Sincock say he didn't allow the incident to be buried. Mr. Sincock, too, had a successful career. He was chairman of the education department at Allegheny College, a charismatic figure who was remembered when he died as a "man haunted by demons."
One of those demons appears to have been the memory of ZTC Zurich. Sometimes, when he drank heavily, he spoke of the bombing. Usually, he didn't mention the deaths, and he described the incident as a mistake anyone could have made. Still, his friends believed he brought it up as a sort of expiation.
Ted Balides didn't share that need to unburden himself. He was quite willing to let the past slip away, a blip in a lifetime of service to his country.
But now he is talking. "I don't see any sense in dredging this up just to tell an interesting story," he said. "I want to help these boys."
He is speaking now of Colonel May and the other Air Force officers charged in the downing of the two Black Hawk helicopters. Late last month, after he learned of the circumstances that tied him to Colonel May, Mr. Balides got on the phone, trying to reach the officer's lawyer. Eventually, he got a call from Germany. It came from Capt. Barbara Shestko, one of Colonel May's attorneys, who said she plans to use Mr. Balides' story this week in arguing against court-martialing her client.
"There's a long history of not prosecuting friendly-fire cases, 50 years' worth," Captain Shestko said. "There's a broader perspective here, and that's why it was so important to hear from Colonel Balides."
The broader perspective, said Mr. Balides, is that of young men, frightened and uncertain, making life-and-death decisions under enormous pressure. If they err, does their motivation suddenly become criminal?
"Here's a man devoting his life to the U.S. government, to do whatever he's asked to do, and one of the things he does is risk his life flying their planes. Do you think he wanted to kill those people?"
I= "No, he didn't," Ted Balides said. "Of course he didn't."