Local man seeks recognition for dad's overlooked WWII mission

Norman Lemke discovered his father’s secret in an obituary.

On a July day in 1955, Lemke opened an edition of the Buffalo Evening News. Sixteen lines into the death notice, the teenage Lemke found the truth about Frank J. Lemke’s business trip to Africa more than a decade prior. 

“After working as a machinist for the Airplane Division of the Curtiss-Wright Corp., he became a foreman in a special service group of the Douglas Aircraft Co. doing plane repair work in Africa under Army Air Corps directions,” the obituary said.

“In the winter of 1943, he was the only passenger on a freighter returning to his country when it was torpedoed off the coast of South Africa,” it continued. “He was picked up near Sao Paulo, Brazil, after 42 days in a 22-foot lifeboat with 25 crew members,” it continued.

Lemke and his three brothers – Ronald, Frank Jr. and Clifford – had known their late father, Frank, 43, was abroad for 18 months of their youth, but thought it was for civilian work.

The boys were unaware one day in 1941 their father was driven through the night to New York City, boarded a troop ship for a 50-day, transatlantic route to arrive at an abandoned Italian airbase in the remote hills of North Africa. 

“My father would never speak of it,” he said, and the little his mother knew was only first told to the newspaper writer.

Decades later, Norman Lemke is still searching for the other men involved in the mission, which came to be known as “Project 19.”

Lemke’s aim is to recognize the men and the mission his father kept hidden. He considers them “lost men” of American war history. As the veterans of the mission continue to age, Lemke worries time is running out to recognize them by name.

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

The mission was made up of U.S. airplane workers who set out with 2,000 other men for Africa to assist the British before America had officially entered the war. 

Together, they salvaged and repaired aircraft for the British Royal Air Force as the Englishmen battled Nazi forces in Africa until the German’s defeat in 1943. Thereafter, fighting became focused in the European theater and the Project 19 men were given a choice: enlist in the military or be sent home. 

Frank Lemke wanted to head home but had to spend his days adrift at sea before he would get to his family again. Upon his safe return, Norman Lemke and his family moved to the City of Niagara Falls, Town of Niagara line, by the airport. Lemke would spend part of his days watching helicopter testing on the airstrip. 

Lemke has managed to gain the attention of U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, calling it a great point of pride.

Earlier this year, Higgins read what Lemke believes is the first federal recognition of the men into the congressional record of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It is important to recognize Frank and other civilian heroes who have contributed to the preservation of freedom in this great country,” he told the chamber. “It is an honor to recognize these heroes who not only helped my district, but the Allied Forces win the war.”

Lemke has now reached across the Atlantic Ocean and is in touch with Britain’s Parliament in an attempt to secure a similar recognition. 

“I’m not looking for medals. I’m not looking for any big whoopty-doo or anything else. I’m just looking that these men get recognized in writing somewhere,” he said. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”

Norman Lemke lives in the Town of West Seneca. He can be contacted by telephone at (716) 674 - 5663.