This Veterans’ Day, the Metal Detector, a uniquely moving short film, will debut on PBS. The film focuses on Georg Reutter, an Austrian retiree who, with a metal detector and a sense of mission, learned the fate of ten American pilots shot down near his home in Graz during World War II – and so do their descendants.
Austrian retiree Georg Reutter, 69, could never forget his mother’s story about how a US B-17 plane had crashed near their town during WWII; the crew escaped by parachutes and later captured.
After retiring in 2018 – following a career as a consultant, IBM computer vendor and golf course designer – Georg set about discovering what happened to those brave men who found themselves in enemy territory outside Graz.
He learned how all ten of the crewmen survived, contacted their descendants and invited them to join him and his wife at their Austrian home to share their stories — and take turns with Georg’s metal detector to locate parts of their fathers’ doomed plane.
Curious? Watch the trailer here.
SENIOR PLANET talks exclusively to Georg Reutter, the man whose obsession made it all possible:
Q: Were you surprised to learn how all ten of these brave young men survived the crash and capture?
GEORG: Yes I was. But at first I didn’t know, so this was the driving force in me to find out: Did they survive? To begin with, I didn’t even know what plane it was. Were there just two pilots or were there more?
“…it was a great relief for me to know that it went well for them.”
After a lot of research, I realized there were ten on the plane, and that they all came down. They all were captured. And in the end, they all went back to the United States. It was a great relief for me to know that it went well for them.
Q: When you first began contacting their descendants, did they think it was a prank call from perhaps Arnold Schwarzenneger, given your accent?
GEORG: Absolutely. The whole time. But I got used to that, just telling the story. Actually Arnold Schwarzenegger was born five miles away from my home in Graz where this crash happened.
Q: But despite all odds – and through sheer perseverance – you located most of the descendants?
GEORG: Yes. Initially it was very difficult to find telephone numbers, or even locate them. I was researching obituaries to find out the descendants. I finally found Mick Berry, the son of Tail Gunner Daniel Behre. I traced Daniel to his ice producing company in New Orleans and the secretary told me he had died long ago but there was a son living in San Francisco who was an actor but had changed his name. This was Mick – who was such a great help because he still had all these memoirs that his father had written.
Q: And not all the descendants wanted to talk?
GEORG: That’s true. For example, after I discovered that Waist Gunner Warren Haskin was hiding with a farmer after he came down, I was able to find his daughter; to begin with she was very friendly but said her sisters had absolutely no interest. She gave me information about her father and then a little bit more the next time. And then suddenly, she didn’t want to talk to me anymore. I can only imagine that somebody told her to beware; this can’t be true. So unfortunately she didn’t join the other descendants at the reunion.
Q: Which descendant was the hardest to locate?
GEORG: Cherie Beaulieu, the daughter of Radio Operator/Gunner Robert Zimmerman. Through marriage, she had changed her name. I found her home on Google Maps – but I still couldn’t reach her. So I wrote her a handwritten letter, and she talks in the film about receiving the letter. After she wrote back to me, it gave me goosebumps to know I had finally found her.
Q: In the film we see you taking the descendants to the crash site and recovering bullet casings. Why was there so little left of the B-17?
GEORG: Well, this plane crashed and basically disintegrated. People came afterwards and took everything they could because this was towards the end of the war, and metal was scarce. It dragged down the hill as it crashed and things fell out and got lost or burnt. The area it crashed is in the woods on a trail where many hikers walk, unaware of the history.
Q: It must have been very emotional to gather all the descendants at your home, introducing them for the first time?
GEORG: Yes, especially when you consider how their fathers had really been very good friends. But they had lost any contact with each other so the descendants had not met each other before. And then I bring them over to Austria to see the place where their fathers had jumped down – and they meet each other for the first time. It was quite something. There were many tears.
Q: How did this become a film?
GEORG: I had never planned to do a film. But about a week before the reunion, Mick called to say how he had done his one-man play in San Francisco [Dad Fought Hitler, The Bottle and Me] and told the audience that he was going to Austria because “this crazy guy” , ie: me, had found him.
There were people there who said he should film this. I had no idea how to do that but Mick found a woman who agreed to fly to Austria at the last minute and join us all. Her husband is our director Brendan Patrick Hughes – so suddenly we were making a film!
Q: The world is at war again. What do you think audiences can learn from this film?
GEORG: I hope they can learn that reconciliation is possible. If you look at towns in WWII – you can see images where a plane is flying over and for hundreds of kilometers and there’s only ruins. And 30,000 people were killed in just one night raid at that time in Dresden. We forget how horrible this was. But people can talk to each other and bring about hope and reconciliation…
A story of empathy, resilience and human connection, filmmaker Brendan Patrick Hughes documents this moving reunion on the 75th anniversary of the crash in PBS short film, The Metal Detector, airing on November 11 on local PBS stations nationwide. The Metal Detector will be available to stream on the PBS app and PBS.org after November 11.
Gill Pringle began her career as a rock columnist for popular British newspapers, traveling the world with Madonna, U2 and Michael Jackson. Moving to Los Angeles 27 years ago, she interviews film and TV personalities for prestigious UK outlets, The Independent, The i-paper and The Sunday Times – and, of course, Senior Planet. A member of Critics Choice Association, BAFTA and AWFJ, she wrote the screenplay for 2016 Netflix family film, The 3 Tails Movie: A Mermaid Adventure. An award-winning writer, in 2021 she was honored by the Los Angeles Press Club with 1st prize at the NAEJ Awards.
Photo: George Reutter watches a drone; PBS Release Photo by Emily Topper