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War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun.
War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
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SOME SEASONAL GOOD CHEER
There are times when it seems beyond doubt that we are living in the age of the triumph of evil. Believe it or not, there is still some good in the world. Not much, and on the rare occasions when it shows itself, goodness must peep up from its hiding place like a cautious groundhog and generally pop back underground very quickly to avoid the swooping predators---but every now and then we get a glimpse.
On October 31st Herbert Perry, a retired businessman in Durham, North Carolina suffered a stroke. He recovered in hospital and early in November was sent to Hillcrest Convalescent Home. He had a roommate, an 88 year-old man named Helmut Bartsch, who had been on a visit from Germany to his married daughter in Durham and who had also suffered a stroke on October 25th.
At first the two elderly gentlemen didn't talk much, but then Perry's son-in-law brought him some of his effects from home, including a bedside clock with a B-17 bomber on top. It turned out the two roomies had something in common. "Ah, I remember that silhouette," spoke up Bartsch when he saw it. "I remember the sound, too. It was like a hammer of smiths, crack, crack, crack."
Over 50 years ago, Herbert Perry was a corporal in the Army Air Corps in England, an air traffic controller. Helmut Bartsch was across the Channel in Normandy, commanding an anti-aircraft battery in the Wehrmacht. "I put 'em up, he shot 'em down," commented Perry to a local news reporter. "We're very similar even though we're enemies," continued Perry. "He had a stroke on the right side, I had a stroke on the left side. Now we talk about our days in the army. Every time he gets a little blue we sing a German hymn."
"The newspapers were always reporting air attacks on small towns," said Bartsch, explaining why he volunteered for anti-aircraft. "It was only my duty to serve in the army."
Herbert Perry lost a lot of friends among the air crews he sent up into the sky, heading for Germany, many of them never to return, but he never let himself become bitter and he has always maintained a deep respect for the German people and their culture and intellect. "I even said it back during the war. The German people were smart and if the Americans hadn't come to England Hitler would have conquered them." The two families are now friends and the old vets will be staying in touch after Bartsch returns to Stuttgart.
Crawford J. Ferguson of Charlotte, North Carolina is 72 years old. Half a century ago Crawford T. Ferguson was part of a B-17 crew that flew 35 missions over Germany in 1944, raids which slaughtered untold hundreds of thousands of people. For fifty years it has haunted his sleep. "I keep seeing the plumes of fire down below as the cities fall apart, and at the same time it's like I'm down in the city, burning, running through the flames looking for a child or a wife or a sister," Ferguson told a reporter. "I have known for years that there was something I had to do before I die."
The first few letters got some publicity in Germany; the mayor of Kassel sent Ferguson a thank-you note and the local newspaper printed the apology. A weekly TV news program called "Hessenschau" picked up the story and ran a feature on it. Ferguson also received a letter from the Munich city council, requesting permission to make his letter public, which he granted. The mayor of Munich, Christian Ude, wrote a personal letter of thanks.
Then something odd happened. About half of Ferguson's letters got through, but six of them appear to have been intercepted and returned by the German Federal postal authorities without explanation, possibly because they were deemed to contain "Nazi propaganda". Ferguson says with wry humor, "I wrote to our beloved President Bill Clinton. I sent the letters to him and I told him they had been returned. I invited him to read them and if he thought they merited being forwarded I was going to rely on him to take care of the situation. I've still not heard back from him."
I read this in a British newspaper over ten years ago and I cannot remember all the details; I will quote from memory as best I can.
In a small village in the Norfolk fen country is a war memorial cemetery for the local dead in both wars. In one corner stands a small white obelisk bearing a Luftwaffe eagle and Swastika. In the early 1980s some of the "anti-fascist" scum came up from London to squawk and deface and attempt to destroy the headstone. The police and a number of local men came to the cemetery and "saw them off", apparently none too gently. The "antifas" scurried back to London screaming about police brutality and right-wing vigilantes. In the course of reporting this, the press also retold how the stone came to be there.
In 1944 and 1945 a lot of British and American air groups were operating out of fairly small airfields all across East Anglia. One such was this place in Norfolk. One day there was a massive daylight raid against what was left of Hamburg, using planes from all over these various fields. They dropped their load of death and were headed home when they ran into a number of German fighters.
"We broke up and flew our separate ways back to base, but there was this one German who stuck with us and wouldn't give up," recalled an American pilot. "He shot down at least two planes in our group and probably some more when the dogfight first began, but we just couldn't shake him. Our radio operator spoke some German and he could hear this guy's flight commander ordering him to come back, he would run out of fuel if he didn't, but the German pilot told him something like, 'You saw what they did today. They left nothing. I have nothing to go back to.' Evidently we'd bombed this guy's house, probably killed his family.
"We dodged into a cloud formation and for a while we thought we'd lost him, but over the coast of Holland we had to drop down and get our bearings, and there he was, still on our tail, still shooting at us, shredding us up pretty bad and wounding two of our crew. Our gunners shot back but could never hit him. Damn if the SOB didn't chase us all the way back to England! Our flak opened up on him as we came over the English coast, but they missed. By the time we got back to our field he had two British Spitfires on his tail, but they couldn't seem to tag him either. The guy seemed bulletproof. I got her down and we all jumped out of the aircraft and ran like hell, dragging our wounded with us, and he crashed his Messerschmitt right into our B-17. He finally got us, even though it was at the cost of his own life. His plane didn't catch fire because his fuel tanks were bone dry; he must have been flying on fumes. When they pulled him out of the wreckage dead, it was this blond kid, couldn't have been more than 19 or 20. He didn't have any papers on him, and we never learned his name."
The incident had been witnessed by the local villagers, who were so impressed by the boy's courage that the vicar offered him a burial plot in the church's war cemetery, where he lies to this day, unknown.
All of the above is quoted from memory, but one thing I do remember with absolute accuracy, because I wrote them down, and that is the words on that young hero's grave in an enemy land. They were composed by an RAF colonel who also witnessed his death:
"Call them misguided, call them even wicked if you must; but no nation or cause ever brought forth defenders of greater courage and worth. They fought like the Northland gods of their ancient and warlike race, and few indeed are those among us who can say that ever we saw their backs".
When the British media asked the local people why they defended the grave of a Nazi, one of them answered, "We don't care what he was. We just know that he was a brave lad who one morning flew all the way from Germany to our village to die here, because he thought it was right that he do so. He is one of us now, and when those yobs came up here from London and insulted his memory they insulted us and all our own dead as well. They weren't even alive during the war, they don't know what it was like back then. Why don't they just bloody well belt up?"
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Date this page was last updated:
Friday, March 24, 2017