Lest We Forget
On this, the anniversary of the founding of the United States, we take a moment to listen to a story passed on by an aviator who spent several years in a German prison camp, after being shot down while on a mission to protect the free world. It is a tale of both humor and tragedy, and reminds us of the bonds that brings all aviators together.
Some people say that you could put two pilots in Yankee Stadium and, before the game was over, they would be off in a corner somewhere talking about airplanes. Several years ago I moved to Clear Lake, Iowa. Shortly after arriving, our mutual interest in aviation led me quickly to my new neighbor, Bob "Doc" Ahrens. Doc had recently moved to Clear Lake, also after retiring from a long and successful veterinary practice in a small Iowa farm town, and was enjoying the lake life. We spent many evenings on our lake sipping suds as Doc related stories of his flying.
Doc was a student at Iowa State University when the war broke out, and upon his graduation, he joined the Air Force. He told of stories of his training, and of the B-24 Liberator that he flew. He hated the "Lib." "It was a great airplane for the job," Doc would concede, "but it flew terribly." The story Doc told most was of the ME-109 that came from behind his right shoulder. The tracers tore through the cockpit, and boiling hydraulic oil filled the air inside. One engine was already feathered, but they were managing all right until that hit. The bomb bay doors were trailing open as Doc dove between them to bail out. The flesh on his fingers was burned so badly that he could not pull his ripcord. Finally, by grasping the handle with the heels of his hands, he was able to deploy his 'chute.
When Doc landed in the wheat field in Austria, his welcoming committee was not the Chamber of Commerce; rather, a group of Nazi soldiers seeing him fall were awaiting his arrival. Doc said, "I was never happier to see anyone in my life than them. I was hurting that bad." Needless to say, the Nazi medical care for Polesti-bound pilots left much to be desired, and Doc suffered the ill-effects of his injuries his entire life. The rest of the war was spent relaxing as a guest of Hitler. Doc never complained about his treatment or his captors: "The guards were just as hungry as we were," he would say. But Doc never complained about anything; it was not his style.
Doc had a box of memorabilia from the Stalag that was his home for nearly two years. One night he got it out and we went through it. In that box he had a blue book, just like the essay exam books at college. The Red Cross would distribute these books to the prisoners. I read Doc's book and laughed and cried. It was full of poems and stories. None of the writings had an author attributed, and I asked Doc if he wrote them. He always denied it, but I never believed him. Doc copied the little blue book and gave it to me years ago. Recently, I was digging deep in my well-organized desk and came upon the neatly stapled booklet of photocopies. I read it again. I laughed and cried again. My favorite is this one.
And So the Story Began
And so it came to pass that there dwelleth in the land of the Saxons a group of strange men who flitteth here and there in the sky, and make like the birds; for such was this their profession, to protect their brethren who limpeth along on more unwieldy wings, and they were called birdmen.
And it came to pass one morning as the sun first shineth on the hut of the sleeping birdmen, one called the "C.Q." entereth therin and he sayeth, "Arise, for the time of the briefing is at hand," and then he departeth in great haste for he was wise in the ways of the birdmen.
And so with much mumbling and cursing, they arose and apeaseth their tender bellies on burnt potatoes and spam; for alas, such was the ways of the officers of the mess who walketh about on paddle feet.
Wherefore the Birdmen wenteth their way to the briefing place, wherein they beheld strange markings on the wall. Many and numerous were the spots of red on the plan of the enemies stronghold.
And their gaze fell upon the handwriting upon the wall, for such it was and they sayeth one unto the other, "No, this cannot be!" and there was weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
And the sound of the moaning ceaseth as the great one entereth the room. And he spoke unto them saying, "Yea, verily I sayeth to you; wing upon wing of our big friends must go forth this day and assail the enemy, and let us not lag behind, for he who strayeth is lost."
And there was one among them called the "S-2" who claimeth to know the ways of the enemy, but went not amongst the enemy, and they believeth him not and they spoke unto the other saying, "Whofore speaketh he unto us thusly, for he knoweth not the odds by which we all reapeth in the end."
And still others spoke unto them of the wind and the clouds, but he confuseth them and they heareth him not. As they leaveth the briefing hut some entereth the little house in great haste and still others entereth the big house in greater haste.
Thence they departeth to their winged steeds, they entangleth each of them with many strange hooks and straps after a confusing manner, and each was known unto the other by various numbers and colors that they might know their places. And in this manner each after the other breaketh the bonds of the earth.
And one among them runneth forth but lifteth not, for his RPM runneth out, and the others marvel at his good fortune. Still another returneth, for his temperature riseth.
And they come unto the appointed place, their big friends have gone before them, and the birdmen are troubled for their fuel dwindleth fast.
And so they draw nigh unto the target and behold flashes, many and numerous amongst them, and they weaveth and swoopeth to escape the "Flak," for so it was called.
And Red Number One calleth to the great one and sayeth, "Wither shall we turn? Cans't thou not lead us out?" And the great one sayeth, "Oh thee of little faith! Why murmerest thou against me?"
And at this time great multitudes of enemy birdmen decendeth upon the big friends, and the "Forts" were clobbered, for such was the custom in those days.
And they called forth the birdmen to come and give them aid, and they all came forth, save one who came fifth, for he spotteth of having a Foche-Wolfe on his tail, where upon the birdman turneth this way and that way and were lost unto one another, and great confusion reigneth. And Red Number One called to Red Number Two saying, "Lot behold, I spinneth out and am lost to thee." Then they say one to the other, "Hit the silk," and while parasols floateth to the earth, they cometh to the land of the enemy.
(The spelling and punctuation are as originally written. A version of this story, and many other poems and stories from Stalag Luft 1, can be found on the Stalag Luft I web site.)
Fifty-seven years ago this summer, Doc woke up one morning in Stalag Luft 1 and the guards were gone. The prisoners were not sure what it meant at first, but word of the end of the war arrived shortly. Doc returned to Iowa, finished veterinary school, got married, and raised nine children. Doc left on his final mission in 1994. His hydraulic pump was weak and he had some internal corrosion. He was buried on a cold winter day in the small town where he served the farmers and their animals he loved. Writing this caused me to realize how many of the stories he told me I had already begun to forget. Hopefully, reading this will cause others to remember other stories.