Today I downloaded a new bestseller on my kindle about the Second World War. A Higher Call by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander is an incredible true story of the fraternal bond of warriors across the battle lines. Part of it reads as a war memoir as well as a tale of mutual humanity. In the first few chapters the reader learns about The lives of then 2nd Lt. Charles Brown of West Virginia and Oberleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) Franz Stigler of Bavaria, and how they were forever changed one December day in 1943.
In the course of the story Charles “Charlie” Brown struggles to bring his bomber back from his first mission over the skies of Germany. On his crews attempt to destroy the German war production complex in Bremen, their plane was hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire on their approach. Almost immediately, as they dropped out of formation, they were set upon by 15 enemy fighters. With his tail gunner dead, four wounded and two engines dying, Brown had no choice but to dive below cloud cover.
When he struggled for altitude, he noticed an ME 109 next to his cockpit. The enemy plane had a large kill Talley on its tail, signifying an ace pilot. The veteran enemy ace was Franz Stigler, part of a dwindling number of German pilots from the start of the war. As Brown’s plane flew over the treetops it caught the attention of Stigler, who signaled his crew chief to ready his plane. As he climbed in pursuit he thought of personal glory as he was a few points shy of earning the Knights Cross, Germany’s wartime Medal Of Honor. He also thought of revenge for the death of his brother and fellow pilot August, killed earlier in the war as well as taking down one of the bombers responsible for targeting his home country. As Stigler closed in and peered over his gun sights he noticed the rear gunner of the enemy plane was dead.
Staying his hand from the trigger, he flew beside the American plane. He could see the fuselage peeled away by Flak guns, the machine guns were knocked out and the crew tending to their wounded crew mates stared at his plane in sheer terror. Upon reaching the cockpit, Lt. Brown saw his plane whose eyes were also wide in shock and disbelief. Stigler matched his planes speed and weighed of his options. His need for vengeance and honor would be satisfied upon destroying the bomber. Yet, he also thought of his families ancestry as he was descended from an old knighthood, holding honor above other virtues. He also aspired to become a Catholic priest before the war. The thought of treason entered his mind as a German servicemen who spared the life of an enemy would face execution. He finally remembered his old mentor, Ace pilot Gustav Roedel, telling the then inexperienced Stigler in 1939 that to shoot a defenseless pilot would be murder.
After deciding to spare his enemy, Stigler escorted Brown’s plane. He acted as a shield so his comrades manning Flak guns wouldn’t shoot. When the bomber reached the north sea, he saluted and dove out of sight. The respective pilots kept their silence. Stigler out of fear of being informed upon and executed by the Gestapo. Brown was told by his Wing Commander to stay silent for fear of spreading positive propaganda about the enemy.
After decades the two found one another via an ad for a military aviators gathering. The two met in florida in 1990 and began a friendship that lasted until 2008, when they died months apart from each other. In their respective obituaries they referred to each other as their brother.
This book is an amazing example of wartime endurance and the triumph of the human spirit. It certainly should share book space with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Enjoy it, you certainly will.
Finally some good news about humanity’s war with HIV/AIDS. Doctors in Mississippi report that an infant born with the disease has been ‘cured’ after drug treatments, 30 hours after birth. For the first time in our history we wont have to deal with a generation that has AIDS. There wont be anymore candlelight vigils, no benefit concerts, no more families standing by waiting to hear grim news from a doctor. This could be our turning point in our struggle. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/03/baby-hiv-cured/
Every generation endures its most shocking moments. At the age of 14, I witnessed one September morning two 747s crash into the World Trade Center. As my class sat riveted to the television in my second period history class, the memory of my mother telling me of President Kennedy’s Assassination came to mind. I felt shock back then, and fear, constricting fear. It was a reminder that the world was not especially safe nor was it full of innocence as I let myself believe. This past weekend I took some time to understand what my grandparents must have felt one December morning over seventy years ago, when the entire world was at war.
At that point in history beginning in the 1930’s, Japan had ambitions to rule Asia and subjugate its people. In 1931, Emperor Hirohito’s army invaded and assumed control of Manchuria in order to exploit its coal and iron rich mountains. From there, the coastal areas of China were overtaken, culminating in the infamous Rape of Nanking in 1937. Over 300,000 civilians were massacred by Imperial troops, prompting a great outcry by the League of Nations. Despite promises to initiate trade embargoes with Japan, the League was ultimately powerless to halt Tokyo’s territorial expansion. On the other side of the world, Germany and Italy prepared for war as well.
1933 saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. His vision was of a world where his Reich would rule a vast stretch of territory from the English Channel to the Pacific coast. He instructed his previously defeated nation to embrace his dream of conquest as a means to avenge itself of the First World War. In order to do this, Hitler silenced all opposition and initiated a campaign of terror for Germany’s ethnic and religious minorities, especially targeting its sizable Jewish population. Many of these millions of innocents would be relocated to secret camps that would enforce slave labor, to assist in the buildup of Germany’s war machine. With Germany effectively a police state, Hitler had his security services later develop a horrific program called “The Final Solution”. This action would murder over 10 million human beings from many nations and creeds during the war’s progression. In 1939 the German military (Wehrmacht), while operating alongside the Soviet Army, invaded and subjugated Poland.
With its Eastern front secure, the German Army then turned its attention to the West. Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, and France fell before the Wehrmacht Panzer divisions and endless columns of troops. Nothing seemed to stop the German conquest of Europe. By June of 1940, England stood alone. For three long months, the British Royal Air force fought the German Luftwaffe for control of the skies over London and other major cities. Bolstered by the courage of their pilots and the profound words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the people of Great Britain vowed to fight to the bitter end. It was at this time that they and other besieged nations began to receive aid from the United States.
Respecting the American people’s wish to avoid the horrors of war, President Roosevelt met with Churchill to discuss mutual aid. That year, the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine under orders from Washington D.C., began supply operations to the British, bogged down in heavy fighting with the German and Italian Armies in North Africa, and the Chinese, who were engaged in a guerrilla war with the Japanese. President Roosevelt also agreed to sign a strategic war materials embargo in the face of Japan’s continued war in China as well as its invasion of French Indochina. Viewing restrictions on oil, steel, and other necessary materials as an affront to their ambitions, Tokyo’s war ministry drew up plans to attack the American Pacific fleet. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a national hero and military genius, urged his Emperor and the Japanese high command that attacking the United States would “awaken a sleeping giant” and would lead to Japan’s immediate triumph or ruin. Ignoring this appeal, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo demanded action in order to secure the empire.
In late November 1941, a combined carrier battle fleet sailed from Japan to the island of Oahu. By the time they arrived it was a Sunday morning, The 350 pilots readied themselves below decks, fastening hachimaki headbands with the words “Certain Victory!” to themselves. With a shout of Tenno Haika Banzai! or “Ten Thousand Years” they boarded their planes for their bombing missions.
As the sun rose, the fleet was at rest. Even as mounting tensions between Washington and Tokyo escalated, no one expected an attack. Religious services were about to be held, fleet bands played “The Star Spangled Banner” on decks, the University of Hawaii was set to play a football match with Willamette College, and military personnel everywhere readied themselves for duty after shore leave. This was the environment before observers reported planes with red circles on their wings.
Mitsuo Fuchida, the attack commander, deployed a flare over the area signaling the attack. A wave of torpedo bombers let loose their payload on the U.S.S. California, Maryland, Arizona and five other battleships, dive bombers proceeded to destroy airfields, oil tanks and other targets. The entire island was in chaos. Entire crews became trapped in the sinking ships. Survivors frantically swam to shore. Air defense teams manned their weapons. Sailors and Marines saved their friends from burning oil slicks. Moments of bravery became common.
Dorie Miller, an African-American ship’s cook, manned a machine gun with two white compatriots. They, along with other weapons teams, saved the lives of hundreds of sailors struggling ashore from strafing attacks. Ensign Francis C. Flaherty sacrificed his life saving a turret crew from the sinking Oklahoma. Warrant Officer Thomas Reeves handed ammunition from a burning passageway on the California to a gun crew, later dying of asphyxiation. Machinist Mate Robert Scott stayed behind and manned an air compressor unit for his battle station as his station became flooded. Before he drowned he was quoted by surviving shipmates as saying “This is my station and I will stay and give them air as long as the guns are going.”
When the raid was over, The U.S. Pacific Fleet was crippled. Over 2,400 Americans lost their lives, half of whom died when the Arizona exploded. As news of the attack spread, the American public flew into a panic. Air raid shelters were constructed, windows were blacked out overnight, gas masks and supplies were bought in bulk, and children were evacuated to the countryside by their parents. The following day when President Roosevelt addressed congress, a miracle happened.
In a tone of determined realism, The President declared Dec. 7th a “Date that would live in Infamy”. While many lives were lost, the attack reminded us of who were and not to give up. Our unbounded determination as a people would see us through. With this speech, America literally responded as one.
City boys from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles became sailors, manning guns and stoking boilers in our fleets. Ranch hands from Colorado and Texas became crews for the Flying Fortresses. African American and White men worked side by side in munitions factories from Mobile, Alabama to Philadelphia. The sons of autoworkers became tank crews. Mothers, Sisters, Wives and Daughters went to work in factories. High school students everywhere enlisted as Paratroopers, Marines, and fighter pilots. They all accepted the challenge.
The Second World War generation is named the “Greatest Generation”. I think this is not because of their deeds or moral standing. They were great because they overcame their challenge, they ensured that millions of people had the right to live without fear, to survive, and realize a life of dignity. It’s all right to be afraid when challenged by tragedy. You must fight for what you believe in, no matter what the odds.
Today the majority of the world has heard of the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon and make humanity’s mark in space. He was above all things, a hero. In the midst of the Cold War he, along with his fellow Astro and Cosmonauts, were reminders that we as people are capable of daring things. Armstrong and his compatriots will be remembered as the first to cross our earthly boundaries and realize mans dream to literally walk among the stars.
As a child growing up overseas in Guatemala and Mexico, I learned about his exploits. Even now the quote that has the most resonance is: “I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul… we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream”. That in itself is a reflection of our instincts.
When we are born, we naturally wish to do mighty things as our dreams tell us. It is a combination of overcoming fear and seeing the beauty of what life can offer us. Go forth and reach for your stars.
Every four years the world’s audience takes time to watch the marvel of humanity’s physical abilities. We often see the great champions at their best. It’s awe inspiring to see the agility of Usain Bolt, the speed of Michael Phelps, The tenacity of Abby Wambach and the USA Women’s team and so many others. The story that seems to stand out the most is possibly Oscar Pistorius AKA “The Blade Runner”.
Pistorious, a man in my age group, is currently one of the most successful track and field runners in the 400m course. He is also a double amputee. His life’s story is, in a word, incredible. At the time of his birth, the doctors at his hospital discovered that he lacked a frontal fibula, a necessary joint for his lower legs to function. After having them removed his parents made it their goal to make their son’s life as normal as possible. In receiving prosthetic lower limbs he was encouraged to participate in rugby in a local youth league. An injury in 2003 forced him to evaluate what was important to him. In learning to run on his artificial limbs he found his niche. He started to compete in the Paralympics, break numerous records, defied the impossible odds by competing in the Olympics as an equal before the commission and gave hope to thousands of physically handicapped people. Watching him compete in the London games raised a few thoughts.
In life we as people constantly think about what we could have, to make us perform or live better. We excuse ourselves when faced with a shortcoming. How some of us cannot live up to someone else’s expectations or do as well as others. I say look at the gifts that each of us possesses and go forward. Each of us has the ability to find out strengths. Only then can we find gratitude for ourselves. If a man who lost and regained his mobility from birth, went against the expectations of those around him and walked off the field with dignity then they deserve nothing but respect.
Yesterday I had the good fortune of setting aside time for a day hike out near the Pisgah National Forest. Close to the town of Boone, NC is the Grandfather Mountain Trail. The highest point, Calloway Peak, is a harrowing 5,964 feet above sea level. Ever since graduation I wanted to ascend to my state’s highest point. As I went closer to the top I had the good fortune of meeting several different people. I happened across two men that were professional mountaineers that went across the Alps, Pyrenees, and Patagonia. They taught me, as I ascended, never to rush myself to the summit. I should, like many things in life, take my time and see my surroundings. I was treated to a stunning vista as I reached the top of the range as the entire valley was displayed before me.
I had a sense of profound peace from seeing this vista. For the past year or so I dedicated my every waking movement to making my Graduate program as productive as possible. I felt that this hike was what I needed to cap it off. When I stopped I met a young couple, a fella by the name of Walter and his fiancee Kristin. They came down from Richmond,Virginia to camp out in the wilderness. Being exhausted and throughly beaten by nature we had a sit down for a while. Walter was a manger for a Pizza chain while Kristin was finishing her degree in Mass Comm. They talked about how they came up to get out of the city and see a bit of the country, something I was looking for as well. We also talked about how necessary it was to be out in the world and to not put blinders on all the time for commitments. I wished them well on their new life together as their marriage is in September. They also congratulated me on my finishing my studies and hoped for the best in my new future. As I went down the mountain I felt energized and determined to explore the job market, no matter what the news stations and the papers said about the economy, I was determined to make my mark.
The other night I decided to watch Invictus, a movie about Nelson Mandela’s succession to South Africa’s presidency. It also dealt with how he used rugby to bring his fractured nation together. Here’s a somewhat brief run down.
It’s the year 1994, South Africa is in a state of near civil war. After years of apartheid and antipathy between White and Black South Africans, Nelson Mandela was released after nearly 30 years in prison. He inherits a situation where radical members of the Black ANC and White reactionaries threaten to launch a war out of fear and retribution. To avert this he preaches a system based on reconciliation and forgiveness. To make the system of Ubuntu (oneness) work he needed to find a symbol that both peoples could get behind. This was where the South African National rugby team came in.
Before the Rugby World Cup Mandela brought the team captain, Francois Pienaar, to the presidential palace. What was actually discussed between the two is still up for debate. Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Mandela in the film posed the question to Matt Damon’s Pienaar: Where does inspiration come from? The two agree that inspiration is partially set by example. Pienaar relates an example of when his teammates are silent before the ride to matches and focused on working up their individual courage, he plays relevant music to help his team. Mandela went through prison with the words of William Ernest Henley to give him hope. The films namesake comes from the poem “Invictus”. It reads:
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced or cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the Shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how straight the gate,
how charged the punishments of the scroll,
I am the Master of my Fate:
I am the Captain of my Soul.”
The young Pienaar took these words to heart and often recited it to his team. After a grueling 1995 season, including competing against the champion team New Zealand, they won and South Africa made the transition from a divided society to a progressive Republic. In regards to this scene in the film I’ve drawn my own conclusion.
The message Mandela conveyed through these words were that to inspire ourselves we must exceed our own expectations; whether it is, in the case of the two men, ninety minutes on a sports field or thirty years in prison. Time is irrelevant to the attainment of hopes and dreams.