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Finding humanity in the midst war
Posted at: Mar/14/2013 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Behavior, Historical Insights, People,
As a member of the baby-boomer generation, many of the parents of my childhood friends were either WWII or Korean War veterans. I remember seeing in many homes the framed pictures of young men standing in front of their aircraft, or knelling in the mud with the rifles at hand. As a kid, seeing these pictures or the framed medals always prompted questions and awe. My questions were most often answered with the standard phrase “go outside and play.”
I came to learn with time that one of my friend’s fathers was a B24 pilot; another had been a B17 waist gunner. One had been in Bastogne with the 101st airborne during December 1944; another landed at Inchon in September 1950 and was part of the march retreating from the Chosin reservoir a few months later. This list could go on and on but those details are not important. The images and the unspoken stories inspired a boyhood fascination with WWII aviation. I built and carefully painted plastic models of nearly every plane used in WWII. One thing leads to another and models were followed by reading that has persisted for the rest of my life. Over the years my reading has taught me the machines, the strategies, the great leaders, the terrible decision, and the horrors of war. I suspect that some of the items in my short list are why my friend’s fathers would not talk about their experiences.
My studies have also taught me that once in a while, in the midst of war man can show exceptional humanity in the face of combat. This unique behavior is often called the “warrior’s code.” The warrior’s code blends chivalry, respect, honor and humanity to manifest a very special outcomes and often friendships that span battle lines. This code has helped to shape a variety of cultures including the Vikings, the Samurai, Native Americans, Ancient Greeks and Romans. It is probably easier to share a few well documented examples instead of simply explaining its elusive nature.
The clashes between the Christian army of Western Europe and the Muslim army during the Third Crusade to the holy land were extremely ferocious. Nevertheless, Saladin, the Muslim army commander was a man whose respect for his greatest foe transcended their religious differences. In one particular battle, Saladin was fighting against King Richard “The Lionheart” when the English king was thrown from his horse. Impressed by Richard’s courage as he continued to fight, Saladin ordered his brother to lead two horses to the king in the middle of the battle. Saladin’s message to Richard: “A man so great should not be on foot.” Later, when Richard became ill and Saladin got word, he sent him peaches, pears and shaved ice to help him recover. Watch the 2005 movie “Kingdom of Heaven” and you will see some of this story.
Reference: “Warriors of God” by James Reston Jr.
The battle of Fredericksburg was considered one of the bloodiest of the American Civil War. In December 1862, Confederate soldiers were crouched behind a large stone wall atop Marye’s Heights. Using their walled position the Confederates were able to mow down thousands of Union soldiers charging across an open field. By nightfall, the wounded lay on the frozen field moaning in pain and pleading for water. Richard Kirkland, a Confederate sergeant from South Carolina, ignoring his commander’s warning, sprinted into the dangerous no man’s zone between the two armies with as many canteens as he could carry. At first, Union troops shot at him, and then they began to cheer as they realized his purpose. Kirkland became known as “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” Unfortunately, Kirkland was killed a year later during the Battle of Chickamauga. Reported by many witnesses, Kirkland’s last words were, “tell my Pa I died right.”
Reference: “My Brother’s Keeper” by Daniel Rolph
Some acts of humanity and chivalry are performed by a solitary soldier, some by a small band, one very famous one was performed by two armies. On December 24, 1914, German and British divisions faced each other across the muddy fields of France while huddled in trenches. At midnight, some of the German troops stopped shooting and started singing Christmas carols. Their enemy, the British troops soon joined in. By dawn, soldiers on both sides had climbed out of their trenches and were exchanging small gifts, cigarettes and even playing soccer. Unfortunately, when Christmas ended, so did the impromptu truce. The war would drag on for another four year, but the memory of the Christmas truce would be retold in countless books and movies.
There are few soldiers who embody the virtues of chivalry as much as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel during WWII. Rommel insisted his troops give prisoners the same treatment as they extended their own officers. He also refused to carry out orders to execute prisoners. Uniquely, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was the only Germany army of WWII not accused of war crimes. On one occasion during a battle in North Africa, a German officer held a gun to the head of a captured British colonel. The German officer told the British colonel to order a group of British troops to surrender, to which the colonel refused. When Rommel over heard the threat, he ordered the German officer to holster his gun because his demand “violated the rules of war.” Rommel then shared water and tea with the British officer.
Reference: “The Desert Fox” by Colonel Desmond Young (the British officer of the story)
Submarines are by their very nature, weapons of stealth, designed to prey upon ships before their presence is known. On September 12 of 1942, Captain Werner Hartenstein of U-156 fired 2 torpedoes into what he believed to be a troop transport ship. The ship rapidly sank and Werner surfaced his sub to survey the results of their attack. To his dismay, he found he had sunk the RMS Laconia transporting civilians and Italian prisoners of war. He disregarded standing orders from Hitler to ignore survivors and directed his crew to organize a flotilla of rafts. He also radioed asking the U-Boat Command in Germany for help; several U-boats were dispatched, all flying the Red Cross flag and signaling that a rescue operation was underway. The next morning a patrolling U.S. B-24 plane sighted the rescue effort and ignoring the Red Cross flags, strafed the submarines. The German subs were forced to submerge and escape, but Captain Hartenstein’s efforts helped save over 1100 of those aboard the Laconia. Captain Hartenstein was killed a year later when an American planed destroyed his sub.
Reference: “The Laconia Incident” by Gudmundur Helgason
On December 20, 1943, an American B-17 bomber was limping home to England. The pilot was a 21 year old West Virginia farm boy named Charlie Brown flying his first mission. The plane had been attacked by a swarm of German fighters and was in bad shape. Large sections of the fuselage were shot away; most of the left rear stabilizer was gone along with sections of the rudder. The number 2 engine was dead and another engine was faltering. Additionally, the tail gunner was dead and numerous crewmen were seriously injured. Being severely damaged the B-17 was forced to fly home solo; a very dangerous situation.
2nd Lt. Franz Stigler was standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he heard the rumble of an approaching bomber’s engines. Looking up he saw a B-17 flying so low it looked like it was going to land. As the bomber disappeared behind some trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman, climbed in his plane and took off in pursuit. Stigler wasn’t just any fighter pilot, he was an ace, and one more kill would win him The Knight’s Cross. Revenge, not honor prompted Stigler to jump in his fighter that morning. Stigler’s older brother August was killed earlier in the war by Americans.
As Stigler's fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it from behind. He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger. He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him. Looking closer at the tail gunner he saw that he was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. He could see men huddled inside the plane tending the wounds of other crewmen. Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber's wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror.
Charlie Brown glanced outside his B-17 cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision. "My God, this is a nightmare," the co-pilot said. "He's going to destroy us," the pilot agreed. The men were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip.
Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn't shoot. It would be murder. Any German pilot who spared the enemy, though risked death in Nazi Germany. If someone reported him, he would be executed. Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn't shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.
"Good luck," Stigler said to himself. "You're in God's hands."
Charlie Brown and his crippled B-17 managed to make it back to England and land with virtually no fuel left.
Nearly 50 years later Brown and Stigler would find each other, each needing to reconcile the events of that day many decades past.
Stigler would later tell a biographer that he wasn’t just motivated by vengeance of his brothers death that day. He also lived by a code. He could trace his family's ancestry to knights in 16th century Europe. He had once studied to be a priest. Yet Stigler could also hear the voice of his commanding officer, who once told him: "You follow the rules of war for you -- not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity."
Reference: “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos & Larry Alexander
I would never want to glorify war. My years of reading have shown me that war does not possess the glory that I envisioned as a child. The death, destruction and cruelty of war can never really be rationalized. Yet I have read enough history to know that sometimes war is an inevitable course that must be taken. The aforementioned stories are only a few of many, but show that even in man’s worst endeavor, some will find a way to preserve their humanity and sustain a personal code of conduct.
I guess I can understand why my friend’s fathers didn’t want to speak of their wartime experiences.