In John 15:13 Jesus states, “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” In a recent morning staff devotional at IDES, the question was posed, “Has anyone ever witnessed this kind of love first-hand?”
My heart began to beat strongly as the Lord prompted the realization in me that, yes, this truth is a reality in my own life through a life-changing experience my father had back on January 11, 1944. You see, on that day he was a young Staff Sergeant in the Army Air Corps whose job as tail-gunner on board the B-17 bomber christened “The Berlin Ambassador” was to protect the rear flank of the American aircraft from attack by Nazi warplanes.
The crew had just successfully completed their seventh bombing mission over Aschersleben, Germany and were headed back “home” to Knettingshall, England when they were hit by a burst of shrapnel in the underside of the plane. When the tail section was damaged, my father’s right foot was also seriously injured and his parachute was torn up by pieces of flying metal debris. As they straggled into Holland, they were attacked by German fighter planes whose gunfire severed all tail control cables, leaving the pilot to fly with only trim tabs and ailerons.
The ship began losing speed and altitude over Holland and the pilot radioed emphatically for the crew to “BAIL OUT!” At the time of this warning, my father left his tail-gunner position and worked his way up the narrow passageway to the waist section where he saw the severe damage the plane had incurred. He did not bail out immediately because it seemed the plane was flying straight and level and he was very concerned that his damaged parachute would not open or hold on his descent. When he inquired as to whether a spare parachute was available, the answer, unfortunately, was negative. A couple other gunners were also hesitating - hoping and praying that the pilot could guide the craft down to a safe landing in Holland.
When it became apparent that they had no choice but to jump if they wanted to survive, they faced their fears and took the plunge. My father landed HARD in a Dutch pasture with a Nazi fighter plane diving at and circling him to pinpoint his location for eventual capture. A group of Dutch Resistance fighters came to his aid and two of them walked him to an adjacent pasture where the lifeless body of his Navigator lay with no parachute in sight. Although the help was greatly appreciated, there was not enough time to slip him away to safety before German soldiers arrived to place him under arrest. At gunpoint, he was ordered onto the handlebars of a bicycle and taken to the local authorities. Later he was transported to Amsterdam for interrogation and solitary confinement - then a 15-month incarceration in prison camp at Krems, Austria.
My father later came to know the fate of the Berlin Ambassador: His brave pilot had stayed on board, maneuvering the aircraft away from the densely populated area of Zwolle, Holland to avoid a potentially large number of civilian deaths. The Berlin Ambassador crashed on the outskirts of town with the pilot still on board. This heroic man truly sacrificed his own life, laying it down for the sake of “his friends” who were, in reality, strangers he had never met!
With the advent of the internet and the ease of international communication, around 2005 my family received a communique from a Scout Master in Zwolle, Holland who had sent an inquiry to our small hometown library as to whether there were family members still living in the area who could supply details of that fateful day through first-hand accounts from my father. The Scout Master is currently writing a book about the crew members and the events of the crash. During our contact with the Scout Master, we were informed that a monument had earlier been built at the crash site and was dedicated on January 11, 1995. The inscription on the monument reads in part, “In memory of the brave young men who saved our town from disaster.”
My father died in 1997, completely unaware that this monument had been established to honor him and his crew mates; he would have been deeply touched by this poignant remembrance. Every year on this date, the town commemorates the mighty act of courage and valor for which they are still grateful.
As I think on the account of all that transpired on that day in the life of my father and his crew, these rather obscure lyrics from the hymn “America” come to mind: “O Beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife! Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life.” The men on this mission and so many other men and women of their generation lived out this truth through their courage and determination to defend innocent lives from tyranny. They practiced the words of the Savior and gave witness to that fact through their sacrificial love. It is no wonder, then, that they are known as “The Greatest Generation.”
-written by Susan Billington, Development Assistant at IDES