E-Mail and the Terrorflieger
Internet newsgroup, soc.history.war.world-war-ii, World War II battles are
refought, the FW-190 and the Zero face off in imaginary dogfights and the
Sherman, Tiger and T-34 tanks compete again for engineering supremacy.
Recently, when the forum took up the subject of the best WWII TV
documentaries, I joined the discussion with this:
the mid-1980's NBC produced a documentary on the 8th Air Force entitled,
"All the Fine Young Men." Of the many TV documentaries I've seen
in which B-17s and the European air war were featured, this documentary
reflected most accurately the war that I experienced. Because I was there
as a participant -- a B-17 pilot with the 91st Bomb Group -- it's
altogether likely that my nomination of "All the Fine Young Men"
as the best WWII TV documentary is lacking in objectivity."
generated several responses, one of which presented me with the following
there ever a thought on what these bombs would do once they reached the
remote ground? Did you and the other fine young men ever consider
judged to be rhetorical provocationís and therefore best ignored.
Otherwise, I had the option of posting a response to the newsgroup for all
the world to read or of replying directly to the questioner by E-mail. I
chose the E-mail option:
must confess that I, nor any member of my crew, nor anyone that I knew
among the thousands of downed air crew members in my POW camp ever gave
thought to the ethics of our bombing and thus to our killing of German
civilians. But were we not in fact, as your questions imply, participants
in an immoral act? No, I don't think so. We lived in an ethical world that
you, judging by the very fact that you raise the question, would not now
be able to recognize. The past is indeed another country."
The terror in the
left very little time to ponder the terror wrought on the German civilians below
To this, my questioner, who identified herself as Erika replied:
both inhabit that same past: you as an airman and I as a young child. You
delivered bombs; I was terrified of them." The word,
"terrified" had a resonance. To the German people, the air crews
of the RAF and the 8th Air Force were known as "terrorfliegers."
Was Erika's use of "terrified" an allusion to this idiom?
Intrigued by the possibility, I asked her: "Was I the indifferent and
immoral terrorflieger and you the innocent and terrorized child
below?" and I learned that yes, this was true.
Dazed and in shock, a German family is
from the wreckage of their home
I do recall vividly is the droning sound of the bomber swarms high above
us. The terror was real."
resurrecting the long-dormant expression, "terrorflieger", in my
E-mail letter, I'd triggered the memory of a quite memorable wartime
incident which I related to Erika:
May, 1945, after the Russian army had liberated my POW camp, several days
passed and no word reached us as to when we might be evacuated. As a
result, I and one of my POW roommates, in our impatience, took off for the
British lines a hundred miles away. On the main road west, we found
ourselves trudging along in a stream of German refugees who hoped to
escape the raping and vandalizing Russian army by reaching the relative
safety of the British lines.
third day of our trek we overtook a young woman, her mother, and her
daughter of about six or seven. We fell in beside them. We conversed as
best we could with pantomime and mutually understood German and English
words. We learned from the young woman that her husband was last heard of
fighting somewhere in the East.
leaving the POW camp, my roommate and I had packed Spam, D-bars
(chocolate), sugar and other food items from American Red Cross parcels.
Now that we were nearing the British lines where presumably food would be
provided, we decided that we should share our supply with the two women
and little girl. It's remarkable how food can elevate spirits and for a
brief while the five of us walked along as if on a carefree outing. The
young woman asked about us and we told her that we were kriegsgefangeners
from a stalag near the town of Barth. "Terrorfliegers!" the
young woman cried in mock anger, her little fists pounding my arm. "Ja,
terrorfliegers," we admitted.
A few miles
down the road, we came to a Russian check-point and my roommate and I were
passed through but our three companions were detained. When we left them,
the young woman waved good-bye, "Auf Wiedersehen, terrorfliegers."
return letter Erika wrote that "I squeezed a little tear back"
because "both of us had been there." She told me that she, also,
when a little girl about the age of the child we'd met on our journey to
the West, had once found herself among a stream of refugees.
As so often
happens in E-mail correspondence with someone who only a short time before
had been a stranger, there is an initial rapport found in the sharing of
experiences, followed all too quickly, it seems, by a waning and an
unacknowledged termination. There seems nothing more either cares to say.
Thus it was with Erika and me. We never overtly gave expression to the
fact that our pleasant relationship was at an end. But it would have been
fitting, I think, even though a bit mawkish, had Erika ended our E-mail
encounter with the same words used by the young woman whom I had left
standing beside the road at that Russian check-point.
To Verne Woods