Standing at the brink

There are few times in our lives when we are standing at the brink, looking into our very soul, and knowing that we will never be able to duplicate a particular experience again – that it was a rare life experience.

Michael Gold had one of those experiences this summer. While on vacation in France he and his wife decided to visit the American cemetary at Normandy. The two of them were left breathless.

“I had never expected that it would be so beautiful . – and I hate cemeteries!” he says. “It was so well kept up, so pristine. I had never seen any place so immaculate.”

As he stood on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, thinking of the thousands upon thousands of GIs who had given their lives to liberate France, he was overcome by the experience.

Inside a small chapel on the grounds, they met a sergeant who told them that the cemetery was actually American soil, deeded by the French government to America in perpetuity.

Michael then related his own experience to the American sergeant. He had been flying as navigator on a B-17 one night in January, 1944, only his third flight, when the plane was hit by anti-aircraft. The gunner was dead, two engines had been knocked out, and now German Messerschmidts were coming at them from all directions.

The pilot put the wheels on the B-17 down, a sign to the Germans that he wanted to surrender. After that, the Luftwaffe aircraft circled the B-17 but withheld their fire.

With the B-17 on autopilot they were given the order to abandon the aircraft. Michael says the Army had never drilled them on how to parachute, but now they had to bite their lips and take the plunge. He knelt in front of the hatch and jumped into open sky, not knowing what lie ahead for them.

They landed in a small German town called Munchengladbach and were immediately taken prisoner. Michael’s flying days were over.

Michael and the other American prisoners were taken by train to Frankfurt, where he experienced the only personal hostility from Germans they saw during the war. The Frankfurt train station had been bombed into oblivion by American and Russian aircraft and the Frankfurt citizens were not feeling hospitable. They hurled stones and pieces of glass at the prisoners as they passed by.

From there they were taken to an unnamed prison camp for captured officers in northern Germany where they spent the final 18 months of the war as guests of the Third Reich.

Despite the fact that he was Jewish, and that Jewish citizens were being systematically massacred by the thousands in concentration camps all across northern Germany, Michael was not singled out for any special treatment by the Luftwaffe guards, who treated the prisoners with the respect you might expect from a fellow officer.

In the waning days of the war food became scarce and the Luftwaffe guards were replaced by “Volksturm” – young boys and elderly men who were too old to defend the fatherland.

Following the Battle of the Bulge their treatment changed. The Germans took all the Jews in camp and put them in a special ghetto barracks, but they were not otherwise mistreated.

Michael told his story to the Army sergeant in Normandy. The sergeant had a computer listing of all Americans buried anywhere in France and Michael wondered if his two crewmen who were killed flying missions in Europe were listed, but there were not.

When they finished scanning the listings, the sergeant asked them to wait while he looked for something. When he reappeared he had two small flags on wooden sticks – one American and one French. He explained that every year on Memorial Day each of these flags is displayed on every American’s grave in Normandy. Afterward the flags are distributed to veterans who served during the Great War.

Michael noticed that there was still French soil on the bottom of each flag.

The sergeant presented the two flags to him in recognition of the sacrifice he made for his country in the war.

“I lost it right then and there,” says Michael, tears coming to his eyes as he recounts the experience. “I’m not a guy who cries but there were tears coming down on my face at that moment.”

Is it any wonder why?