Lately I feel like a stranger in the United States.
I am a remnant of what has been called “the greatest generation,” but it’s not the thinning ranks of my generation that has me feeling lost and confused. It’s the debate about torture that has been swirling around me for months. I never imagined such a debate in my country.
A single statement from the executive branch that torture is forbidden everyplace, all the time, by every agency and under all circumstances, would stop all such talk immediately. There might be an element of danger in that stance, but virtue knows any sacrifice is worth a better future. We need to end the torture debate so the world will know that my country would never become as the enemy.
My father fought in World War I in Europe. He was a quiet man who never talked about his service in France, but my mother’s photo of him in his uniform is etched in the minds of his children.
When World War II broke out, we were five boys and a little sister. The three oldest enlisted within days of the declaration of war. As number four, I enlisted as soon as my 18th birthday rolled around. Three of us went into the Army Air Force for pilot training; one joined the 5th Armored Division.
My youngest brother, Dudley, graduated from high school a couple of years later. Dad and mom did not stand in the way of his enlisting, although they could have gotten a deferment for him to help on the farm. Dud didn’t want cold, mud and tents, so he joined the Navy.
When his orders came to report for duty, what was left of the family climbed into the car and took him to the train station–his grandfather, a great aunt, his little sister and mom and dad. They all returned to our home to stay overnight.
Dad went immediately to the end of the backyard and dug up the basketball standard that had stood for many years over a dusty plot where running feet had trampled out every living thing. It was too painful to see it standing there, silent and unused.
After supper and evening visiting, mom and dad turned their bed over to company. They took the boys’ room; mom crawled into Dud’s lower bunk, and dad climbed into the top one. Finally, in the dark, alone, mom was able to shed the tears that she had held back all day. Dad heard her crying and climbed down. They slept wrapped in each other’s arms in Dud’s empty, single bed. Mom wrote later, “When the morning came, our courage returned.”
It was common then for families to display in a window a small white flag with blue stars, one for each son serving in the war. Mom couldn’t find a flag with five stars on it to replace the previous one, so she took a blue crayon and colored on it a fifth star. Years later, when family memorabilia was divided up, the four older brothers awarded that flag to Dud as his keepsake. It was a silent reminder of our parents’ sacrifice.
Dud ended up on a minesweeper in Japanese waters. The brother in the ground forces landed with the 5th Armored Division, on D-day plus four, and fought clear into Germany until VE day. Half of the soldiers in his unit were killed or wounded. The other three of us were Air Force pilots in Europe.
One day there was a knock at the door of our farmhouse. Mom looked out and saw the rural mail carrier’s car stopped at the mail box. She was afraid of its meaning. It was the custom of those carriers to hand-deliver registered letters from the government. My brother Merle had gone down in his P-51 and was missing in action. Good news came within the month: He was a prisoner of war, alive. He would be imprisoned for 11 months.
As we served and as my parents waited, we all felt strongly that we were fighting an evil–an evil regime whose vicious tactics we would never employ. We acted on values that we could be proud of.
I flew with the Troop Carrier Command. On return flights after making deliveries to the front, we would stop at field hospitals and pick up the wounded. We arranged bunk-like stretchers on both sides of the plane to carry as many as possible, and delivered those critical wounded to the base hospital. Friend and foe alike. No one even asked.
I was also trained as a glider pilot. When the army needed to jump the Rhine River, I landed with a glider-load of airborne troops behind the German lines. We fought them for a strip of land needed for a pontoon bridge. We rounded up hundreds of POWs. When the area was secured, low-flying B-24s dropped “para packs” of ammunition and food from their bomb bays. As we fought the Germans outside our perimeter, we shared our K-rations with the POWs inside.
As the war in Europe ended, we flew out our prisoners. They were a skinny, battered and beaten lot. We also flew out forced laborers who were in worse shape. However, what seared my soul was the sight of survivors of the death camps–walking skeletons, hollow-eyed, with barely enough strength to climb up the steps into our planes. I knew then that I could never be a pacifist, for such evil must never be given a free hand to rule the world.
What has happened to my country now? I am mystified by the continuing debate about torture. In the country I and my brothers fought for, torture wasn’t even mentioned as a possibility–that was the enemy’s tactics. That’s part of the reason they were the enemy.
I am an evangelical Christian. Jesus tells us to eliminate our enemies–by making friends of them.
Back on the farm, the harvest of 1944 was very difficult. Dad, Mom and little sister Joyce were alone. Meanwhile, the United States was finding it hard to keep and feed all the German POWs in camps in Europe. They started bringing prisoners to the States in returning troop ships.
A camp was established near our home in eastern Oregon. Word was sent out that farmers could hire willing prisoners as farm laborers. They would be brought to the farms by guards, and the farmers would pay a daily wage. Most prisoners were delighted to have something to do, and especially to be paid for their work. Dad decided to use their help with the harvest.
Three or four POWs would be brought to the farm each day. Dad and his prisoners worked well together even without a common language. The prisoners brought their lunch. But dad and mom were concerned about those young Germans; mom worried about their diet. Every day at noon, she cooked up a big pot of stew or soup to add to their lunch. I am sure that as she stirred the soup, she prayed that someone would care for her POW son.
My dad must have had similar thoughts. One day when it was cold and windy and mom was gone, dad talked the guard into letting the prisoners into the house for lunch, although it was against regulations. Inside, one of the prisoners saw my dad’s guitar sitting in a corner and asked if he could play it. The prisoners sang a song they must have learned from their guards: “Don’t Fence Me In!”
In that same bitter winter in Germany, my prisoner brother was put in a railroad cattle car and shipped south. Half of his fellow POWs died on the way.
I am certain all of those German prisoners who worked on our farm went back to Germany not as enemies, but as friends.
Harold Kurtz is senior associate at Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship in Portland, Ore. This commentary appeared Nov. 22 in Presbyterian News Service.