“It was war. I forgive you.”
The day was May 19, 1944, and the world still burned from the death and destruction of World War II.
Howard Linn, then a 21-year-old from Radcliffe, took off in a B-24 Liberator bomber from an Allied airbase in England.
The destination of the 10-man crew was munitions plants in Brunswick, Germany.
Linn did not know that flight would begin an odyssey that would end with a fateful meeting with a 15-year-old boy who would turn Linn into a prisoner of war for a year only to form a friendship a half century later.
Their story shares important lessons in these divisive times of how friendships can be formed despite extreme differences.
Linn worked a gun in the waist of the plane. Anti-aircraft flak buffeted the bomber groups as they got closer to Brunswick.
A group of German Focke-Wulf 190 fighters attacked their bomber “from 12 o’clock high,” said Linn, now 94 and living in Iowa Falls, Iowa.
“I fired a few rounds from the left waist gun, but the German fighters went by like a streak when they came at us head on,” Linn wrote in his self-published memoir World War II and My Prisoner of War Experience.
Yellow paint coated the hubs of the German fighters. They were called Göring’s Yellow Noses after Hermann Göring, the Nazi leader in command of the German Luftwaffe, or air force.
Linn heard machine gun rounds hit his plane as the Yellow Noses made their second pass. The Liberator’s No. 3 engine burst into flames.
Shortly, Linn saw fire coming from the edge of the left wing. He called on his throat microphone to the pilot. The commander asked him if he could get to the flames with a fire extinguisher.
It was impossible, Linn said. The fire was inside the wing.
“In moments, it was like a blowtorch coming back … and it was as hot as an oven,” Linn wrote. “I called the pilot again and said we have to get out.”
Linn ripped off his throat microphone and oxygen mask, unplugged his electric flying suit and grabbed his chest pack parachute, snapping it to his harness. He opened a door in the floor of the plane and jumped out.
Airmen in World War II did not practice parachute jumps, Linn said.
“They told us our first jump has to be good anyway, so no need to practice,” Linn wrote. “They simply said, ‘Don’t pull your ripcord on the chute until you are almost on the ground, otherwise it takes you so long to come down and you will land in German arms.'”
Linn laid on his back during his free fall and spun wildly. He finally got control of his spin. His ears popped as he plummeted from about 20,000 feet.
He passed through the clouds and craned his neck to see fires on the ground, likely from downed aircraft. He pulled his ripcord when the trees seemed to be coming up fast.
He landed in a clearing and slipped out of his parachute but made a critical mistake.
“I forgot to grab my Army shoes, which I kept tied to my harness,” Linn said.
Left only with his distinctive flying boots, he took to the timber. Linn opened his escape kit, which included concentrated chocolate for food, some basic medical supplies, a compass and maps printed on material like silk handkerchiefs.
The maps were useless because he had no idea where he was.
Linn hid in a brush pile for the night. He heard patrols in the area, probably men looking for the owner of his parachute.
“What is amazing, I actually did sleep part of the night, even though, being all alone in enemy country, I could have been killed by anyone coming along,” Linn wrote.
Linn stuck to the timber and used his compass to make his way west.
He eventually spotted some Dutch windmills in the distance and wondered if he was lucky enough to have landed in territory where the underground would hide American and British flyers.
At noon the next day, he came to a small village. Shortly after he walked into the village, a 15-year-old boy noticed Linn walking down the street in his flying boots.
The boy spoke a little English. Linn asked him if he was in the Netherlands.
The boy told him he was in Germany. The boy took him to his house, where his mother and grandmother made coffee and sandwiches.
Linn ate the sandwiches while the boy and his family decided what to do about the American airman. They decided to turn him in.
The boy flagged down a passing German police officer riding a motorcycle. The policeman pulled up next to Linn.
“That was it,” Linn said. “I was captured.”
But Linn would see that boy again many years later.
Eventually, Linn was taken to an interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany, with other captured Allied fighters. The Germans took all the prisoners’ personal possessions: rings, watches, knives and fingernail clippers.
They interrogated Linn and his fellow prisoners for about two days, but he only gave his name, rank and serial number.
The interrogations were rough, but in a way, Linn was lucky.
“If you got shot down by a city that had been bombed a lot, American airmen were hated, and if civilians got you before the German military, they would beat you and torture you and sometimes even kill you,” Linn said.
Linn landed in a rural area where the people had not experienced American bombing.
The Germans forced some 2,000 Allied prisoners to march for 87 days in a row. They received minimal rations.
Maggots often crawled over their meat. Linn estimates about a quarter of the men he marched with died of dysentery and other ailments.
The prisoners were allowed no baths during the march. Most were covered in lice.
“Imagine not taking a shower for 87 days,” Linn said. “The only good thing about it was we all smelled the same, so no one noticed how bad we smelled.”
When they finally reached the prison camp near Hanover, Germany, they lived in barracks built 2 feet off the ground to prevent prisoners from burrowing out.
Linn remembers many men worried they would not survive the experience.
One day, one of the prisoners snapped and charged the barbed wire fence. He pounded it with his fists.
The guards warned him to get back. The man didn’t relent. The guards shot and killed him.
“I never worried if I was going to survive,” Linn said. “I don’t know why. All I can say is the Lord has been very good to me.”
Linn remembers a small kindness offered by his German captors at Christmas in 1944. The Germans offered to let the men stay out of their barracks past midnight if the prisoners promised to be on good behavior.
The men sang Christmas carols together.
On May 8, 1945, a Jeep with four English soldiers rolled into the camp. The prisoners were free men again.
Howard Linn, the farmer from Iowa who became an airman shot from the sky and marched 87 days in a row, was finally free after nearly a year.
“Freedom is so precious,” Linn said. “People don’t realize.”
The men made their way to Allied camps, where they were allowed baths. Their parasite-infested clothes were burned.
“I went through the delouser three times to make sure all those lice were off me,” Linn said.
Linn returned to Iowa after the war and resumed life as a farmer, first renting a farm, then buying one of his own.
The Radcliffe boy met a girl from Hubbard named Bernice, who went by Betty. They’ve been married for 71 years.
They had three daughters and a son and have six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
In May 1994, a man named Russell Ives contacted Linn. Ives was the grandson of one of the men in Linn’s bomber group.
He was researching his grandfather’s history, tracing his steps through Europe.
Linn told Ives his story. Ives, who worked with military historians in the U.S. and Britain, contacted a man named Wilfried Beerman, who was 65 years old.
Beerman was the same boy who had turned Linn in to the German police.
“We didn’t treat him as an enemy,” Beerman wrote in a letter to Linn in November 1994. “He was a person for us who needed our help. We saw no chance to hide him.”
Linn and his wife eventually traveled to Germany to meet Beerman, who took them to a fancy restaurant.
“They treated us like royalty,” Linn said.
Beerman confessed that he felt deep guilt about turning Linn in to the authorities. Linn said the younger man had no reason to feel that way.
“It was war,” he said. “I forgive you.”
The local German newspaper did a story on the Linns’ visit with a big headline. Linn still has a copy of it at their home in Iowa Falls.
Beerman died about seven years ago, but ever since Linn met with the boy who turned him in, a big parcel from Germany arrives each Christmas season filled with German chocolate and other goodies.
Human beings are strange creatures. We invent new and terrible ways to kill each other seemingly every day.
Yet, in the worst conflict this planet has ever known, two men forged an enduring friendship despite being on opposite sides of the war.
What a lesson Howard Linn and Wilfried Beerman are for our own country in this divided time. In a time when the world burned, these men found love, dignity and respect.
Surely we owe it to both to do the same.
Daniel P. Finney, is a columnist for The Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter: @newsmanone.
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