A reunion by proxy 4 decades later

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By Bill Horner

“Deliver those who are being taken away to death,
and those who are staggering to slaughter, oh hold them back,” Proverbs 24:11.

“If anybody turned me in, they would have received a large cash reward. The authorities would also have increased their food rations. And if a relative was a political prisoner, he would be released from custody immediately. On the other hand, if anybody was caught sheltering me, their consequences would have been death — after torture.”

Local authorities were expected to cooperate fully with their Nazi occupiers.

My Mom’s brother, Uncle Chuck, was a flyer during World War II. On a routine bombing run over Belgium about this time 70 years ago, a single rifle shot from a German staff car brought down his plane. He crashed into a field just outside the town the Zemst Laar. Crawling out of the wreckage, he realized how helpless and vulnerable he was. Nazi soldiers would be upon him in moments.

The people of the small village, however, had other ideas. Before my uncle could even pick himself up, two older men from town had reached him and pulled him to his feet. One stripped off Uncle Chuck’s flight jacket and put his own worn coat on him. The other pulled off his Air Force boots and sent two village boys — each with a boot — in opposite directions to drop them in the woods. Their hope was to confuse the Germans searching for Uncle Chuck. Then, the three men started back toward town.

Coming toward them, down the same road, was a crowd of townspeople curious to see the crash and, perhaps, the downed flyer. At the head of this impromptu parade was the Constable of Zemst. As this law officer drew even with the two townsmen supporting a bloodied stranger in between them, he gave them a sidelong glance — and passed right by them. The Germans would arrive in less than 30 minutes to look for the flyer.

For the next few weeks, the townspeople hid my uncle at great personal risk. Eventually, they handed him off to underground workers, who linked him up with other downed airmen. Within four months, the Allied line caught up to them, and they were free. In the coming years, Uncle Chuck would often toy with the idea of traveling back to Belgium to thank the people who saved his life. However, the obligations of family and work would prevent such a trip.

Now, fast forward four decades to 1986. My younger brother John, fresh out of college, was trekking around Europe for a few months, as many of our generation did at that time. Having obtained information from Uncle Chuck in advance, John made a detour and stopped in Belgium to visit the town of Zemst Laar. A few inquiries quickly put him in touch with a family who recalled those dark days of war. Through a translator, John communicated who he was and asked what they remembered of the incident.

“It was the biggest thing that ever happened to our town!” the elderly matriarch informed him excitedly. “It was war, and the flyers were fighting for us.”

Some others in the family then took John into the small downtown area, where an annual festival was underway. News of the presence of the downed flyer’s nephew raced through the crowd like electricity. Suddenly, total strangers were shaking his hand and telling him stories about our uncle. Everyone wanted to meet him. One man even surprised John with a small photograph of himself and Uncle Chuck.

John copied that little photograph at the local library and presented it to Uncle Chuck at Christmas. And being an amateur photographer, John captured the skyline of the town on film — from the viewpoint of that very field where the crash occurred years earlier — and enlarged and framed it. As Uncle Chuck held this precious gift and gazed at it with tear-filled eyes, he looked up and asked, “How do you thank a whole town for saving your life?”

How indeed?

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:13).

Bill Horner lives in Campbell County. His column appears regularly in the Faith section.