Grateful U.S. airman's Canadian connection

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 1, 2002

In my last column, I wrote about the experience Cpl. Rene Paquette and his Canadian Forces friends had of being mistakenly bombed by an American F-16 fighter jet in Afghanistan two weeks ago.

Some media reports have since left the impression that Americans have been unsympathetic to this tragedy.

Nothing could be further from the truth, says one of our e-mail coffee companions from the Chicago area.

Kathy Bibber, who also happens to be my late brother Richard's daughter, wrote:

"I have not talked to anyone that wasn't very upset about what happened to the Canadian troops. The word 'friends' always seems to enter the conversation. I would go another step and say 'family'."

She then told me a story I had never heard before about how Richard, an American airman and POW in the Second World War, had a heartwarming connection with a member of the Canadian military.

But before I reveal what that connection was, let me brief you on my brother's involvement in the war.

Richard was attending university in the United States when the war in Europe brought him into action. He became part of the U.S. 8th Army Airborne, flying out of Bury Saint Edmunds, England.

A radio gunner, he was on a raid over Belgium when the B-17G in which he was flying was hit. The abandon order was given to the ten-man crew. Richard and one other had no sooner bailed out than the plane exploded, taking the rest of the crew with it.

Just as he was about to touch ground, Richard's parachute got hung up in a tree, leaving him dangling and very vulnerable to the rifle-bearing Nazi soldier standing near the foot of the tree. Fortunately, Richard could speak German and talked his opposite into tossing him up a knife so he could cut himself free. The German soldier lent a compassionate hand, then took him prisoner and started him on his journey to Stalag Luft 3 and the nightmares that never left him till he died of cancer a few years ago.

Meanwhile, back home, my mother received the dreaded telegram that Richard was missing in action. A note in my grandmother's diary reads:

"Went over to Edna's yesterday A.M. Found her in bed exhausted from grief and shock. She clung to me and cried as if her heart would break. How my heart ached for her... It may be that we will hear that he is a prisoner, probably wounded, but it may be three months or more before we can hear the facts."

Back at Stalag Luft 3, Richard was truly fortunate even to be alive. He soon assumed the role of teacher among his fellow POWs, conducting classes in math, English and Scripture.

But the winter following D-Day, Richard was among that great number sent on a frigid forced march as the Allied armies advanced. With no warm clothing, only three potatoes a day for food, and dogs nipping at their feet, they walked and limped for 400 miles over 52 days. Many of those like Richard who survived the ordeal suffered from fallen arches, badly frostbitten feet, and malnutrition.

Indeed, when Richard was liberated only weeks later, his six foot one inch frame had to be fattened up in England for a month just to bring it up to 90 pounds before he was sent home!

So, what's the Canadian connection that Kathy told me about? It has to do with that day of liberation.

"My dad said that when it came time to leave the POW camp, he had no uniform to wear," Kathy wrote. "Another prisoner loaned him a uniform. His first taste of freedom was in a Canadian uniform."

She went on to say:

"I was terribly saddened when I heard about the accidental bombing of the Canadian troops. I cannot find words to express my sorrow for the families that lost loved ones or had loved ones injured. It was a terrible accident that should never have happened. My thoughts and prayers are with the injured and with all of the families involved."

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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