Wow. I don’t even know where to begin.
Today was Loraine’s big day, the day she was to be squired around Weissenfels, Germany, and it’s safe to say our visit exceeded all expectations—in fact, it left us speechless. I should also point out that it wasn’t just Loraine’s big day; the day belonged just as much to Elwood Norr of Marquette—
And Richard Engler of Trenton, New Jersey—
After all, they were the two crew members of the B-17 “Homing Pigeon” who died when their U.S. Army Air Force plane was shot down over Weissenfels. We weren’t quite sure what was going to happen today; after all, we were visiting a place very near the site “Homing Pigeon” was to bomb that fateful day in 1944. But as it turns out, the people of Weissenfels have a long and deeply felt but largely unexpressed (for lack of opportunity) thanks for the Americans who “delivered” (their word) the town from the Nazis. And it seems as if they have an especially soft spot in their hearts for two Americans who died doing so but whose identities they never knew, Engler and young Mr. Norr of Marquette.
The day started when we met not only our guide for the day, but a local historian named Alexander Nitschke, a guy who’s written about the air war around his town. It was thanks to him that right off the bat Loraine was able to find the exact place where Elwood’s plane crashed—
Back in 1944, it was just a meadow, but this is where the main fuselage fell to earth. The wings, which separated from the plane, landed a mile or so away. Standing on that patch of land, formerly the meadow, was quite moving; after reading Loraine’s book (“Elwood’s War”) you really feel like you’ve gotten to know him, and to visit where he died is somewhat akin to visiting a holy place.
Once the locals discovered the bodies of Elwood and Richard Engler, they brought them to their city cemetery for burial in this plot of land—
Elwood and Richard remained at rest there until the end of 1946, when several members of the American Graves Registration Unit snuck in (by then, it was Soviet-controlled territory) and repatriated the remains so they could be sent back home.
After the cemetery, our warm hosts gave us a tour of the town, which, as you can see, made it through four decades of Communist rule--
Weissenfels, in all honesty, would make a perfect Sister City for Marquette. Both cities are about the same size, both sit on a series of hills, both have mining in their past, and both have some of the friendliest people on the planet. That was evidenced by, among others, our guide for the day, a retired teacher (and current Weissenfels City Council member) named Gudrun Schulze, who not only gave freely of her time and knowledge (and let me pick her brain about what it was like transitioning from Communism to democracy), but bought us tea and cakes as well!
(that’s Tony, “Gudi”, and Loraine)
She also then stayed with us for the most surreal aspect of the day. That was our appointment to meet the mayor. At 3 pm, we were ushered into a nice, 300-year old Baroque anteroom, where a few minutes later the mayor (bearing a striking resemblance to our former mayor, John Kivela) swooped into meet us, and then ushered us into the next room, where they had four chairs set up behind a table and three reporters (with photographers) waiting to meet us.
That’s right. We (and Elwood, and Richard) were the focus of a press conference in Germany today.
I don’t have any pictures of the press conference, if only because we were the ones answering the questions and posing for the pictures. I do, thanks to Tony the Tour Guide, have a picture of the somewhat dazed Loraine (and her geeky sidekick) presenting a copy of “Elwood’s War” to the mayor, who said it now becomes an official piece of Weissenfels history in the city archives—
We must also thank Tony immensely for his brave translation help at the press conference today. I don’t think, in his wildest dreams, he ever thought he’d be behind the mic at a press conference on this trip, but he pitched in like a trouper, telling us what the mayor and reporters were saying, and then sending our answers back in German. We will always appreciate that.
Before we left, the mayor had gifts for Loraine, including a HUGE bouquet of flowers and a selection of local chocolates. The mayor also had hugs for her, and a promise for Elwood’s family and hometown that his memory will never be forgotten. In fact, he said that some of the city’s school children will be embarking on a project related to the “Homing Pigeon” and the people who flew it.
Now can you see why the day was kind of surreal?
We drove back to Leipzig—our home base for this leg of the trip—in a daze, and I don’t think we’ve yet fully processed what went on today. All I know is that the people of Weissenfels honor Elwood Norr for what he did, they appreciate Loraine for bringing his story to life, and they now have a special bond with the people of Marquette that has officially become a piece of the city’s history.
That’s not bad for one day’s work, is it?
(p.s.—if you’d like to visit the Elwood’s War Facebook page, here's the link).