Jena



Dearest Old Bolds, Friends and Family,

Greetings from the university town, Jena, in Thuringia.  I’d have written oftener and earlier, but to be honest, I’m tired.  So tired, I can barely speak German anymore.  Luckily, in the adorable, centuries-old bar downstairs next to the hotel, I am reminded that German and English are nearly identical in the most important phrases like:  “Good wine!”  As long as I keep that in mind, lifting my empty glass towards the bartender for a refill, I’m sure I’ll get through, even though it’s been nearly 8 weeks since I’ve slept in my own bed, eaten a fresh salad from a salad bar, or easily found a parking space.

Along the way Charley and I have interviewed:   our 96-year-old, highly-decorated battalion commander (for the third time and a total of 28 hours so far!); the night fighter I mentioned before; a dive-bomber; a “ram fighter” I met last summer; a tanker; a veteran of the fight at Arnhem (A Bridge Too Far); and a flight instructor turned tank hunter.  He was easily shot down by the Americans at the very end of the war in one of the Luftwaffe’s slow-moving, old, training planes, the Buecker 181.  His mission was to kill a Sherman tank with a rudimentary bazooka get-up tied under his wing from a height of 240 feet.  For him, the choice was do that or be forced to fight on the ground with no infantry training at all.  He chose flying, was hit on his first “mission”, and took the biggest force of the impact in his body, since there was no effective armor on the plane at all.  Bleeding badly, he landed in a field just as an American ambulance was passing by.  Hearing his calls for help, the Americans rushed to him.  His life was saved, although he lost part of his leg.

After hearing this exciting story, we moved on to another ram fighter – one who was trained to ram American bombers instead of shooting them – to bring them down.

Way, way down south we met with a HE129 pilot – another tank hunter – but this one an expert by trade, and with a plane developed for the task.  Although he had dozens of victories against Russian tanks, and the German Cross in Gold, no one has been much interested in his story.  This HE129 pilot was shy, modest, and deeply honored to be interviewed, which is always an immense pleasure for us.

We drove on to another veteran of the famous, elite Grossdeutschland unit, slipping in a 94-year-old veteran of the Battle of Berlin along the way, trying hard to get in as many interviews as possible.

But it was no use.  I was exhausted, my voice started to crack, I was coughing, and soon enough, I found myself very sick in a depressing, disgusting, cheap, but simultaneously incredibly expensive, hotel room in Nuremberg.

Meanwhile, friends emailed another long list of pilots to interview.  I could only groan.

Charley and I cancelled our next six interviews in eastern Germany.  I drove us back to Hamburg in two feverish days, stopping at rest stops along the highway to be sick.  Luckily, Charley was and is fine.

But fourteen days, and a lot of antibiotics later, I’ve hit the road again solo to backtrack for those men I missed, and some we’ve added from the dozens of referrals coming in.

I’m feeling much the worse for wear, but feel compelled to press onwards. Two fighter pilots near Berlin to go, then in Hamburg another 94-year-old with six years of combat and thousands of photographs he took himself.

With long lists of veterans to get to, we should be ecstatic, but we’re victims of our own success now, with far more names than we can easily get to given the time, energy and money we possess.

I am in cranky bliss every day, wanting to stay, but needing to get home soon, especially since I don’t think I can eat any more cake.   Ever again.

Remember me at the Old Bolds Christmas party, knowing I wish I could be with you.

With all my love,

Heather

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