Things Are Never As They Seem

Robert Flournoy

© Copyright 2017 by Robert Flournoy


Runner-Up--2018 Biographical Nonfiction
Photo of Irving by a plane in 1944.
Lt. Irving Reedy. 1944..Courtesy of the author.

As a young boy, sitting quietly around the dinner table at our family's old farmhouse, my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents shared a wealth of folk and family lore during dinner—and in the idle time after, in front of the fire. With no TV, and unreliable radio reception in rural Alabama of the 1950s, we practiced the age old but now fading art of just plain talking. As a result of those moments, I can appreciate the passing down of stories in ancient cultures that did not have the written word. I also understand how, over time, younger generations, completely spellbound and enthralled by these stories, could and did slowly change the tone and content of what they had heard. I have never retold the story of Irving Reedy, but it has festered in my mind over the years, growing from the seeds of conversations around that old dinner table so many years ago.

Irving came, with his bride Betty, to the college in Auburn, Alabama, in 1946 on the GI bill to study electrical engineering. He had been a POW in Germany at the end of the war, crashing his P51 Mustang in occupied Holland in 1944. My dad had flown in the China/Burma/India theater, and was at Auburn with his young wife (and me) for the same reason. They wore their old uniforms to class as that was about the extent of their wardrobe, and, recognizing one another as brothers of the Army Air Corps, they became fast friends.

We were in luck to have such wonderful people come into our lives and the Reedys were in luck because my grandparents had a farm outside Auburn where hungry young students would always be fed. This was the setting of many memorable tales from those days, told around that dinner table in those bug booming yet quiet Alabama nights. One particular story would haunt me my entire life and would emerge with startling closure almost 50 years later.

In March of 1944, Lt. Irving Reedy was flying his P51 fighter out of Germany toward the English Channel accompanied by his wingman and commanding officer, Captain Paul Zimmer. They were flying high, and tight when they saw a lone German fighter below them. Captain Paul gave the order and they dove to attack this target of opportunity. Too late, they realized that he was a decoy for a half dozen German fighters high in the clouds with the sun to their backs. Down they came, and all hell broke loose. Irving and Paul were vastly outnumbered by a foe with the advantage of altitude.

Almost immediately a cannon shot from an ME109 exploded in Irving's cockpit. He blacked out with a vague memory of enemy planes swarming around him and a glimpse of a fast departing wingman who fled upward and homeward, leaving him to his fate. Regaining consciousness as his P51 angled sharply toward the ground at treetop level, Irving managed to roll out of his airplane, and attempt to open his chute. The partially opened parachute caught in the branches of a very large tree, and broke his fall just enough to save his life, but did not save his leg, which broke upon impact. In a fog of pain and confusion, Irving witnessed his aircraft impact in a farmer's field 100 yards away and explode in a bright fireball before he passed out.

When he opened his eyes moments, minutes later, he saw the distant speck of his wingman's P51 racing west across the English Channel. He became aware that he was in the yard of a small, rural farm home and watched a young boy and girl, who turned out to be brother and sister, approach him from the house. They were accompanied by an older man, who turned out to be their father. They laid him on a table in the old house to see if they could give him medical help. Very quickly the house filled with people from neighboring farms who had witnessed the crash. This was a notable event in rural Holland—and they came from all around to see the 20-year-old American flyer. As various men and women in the crowded little house attempted to administer medical help to Irving, the Gestapo who had also witnessed the event arrived on the scene and took custody of Lt. Reedy, taking him away toward an unknown fate, and out of the lives of those farmers as quickly as he had entered.

Irving was kept in isolation—his wounds unattended for several days. Cold, hungry, and in pain, he was finally taken before a German officer who spoke perfect English—and as it turned out, had attended college in the US. Cordially offering him a cigarette and speaking in a soft voice, the German placed a dossier in front of Irving and instructed him to read through it. His words were something to the effect that there should not be any bullshit pass between them because there was very little that the German military did not already know about him. Astounded, Irving leafed through the papers, reading newspaper articles about himself enlisting in the army air corps and graduating from flight school. German intelligence had been working hard in the United States long before Irving or for that matter the country itself, entered World War II. Deflated somewhat, Irving listened quietly to the questions of Hitler's master race representative, attentive to the fact that he had information that this polite man wanted.

In a nutshell, the German wanted to know who gave the order for the P51 pilots to eject the extra fuel pods that they carried. These pods enabled the fighters to do something that American fighters had never been able to do before—accompany their bombers all the way to the target and back. German strategy was to attack the bomber formation over the target with their own fighters, hoping to disrupt the accuracy of the bomb run. When that attack began, the P51s would eject their now empty fuel pods in order to maneuver, and fight the enemy defenders. Still with a full on board fuel supply, they could accomplish this task and then make it back to England. Had the German fighters gone after the bomber formation when it entered the European continent or over the English Channel, the P51s would have let their almost full pods go in order to dogfight the enemy and they would not have had enough fuel to continue to the target deep in mainland Germany, leaving the American bomber fleet unprotected, and vulnerable.

Uncharacteristically, the Germans never figured this out and never changed their strategy. Sensing what his interrogator was trying to discern, Irving gave him an answer that was perfectly acceptable to a German military man. "I am just a lowly lieutenant. I eject the fuel pod when my captain tells me to." Having satisfied his inquisitor, Lt. Reedy was sent on to a stalag in remote northern Germany, where he spent the next 13 months listening to V2 rockets being launched toward England, from a nearby missile base. He also wrestled with his hazy memories of a wingman leaving the field of battle so quickly.

Captain Paul, in the meantime, returned to his base in England and reported that Lt. Reedy's plane had crashed, that there was a fireball and no parachute had been seen. It was a reasonable assumption that Irving was KIA. Life and the war went on. Irving was counted as one of the many who had died. It would be six months before the Red Cross caught up to him in the POW camp, and notified his bride -to-be, Betty, that he was alive. Captain Paul never got that word and it would be 50 years before he finally did.

That 50-year journey would culminate in revelations totally unexpected to all concerned. It would have a monumental impact on all of us who had spent those many years angry at Captain Paul Zimmer for having committed that most unforgivable of sins—deserting a fellow comrade-in-arms in the face of the enemy.

Betty, of course, was wild with the joy of receiving news that her fiancé was alive after living with a heavy heart for six months. There are many stories about that time—and the remainder of the thirteen months that Irving spent as a POW. Hilarious, heartbreaking, unimaginable stories of his life as a POW—and of finally being liberated by the Russians are books in themselves, but would detract from our focus on Captain Paul‘s lack of action in defense of his friend and wingman.

We need heroes in our lives—and we need to balance their deeds and character with antagonists. It is our nature as humans to establish clear opposites to measure our behavior against whether in mythology, parables from the Bible or whatever religious theology we have chosen. There is good and there is evil—and in this saga our families had their hero and their villain.

In 1995, the 8th Air Force which had ravaged Germany from the air during the war held its' 50th reunion in England. Thousands of pilots attended, aging men returning to relive that brief shining moment in their lives when they had been all that they could be or would ever hope to be. War offers that opportunity. It is a sobering fact that we measure ourselves as men by how we behaved as kids in those deadly hours. That has never changed, not since early man picked up a club and advanced alongside his fellow tribesmen against a perceived threat. My own rich life of family and friends is in many respects the product of my service with an infantry company in Vietnam. Such was the case when Irving returned to reunite with his friends of old. He went to the reunion on a whim. When on the spur of the moment, he and Betty decided to rent a car and tour the lowlands of the continent after the reunion, events were set in motion that were being paralleled in the United States by their son, Bob, unbeknownst to anyone.

Being a man of detail, besides love for his father, Bob Reedy had begun, some years before, to chronicle and record his dad‘s life. When the Freedom of Information Act opened the records and files of so many to anyone who had the gumption to dig into the tangled web of government records, Bob began researching his dad's military career. He retrieved his files and opened the vault of detailed information that outlined the almost daily activities of Lt. Reedy from 1943 until he exited the service in 1945. Every order, every award, and every duty assignment was there before him. Most intriguing were the fascinating after-action reports that had been filed by Irving and his fellow pilots, after every mission flown out of England over 50 years ago.

It was in one of these documents that he discovered the report filed by Captain Zimmer that detailed his father's "death"—and the events that had transpired during that last encounter with the enemy. It contained some astonishing revelations concerning the dogfight and Captain Paul's part in it. It also pointed Bob in another unexpected direction—researching the records and life of his father's old commanding officer, a journey that would reinforce the age-old adage that things are never simple and seldom are they as they seem. With his research complete, a contemplative Bob Reedy went in search of his father's old friend. As Bob was about his task of researching his father and his father's old CO, Irving, and Betty were on a carefree bright summer sojourn in an automobile that they had rented, taking the opportunity of being in England for the reunion, to sight see on the mainland. They found themselves driving through the countryside of rural Holland one day, and in one of those slow motion moments that occur in all of our lives, one of those little windows that tie things together in our individual universes, Irving had the chilling feeling that he was in a place of special meaning, and content. Stopping the car on a quiet country road, Irving pointed out the window to an enormous old tree that stood in the yard of a little cottage and told Betty that he believed it to be the tree that had snagged his streaming parachute and slowed his plunge to the ground, sparing his life so long ago. With his skeptical wife sitting beside him, he drove into the yard and got out of the car.

A couple in their late fifties emerged from the house and stared at Irving, a 5'6" tall, distinctively craggy-faced man whom one would never forget. With a cry and a shout, the brother and sister who had tended to him over 50 years ago ran to him. In stunned disbelief, he was led into the little house by the joyous couple who were speaking to him a mile a minute in broken English. As they took him into the only large room, Irving saw before him the wooden table where he had been laid so long ago. As he gazed about, speechless, words from a very old man's voice came out of the shadows behind him, "how's your leg, son?"

Word quickly spread in the small Dutch farming community that the "American boy" who had brought such excitement to their village so long ago, and had become something of a legend since, had returned. People flocked in from surrounding farms, producing food and beer. The unbelievable reunion grew into a celebration with all present who had been on the scene so long ago competing with one another to tell their version of those distant events as they remembered them.

One man who was 57-years old, and had witnessed from a neighboring farm the entire confrontation with the Germans from start to finish, praised Irving for his fighter pilot skills. He recounted in detail the dog fight that had roared above those farms and fields, ending in the explosions of two enemy aircraft high above, while the others fled to the east. Irving opened his mouth to inform this man that his memories as a 7-year old were not accurate and that he, Irving, had taken a hit the moment the conflict began, which resulted in his immediate crash. He stopped as it dawned on him that he was hearing the truth, after all these years. The young boy, still confused, had been watching Captain Paul.

Many months after he began his quest for the faceless Captain Paul, Irving‘s son Bob was able to track down his father‘s wingman in San Diego, California. Paul had long ago left his home of record in Maine—and had moved several times With a fair amount of luck, destiny perhaps, Bob stumbled onto the phone number of Paul's old hometown boyhood minister as he searched for the lost trail. The Internet was not a tool for such research as it is now, so the task was daunting. After hearing Bob's story, and motives for desiring to make contact, the old preacher gave Bob the elusive phone number that was to complete the circle that took a half century to travel.

The telephone rang in a home in San Diego one evening and an old woman answered. She informed the caller that General Zimmer was out for the evening but would be available the next night. Mrs. Zimmer asked if she could take a message. It read: Bob Reedy was calling and would like to speak with her husband. He would call the following day.

When he did, she informed Bob that her husband was looking forward to his call, but to be aware of the fact that the general was old, in bad health, and that he had been in an extreme state of nervous anticipation since he had gotten Bob's message.

When the general came on the phone, Bob asked him if he knew who he was. The old voice said, "Yes, son, I know who you are, and I would like to say something before we go any further." He began to tell Bob all of the things that Bob already knew—almost. "I flew 200 combat missions in WW2, Korea and Vietnam. I flew P51s in WW2, F86s in Korea and F4 Phantoms in Vietnam. Those missions are all a blur to me now, and I remember few, if any details of any of them as single events, with the exception of the mission that took the life of your father. I loved him dearly, and I have never forgiven myself for giving the order to attack that German plane, as we were almost home, and I should have seen the trap that had been laid. We were at war and our job was to kill German planes, so that is what I gave the command to do. But, it has grieved me for these many years and the image of your father's exploding plane has haunted me since."

Bob gently told the old man what had actually happened, and the joyful response that he received would warm his heart for a lifetime.

They talked at length and Bob promised to get the general, and his dad connected. The old man had never suspected that he had been so wrongly remembered—and Bob could not wait to tell his dad, who was at that moment in Holland. He was burning with the truth that he had discovered while researching the war records of both men, especially the revealing after action report of that fateful mission that had haunted them both for so long. Little did he know that Irving was discovering the same truth half a world away—from a man who as a child had seen the events unfold before his very eyes.

Just before Bob bade the old general good-bye, he spoke these words to him....

"General, I noticed while researching your records that you were credited with downing four enemy aircraft in the three wars that you fought in—one in WW2, two in Korea and one in Vietnam. You needed one more to reach the total of five required for ACE status. I also noticed that in your after action report you claimed to have shot down two German fighters in the skies above my dad's burning aircraft, but only one could be verified. Well, sir, I have an eye witness that you did indeed shoot down two enemy planes that day. I know my dad will be pleased to know that you are an ACE."

And so began Bob's next project, a simple one compared to what he had been faced with in the previous months of research to discover the truth—a statement from a Dutch farmer would be a fitting capstone to General Paul Zimmer's career.

Just before the old general died, he did in fact link up with Irving on the phone. He passed away before they could arrange a face-to-face reunion. But, high in the mountains of North Carolina, where the Reedys have a summer home, there are many visitors every year, from a small Dutch farming community, who come to see their American flier.

I can see the big grin on Irving's face. I now know that Irving never truly believed that his friend had betrayed him. It was ―us that needed a villain, to prove our loyalty to him. He, however, knew long ago what we all should learn sooner than later… one never goes wrong when reserving judgment, and instead gives the nod to love, because then there is never a need to forgive.

And, that is the lesson that a young boy finally learned, after all these years.

Photo of Irving in his dress uniform.
                      Irving Reedy, 1943
Photo of Irving and Betty in later years.
  Irving and Betty, 2012 - Irving passed away
in 2017, Betty is living and is now over 100 years old.
 the photo of Irving at the bottom is 1943.  Irving and Betty is from 2012.  Irving passed away in 2017. Betty is alive and 100 years old

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