A Veterans' Day, 2001 Talk to an Elementary School Assembly
Made by Harry Strahlendorf,
son of P-47 pilot 1LT Harry William Strahlendorf,
KIA 24 June, 1944 on a mission in France.
Good morning! Thank you for inviting me to speak to you about my father and what his sacrifice means to me. You know, my dad is my hero,
but his story is like so many thousand others. Today we pause to pay tribute to those who served, and gave their all so that we can live in freedom.
Before I begin, I have a secret. The secret is that I am wearing something that has a connection to my father. We'll see if anyone can guess it by
the end of my talk. To give you a small hint, it is not the pins I wear on my jacket. Of course, you recognize the American Flag pin. The other is the
emblem of a special organization of which I am a member. I'll tell you more about that a little later.
The story I am about to tell is true. It happened over fifty-seven years ago.
The little girl was only ten years old. Half of her life, her country had been under the control of another country, an enemy. Life had been very
difficult. Her parents were farmers and all of the good crops they grew on their land had to be given over to the enemy. There was little left to
eat for themselves. Even their home had been taken over by the enemy soldiers. The family was forced to live in the barn.
One day, soldiers from America and several other countries came to liberate their country. I'd like you to remember the word "LIBERATE."
The year was 1944. It was June. D-Day had arrived. The final year of the Second World War had begun. The country where this story takes place is France.
Germany had occupied France for 5 long years. The name of this little girl is Janine Letulle. The liberators were coming ashore only 25 miles from Janine's
hometown of Octeville, just outside the famous port city of Cherbourg in the Normandy region.
When the American soldiers came close to her town, Janine's father took her deep into the countryside to stay with relatives. He wanted her to be safe and
far away from the war. As he was leaving, he told her that he would come back for her as soon as the fighting was over. He was a good father and loved his
little daughter very much. He kept his promise.
One day, several months later, Janine's daddy came for her. He told her that Octeville was now free, liberated by the American soldiers. He said that he
wanted her to remember these men who had come from over 3000 miles away to save France from the German invaders.
When they arrived in Octeville, it was raining. Janine's father did not take her directly home. Instead he took her to a street across the valley from
where they lived. He told her that he wanted to show her a place that was very special, where one hero had given his life for her.
As they rounded a street corner, Janine saw wreckage from an airplane. The airplane had a white star on it. Beside the wreckage, a wooden cross rose
out of a mound of earth. Hanging from the cross was a military hat. Janine wondered what this was all about. 'Papa,' she asked, 'why have you brought
Her father replied, 'Janine, this is the place where a brave American pilot died only two weeks ago, and I wanted to show you this place so that you will
never forget what this man, and men like him, have done for France. This man is our Liberator. I never want you to forget that he came here, so far from
his home, to save us. He gave his life for France, for Europe and the world. You must never forget!'
Janine was deeply touched, for she realized that this mound of earth was the grave of the pilot, this unknown man, her Liberator.
Janine felt bad that it was raining and the pilot's hat was getting wet. She asked her daddy if it would be all right if she removed it and could take it
home for safekeeping. He replied that he thought that would be a good thing to do. After all, this unknown man was from far away, and no one would ever know.
Janine took the hat and they went home. After a while the hat began to fall apart. She removed the leather chinstrap and rolled it up, placing it in a
now-empty powder box that she had received as a Christmas gift. She took the box to the attic and put it in a large storage chest. She didn't think too
much about the chinstrap for many years after that. She even forgot just where she had placed it.
The fighter pilot in this story is my father, Lt. Harry W. Strahlendorf. He flew a P-47 Thunderbolt, the largest fighter aircraft of that war.
My dad was 28 years old when he gave his life. He had been married to my mother for 8 years. He was the exception to the average age of our fighting men
in that war. Most soldiers were 19 or 20, just about the same as those now fighting to end terrorism. Men in my dad's fighter squadron even called him 'Pop'
due to his age.
During their last visit together, which was Christmas 1943, my mother became pregnant with me. My dad's fighter group was training for two weeks at Millville
Army Airfield, not very far from here. I am so happy that my father knew about my coming birth, for he wanted a son. I was born two months after his death.
So, you see, I grew up without the privilege of having my dad here with me. I didn't really think about this too much when I was very small, but as I grew older,
I began to realize the sacrifice our family had made, even before I was born.
By the way, most people do not know this, but over 183,000 American children lost their fathers during the Second World War. I belong to an organization of
these people. The American World War II Orphans Network, or AWON, was established to help preserve and honor the memories of all our fathers. We continue in
that task today, assisting other members and family members in their quest to learn more about the fathers who did not come home at war's end. If you know
anyone who lost their father during the Second World War, please ask them to contact me. I would be most happy to tell them all about AWON.
As I grew older, I wanted to get to know my dad. Several years ago my mother gave me the letters he had written home during those days he was away, either
in flight training in Texas or flying combat missions over Europe.
As I read and re-read those letters, an image of my father began to form in my head. I could see the change from boy to man, especially after he began to
fly missions over enemy territory. In one letter he described having his aircraft riddled with bullets and so shot up that he didnŐt think he would make it
back to his airfield. Well, the plane did survive long enough to get him back and he loved her for it. He had even named his airplane after my mother,
"Eddie Nor." This time, she was so badly damaged; they had to give him a new ship, the "Eddie Nor II."
Throughout every letter that he wrote home, one thing really stood out. Dad missed his family tremendously and wanted to be home again and the war to end.
He yearned to have his little family together again to begin a lifetime of peace and happiness.
But I must tell you, he knew he had a job to do, and did it. I have always wondered how men like my dad dealt with the fear that surely must have risen
within as they flew across the English Channel. They were, as Tom Brokaw describes them, "The Greatest Generation."
The letters were only the beginning of my 'quest' to learn about my father. Since my first trip to England in 1989, I have visited both airfields in England
and France, long ago converted back to the farms they were before the war, from which my dad flew those combat missions. I have met many wonderful people in
both countries. The friendships started will never be forgotten.
Fifty years to the day of my father's sacrifice, I stood on his crash site with my wife, Ann. It was June 24, 1994. We had been invited by the French people
to attend what they called 'a memorial ceremony.' They had a surprise for us that day. Little did I know that they had created a beautiful park on my dad's
crash site and named it for their Liberator, my father.
As our car approached the site that day, we were deeply moved to see so many citizens and French military veterans already gathered there. An object was at
the entrance, covered with the American and French flags. Inside the park, a French military honor guard stood at attention. Our host informed us this was the
place where my father died for France. The object that was covered with the flags was a monument with my dadŐs name inscribed on it. Can you imagine that?
They now call this "Square Strahlendorf."
Just before the formal ceremony began, a class of about 30 children arrived from the local elementary school. My wife leaned toward me and whispered,
"Harry, look at these beautiful children! Now you know that your father did not die in vain. These children are living in freedom because of his sacrifice."
How right she was!
When the ceremony ended, we were introduced to several people who either witnessed my father's loss or were nearby when it happened. A beautiful lady of about
sixty came up, wiping away tears as we were introduced. This was Janine, the little girl who had taken that headband and put it away in a precious place for
safekeeping those many years before. She explained that when she learned that we were coming to France she remembered the headband and wanted to give it to me.
She searched and searched, but could not find it. She told me that if she ever did find it, she would write to me.
Sure enough, not a year went by when we received a letter postmarked "Cherbourg, France." In it, Janine excitedly explained that she had found the headband and
wanted to give it to me. Since I had planned another trip to France, scheduled for the following June, it worked out perfectly.
The French people informed us that we would have another ceremony during which Janine could present the chinstrap to me. We contacted the mayor of Philadelphia
and he proclaimed the week that we would be in France as "Octeville Week" in Philadelphia, to honor the special relationship between the two cities. We presented
this and a small replica of our Liberty Bell at the city hall of Octeville.
An ABC News crew traveled with us to capture the moment for the folks at home. Janine had prepared a little speech and said that she was not the older Janine
presenting the headband to me, but the ten-year-old girl who had always wondered if her Liberator had any children. As she opened the box containing the headband,
I bent down and did the only thing I considered appropriate, I kissed it. After all, this was the only object that directly connected me to my father on the day
he gave his life for us all.
I was again contacted by my French friends in the fall of 1995. They had just located another American P-47 and wanted to know if I could locate the family of
the pilot in Tennessee. All they had was his name Lt. Cary Gray. I never believed that I could be successful, but after 30 days of phone calls, I was able to find
the pilot's brother. In June 1996 we attended a ceremony in Normandy with ten members of the Gray family. This was a most fulfilling moment for me.
In 1998 I was invited by my friends in the French research group to work with them at a recently discovered crash site. They had information about an American
aircraft that had crashed about 10 miles south of Cherbourg. I spent 10 wonderful days with my friends. Using metal detectors, we located many pieces of the
aircraft in the middle of a farm's orchard. From the serial numbers on several parts we were able to determine that this was a P-47 fighter. When we cut through
the hydraulic tubing we had unearthed, oil still flowed from the open ends! We also excavated many rounds of live 50 cal. ammunition, which we carefully reburied
deep into the soil.
Through their research, the French have learned that this most likely was the aircraft of another pilot from my dad's unit, Lt. John Shepherd. They do not make
a declaration of a pilot's identity until they exhaust all resources.
Before I close, I have a message from a friend in France. Mickael SIMON is a member of the aviation research group that helped me locate my father's crash site
in 1993. He is about 35 years of age and when he heard that I was going to be speaking to you, asked if I could read a message to you about what his freedom means
to him. Here is what he writes to you:
"Dear Children of America,
Your grandfathers or great-grandfathers made it possible for me to speak to you though Harry, and with the help of technology too!
What I wanted to tell you is that without the help of thousands and thousands of young men from America, who are maybe now your grandfathers or your great-
grandfathers, I would certainly not be able to speak with you. Moreover, I would speak German!
The price of our liberty was very hard to pay for America and for France. This price is always remembered in our country by memorials built in tribute to the
American soldiers who were killed in naval, air or land battles; not to forget that they died for the freedom of a country that wasn't theirs at all!
It makes me think that the word Freedom isn't a simple word: this is a state of mind that all of humanity has built over the centuries; and when this is compromised,
this state of mind should be defended because this is what the majority of people who live on earth want to have! This is why so many Americans came here and died,
but not in vain, believe me.
When we speak with people in Normandy who knew that era, their memories are still alive when they speak about 'la liberation' (freedom) the day when they first
saw American soldiers and then knew that they were born again. If you have the chance to have a relative of your family who is a veteran of this terrible war,
ask them to describe how civilians welcomed them. They knew at this time that they could live again.
So, dear children, it was a pleasure for me to speak to you, and I wanted you to know that France is what it is today thanks to you and your country.
Now, is there anyone who can guess my secret? Do you need a hint? Is there anything unusual about my tie? Give up? Well, let me tell you . . . The tie I am wearing
has the insignia that was on the American and British aircraft of the Second World War.
In closing, please remember to be kind to one another. Never forget that the freedom we share came with a price. If you know anyone who fought in that war,
ask them to tell you about it. So many want to tell someone their story. You can learn a great deal from these people, "The Greatest Generation."
Thank you for allowing me to tell you about my dad, and the sacrifice he made for us all.