The Foreign Service Journal - October 2017

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | OCTOBER 2017 73 helped get us out in Benghazi—particu- larly one soldier who had been badly burnt when the mob threw a petrol bomb into their armoured vehicle. His other regret was not finding out what happened to the children his act in Germany had saved. The badly injured British soldier was relatively easy to find, and I was able to speak with himby phone just before the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. Although I know thanks were extended by the U.S. Secretary of State for British help, he toldme that I was the first person to personally thank him in 50 years, saying “it’s not the British way.” But trying to find survivors who remembered a wartime incident more than 70 years earlier required all the skills my father and the Foreign Service taught me: empathy, determination, and an understanding of how to use help and contacts. With the aid of a Dutchmilitary tour guide and the local newspaper, I found the farm. The potato cellar had been unique in that part of Germany, and all the children played in it. Although the farmhouse no longer exists, the farmer’s son kindly found an old photograph which I was able to showmy father the night before he died. Amazingly, I found an 80-year-oldman who had been an 8-year-old boy in the “Be Merciful” cellar. He toldme he was too young then to know how close to death he had been. “Be Merciful” Is Memorialized On March 24, 2017, the 72nd anniver- sary of Operation Varsity, on a wind- swept field in Hamminkeln, Germany, a bilingual commemorative plaque was dedicated to John Kormann and the “Be Merciful” incident. Eighty people attended, including Germans and Americans of the Scions of the 17th Airborne Division (children of servicemen, like me), and the DutchMar- gratenMemorial Group that has adopted the graves of fallen U.S. soldiers. Local German schoolchildren researched their area’s role inWorldWar II, welcomed by the school as a way to discuss the difficult subject of Germany’s wartime actions. Some of them spoke at the dedication ceremony, saying: “It was very dangerous and courageous what your father did. But he did it nonetheless.” “There are still somany wars going on in this world. That’s why it’s so important to commemorate acts of humanity like this of Mr. Kormann. It shows us what unifies all people on earth despite their different cultures, nationalities and religions.” When I met the elderly cellar survi- vors, I was struck by their vivid childhood memories of colored parachutes, the GIs who were farmboys helping tomilk cows, and how the GIs then gave them chocolate, which they shaved into warmmilk and instant coffee (and still love drinking). I arranged a lunch to follow the dedica- tion, where each elderly German getting up encouraged the others to speak in front of an international audience and, crucially, the young people of the town. That turned out to be the first time most of themhad ever told their stories in public. Experiencing and Shaping History Dutch TV picked up the “Be Merciful” story and filmed a documentary, “Closer to Freedom,” which is now being used in schools. The National Liberation Museum in Groesbeek, Netherlands, is suggesting that the European Union–funded Libera- tion Route Europe add Hamminkeln to its locations. To my knowledge, this is the only commemorative plaque concerning an act of valor by an American in North Rhine Westphalia, which was part of the British Occupied Zone following World War II. The German owners of the “Be Merciful” farm have submitted a proposal to create an Operation Varsity museum. After the war, my father joined the Foreign Service and served overseas in Bavaria, Manila, Benghazi and Cairo—accompanied by my mother, my two brothers and me. His focus was political-military affairs, and he partici- pated during a crucial period—imple- menting the Marshall Plan, witnessing Marcos’ accession amid the strains of the Vietnam War, experiencing Libya’s turmoil and, in Cairo, facilitating Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy and the largest Defense Department and USAID programs at that time. We are blessed in the Foreign Service with extraordinary lives observing and forming history. Let us capture them for posterity. Whether through video, or writing an autobiography as my father did, record your experiences for your descendants. Do it while you are young enough to get feedback in your lifetime: your memories will trigger others, to the great joy of all. My father’s deathbed request seemed an overwhelming burden at first, but it turned out to be his greatest gift to me. n The tension anddistress of the departurewas matched by the surreal realization that I was relivingmy father’sWorldWar II life.