Praying with an old letter – by Linda Berkery

(This is a guest post written by Linda Berkery and based on an experience of her father’s in WWII, and an experience of Linda’s in the present moment. It is quite moving and powerful, I am honored that she would allow me to share this on the blog.  A slightly different version of this ran in The Evangelist. )

Original scan at 300 Dad facing outMemorial Day arrives between the last Sunday of Easter and Pentecost this year. But when I reflect on Memorial Day, I must go all the way back to Lent. A priest friend suggested that I look for surprises and trust that God would show me something new. I followed his advice, and the Lord led me on a journey of the heart to Denmark.

envelope at 300My father, Bill Styles, died in March 1975, and every March I sort through his papers. This year I found a fragile envelope tucked away at the back of his journal.
Four photos fell out. Photos dated 1943. My heart jumped when I saw my father wearing torn clothing, leaning on a boat rail, strong waves pounding in the background. These were photos from the rescue.

“I remember you very well.” Those five words from a stranger flew out on the page, as I read a letter I had never seen before. It was sent from the fisherman who saved my father from drowning when his B-17 crashed in the North Sea on July 25, 1943. The skipper asked my father if the wounded men survived the war. He remembered them by name. My Lenten prayer became a search for the family of the skipper so I could return the letter and share the photos.

Viggo SkouenborgI knew a bit of the story As I child I pictured a kindly Apostle-like fisherman with a boat close to shore. Dad was safe, I thought, but he became a prisoner, so maybe the fisherman wasn’t that great after all. My child’s mind never quite grasped the impact of the day.

As the plane “mushed” into the sea, Co-pilot Dad and the pilot escaped. Two severely injured men were pushed through an overhead escape hatch by the rest of the crew. Those six brave “pushers” went down with the sinking plane, lost to the sea, but not lost to the Lord.

Dad didn’t know that a Danish fisherman had watched his plane drop through the sky. The skipper literally became a biblical “fisher of men.” He saved them, comforted their spirits with smiles and set broken bones with fish-crate splints.

Sunset to sunrise, four fliers united with four fishermen. One fisherman took photos. Dad gave him silk maps from his escape-evasion kit as a token of gratitude. They shared stories, broke bread, and surely prayed in the dark. As they reached the shore, the skipper expressed sympathy, but he was obligated to release his “catch” by threats to his own family. Dad was turned over to the authorities and spent nearly two years in a German POW camp.

mapscarf at 300Dad’s story revealed Christ to me at every turn. As I heard Jesus weeping for his friend, Lazarus, I saw Dad’s tears as his crewmates died. As I read of the agony in the garden, my father’s fear came to mind. When I remembered Veronica, I reflected on the courageous woman at the pier who approached Dad recording his name and address, this same woman who wrote an account for the underground press in Denmark and kept the rescue story alive.

When I heard the crowds on Palm Sunday, I heard the Danes greeting Dad at sunrise, happy to see he had survived the crash. I heard their outraged protests when the German officials refused to treat the two men who were injured. My father handed over his only possessions, a crucifix on a chain, a cross, a watch, and ID dog tags.

Dad had been brought before guards, interrogated, and confined in a POW camp, yet he held no bitterness. My father only told me of the kindness of the Danish fishermen and the beauty of the German forest.

Mom and Dad (2)At the Easter Vigil, when I watched an adult kneel in the font for his baptism, I thought of my father in the waters of the frigid North Sea—both men experiencing a new life. On Easter Tuesday, I thought of my mother when I heard Mary Magdalene searching at the empty tomb—my mother waiting at home, believing my father was dead.

During Easter week, connections spread. A Danish newspaper printed a two-page story about Dad’s rescue and my search. I found the skipper’s daughter within hours. She had never heard the story, or seen the photos, but was sharing the good news with great joy.
For the 50 days of the Easter season my prayer took a modern twist. I made friends from around the world. I prayed in texts, in phone calls from Denmark, with families on Facebook, and in poems with historians. Strangers became sisters when the daughters of the rescued crew from 1943 communicated by social media in 2017.

Pentecost reminds us that language is not a barrier to kindness and love. I have found that truth. Several Danish families will soon come to America to greet the families of the four men rescued by their fathers. It will be an honor to embrace them.

Flag2 (2)On Memorial Day, I will place flowers and flags on my father’s grave, the American flag and the Danish flag. I will open a package sent from Denmark and touch my father’s silk map, the map he entrusted in 1943 to a kind fisherman. And I will place a cross over that map in gratitude because the story of Dad’s rescue leads to and flows from the cross of Christ.