By Bob Phelps

Florida Times Union Staff Writer

(Page 6,7 in Senior Living Section)

August 29, 1997


The last time Virgil Colson had seen the city of Neunkirchen, Germany, he was falling thousands of feet through the sky.

He awakened from unconsciousness to discover that the B-25 bomber he was piloting had been blown out from under him. His oxygen tube was slapping against his face as he fell, awakening him in time for him to pull his rip cord and open his parachute. He was the only survivor of a crew of 10.

The first lieutenant eluded captivity for five days but then spent the rest of the war starving in a stalag near the Baltic Sea.

Last week, Colson, a retired Jacksonville minister, saw Neunkirchen again. He walked through the city and met a man who had witnessed the burned nose of his bomber’s fuselage crash into the city.

“The man personally saw two bodies still strapped in their seats, badly burned,” Colson said. “They were my bombardier and my navigator. He remembered looking at them and thinking “These men are the same age as me.’” Colson and the German man cried together.

Colson was invited back to that town near the French border last week for a visit of reconciliation. People who were in the target city when he dropped bombs there 53 years ago asked him to come. Colson and his wife, Grace, were house-guests of a retired German psychology professor who this year traced Virgil Colson through war records.

The professor, Horst Wilhelm, as a teenage boy, hid in a shelter while the bombs from Colson’s plane fell on Neunkirchen.

Wilhelm showed Colson several large pieces of metal from the plane Colson piloted and took him to the place that Colson landed with his parachute and stole away to elude captivity for five days. He also introduced him to the eyewitness to the crash.

Friedrich Decker, mayor of Neunkirchen honored Colson with a reception.

“Up to now, there have been both positive and negative memories of the city of Neunkirchen for many people, memories that need to be healed,” Decker said before the reception. ”The exchange of personal experiences allows us to extinguish the possible false prejudices we may have.”

Wilhelm said the mood of most people in Neunkirchen toward Americans is favorable, and for many, it was favorable even during the war. “In March 15, 1945, when the 3rd U.S. Army occupied our area, most of us felt it was a liberation rather than a defeat,” he said.

Wilhelm said he and many of his relatives were denied rights under the Nazi regime, because they had Jewish ancestry.

At the reception in the Neunkirchen city hall, Colson was presented with mementos and a picture book showing the city before, during and after the war.

Colson gave Wilhelm a wooden chain he hand carved from a maple stick, a symbol of unity but also a symbol of his war experience. Carving and praying was how he saved his sanity during his long, cold, hungry months in captivity.

At the reception, Grace Colson wore a 2-foot wooden chain necklace her husband carved in the prison and gave to her when they were married in 1949.

I’m thankful for the evidence of their forgiveness and openness to have me there,” Colson said. While he values forgiveness, he did not ask for it at the reception, attended by politicians and a hall full of people who remembered those terrible war days.

“I told them it made me sad when I came here as their enemy, and it brings me great joy to come as their friend,” he said. “I told them I prayed much at the beginning of the war about my involvement, and I felt it was my duty to help. I’m sure their younger men felt the same way. I did not apologize.”

He also told the of his fight for survival and his reliance on God for strength to carry on.

The Colsons were toasted with champagne, but in respect to their Baptist beliefs, they were served apple juice to respond to the toast.

A burgermeister, an assistant to the mayor, took the Colsons to the city hall roof and showed them the city, the site of Virgil Colson’s crashed plane, the site where he landed and the rail yard that he bombed. He later was driven to all those sites.

Colson’s ministerial and missionary career and his hardscrabble South Georgia upbringing are clues to why he would eschew a social apology to stand on principal, even after 53 years.

He is a wiry, tough product of pioneer farm life on the Okefenokee Swamp near Folkston, Ga., where a person’s word was his bond. He and his wife were missionaries in Africa. He came to Jacksonville to retire and now is a part-time chaplain at Orange Park Medical Center.

Colson and Wilhelm had exchanged phone calls and e-mail since Colson received the first letter May 19. “My feeling toward Dr. Colson is very friendly Wilhelm said. “I think besides our friendship, we are dealing with history events that we have seen from very different viewpoints. We both endeavor to clear up the events without prejudice and far from the wartime hostility between our peoples.”

Colson said he was grateful to learn more information from Wilhelm about the fate of his bomber crew, albeit tragic. Colson had thought he was the only person to reach the ground alive when his plane was hit.

He was on his 25th mission as a bomber pilot on Nov. 30, 1944, and had just emptied his load of bombs intended for a Neunkirchen rail yard, when he was blown out of the plane by a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire. He said he never heard the explosion, but awakened while spinning and falling through the sky.

For five days, wounded, burned, starving and freezing, Colson hid in the woods and fled at night toward American lines. While he followed the sound of distant American artillery, he was caught by railroad security officers as he stumbled through a railroad yard in another town, Saarbrucken, 12 miles from where he landed. He never made contact with any of his crew – co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radioman and five gunners.

“I grieved over them,” he said. “You get pretty close when your lives depend on each other. As captain of the ship, it was my responsibility to see that they all got out safely before I left the ship. I was frustrated that I didn’t get the opportunity to do that.”

Only he and the co-pilot wore their chutes. The others had to remove their parachutes to move around in the plane. There was no time to put them on when the explosion hit.

Witnesses from other bombers in the formation confirmed his story. In a diary Colson saw years later, Tech. Sgt. William P. Tucker wrote that he saw the plane explode in a red and orange fireball and the top gun turret rocket upward.

Wilhelm told Colson another crewman, probably the co-pilot, survived the blast with a parachute but died that day.

Wilhelm said he talked to witnesses who saw parts of the plane raining from the clouds and saw a man with a parachute land on a roof. Witnesses told Wilhelm that Nazis cut the lines of the second man’s chute.

“Two or three Nazis let him fall down from the roof so he got hurt very seriously and died some hours later,” Wilhelm said. Colson said they showed him a small Red Cross station where they took the co-pilot’s body after he died.

Colson didn’t receive the Purple Heart medal he qualified for until last year.

The commander of Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Rear Adm. Kevin Delaney, met him at a ceremony honoring prisoner of war veterans and sent for the medal. Delaney pinned the medal on Colson in a ceremony at the Jacksonville Veterans’ Memorial Wall. “I would have never asked for it,” Colson said.

Unlike Colsons reluctance to dwell on his war experiences, Wilhelm has actively sought out historic answers to the question “Why?” that recurred as bombs fell on his city.

“My childhood was always overshadowed by the war and by the Nazis,” Wilhelm said. “I was always afraid when the bombers passed. If I had time enough, I ran to a shelter, a coal mine gallery.”

Wilhelm is gathering records and data on all the planes that crashed around his town and their crews. He hopes to compile and publish a historic record on the crashes.

Colson said he finds solace in the merciful nature of the American occupation forces. “Probably in no other time in history have nations that were defeated been treated so well as the United States treated Germany and Japan,” he said.

Colson’s wife of 48 years, whom he had met in a Baptist seminary, said her husband still grows ill when he talks about his traumatic war experiences.

“Although it has faded some through the years, he doesn’t rest well after he talks about it,” she said.

“If the subject comes up while he’s eating, it bothers him. He’ll say he’d just rather not talk about it. It still interferes with his digestion.”

Grace Colson said she hoped the visit would lead to some closure for him.

Colson, interviewed on the second day of his visit, said he, indeed sensed some closure, some peace from his visit. “This morning, I woke up thinking about the parts of the airplane that I had seen,” he said. “I thought, “That war machine is dead too. That really puts an end to it.”

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