Some time ago I watched a moving episode of NCIS. One of the story lines on this episode saw Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the “Boss” of the unit, commandeered by his aging father to visit a dying WWII vet who had saved the father’s life during the war. The moving story becomes even more moving when it is revealed that the airman who saved the father was a German whose fighter plane bore a huge swastika.
The story brought not only tears but also the reminder of a story from my own life. My father, a young minister of a Reformed Church in America congregation in New Jersey, volunteered as a chaplain during WWII and served with the 110th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division. As a chaplain, he was also medic’s assistant and was always at the battalion aid station usually within 800 yards of the forward infantry lines. On Dec. 17, 1944 after negotiating with German officer to stop bombing a house in which soldiers he was treating were hiding, he was incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp. In March, 1945, the prisoners were liberated and began a long march to Allied lines. It was during the march that the incident occurred which the NCIS episode brought to my mind. It is recounted by a fellow soldier who shared it with me:
“Rowland Koskamp was ‘every man’s preacher.’ He was the sort of person who gave courage and confidence to his friends and all others who came into contact with him during our time as POW’s. He calmed the griper, supported the downer, let it be known that our present circumstance was only a temporary setback and that there is a caring God who is concerned and offers eternity to those who call upon him.
Easter Morning, April 1, 1945! We had been on our trek for about a week with early mornings on the road. Usually we were placed in barns where we would spend the night. Rowland had requested that Easter morning be spent at the same farm at which we had spent the night so that those who wished to attend a service could do so. Those of us who wanted to attend a service were taken by the guards to a nearby corral. I was one of the last into the corral, and I was standing at the rear of the group. Just before Rowland’s first words, the German Colonel in charge of a group of about 300 prisoners entered the corral, closed the gate and stood next to me. Rowland’s message was first about the meaning of Easter, the historical event and its meaning to Christians. Then he delivered a powerful sermon on man’s inhumanity to others and the need for people to overcome petty human concerns and to serve God and one another. The Colonel, standing beside me, was in nearly constant movement as he almost imperceptibly twitched and dug his toes into the mud of the corral.
Always a very innovative and thoughtful man, Rowland had saved his bread ration for a few days and had somehow obtained a bottle of wine in the war-torn countryside. Then he led us in communion. He passed a part of a loaf of dark bread. Each broke off a piece and passed the bread along. The Colonel accepted the bread from me, broke off a piece, and passed it along. When all had been served, we took the bread together. Then the bottle of wine was passed and each of us, including the Colonel, took a sip and passed the bottle along. To me it was an extremely meaningful time, especially as I shared the loaf and the wine with a man who was our enemy.
This deeply moving experience occurred on the last Sunday on earth for Rowland and the Colonel. They were both killed on the following Thursday.“
Another soldier’s account of the deaths of the Colonel and my father reports that they occurred while 600 American planes were bombing the city of Nuremberg. At the end of the raid, the American pilots dumped their remaining bombs on a train station near the liberated POWs (who were running for cover) and blew up a railroad car loaded with munitions. Another American chaplain was sent to secure dog-tags from the bodies of the dead and came to one that read Rowland A. Koskamp. He says he quickly dropped the tag, reached for his shirt collar, saw his cross, and said a prayer for his wife and little daughter. (I have the cross which was made into a ring.) My father was 29 when he died in service to his God and his country. I was two.
Dr. Gregg Mast, former President of New Brunswick Theological Seminary and a friend of mine for more than 50 years wrote an article about my father in The Church Herald (April 2001), the former denominational magazine for the RCA. He said this:
Four days after Koskamp’s tragic death, in a camp named Flossenburg, less than fifty miles from where Koskamp was killed – a young German theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken out and hanged for the opposition to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. An English officer who was with Bonhoeffer at Flossenburg later described his last service on Sunday, April 8. The words sound like an eerie echo of Koskamp’s last service, just a week before.
“Pastor Bonhoeffer conducted a little service of worship and spoke to us in a way that went to the heart of all of us. He found just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment. . . . He had hardly ended his last prayer when the door opened and two civilians entered. They said, ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us.’ The next day he was hanged in Flossenburg.”
Two pastors. One American, the other German. One known and loved by his family, friends, and small congregation in Raritan, New Jersey. The other, already known by a world that had heard and heeded his courageous voice of prophetic sanity and ethical love. Two pastors, both tragically killed by their own countrymen in a war that has helped produce what Tom Brokaw called the “greatest generation.”
This Easter Day, thank God for the lives of the men and women who served in armed conflict, many in the name of the Risen Christ. There are hundreds of stories like these two affecting the families of millions of Americans, English, Germans, French, Russian, Canadian, Japanese . . . . we could name every nation in the world. The legacy of those men and women should be that those of us still here, especially those of us who are Christian, will find a way to love, forgive, and share life with those on the other side.
And in April, 2021 as we mourn again the death of George Floyd, it seems more crucial than ever to find a way to get along with people who are different than we are – and even look for ways to save their lives.