It was one of those superannuated motion picture theatres, clinging to a second life by showing old black and white and out-of-circulation Hollywood films, appealing mostly to older theater-goers driven by nostalgia, along with the merely curious in search of a noir experience. I was there because they were showing one of my favorite World War II film masterpieces – The Battle of Britain – not because of the big-name cast or the somewhat shallow storyline, but because it was shot at a time when complete squadrons – even wings of WWII planes were still flying, and actual wartime film footage filled the screen during long segments over a musical score which was classical in its own right. I was there because of the sweet sound of Merlin engines and the realism of a largely-British inspired take on a period of history through which I had lived some of the most formative years of my life. I had seen the 1969 movie many times before, but not for some years. (A DVD version sits on my shelf today).
Because the extra-long theater version required a reel change, there was a ten minute intermission. As the lights came on, I was not surprised to see that the theater was sparsely filled, mostly by men and most of them around my own age or even grayer. As we stood, I noticed an old friend who had been seated alone, several rows away. Joe was one of those Utahans you run into who are always on the cutting edge of some new and wonderful product which lent itself to multi-level marketing and promising big rewards for whoever “gets in early”. Because he was such an enthusiastic, friendly and thoroughly likable fellow, I had long since forgiven him for always trying to enlist me in one more “get-rich-quick” marketing scheme, and just accepted him as a friend.
We met in the center aisle for a handshake, and with my curiosity aroused I asked “what brings you to such a show? Do you too have an interest in WWII aviation?” I wondered, certain that the subject had never come up in our many conversations. “Oh yes!” he exclaimed, with undisguised ardor. “You see,I flew in the Battle of Britain!”
My interest now really on the rise I asked the obvious question: “Did you fly the Spitfire or the Hurricane?” “Neither!” Joe replied, his hand making a swooping motion in the air. “I flew a Messerschmitt!” My friend of several years, who I thought I knew quite well, and whose speech revealed no hint of a European background, let alone anything Germanic, it turned out, had indeed been a fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe.
A restored Messerschmitt Bf-109, Germany’s “backbone” Luftwaffe fighter of WWII of which 34,000 were produced. As required by German law, the swastika is absent.
When Joe decided to come to America, I learned, it was not just to seek a better life. He wished to “become an American” he explained. When he bid farewell to his fellow German shipboard passengers, he told them that they would not be hearing from him again. From that day forward, he never again spoke German, and taught himself – standing in front of a mirror - to speak his adopted language without accent, word by word.
Joe had never embraced Nazism, but unable to escape Hitler’s Germany until after the war, he had served honorably and with a respect both for those he flew with and those he flew against.
His companionship in the theater that night as we sat side-by-side through the remainder of the classic film somehow added to my sense of “touch” with history in a way I can’t explain but will always remember.
. This Supermarine Spitfire Mk-XVI at Oregon’s Evergreen Aviation Museum actually played a part in the 1969 Battle of Britain film. Al Cooper Photo