A Christmas Story

This true Christmas story was told by Russel Schuettpelz. It was recorded and distributed by his wife Lorraine, published in Guidepost, and recently forwarded to me by my son, Sandy Jr.               

We were over the English channel on Christmas Eve, 1944, and our plane was beginning its descent through a heavy fog, but my mind was on the mission just completed, our nineteenth.  Sixteen more to go before we can go home, I thought to myself. But would I survive them? Would the other nine men in my crew?  After so many months together they were more than just a crew to me. I would   never have made it this far without their friendship.                     

At 23, I was a staff sergeant and the oldest man in our Flying Fortress, as the B-17 was known. Because of my sharpshooting and a stature that had earned me the nickname “Shorty,” I was assigned to the ball turret gunner position. This morning our crew had taken off from England as the lead bomber in a V formation. My turret was pelted with flak and enemy gunfire. From my position hanging below the plane, my heels held in midair by footrests, I watched in horror as the plane on our left took a direct hit. Moments later the plane on our other side caught fire and hurtled to the ground. This was hell, I was sure of it.                      

I pressed my foot to the controls of my sight range reflector and gripped the hand controls to position the machine guns on either side of me and fire at enemy planes. Their guns, I knew, were pointed straight at me. Take out the ball turret gunner and you took out one the B-17’s greatest defenses. Somehow, amidst all the gunfire, we made it to Germany, dropped our bombs and turned back across the Channel, praying we would land safely on the other side.  A familiar thud told me our plane had touched down. I said a silent prayer of thanks for our pilot. It wasn’t easy landing a Flying Fortress in this fog. We moved slowly down the runway and finally came to a stop. The intercom in my turret crackled. “Zero visibility in this fog,” the pilot reported. “We’re ordered to stay in the plane until we get the all clear.”                        

I groaned. It had been 10 hours since I climbed into my cramped turret I was exhausted, hungry and cold, and I knew the rest of our crew felt the same way. I climbed out. The guys were huddled together in the body of the dark chilly plane. I sat next to someone – it was hard to make out whom in the darkness until he spoke. “Don’t suppose they’ll be bringing us a turkey dinner in here, do you?” he said. Harold Boker, our bombardier. Boker the Joker, we called him. Always ready with a one-liner to lighten the mood. Although he was only 19, we all looked to Harold when we were weary or afraid or just needed some reassurance that this war wouldn’t go on forever.  Tonight, however, his joke fell flat. This was no way to spend Christmas Eve, dodging bullets, dropping bombs and shivering in the dark. I wanted to be back home in Wisconsin with my wife and our two-year-old daughter. I imagined all of us sitting in our warm living room, maybe looking up at the lights on the Christmas tree. That’s what Christmas was about. Light, not darkness. Love, not war.  We couldn’t be farther from Christmas than we are now, I thought.              

Next to me Boker started to sing. His voice was soft, but the familiar melody seemed to fill the cavernous body of the plane. “O Come All Ye Faithful.” While he sang, Boker lit a match. It was only a tiny flame, but the plane immediately felt warmer. Boker passed me his matchbook. “Lord, we greet thee,” he sang.  “Born this happy morning…” I lit a match and passed the book down, joining my voice to his. One by one, each of us lit a match, until we all held up a light. When one match burnt out, we lit another. Next we sang “Silent Night,” humming along if we forgot a line. After the terrible thunder of gunfire, the night did seem silent. I thought about Jesus on the night he was born. He had many dangers ahead of him. He would face death just as we would face it on our next mission. But on that night,  surrounded by his loving family, he had peace. Just as we had it now.                       

The final words of the carol filled the plane and faded as the last of our matches burned out. Darkness swallowed us again, but I could still see light in my mind. The light that had shown the tearing eyes of every guy in the crew. Never had Christmas felt so real as it did that night. In the midst of war and darkness we’d found love and light.                      

Our crew completed all 35 of our missions. All 10 of us returned home safely. But not before we’d found a little bit of Bethlehem.    
Note:  Russel Schuttpelz came home to his wife Lorraine, and they had 64 years of married life.  Many were not so fortunate.  More than 40,000 young America airmen died over Europe.  British losses were about the same.  German air casualties were much worse. Now, 75 years removed from the carnage, it is difficult to visualize the true horrors of war.              

Pray for peace! 

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