Steve,I have an interesting story from a recent personal experience that I hope will be of interest to you all. I had not intended to share this story with the general collecting community as I am neither seeking nor deserve any personal glorification, and had initially chosen to relay this to a few close friends. However, after some more thought, I thought that like-minded individuals might enjoy hearing the outcome of this tale as this type of thing doesn't happen every day, so here goes…
I have been searching for a WW1 RFC or French aviation grouping for a while and finally hit a home run by acquiring a grouping to a pilot in 41 Squadron of the RFC/RAF that consisted of four medals, beautiful bullion RAF wings, Officer cap badge, and a pile of documentation from the British and Canadian Archives on the pilot.
Immediately after purchase, I started searching for more information on the pilot’s service. I found him named in three Over the Front publications from years past and immediately acquired two of the three. One article featured about 13 pages on the wartime exploits of this man. The most striking and thrilling exploit involved a mission where the target was an ammunition storage facility. The pilot flew his SE-5 and completed his mission along with his other squadron mates. While returning to base, a violent rainstorm began making it nearly impossible to see. As a result, this pilot had to drop down to about 300 feet to gain ground reference to continue the flight home. He was briefly relieved when he saw the outline of three hangars and thought that he had finally arrived. While circling the field, he immediately knew something was wrong when he saw the distinctive black crosses on the wings of a single aircraft on the field. Looking around, he saw no other aircraft in the vicinity and decided to drop the remainder of his bombs on the German aerodrome.
He assaulted the base, and the ensuing blasts were so violent, that he nearly blew himself out of the sky. He finally returned to his own base and relayed his experience to his Sqdn. Leader. Several days later, the commander flew to the area where the attack occurred and saw no sign of activity. He landed his aircraft in the midst of the destruction and removed a radio from the Fokker that was on the airfield. He also confirmed that there were 18 Halberstadt aircraft in the hangars that were badly damaged or destroyed.
Unfortunately this exploit went without much further accolade as the following days for 41 Squadron proved to be a costly time for them.
Now, to the current day…I contacted the author of the article in Over the Front seeking additional information on the pilot. To my and his surprise, he was friends with the pilot in his last years, was STILL friends with the widow of 94 ( they were married in the 1940's) and had wondered for over twenty years who had the items which I now held.
I traced the items getting into the hands of the general public in 1989 through an online auction. The author told me that in or about 1988 an individual had “befriended” the then legally blind and home-bound pilot (he was nearly 100 then). Apparently, when his wife left the house, this individual paid the pilot almost nothing for the items and later sold them for profit at auction. The widow has been heart-broken all of this time and could not understand why her husband would part with his items.
After numerous e-mail exchanges and phone conversations with the author and friend of the pilot, I gained access to the widow and we had several very nice conversations. She said to me…”Steve, I understand that you and I both have some of my husband’s items and I was wondering if we could reunite them?” My head thought NOOOOOO!!!!, but my heart said “Yes”. Sometimes, doing the right thing means placing ones selfish wants aside. In the end, the items were returned to his widow and she is very happy to have her husband’s treasures once again. I understand that about all she has left is a photo album and his ribbon bar which corresponded to the medal bar in my possession. I guess the moral of the story is that even though I will dearly miss having these items, that in no way equals the joy that I feel for her and having the satisfaction of knowing that I was able to make an elderly lady happy in her last years.
This is why I always say that the items are merely cloth and metal, without memories and the stories of the person who owned them, they will never be more than just possessions. I don’t believe in coincidence, and I feel that perhaps the good Lord used me as a middle man to reunite these items with this dear lady. Through this experience, I have befriended an author/historian/ publisher, and have the honor of having made the acquaintance of the last known surviving widow of a WWI Pilot. We still talk quite often and she loves to share stories of her husband. She is s dear, sweet lady whom I will have fond memories of long after she re-joins her beloved Gordon on the other side…
Having discussed this group with you, I know what a heart breaker is was to do the right thing. An admirable act on your part, and an excellent example for others to follow. My hats off to you.