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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"A flash of red"

The ship was there on a "Friendship Visit." Some friends. The first shot of World War II came at exactly 4:45 a.m. on September 1, 1939, from a German battle cruiser moored in the bay off the Free City of Danzig (Gdansk). "At that moment I saw a flash of red and the first shell hit the gate." Ignacy Skowron was a 24-year-old soldier from the south of Poland whose regiment was charged to guard a military depot on the peninsula at Westerplatte, near Gdansk. 182 young Polish soldiers faced the superior fire power of a battleship and 3,400 German troops. The Wehrmacht assumed the first battle of the war would be over in minutes. At the end of seven days, between 200-400 Nazi fighters had been killed, and 15-20 of the Polish troops had died, five of them in a dive-bombing attack on Day 2. Cpl. Skowron and his comrades fought back with machine guns against the persistent shelling from the battleship, bombing attacks, and, finally, flame-throwers. In an interview last month for the BBC, 94-year-old Skowron remembered the first moments of the war. "I took the telescope and looked out at the channel, first right and then left and then at the cruiser that was moored in the bay. At that moment I saw a flash of red and the first shell hit..." Indeed, the Schleswig-Holstein shot off a barrage of 170mm and 280mm shells that should have devastated the compound and demoralized the Polish army in hours, if not minutes. "I grabbed a machine gun..." the old soldier recounted. The ship shelled the depot for hours, then called in bombers. The barrage lasted for days. The site, and the regiment should have been vanquished immediately. Instead, heroic fighting continued for a week, inspiring the nation to continue its fierce resistance elsewhere in Poland, long after the Fuhrer's "Mission Accomplished" victory tour had come and gone. I visited Westerplatte in 1980. The concrete ruin of a guard house is imprinted in my memory. Skeletal, elemental against a piercing blue sky. Symbol of courage. Holding out. No surrender. It moved me then and it moves me now. Where does such courage come from? What made those men so brave? So determined? What kind of character does it take? Five men died when that building was bombed. Five men who could have given up already, the first day. Five soldiers who fought shells and bombs with machine guns. And darn near won. Westerplatte still stirs Polish hearts. As well it should. Doomed from the start, a small regiment held off the superior firepower and numbers of the enemy until, when forced to give up, the German commander allowed the Polish commander to keep his ceremonial sword, telling him, "If I had such an army I could fight the whole world." German Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, Russian leader, Vladimir Putin and 18 other world leaders joined Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk at Westerplatte today. Wreaths were laid. Words were spoken. Healing continued. The legacy of war stretches well into the third and fourth generations. Some things were broken that will never be repaired. Some things were lost that will never be regained. That's the way it is. Apologies, regrets or no. Lasting consequences. Lasting changes. History teaches hard lessons. And meanwhile, the Colorado Corvette Club made the local news this morning, on its way in caravan to Kansas City and beyond, to a national convention. No note of this anniversary in the headlines of U.S. newspapers and broadcasts. Life goes on.

1 comment:

Doug said...

I remember my mother telling about watching her father weep as he listened to the radio reports of the German invasion of The Netherlands in May 1940. He had been born there and had taken the whole family back there for about a year when he was out of work at the beginning of the Depression. Apparently my mother came back speaking Dutch. She was about 4 at that time and 13 at the time of the invasion. It won't be much longer before we stop hearing people talk about life "during the war".