10 November 2009

A Week of Remembrance: "And the greatest of these..."

C.S. Lewis once wrote that courage is not merely a virtue, but rather it is every virtue at the testing point. All the men I have profiled in this little series have shown the courage to stand at the extreme testing point, and to make what difference they could. The last one, Andy Mynarski, stands out because, first of all, his actions really made no difference. He saved no one; he won no battle; he did not turn around any dire situation. Yet his actions move anyone who hears his story. I believe this is because of the second point: he displayed more than mere courage, but also the master virtue, which I can only refer to as love. Andy's story is really the story of two men.

Andy served as the gunner in the top turret of a Lancaster. Pat Brophy, his best friend, served as the gunner in the tail turret. The men served together on missions, drank together at the pub, and behaved like young men do, even having their own little in-jokes. Whenever they split up to return to their quarters, Brophy would call out to Mynarski and say "Good-night, Irish," to which Mynarski would respond with a salute and the words: "Good-night, sir."

On the night of June 12-13, 1944, Andy and Pat's bomber was taking part in a raid, when it was attacked by a German night fighter over Cambrai. Cannon shells raked the engines and fuselage, causing a hydraulic fire. The burning plane was a loss, and the pilot ordered the crew to bail out. Brophy went to exit his turret when he discovered the loss of hydraulics had jambed it closed. He was trapped.

Brophy stared through the back of his turret into the aircraft when he saw Mynarski leave the top turret and head for the rear escape hatch. Mynarski was about to jump when he spotted Brophy. Without hesitation Mynarski walked through the flames and began to try and free his friend.

He used a fire axe to try and pry then beat the doors open. When that failed he tossed the axe aside and began to try and pry the turret open with his bare hands. Meanwhile Brophy was shouting pointlessly at Mynarski to get out and save himself. Brophy watched in horror as Mynarski's clothes and parachute smoked and caught fire. Mynarski didn't seem to notice or care. The smell of burning flesh reached Brophy in the turret, sickening him. He redoubled his efforts to get Mynarski to leave and save himself.

How long Mynarski tried to save Brophy is unknown. Time seemed to stop before his desperate heroism. Finally the futility came to Mynarski. He left Brophy in the turret and made his way back through the fire to the hatch. Here he paused one last time, looked back to Brophy and saluted. Brophy could see his lips move as Mynarski said "Good-night, sir." Brophy responded: "Good-night, Irish." Mynarski leapt from the plane. His clothes and parachute burning he fell like a comet, landing hard. French peasants who saw his fall rushed him to a German military hospital, where he died of his burns not long after.

How then, is this story known? It is known, because miraculously Brophy survived.

After Mynarski bailed out, Brophy settled into his turret and waited for death. It was a long wait. Though the pilot and all the other crew had long since abandoned the plane, It didn't roll over and go nose down to the ground. Instead, the plane still flew level, taking only a gradual descent, as though some hand still guided the plane. After long minutes the plane skidded into the ground. The shock of the plane striking the ground did what Andy's efforts could not: it jerked the turret around, and threw Brophy free and clear. So gentle was the plane's landing that only two of its bombs exploded. Brophy landed somewhere soft and safe, relatively unharmed. The only thing he noticed was when he took off his helmet and all his hair came off with it.

The French found Brophy and hid him. Eventually Brophy made his way back to England, where he began to tell anyone and everyone the story of Andy Mynarski. He told his story to the officials his squadron and up the chain in Bomber Command. Because of his story, Andy Mynarski was awarded the Victoria Cross. His is one of the few Crosses handed out on the basis of the testimony of a single witness. But hidden behind Andy's courage is also the courage of Brophy, who was willing to forgo a chance of escape to get his friend off the aircraft and to safety. They were both brave, brave men.

Behind these two men I see other men standing. Anyone who knows the history of the bombing campaign of WWII knows it was costly. Many machines were shot down, many crews went down with their planes. On how many were there men who gave up their chance at life and safety to try and pull a trapped buddy out of the plane? They went down with their planes, their names and deeds known to God alone. Of them all, we know the story of just one: Andy Mynarski, and he stands for them all.

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