My Grandfather & the Red Baron

Grandfather & the Red Baron ~ a story about finding a home

My grandfather flew with the German fighter squadron under the command of Baron von Richthofen ~ aka the Red Baron ~ in WWI. That’s right, the enemy Snoopy is always trying to take down. Yikes! The irony is that my grandfather was a Frenchman, born in Alsace (a region located on the eastern border of France). Throughout history the Germans have at times, occupied Alsace.

At 16 years old, he was attending school in Switzerland and came home for a holiday break. The war broke out and the frontiers were closed, so he could not get back to school. Being too young for flight school, the German’s had him fight as a machine gunner on the eastern front against Russia. But, eventually he made it into flight training and his natural talent as a pilot landed him a position with the Richthofen squadron. Then he fought against England and even his own country, France.

My journey is one of spreading messages of love and oneness. “So, why the war story?” you may be asking me. I tell my grandfather’s story to show that we are very much subject to the circumstances we find ourselves to be in. This is a story of compassion, and hopefully, release from judgment.

After the war, Alsace was once again under the domain of France. When my grandfather returned home he was broke and not really considered French or German. He had to start from the bottom with a military career that had him wearing a French uniform. But, he found himself not very accepted among his peers due to his past. Eventually, he obtained a position with a private aviation company, known today as Air France. He flew mail, and occasionally passengers, over the Mediterranean Sea into French colonies in Africa, mainly Casablanca.

The Moors in Africa shot at him. Some felt that it was their country and therefore their duty to shoot down foreigners, and others did it to ransom pilots for gold. He survived that. He also survived sandstorms, hurricane winds and two plane crashes (one in the desert and one in the sea). Even so, in 1924, he won a world record for safe flying. Then he became a flight instructor, got married and started a family. But, he never felt like he really had a home.

Here is an excerpt from my grandfather’s book Stepchild Pilot by Joseph Doerflinger:

My Alsatian pride – what was left of it – met defeat at the hands of the French. After all these years of citizenship and service, I was still a “boche.” (A “boche” is a contemptuous term used to refer to a German soldier) Nearly ten years has passed since the war had ended and still the old hates were as fierce and unrelenting as ever. I knew that these hates had lasted for centuries, but assumed they lay dormant at times. I was wrong. These hates are excellently studied from the perspective of an Alsatian; – a man between, and of, two countries; a man inured to being unwanted; a man between hates; a man who could go here and be called a nasty name, and go there and be called the same nasty name in another language; but still a man who both sides coveted when able fighting men were needed. Such is an Alsatian. How could such a man have fought through a war and known what he was fighting for? How could a man go into another war and fight for a cause? If so, how would he know if the war achieved its aim?

Another country beckoned – America, the land of liberty. There, perhaps, I could be an Alsatian and be proud of it. I would go there where there is no heel clicking, no caste system; where hates and jealousies are at a minimum; where industries thrives . . . that would be my new home.

In 1928 he came to America, eventually settling in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. He flew for the Kohler Aviation Corporation and is credited with flying the first mail and beer across Lake Michigan. He carried six pilot’s licenses, spoke five languages, and survived another crash ~ this time due to a blizzard. He once again became a flight instructor.

It was during WWII that he flew commercially for the last time (in 1943). Though respected by many, I suspect it was his reputation as a war pilot who fought for the Germans (in the Red Baron’s squadron as a young man in WWI) that followed him across the ocean, leading him to once again be held in suspicion of his heritage. But his oldest son (my Uncle Denny who was not born in the US) was allowed to enlist! His ship went down in Pearl Harbor and he was presumed dead by the two officers that told my grandfather that his son was MIA. Several months later he received a post card from Hawaii with a joyful note from Denny that he had made it through.

Though once living a prosperous life in the US, my grandfather died of a stroke, without wealth, at the age of 72 in 1970. My father (who is number six of eight children and the only one still living) said that my grandfather never spoke of why he never flew again after the Second World War. I’ll never know if my grandfather ever felt that he was truly accepted in this country or if he was able to think of the US as his home.

I think about my grandfather’s idealistic view of what he expected the US to be for him. Many people believe coming here would be a place to find a safe home where prejudices are to be put aside. Yet here we are in 2017 and ethnic backgrounds are still held in suspicion by many. I am of a German and French heritage. I have been lucky to only been subjected to a skeptical look or two at the mention of my German/French ethnicity. I can only imagine how fearful it would be to live here if direct acts of hate were directed at me, as it is for many, whose ethnicity is not embraced as acceptable. How insane it seems to me that this occurs, when in truth, only if you are a Native American can you lay claim to being the original occupiers of this land.

We all won’t feel the united part of our country’s name until we learn to love all our neighbors regardless of where they, or their families, originally were born. And if we could do that, what would be the point of war at all? Is it really idealistic to believe that some day diversity can be cherished and that all people will feel a sense of belonging? Creating a safe home for every man, woman and child would bring the type of harmony that leaves no room for suspicion and hate.

What country we come from, and who our ancestors were, are a part of the circumstances we are born into. Why hold grievances toward anyone who simply was born into a different situation than our own? If we were put into a similar environment would we not act as they act? I believe most people may not understand why certain events take place, but still try to put forth their best intentions to be of service and live a productive and loving life. My grandfather’s story magnifies to me how we all get caught up in the events we are born into, but deep down we just long to be useful and accepted.

Let’s hold a goal to maintain harmony within the space we live and to be charitable to all whom cross our path. We don’t know where we will be led to be, or whom we will be with, in any given lifetime. Let us not judge anyone else’s road that was laid out before them, but instead reach out our hand and call all people sister and brother. Peace to all.

My Grandfather & the Red Baron

6 thoughts on “Grandfather & the Red Baron ~ a story about finding a home”

  1. Loretta Harvestine

    Read his book twice and ready to read it again….so much to learn about him..I was only 10 when he passed….ty.

  2. Jean Jacques TURLOT

    I’m a French – Alsatian Private Pilot very interested by the Story of Doerflinger which is few known in my town of Mulhouse the city where he is born. I’ve written, in french, the Story of Joseph but I don’ know what occurs after 1943. Is it right that he works in aerospatial Works ?

    1. How nice. Did you personally know my grandfather? He did not work in aero spatial capacity. He lost his pilot license during the war and no longer worked in the field. After a remarkable life, he settled into time with his family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin until his death.

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