Jack D. Hunter's Blog

13 Jun 2007

I was honored not too long ago when Stephan Thomas Previtera asked me to write the forward for his magnificent new volume, Prussian Blue, the most colorful and comprehensive history and commentary of all on the famous and esteemed German military medal, the Pour le Mérite, commonly known as "The Blue Max."

His invitation immediately evoked a childhood memory that seemed to play directly to the subject, and so I led off the forward with an octogenarian's reconstruction of the incident.  In the hopes that it might entertain you and lead you to the book stores or the web for a look at this great book, herewith the forward:

Memories of boyhood, for a man in his eighties, are often elusive and usually imprecise.  So recollections of that summer day in 1931, shortly after my tenth birthday, are a tantalizing melange of clarity and murkiness.  But for all the years and distances obscuring much of the occasion, what remains unforgettable is the strangely lingering, amiable glance sent my way by the famous German World War I flying ace, Ernst Udet.
He was a small man, bulky in his flying togs, striding toward the pilots’ lounge behind the grandstand, surrounded by reporters, photographers, and sycophants.  He had just won top honors for aerobatics at the Cleveland National Air Races by skimming the ground in his red biplane and snatching a handkerchief from the grass with a wingtip.  The crowd’s roaring, the band’s blaring, the thunder of the airplanes in the brilliant blue above, were a cacophonous salute to his skill.  This diminutive ex-fighter pilot, a visitor from abroad, second in fame and honors only to Manfred von Richthofen, the renowned Red Baron and ace of German aces, had just added another laurel to his huge collection.
I don’t remember how I got there.  The most logical guess is that I’d been taken along by Dr. Gauchat, an affluent dentist and father of my two best buddies, who shared our fanatical interest in airplanes.  He was that kind of man -- big, handsome, easygoing, and ready to do almost anything to please his kids and their pals.  What I do remember is leaning over a corner of the grandstand railing, peering down, agog with admiration, as Udet passed within a few feet below.
In a magical moment, he glanced upward, and our gazes locked.  He stared at me, and I had the fleeting sense that he recognized me from some other time, in some other place.  I was suddenly immobilized, speechless, totally unable to wave and shout hello.  And then, marvel of marvels, he winked, nodded, and gave me a little smile.
I watched after him as he and his noisy retinue disappeared into the shadows, and I realized -- even then, as a boy, as I do now -- that I had traded silent greetings with history.  Udet belonged in the pantheon of aviation fame, and he had winked at me, a nobody school kid.
nearly every dime of my hard-earned allowance on model airplane kits and pulp magazines and movies dedicated to the subject -- I was well acquainted with the bravery, the tenacity, and the loyalty to a lost cause that had brought Udet the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s loftiest award.  So I knew at the moment of the encounter that this man was more than just a fancy, crowd-pleasing stunt pilot.  But I was also made aware, precisely at that moment and in a kind of childish understanding of a complex adult concept, that heroes are not gods, they are people.  They are ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things, faced up to extraordinary trials.  And who can, even so, wink and smile at gaping little boys.
As the years passed, my interest in airplanes and the men who flew them never waned.  When World War II came, I naturally tried to enlist in the Air Corps, but an eye defect ruled that out and, because of my facility with German, I was trained as a special agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps.  The duty quickly dispelled my boyhood’s naive misconceptions about the romance of war and, among other arcane revelations, made it possible for me to learn how Udet -- by then a Luftwaffe general -- had really died.  The German government had announced that he’d died a hero’s death in the crash of a new aircraft he’d been testing, when, in fact, the doughty little playboy who could fly like an angel had committed a sodden, disillusioned suicide.
Watching as decorations were awarded, and having earned a few of my own, I concluded that a medal -- be it the Pour le Mérite, the Congressional Medal, the Victoria Cross, or the Good Conduct Medal, for that matter -- is merely a tangible expression of an abstract ideal.  Those who win it have been evaluated by ranking soldiers and reigning politicians whose basic question is how fully did this nominee’s feats manifest the ideal established for this medal?
Ironically, those who make awards for valor in combat rarely weigh the soldier’s moral character.  In the heat of battle and its aftermath, results -- not personality and lineage -- are what count.  It helps a lot if the action hero is a Mr. Wonderful from the right side of the tracks, of course; it makes for easier going in the selection process and generates even better press.  On the other hand, he might very well be a thoroughgoing reprobate, despised by his peers, yet still win the medal if his military achievements are perceived by the Brass as having met the stated military criteria.
This, then, became the philosophical rationale for what would ultimately materialize as my novel about German fliers in World War I.
My 1944 assignment to undercover counter-intelligence brought me into close association with Germans of all stripes -- the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly.  By war’s end, I had developed a mean-street cop’s knowledge of Germany’s dark side and the people who populated it.  Returning to the States, brooding over what I’d seen, I began to formulate the novel.  The central character in my story would be Udet’s antithesis.  Udet was gregarious, laid-back, filled with spontaneous humor, a guy’s guy and a ladies’ man who was doomed because his intrinsic goodness would be exploited by the political thugs around him.  Conversely, my character, himself a resentful political thug, would exploit the intrinsic goodness of those around him.  Udet blithely accepted the Pour le Mérite for what he perceived it to be -- a token of his emperor’s gratitude, given in recognition of dedicated service.  My man, on the other hand, would see the medal as his ticket to personal fame and fortune, his admission to the Temple of the Elite.  He would be, in short, an anti-hero.
Above all, he would demonstrate that those who wear medals have -- like all of us -- feet of clay.  He would show, by extrapolation, that although the Pour le Mérite could be worn by the likes, say, of Hermann Goering, a hedonistic scoundrel and convicted war criminal, the ideals represented by the medal remain immutable.  Regardless of the individual bearer’s virtues or vices, despite the ebb and flow of politics, the “Blue Max” -- as a blue-and-gold symbol of a proud nation’s esteem for honor, courage, and duty well done -- would continue to glitter forever.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to commend to you Stephan Thomas Previtera’s beautiful and prodigious study of the Pour le Mérite.

Copyright © 2007 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.