SILK, SHARDS and STEEL
ARTIFACTS of WAR for Healing and Peace
There is little but devastation and remembered horror to be found in the aftermath of war. Surrounded by brokenness, death and destruction of lives and livelihood of innocents and guilty alike, the wounds are deep and the scarring remains for generations.
And yet, even when surrounded by the physical destruction, there is something almost miraculous about the survival of the human spirit . . . the ability to somehow remember how to strive, eventually to thrive. It has been claimed that, as the Allied forces passed out of the area of the obliterated German city of Bitburg, pushing on toward Trier, General Patton observed and expressed admiration of the women who were already clearing away the salvageable bricks and debris of their town in order to rebuild. Those women were demonstrating that amazing ability to strive to thrive.
There are many hundreds of stories – fabulous, awesome stories– of how survivors of wars have found beauty and brought it out of the ruins, turned it into something quite special. Here, in three parts, are a few of the stories of objects that represent that blessed quality of humanity to heal themselves from the wounds of World War II.
PART I: Silk
The war is a common disaster for all humankind. The retrospection of war acts as a reminder to avoid wars. Wish the world a peaceful future. From the museum established at Weishein Japanese Internment Camp, China
A luxury fabric for more than 5,000 years, silk’s qualities of being tear-resistant, fire retardant, an insulant from both heat and cold, thin and light-weight made it extremely practical for parachutes, world-wide. With the onset of WWII, silk from China and Japan was no longer available to the Allies, for parachutes or anything elegant or fashionable. Nylon was man-made, so closely mimicking all the properties of silk, it became the replacement material for parachutes.
The textile industries throughout Europe had been restructured from manufacturing civilian clothing and home goods to parachutes, canvas, flags, uniforms – anything and everything needed by the military. So, it is no wonder then that when those gigantic swaths of creamy silk and nylon of a parachute landed (literally) in the hands of the war weary and deprived it was treasured.
The thousands of parachutes left on the ground by D-Day invasion paratroopers were put to practical use reflecting the grim realities of the war, becoming body bags for the dead, slings and bandages for the wounded. Civilians in Normandy found more gentle uses as did an enterprising young mother who took a portion of one of those salvaged parachutes to make an infant carrier sling, later making turning it into a hammock swing seat for that child. (Katie Sanders, April 12, 2020, businessinsider.com.)
For 70 years the enterprising women of a British village kept the secret of how they used the parachute they confiscated from a crashed Luftwaffe bomber in 1941. After chasing off the terrified German airman survivor with brooms, pitchforks and garden shears, (he was later captured), they gleefully divided up pieces of the luxury silk fabric and made underwear for themselves. (Craig Bowman, Feb 7, 2015, warhistoryonline.com.)
The National WWII Museum in New Orleans displays a collection of many examples of how deconstructed parachutes were put to use, across both the European and the Pacific regions: different articles of clothing including some dyed camouflage, christening gowns, quilts, handbags, strips woven into rope, and, of course, wedding gowns.
~ Of all the stories about parachute wedding gowns, there is one that is especially compelling as an illustration of how beauty and, in an almost unbelievable way, joy can emerge from the ashes and horrors of war. It is the story of how one German parachute became the wedding dress for seventeen Jewish brides, survivors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a true “victory” gown.
Ludwig Friedman held no hope of making his fiancée’s one wedding wish come true in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp . . . for Lili Lax to be married in a white gown. That dream came true in a most unexpected way when a former German pilot walked into the food distribution center where Ludwig worked, hoping to trade his worthless parachute. Two pounds of coffee and a couple of packs of cigarettes provided a DP camp seamstress all the lovely, creamy silk needed for Lili’s wedding dress and a matching shirt for Ludwig.
On January 27, 1946, 400 people trudged through fifteen miles of snow, from the DP camp to the small synagogue they had lovingly renovated in the town of Celle for the wedding celebration of Ludwig and Lili Friedman. Six months later, Lili’s sister Ilona wore the gown, followed by a cousin, Rosie, and so on for at least seventeen brides. Lili’s wedding gown is on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC in a specially designed showcase guaranteed to preserve it for 500 years. (artsandculture.google.com/asset/wedding-gown-made-from-a-white-silk-parachute-worn-by-multiple jewish-brides-in-a-dp-camp/KgGIuZ7RGK-RZg)
~ Parachutes descending over the Weihsien Concentration Camp, the largest Japanese camp in China, on August 17, 1945, arrived two days after the surrender by Japan. A sense of urgency prompted the military to authorize the mission for fear an "order to kill" would be carried out by the Japanese camp administrators. For all the civilians held in the camp, it was a celebration of liberation, especially for the children who had begun their wartime journey of incarceration by the Japanese from the Chefoo School, a Christian boarding school established in 1881 by the China Inland Mission.
The school’s purpose was the education of the children of foreign missionaries, business and diplomatic communities in China. Believing their children to be safe there from the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the parents of 327 children left them in the hands of the teachers and staff at the school in 1939. They did not see them again until 1945.
Following Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Chefoo School children, from 6 – 18 years old, their teachers and caretakers were moved to a prisoner/concentration or internment camp in Weihsien (way-shee-yen), China. The children joined captive civilians from 30 Allied countries, now prisoners of the Japanese.
The relocation from a private boarding school atmosphere to a Japanese prison camp, was stark. A British classics curriculum that prepared the students for Oxford or Cambridge became work details with a six-year-old forced to ring the wake-up bell every morning, boys pumping water (the only access to water) in hour-long shifts. Traditional school athletics were replaced with “games” to catch rats, flies and bedbugs for prizes . . . 2nd prize for an eighteen-inch rat was a can of beans.
In spite of the hardships, the adults formed a camp committee that organized a functioning school a hospital, church and entertainment. And even as they suffered from malnutrition from a diet mostly sorghum and corn with a side of baked, crushed egg shells for the calcium deficient children and eaten out of an old soap dish or an empty tin can, the most proper sorts of behavior and manners were maintained.
By the time of liberation, the camp population had fallen from 2,008 to 1,500. Among those who did not live to be freed was the missionary to China, 1924 Olympics runner, gold and bronze medal winner, Scottish athlete Eric Liddell (immortalized in the film “Chariots of Fire”). Liddell died, February, 1945, in the camp.
There isn’t much left of the parachutes that descended over the Weihsien camp that day in August, 1945. But Mary Previte’s memory, as she described it in “Songs of Salvation,” in The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, August 25, 1985, is joyfully vivid:
They were spilling from the guts of the low-flying plane, dangling from parachutes that looked like giant silk poppies, dropping into the fields outside the concentration camp. The Americans had come.
It was August 1945. "Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center," the Japanese called our concentration camp in China. I was 12 years old. For the past three years, my sister, two brothers and I had been captives of the Japanese. For 5½ years we had been separated from our parents by warring armies.
But now the Americans were spilling from the skies.
The Ducks had arrived! The liberators were the Duck Mission Team, six American men (including Ensign James W. Moore, a 1936 graduate of the Chefoo Boys’ School who volunteered for the mission) and a young Chinese interpreter, who parachuted out of a B-24 aptly named “The Armored Angel.” When the rag-tag prisoners’ Salvation Army band welcomed their rescuers at the camp gate with “The Star-Spangled Banner” the cheers hushed, many wept.
Handkerchief-size pieces of parachutes autographed by the Duck team, their names embroidered in gold thread, have been cherished and preserved, scattered around the world among the international group of survivors and their families. Red parachutes, used to drop supplies into the camp, were divided among the detainees; some of the parachutes were used to make clothing to replace the rags they were wearing after so many years being held captive.
Since that day, the red parachute is preciously kept by our family and goes wherever we go, wrote Leopold Pander, who lives in Belgium. The new generation is now the rightful owner of this very sentimental object, and it will stay in the family for still many years to come. (Melanie Burney, Apr 26, 2017, The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
PART 2: Shards
Days of war are hard times and breed many griefs. They are, too, times of testing and development of character. The reward that remains, however, is the peace. ~ Chaplain Fred McDonald's Homily for the Allied High Command on May 8, 1945
Shards of glass . . . hundreds of thousands from thousands of windows littered the debris-strewn of cities, towns and villages across Europe. Among the blank eyes of window spaces devoid of glass, no longer reflecting any kind of light, from inside or out, were the gaping holes in the churches, cathedrals and synagogues. While a surprising number of sacred religious sites survived the bombs from both sides of WWII , at least partially, their stained-glass windows were as vulnerable to concussive blasts as any other windows, and maybe more so. There were magnificent examples of the works of artists and artisans from as early as the 11th and 12th century that shattered, ceased to exist.
While it is likely many of the Allied servicemen collected some of the colored glass, it was their spiritual shepherds, the chaplains, two in particular, who reverently gathered shards that, eventually, became symbols of renewal and peace in the years following the war.
~ Canadian Reverend T. Richard Davies, serving as padre to the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Winnipeg, began his collection in the summer of 1944, following the D-Day landing and another six intense weeks of fighting, of offering prayers for the dying, comfort for the wounded and the comradeship of an occasional game of cribbage.
On one July day, Davies waved off a couple of his cribbage partners as they jumped into a scout car with other soldiers, heading for an attack near another village, then watched as their vehicle was hit by an artillery shell and all seven young men were blown to bits. It was that evening, as the padre took his sorrow into the ruins of a small church, that he noticed a piece of colored glass on the ground.
"I don't know why I did it," he recalled, many years later. "But I stooped down and I picked up that piece of glass. And when I got back to the regimental aid post, I took a piece of adhesive tape and I marked on it the name of the place and the names of my friends who had been killed that day." (Rick McConnell, CBC News, 11 Nov, 2015)
Battle after battle, church after church, as the list of names of his dead soldiers grew, so did Davies’ precious collection of colored glass fragments. From 24 churches in France, The Netherlands and Germany, some were hundreds of years old. Back in Canada at war’s end, a Vancouver glass company turned Rev. Davies’ shards of colored glass into a memorial window, installed at the Highland United Church, Edmonton and dedicated November 7, 1948.
~ US Army Episcopal chaplain Frederick McDonald served the 12th Army Group, 1944-45, in England and throughout war-torn Europe. Like so many others, he documented where he went, what he saw. As a chaplain, he was especially heartbroken by the destruction of the damaged, desecrated churches. He gathered fragments of “deeply smoked” stained-glass in envelopes, carefully noting each church, each location, the names of the dead. It was McDonald’s hope that those shards “might be worked into a memorial window somewhere” after the war.
It wasn't until 1999 that multiple memorial windows were finally created. Guided by Frederick MacDonald and under the leadership of artist Armelle Leroux, 13 artists created 25 works of stained-glass art from that collection of shards. Each work represents loss, devastation and the continual striving for peace; each scene is a representation of the origins of the shards – England, France, The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. One of those art works recreates one of McDonald’s memories: in the Gothic Church of Our Lady in Trier, Germany in March, 1945, he was particularly moved to see the fallen crucifix on the floor with a statue of the Virgin Mary looking down on it. Although Rev. McDonald did not live to see the project finished, it has fulfilled his goal “to serve as a memorial to the places they were found and offer hope for lasting peace.”
Remembered Light: Glass Fragments from World War II, the McDonald Windows is an exhibit of those memorial windows created from Frederick McDonald’s shards of colored glass, along with other mementos from the desecrated sacred sites he encountered. It has travelled around the United States since 2007 until being incorporated into a permanent display in Presidio Chapel at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco.
Rev. Frederick McDonald speaking about his experiences
PART 3: Steel
In 1945, with the war over, the airfield was abandoned. To the curious people of Venosa who go to investigate it doesn't seem true: the Americans went home, abandoning there an enormous amount of metallic plates. It is an unexpected gift from heaven: those who can will recover and sell the metal, the smiths of the area worked for years to make gates and other objects. ~ Pasquale Libutti, Pierced Steel Planking, storiedelsud.altervista.org (translation from Italian).
Marston Mats, the official name for the pierced-steel planking or PSP’s, were developed as temporary runways and landing strips for the USAAF, and were widely used in both the Pacific and European theaters of WWII. 60,000 planks, locked together, formed an all-weather runway 5,000 feet long, 150 feet wide and durable enough to overcome the hazards of both mud and dust, to handle the Allies’ B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers based in the Pacific, England and around Europe. It was an ingenious invention that boosted Allied airpower wherever it was laid, playing an essential role in the war against Hirohito, Hitler and Mussolini via highly effective bombardment missions.
At war’s end, where possible and practical, those pierced-steel planks were dismantled and airlifted away to be remanufactured and rehabilitated for future use. Not all of the PSP’s, however, were salvageable; they fell into the category of being too damaged or unrecoverable. After more than seventy years, the foliage of jungle growth on the Pacific islands has overtaken and hidden the steel runways from which Allied military aircraft were once launched.
In the more densely populated and agricultural areas of Europe, more of the airfields were dismantled, restoring the landscape to flat fields and grasslands or buried under the concrete of modern airports and urban expansion. The PSP’s left behind were collected by the local people and repurposed in a variety of practical uses that continue today: a farmer drags a length of this perforated steel behind his tractor, leveling his field; a hitch and wheels have been attached to a piece of planking to make a cart; a winery in France stores empty wine bottles in the openings. But in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, in the villages and towns near an old USAAF base, ingenuity turned those steel planks into something unique.
One of those bases, used by the Fifteenth Air Force was located near the dormant volcano, Mt. Vulture, on the outskirts of Venosa, Italy. The 485th Bombardment Group of approximately seventy B-24 (heavy) bombers first mission was 10 May, 1944 and the final on 25 April, 1945. Despite their late arrival in the war, the last of the 55th Bomb Wing to be engaged in combat operations, the men of the BG’s four squadrons had already experienced the tragedy of war before arriving in Italy. The entire crew of one aircraft was killed when their plane flew into a mountain in Tunisia; 154 officers and crewmen, en route to Italy aboard the Liberty Ship SS Paul Hampton, were lost when the convoy was attacked off the coast of Algiers, sinking three ships in what was one of the worst Liberty Ship disasters of WWII. (485thbg.org/History)
The 485th BG’s Italian home, Venosa, is an ancient city founded by the Romans in 291 BC and named for the goddess Venus, and still wears her antiquity and survival through the ages with pride. Buildings from the Renaissance rest on foundations from the Romans, including the preserved home of Horatio, one of the leading Roman poets in the time of Emperor Augustus. Bricks and stones from every age throughout history wear the façade of modern stucco today. Every style of architecture, from Roman ruins to this 21st century, are on display, including the legacy of WWII . . . the pierced-steel planking recycled into gates and doors in centuries-old stone portals.
The value of those planks of steel to the people of Venosa is directly related to the hardships they had endured during twenty years of Mussolini’s dictatorial regime. With the propaganda that boasted of being a superpower, with mottoes of “Gold to the Country” and “Iron to the Country”, the people were asked to donate wedding rings and jewelry to the State and to meet the need for steel and metal, to gather cast bronze monuments and plaques, ancient gates, church bells, cookware and children’s bikes. In the final months before the arrival of the Allied troops, what had not already been taken by the war was at risk of being confiscated by the Germans. Nina Fioretti, who was a child at the time, remembers when the Germans were requisitioning vehicles in 1943, demanding her father’s car to be ready for them the following day. During the night, he totally dismantled the car and hid all the pieces to prevent the Germans from taking it. (Pasquale Libutti, Pierced Steel Planking, storiedelsud.altervista.org.)
And so, by the end of WWII, the Italian people were so impoverished that anything discarded by the Americans and their tent camp outside of Venosa was useful: shoe soles from the rubber of aircraft and vehicle tires, aluminum scraps from aircraft too damaged to fly became good cookware, parachutes were made into clothing, embroidered bedspreads. Old uniforms, shoes, canteens, tent canvas and other leftovers had a thriving market for years as “American cloths” to be sold in street markets. (Pasquale Libutti, 2 April, 2021.)
The path to healing and peace for Venosa began well in advance of the time when those pierced-steel planks would become artifacts of war. It began with the interactions of the Italian people and the men of the 485th BG: haircuts by the barber who went to the base; Rocco, who collected laundry from the airmen to be washed by the women in the public fountains (the men ignored items that were missing, understanding the need among the people); spending a little of their money in Venosa and other small towns where Italians’ clothing was tattered, some having no shoes. (Harold “Red” Kempffer, storiedelsud.altervista.org.)
Children, now grown old, have been able to tell their stories to their own children, to explain the history behind the strange steel additions to the architecture; how airmen often gifted them with powdered milk; a little girl who had a dress made from an airman’s shirt, including the rank stripes. They remember how they would surround any airman who visited Castle Square for the treats he might buy for them from the ice cream cart, and of the “tent boys,” those who were old enough, could earn a little (often a few valuable cigarettes) for cleaning tents or working in the field kitchens. In many ways, it has been the memories of the children of Venosa and other nearby towns, that have kept the history of that time alive, children who remember the men of the 485th , in the words of one child:
“When the Americans came to Venosa, we saw the sun!”
(Pasquale Libutti, Pierced Steel Planking, storiedelsud.altervista.org.)
As combat missions came to an end all across the European theater, Allied air bases began to shut down, the various aircraft took off for the last time, crews and personnel were transported to various ports to ship home. The last combat operation carried out by the 485th Bombardment Group (B-24 Liberator) from the Venosa base was in April, 1945. As personnel were transferred to other bomb groups or returned home, the base was dismantled. And when those heavy bombers rolled down the runways, when the very last one lifted and was gone, those pierced-steel runway planks were left behind . . . artifacts of war. Left behind out of expediency, those steel planks came to represent the ingenuity of the survivors of WWII.
That unexpected gift left behind by the Americans of the 485th BG in 1945 . . . those pierced-steel planks, connect columns and fill arches, are balconies, doorways and gates in and around the Italian city of Venosa. They are artifacts of war that have been recycled, repurposed into a unique blend of ancient and contemporary, crossing a boundary between war and peace.
I am a daughter of the 485th Bombardment Group and one of their ‘war orphans.’ My personal story may be told on another day, but I share this as a witness and participant in the peace and friendships that have continued between the veterans of the 485th BG and their families with the city of Venosa, those who remember the Americans and those who have heard about them. Visits have been exchanged, memories and photos have been shared, even as any traces of that WWII base have all but disappeared.
The stories of healing and peace following WWII are not only legion, but ongoing more than seventy years later and among generations only imagined by those who fought, died and survived. A wedding gown fashioned from a silk parachute is preserved for a guaranteed 500 years. Memorial windows and works of art from shards of stained-glass reflect light again, and the pierced-steel gates of Venosa represent another time among the ages of an ancient city . . . all are artifacts of war that have played a role in peace and healing.