By Ashley Lodato
Mazama property owner and long-time valley visitor Bob Parlette recently shared a story about an unlikely friendship between American and German pilots that spans more than four decades.
During the beginning of the Cold War, the United States realized it needed help from NATO to keep the Russians in check. Everyone was leery about re-arming Germany after two world wars; however, in the late 1950s the United States decided that the West Germany army, air force and navy needed to be reformed and re-armed so they could be on the front line for NATO with the Russians staring at them from East Germany.
In 1963, the German Luftwaffe agreed to pay about $2 million to train German pilots at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona so they could later be trained to fly F-104s and then return to Germany to be on the front line of air defense. Bob was in pilot training at Williams AFB at the time and says his class was among the first to receive and integrate these Germany pilots; in fact, about 30 percent of Bob’s training class was Luftwaffe pilots.
“We really liked the Germans,” says Bob, “and they really liked Arizona, cowboys and Western music. On average they were about two years older than the rest of us and they spoke really good English. We didn’t talk about World War II.”
All the Germans who survived flight school went home to fly F-104s while the Americans were largely gobbled up by the Strategic Air Command to fly KC-135s, transports and B-52s — not nearly as exciting as F-104s, Bob says. Bob eventually left the service after six years and went to law school, but continued flying as a hobby and eventually bought his own plane.
In 1993, about 30 years after pilot training at Williams, Bob wanted to see if there were others who were interested in having a reunion of the unusual class of pilots. Bob collaborated with his German friend Volker Hausbeck and the two gathered email addresses of all the fellow pilots they could find, and then sent out letters inviting them all to a reunion at Sun Mountain Lodge. The response was enthusiastic.
Bob selected Sun Mountain Lodge as a venue because “it was owned by a nice Germany family, it is a beautiful resort, and it’s close to the intercity airport.” Bob was able to arrange for six or seven of his flying buddies in Wenatchee to bring planes up so all the old pilots could take the wives flying, so they could get a feel for “why their crazy husbands loved flying so.”
The pilots and their families had a softball game down at the park in Winthrop, went out with Claude Miller’s crew for a barbecue and trail ride, and went for a picnic up the Chewuch. Mary Lou and Ron McCollum of Winthrop, a classmate of Bob’s, put together beautiful welcome baskets of Washington products and fruit for each attendee.
The pilots did acrobatics over Sun Mountain Lodge and had a great time sharing stories about what pilot training meant to them, and what had happened in their lives. There were only four German families that could come to that first reunion, but they had such a good time they said, “Next in five years we will host one in Germany in a castle on the Rhine,” and they did. Since that first reunion, the group has had eight such gatherings, alternating between Germany and the United States. The next reunion is at the end of this month.
The gatherings are full of fun and tomfoolery, but have also grown intimate. “Finally,” says Bob, “after so many years, the Germans began to talk about what effect WWII had on them — they were all children during the war and they lived through the intense bombing, destruction and later reconstruction of West Germany.”
“One of my very best German friends revealed that his father was in the SS in the war, and even on his death bed was still in denial about the Holocaust,” Bob continues. “Some of the other Germans had mothers who had been raped by the Russians when they took over Berlin,” says Bob. “The friendships grow stronger over the years.”
He adds, “Three cheers for the Marshall Plan!”
Bob’s story is, for me, a good reminder that it is individual people — not governments or nations — who forge the ties of understanding that knit us together.