OPINION

OPINION | STEVE STRAESSLE: Finding its soul


On June 12, 1944, an American Liberator made a pass over Romille, France. The plane's mission, in support of the D-Day aftermath, was to soften German positions as the Allies advanced.

The French countryside was ablaze in combat.

Little Rock native Ben Isgrig was the plane's 20-year-old bombardier busily setting the bomb sites. Suddenly, a German fighter plane pounced on the lumbering Liberator and tore it in half with a burst of machine-gun fire.

As the bomber broke apart, the crew bailed out. One after the other, they jumped at 18,000 feet.

Dark outlines of German fighters danced like angry dragonflies around their parachutes. Then, Ben noticed that one of the crew members who bailed kept plummeting, no tell-tale silk plume came out of his pack. He watched in horror as radioman Kenneth Zierdt struggled in gruesome freefall.

Ben Isgrig was my wife's grandfather. When my son trekked to France last month, he visited the home in Rennes where the French underground hid Ben.

Because of that encounter, I did some research on the mission that put the surviving members of the bombing crew into the French Underground. I found the crew's debrief notes--marked "Secret" in late 1944--with crisp military narratives dictated by those involved.

Certainly, it makes an American proud of the heroism displayed, but there was another story.

The crew had parachuted to areas around Rennes. In each narrative, the American airmen reported French citizens undertaking extraordinary and dangerous acts to help them.

A baker gave Ben his clothes--beret, pants, coat, shoes--then swam across the river under German eyes as if enjoying a warm-day dip. Co-pilot Lt. George Cooksey described being taken to a house where Frenchmen debated what to do with him. One wanted to turn him over to a German patrol. He was shouted down by the others.

Another describes hiding in a tree as German soldiers walked underneath. He came down when the French came to find him.

But there was one touching scene that sticks out.

Lieutenant Cooksey later described being taken from the home where he was hiding. The French drove him to a small clearing where lots of people had gathered. He was undoubtedly anxious, worried he may be turned over after all.

When he approached the gathering, he realized what it was: a funeral for Zierdt. The French saw the American's parachute had collapsed and the impact had killed him. They had recovered his body.

The mayor presided and "many French ... with lots of flowers" were in attendance. They laid this American son to rest with the simplicity and beauty of a small community. All in the midst of danger and uncertainty.

Rennes is the same size as Little Rock. It reminds us that a community finds its soul in how it treats others, how it honors others.

There is no message for us, thousands of miles away and all these years later, greater than this.


Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. "Oh, Little Rock" appears every other Monday.


Upcoming Events