Friday, June 22, 2007

Jack Hicks: Cold War vets did their part

Column by Jack Hicks

It takes more than a little effort to locate the unobtrusive grave of Robert C. Von Luehrte in Highland Cemetery, Fort Mitchell.

And if you travel to Washington, or other sites where military veterans are honored, you may never see a commemoration to America's Cold War warriors.

If ever a group was largely forgotten, it's those soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who served their country between World War II and the Korean War, or between Korea and the Vietnam War.

During a total period of about 17 years, millions of men, and women, served in the armed forces. They were the real or perceived barrier to worldwide domination by the Soviet Union and others in the Communist Bloc.

The warriors were draftees, and those who joined the several branches of the service, including reservists who spent various lengths of time on active duty. Many who joined did so to "get it over with," because the draft was inevitable.

Sometimes, especially when civilian job prospects weren't too favorable, those who joined stayed, and made a career of the military.

These Cold War warriors, and chances are that some are your relatives, friends or neighbors, didn't face combat. But death and injury weren't unknown, in the form of airplane crashes, training accidents and even car crashes, as they sometimes tried to stretch a weekend pass, to get home for a few hours.

Most of these military folks came home in one piece when their hitch was over, to go on with their lives. But while they didn't pay the supreme sacrifice, all gave a slice of their lives to the country, along with their sweat, and even some blood and a few tears.

Lives were changed for good or bad, in that military personnel sometimes married people they met elsewhere in the country, or overseas. Had not military service been required, these meetings and connections would never have occurred.

A Covington native, Von Luehrte might stand as an honorable example of a Cold War warrior who gave all. A pilot and first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, he was killed when his plane crashed during the Berlin Airlift, in the summer of 1949.

Von Luehrte had flown 51 missions in a B-17 over occupied Europe in World War II. He was among 31 Americans who lost their lives during the airlift.

Like Cold War service in general, the airlift has also faded into the pages of history. In 1948 and 1949, when the Soviets cut off road access to Berlin, American and British air crews flew millions of pounds of food, medicine, fuel and other commodities to the people in the German capitol.

The airlift became known as perhaps the greatest humanitarian effort in history, and as the keystone of Western opposition to the Soviets controlling all of Berlin, all of German and ultimately, all of Europe. Some believe it eliminated World War III.

The airlift was a reality because pilots such as Von Luehrte flew around the clock, in all kinds of weather, and sometimes without sleeping for days.

Von Luehrte's family was told that he was transporting a load of coal when his plane developed engine trouble. Rather than crashing in a populated area, he ditched the aircraft in Russian-held territory, and was killed in the mishap.

He was 26 years old and left a wife and a 15-month-old daughter.

Nearly 60 years have passed, and few remain who knew Von Luehrte personally. John Klette, a Northern Kentucky attorney, is one who did. He and Von Luehrte were stationed at Lockbourne Air Base near Columbus, Ohio, in the latter days of World War II.

The two were from the same Covington neighborhood, but Klette was a few years older, and they hadn't known each other before the war. Both had flown with the same unit over Southern Europe, but their paths didn't cross until Lockbourne.

"We would get a 24-hour pass, and we'd hop on a Greyhound and come home together," Klette said.

Klette left the service after the war, although he would be recalled during Korea. He believes Von Luehrte stayed in the active military and flew with the Air Transport Command.

Much has been made over the sacrifices of World War II veterans, and of late, of those who served in Korea and Vietnam. And rightfully so.

But the Cold War veterans did their part, too, and they shouldn't be forgotten.