Jim Kurtz was 2 years old when his father died.
Bob Kurtz was a casualty of war. Taken prisoner by the Germans after the B-24 Liberator he was piloting was shot down over Austria in 1944, Bob Kurtz endured miserable treatment at the hands of his captors, starved, forced to march, exposed to frostbite. His weight shrank from 140 to 85 pounds when he was liberated.
Bob Kurtz’s heart never fully recovered from that mistreatment and it gave out in 1952.
His youngest son Jim grew up longing to have known his dad, desperate to find out what happened to him.
Halfway around the world, an Austrian man named Gerd Leitner grew up wondering about the same man, the American airman whose parachute he watched float to earth, the American POW he watched being marched away at gunpoint by German soldiers.
Fifteen years ago, sitting in his North Andover home, Jim Kurtz found Gerd Leitner while searching for his father’s legacy on the Internet. Leitner invited him to visit the memorial Leitner had built to the Americans who died when their plane crashed and the POWs who were taken away from the mountainside where Leitner grew up.
Jim Kurtz met the Austrian woman who witnessed his father’s capture. She said the German soldiers were screaming at him and appeared ready to shoot him until he pulled a baby shoe from his jacket and held it out. The shoe belonged to Jim Kurtz’s oldest brother. That baby shoe probably saved Bob Kurtz’s life, because it touched something in the young soldiers pointing guns at him. They lowered their guns and marched him off.
Jim Kurtz met the German fighter pilot who shot his father’s plane down. The guy didn’t apologize. He was proud of what he had done.
Jim Kurtz found men on his father’s plane who survived and they told him his dad, before parachuting from the doomed plane, had saved a gunner who was trapped in the fuselage.
Eventually, Kurtz put all he had learned about war and a father he never knew into a book, “The Green Box.”
Last year, he attended a reunion in New Orleans of former POWs who were held in the same camp as his father, Stalag Luft III. Only six of those former POWs were physically able to attend the reunion, and Kurtz listened to their stories in awe.
The next day, at the airport, waiting for a flight home, he noticed an elderly African-American man sitting in a wheelchair. The elderly man wore a Tuskegee Airmen baseball cap.
“Sir,” Jim Kurtz said, extending his hand, “I just want to thank you for your service.”
They shook hands and Kurtz asked him his name.
“Colonel Charles McGee,” the old man replied.
McGee, 96 and sharp as a tack, is more than a member of the legendary all-black unit that fought Nazis in Europe and racists back home. He is a legend period. He holds the US Air Force record for most combat missions flown — 409 — across three different wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
As they talked that day at the airport, Kurtz asked McGee if it was possible that McGee had flown missions to protect his father’s 465th Bomb Group over Europe. McGee said he couldn’t remember off the top of his head but promised to check his flight logs when he got back home in Maryland. Kurtz gave him a copy of his book and they shook hands again.
The next day, McGee called Kurtz. The logs showed that McGee had been Bob Kurtz’s wingman on many occasions.
McGee was protecting a formation of bombers on Aug. 3, 1944, when a commanding officer ordered Bob Kurtz’s bomber and seven other planes to drop out of the formation. It was a decision that cost many American lives. Without the protection of the Tuskegee Airmen, those eight planes were shot out of the sky by German fighters that swarmed them.
Jim Kurtz flew down to Maryland, and he and Charles McGee talked about his book, the memories it stirred in McGee, and the stories went on for hours.
“I liked your book,” Charles McGee told Kurtz. “It’s a love story.”
There are only about 200 Tuskegee Airmen still alive, and on Thursday night, Charles McGee was at UMass Boston for a reunion of some of them, including those who left Roxbury and Dorchester all those years ago to show Hitler what they thought of his Aryan nonsense. Jim Kurtz spied his father’s wingman and they embraced.
McGee invited Kurtz to his granddaughter’s house in North Andover, the same town where Kurtz lived for years, and, on Friday, Jim Kurtz told Tesha Myers that her grandfather could very well be the only reason he was born.
He told Charles McGee he had been contacted by another veteran, Jay Milnor, who is living in Peabody, and it turns out Milnor, a gunner on another B-24 Liberator, had flown at least five missions alongside Kurtz’s father over the Adriatic Sea, Italy, and Germany, when McGee was their wingman.
Before he died, Bob Kurtz wrote an ode to his protectors.
“And so you continue on to your target,” Bob Kurtz wrote, “perhaps your fighter escort appears and hovers over you or flies playfully off to your side like pups frolicking on the lawn. Songs and poems have been written about those fighters, and to a bomber crew they’re one of the most beautiful sights in the world — they mean protection, company, and help.”
As he sat there, listening to McGee talk about a war long over, about friends long gone, Jim Kurtz found himself looking at Charles McGee’s hands, his eyes, profoundly grateful for the chance to know a real American hero, someone who protected his father.
“If not for Colonel McGee,” Jim Kurtz said, almost to himself, “maybe I’m not here.”
It is indeed a small world, one that would look very different if men, like Bob Kurtz, Jay Milnor and Charles McGee didn’t insist on saving it.