American Hero

In honor of Memorial Day, the Daily Reckoning presents "American Hero," first written and broadcast May 22, 2000

"It looks just the same as it did 56 years ago," said Colonel Flamm Dee Harper, USAF (Ret.). "France is a beautiful country…as beautiful now as I remember it. Except you don’t have to worry about running into a German patrol around every bend in the road." Col. Harper, a small, handsome man of 80 years, stood on the hillside speaking into a microphone to a crowd of about 200 people. At his right was a young lieutenant, the USAF attache from Paris who served as his interpreter. Further down the hill, a group of about a dozen French officers were formed up into a square, starched and grave…with enough gold braid to back a currency.

On his left were two flags, hoisted on recently implanted poles – the Stars and Stripes and the French drapeau – and a marching band of about 40 pieces, resplendent in dark blue suits with white insignia. They were the municipal band of little Montmorillon, the sous-prefecture about 10 minutes away from my house.

Montmorillon was celebrating the return of Col. Harper, an American pilot who crash-landed in this field in 1944. In front of me, a blonde woman had tears in her eyes. She looked as though she was about 55 years old. I did the math twice to make sure – she had to be at least 70.

"I want to thank Jacqueline Thomas, who saved my life," said Col. Harper.

For more than half a century, Jacqueline Thomas, who stood before me, had wondered whatever happened to the young flyer she found in her grandfather’s vineyard in 1944. It was the vineyard, as much as Jacqueline, who saved him. Born in Albion, Idaho, Harper was 21 years old when America entered WWII. Like so many pilots, he was fascinated by machines and speed. And when a group of P-38s flew over Utah in 1943, Harper saw them and knew what he wanted to do. He enlisted in the air force and was sent to flight school. A few months later, he was already flying his 29th mission over France. His target was the German ammunition depot at Sillars, about 20 miles from here.

But something went wrong. A time-delay bomb went off and ignited the powder magazine just as he was passing overhead – at an altitude of only a hundred feet. The debris hit the aircraft, putting one engine out of action and damaging the other. Worse, Harper had been struck in the head by flying glass. So much blood streamed down his face that he could no longer see. Smoke filled the cockpit.

Harper undid his harness and started to bail out. Then he realized that the ground was only about 50 feet below. So he sat back down in his seat and prepared to crash.

Seeing the field again, for the first time since the event, Harper turned to me: "I don’t know how I survived. A P-38 can’t glide at less than, say, 130 miles per hour. I should have been killed."

But the wires that held up the grapevines slowed the plane. Harper jumped out of the cockpit with no further injury. At first, Jacqueline Thomas thought he must be a German. She started to run away. Then by some instinct she decided to go to his aid. His face was covered with blood. And the Germans could arrive at any minute.

She led him to her grandfather’s house. No one was home.

She tended his head wound in the only manner she knew – dousing it with "eau de vie," strong spirits that hurt so much that Col. Harper recalls the pain to this day.

Not long after, Jacqueline’s father arrived. He had seen the plane go down and was concerned for his daughter. Taking command of the situation, he had Harper take off his clothes and dressed him as local farmer.

The two grabbed fishing poles and went down to the river where, pretending to fish, they made their way to a cave where Harper was hidden.

Eventually, Resistance leaders were contacted. Harper was driven to a farm where another woman took charge of him – – Denise LaBrousse. She was there yesterday, too. Nothing seemed to have changed. Harper was vigorous – with a sense of humor and a friendly smile. Jacqueline still seemed like the teenaged girl who found him in the field. And Madame LaBrousse looked like she’s probably always looked. She looked like she could make a good omelet – which is just what she did for Harper.

As the story was told, each of these people made their way up to take their places alongside Col. Harper… Denise LaBrousse walking with difficulty with the aid of a cane. And there they stood. The mayor of Montmorillon had invited me to the ceremony as a representative of the local American community ("I not only represent it," I explained to Col. Harper, "I am it. Apart from my family, there are no other Americans in the area.") and as an interpreter. He now presented Col. Harper with a medal from the town. A representative of the French Air Force gave him another medal – a set of wings. The band struck up the Star Spangled Banner…and then the Marseillaise.

Tears welled up in many eyes. Many of those present had fought in the war. Others had vivid memories of it. My friend, Gilbert Mining, was there. He had made his way to North Africa to join the Free French Forces of de Gaulle. He’d made friends with an American soldier…whom he has never seen again. Another old soldier sat next to me at the dinner following the ceremonies in the field. He had been with the French army at the Maginot Line. They were driven back by the Germans and finally pinned against the Loire River.

"I asked my commander for permission to desert," said the retired schoolteacher. "He told me to go ahead. So I swam across the river. Then I fought in North Africa…and then back to France."

Harper, meanwhile, went on to glory. He joined the local S.A.S. forces, Britain’s underground operation that coordinated resistance activity throughout the war. John Fielding, an Englishman who was part of the local unit, was also at yesterday’s ceremony.

Together with the local French resistance, they blew up train lines to keep the Germans from moving troops from the south of France to the front in Normandy.

But Harper did not remain on the ground, or under it, for long. Scarcely three weeks after the local paper in Utah reported him "missing in action," he was back in England and back in the cockpit on various missions.

Later, in Korea, he was shot down again. His ribs were broken, but he managed to kill two North Korean soldiers with a handgun and was rescued by helicopter. He became the only pilot to get shot down in two wars and keep on flying. But the most remarkable phase of his career was probably during the period following his rescue in North Korea.

While he was recovering from his injuries, Harper directed the activities of his unit of flyers. One of his pilots reported a massive build-up of supply trains in the sector.

Harper was unable to get permission for an attack, but ordered it anyway. The pilots went to work. They discovered that the boxcars were loaded with ammunition. The whole sky lit up, brightened by the explosions. Encouraged, they just kept hitting the train, which just kept blowing up.

Some military historians believe this attack was the key to ending the war. The ammunitions train was meant to supply a massive million-man Chinese army. Without supplies, the offensive was called off, and the North Koreans decided to resort to the bargaining table.

But world politics were a long way away from the thoughts of those assembled here in Montmorillon this weekend. "I’m just glad to be alive," said Harper.

Your correspondent,

Bill Bonner
May 27, 2002 — Paris, France

Hmmmn… that’s curious, the government revised the GDP figures for the first quarter. Who would of thought they’d do that?

Apparently, according to quants at the Commerce Department anyway, consumer and government spending were lower than previously suspected a month ago. And it looks like there was a sharper decline in business investment, too.

Consumer spending, which now accounts for two thirds of the nation’s economy, grew at 3.2% for the first quarter, revised down from 3.5%… nearly half that of last fall’s credit-goosed pace of 6.1%. Government spending actually grew at a slower rate than expected too – despite the fastest increase in defense spending since Johnson decided Vietnam was a just cause.

Business investment in equipment and software dropped for the sixth consecutive quarter, this time at a 2.3% annual rate.

The overall result? US GDP, say the experts, grew by 5.6 percent in the first quarter rather than 5.8 percent. Oh well…

What does is matter anyway? Everybody knows the rebound is well underway. "The recovery is no longer in doubt," Chris Rupkey at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi told Bloomberg. "Most economists agree," says MSNBC, "the recession is over" and the economy has resumed its "normal" path of growth.

All that’s left now is the ‘experts’ seal of approval.

But wait, what’s this? "Recessions are not determined by GDP, " writes columnist Martin Wolk. "Instead the National Bureau of Economic Research panel that establishes business cycle dates focuses on four measures, including industrial production and employment."

And there’s the rub… if you look at either of these numbers the recovery doesn’t look so confident.

Industrial production fell for 15 straight months, prior to a 4-month increase early this year, cutting the nation’s output by 6.5%. In the recession of ’90-’91 output only fell 4.5%. And unemployment? Right now, there are 3.87 million Americans collecting unemployment insurance. That’s the highest figure since 1983, when the jobless rate was over 10%.

Meanwhile, last Monday’s settlement between Merrill Lynch and NY Atty. Gen. Spitzer (for $100 million and a promise to build a "Chinese Wall" between it’s investment banking division and its brokerage firm) may get Merrill off the hook. But the floodgates are wide open now.

Not to crow too loud, but here at the Daily Reckoning, we saw this coming long before it was hip to say so. In April of 2001, we issued a report called The Big Con, warning readers that "the next few years are going to be a time of financial confusion, bear markets, spectacular bankruptcies and lawsuits."

Now it seems 30 more states have joined in lawsuits against America’s most lauded financial institutions. The ‘hit’ list published on CNNmoney this morning reads like a wet dream for any Harvard MBAs first job interview: Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse First Boston, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Bear Stearns, UBS Paine Webber.

With all that’s going on, "it’s no wonder gold has a bunch of new friends," my friend John Myers said over the weekend. "After months of being one of the few voices clamoring for gold. I’m beginning to attract an uncomfortable amount of company."

"Time is going backwards since September 11th," Andy Smith, an analyst with Mitsui Global Precious Metals, was guoted as saying at the London Association of Mining Analysts last week.

"Precious metals suffered during the 12-year stretch of peace and prosperity following the opening of Hungary’s border with Austria on [another] Sept. 11, 1989," wrote CBSMarketWatch’s Thom Calandra covering the same conference. As Smith put it, "A world of freer markets, lower inflation, progressively smaller governments and more political stability" led to "the road to hell for gold."

Now with the brokerage scandals on Wall Street, Enron- like bankruptcies coming out of the woodwork and Bush prancing about the globe drumming up support for the War on Terror, gold – and commodities in general – are making a comeback that would make John Travolta proud.

"Gold and silver prices," writes Calandra, "traditionally precede accelerating inflation of natural resources of all types – grains, energy, farm products, the industrial and metal sector."

Our resource man, Myers, has borne witness to the phenomenon in his Outstanding Investments portfolio. Myers: "Newmont Mining was up over 2% on Thursday and has broken past the highs set during the gold rush of 1996. Another of our gold picks has more than tripled since we bought it last November when it was trading at $5.46. And the biggest winner of all we recommended in June 2000 when it was trading for C$5.75. It closed yesterday at C$24!"

The markets in the US are, of course, closed today as the nation observes Memorial Day. You’ll find a DR classique below…

Cheers,

Addison Wiggin,
The Daily Reckoning

P.S. Thom Calandra, by the way, will be a VIP speaker at the New Orleans Investment Conference hosted by The Daily Reckoning and The Oxford Club, November 6-10, 2002.

…Both Bill and I will be there.

P.P.S. "This is the first time that the president of USA, is not home for the Memorial Day weekend celebration and rememberance of all the people that fought and died for this countries freedom." observes a DR reader on the Discussion Board on our website. "I don’t think the ones that died for our freedom had a choice to be in a safe place at the time. But the president and a few of his right hand people are safe in Europe while we here at home are nervously awaiting more terrorist attacks."

I’m not sure POTUS, as the secret service is wont to call him, is shirking any responsibility by getting his backside to safety, but the president is definitely making a nuisance of himself over here… (at taxpayer’s considerable expense, I might add, considering the semi I saw carrying nothing but suitcases.)

Yesterday I tried to make my way to WHSmith, one of the few English language bookstores in Paris. But the metro stops at Tuileries and Place de la Concorde were closed on the Rivoli side. At street-level crowds of people were standing around near the entrance to the Inter Continental Hotel, where Bush was supposed to be staying. Police standing around looked as scared as if they were being chastised by their spouses… and were equally as silent.

"Who are we waiting for?" I heard one group of Americans saying to one another.

"I don’t know. But it’s very exciting."

"Did I tell you I saw Lenny Kravitz in Madrid."

"No… but that’s cool, too."

When, I wondered, did the line between the entertainment industry and politics become some irretrievably blurred? Oh well, at least, the entertainment industry is above reproach.