100-Year-Old WWII Vet Interview Contains No Mention of Bible at Center of VA Controversy
An interview with a 100-year old World War Two veteran whose personal Bible adorns a Prisoner of War/Missing in Action “Missing Man” table at the Manchester Veterans Administration Medical Center does not contain any claim that he carried the Bible with him throughout the ordeal of his being shot down over Hungary, imprisoned in a German POW camp, and escaping captivity.
The Department of Affairs, Manchester VAMC staff and the veterans group that sponsors the Missing Man table all have claimed that Herman “Herk” Streitburger Herk carried the Bible on display in the main foyer of the Manchester VAMC with him for months in which he was shot down, captured, then escaped the camp. All prior accounts claim that the Bible inspired other POW camp inmates regardless of their religion or lack thereof, and thus was not a religious artifact, despite the fact that a Bible in reality is a religious artifact. However, nowhere in the 1,900 word article published in the New Hampshire Union Leader does Streitburger claim that the Bible that touched off the lawsuit that triggered a change in Veterans Administration policy was with him anytime during the mission and subsequent events.
In the article, Streitburger tells of how he was captured by pitchfork Hungarian peasants, a scene that is similar to one in the 1970 film Battle of Britain, in which a Polish pilot flying for the RAF is mistaken for a German and taken into captivity by a cynical English farmer with a pitchfork after parachuting down. Streitburger’s story tells of being picked up by German soldiers, who have to protect them from the peasants, which is evocative of John McCain’s ordeal after being shot down in Vietnam.
The detailed narrative contained in the article tends to rebut the prior contention that the Bible was with him on the mission in which he was shot down. Streitburger, an Army Air Force bomber crew member who flew 49 missions for the 98th Bomber Command, tells of witnessing the shooting down of another B-24 bomber during a prior mission, and how he had prepared himself mentally for bailing out of a plane, should the need arise. He mentions that he carried a pair of shoes with him as he intended to replace his aviation boots, which would be difficult to walk in once he was on the ground, with shoes if he had to bail out.
Anyone making such detailed calculations would be unlikely to carry a large Bible with them. The Bible in question is an altar sized Doauy Confraternity New Catholic Version Bible that weighs approximately 6–7 pounds. It is not the “G.I. Bible” that essentially was a New Testament printed in very small type in an edition that was not even hand-sized that could be fitted into a shirt pocket. Given that Streitburger was conscious of the need of lighter shoes in order to survive the ordeal facing him on the ground after being shot down, it seems highly unlikely that a seasoned heavy bomber crew member would burden himself with a large, heavy Bible while preparing for an event in which imprisonment in a German POW camp was the most likely outcome if he survived jumping out of the plane.
The Streitburger article says that after his plane was hit, “He threw off his flak suit, grabbed his shoes, hooked his parachute on and went out the window. “
The proper term is “flak vest,” not suit. Streitburger might have been thinking of a heated suit, but it would be seemingly impossible to take that off in time. A flak vest was a woven metal vest akin to chain mail that was intended to prevent flak from penetrating the body of an air crew member. It was worn over the flight suit. Heavy bomber crew members wore electrically heated suits, under which they wore overalls. A picture of pilots from a WWII bomber tribute site reveals uniforms in which it would be impossible for a Bible of the size on display at the Manchester VAMC to be carried around.
That an old veteran would tell tall tales is to be expected. For the federal government and a veterans organization to exploit a centenarian for political aims is quite another.
The Manchester VAMC used Streitburger’s story to claim that the Bible that was put on the Missing Man table was not a religious artifact, but an historical one. That was their original stance, until the lawsuit was filed and the Department of Veterans Affairs became more militant on the issue of allowing religious displays in its facilities. The “historical artifact” apparently angle no longer is needed, now that the V.A. has changed policy in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Bladensburg Cross decision. The story about the Bible being humped across Hungary no longer is needed apparently and has been jettisoned along with Streitburger’s flight boots, now that the V.A.’s policy of actively promoting religion is “boots on the ground.” The change in stories introduces the possiblity that the old veteran was coached and manipulated.
The title of the article, “Bedford ex-POW at center of VA Bible flap tells his story of capture, survival and escape” erroneously stakes out the claim that it is Streitburger who is the center of the controversy, whereas it is the display of the Bible that caused the lawsuit filed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. The title — like the V.A. and veterans group sponsoring the Missing Man table — shifts the focus of the controversy from that of separation of church and state, part of the Constitution that Streitburger and all military personnel take an oath to protect, to the WWII veteran himself, seemingly to hide behind his hard-won honor. This is ironic, as their support of a “Bible in a POW Camp” story may wind up disgracing him if an investigation proves that his story proves it is not true.