396. Character And Courage

I want to thank the Albion News for running articles by Gabby Christensen about Manderson Lehr and the times he lived in.  Manderson was well-known a century ago, but has largely been forgotten over the intervening years.

I remember hearing about Manderson from my grandfather Russ.  Russ lived just down the street from Manderson.  The neighborhood boys did a lot of things together so even though he was a few years younger, Russ knew Manderson and would speak of him with a mixture of awe and envy.

Decades after I first learned of Manderson, his great-niece, Mary Lehr Makin, complied the letters Manderson had sent his family and friends into a book. Reading those letters gives a person a great feel for who Manderson was.  So much so, in fact, that Albion WWII veteran Norman Smith suggested to me that Manderson’s story would make a good stage play.

Last year, with the 100th anniversary of Manderson’s death approaching, I discussed Norm’s idea with the board of the Boone County Historical Society.  We decided to set up a display about him in the museum and produce a video about Manderson and the war. We also decided to take Norm’s suggestion and present a one-man play.

The play consists of excerpts from letters and news articles that give insight into Manderson and his experiences arranged in narrative form.  My youngest son Thomas, with a year of extensive theater experience at Nebraska Wesleyan under his belt, volunteered to tell Manderson’s story on stage.

And what a story it is – when Manderson learned that France needed ambulance drivers, he ‘couldn’t not go.’  Once there he realized he could do more to help the war effort so he volunteered for the air corps.

Manderson bared his soul in his letters (though he didn’t tell his parents everything, like when he was wounded or about the two times the other man in the plane with him was killed).  In his first aerial combat encounter, Manderson ran out of ammunition.  But, as he said in a letter, it wouldn’t have been right to run away, so even with no hope of winning, he flew back at the other plane, which retreated.  But he soon learned sometimes you have to run, noting that no one chased you farther or faster than the Germans.

Manderson soon realized that war is madness and he writes of hearing French anti-aircraft fire and wondering if one of his German counterparts had been killed.  Manderson said he’d always do his duty, but he was only killing Germans because otherwise they’d kill him and his companions.  In early 1918 Manderson was asked to become an instructor but he declined because it wouldn’t have been right to leave his friends behind.

In July of 1918 Manderson, along with four other Americans, was ordered to leave the front to train new pilots.  But his captain couldn’t spare all of them at once, so he kept Manderson behind.  On what would likely have been his last combat mission, Manderson was killed and his body was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Albion News published excerpts of his letters, calling him “our boy in France.”  He wasn’t the only person from this area to serve with distinction or to die.  But his high profile made him a great example of honor and dedication and he deserves to be remembered.  Manderson was one of us and his story tells us something about who we were, who we are, and who we can be so long as we never forget that character and courage are what ultimately matter most…

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