The pilot is handsome in a modern way, with a smile you might see on Facebook or Instagram. Rather than part of the distant past, he could almost pass for the present.
His name was Wilson Montague. And in the photographs taken shortly before his death in World War II, he’s got a happy-go-lucky confidence and a handsome, movie star face. That’s what the little boy who saw Montague’s P-51 Mustang fighter go down over Reicholzheim, Germany on March 1, 1945 has always remembered. The boy’s name was Lothar Pitz, and he’s now an 80-year-old man.
After immigrating to the United States, Pitz worked in Detroit, manufacturing glass for high tech instruments. He eventually retired to North Carolina and, almost as if compelled by an inner force of his own making, tracked down the two surviving brothers of the fighter pilot whose death he’d witnessed.
Pitz remembered everything: the man’s name, where he was from, the name of his hometown. But after nearly 70-years–when he telephoned Billy and Bobby, Montague’s two surviving brothers–they thought it was a joke.
On Sunday, June 22, 2014, Pitz spoke to the extended Montague family, supporters, and guests at the grand opening of the museum’s new exhibit, Wake Forest in World War II. Standing in front of the glass-topped case holding the few personal possessions Wilson Montague left behind, Pitz read from a brief, typed statement in a voice choked with emotion.
Dear forgiving, wonderful Montague family, and most especially, dearest Wilson, beloved son and brother of the Montague family:
Thank you, Lord, for bringing us all together, for Wilson. Especially to the Montagues for being so kindly to an 80-year-old man.
I was only 11-years-old when I ran up that hill in Reicholzheim to see if I could help. Everyone around me was in shock over such a thing taking place in their peaceful, little old world. There is not a day that goes by, that my heart is not filled with sorrow. You, Wilson, the handsome American pilot and I the little German boy.
What wondrous working of fate has brought this Montague family and myself together in America!
Myself and my wife thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your forgiveness and the peace you have brought to my soul, in meeting with me.
God love and protect each and every one of you courageous Montague souls.
Thank you for allowing me to be here today with all of you.
God love and keep you all,
Lothar and wife Kathy”
That Lothar still has nightmares about the crash was confirmed by his wife. That Wilson Montague’s family spent months praying the War Department telegram that listed their son as missing in action would end in good news was confirmed by Allen Massey, a Montague great-nephew and sponsor of the exhibit. His family is contemplating a visit to Reicholzheim, to see for themselves the place where the 26-year-old’s plane went down.
Of course, there are many other worthwhile displays in the large, temporary exhibit.
Wake Forest participated in the war in ways large and small. Wake Forest College produced Frank Armstrong (WFC ’25), chief of the American Bomber Command in England; Martin Whitaker (WFC ’27), director of the Atomic Energy Commission Laboratory at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Warren Coble (WFC ’43), radio man on the plane that followed the Enola Gay as it dropped the bomb called “Little Boy” on Hiroshima.
Standing among the uniforms, decorations, draft cards, tools, photographs, letters, and more–it’s hard not to feel these things are very familiar, yet also very distant. They belonged to people we have known, but who were never fully able to talk about what they went through–at least not in a way the rest of us can understand.
That’s what made those few words from Lothar Pitz so memorable.
He talked about the handsome American pilot from Wake Forest–a man who became part of a little German boy’s life on the day of his death: March 1, 1945.
After the program, Pitz posed for pictures with Wilson Montague’s surviving brothers. And for anyone watching, it was suddenly clear why history is important, why these artifacts must be preserved, and why– as William Faulkner famously said, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The forgiveness and peace that Pitz felt after meeting the Montague family are the essential part of this story.
They’re part of every good story.
They’re the best part of history.
Wake Forest in World War II is now part of the permanent exhibit gallery. The museum is free and open to the public.