July 16, 2009
WASHINGTON -- You've probably received or heard about the e-mail traveling around the world that calls for an online memorial service for World War II hero Darrell "Shifty" Powers who died quietly last month at age 86. It served its purpose of getting national attention for former SSgt. Powers, a member of the 101st Airborne who parachuted into Normandy and who was profiled in the HBO war series "Band of Brothers."
The e-mail's writer described meeting "Shifty" at an airport in Philadelphia and, upon learning of his accomplishments in the war, offered to switch his first-class seat for "Shifty's" seat in coach. For some people it sounded too poignant to be true. I was very skeptical and believed it was one of those made up e-mails based on partial truths whose writer's goal is more about seeing how far it can travel in cyberspace.
Some versions of the e-mail give the impression it was written by another hero, famed test pilot Chuck Yeager, while others say it comes from military columnist Joe Galloway.
But neither man actually wrote it. The e-mail was unsigned.
The original e-mail you'll see below is very moving and reminds us that we have not always given the heroes of World War II their proper sendoffs. And "Shifty" died just before Michael Jackson. A lot of people were angry that news coverage of Jackson's death and memorial service pushed so many other deserving stories off the newspaper pages and TV screens.
But the questions remain. Is the personal account of meeting "Shifty" in this e-mail true, and who wrote it?
E-mail Calls For Memorial Service for World War II Hero Darrell "Shifty" Powers
The e-mail reads as follows:
"We're hearing a lot today about big splashy memorial services.
I want a nationwide memorial service for Darrell "Shifty" Powers.
Shifty volunteered for the airborne in WWII and served with Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Infantry. If you've seen Band of Brothers on HBO or the History Channel, you know Shifty. His character appears in all 10 episodes, and Shifty himself is interviewed in several of them.
I met Shifty in the Philadelphia airport several years ago. I didn't know who he was at the time. I just saw an elderly gentleman having trouble reading his ticket. I offered to help, assured him that he was at the right gate, and noticed the "Screaming Eagle," the symbol of the 101st Airborne, on his hat.
Making conversation, I asked him if he'd been in the 101st Airborne or if his son was serving. He said quietly that he had been in the 101st. I thanked him for his service, then asked him when he served, and how many jumps he made.
Quietly and humbly, he said "Well, I guess I signed up in 1941 or so, and was in until sometime in 1945 . . . " at which point my heart skipped.
At that point, again, very humbly, he said "I made the 5 training jumps at Toccoa, and then jumped into Normandy . . . . do you know where Normandy is?" At this point my heart stopped.
I told him yes, I know exactly where Normandy was, and I know what D-Day was. At that point he said "I also made a second jump into Holland, into Arnhem." I was standing with a genuine war hero . . . . and then I realized that it was June, just after the anniversary of D-Day.
I asked Shifty if he was on his way back from France, and he said "Yes. And it's real sad because these days so few of the guys are left, and those that are, lots of them can't make the trip." My heart was in my throat and I didn't know what to say.
I helped Shifty get onto the plane and then realized he was back in Coach, while I was in First Class. I sent the flight attendant back to get him and said that I wanted to switch seats. When Shifty came forward, I got up out of the seat and told him I wanted him to have it, that I'd take his in coach.
He said "No, son, you enjoy that seat. Just knowing that there are still some who remember what we did and still care is enough to make an old man very happy." His eyes were filling up as he said it. And mine are brimming up now as I write this.
Shifty died on June 17 after fighting cancer.
There was no parade.
No big event in Staples Center.
No wall to wall back to back 24x7 news coverage.
No weeping fans on television.
And that's not right.
Let's give Shifty his own Memorial Service, online, in our own quiet way. Please forward this email to everyone you know. Especially to the veterans.
Rest in peace, Shifty.
"A nation without heroes is nothing."
Tracking Down The Famed E-mail's Author
I was glad that "Shifty" was finally getting his due. But who started all this? And was the account of the airport meeting real?
When I telephoned Margo Johnson she was happy to talk about her dad who was always a hero to her. He was diagnosed with cancer in January. She said that up until his last days "Shifty," a humble man, enjoyed spending time talking with soldiers. He was supposed to go to Iraq but never made it because of his health.
Shifty, who got his nickname playing basketball, did make several trips back to Europe where he fought in the War. One time he graciously met with a former German World War II veteran. Usually, a family member would go with him. But he went alone sometime around 2002. And when he returned he told his family about the man he had met in at the airport in Philadelphia who offered him his seat in first class. The story, it turns out, is true.
The Johnson family received the original e-mail on July 7, 2009 from Mark Pfiefer. He confirmed to me that he wrote the e-mail and he was the man who met "Shifty" at the airport in Philadelphia.
Pfiefer, who worked for Dow Jones at the time he met "Shifty," said today he had no idea the e-mail would take on a life of its own. He just wanted those who received his e-mail to hold a private moment of silence.
"I found out this morning that some took it literally," he said, "and now thousands of people have been organized into a virtual memorial service for Shifty on July 20th. It will be on Twitter, Facebook, and a host of other social networking sites."
"Shifty's" son-in-law Seldon Johnson said "Shifty" would be humbled by all the attention. "He was that kind of man, a true hero that did not seek notoriety. It found him," he said.
Johnson noted that strangers often would send checks to "Shifty" to get his autograph. "He refused to endorse them," he said. "If they sent a return envelope, he'd sign his signature, and return free gratis."
Our country owes much to World War II heroes like Darrell "Shifty" Powers. We're losing the remaining ones each day. And as Mark Pfiefer points out, they're not getting memorial services at the Staples Center. There are more veterans like "Shifty" and they too should be remembered.