Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

TOP STORY > >British girl who survived bombs, German scientist who made them

Christine Diffie of Jacksonville was just a little girl back in England during the Second World War, when German bombs and rockets fell from the skies and families were split up and sent to the countryside where it was considered less dangerous, especially for children.

She remembers separating from her parents and moving from town to town and living with her aunt and uncle in Bath.

This was in 1943, when she was 5 years old and should have been in kindergarten, but instead she was on the run, seeking shelter and wondering where her parents might be.

“Children were evacuated so whole families wouldn’t be wiped out,” she recalled Monday.

She moved from Somerset to London, and then to Coventry and Bath till the war ended.

Her name back then was Christine Ivy Weir Childs, and she’s not in the least bit traumatized by her wartime experiences, even though she saw violence and destruction and the death of her beloved aunt and uncle when a bomb hit their home.

She was too young to remember, but she thinks her sister stayed with her mother, while her father worked in an airplane factory, building Spitfires.

Christine’s uncle owned a pub near where she was staying, but it soon took a direct hit, destroying most of the building and pretty much everything that was there, including a thick 15th Century wooden door.

“When the bomb dropped, there was no door,” she said. “They found no portion of it. Like there was nothing there.”
She was sleeping in the same bed with her aunt and uncle and a cousin when the bomb fell on them.

“It pushed my cousin out one window, and I went out the other window,” she said. “My aunt and uncle were killed. Her hand was all that was left of her. We knew it was her because of her wedding ring.”

It so happens that one of the people who built the rockets that terrorized Britain died a few months ago.

His name was Ernst Stuhlinger, who was a rocket scientist with Wernher von Braun, who helped develop the Nazis’ V-2 missile program that terrorized Britain, although it had absolutely no effect on the outcome of the war.

Von Braun, Stuhlinger and some other 100 Nazi scientists surrendered to the American military as they overran Germany. It was this team that built the U.S. missile program and sent astronauts into space and to the moon.

Stuhlinger, who died in May at the age of 94 in Huntsville, Ala., where he was director of science at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center during the early years of the space race with the Russians.

He was a brilliant scientist, according to his son, Christoph, who is a state forester with the University of Arkansas at Monticello. He travels around the state and helps landowners preserve and expand forests.

He’s close to nature and says, “Dad would have been a zoologist” if he hadn’t become a renowned rocket scientist.

Christoph is soft-spoken, probably like his father, who was caught up in the Nazi era, but he, too, had suffered, having barely survived the war in Russia, his son said.

Stuhlinger’s expertise was guiding rockets around the world and to the moon, surpassing the Soviets after their success with Sputnik and the early space flight around the world. There was a picture of Christoph’s father that accompanied his obituary in the New York Times, and he’s holding a model of the rocket he helped design.

The picture was taken in 1958, the year Christoph was born.

“We moved to Huntsville five days before Explorer I was launched,” he recalled.

Stuhlinger stayed with his newborn son for a few days, then headed for Cape Canaveral for the Explorer’s launching.

The Explorer was a combination of the V-2 rocket that rained on Britain and American upper stages, which later sent our astronauts to the moon and powered the Titan missiles that were assigned to Little Rock Air Force Base.

The second-stage firing was Stuhlinger’s area of expertise. Soon after Christoph’s birth, the scientist worked out a timing mechanism in his garage so that the Explorer could go into orbit after its launch.

According to the New York Times obituary, Stuhlinger stood in front of a console on the night of Jan. 31, 1958 “and pressed a button at just the right moment to signal the timing device to trigger the second-stage firing, not a second too soon or too late.

He became known as ‘the man with the golden finger.’”

“At his memorial service, he was remembered as equal part Albert Einstein and Mahatma Ghandi,” Christoph told us. “He was a brilliant scientist with the soul of a saint.”

As for those who question his father’s service under the Nazis, Christoph says, “They don’t understand what it’s like under a dictatorship.”

To the end, Stuhlinger insisted he was not interested in weapons, only in space flight.

We’ll never know if he was responsible for one of those rockets that landed that could have killed Christine Diffie when she was a child, but it does make you think of George Orwell’s observation, sending out a dispatch from wartime London, “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”

It’s our good fortune that those highly civilized human beings lost the war. Ernst Stuhlinger would probably have agreed.