Friday, May 11, 2007

A small piece of history brought two families together yesterday, nearly a century after their patriarchs battled each other in the air during World War I.

Their connection began in 1918, when rookie American pilot Walter Avery shot down a famous German ace during a fierce dogfight, then landed his aircraft to carve a symbolic piece from the vanquished pilot’s plane.

Yesterday, 89 years later, it was brought full circle when Mr. Avery’s daughter, Bette Avery Applegate, presented that remnant of German ace Karl Menckhoff’s plane to his son, Gerhard Menckhoff, in a poignant ceremony at a gathering of the League of World War I Aviation Historians.

“It’s back home where it belongs, and I think my father would feel the same way,” said Mrs. Applegate, 82, of the large cloth “M” that her father cut from the ace’s plane.

“I never would have thought that it would come around full circle this way,” said Mr. Menckhoff after the emotional ceremony.

Their fathers encountered each other near the end of the war. The dogfight was the American pilot’s first, and high over the French countryside he was unaware that he was battling a decorated German ace.

Mr. Menckhoff had tallied 39 victories — far above the five required for the official classification of an “ace.” He earned the Pour le Merite, the highest honor given by the German Imperial Army during WWI. His plane was festooned with three large “M”s to mark his prestige.

But on July 25, 1918, both pilots were dueling for their lives.

“Both guns jammed,” Mr. Avery wrote in his diary. “While clearing the jams he got on my tail and put two bullets in my left wing. … I did a retournment and with the resulting speed was able to stand vertically on my tail and give him a good burst. He started to lose altitude and went down in a tight spiral. I followed him, shooting, and saw him crash in the woods. …”

Mr. Avery landed and drove to the crash, where Mr. Menckhoff had survived and been taken prisoner by French soldiers.

The American pilot strode to the wreckage and carefully cut the large letter “M” from the side of the plane, a symbol of his first victory and the accomplished airman he had overcome.

And then, after the war, the piece of fabric sat in a trunk in his home for 60 years, Mrs. Applegate said. His family did not discover it until he died in 1978.

Mr. Menckhoff escaped from the French prisoner of war camp in a movielike escapade and made his way to Switzerland, his son said. He later moved there and raised a family, never mentioning the war. He died when the younger Mr. Menckhoff was 11.

The pilot’s son did not realize his father’s prowess until his mother told him after his father’s death.

“Suddenly I realized he was quite a hero in the First World War,” he said.

The two families were reunited a year and a half ago when Mrs. Applegate’s daughter, Jeanne Applegate Ferrari of Annapolis, read about the dogfight and learned that Mr. Menckhoff lived in the District.

Mrs. Applegate, after meeting him, decided it was time to give the “M” back to its rightful owner.

The presentation was a surprise to Mr. Menckhoff, who did not realize that Mrs. Applegate would give him the piece of his father’s plane until the ceremony.

Mr. Menckhoff said one day he would give the piece of his father’s history to his son, who is named Carl after his grandfather.

Mrs. Applegate said it was difficult to part with, but she felt that she had done the right thing.

“I just feel it should go back to the family from which it came,” she said.

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