Fallen aviator's memory stands tall 75 years later

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

In the woods outside a little town in Germany stands a small memorial to an American  who came to clear the sky of Nazis.

In a handsome family plot at Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, a copper-plated propeller rests atop a thick patch of ivy.

The link between the two, 4,031 miles apart, is a bold young aviator from Grosse Pointe who went off to save the world from Adolf Hitler and died in the attempt 75 years ago.

Alfred Brush Ford

Alfred Brush Ford lives on today in a cozy park along the Detroit River and an enormous Hare Krishna temple in India. His name is carried by one of the more intriguing figures in the Ford Motor Co. lineage, even if that lineage was not his own.

On this Memorial Day, he serves as a reminder of the goodness of people, even in the worst of times.

Ford was 23 years old when he lifted off for the last time in a P-47 Thunderbolt, a single-engine fighter. The date was Feb. 22, 1945. His group had been assigned to protect a squadron of B-26 bombers whose mission was to sweep across the west-central part of Germany and destroy the tracks of the Munster-Dortmund rail line.

Returning to their base, the Americans were attacked by German ME-109s. Above Ascheberg, where a 17th-century baroque castle is now surrounded by a golf course, Ford's P-47 took fire.

It crashed at the edge of a thicket in Davensberg, two miles north. There, farmers found the body of a son of privilege who had come to the Army Air Corps straight from Yale.

They buried him where he'd come to rest. The townspeople erected a marker, a simple wooden cross with angled slats tented downward from the top to the ends of the crosspiece. They engraved an epitaph: "Hier starbden fliegerlodder amerik.Leutnant Alfred B. Ford."

Here died aviator American Lieutenant Alfred B. Ford. Here stands the marker, three generations after the end of World War II and 71 years after Ford's remains were sent back across the ocean.

At some point, the slats were covered in metal siding, and the left side has become crimped. But the area is still tended, the inscription is still precise and the intent is still clear.

Here stands decency.

A family of Fords

Sascha Klaverkamp is a journalist in Dortmund, the metropolis 30 miles from pastoral Davensburg.

It was Klaverkamp who wrote to The Detroit News about the cross in the woods, "roughly one meter tall." He described the grave candle in a metallic holder on a slab in front of it, noting that "the people regularly place a new candle inside, and free the cross from moss or weed."

He knew that the sun was shining on Alfred Ford’s final day, and that eight fighter planes had battled as the bombers thundered home. He asked the mayor of Davensberg, Bert Risthaus, why it was important to maintain the monument, and he was reminded that wars are remembered for triumph but built of pain and suffering.

"The cross at the crash site is a place for us to bring that to our minds and to honor the victims of war," Risthaus said. "And keeping the cross means keeping peace with all peoples."

From six time zones away, Klaverkamp inspired The News to find traces of Alfred Ford in its own backyard, and to reach out to the nephew who inherited his name.

The current Alfred Brush Ford was born five years to the day after his uncle died. A world traveler and an influential figure in ISKCON — better known as the Hare Krishna movement — he is waiting out the coronavirus pandemic at his home in Gainesville, Florida.

Photo taken from video of Alfred Brush Ford in 2017.

Throughout his childhood, Ford said, his uncle was spoken of frequently and reverently. "Apparently, he was a very good looking man. Very well liked. It was wartime, obviously, but his death was still a shock."

The first Alfred Ford's forebears made their fortune in banking and railroads, not automobiles. He was the fourth child and third son of Frederick Clifford Ford and Virginia Eloise Brush Ford, two lines replete with names on street signs and buildings.

A 1964 Detroit Free Press article said that Virginia had been an air warden, "and with three sons in service in World War II, she had the eyes of a bird of prey, you may be certain."

The oldest brother, Frederick Jr., was a naval aviator. As best Alfred Ford can recall, middle brother Walter Buhl Ford II served in the Coast Guard.

"Everybody was stepping up back then," said Joel Stone, senior curator of the Detroit Historical Society. "But how far did they step? I'm not sure every wealthy family responded the way they did."

In 1943, Walter married Josephine Ford, 19-year-old granddaughter of Henry. Now they were an auto family, and she and Walter named their fourth child and second boy after the kid brother who didn't come home.

Alfred Brush Ford, 70, had a buoyantly misspent youth. Hare Krishna brought him peace, and he brought Hare Krishna positive exposure, large donations and a gift for fundraising.

He and Walter Reuther's daughter, Elizabeth Dickmeyer, bought the Lawrence Fisher Mansion on Lenox Street in 1975 and deeded it to ISKCON for a Detroit headquarters. Known in the order as Ambarish Das, he has since devoted years and a reported $25 million to helping create a Taj Mahal-sized temple and Krishna Consciousness center in Mayapur, India.

He did not feel pressure, he said, from carrying the name of a warrior who didn't live long enough to have any frailties exposed.

"I had enough pressure from the other side of the family," he said. "That's why I took off in the other direction."

A park bears his name

America keeps meticulous records of its grief.

Michigan, with a population of 5.3 million in 1940, sent 613,543 of its residents to the armed services. Of those, 29,321 were injured, 10,263 were killed, and one has his name on a riverfront park in Detroit.

Alfred Brush Ford Park sits at the foot of Lenox, a few blocks south of the Fisher Mansion. It has swingsets, a playscape and two odd relics from the Cold War: cylindrical cement radar towers for the Nike missiles that lurked underground on Belle Isle.

On the first clear day after heavy rains, sailboats slide quietly east and what looks like a miniature tugboat churns in the opposite direction. Fishing lines dangle beyond railings along a sidewalk puddled by waves.

A riverfront saloon called the Woods used to occupy part of the property. The city acquired the land through condemnation in 1948, and it wound up named indirectly for a 9th-century king of the Anglo-Saxons.

"My grandmother was kind of an amateur genealogist," the modern Alfred Ford said. "She traced the family to Alfred the Great."

A man pushing two little girls on adjoining swings said he didn't even know the park had a name.

On a weathered wooden bench facing the river, Mark Eatmon, 61, said the view mattered more than the sign.

He'd like to see more garbage cans there, he said. He'd like to see a 20-yard section of collapsed sidewalk repaired, not just bordered with orange sawhorses. The name? He just thinks of it as going to the river.

'Remember the fallen'

The name matters more in Davensberg, a few miles from Daniel Olesch's house.

He's an amateur historian and a mechanic who lovingly restored a leftover from the American postwar occupation, a half-ton 1942 WC-58 Dodge radio truck. Sometimes when he’s riding his bike, he said, he'll stop to rest next to the cross in the woods.

Only three weeks after Alfred Brush Ford died, an Allied bombing campaign destroyed a synthetic oil plant near Dortmund and much of the city. By April 13, Dortmund belonged to the Allies.

Thirty miles away, Olesch said, his little area had no strategic targets. American troops didn't even stop as they barreled through.

Perhaps it's revisionist history, but he said the locals mostly wanted the war to be over.

"It is hard to tell in retrospective, if there was a lot of Nazi mentality in the area," he conceded in an email. "Many had lost their sons and/or fathers during the war and knew nothing about their whereabouts.

"So this all adds up to their true and honest willingness to remember the fallen, no matter what side they were on."

Three German pilots were shot down in the same dogfight that claimed Alfred Ford. One of them was a 22-year-old named Otto Balluff who'd been rushed into the air well before he was ready to kill or be killed.

He has a monument, too — a simple sand-colored rock. Name, date of birth, date his war came to an end.

Here a hero lies

Section K, Lot 55. Joan Capuano knows exactly where to find Alfred Ford.

She is the executive director of the Historic Elmwood Foundation. She leads tours of the cemetery, and she makes sure he gets visitors.

The family patriarch, John N. Ford, died in 1881. He has a massive gray monument in the middle of the family plot, eight feet wide at the base and five feet tall.

The plot is surrounded by a boxwood hedge. The headstones are all similar — thick, broad, grayish stones, with gracefully curved tops and the letters raised instead of etched. Name, place and date of birth, place and date of death.

The exception is the dashing young pilot.

The grave marker for Alfred Brush Ford is affixed to a copper plated propeller at Historic Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit on May 21, 2020. Alfred Brush Ford, a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force, was killed in combat over Ascheberg, Germany, on Feb. 22, 1945.

His parents all but boasted on his metal grave marker: "1st Lieut. U.S. Army Air Force — Fighter Pilot."

The plaque says he was killed in combat, and it says where, and it's attached to the blade of a propeller. Not just any propeller, Capuano said: "They found one from the same type of plane he was flying."

The pride is clear. So is the pain. "Son of Frederick Clifford and Virginia Brush Ford," the marker read, decades before his parents earned gravestones of their own.

The marker and the blade have turned green with age.

Beneath them lie Alfred Brush Ford, who barely aged at all, but stood for something when he died and stands for even more now.

Free-lance writer Sascha Klaverkamp contributed to this story from Germany.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn