The summer before my freshman year my English teacher compiled a short required reading list. I always loved reading during the summer. I would take trips to the library and find a new world to lose myself in. Like any teenager though, I didn’t want someone to tell me what to read and when to read it! Still, I trudged through the books. One of the books was All Quiet on the Western Front, which is a World War I story from the perspective of a German Soldier. There is a scene that is vivid in my mind today, where the main character found himself trapped in No Man’s Land, a stretch of land often heavily defended and bombarded with mortars and artillery. A French soldier jumps into the same foxhole that the main character was seeking shelter in. He was forced to kill Frenchman in hand-to-hand combat but also had to listen to his last gurgling breaths as artillery rained down overhead. He looked in his adversary’s pocketbook and found his name and pictures of his family, causing him to realize that this was just an ordinary man with an ordinary life just like himself. He even thought that, if they had not been at war, they could have been friends. I always found this to be an interesting sentiment. While I was thinking about this recently, I decided to see if there have been any cases of individuals who were once enemies in war but later became friends. As it turned out, there have been many cases just like this, and I’ll go through a few chronologically.
World War II
Just two months after his 17th birthday, Karl Fischer signed up to serve Germany in World War II. This was shortly after the Germans lost the Battle of Stalingrad, and Fischer’s high school cancelled classes indefinitely after the defeat. Many historians believe the German army began its decline as a direct result of the disastrous defeat in the frigid Russian city. Still, there were a couple years left of fighting, and Karl Fischer began his campaign in the war.
Two years later, Ray Reed was leading a unit in the US Army’s 2nd Armored Division, anticipating capturing Berlin until the Soviets finished the job first. Instead, Reed was sent to Magdeburg, where he was one of the first to witness the atrocities committed at the Nazi concentration camps. Reed happened upon an anxious German lieutenant, who had been hospitalized and was worried about his fate if he were to be captured by the Soviets. This was Karl Fischer, who had been hospitalized for shrapnel wounds and subsequently taken as a prisoner of war when Magdeburg was overrun by Allied forces.
Fischer soon was released, finished his high school degree, then finished his doctorate, and was hired by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer. Eventually, his job took him to the Bay Area in California. Reed took advantage of the G.I. Bill and became a physician in Southern California. Then, Reed and his wife moved to Santa Rosa to be closer to their family. As it happened, he moved to the same retirement community that the once injured German lieutenant (now American citizen) also wound up at. The two serendipitously discovered their linked paths, and the strange link that would have had them shooting at each other 70 years ago enabled them to form a close connection.
Dan Cherry often wondered what happened to the man who was flying the plane that he shot down during the Vietnam War. Cherry flew his American F-4 in what he described as an “intense four-minute dog fight”. Cherry eventually knocked the right wing off North Vietnamese MiG fighter, sending it plummeting to the ground. Later, he couldn’t help feeling as if something was gnawing at him, and he felt compelled to find out what his name was, what kind of person he was, and if he had a family.
Cherry sought his Vietnamese counterpart and eventually found himself on a Vietnamese reality show that, when translated, is called “The Separation Never Seems to Have Existed”. For the first time since the war, Dan Cherry and Hong My Nguyen met; this time in a peaceful setting that allowed them to shake hands, sit down, and chat. The two men became friends after meeting on the TV show, and Nguyen has since visited Cherry in the United States.
Nguyen relayed his own war story; he had been in another dog fight where he shot down an American pilot. Cherry and Nguyen were able to get in touch with one of the crew on that plane, a man name John Stiles. Stiles, Cherry, and Nguyen all had their own reunion, which just proved, as Nguyen put it, that they were “never really enemies. They [sic] were just soldiers, just soldiers.”
While there was no major fighting between the western and eastern world powers during the Cold War, tensions were high, and Americans could feel the red, white and blue surging in their blood while the communist powers countered by hoisting red and yellow flags and espousing communist doctrines through Eastern Europe. Americans like James Kennedy were compelled to become champions for capitalism by joining the US Army. In 1988, Kennedy did just that. On the other side of the world, Martin Maliňák marched with the Czechoslovakian Army, hoping to derail the spread of western ideals in his home country.
The two men were ideologically polar opposites. Wars can carry on, families can be torn apart, and friendships can be ruined for much, much less. Nearly 20 years later, Kennedy and his family played host to a foreign exchange student from Slovakia. At the time, Kennedy was a logistics officer and found out from his new “daughter” that her father in Slovakia, Martin Maliňák, was also involved in logistics. The two men became friends while sharing a daughter in common for the next year, and eventually, Kennedy and his family travelled to Slovakia. It was the first time Maliňák’s family had met an American, but the experience was a positive one for both sides. Maliňák and Kennedy’s friendship would have been improbable 30 years ago due to their political differences, but by finding a common bond, the two soldiers managed to make a new friend.
The small country on the western coast of northern Africa does not make headlines that much anymore, but from 1991 to 2002 the country was war-torn and ravaged by a brutal civil war. Abdul and Ibrahim now reside in the second largest city in Sierra Leone and work together for a motorcyclist organization that now employs former soldiers.
Abdul had watched rebels invade his village, the home he grew up in. He was only 15, but he had to witness his sister’s death. He had to cut his own uncle’s hand off after the rebels left it dangling when the locals had nothing to offer for the rebels. Eventually, his father was also killed in the war. He tried to escape; he managed to purchase a car but was attacked before he could get away. Finally, he resigned to joining the Kamajor hunters to fight against the rebels that had left his village in shambles and had slaughtered his family.
Ibrahim was also only a teenager at the start of the war. His family tried to avoid the war by escaping, but Ibrahim became separated and found himself alone at a rebel checkpoint. The Revolutionary United Front had him arrested and forced him to fight for them. He had no idea why he was arrested or what he was fighting for.
The would-be adversaries now find themselves happily employed for the same organization. They ride bikes through Sierra Leone’s second largest city and taxi those willing to pay. The job pays well for Sierra Leone standards – 33 cents per day – and Abdul and Ibrahim formed a friendship that would have been unlikely just a few years ago.