Walking in my ancestors’ footsteps

I HAD AN interesting, unique, special experience this weekend. I visited the town my 7x great-grandfather and his family left about 275 years ago. There are still buildings there they would have seen!

Several weeks ago I had looked at my dad’s digital genealogy records. I searched on “Germany.” I shared part of this story already. I was able to contact the head of the historical society in Eisern, Germany, in the state of Nordrhein Westfallen and set up a visit. Sunday I drove to Eisern.

Eisern was once an independent village. German government was simplified/flattened a number of years ago, so it’s now part of the university town of Siegen.

I missed an exit on the Autobahn because of a construction site. The GPS fixed the error via narrow roads and tiny towns, but brought me back on track. I arrived with a few minutes to spare.

I’m happy, even if it doesn’t look like it. It’s just hard trying to compose a good picture.

Eisern was the site of large iron ore mines until the 1970s. The current population of 2,500 is ten times its size in the 18th century. I don’t know what he did or why he left, but Johann Heinrich Rehlsbach ended up in Virginia with his family as (John) Henry Railsback.

Eisern as viewed from the top of a hill upon leaving the Autobahn for the village.

I said above I had a few minutes to spare. I could have been a bit earlier, but after I left the Autobahn to drive the last few kilometers in to town, there was a spot with a great view from a hilltop down into the valley. I stopped to take a few pictures before driving down into the valley and town.

I wasn’t sure where to go exactly, so I parked and called Klaus Eckhardt, my point of contact in town. He said, “Get out of your car and turn around. I’m right behind you.” There he was!

The heimatverein is located in this former chapel/school building.

Klaus is the head of the “Heimatverein,” which translates literally as “Home Club” but would be a local historical society in American usage. The heimatverein has a museum in a former chapel school and adjacent bakery.

The chapel / school was built in the late 18th century on the remains of a previous building.

There are interesting artifacts dating into the late 1500s. Klaus drove me around town showing me the fire department, the school(s), a former mill, the iron mining sites, and where the train station used to be before driving up a hillside to show me the town from above.

This is the end of the church you see as you walk up. My ancestors would likely have been baptized or christened here.

The chapel the historical society uses a museum and meeting room was built shortly after my ancestors left, presumably on the foundation of an older building. The church in which people of that era were baptized is about three kilometers away. It is an interesting building; it has two naves back-to-back with a single common entrance between them. One side is Protestant and the other Catholic. They were ecumenical long before it was “in.”

A view of the countryside from the church.

Do I have any relatives in Germany? On my dad’s side the German connection is a long time ago. On my mother’s side, though, it’s just a few Generations back. Maybe I can find someone. I do have some relatives in England to see if I can meet one day.

Klaus Eckhardt and me as we explore the village.

If I did the math correctly, I am 1/256 of Henry Railsback and his wife. I wonder what it would have been like in their village in their era? I’ve crossed the Atlantic four times on a ship, but I can’t imagine doing it on a sailing ship back then. Klaus told me the German spoken then was much different from today both in vocabulary and accent/pronunciation. I wouldn’t be who I am today w/o that journey all those years ago.


What do I have in common with the Berlin Airlift?

That’s my favorite sweater. What’s it doing flying an airplane? (Photos courtesy Gunther Träger.)

I did my first ever GCA approach with the controller using the same equipment that helped keep millions of people safe almost 70 years ago.

Very short final. Do you see the helicopter?

In 1948 it was clear cooperation between wartime allies USA and USSR was over. The Soviet Union blocked access to Berlin by road, rail, and ship. Eventually the USA and UK supplied the blockaded citizens of Berlin with everything they needed for a year, by air. It was the largest airlift ever. The USA proved a commitment to freedom and democracy in Europe in the post-WWII era. Transport airplanes landed in Berlin every three minutes, 24 hours per day, seven days a week regardless of the often horrible weather.

This picture shows the three air corridors to Berlin. A smart guy realized they would work better if used as one way roads. You can see Wiesbaden by the southern corridor. This was the headquarters for the Airlift.

Pilots relied on something called a GCA – Ground Controlled Approach – to get on the ground safely. Instead of navigating through the clouds to the runway using his own instruments, the pilot listened to a controller on the ground guide him to make small corrections left, right, up or down. The GCA controller could guide the transport pilots between tall buildings in Berlin to just a few feet above the ground – every three minutes. 24/7.

The base where I am stationed in Germany was the headquarters for the Berlin Airlift. The radar the GCA controllers used in 1948-49 is still here. It still works. It is still used by Army pilots today. And…

The white “golf ball” on the right is a shelter for the GCA radar. The equipment has been there since 1948.

Yesterday, I did my first ever GCA approach with the controller using the same equipment that helped keep millions of people safe almost 70 years ago. The GCA itself was pretty cool and being slightly connected to that critical moment in European history was even better!

The picture below shows Air Force C-54 aircraft on the ramp in Wiesbaden in 1949. The airplanes are gone, but the runway, ramp, and mountains are still there. This is almost exactly the view out my office window! (The streets on the base are named after the men who died to keep Berlin safe and fed.)

U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden file photo
C-54s stand out against the snow at Wiesbaden Air Base during the Berlin Airlift in March 1949.

Lean Uris wrote Armageddon, a great novel about the post-war occupation of Germany and the Berlin Airlift turned enemies into allies.