Howard Goodner plunged out of the Black Cat, the last American bomber shot down over Germany in World War II, early on the morning of April 21, 1945. The B-24 Liberator was hit at 22,000 feet and broke into pieces.
Goodner, just 21, had no parachute. He came down in a free fall alongside bombs and oxygen tanks, spinning toward the Bavarian village of Scharmassing.
He landed in a field outside town, his body striking the earth so hard that it left a crater nearly six inches deep.
Maria Wittig, then 19, saw him there. He was athletic looking, fair-skinned, handsome. Long fingers.
"I can see him before me," she told an interviewer, a half century later, so clear was her memory. Shown a picture of the entire crew, she picked out Goodner immediately. "That's him," she said, her voice breaking.
The story of Goodner, the Black Cat and Maria Wittig is 60 years old. Other wars have come and gone, but the story has never really died, living on in the small shadows of the greatest generation.
Yesterday at a ceremony in Vienna, the Black Cat was immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp, that diminutive marker of historical American moments large and small.
Part of a series of 10 commemorative aviation stamps, this one shows the Black Cat still intact, still in flight, over the pastoral fields where it would crash. Nothing on the stamp denotes the plane's tragic end.
"The plane being shot down at the very end of the war -- it has haunted my family for so many years, and I finally went to Germany and found the crash site," says Thomas Childers, Goodner's nephew, whose 1995 book, "Wings of Morning," chronicled the story of the plane and its crew. "This farmer started scratching around in the dirt, and he pulled out a 50-caliber machine gun bullet. I was speechless. Every year when they plow, parts of the plane come to the surface."
"My family just never got over it," says Robert Layton in a telephone interview from Indianapolis yesterday. He is the cousin of the doomed plane's pilot, Richard "Dickie" Farrington.
"There's still a lot of resentment against the Axis side. I won't drive a German or Japanese car to this day. My aunt, Richard's mother, never could move out of her house until the day she died a few years ago.
"She wasn't mental, but she just couldn't get it out of her head that Dickie might have been in an institution all these years. She thought he'd come home and she would have moved. He'd never be able to find us."