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German town honors U.S. airman credited with giving life to save residents

SCHOPP, Germany - Vincenza Teriaca always wondered about the place where her father's fighter plane crashed and burned, a family tragedy that left her young mother a widow, and three small children without a father.

She was curious but hesitant to visit, not sure what the reaction of the townspeople would be.

Teriaca got her answer Saturday evening, when more than a hundred Schopp villagers, Germans and Americans, gave her a hero's welcome, thanking her nearly fifty-five years later for her father's sacrifice.

The event that drew together a lawyer's assistant from New York City and residents of a rural German town near the Palatinate forest occurred on Nov. 14, 1956. Shortly before noon on that day, something went wrong for Air Force 1st Lt. Salvatore Angelo Meli while en route to what's now Ramstein Air Base after a training mission. His F-86D veered low over the primary school and houses along the main street of Schopp, the plane's loud engine making a strange noise, according to local researcher Uwe Benkel, a resident of Heltersberg.

Meli made it over the houses before the plane crashed into a tree by the road and exploded. Some houses were damaged by burning debris but no one on the ground was killed.

"He decided to stay at the plane and spare the citizens of Schopp," Bernd Mayer, the town's mayor, said in remarks Saturday evening.

"You had to grow up without a father," Mayer said to Teriaca. "We the citizens of Schopp are very sorry for this."

Benkel said it appears Meli chose not to eject from the cockpit, a decision that might have saved lives. Schopp residents wanted to find family members of the pilot to say thank you. Benkel posted an ad on the Internet about three years ago, but Teriaca only saw it, by chance, about three months ago, when she did a Google search of her father's name, Benkel said.

On Saturday, Mayer and the town's residents expressed gratitude to Teriaca, bestowing her with a village flag and unveiling a plaque at the town hall honoring her father.

"I'm very, very happy to be here," Teriaca, 57, told the crowd. "I think it's a beautiful thing. I also want to thank you for keeping the memory of my father alive."

svanj@pstripes.osd.mil

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