Volume 18 Number 3
No 151's Bid for Freedom
01 June 2005
Melville Carson tells Paul Williams about his'great escape' from guilt and bitterness.
WHEN 200 prisoners of war tried to break out of Stalag Luft III during World War II, Melville Carson was number 151. The attempt was discovered before his turn came. As told in the classic war film, The Great Escape, most of the 76 who got out were recaptured and 50 were shot by the Gestapo.
Born and brought up in Edinburgh, Carson was training as a chartered accountant when World War II began in September 1939. He volunteered the day after war broke out, trained as a pilot and was eventually posted to a bomber squadron.
On their 20th mission, he and his crew of three were flying over Denmark towards the German coast to drop a sea mine when the navigator asked for Carson's help in identifying certain islands. 'To do this,' he recalls, 'I opened the canopy of the cockpit which had become hazed up. I had the thought, "Close the canopy," but decided "yes, but not yet".'
As they flew low over the German coast, searchlights suddenly came onto their plane and a hail of tracer bullets and flak came at them. 'I took evasive action, but in the process the open canopy allowed a blast of cold air into my face. My eyes watered violently and I could not see. When my eyes cleared I saw that the plane was losing height.'
The next thing Carson knew he was on the ground, still sitting in his pilot's seat, amidst the wreckage of his plane. His three crew members were dead. 'I must have sat there for some time in a state of shock. Although wounded I managed to undo my straps and stand up. At that point a German voice cried, "Halt (stop)!" I was not going anywhere.'
In hospital (where they treated him well) and then in Stalag Luft III, Carson sometimes asked himself whether the plane crashed because it was shot down, or whether his error in leaving the canopy open played a part.
In prison Carson played lead violin in the orchestra the prisoners set up and took his turn at 'keeping a look-out for prison guards while tunnel digging and other activities were taking place'. When the day came to break out, he was told, 'Harry (the name given to the tunnel) is going out tonight. Let me know in 10 minutes if you want to go.' Carson said 'yes', but after 76 men had gone through, 'there was a shout and a shot-and we knew the game was up'.
He was liberated in April 1945 and in 1946 became a chartered accountant. A partner in his Edinburgh firm indicated that Carson's prospects of a partnershipwere good, citing his own example of returning from World War I. Carson found himself thinking. 'Does this mean that in 25 years time I will be sitting where he is, saying the same thing to another generation just back from another war?'
It was at this point that he met an old school friend who had been working with Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change) in America. They got talking on a train and Carson was sufficiently intrigued to arrange to meet again at more leisure. At this second meeting the friend asked, 'You talk about wanting to win the peace, but what do you feel about the Germans?'
Carson remembered the great surge superceded by the war of ideas, he of anger and then hate he had felt when he first heard of the deaths of his escapee friends. 'It troubled me because as a Christian I knew I should forgive the Germans, but found that very difficult as doing so would seem not to honour the death of my friends. On further reflection I came to realize that not to forgive was sowing a seed of bitterness which would eventually lead to another war and render useless the sacrifice my friends had made. The challenge put to me was that if I put right those things which I had done wrong, I would be better able to stretch out a hand to others.'
He was thinking of emigrating to Canada, and on a trip there crossed the US border to visit the MRA conference centre at Mackinac Island, where he met up with other war veterans. Here he was finally able to unburden himself of the guilt he felt about the death of his bomber crew. 'I found it very hard to say that I felt that if I had obeyed the "arresting tick" to close the cockpit canopy, we might not have crashed. In being honest and "crucifying" my pride, I had a great sense of becoming a forgiven sinner. A feeling like an electric shock that went down my spine, left me with the thought "Behold, I make all things new." '
Feeling that the war of arms, in which he had played a part, was rapidly being made the decision to turn his life wholly over to God. He used his talents as a violinist in a number of musical plays spreading a message of change and reconciliation in the years immediately after World War II, and his accountancy training was put to good use as the work of MRA/IofC in the US and Britain expanded. 'How great does the crisis have to become before you find a fresh set of priorities for your life?' he asks.