Vincenca Teriaca said she always knew her father went down with his aircraft. It wasn’t until she Googled his name after Father’s Day that she realized how much of an impact he still had on people.
For the residents of Schopp, Germany, a village of more than 1,400 residents 12 miles from Ramstein, Saturday was a day to say “thank you” to the daughter of a man they have never met.
In an emotional ceremony, residents paid tribute to the U.S. pilot who saved the village 55 years ago. On Nov. 14, 1956, 1st Lt. Salvatore Angelo Meli, 27, went down with his F-86D Sabre on the outskirts of the village. Meli elected not to eject from his aircraft. Instead, he steered the jet to miss the village center and managed to keep the aircraft in flight until he reached the edge of the village. On impact, the aircraft exploded into a ball of fire.
The village escaped major damage only having to repair some buildings on the main street and one structure fire. There were only a few reported injuries and no other deaths.
“Haupstrasse would look completely different had it not been for your father,” Bernd Mayer, mayor of Schopp, told Teriaca. “You had to grow up without a father and the citizens of Schopp are sorry for this.” The residents applauded Teriaca, who made the trip to see the town hall named in honor of her father.
“Thank you for keeping my father’s memory alive,” Teriaca said to the residents in attendance. “I will always have a bond with Schopp and the people here.
“I was thinking of my father one day and I saw an advertisement asking for the family members of Lieutenant Salvatore Angelo Meli,” she continued. “I answered the advertisement and here I am now.”
On the other end of that advertisement was Uwe Benkel. Benkel has made his hobby recovering lost aircraft and bringing the pilots of those aircraft home to their families. So far he has recovered more than 100 aircraft and brought home 33 pilots.
“When I was in Schopp a few summers ago, a resident asked me to look into the crash that saved the village in 1956,” he said. “I started looking into the crash and found his name and put the ad out on the Internet looking for any of his family members.”
Benkel then got in touch with Mayer. Mayer discussed the issue with the community council and they unanimously decided to have a memorial marker unveiled in remembrance of Meli.
“I always knew what my father did was courageous,” Teriaca said. “I just never understood the magnitude until now.” The impact of that fateful day is still relevant all these years later. For August Bachmann, a resident of Schopp and former member of the fire brigade, the memory of that day is still clear in his mind.
“I was 18 when that plane went down,” Bachmann said. “I was one of the two first responders to the accident and began to put out the fire.”
Bachmann said the flames were so significant and the heat was so great that it caught nearby structures on fire and even caused damage to the inside of some homes.
“I can’t imagine what Schopp would be like had he not taken his life to save ours,” he said through tears. “The damage would be insurmountable.”