BRIAN ALBRECHT | Cleveland Plain Dealer (USA)
BROADVIEW HEIGHTS, Ohio – Two years ago on an Easter afternoon, Marcia Luecke waded into the waters off a Pacific island beach where her father had died during World War II, and honoured the sacrifice of a man she never knew.
Luecke was only 18 months old when her father Markus Lohrmann, an Army chaplain, leaped into the waters off Goodenough Island in Papua New Guinea on 6 March 1944.
Lohrmann had been aboard a small boat with other soldiers when the engine suddenly quit. They were unable to radio back to their base for help.
As the craft drifted, potentially toward Japanese-held waters, the chaplain offered to swim to their base on the island.
Two other men joined him, but when the soldiers reached the beach, the chaplain was not among them.
They swam back and found his body. Efforts to resuscitate Lohrmann on the beach failed.
Seventy-three years later his daughter stood on that very same beach, the highlight of a journey that included evading a crocodile, and a forced, emergency helicopter landing.
But it was important for her to be there.
“I was never able to be with him, so I wanted to at least be at the last place he was, where he was called to heaven,” she recently said.
Luecke grew up knowing only what family members had told her about the father she never knew.
Markus Lohrmann was the third of 10 children, and entered the ministry as pastor of a Lutheran church in Illinois. There, he met Gertrude Wendt and they got engaged after only three dates.
He enlisted in the Army as a chaplain in 1940, the year before America’s entry into World War II.
He shipped out to the Pacific with the Army’s 24th Infantry Division in 1942, six months before his daughter was born.
On the day of his fatal swim, his wife was attending a service at St John’s Lutheran Church in Effingham, Illinois.
Luecke said her mother once told her that, during that service, “she felt like she was going to faint all of a sudden. So she put her head down and closed her eyes, and she could see very clearly a beach, a tropical beach, and she could see my father lying on the sand with other people men around him, trying to resuscitate him.
“And it was obvious in her vision that they couldn’t, and so she knew what had happened.”
Luecke’s knowledge of her father's death starts with his funeral and burial in Effingham, after his remains were shipped home from the Pacific.
“I remember that very vividly because they sent an Army captain to be there through the whole service,” she said. “He was so kind, he basically acted like a father to me through the whole thing.
“I remember being at the cemetery,” she added. “To this day when I hear taps, I weep.”
Her mother never remarried, saying she had a husband – in heaven.
Growing up, Luecke tried imagining what her father had been like by scrutinising his brothers.
She said she was told by his family and friends that “he was just a very compassionate and caring person. A very loving person. A very Godly man.”
He also was known for a “wonderful sense of humour. A lot of joking, a lot of teasing,” she added. “I so wish I could have known him. I can hardly wait to get to heaven and find out what he’s like.”
The day came when she decided to visit the place where he had died, more than 8,000 miles away.
“All I can say is, it was like a calling straight from God. I just felt called to go there,” she said. “That’s the last place his soul was on this earth, and his soul left there for heaven.”
Her husband, David S Luecke, missions pastor of the Royal Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Royalton, could not join her because he was needed at the church during Lent.
So she travelled to Goodenough Island with her sister-in-law, Eunice Shoemaker. The remote island can only be reached by boat or helicopter.
Their flight was delayed a day and they landed on Easter at a small village on the island where they were told the locations of the former American Army base and the beach where Luecke’s father had died.
Luecke brought along a memorial plaque, a metal figure of the risen Christ, bearing her father’s name and the inscription, “From the waters of Baptism, (Mark 16:16), Through Tears of Joy and Sorrow, To the Waters of the South Pacific, To the River Flowing from the Throne of God. (Rev 22:1).”
As she stood on the beach, then waded into the water, a feeling swept over her.
“I guess I felt close to him,” she recalled. “And yet, it was a kind of closure. Like, OK, this was the end of the earthly part of him. But it was only the beginning of his eternal life in heaven.
“And it was kind of a beginning for me, too,” she said. “That I could go on from there, and I guess, stop the grieving and start the rejoicing.”
In her quiet meditation, she didn’t notice a crocodile swimming toward her, until alerted by the helicopter pilot and guide.
The helicopter had to make another quick flight that day so the women visited a Catholic mission on the island that had a secondary boarding school.
The students were called together and Luecke suddenly discovered another meaningful part of her visit.
It struck her that her father had died shortly before he could deliver an Easter message to the troops.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence, by a long shot, that it was Easter that I was there, or that there were 500 young children … that I was able to basically give the sermon on Easter that he might have given,” she said.
“I could talk about my father’s sacrifice on that very island where those children were sitting and going to school,” she added. “I could tell them that his sacrifice was like the sacrifice of Jesus, that he chose to lay down his life so that others could live.”
So she did, and presented her father’s memorial plaque to the mission.
Once airborne, heading into a storm, the pilot realised he would not have enough fuel to make it back to base.
As Luecke and her sister-in-law wondered whether “our children would be making that same pilgrimage [to the island], in our memory,” the pilot managed to land the helicopter on a peninsula jutting into the water on the other side of the island.
They were unable to communicate with the base in another historical deja-vu to her father’s experience.
She said she later found out that “all of our family members had been panicked, frantically calling and e-mailing one another, since no one, including the helicopter company, had heard directly from us for the last 24 hours, except for the emergency message that we were low on fuel and heading into bad weather.”
They were forced to spend the night in another village.
Fortunately, the helicopter’s emergency tracking beacon led to their rescue the next day.
Back home, Luecke said she had changed, fully accepting her father’s death, not just in her head but “at a gut level.”
No return visit to the island was needed.
If she wanted to, she could still visit his grave, or the Redemption Window at St John’s Lutheran Church in Effingham, Illinois, that was dedicated in her father’s memory in 1950.
Luecke said her grandfather, also a pastor, once told her that “he believed that my father had been called out of that boat, and out of the water, by Jesus, like Peter, on the Sea of Galilee. And that my father had answered his call, and Jesus had reached out and drawn him up, to his side, in heaven.”
And at Easter her thoughts went back to that island.
“Of course the island,” she said. “But also to heaven. I can so more clearly picture my father there.”