Minneapolis church honors native son shot down by the Red Baron in WWI

At the north end of Lake Of The Isles, St. Paul's Episcopal Church has been the spiritual home to its congregation for nearly 150 years. But tucked away behind the altar in this house of worship is a nod to a native son of Minneapolis, who holds a unique place in U.S. history. 

"It's a memorial to George Helliwell Harding. That's his family name and he was a pilot in World War I. And it commemorates the fact that he passed away serving for our country," said local historian Kathy Kullberg. 

Kullberg says Harding was an aviation enthusiast, who was building his own plane when World War I broke out in Europe. When he wasn't immediately accepted to fly for the U.S. Army, he used his ancestral ties to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps in Canada, where he quickly distinguished himself. 

"He looked upon the fact that his father was Canadian, so he contacted the Canadian government, and he was able to get a commission there to start flying planes for the Canadians. And apparently he did so well, just in a couple of days, they asked him to carry on being an instructor for the Canadians," said Kullberg. 

Kullberg says Harding was eventually sent to England to do scout work for the Royal Flying Corps in that country. He then went to France, where he unfortunately crossed paths with one of the most well known fighter pilots of all time, Baron Manfred Von Richtofen. 

"He was the most notorious flying ace on the German side from World War I, and he got the nickname the Bloody Red Baron," said Kullberg. 

Von Richtofen was a national hero in Germany and was respected by his enemies. He led a large fighter squadron that became known as The Flying Circus because of the unit's brightly colored aircraft and mobility. 

It is believed Harding was shot down by the Red Baron in March 1918, during a mission to attack advancing German troops and bomb their supply lines, becoming the 73rd of the Baron's reported 80 kills. 

"He would represent, in the annals of history, he was the only American pilot that was actually shot down by the infamous Baron Von Richthofen," said Kullberg. 

Ironically, the Red Baron was shot down about a month later in northern France, within eyesight of where he had downed Harding. In the meantime, Harding was buried in a British cemetery in France, forever laid to rest on foreign soil. 

"So he was never dis-interred and brought back to America," said Kullberg. 

In the years since the Great War, the Red Baron has been the subject of several books and movies. In the Peanuts cartoons, Snoopy frequently fantasized about being a World War I flying ace, who is always shot down by his arch-enemy. Their imaginary battles even inspired a song while Harding's name has been largely lost to time. 

"That's how history usually works. They take the most notorious people sometimes and eulogize them more because it makes a good story," said Kullberg. 

But Harding's heroic sacrifice is commemorated by a bronze cross on Victory Memorial Drive as one of the more than 500 servicemen and nurses from Hennepin County who died in World War I.

"That's one of the reasons I wanted to tell George's story, because he had some significance, but he also represented Hennepin County. He represented Minnesotans who wanted to fight for democracy across the world," said Kullberg.