Hero Quietly Did The Right Thing

The postage stamp unveiled in Washington 5-30-06 honoring Hiram Bingham IV, vice consul in Marseilles, France, in 1940 saved the lives of over two thousand people - mostly Jews - as he took it upon himself to issue visas to allow them to flee the approaching Nazis, even though he wasn't supposed to issue the visas and lost his job as a result.

Hiram Bingham IV was U.S. vice consul in Marseilles, France, as Hitler began leaving his imprint across Europe. Even though he wasn't supposed to, he issued thousands of U.S. visas to Jews, allowing them to escape.

It wasn't good for his career.

But Bingham knew what he thought was right. And he did it. Quietly, but his actions nonetheless did not go unnoticed.

The visas issued without permission in 1940 got Bingham bounced from his job in 1941 and derailed what had been a promising career track in diplomacy for Bingham, who came from a prominent family: a father who was a senator and governor, a Tiffany heiress mother, and a grandfather and great-grandfather who were the first missionaries to Hawaii.

CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports Bingham said little about what he had done and his own family did not realize the scope of things until after his death in 1988, when they found the records he'd kept — hidden in the house.

Bingham's heroism was recognized posthumously in 2002, and Tuesday, a dream came true for his children as the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a stamp in Bingham's honor.

Elly Sherman, who was lined up with her family and other Jews outside the U.S. consulate in Marseilles, where they were saved by Bingham, doesn't need a stamp to jog her memory.

"My mother kept this document," said Sherman, pointing to the long-ago paperwork that allowed her family to flee as the Nazis marched forward into France.

Sherman's family, at the time the visas were issued, had already received an order to report to a concentration camp within two days.

And it was those two days which were the last two days that Hiram Bingham was still the vice consul in Marseilles - handing out visas to people who were not supposed to get them.

They weren't supposed to because in 1940 it wasn't American policy to use visas to rescue Jews in danger because of the Nazis.

In comments recorded by his granddaughter, Bingham recalled being ordered to stop.

"My boss," Bingham recalled, "said 'The Germans are going to win the war. Why should we do anything to offend them?' "

But Bingham kept writing visa after visa, saving life after life. Among the many he saved were artist Marc Chagall, philosopher Hannah Arendt — and hundreds of Elly Shermans.

The lesson of that day, says Sherman, is one which will continue to be passed on to the children and grandchildren in her own family.

"The story tells itself — basically, one should stand up to evil," she says. "When so many others are working hard to kill you, one man can be strong enough to do what is the right thing to do ... God, it is so wonderful!"

It's also a reminder. Sometimes the most effective acts of courage unfold in ways unseen.