March 10, '45 was my sixtieth mission. From now on I'd be eligible for
rotation home. It was a happy prospect. What wasn't was a 2,000' ceiling and
5,000' thick cloud cover by no means great weather to be flying combat in.
Since I'd joined the 36th Fighter Group on August
1, 1944, a lot of good friends in the Group hadn't made it as far as I had. They'd
either been killed or were missing in action. Among them were pals I'd had
gone to flying school with: Jack Wyand, Harry Vibert, and Joe Schultis.
Others I recall missing from the pilot's roster of the 23 Fighter Squadron
were Don Smollen (K.I.A.), Pit Cole (K.I.A.), Jack Teagarden
(K.I.A.), and Don Dreifke (M.I.A.).
But the biggest loss
for all of us was Major Albert E. "Easy" Miles, our squadron commander. His
chute caught on the tail of his plane when he had to bail out. He went in
with his plane. "Easy" Miles was one of the bravest men I have ever known.
The mission today is an armed reconnaissance in an area north of
Frankfurt, Germany. My friend and roommate, "Maggie" Magnuson, will lead the
squadron of two flights of four P-47 Thunderbolts. I'm to lead the second
flight of four.
"Stay the hell away from the Remagen Bridge!" the briefing officer
had told us.
The capture of the Remagan Bridge three days earlier had been
unbelievably good fortune, and 1st Army was doing everything possible to
protect this first bridgehead over the Rhine.
"There is a 15 mile no-fly zone around the bridge and any plane,
and I mean any plane-Allied or German, that comes into this zone, is
going to be shot down. So stay the hell out of there," he had
We took off from our Belgian base, and flew east-south-east over
cloud cover. Not until we were well into Germany could we see ground
through occasional holes in the overcast. In one of these, Maggie
spotted a marshaling yard. He radioed the rest of us that he and his wingman
were going down and take a look. The two planes of his second element
tacked on to the four in my flight. We circled overhead at
10,000 feet and watched Maggie and his wingman dive down and disappear
through the hole. Shortly, Maggie radioed up that he'd spotted some
locomotives and that the rest of us should come on down.
I radioed my strung-out bunch to follow me and dove down through
the hole and pulled out at 1,500' heading north. I saw the marshaling
yard and lined up on it, made my bomb run, and released my
two 500 pounders, then broke away in a steep 90° left-hand climbing turn. I
looked back to see the havoc I'd wrought.
Terrible! My bombs had landed in some peasant's field and blasted a
nice big hole in it.
In order that I wouldn't get run into by the planes following me, I
climbed back up into the clouds again, made a 180° turn, and came back down
out of the clouds and tried to find the locomotives.
I was flying a brand spanking new P-47D30RA - my plane had
been grounded for maintenance. A new plane has the smell of a new car,
and I babied this cream-puff along like an old man out for a Sunday drive
while I looked for the locomotives. At the same time I was thinking about
the marvelous rest leave I'd just returned from in Cannes on the Riviera.
"Ker-thunk." The plane was hit! I didn't even know I was being
fired at. No flak, no tracers, no indication of any enemy fire at all.
Aluminum skin over the wheel well on left wing was buckled up.
Inside was a raging fire. Every pilot's reaction to such an emergency is to
check his controls, and I kicked the rudder pedals. WOW-the fire
just spread the length of the wing.
What to do? I could fire-wall the throttle and try to go back on
the deck and pray the fire wouldn't get so bad I'd have to bail out. If it
did, there wouldn't be time to gain enough altitude to jump. Another problem
was, I couldn't remember if there was a bulkhead between the wing root and
gas tank under the seat. If I guessed wrong-Blooey!
Then there was the Ramagen Bridge. I guessed it was about 70 miles
due west of my position, and if I made it, I'd be shot down by our own
My next option was to go up through the 5,000' of cloud cover on
instruments, then head for the lines. At least I'd be able to jump, if
the plane didn't blow up first. But I was a lousy instrument pilot, and with
the plane on fire, I would be watching the fire and not my instruments. No
The next choice-jump! The decisions took less than 10 seconds
before I started my bailout procedure. I ripped off my oxygen mask, ejected
the canopy, and rolled the plane upside down, ready to drop out, exactly as
the book said.
Problems: First, I hadn't rolled the trim tabs forward to keep the
nose up, when the plane was upside down, and it kept diving towards the
ground. Second, you just doesn't "drop" out of a plane going 150
miles an hour. That's no gentle zephyr, and it keeps you jammed in the
cockpit. Third, upside down, I was kicking at the stick to keep the nose
up, while struggling to get out against slipstream, and I saw I was
still hooked to the radio umbilical.
Then pow! Out I went, like a cork from a champagne bottle. I had
wriggled out just far enough for the slipstream to grab me instead of
holding me in. It was the fastest I've ever gone anywhere, anytime -
the radio umbilical didn't slow me down one whit. Forever etched in my
memory is the image of the vertical stabilizer going right between my legs.
The thought still makes me cringe.
Flight school didn't include practice jumps; from now on it would
be on-the-job-training. At best, I was at 1200' and didn't dare observe the
nicety of counting to ten before pulling the rip cord. I yanked it. The
chute serpentined out and opened with a lovely "WHOOMPH." and had he been
there I would have kissed Sergeant McElroy, our parachute rigger.
As the plane flew away-engine roaring - I suddenly felt like two
people. One, a stranger, parachuting into Nazi Germany. The other, who was
going to get back into the plane and fly back safely to the base. This
horror just couldn't be happening to me! When the plane crashed into the
ground in a huge explosion, I knew I wasn't going back to the base - and I
became one person.
Suddenly, everything became quiet-even serene. The first sounds to
filter into my consciousness were of the birds singing beneath me. It was
eerily disorienting, but beautiful. As I drifted down, Hollywood images of
Germans machine-gunning defenseless Allied pilots in parachutes flashed into
my mind- I waited?
I pulled on the parachute shroud lines, to control my descent, but
I feared if I pulled too hard I'd dump the air from the chute and crash to
the ground so I gave it up.
The ground was coming up faster, and I saw a barbed wire fence I
might straddle. Then the ground blurred, and I was on it in a heap. I looked
around to see that I was in the back yard of a large house on top of a
knoll. The six foot hurricane fence that surrounded the property was ample
proof that the best way into this place was through the top. Down the knoll
I saw a small town.
We had been told in Escape & Evasion lectures that the first thing
to do is to hide your parachute. If the Germans found it, they would have a
place to start tracking you from. Okay, I gathered up the chute, took it
into a shed near the back of the house, and crammed it down behind a
woodpile. Outside again, I went around to the east side of the house and
looked for a gate - no gate. I hurried back around the house
to the west side to see if there was a gate there and came face to face
with, what else, eight or ten German civilians on the opposite side of the
Their leader was a wild-eyed string bean of a guy that had a Luger
pointed straight at me. My arms shot up in surrender. We stared at each
other, wondering who was going to do what next. They seemed as surprised as
I was and nearly as scared.
They motioned me to go back around the house. I did, and when I
was screened from them by the house, I took out my 45 Cal. automatic, threw
a shell into the chamber, left the safe off, and shoved it back
into my holster. I would go down with all guns firing! When I rounded the
east side of the house, where I had looked the first time, there was a gate
big as life and the Germans waiting for me. Again, my arms flew up in
surrender, and they took the forty-five.
We started down the knoll towards the town, with me out front like
The Pied Piper of Hamlin with a gun in his back, I think every kid in town
showed up. They hooted and hollered at me in the German equivalent of, "We
gotcha, We gotcha!" Kids are are kids. In my best military manner - head up
chin in - I tried to ignore them and the dour stares of the adults that had
joined the parade.
That morning I'd given extra care to my uniform-boots and brass
polished. I even wore a tie. If I was going to be their prisoner, at least I
could be a proud officer and gentleman of the U.S. Army Air
There was a a small factory at the edge of the town, where they led
me down into a basement office. The room was maybe eighteen by eighteen feet
with solid concrete walls. The first thing they did was
make me strip off every stitch of clothing. They must have thought I was
hiding secret papers or weapons. I did as ordered. However, standing stark
naked in front of a bunch of people, to whom I'd not been properly
introduced, lacked a certain propriety. But I didn't have much choice.
About now, they decided to unload my forty-five. This set off the
damnedest brouhaha and commotion among them as none of them knew beans about
unloading a Browning 45 Cal. automatic. I was the only person in the room
who knew there was a shell in the chamber and that the safety was off. If
that forty five went off, in this eighteen foot square concrete room, the
carnage would be unbelievable. I wouldn't die with my boots on; I'd die with
Naked as I was, I desperately pantomimed how to unload the piece.
They thought I was trying to get the thing back and yelled and cursed me.
But I kept at it, and it finally dawned on them I was trying
to help, and "we" unloaded the forty-five. It was a scene right out of a
Three Stooges comedy.
When they found I didn't have any hidden weapons or secret
documents on me, they let me get dressed and marched me over to the
burgermeister's office. The kids of course, tagged along and continued
badgering me. They were no longer amusing.
Of the four or so Germans in the burgermeister's office the
Burgermeister was the kindest. If he hadn't been there, I believe the others
would have made short work of me because of the devastation and
civilian deaths that resulted from Allied bombing.
Two self-important uniformed officials came in and took over. I had
no idea who they were or could I understand a word they were saying. But I
got the feeling they weren't sure what to do with me, and I began
saying, "Luftwaffe, Luftwaffe."
If captured, we had been told to try to get in the hands of the
Luftwaffe-comrades-in-arms, that sort of thing. The next choice was the
Wehrmacht, and most of all try to stay out of the hands of the Gestapo,
SS, and the civilians. At least these weren't the Gestapo or SS, and the
"Luftwaffe" suggestion might work. I must have said the right thing,
for the leader quickly started to telephone.
He greeted the person at the other end of the line with a loud, "Heil
Hitler," at the same time his arm shot up in the Nazi salute. I couldn't
believe it. I thought this only happened in Charlie Chaplin movies. Whatever
he said was Greek to me, as I spoke no German. But it seemed to have solved
I was dying for a cigarette, and with a lot of gestures was able
to persuade them to let me have one. I sat ramrod stiff in the straight
backed chair, and puffed away "by the numbers" in my best officer and
The moment didn't last. A man in peasant clothing stormed into the
room and began screaming and hollering at me. Then he smashed the cigarette
from my hand. I had no idea what was going on. Through a
little French, I finally realized he thought I had killed his wife and
children. I couldn't have, unless they had been out in the middle of the
field where my bombs had landed. No doubt his family had been killed at
some point, and, for that, he was taking out his rage on me.
In French he yelled, "Pourquoi? Pourquoi?" (For why? For why?)
My only answer was, "C'est la guerre." (It is war.)
It was the wrong thing to say. He jumped on me, and beat on me with
his fists. I didn't dare fight back and just curled up in a ball. The other
Germans finally pulled him off and shoved him out of the room. I was
damned lucky he hadn't captured me first.
The situation calmed down after he left, and I was turned over to
an older man in uniform. I thought he was the town constable. He took me
outside, picked up his bicycle and motioned me to come with him. The kids
were still with us but had stopped their antics. We walked through the town,
until he stopped at a house in the middle of a block. He leaned his bicycle
against a low brick fence and went up the walk to a
What followed was the greatest pantomime I have ever seen. The
constable stood outside the door in profile to me, apparently telling an
unseen wife that he had to take this vicious "Terraflieger" to the airfield
in Giessen, and that he would be late coming home for supper. But it was
just as obvious from the look on his face and the lecture he was receiving
that she didn't believe one word of it. She must have
yelled that all he wanted to do was to go to Giessen, get drunk and chase
He argued back furiously, while pointing down the walk at me, but
staring straight ahead at her. Didn't she realize the importance of his
mission and what a hero he was? Finally this shrew's face pops out
from behind the door, like a Jack-In-The-Box, she craned her head to see the
"Terraflieger." Pop-eyed he'd been telling the truth, she jerked her head
back into the house as quickly as it came out. The constable turned and
strutted back down the walk full of himself, muttering, "Boy-did I ever tell
her!" I didn't understand a word of what they said, but I didn't have to.
The constable shoved the kids aside. He mounted his bicycle and
motioned me to get going. I trotted along slowly, as he did S-turns to keep
from falling off the bike. The kids had tired of the game and quit. I said
the hell with running and slowed to a walk. The constable got off his
bicycle, and we walked out into the beautiful German countryside-alone.
The constable was an older man, and I gave a thought to
overpowering him and escaping. But he kept the bicycle between us and his
Luger on the far side. He knew what I was thinking and was prepared
for any tricks I might pull. If I tried it one of us was certain to be
killed. If I did escape, I had no food or anything else I would need to
survive. It was seventy mile trek to our lines. The risk wasn't worth it.
We plodded along silently into the late afternoon sun. Each deep in
his own thoughts. In about an hour I guessed, my watch and all my other
possessions had been liberated back at the factory-we came to an airfield in
The constable turned me over to the Luftwaffe and without ceremony
they dumped me into a cell. My sixtieth mission was incomplete and all hopes
for rotation home- shattered.
Greycliff, Montana is a quintessential wide spot in the road. No
post office, one retail store, and a few occupied houses. Greycliff is not a
place to expect extraordinary coincidences to take place.
In the summer of 1992 my wife, Joan, and I were playing tennis
at a friends ranch outside of Greycliff. One of our doubles opponents was
Martin Siebert, a native of Germany, and pastor of the
Congregational Church in nearby Big Timber. After the match, I mentioned to
Martin that I had been a fighter pilot and P.O.W. in Germany at the end of
"Where were you shot down?" Martin inquired.
"Near Giessen," I told him.
"That's not far from where I was brought up," he answered.
I told Martin in 1984 that. we'd tried to locate the town (I never
knew the name of it) where I'd been shot down, but we were unsuccessful. I
believed it was about five miles northeast of Giessen.
Two weeks later Martin introduced me to a visiting young German
couple who lived very near the place of my capture. I told them how I had
parachuted into the back yard of a house on top of a knoll, and
about my capture, and trip to Giessen. I believed the town was roughly 5
miles northeast of Giessen.
A month later a letter arrived from my new German friends. In it were
photos of "my house" exactly as I remembered. Included was the current
owner's name and address, Prof./Dr. Albert Spitznagel of
Staufenberg-Mainzlar, plus names of several people who remembered the
In response to my letter, relating the events of that day and my
excitement at discovering the site of my "downfall," Prof. Spitznagel
invited my wife and myself to spend a weekend with him and his wife, Gisella,
at the "house on top of a knoll." We could not refuse and in February of
1994 we went.
Their hospitality was fabulous and included a reception for us to
meet many of those who remembered that March day in 1945. They included the
burgermeister's son, Willie Krieling, one of my "kids," Friedrich Zecker and
the current deputy burgermeister, Reiner Mehler, and a reporter from the
Giessen newspaper to record the events.
But the belle of the ball was Hilde Schmitt. Hilde was then the
twenty-one year old housekeeper/governess for the family of "the house on
the knoll" and told the following,
"...I don't know why I didn't go back into the house with the rest
of the family, when the 'all clear' sounded. Suddenly, I saw a man - bent
over running - along the fence and hedge. It was clear he was the
shot-down pilot, and I ran up behind him with a pick-axe! Then other people
came up the hill and captured you."
At the reception, Hilde and I discussed how fortunate it was I didn't
see her, when she followed me with the pick-axe. I had my forty-five, and if
she had threatened me, I might have shot her. That would surely have been
curtains for me when I was captured. The next day Hilde invited us to her
home for champagne and cake. We continue to exchange Christmas cards.
The story was published in the Giessen newspaper on Monday morning and
was read by a young man, Andreas Dort. He immediately called the Spitznagels,
missing us by 15 minutes. He was livid.
Andreas' grandfather had retrieved a section of my plane using it to
cover a wood pile. His grandmother had made underwear from my parachute.
Andreas had grown up obsessed with the plane and its pilot. Over the
years he had collected many parts of my plane from the crash site. Now
his pilot had come to Mainzlar and he had missed him! Andreas' story also
became a feature article in the Giessen paper.
He wrote me that he wanted to send me pieces of my plane and
parachute. After a lot of bureaucratic haggling with the customs department,
the package arrived with the cherished mementos.
In his covering letter Andreas wrote, "Please don't be angry because
the pieces are in bad shape. They are very old. And only you know, what a sh*t
big crash you've done."
Another letter from Andreas told about how he found out who the
"On Tuesday Sept. 5th a man from Staufenberg visit me in the
Burgermeisterei. We talk about some official things. Then he said: are you
the man, who found some plane-pieces? I said: of course, what's
"He like to hear our story, because he was a 10 year old boy from
Daubringen, than you have been going like a POW across Daubringen behind a
"Then he said: in front of the pilot was the police-officer, Mr. Hahn
from Lollar. I thought, whom the (to f*ck) is Mr. Hahn? So I call the son
from Mr. Hahn at that same minute. I explain him the problem and
he said, it's real possible, that his father was the right man. He knows by
himself (1945 = 13 years old) a story like this. I demand from him a
picture from his father and told him, that you will be crazy, if you can
see the man in uniform and he was the right one. He will call me at the
weekend, then I get the photo. The house where they are live in 1945 is real
like this today. I take some pictures from it and send them prompt to you."
In March of 1997 we visited Andreas and his wife, Claudia. They gave
us a super time and we have become great friends. In addition to visiting
the crash site and finding some more small parts of my plane,
we met a neighbor of Mr. Hahn's. He remembered my being at the Hahn house
and confirmed that Mrs. Hahn was a real, "battle-axe."
All this is a tale the result of a tennis game at that "wide spot in
the road," Greycliff, Mont.