The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.
Lt. James R. Hoel
James R. Hoel was born in Canby, Minnesota on September 2, 1921 and, in 1935, moved with his parents, Omer and Olive Hoel, to Evanston, Illinois. In February 1942, at 20 years of age, he left the Harris Bank of Chicago and enlisted as a cadet in the Army Air Corps. He was trained to be a bombardier and navigator.
On May 17, 1943, Lt. Hoel and his crew took off from an airbase near Bury Saint Edmonds, England with ten other B-26 Marauder bombers. This was a low level flying mission intended to avoid German radar detection. Their target was a German occupied power plant near Ijmuiden, a port city in the Dutch province of North Holland. One of the eleven planes was forced to turn back before crossing the coast and made it safely home on one engine. It is believed that the squadron was detected on German radar when the eleventh plane rose to turn back. As a result, all ten attacking B-26 bombers were lost. The casualty rate was appalling. Out of the 60 total men, 34 were killed, 24 were taken POW (one died in captivity) and two crewmembers from one plane were recovered off a rubber life raft in the North Sea. The Group Commander, Group Executive Officer and both squadron leaders were all either killed or made prisoners. The disastrous nature of the doomed mission was sadly epitomized by the KIA deaths of a 450th Squadron pilot/co-pilot team of twin brothers.
CRASH AND CAPTURE (as described by Lt. Hoel)
Our B-26 Marauder was flying less than 50 feet above the North Sea to avoid German radar. At this altitude things happened fast at over 200 miles an hour. As our plane passed over the Dutch coast, what looked like a massive 4th of July fireworks show of small arms fire loomed before us. Ahead to the left, our lead plane was hit and in an instant was gone, snap-rolling and crashing upside down into a sand dune. The shock of my friends’ certain deaths swept over me but a burst of tracers brought me back to our own problems. Our radio operator was shouting and our pilot frantically yelled for me, the plane’s bombardier-navigator, to find out what was happening in the rear of the plane. I crawled back from the nose and an enormous blast stunned me as flak ripped into the side of the plane.
The pilot shouted for us to get ready for a crash landing. I quickly strapped our radio operator into his seat, opened the ceiling escape hatch and fell to the floor bracing my back against the pilot’s bulkhead.
My future looked bleak. I didn’t know of a single survivor from any past B-26 crash. Yet I felt strangely peaceful. My only regret was for my parents, as I pictured them receiving the inevitable “missing in action” and, later, “killed in action” notices. The plane smashed into the Maas River at 250 miles an hour and split in half on impact. The front section sank like a submarine in a few seconds. I was underwater but able to stand on the plane’s floor and push our radio operator out of the hatch ahead of me. We struggled to the surface for air. In a moment, our pilot and co-pilot burst to the surface and the four of us swam towards shore. Our turret and tail gunners never made it out of the Marauder. When we reached the river’s bank, a young German officer was waiting. He pointed his rifle at us and in perfect English stated: “For you I think the war is over.” On a bank behind us 20 more German soldiers pointed their weapons at us. We had no idea what would happen next. I glanced at my wrist to check the time but my watch was gone.
STALAG LUFT III
After his routine interrogation, Lt. Hoel was placed in Stalag Luft III at Sagan, 100 miles southeast of Berlin. This was earlier in the war before the Allied Air Campaign gained its peak momentum. It was a period when both American Army Air Force officers (the minority of approximately 200 men) and British RAF with Commonwealth officers shared the North Compound. From this particular compound the British escape committee started the ambitious project of constructing three simultaneous secret tunnels codenamed ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’, and ‘Harry’. All prisoners were utilized in some manner of abetting ‘The Great Escape’, and Lt. Hoel was no exception. Employed as a ‘penguin’, he wore a make-shift brace or suspenders with attached pouches underneath his clothing, and dispersed Tom’s excavated sand around the Stalag’s yard through his trousers’ legs. With the increased tempo in the bombing campaign and inevitable burgeoning of the American population, the Germans segregated them with their own (South) compound in September of 1943. Lt. Hoel’s tunnel, Tom, was discovered by German ferrets shortly before this separation. On the night of March 24-25, 1944, 76 Allied prisoners of Stalag Luft III escaped through the tunnel named ‘Harry.’ Within days most were recaptured. An outraged Hitler had 50 of them shot, an appalling abrogation of the Geneva Convention, to which Germany was a signatory. Twenty-three were reincarcerated. Three made it to freedom—a Dutchman and two Norwegians, all flyers with the British Royal Air Force.
THE DEATH MARCH
The threatening Russian advance in the closing months of the war pressured German camp officials to force a mass evacuation of the entire Stalag in the dead of winter. Given very little notice and without adequate food and clothing, three large columns of weakened POWs were to depart the camp in staggered intervals. Lt. Hoel, assigned to the first movement, recalls the misery of the vanguard party having to trail blaze a path through the fresh thick snow drifts. Ten thousand men were forced to march 70 miles during one of the coldest winters in European history. The fatigue, bitter cold and lack of food were too much to bear. The Germans would walk them for an hour in the bitter cold—and while they were walking they were sweating. When they stopped for a break to rest the sweat just froze to their bodies. Some couldn’t continue; they just lay down and died.
A RANDOM ACT OF KINDNESS
One day during the march, Jim noticed a farmhouse way off in the distance. He saw someone coming from the house toward the ragged line of marchers stretching across 20 miles. As the person approached it became clear it was an old woman with a pot of tea in one hand and a cup and saucer in the other. She walked up to one of the GIs and inquired, “Would you like a cup of tea?” She proceeded to pour him a cup of warm tea. One normally would think, how does this help—pouring a cup of tea for one man in the midst of thousands of struggling soldiers? Jim recalls that it was a simple gesture such as this that inspired him and others to continue on.
The men eventually arrived at a temporary holding location at Stalag XIII-D Nuremberg-Langwasser (Oflag 73), a vast POW collection point before reaching their eventual destination near Munich at Stalag VII-A Moosburg, Germany. Final liberation came in the guise of the US 14th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army on April 29, 1945. Shuffled to Camp Lucky Strike on the French coast, the lucky Lieutenant boarded a Liberty ship for his blessed return home.
EVANSTON, IL – AUGUST 27, 2003
(Jim Hoel) The ringing woke me at 6:30 a.m. At 82 years old, I wasn’t usually up at this hour. I reached for the telephone and fumbled with the receiver. “Hello?” I said. “Is this Jim Hoel?” the distinctly British voice asked expectantly. “Yes,” I said, confused. “I believe we may have a wristwatch that belongs to you,” the caller said excitedly. I was ready to hang up and go back to sleep but asked, “Just what watch are you talking about?” My watch was sitting on my bed stand. “A Gallet watch, sir, with your name and home address engraved on the back.” I was stunned. All of a sudden, 1943 seemed like yesterday.
Until he received the phone call, Jim had not thought about his watch since the day his Marauder went down 60 years earlier. Upon learning the news of his long lost watch, Mr. Cooper described Jim as being a bit “gobsmacked,’ (British expression for dumbfounded).
How his watch ended up in England remains a mystery to this day. For Jim, the watch had special significance. His employer, The Harris Bank of Chicago, had given it to him in February, 1942, as a departing gift after he enlisted. The watch was a beautiful Swiss Gallet Chronograph, which he subsequently used to navigate his Marauder. His name and address were engraved on the back.
PETER & TINY
The watch was discovered when Peter Cooper, a 56-year-old truck driver in Kirton, England, was visiting his neighbor, 89-year-old “Tiny” Baxter. Tiny showed Peter a watch he had kept for years in a drawer with other collectibles. He had been an engineer for the British forces during World War II and after the war his mother gave him the watch when he returned home. Unfortunately, how the watch traveled from the bottom of the Maas River in Holland to Tiny’s mother in England is anyone’s guess. Tiny simply never thought to ask her.
When Peter noted the inscription on the back of the watch, he asked Tiny’s permission to have a friend search the Internet for the owner. The search found Jim listed on several internet sites. With the help of several contacts in the Chicago area, Peter located Jim and placed the call. After the call, Peter sent him the watch, which was then repaired. It continues to work just fine.
A BLESSED RETURN
In April, 2005 Jim, accompanied by his son, Gil, visited England to meet and thank Peter Cooper for the return of his watch. This was his first time back to Europe since being liberated 60 years earlier. From England they traveled to the sight where his plane crashed near Rozenburg, Netherlands. He stood on the shores of the Maas River in the precise spot where he swam to shore on May 17, 1943. The citizens of Rozenburg welcomed him as a hero – one of the American liberators who assisted the Dutch in their hour of need. But for Jim, many of the memories that the watch brought back didn’t fit into a simple “good news” story. While in Holland, he visited the graves of the men who were lost on the day of his ill-fated mission. Time and time again, when thanked as a hero, Jim simply replied, “No, I’m not a hero. The real heroes are the boys who never returned.”
I continue to reflect on our 2005 trip and feel quite fortunate to have been able to travel with my father and relive some of the experiences he kept tucked away for so many years. In the years leading up to his death we became closer and I feel I have a better understanding of the ghosts that influenced him as I was growing up. This journey convinced me that we can return to the places where we have been wounded and find a restorative balm. A balm that offers hope – the hope that we can carry on and find the good that exists within ourselves and the world we live in. After living through the hellish ordeal of WW2 my father always stressed as we were growing up, “People are basically good.” This has, over the years, become a mantra for me. I am humbled by the simplicity of his words.