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2nd Lt. Harry S. Hintlian
721st Squadron

Summary of Harry S. Hintlian's Six Missions During

WWII in the 15th Army Air Force, and Experience as a

German Prisoner of War

During WWII I was a navigator in a B-24, flying combat missions form southern Italy to the German fortified areas of northern Italy, and into Austria and southern Germany. I was assigned to the 15th Air Force, 450 bomb group, 721st squadron. We were based at Manduria, near Bari on the Adriatic (at the 'ankle' of the boot of Italy.)

We sailed to Italy from Newport News, Virginia, The ship was a former French Mediterranean cruise ship converted for troop transport. (Her French chefs provided the most delicious military food we ever had.) We were served breakfast, lunch, and dinner during one sitting that lasted several hours. During the trip we encountered no enemy aircraft, surface ships or submarines.

Approaching Italy we could see lava flowing own the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. We landed at Naples, where we could see the hillsides around the harbor pockmarked from heavy shelling. From Naples we were trucked to our base at Maduria. After orientation, we were assigned our fist mission.

It started with a routine that was repeated before each takeoff. I stowed my cold temperature gear into the nose section of the airplane: sheepskin jacket, pants and boots with electrically heated inserts, gloves and helmet. I checked that the pins on my chest-parachute ripcord weren't bent, buckled my street boots and chute to the bulkhead with "one-way" snap belts (removable only by pulling the outside strap.) I checked the nose-gunner's dog tags, and my own, and strapped on my parachute harness, making sure that chest and leg straps were properly secure.

During take-off, the nose-gunner and I stayed on the pilot's cockpit flight deck, and when airborne, we went through the tunnel below to the nose section. After climbing into cooler altitudes, I put on my warm flying clothes. (On one mission, the temperature in the plane dropped to -50 F.)

During bombing missions, only the lead and second planes in each 7 or 9 plane squadron carried bombardiers with bombsights and Mickey (the nickname for radar). On the other planes within the squadron, the navigator was assigned the bombardier's responsibility to arm the bombs by pulling their safety pins when reaching the "Initial Point", a destination away from the intended target. From there, the planes turned to fly straight and level directly towards the target to enable accurate siting of bomb sights. After the Initial Point, my responsibility was to press the toggle switch to release our bombs when seeing them drop out of the lead ship. This was in addition to my primary duty of continually logging the plane's position by dead reckoning and pilotage.

On my first mission, I was so tense, nervous and scared I could hardly do my job. I could see close flak bursts, realized that they were shooting at us, and knew that there was nothing I could do to protect myself. The gunner crews of every plane were throwing out bundles of "chafe" strips of Christmas-type aluminum foil to confuse the ground anti-aircraft tracking radar. We were flying at about 23,000 feet, and fortunately there was cloud overcast beneath us. We encountered no fighters, received no hits, and returned to the base without incident.

On my second mission, when flak started, I was also scared, nervous, and extremely tense. It was as though my nerves got too tight and I snapped, just like bending a pencil till it breaks. At that incident, I became a soldier: I resolved my duties were primary as long as I was alive to carry them out, and my fear of dying was going to be secondary. There was absolutely nothing I could do to control my fate. From then on, I ignored everything that didn't directly affect my duties, like seeing flak when watching the lead ship, or the crew intercom chatter. That mission, like the following 3rd, 4th, and 5th missions were completed without any incidents or airplane damage, and we experienced no fighter attacks.

My sixth mission on January 31, 1945 was out of the ordinary for me by virtue of our plane being disabled by anti-aircraft fire, my receiving no shrapnel injuries, and by walking after bailout to the airplane that was on the ground!

During that 6th mission, the initial point was overcast with solid cloud cover. During the bomb run, flak must have been heavy and close, but my attention was fixed on the lead ship, watching for the moment its bombs were released to release ours. After the "Bombs Away', I became aware of chatter on the intercom, questioning whether it was gasoline or oil spewing from the wing. The plane started loosing power, and we dropped out of the formation; we became a straggler, good bait for enemy fighters. We could see our squadron ahead, getting smaller and smaller, like dots in the sky. I could not log an exact navigation starting position because of the erratic movements of our plane.

Then, a navigator's dream appeared: a perfect cold front with a straight solid wall of clouds down to the ground on one side, and clear blue sky on the other. I dropped from my table to the bombsight window with my map to pick up a checkpoint. I had a quick glimpse at the intersection of a highway, a railroad, and a bridge over a river. I glanced back at my map to confirm my sighting, and discovered by a mark on the map I had used on previous flights, that we had flown directly over that spot once before. I started to get up to my table to log time and location when I heard the nose gunner call "FLAK" on the intercom. I had by now trained myself to give preference to my primary duty and continued to move toward my table. The gunner repeated "flak" repeatedly, sounding louder and more urgent. The plane continued flying straight and level, so obviously neither pilot nor co-pilot had received the flak warning from the nose gunner. The pilot should have notified the crew when not on the crew channel of the intercom, and I had not received any such notification.

Just as I put my hand on my call box to switch to "all channels" to warn the pilot, all hell broke loose. I heard the blast, could smell gunpowder, heard tinkling of broken glass (from the thick bulletproof glass in the nose gun turret) and I was tossed to the side of the plane. I was able to tug myself up to reach the astrodome mount by stepping on the ammunition box, and chinned up to see if the engines were running. I had to see if engines were lost and determine how far we could go; whether we could return to Italy, or whether we had to fly to in Switzerland or partisan areas. Propeller #1 was turning, #2 was running, and as I swung my eyes past the cockpit to look at propeller #3, I saw that there was nobody in the cockpit.

I was still hanging from the astrodome rim when I felt a tug on my leg, and I yelled, "What are you doing down there!" I didn't know who would have crawled through the tunnel to the nose section. He ripped off is oxygen mask, and yelled "BAIL OUT!" It was the co-pilot! Then the nose gunner popped out his turret. I remember seeing blood somewhere on him.

It was close quarters in the nose section with three men there at the same time. I was in between the co-pilot and nose gunner, who was tugging at my parachute that I had buckled it to the bulkhead with the one-way belt, and it wouldn't come off. I grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him around, pushed him onto his loose chute, which he picked up. I stepped over him to reach and release the belt-hold down and snapped by chute to myself. I then went back over him to pull the handle which releases the nose wheel door, the designated escape route. Nothing happened, the door didn't open. I then stepped back and took a flying belly flop, as hard as I could onto the door. The door opened, and I was out of the plane. The co-pilot and gunner were still inside.

I ended up being flipped on my back, looking up at the plane. It was a spinning white, extremely noisy blob. Still free-falling, I remembered my very brief parachute bailout training: left arm over face so shroud lines don't hit your face, right hand on the parachute ripcord and count to ten and pull. I remember that I only counted to three and did not pull the ripcord. We had been flying at over 20,000 feet, and I had been without oxygen for some time. Obviously I passed out. The next thing I knew was dead silence. I had no memory of pulling the ripcord, nor the expected jerk on my leg and chest harness. I regained consciousness in a daze, completely disoriented, and could only see blue sky. Then I heard a faint flutter over my head. I looked up to see the parachute shroud lines twisted like a corkscrew. The chute was not fully open. I reached up and twisted the lines free and it opened.

Now I started orienting myself. I could see two parachutes in the distance. Looking down, I saw that I was falling towards the center of a massive black-roofed building complex. I could also see bomb damage to structures on the ground. I pulled the shroud lines to slip the chute to miss the buildings. Again remembering the procedure from a brief bail-out training: prepare to land by twisting the chute to face the direction the wind is blowing, unbuckle the chest and leg harness, hang on until one's feet hit the ground, then let go, so the wind blows the chute overhead without dragging one away.

I was descending as fast as 30 MPH. I waited for the expected hard landing on the ground; it never happened. I was falling to the side of a steep hill, and the strong uphill wind draped the top of the parachute over a tall white-barked tree. The combination of the wind updraft and the flexing of the tree branches de-accelerated my descent, and left me stranded a few feet above the ground. I released by hold on the harnesses, and slipped into a 5-foot snowdrift, just like stepping off an elevator. I had no memory of falling through the tree or hitting branches, but later felt various "unexplained" aches and pains.

I immediately started tugging on my parachute to free it from the tree. While doing that, I became aware of a faint crowd-type noise out of sight in the distance, just below the crest of the hill. I didn't know what to expect. I'd seen bomb damage close to the area where I landed, and had heard stories of 'crowd anger' against airmen. As the noise got louder, I could see heads appear over the hill, and they could see me. I didn't see any angry farmers with pitchforks, but a crowd of mostly women and children, so I continued tugging on the chute. It was pure luck that I didn't do anything that was provocative. As they got closer, I turned around, stood up straight like a traffic cop, put out my hand and said, "Stop!"

Unbelievably, the crown noise quieted and everyone stopped, forming an almost straight line. Then a short man (perhaps 5'2"; I was 5'4") in a black uniform elbowed his way forward to the front of the line. I pointed at him with my outstretched right arm, unzipped my jacket with the left hand, held it open motionless, then waved him to come forward, pointing to my Colt 45 exposed in my shoulder holster. He came rather timidly; he appeared more afraid of me that I was of him. He took the gun and started to leave. I was fortunate that his loved ones had not been killed by air attacks, or he might have shot me on the spot.) I called him back (in English) "wait". He stopped, looked at me, and I pointed to my shoulder holster, unbuckled it, and handed it to him. As soon as he took the holster, the crowd's quiet tension was relieved and they burst into chatter, just like kids seeing a fire truck going down the street.

Then I heard a single shot, and immediately hit the 'dirt' (flinging myself down in the snow). A middle-aged woman came up to me, patted my shoulder and in a kindly giggling voice said (in English) "It's all right, he is just testing his souvenir".

I stood up and returned to tugging at my chute. By the time I got to off the tree and bundled up, two German enlisted soldiers came to escort me down the hill towards the road below. (They didn't frisk me for weapons; the man who took my gun must have told them I was disarmed.) While walking down, I noticed the tops of tall evergreen trees parallel to the road were clipped off in a descending line. I saw an overturned cart and a dead horse lying in the road. Following the line of broken treetops, I was amazed to see the airplane from which I'd bailed out. I was surprised that it had neither burned up nor exploded. It ended up on a frozen marsh below the elevated road.

By now I realized that I was walking around in sub-freezing weather in only stocking feet. My sheepskin flight boots, gloves and helmet had snapped off when the parachute opened. My street boots that I had strapped to the bulkhead contained insert arch supports that prevented pain in every step I took. (Being flat-footed, I was glad I wasn't in the walking army; and being a poor swimmer, I was glad I wasn't in the navy.) I explained to my (English-speaking) escort that I had boots in the airplane. He seemed understanding and lenient: he let me down the bank to the airplane by myself while he waited on the road with my bundled parachute. The wings, waist and tail sections of the plane were intact, but the nose section of the plane was crushed in below the cockpit. There was nobody in the cockpit or the nose section.

I could see my boots deep in the crushed nose but couldn't reach them no matter how hard I tried. While I struggled to reach down through the twisted metal, a soldier brought me a pair of gloves. I recognized that they belonged to the nose-gunner by their distinctive color. Another enlisted soldier arrived, and authoratively demanded "How may men in your crew?" I acted mute and he demanded again "How many in your crew?" I didn't answer, and a sergeant soon said that all the men were accounted for.

Then I noticed two soldiers carrying a crewman from the airplane. They lined him up on the snow with others. I jumped off the plane and started towards them. Two German soldiers were standing guard. One shouted, "Halt", while the other took his rifle off his shoulder and held it in a ready position. I retreated and wasn't able to determine their condition. I later learned that only the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator survived the crash.

It wasn't until I got back to the States that I reasoned why they wouldn't let me get close. Roosevelt had insisted on an unconditional surrender. Hitler had ordered the SS to march aircrew POWs out of Berlin into the mountains to the south and to begin executing them an attempt to persuade Roosevelt to back off unconditional terms. The Luftwaffe got wind of it and evacuated POWs out of the Berlin camp without advance notice under forced march conditions, escaping the SS. The Luftwaffe command must have ordered that American airman were not be harmed by anyone, and were to be protected. (I believe the core of Luftwaffe generals was of Prussian origin and abided by a code of ethics in war.)

Walking back to the airplane, a soldier told me "Your comrade, he cuckoo, shoot himself". Then my escort called me back up the road where I was met by a tall officer. He was immaculately dressed and could speak the Queen's English perfectly. I did not show military courtesy and didn't salute him first, but he saluted me and fortunately for me I retuned the salute. At that time I didn't realize that he was an SS officer. We walked down the road towards a large barn, and I (in typical GI fashion) asked something like, "What's up? Where are we going? What next?" He looked down at me and said, "You are a Prisoner of War. Your war is over. Mine, maybe three months, maybe six months." At that point, I had been on the ground at least an hour or two, but when he told me I was a POW, I became terror-struck.

We stopped to rest at the barn. I was then detained in a local prison for two days, and taken by truck to Graz for a initial shakedown. They took everything except military insignia and dog tags, and gave me a pair of German military shoes that cramped my toes. (They obviously kept meticulous records of everything they took from me. After I returned to the States, while still in the Service, I received a package in the mail with a gold-plated crash bracelet.) At Graz, I met up with our pilot and co-pilot. The pilot told me that the plane flight controls went limp, and that he, and the flight engineer/top turret gunner got out of the plane by jumping through the bomb bay doors when they didn't open because of hydraulic system failure. The two landed in an open field, a distance from a clump of trees. The pilot said that he heard a shot from the position of the flight engineer who then fell to the ground. Three was a group of soldiers in the trees in the direction opposite the gunshot noise. The pilot said that there was no gunfire from them.

From Graz we were escorted by two disabled Luftwaffe soldiers to our final destination: the major interrogation center of Oberursel, east of Frankfurt. The trip took us through Vienna and across the center of Germany on public civilian transportation. During the trip we encountered mixed reactions from the civilians: some were obviously hateful, some non-committal, and some looked sympathetic. The guards shared their food rations with us during the entire trip: bread, cheese, and sausage. We never did see any soldier tagging after us to assure that we didn't escape from our disabled escort.

The train we boarded at Graz, en route to Vienna was quite luxurious in comparison to the subsequent trains: clean and uncrowded, warm and comfortable. The scenery was almost unbelievable: long picturesque bridges over deep ravines, full forests, and occasional open plains; very lush landscape.

In Vienna we got off the train at the crowded south station, and took a trolley to the center of the city. There the guards took us across the square to a beer garden, and treated us to beer!

After Vienna, the travel towards Frankfort was miserable. Long delays changing trains at crowded stations with only partial protection from the rain. We stood for hours, wet and cold, and with wet feet (see the Bill Maudlin cartoon on last page.) We traveled continuously for 24 hours a day. I don't remember how many days it took to reach Frankfurt, but the entire trip seemed to go on forever.

Entering Frankfurt train station, I was amazed by the massive twisted steel beams we saw in the depot. It became obvious that the area had been heavily bombed. Continuing out of Frankfurt, we could see the brick fronts of 5 to 10 story high buildings, but total destruction behind.

From Frankfurt it took several hours to reach Oberurel. Our escort guards were so fatigued that they fell asleep in the relative comfort of the train. We woke them to get off; fortunately we had been told our destination.

At the center, the interrogator seemed to have a form for questions. And he seemed know the answers to the questions he asked. Most of these were obvious, such as: What airplane" How many were in the crew? What was my position? Where was our base? (I didn't answer.) About 35 years later I talked to him by phone. I was in California visiting my brother who was a service representative for Lockheed Aircraft which sold planes in Europe. My brother ran across him in his various business trips. After the war, Hans came to the U.S. stayed in contact with my brother, and became a U.S. citizen.

At the interrogation center, the hair was clipped off our head and body and we were given a shower. They also gave us some kind of crystalline substance to keep lice off. After a few days at the center in solitary isolation, we were transported to a POW camp outside Nuremberg.

We arrived there just two weeks after the group of air force POWs had arrived by a forced march from the Berlin area. The first thing we learned was how to handle the soup. (At first, if you saw bugs in the soup, you fished them out. Then later you let them stay, and when you got real hungry, you catch live one and put them back in.) The bread was very coarse, laden with husks (or sawdust?) There were Red Cross boxes coming into the camp. The belief was that they were intended for 1 person per week; the actual distribution was a package for several people every several weeks. One day we heard a P-51 strafing nearby. Several days later, we found horsemeat in our soup.

One POW pilot who went down in the North Africa campaign said he'd seen may dead Germans with no bullet wounds. He'd heard that Patton had arranged for a personal meeting with Rommel, who accepted an apology, and gas warfare did not escalate.

One night we saw flares dropping out of planes, one at each corner of the camp. (Dropped by "Pathfinder" planes.) Then the British started dropping their "Blockbuster" 10-ton bombs on Nuremberg. The noise was deafening. The front lines were approaching the camp. Somehow the camp POWs had radios, and could plot the exact position of the front lines, not from BBC broadcast but from German reports.

Arrangements were made for the body of the camp to evacuate and walk to Stalag VII, north of Munich. An acting POW medic determined that I was unfit to walk the trip, so I went by train. I arrived about the same time as the POWs who had walked there.

In Stalag VII, whenever bombers flew overhead, the Air Force POWs were "Concerned". We knew how easily a bomb could be accidentally released. The ground force POWs were envious to think that the bomb crews would be home in a few hours, eating white bread and ice cream.

When the front lines got to the area around the camp we cold hear gunfire. The ground force POWs took cover; they knew how easily a bullet could go astray. The Air Force POWs were acting as if it was play one idiot climbed the sentry guard tower and started pointing at the two sides shooting each other!

Finally the gunfire stopped, and we saw a tank come into view. A tall man was standing in the hatch, with a white trench coat and pearl-handled guns strapped to his waist. The camp gates were opened, and a little later the public address system was turned on. The first thing we heard: the Andrew Sisters singing "Don't Fence Me In."

The German camp commander must have agreed to continue logistics until the US forces could take over. Then we received white bread and we knew that our war was over. We were relayed to camp "Lucky Strike", boarded a liberty ship at Le Havre, and disembarked at NYC.

During the three months I was a POW under Luftwaffe control, my weight dropped from 135 to 87 pounds. I was never mistreated. The only Germans who ever touched me were the kindly lady on the hill, the individual who took the gun out of my holster, and the barber at Oberursel who removed all the hair on my body to get rid of fleas or lice. I believe that no other nations UNDER SIMILAR CONDITIONS could or would have treated its POWs better than the treatment I received under Luftwaffe control.

Postscript

After returning to the states, stationed in Houston, I ran into a classmate from Navigator School. The first thing he said was "How did you make out?" To a GI, this usually means, "Did you pick up a Babe in a bar?" I said that I hadn't been in a bar, and he said, "No, how'd you make out in the POW camp?" I was shocked, and asked, "How'd you know that?" He told me, "We saw you get shot down. We were right behind you, and flew around the anti-aircraft fire.

My next question was, "Where were we?" I had a nagging suspicion that I could have been wrong about where we were when we got hit; I really had only a quick glance at our position. The anti-aircraft battery was not a plotted location on the Intelligence map at our Base Headquarters, and we should have been safe. (It must have been a mobile railroad-mounted 88mm battery.) As the Navigator, I felt that I could have been responsible for the deaths of the crew members. His confirmation of the location where we were hit was a relief, and should have completely alleviated my guilty conscience, but it hasn't.





Information courtesy of Harry Hintlian

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