To Fight & Fly to Freedom…
Part 3 of the Hoover WW2 Trilogy
Somewhere in Holland
Late April, 1945
(Continued from Part 2)
Hoover’s Group Commander, Colonel Marvin McNickle, wasn’t surprised by the loss of Hoover. In Hoover’s autobiography, "Flying Forever," he stated that, “I knew Bob would either get shot down immediately or become an ace. That was because he always wanted to be right in the middle of the action… Bob loved being a fighter pilot. He would have taken on the whole German Air Force if they’d let him.”
A Missing Air Crew Report, #2483, was filed for Hoover – as well as F/O Montgomery. Both Lt. Montgomery and Lt. Smith cited the outstanding skill of the Fw-190 pilots. The missing pair were listed as Missing in Action (a status both still carry to this day), and the war in the skies over southern France continued.
After Hoover entered the cold winter waters of the Mediterranean – 20 miles from the French coast - he inflated his Mae West life vest, untangled the parachute lines, and waited for rescue – his leg wounds stinging in the salt water. He watched as his squadron searched for him, and the ensuing dogfight that claimed Lt. Bishop’s airplane. He wondered about the fate of his friend, F/O Montgomery. And he wondered who would find him first.
As the sun lowered on the horizon some four hours after his bail-out, the answer appeared: a German merchant mariner. Hoover was now a prisoner of war.
Arriving ashore in France, he was marched through the town of Nice, and placed on display for Germans to mock and harass. He was interrogated, but gave only name rank, and service number - “Robert A. Hoover, Flight Officer, 20443029.”
He was taken to Marseilles, and was thrown into a local jail that was poorly maintained. He loosened the bars of his cell’s window, and escaped it, enduring an attack by German guard dogs. The noise of the dog attack, however, alerted the guard and Hoover was quickly recaptured and sent to Germany via train – where he attempted escape again.
Taken to an interrogation camp in Oberursel, near Frankfurt, Hoover was further interrogated, isolated, and constantly threatened with execution. Attempting one more escape by used a turtleneck to hide his uniform, he nearly walked out of the camp, until he encountered a guard who attempted to converse with a disguised Hoover.
|Hoover (front row, fourth from right) and fellow POWs held at Stalag Luft I|
Thwarted again, Hoover was sent to the Permanent Camp for Airmen, Stammlager Luft, prison camp outside Barth, Germany, near the Baltic Sea – better known as Stalag Luft I.
Stalag Luft I
Initially built for to incarcerate captured British airmen, Stalag Luft I quickly became the go-to spot for downed Americans as the daylight precision bombing campaigns against Germany resulted in numerous bombers and their aircrews becoming prisoners of war. A pair of ten-foot-tall barbed-wire fences encircled the camp and its structures – with a “warning wire” surrounding the inner perimeter. Crossing this line could result in POWs being shot by the armed German guards, nicknamed “Goons,” who manned watch towers.
During Hoover’s 16 months as a Kriegesgefangenen, or “Kriegie,” he continued to pursue freedom – spending many weeks in solitary confinement upon recapture. While there, however, he also met many lifelong friends.
Amongst them were test pilot Major Gustav Edward 'Gus' Lundquist. An American, Lundquist had flown many aircraft, including captured Fw 190s in England to learn their strengths and vulnerabilities. Wanting to join the war and gain combat experience, he was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 on his third mission, flying a P-51D with the 486th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group, on July 29, 1944.
Hoover expressed his desire to fly one some day – especially as an escaping POW in a “liberated” enemy fighter - so Lundquist shared his knowledge and experience with POWs. “From memory, he’d brief us on the cockpit check, scratching out pictures in the sand of the prison compound,” Hoover recalled.
Hoover also made clear his plan to Lundquist that he, one day after the war, wanted to fly at Wright Field, the then-home of the Army Air Force’s flight test program.
Acting as the commander of the captured Allied airmen was Colonel Henry Russell “Russ” Spicer. Originally the commander of the 357th Fighter Group based in England, the P-511 he was flying was shot down on March 5, 1944 over the North Sea, and he was captured when he washed ashore in Axis-held territory.
Under Spicer’s leadership, the war continued for airmen at Stalag Luft I – but the combat was mental games, and plans of escape. When you noticed some POWs were getting too comfort with the guard, he called them out of it: “I have noticed that many of you men are becoming to buddy-buddy with the Germans. Remember that we are still at war with the Germans. They are still our enemies and are doing everything they can to win this war. Don't let him fool you around this camp, because he is a dirty lying sneak and can't be trusted.”
For those remarks, Oberst Willibald Scherer the camp commandant, charged Spicer with “defaming of German character” and “inciting prisoners to riot.” Court-martialed in a kangaroo court, Spicer was sentenced to 6 months of solitary confinement, followed by execution.
During one of Hoover’s stay in solitary for a failed escape, he spoke with Spice through the cell walls. The colonel encouraged the young pilot, saying “Don’t give up. I’m proud of you. You keep on giving these people hell. I want to see more of you so keep making it difficult for them to contain you!”
Late in 1944, after the Allied invasion of Normandy and victory being in sight, Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued orders to POWs to stop their escape efforts, . as they would be liberated soon anyways.
But Hoover and the other 200-some members of the camp’s “Escape Committee” didn’t care. With the unpredictable Russian Red Army advancing from the east, and the German guards possibly executing all of the POWs to cover up any violations of international law at the camp – in April of 1945, Hoover and two others organized and executed their escape plan.
"We found a board underneath one of the buildings," Hoover stated. "A bunch of people who had worked on the escape committee created a diversion. They started a fight on one side of the compound, so the guards were all looking over there. We ran out with this plank, put it up over the top of the fence and climbed out."
With Hoover was 2nd Lieutenant Jerome “Jerry” Ennis, also from the 4th Fighter Squadron. On his 38th mission on December 19, 1943, after a fighter sweep mission over Genoa, Italy, went askew, and 3 of the Spitfires on the flight ran of the gas and crash-landed near Piacenza – 6 weeks before Hoover. As a matter of coincidence, 2nd Lieutenant Hugh Montgomery was a member of both of their ill-fated flights.
Also with the pair was a Canadian airmen named George. But, shortly after the escape, George decided to go it alone.
Ennis and Hoover found shelter in a farmhouse, under hay in the barn. The next morning, they were discovered there by a French woman who had been forcibly-moved to Germany. Helping the escapees, Hoover wrote a note thanking her and asking any Allies who encounter her to not harm her.
She read and understood the importance of the note, and gave the pair a small handgun. "She said it would do us a lot more good than it did her," Hoover remarked.
Later that morning, Ennis and Hoover stole a pair of bicycles from a near village, and continued west. But as they did, they encounter advancing Russian forces, also pushing west, but to Berlin!
Using French that his had learned in high school, Ennis was able to speak with a few of the men. But they quickly learned that the Red Army, hardened by Nazi atrocities committed against them, were up to no good.
Separating from them, the pair came upon an German airfield that was poorly-staffed, but held more than two dozen aircraft, including Fw 190s. They first checked aircraft on the outskirts of the airfield, and found a revetment that stored a bullet-riddled Fw 190 with only slight damage – and tanks full of fuel!
With the help of Ennis, and a .25 pistol given to him by a French laborer, Hoover was able to commandeer a FW-190 while Ennis held a German ground crew member at gunpoint, instructing the mechanic by speaking French (which the man understood). "Jerry told him that if he didn't help me get airborne, he'd kill him," Hoover said. "I got in the cockpit and the German helped me get the engine going. The fuel gauge was full and the engine ran up nicely."
When Hoover waved Ennis to climb aboard, he declined. "He never wanted to fly again," Hoover said.
Realizing that the Germans could shoot at him as he took off, Hoover closed the canopy, opened the throttle full power and went across the grass field to the runway.
"I got airborne and pulled the gear up," he remembered. "The stupidity of what I was doing hit me. I thought, 'Here I am in a German airplane, without a parachute.’”
Since he was flying a plane with a swastika painted on the side, the Allies might take aim as well. “It was overcast at about 4,000 feet," Hoover noted said. "I pulled up to the bottom of that overcast, so I wouldn't be a target."
Hoover headed north until he saw the North Sea. "I didn't have any maps or charts," he said. "I knew that if I turned west and followed the shoreline, I would be safe when I saw windmills, because the Dutch hated the Germans."
He followed the coastline to the liberated Zuider Zee, a shallow bay of the North Sea in the northwest of the Netherlands. When he saw windmill, he looked for somewhere to get fuel. "I had passed over some airfields that appeared to be deserted, but I knew that deserted runways were often mined," he said.
He chose an open field behind the Allied lines for his landing site. He intentionally ground-looped the fighter to avoid a ditch, wiping out the landing gear.
Upon exiting the crippled plane, locals gathered around him, thinking he might be a German defector. Seeing an British Army truck, he waved it down, and told the driver 'I'm an American, but they think I'm a German!'
The driver told Hoover 'Get in here with us' and he was returned to Bob Hoover was finally a free man again – although he didn’t know whether or not his fellow escapee, Jerry Ennis, had succeeded as well…
While his flight to freedom was written about in his hometown newspaper after the war in November of 1945, few knew of Hoover’s Fw 190. That was until, in the mid-1980s, his fellow escapee Jerry Ennis appeared at an air show Hoover was performing at in Reading, Pennsylvania, and shared the story with attendees.
“I wasn’t proud of that flight,” said Hoover. “It was about the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”
The German garrison left the camp on April 29 before the arrival of Soviet forces on May 2, 1945, who liberated the camp and released the prisoners, including Colonel Spicer, whose scheduled execution date of April 1, 1945, was overlooked by camp officials with bigger problems on their hands. The POWs were evacuated by 8th Air Force B-17s on May 12 and 13, 1945.
After the war, Hoover would be assigned to flight-test duty at Wilbur Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio, where – after a mock dogfight - he would meet a young West Virginian fighter ace by the name of Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager...
But that is another story…
Go back to Part 2 of the Hoover WW2 Trilogy...
Return to Check-Six.com