It was November 1, 1944. I, Feldwebel (Technical Sergeant) Gustav Jack Lothar Carl Herbert Julius Hans Jergen Hildebrandt von Lengerke (aka “Jack” Hildebrandt), had just completed a successful strafing run against British General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery’s advancing army along the southern end of the Dutch-Belgian border.
Enemy ground fire had forced me to break out of the Schwarm (formation). Alone and feeling threatened, I piloted my Focke-Wulf FW-190 Würger (“Butcherbird”) down low to 500 feet and applied evasive maneuvers such as hedge-hopping to avoid enemy flak. The antiaircraft guns were well concealed between the Waal River and the Dutch canal.
Approximately 30 miles away and barely visible on the horizon was the German line in the Netherlands. Safety was only minutes away.
WHAM! The fighter lurched violently up and to the right. The cockpit glass imploded and freezing air and smoke swirled around me. I was stunned by the explosion. Thank God for my goggles and oxygen mask. A few seconds passed before the oozing of blood spreading across my flight suit and searing pain in my left arm and leg snapped me back to reality.
My left hand swelled up in seconds like a donut, and my left leg did not work the rudder too well. I managed to raise my arm, and I almost passed out by what I saw. I could see daylight through my elbow!
My bum began to throb, so I must have stopped some hardware as well. However, my physical condition was the least of my worries. The 190’s engine was on fire, and the flames started licking toward the left wing and the cockpit. Already I was too low to bail out, and with the engine on fire there was no chance or time to climb. My only hope was to belly land—anywhere—as quickly as possible.
Over the nose and through wisps of smoke, I spotted the Huisden Bridge over the Waal River. Beyond it was the German line and a sprawling pasture. Aiming for the pasture, I fought desperately to keep the crippled plane in the air. Adrenalin kicked in. I was half paralyzed from shock and pain. Fighting nausea and a strange sense of euphoria, I forced myself to stay focused. “Put the damn thing down as fast as you can, before the fire gets to you!”
The fire was spreading—I was about to be burned alive! As the bridge over the river loomed ahead over the nose, I knew I had reached the German lines. The pasture was dead ahead. I released the controls, reached under the canopy, and fired the explosive cartridge that blew off the canopy. The fighter hit the ground with a ferocious impact, its force slamming my head into something sharp. The plane cartwheeled and skidded, then came to an abrupt stop.
In and Out of Consciousness
Stunned and disoriented, I do not remember how I got out of the wreckage and into one of the numerous foxholes the Germans had dug along the roads in occupied Holland—a good 150 feet away. They were necessary because of the enemy Thunderbolts, Mustangs. and Lightnings that wreaked havoc with anything that moved on the roads.
What I do remember is the plane blew up in a large fireball. Then I must have passed out. The time was 3:30 pm, and this was the somewhat ignominious end of my flying career with the Luftwaffe. I had flown 86 missions, having been shot out of the air by ground fire rather than a glamorous finale brought about by an enemy fighter.
I had been shot out of the air once before—in March 1943 behind Soviet lines, but at that time I didn’t stop any lead with my small body. This truly was journey’s end.
As I regained consciousness, I began to shake uncontrollably and my teeth chattered—from shock, I suppose. I don’t know how long I remained in that foxhole, drifting in and out of consciousness, before a German Army roving patrol arrived on the scene. They had seen the remains of the fighter and looked for the pilot in the roadside holes. They found me alive, much to their surprise (so I was told). They carried me to their vehicle and took me to a frontline aid station, where I passed out again.
The next time I regained consciousness, I was on a stretcher wearing a green sleeveless sweater I had never seen before—and nothing else. Those rotten German medics had stolen everything I had on my body—my automatic, my sealskin wallet with my personal pictures in it, my Luger (Pistole 08), flying boots—everything. I had been warned about those thieving German medics, but you can’t do much for yourself when you’re unconscious.
An American in the Hospital
I was lying on the floor in a large, cold room with the windows apparently blown out. This was northern Europe in November, and the temperature was below freezing. The chill caused my oozing wounds to feel as if they were crawling—a ghastly feeling. I began to scream. A young German doctor rushed over and quickly gave me a shot of morphine. Then he ordered me prepared for transfer to the local hospital in Utrecht for surgery.
The medics carried me on a stretcher and placed me in another room already filled to capacity with other severely wounded and dying soldiers. They were lying—just as I was—on straw mats placed directly on the freezing concrete floor. The nonstop whirlpool of crying and moaning was, in itself, indescribable agony.
The morphine removed the edge of pain and fear. I felt myself begin to slip into a state of blissful uncaring. Maybe I was afraid I would never wake up again. In spite of the pain, I gritted my teeth and forced myself partially upright. There was a body next to me. I reached out and touched him. Nothing. He was dead. I turned away. On the other side of me was another soldier, half moaning and half crying. I knew the feeling.
But something was different about him. Through bleary eyes, I noticed that his uniform was a strange khaki color, not the green worn by Germans. Sensing an intruder, he looked straight at me. Then he spoke—not in German, but in English. American English.
Taken aback, I mumbled something in what few words I could come up with in English. We formed an immediate bond. We didn’t seem like enemies; we were seriously wounded soldiers. Our newfound comaraderie distracted us from our own unbearable pain. Although our conversation was halting and stilted, it was friendly and meaningful. While we talked we shared a government-issue German cigarette.
I learned he was an American prisoner of war, a paratrooper from the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles. This man held a great fascination for me, for I had never met an American before. Bob (I think that was his name) was from Wisconsin, and he spoke nonstop of his love for his country, America. What a wonderful place, so seemingly different from the Old World’s traditional nationalistic hatreds, rivalries, dense population centers, and narrow mindedness.
We got along famously for about two hours, and then, suddenly, four medics appeared and carried him out, away from me. They did not want me to talk to the American. I was instructed never to speak to any prisoner of war under any circumstances; it was considered treasonous conduct. If Bob is still alive and happens to read this, I want him to know he was one of the factors that convinced me the United States was where I wanted to be.3
Hospital Under Fire
After my new friend was taken from me, I once again sank back into pain and despair.
About two hours later they shoved me into an unheated ambulance. The ride to Utrecht was a real “ball breaker”—that ambulance sported a suspension like a Mack truck. The fact that we were constantly strafed by Spitfires on the way added little to the enjoyment of the ride. Two of us four guys in the ambulance were dead by the time we got to the hospital.
Upon arrival, there was total chaos because this was close to the advancing Allied front. There were too many wounded German soldiers and not enough medical staff. The German nurses and most of the surgeons had all been evacuated. Only a few very brave and dedicated doctors stayed behind.
A rather stunning blonde Dutch nurse seemed to take a shine to me and persuaded a German surgeon to operate on me. My proverbial good luck appeared to hold, and soon my gurney entered the operating room. Survivors of the world, unite! I received ether and went under. Good night, world….
I woke up screaming in pain. My left arm, cut completely open from the inside of my elbow down to my hand, stuck straight out from my side, revealing bone, tendons, and muscles through pieces of bloody flesh. I was flat on my back strapped to an operating table. The surgeon was lying dead across my body, still clutching the bloody scalpel in his hand. The operating room nurse lay dead in a grotesque heap on the floor.