When people learn I was a combat pilot in Europe during World War II, I’m occasionally asked, “How do you recall VE Day, Victory in Europe, May 8, 1945?”
“Not with a bang but a ball game” is my flip but accurate response. I was out in right field in a softball tournament when the end of that bloody and devastating conflict was announced over a loudspeaker.
I had flown my final combat mission on May 3 when our P-47 Thunderbolt fighters were vectored to the outskirts of Prague, Czechoslovakia. Soviet forces were hammering the German-held city from the east, and our task was to prevent the Germans from bringing up forces from the west. As it turned out, more Germans, for obvious reasons, were headed west than east.
April had been an active and costly month for fighter-bomber pilots. My log shows nine combat missions in April (plus a week at a Rest and Recuperation facility following a landing crash). The worst day came on April 17. As we dive-bombed and strafed a Luftwaffe base outside Leipzig, my wingman was hit by ground fire. He managed to bail out, but we learned at war’s end that he had been badly burned and died in captivity receiving no treatment from the Germans.
Grounded following our mission to Prague out of concern we might encounter Soviet aircraft, the 404th Fighter Group organized a softball tournament to occupy our time. We, of course, knew the war was all but over when it was revealed that Adolf Hitler had put the barrel of a PPK Walther 7.65 in his mouth and pulled the trigger. With the winning team in the tournament headed for a week in London where British lasses were said to be attracted to American airmen, a hit with the bases loaded drew more attention than the announced end of the conflict.
While my colleagues headed to London, this officer/pilot volunteered to aid in the disarmament of the German military forces. The Army Air Forces effort was called Operation Lusty (Luftwaffe Secret Technology) and the aim was to locate and retain or destroy Germany’s military assets in what was to be the Soviet Zone of Occupation come June 1 (later extended to July 1).
My assigned duty lasted less than three weeks before I was ordered back to my unit, then in the process of relocating to a base near Stuttgart.
With an assigned Jeep, a well-armed sergeant and a young Dutchman to serve as interpreter, I was sent to check the area around the city of Nordhausen, not far from the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp and even closer to the underground factory that had produced the German V2 ballistic rocket – rockets that had been removed by U.S. Army Ordnance before I arrived.
My contributions to the disarmament effort were minimal, but I do recall two interesting experiences. In an underground tunnel, I discovered a row of unfinished aircraft frames. I was informed by a German civilian left in charge that the aircraft were waiting for jet-powered engines that never arrived. This was the Heinkel 162, the “Volksjager,” the “peoples fighter,” designed to rid the skies of Allied bombers. Piloting the Volksjagers would be hastily trained young men drawn from the ranks of the Hitler Youth. No Volksjagers ever went airborne, which, no doubt, caused many now-aged Germans to secretly welcome VE-day
A second experience never forgotten involved a small village reportedly containing a factory producing military equipment. Upon arriving in the village, we found the factory – a large room where elderly women were busy sewing German flags, swastikas included.
“Well,” the major in charge of the unit asked, “what would you do if your world suddenly collapsed and you sought to keep your mind off the future?”
Like these ladies, I’d go on doing exactly what I had been doing before the outside world intruded.
Robert Huddleston lives in Chapel Hill.