22.05.1944 561st Bombardment Squadron (H) B-17G 42-97091 'Dear Mom’, 2nd Lt. Gailard R. Mergenthaler Jr.
Operation: Navy yards, Kiel (Mission #361), Germany
Date: 22nd May 1944 (Monday)
Unit No: 561st Bombardment Squadron (H), 388th Bombardment Group (H), 3rd Air Division, 8th Air Force
Type: B-17G Dear Mom
Serial No: 42-97091
Location: Nettelsee, 17¾ km (11 mls) NE of Neumünster, Germany
Base: Knettishall airfield (Station #136), Suffolk, England
Pilot: 2nd Lt. Gailard Roscoe Mergenthaler Jr. O-806106 AAF Age 25. PoW *
Co Pilot: 2nd Lt. Bernard Lloyd Cohen O-748366 AAF Age? PoW **
Navigator: 1st Lt. Paul Henning Pearson O-805194 AAF Age 25. PoW *
Bombardier: 2nd Lt. William Corbett Hamilton O-671351 AAF Age 25. PoW *
Radio/Op: T/Sgt. Donald Edward Sprague 35411923 AAF Age 23. PoW ***
Eng/Top Turret: S/Sgt. Raymond Roland Knepper 36426106 AAF Age 24. PoW Unknown Camp
Ball Turret Gnr: S/Sgt. George Delmer ‘Barney’ Anshutz 37470789 AAF Age 20. PoW ***
Right Waist Gnr: S/Sgt. John Shartz 35323543 AAF Age 24. PoW ***
Left Waist Gnr: S/Sgt. William West Ficklen 20362209 AAF Age 25. PoW ***
Tail Gnr: Sgt. Robert Andrew Hildebrand 35668491 AAF Age 22. Murdered (1)
* Stalag Luft 3 Sagan-Silesia, Germany, now Żagań in Poland. (Moved to Nuremberg-Langwasser, Bavaria).
** Dulag Luft 12 Gross-Tychow Pomerania, Prussia now Poland.
*** Stalag Luft 4 Gross-Tychow, Pomerania, Prussia now Poland (Moved from Stalag Luft 6 Heydekrug. Moved to Wöbbelin near Ludwigslust and then to Usedom near Swinemünde).
REASON FOR LOSS:
The 338th BG was the lead Group of the Combat Wing formation tasked with bombing the German Navy installations at Kiel. 22 aircraft plus 2 Path Finder Force (PFF) aircraft took off from Knettishall airfield and were airborne by 09:24 hrs. 5 aircraft had to abort the mission, 3 with mechanical problems, 1 through aircrew sickness and 2 legal aborts by spare aircraft. One of the two spares aborted with a mechanical problem just before the Initial Point (IP) was reached.
The weather over the target was better than forecast and the target was bombed visually at about 13:03 hrs from 24,900 feet.
2nd Lt. Mergenthaler Jr. reported that Dear Mom was hit by flak just after dropping its bombs. The aircraft was struck with three direct hits, in the nose, the waist and #3 engine which started immediate fires. In an attempt to extinguish the flames he dived the aircraft to about 18,000 ft but this just intensified the fires. He then gave the order to bail out with he himself bailing out at about 16,000 ft with the aircraft engulfed in flames.
German documents record that he aircraft crashed at about 13:30 hrs at Nettelsee some 17¾ km (11 mls) NE of Neumünster and 17 Km (10½ mls) SSE of Kiel. The aircraft was totally destroyed with wreckage strewn over an area encompassing some 300 m (1000 ft) in diameter. One engine landed about 1½ km (1 ml) away from the main wreckage.
All of the crew bailed out of the aircraft with four of the crew suffering serious injuries and the remainder suffered minor injuries or were not hurt. Except for Sgt. Hildebrand they were all captured at about 14:00 hrs that day near Plön which is about15 km (9½ mls) due east of the crash site. The crew were all taken to a jail in Kiel and the four seriously injured treated at the PoW Hospital II at Schleswig.
The identification of the hospital is somewhat vague but it is probable that this was Lazarett (Hospital) No.11 at Schleswig, about 45 km (28 mls) NW of Kiel.
2nd Lt. Mergenthaler reported that he saw Sgt. Hildebrand’s body on his way to a jail in Kiel with what appeared to be a small calibre sized bullet wound in his temple. He believed that Sgt. Hildebrand had been shot by a German civilian from the town of Preetz which is some 8 km (5 mls) NE of the crash site.
2nd Lt. Cohen suffered a fracture of the Ulna and Radius of his left arm. His transfer to Dulag Luft Oberursel is not recorded.
2nd Lt. Hamilton suffered a shrapnel injury to his right thigh and a wound to the forehead. He was transferred to Dulag Luft Oberursel on the 9th June 1944 and then onto Stalag Luft 3 on the 17th September 1944.
T/Sgt. Sprague suffered a shrapnel injury to his lower right leg and an inflamed knee joint. He was transferred to Dulag Luft Oberursel on the 9th June 1944.
According to 2nd Lt. Cohen Individual Casualty Questionnaire, S/Sgt. Anshutz suffered a facture of the right ankle. He was transferred to Dulag Luft Oberursel on the 26th September 1944. It was believed that his treatment continued at Stalag Luft 4 and he may have gone to the PoW camp at Barth (Stalag Luft 1) when Stalag Luft 4 was evacuated.
Note. German documents recorded that his injury was to his left knuckle which may have been mis-translation of the German “Knöchel” which can mean “knuckle” as well as “ankle”. However, in light of the fact he was held in hospital for an extended period of time before being transferred to Dulag Luft Oberursel it is probable that he had broken one of his ankles.
2nd Lt. Mergenthaler, 1st.Lt. Pearson, S/Sgt. Knepper and S/Sgt. Ficklen were transferred to Dulag Luft Oberursel later on the day of their capture.
During April 1945 2nd Lt. Cohen met with 2nd.Lt. Mergenthaler at Stalag 7a near Moosburg. He told 2nd Lt. Cohen that after he had been picked up by the Germans he was loaded onto a truck. A short while later, a German farmer and a German soldier brought the body of Sgt. Hildebrand over to the truck. Using gestures the soldier conveyed to him that the farmer had shot Sgt Hildebrand. The farmer then ducked his head and turned away.
(1) The exact circumstances of Sgt. Hildebrand’s death were not known until a General Military Government Court was convened at Dachau, Germany on the 29th and 30th January 1947.
A German national, an Alwin Reinke, was charged in that he did, at or near Ascheberg, Germany, on or about the 21st May 1944, wilfully, feloniously and unlawfully kill a member of the United States Army, believed to be Robert A. Hildebrand, who was then an unarmed and surrendered PoW in the custody of the then German Reich, by shooting him with a gun.
Reinke declared that he was the leader of the “country guards” which was the Landwacht; a body of auxiliary policemen which was formed for the purpose of searching for and arresting “fugitive PoWs and other persons endangering public safety and order”. Reinke was there on a duty mission and he was entitled and authorised to bear arms.
The court heard that in May 1944 an airman parachuted to safety in the vicinity of Ascheberg, some 6 miles from the crash site, and either landed in or ran into a small forest.
Two eye-witnesses testified that they saw the airman descending and that they ran toward the small forest. En route they met Reinke and his dog and as they entered the forest Reinke attempted to chase them away. He sent his dog ahead to pick up the scent of the airman and when it found the airman it began to bark. The two eye-witnesses, who had not left, saw the airman sitting behind a tree.
Reinke approached and called off his dog. He apparently asked the airman where his parachute was and then ordered him to march to the place. Reinke followed the airman and when he stopped, without any warning, shot the airman in the back of the head with his pistol, killing him. The parachute was later found buried some 7 feet from where the airman was shot.
A number of people, also searching for the airman, heard a shot and one individual named Schnack was at the scene and observed Reinke carrying out the shooting. Several people present after the incident watched as Reinke removed a number of items from the airman’s pockets. The 'dog tags' removed from the body confirmed that the airman was Robert A. Hildebrand.
Reinke’s version of the events was that he shot the airman because he was trying to escape. Given the eye-witness testimonies, the court rejected this defense, found him guilty of the charge and sentenced him to death by hanging. Yet two out of the five members of the court (among them the President) afterwards filed a Recommendation of Commutation of Sentence because they thought that the death penalty was too severe a punishment in this case.
The Review and Recommendation board however did not recommend clemency but approved the court findings and sentencing. Reinke was hanged on the 15th August 1947 at Landsberg in Germany.
Above Sgt. Hildebrand (Credit Michel Beckers and Dominique Potier)
Sgt. Robert Andrew Hildebrand. Air Medal (3 Oak Leaf Clusters), Purple Heart. Initially buried in the Naval Garrison Cemetery at Kiel, Row 11, Grave 89. Reinterred at the Ardennes American Cemetery, Neupré, Plot Q, Row 5, Grave 103. Relocated to Plot B, Row 36, Grave 25. Born on the 23rd April 1922 in Cold Springs, Campbell, Kentucky. Son of Walter Irvin and Elizabeth (née Keller) Hildebrand of Cold Springs, Campbell, Kentucky, USA.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with additional thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’. Thanks to Mike Woodworth for 2nd Lt. Hamilton’s PoW camp (Jun 2020). Thanks to Ray Hildebrand for the correction to Sgt. Hildebrand’s NoK details (Sep 2020).