The internment of SSG Hiller
To whom it may Concern:
After 59 years have gone by it is hard to remember everything that happened to me while in the service, but this I can recall.
I was a S/SGT in the 448th Bomb Group, 713th Sq. in the 8th Air Force. My name is Robert Hiller. I was on crew #25. We went to England in late fall of 1943.
Our missions were into France, Germany and one to Czechoslovakia. Most were quite rough and some were very rough. Any that we weren’t shot up on pretty badly we called “milk runs.”
Flack was our worst enemy as only occasionally the fighters bothered us too much. We had fighter escort that held most of them down. The fighters were P-51s, P-38s and P-47s. We were always mighty glad to see them as they saved us many times. The flak was a different story as no one could do anything about it. It was very bad as the Germans had lots of practice and were very accurate. Many times I’ve seen them pick one ship out of a formation and shoot it down before going to another and doing the same thing. With 10 men on a ship, it really added up on our crews lost.
Back to my part- I was an armorer/gunner and had charge of all 10 50 caliber maching guns, the 4 turrets and the bomb racks. Pulling the pins on the bombs was the main part of that. I was the left waist gunner as my main job. It could get quite busy at times. I never got a decent shot at a fighter plane but did get 2 German E-boats, sunk one and blew up the other so that more than made up for no fighters. There were between 9 and 11 men in each one.
The cold was an enemy in itself at the altitude that we flew at. It was most always around 50 degrees below zero and once was 88 degrees below. I had been hit by flack on my heated boots and they burned up on my feet and then got frozen. I had no way to keep warm so the radioman had to take over my gun and I went to the front of the ship where it was warmer. I didn’t report it to the doctor, as he would have grounded me. He did that once before so I was 1 mission behind my crew. We were pretty closely knit and I wasn’t going to let that happen again. One other time I was hit by a small piece of flak and told no one about that either.
Our crew flew the first 3 missions to Berlin by the Americans. We had a news correspondent fly with us on the first one and he was quite impressed. He even wrote about it.
Now to my 18th mission. We were going to Manheim, Germany and were routed through France, just past Paris. We were hit in #2 engine and also hit in #4 pretty badly. We had a 90 mile per hour tail wind and could not return to England. The ship we were flying that day was already in pretty bad shape. We got shot up badly the day before so we got stuck with this other one.
We were trying to make it to Spain when the Swiss flying ME-109s got us and made us fly to Switzerland. There were three that were taking us there, one leading and two behind us. They were there to shoot us down in case we tried to do anything. We had already thrown out everything that was loose to lighten the ship so only keep 200 rounds for each gun. They led us to a fighter field that was too short for us to land on. We ended up trying the field but there was a row of cottonwood trees in the way. We took out 4 of them and it pealed the wings off and opened up our wing tanks of 100-octane gas. The entire ship was a ball of flame and we all were mighty lucky to get out. We had planned to burn the ship on landing and that was to be my job. It sure wasn’t necessary though.
I ran and got into a ditch and was crawling down it when I looked up and saw this German uniform with a Swiss emblem on it. The soldier was pointing a rifle at me and he said: “for you, the war she is over.” We were all caught right off. The one that caught me pointed to the ship and said “booms?,” and I told him no bombs as we had dropped them in France. We were put in ambulances and taken to their air base. They tried to question us but name, rank and serial number is all they got. They were pretty irate about that but by the next day they had contacted Berlin and knew all of our histories, hometowns, schools and the whole works on all of us. They just flat didn’t like us. We were kept under guard the whole time but they did take us back out to the ship or what was left of it. I had hurt both leg muscles and the tail gunner had hurt his shoulder. We both still suffer from those injuries. The only doctor around was a goat doctor, and the he couldn’t have helped either of us.
We were sent to a quarantine place way up in the mountains for three weeks and kept under guard. Then we were sent to Adelboden where the rest of the Yanks were held. After a short while all the officers were moved to a different place. If you wanted to do much you had to sign a parole and if you escaped you would be brought back with rough treatment. They same was true if you were caught trying to escape without a parole. There was always roll call and bed check so you had to plan any escape attempt around that. The food was lousy; the only meat we got was 6 ounces a month, and it consisted of zoo animals. The monkey, lion and tiger wasn’t too bad but the elephant was something else. I tried a number of times to escape but when I saw I couldn’t make it I’d go back to camp. Finally there were three of us who got into a bit of trouble. We had been sent to a different camp that they said was escape proof. By this time I had been there for 8 months and was pretty tired of the place. It was two days until Christmas and some of the guards had gone home for the holiday. That night there were three of us that tried to kill the camp commander. We were in a 3 story building and every night the commander would take the same route home. He passed under a deck and as he did so we all three lifted us a cast-iron seat onto a rail and dropped it on him when he came into sight. We really thought we had gotten him, but the next morning we saw him all bandaged up in his office and they were going over the chair for fingerprints. I told my 2 buddies I was tired of the coup and leaving that night. I really was tired of the soup as all we got was potato soup and a boiled potato for a day’s ration.
Well, we did leave that night and it was a might hairy as we were up on a high plateau with one trial up and a railroad track- both guarded. We climbed down the cliff (I had done it a couple of times before) and when we started around a small village the church bell began to ring. That was a signal for an escape. We were spotted and fired on by a machinegun. We kept running, as much as you can in over 2 ft. of snow. We went a ways and then they put a pack of dogs on us. They chased us to a cliff and all we could do was jump. We couldn’t see the bottom but jumped anyhow. I was unlucky and hit my bum leg on a rock on the way down. We crossed a road and went into a fair sized creek and waded down. I have no idea how far we went, but it was quite a ways. Finally we crawled into a culvert under the road. We weren’t far from a railroad and one of my buddies could speak some French. He made two trips to buy tickets so he wouldn’t get all three at the same time. We didn’t have money enough to go very far, so we had to walk the rest of the way. It took 5 days to get to Geneva, and all I had to eat was a chocolate bar saved from my escape kit. We then located a Free French or FFIs as they were called. He found us a boat and a Frenchman to row us across the lake. We were fired on again by the Swiss and a few hours later by the Germans. We were kept under guard by the FFI since they weren’t sure who we were. I fixed a tire and got a motorcycle running, and one of the Frenchman’s sons rode it 60 miles to a phone. The next morning there was a master sergeant and a new 42 Chevrolet out front. He took us to Annecy, and what a wild ride that was. We saw Germans along the way and I asked for his 45 so I could get some, but he wasn’t sure just who we were either so no luck. We ate one meal there and then boarded a C-47 to take us to England. After just a ways, we blew and engine and had to set down at Lyon. We had bombed that field at one time and the craters were still there. It took 5 days to fill the craters and bring in another engine. Another 5 days with nothing to eat. We located a hotel or what was left of one that fed only Majors and above. They threw us out and then I got mad. We went back in and I grabbed the clerk by the neck and told him what was going to happen if we didn’t eat. He just pointed to a basement door and we went down. There was a huge master sergeant as cook and I tried to explain to him what we wanted. Nothing doing- he was in the process of slicing 5 loaves of bread at once with the biggest knife I ever saw. I grabbed that knife from him and backed him in a corner and flat told him that if we didn’t eat, off would go his head. Well, that changed things. He said to take a seat and he would bring us something. It was right after New Years and he brought us full trays of food. When we finished, I said “Hey Sarge, how about a refill?” Well, he did and when that was gone I said “Hey Sarge, how about another?” He said “Aw hell, get your own.”
We finally got shipped out of there and back to England. I had to go to my old base to be identified and get a uniform. Everyone I had known was gone except for the doctor. Out of the 65 crews, 650 men, there was one complete crew that had finished their missions. I heard later that the average number was 15 missions before you were shot down. And I volunteered for this? I finally was able to contact one of my buddies and we flew from Scotland to the Azores and on to Bermuda. We arrived there in a hurricane and lost contact and couldn’t find it. Two engines ran out of gas and while flying around looking, I just happened to see a light. I told the steward to tell the pilot and he banked the ship. Just as we cleared the runway, the other two engines quit. After the repairs were made we left for Washington. They had a bad storm so we went to New York where they had an ice storm. When the plane set down, the pilot lost control and we headed for a hanger sliding sideways. A ground crew saw us coming and raised the hanger door so that our wing didn’t impact. I got out, kissed the ground and said never again.
I was given a 21 day furlough and a bit later was sent to a rehab hospital. After another 5 months I was given a medical discharge. When I was shot down, I weighed almost 180 pounds, and when I got out just 133.
That is my story.
S/Sgt. Robert Hiller