Stories of the Hell Hawks
Lt. Col Donald E. Hillman: The War Years
Dad asked that I relate to you the most formative, defining time in his life, World War II. I believe this will help you to understand why he is who he is. I've elected to include in this record a few items which I chose to edit out in the interest of brevity at Dad's birthday party, and to refer to Dad in a more formal fashion, as many accounts I've read by other devoted sons tend to be distracting in their inclusion of personal references.
Steve Hillman (son)
Read at Don's 90th Birthday Party, August 2008
Recent comments of Pearl Harbor attack survivors:
"It doesn't go away. It'll sleep sometimes, but then it'll awaken again."
"Things were happening; people were doing things that you'd never dreamed you'd ever see or hear about."
"It's an enormity of an experience; and everything after that has been a footnote."
The War Years
Don applied to both the Army and Navy for flight training leading to a commission. The Army came through first. After being sworn in at McChord Field, he went on to primary flight training in Stearman biplanes, then directly into fighters for advanced training.
Don Hillman was commissioned as a pilot in the United States Army Air Corps. This was at the time that the Battle of Britain was being fought, at which time Winston Churchill observed of their Spitfire pilots that "…never in the history of mankind has so much been owed by so many to so few." The fact that the United States military was soon going to join the struggle, in addition to the war materiel we were already supplying the Allies, was clear to Don. Six months later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor both allowed and forced President Roosevelt to declare a state of war; Hitler reciprocated.
After pilot training, his first assignment was as a Flight Instructor for 18 months at Craig Field, Alabama, where his fighting skills were honed to a fine edge. In nearby Selma , the local Southern belles put on a ball for the dashing young pilots. That is where Don and Lloyd locked eyes across the ballroom.
They were married in Selma . At the reception, Don's mother, "Mom" asked Lloyd's mother, Louise, why it was that Louise had a picture of Mom's relative in her hallway. This led to the realization that they were distant cousins who both had a relative who was a Pilgrim in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arriving just after the Mayflower. It was the same person!
Don sailed to England, where his olive drab P-47D, with its bubble canopy design, which allowed the pilot to "check his 6", directly aft, was painted with his squadron markings of a red nose ring and rudder. Diagonally, ahead of the canopy, was painted the nickname of his father, "Old Jasper." Don became the squadron leader of the 84th Fighter Squadron, the "Hat in the Ring" squadron, thus succeeding the squadron's earlier squadron leader, Manfred von "Eddie" Rickenbacker, "Ace of Aces" of WWI fame.
For the first couple of months, his squadron flew bomber support missions. These missions were usually less intense than their later ones, but still allowed them to get some "stick time" in actual combat situations. They thus became even more proficient at formation flying, navigation, and combat. Don recalls emerging from the clouds in squadron formation beneath the "Big Friends", which consisted of hundreds and hundreds of B-17, and B-24 bombers, stretched as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon. The fighters were the "Little Friends", protecting the bombers from attack by enemy fighters. His wife's brother-in-law, John Sabella, was aboard as crew of one of those Big Friends which was shot down over Poland .
The squadron's next assignment was its own attacks, utilizing the full fighter-bomber potential of the big, versatile, and survivable P-47's. They could carry one 1,000 pound bomb amidships, or a pair of 500 pound bombs on its wings, in addition to its eight .50 caliber machine guns, four on each wing. They attacked German airdromes, strafing and bombing their aircraft on the ground, as well as attacking such targets of opportunity as trains, bridges, tanks, and convoys of military vehicles.
This was stressful duty, to say the least. They were all affected by the antiaircraft fire bursting nearby and the German fighters as they made every effort to destroy the P-47's and their pilots. None failed to notice that the number of pilots returning to base was often less than the number who had left on missions. And the fact that these men had perfect vision allowed them to more fully assess the direct results of their strafing runs than any of them would have wished. In a natural response to the overwhelming stimuli which thus affected them, most or all drank alcohol or withdrew into themselves, or both, in order to be less vulnerable to the stresses of war. To a greater or lesser degree, most still had traces of these defense mechanisms in force long after the war.
June 6, 1944
"Old Jasper" had a set of invasion stripes added for this, the date referred to as "D-Day". These consisted of three white stripes alternating with 2 black ones on both wings and on the fuselage behind the cockpit. They were for the purpose of identification of all Allied aircraft, in order to reduce the risk of "friendly fire" incidents. As Don and his squadron flew over the English Channel that morning, the reason became clear. Thousands of allied warships filled that narrow stretch of ocean separating England from Occupied France, as they moved inexorably toward their combined attack on Fortress Europe. And their antiaircraft crews all fully expected their ships to be attacked by the German Luftwaffe. Everything that flew was a potential target to the jittery gun crews.
Don and his squadron flew close air support of the Invasion Forces, as they poured onto the beaches of Normandy , France . They attacked ground targets which threatened our forces, and protected them from air attack. They flew two missions that day. Don then went on an unexpected third mission later on D-Day to destroy a German gunboat which was firing on the Allied troops. Diving through heavy flak, he silenced the gunboat with his guns and one of his bombs. He then lofted the second one over toward the antiaircraft guns which had been firing at him.
Three weeks later, the 84th Fighter Squadron was able to move up to a forward base at that very location, after the Allies had slogged their way ashore, then beaten the Axis forces back several miles inland. Don found himself at the dinner table of an appreciative Frenchman. After wine and no less than two fresh lobster tails which turned out to only be hors d'oevres, Don saw the main course of a large piece of beef being brought out of the kitchen. This was the moment he was taught the meaning of the term "Norman Hole", which consisted of a slug of cognac, designed to burn a "hole" in the recent overindulgence, thereby allowing more. The farmer had seen and thus solved Don's discomfiture. Hillman then appreciatively asked how the farmer had fared during D-Day. He said it all went well until late in the day when a crazy P-47 pilot bombed a German gunboat, then lofted his second bomb into his field and killed his cow, which was being served at that very moment! To complete the circle, the gunboat's captain had commandeered a room upstairs in that very house. The owner ran upstairs and got the skipper's hat and wooden baton, presenting it to Don, saying "To the victor goes the spoil!"
June 25, 1944
Returning from a dive bombing mission on a railroad yard, his flight of twelve P-47's bounced a flight of FW190's. He ended up 500 yards behind a FW190 with a long nose, indicating that it had an improved engine. Don chased it right on the deck, but was unable to catch up. When he remembered the lesson he'd taught all his students and finally checked his "6", he saw the three ME109's diving to line up astern, closing on Old Jasper.
He turned hard and attacked. They followed, turning after him, thus forming a modified Luftberry circle, named after the WWI German pilot who devised the defensive scheme which kept each fighter's tail protected from attack. An essential element, though, was that every member in the circle had to be on the same side. Hillman was able to very slowly turn a tighter circle, and score a good hit on the third fighter. It began to burn, and the canopy flew off, but it was too close to the ground for the pilot to bail out. He then slowly closed on the second man. In the process, he saw the same farmer and his horse three times, and passed low over the ground defenses of the airdrome at Chartres , which fired ineffectively at him. He was able to get a good burst into the second one, who crashed immediately into the woods near the airdrome. The third pilot was nowhere to be found by the time Don looked for him.
Shortly after that, on a secondary Search and Destroy mission, when his primary target was "socked in" with clouds, Don dove on a bridge to unload his bomb. As he descended, he saw a German Staff car approaching the bridge. In order to hit them simultaneously, he throttled back and held on to the bomb longer than he normally would have. He saw that he was able to destroy both, but had lost so much altitude by the time he looked up, all he could see was a stand of German trees. After observing that he was now going to find out what it was like to die because of his "dumb stunt", he opened his throttle and exercised his only option: he flew through the trees. He emerged with 6 feet of a German white pine stuck in the middle of his left wing, which caused it to significantly lose lift. He gave it maximum aileron, then hard "top rudder", and the wing then gradually regained sufficient lift to barely clear the ground, and carry him back across the Channel and return to base. Needless to say, his squadron mates took notice of the German tree top at their British airfield. Don put in for another P-47.
During his return from a subsequent mission, he had gotten separated from the rest of his squadron. He was flying at a high altitude when he saw a flight of eight German fighters far below, directly in line with his shadow. With the advantage both in altitude and in the fact that he would be flying directly out of the sun, he attacked. He destroyed one aircraft immediately, and in the "fur ball" which followed, shot down a second. The rest escaped. This earned Hillman a Silver Star.
Flying thirty to thirty five missions per month, Don and his squadron continued to support the Allied advance, as it moved closer to Germany . The air resistance grew stronger. His flight of twelve P-47's was again in a favorable position relative to over forty 109's and 190's, so they attacked. Don destroyed two more German fighters that day.
October 7, 1944
After Lt. Col Hillman had completed 145 missions, his Group Intelligence Officer, Col. "Fearless" Fuller told Don that his chances of survival were becoming slimmer. To which he argued that his odds were actually improving with his additional experience. A few hours later found Don returning from a dive bombing mission when he spotted two ME109's at low altitude, circling what appeared to be a farm field. He and his wingman dove to investigate, and found them to have their flaps and wheels down. They attacked, scoring hits on both 109's simultaneous with the eruption of the entire tree line with intense antiaircraft fire surrounding the disguised German airdrome!
After hedge-hopping for a few minutes, they climbed back toward the rest of their flight, and Don began smelling electrical smoke. Just after passing 12,000 feet, the nose of the P-47 erupted in flames, which rapidly intensified, leaving him no choice but to eject, which, in a P-47, meant he jettisoned the canopy, unfastened his seat harness, rolled 180 degrees, and fell out, head first. He was aware of the extreme danger of opening a parachute right away, and becoming a target for both ground and air forces. But this was not a problem for Hillman.
He recalls the strength of the wind as he approached terminal velocity, still head first. He was unable to reach toward his left chest with his right hand to pull the "D" ring, which opened the parachute he had so carefully packed himself, because of the powerful wind resistance. He finally was able to pull his right hand up by lifting it with his left after an interminably long time and yank the ring before striking the ground. (We will return to this moment later…) He recalled his conversation with Fearless a few hours earlier.
He immediately became aware of the sharp contrast between the loud rush of a combat mission and the quiet, peaceful glide of the descending 'chute. Next, he became aware of the contrast between the gunfire from the angry civilians, some of whom carried pitchforks menacingly, approaching his projected landing zone on the one hand, and the Luftwaffe troops running from their flak installation on the other. He side-slipped the parachute toward the troops, who surrounded him such that only one farmer was able to break through and strike him in the back with the handle of his pitchfork.
He was taken to the Luftwaffe Interrogation Center in Frankfurt , after traveling past numerous civilians who were more than willing to do to him what the farmer was prevented from doing, and what many had done to other downed fliers. For a month in solitary confinement, he had daily or twice daily interrogation by 2nd Lt Ulrich Haussmann, (the subject of the book The Interrogator).
Mid November, 1944
Then it was on to Stalag Luft III, where Lloyd's brother-in-law John Sabella had been taken many months earlier. Don was among the ranking eight officers, Colonels and Lt. Colonels. It was the location of what came to be known as "The Great Escape." That escape had occurred several months earlier, and fifty of those who were recaptured had been executed.
Every night, strict blackout conditions were observed, in order to provide less of a target for the British night bombers. Don realized that there was a small crack of light escaping from the shutters of his building when a machine gun was fired from the guard tower into the crack. This struck and destroyed the knee of the Colonel with whom he was playing bridge at that moment. He described it as a period of unrelenting stress.
Meanwhile, back in Selma , Alabama , Lloyd only knew that Don was missing in action. Two weeks after he bailed out, she was called by a Georgia short wave radio operator, one of many who routinely monitored "Axis Sally" broadcasts from Germany on their own initiative. Lloyd was told that Don was a prisoner of war. She was quoted to say, "I had no idea if my husband was alive or dead. You can imagine how I felt." She called it "a message from Heaven!" About a month later, the War Department notified her that he was a POW.
That Christmas eve, the POW's were allowed to have a small Christmas program. They were surprised to hear their German guards join in when they sang "Silent Night." For those few moments, the war didn't come between the captives and their guards.
29 January, 1945
As Russian armor and troops advanced through Poland toward the camp just inside Germany , the prisoners were notified that in just two hours they were to begin a forced march, beginning at 10PM . It was ten degrees below zero with blizzard-like winds. Six inches of snow had just fallen. The prisoners were already weak from illness and near starvation. They wore the same threadbare uniforms and shoes with holes and cracked leather that some had worn for well over a year, as they marched into the worst German winter in memory. It took a full eight hours to empty Stalag Luft III of all its ambulatory prisoners. They were motivated to keep moving by the attack dogs, the bayonets, and the guns at the rear of the columns. Gunshots were heard periodically throughout the march.
The 55 mile march was covered in 3-5 days. Some were forced to wait for up to four hours, standing still in the frigid wind while the guards tried to find shelter for them all. The shelters varied from a few rooms provided by the local populace, to barns, churches, and factories. They were marched to the rail yard at Spremburg, where they were packed into "40 & 8's," designed to carry forty men or eight horses. Sixty men and their guards were loaded into each, so they had to sit in shifts. They were given buckets for refuse. Once daily, they were allowed to dump the buckets, take off prisoners who had died in the past day, and relieve themselves in the snow. Many had dysentery, so the cars became quite foul during the four day journey.
4 February, 1945
The Stalag Luft III POW's reached Stalag 7A at Mooseburg, twenty miles north of Munich , where there were 15,000 Allied prisoners. This camp had very poor drainage, was extremely overcrowded, and the Germans had long since stopped emptying the latrines. Dysentery spread rapidly. Food was in even shorter supply, and the lifesaving Red Cross parcels no longer got as far as the prisoners. Don and Maj. Hank Mills had had enough. They arranged to swap places with two enlisted types so they could carry out their escape plan. They dug a "hidey hole" in the rail yard where they were working, and remained there when the work gang was loaded back onto the train for the trip to Mooseburg. The men covered for them at role call.
After five days of travel towards the front lines, they were caught by the "people's army" when they were getting water from a well. As they were well aware of the fate of the escapees from Stalag Luft III, their story was that they had just gotten shot down. Don and Hank stuck to their story, but when Don entered the Interrogation Room, he found himself face to face with none other than Ulrich Haussmann, the interrogator who he had gotten to know so well in Frankfurt !
Ulrich said "What are you trying to pull, Hillman?" Don said, "The war isn't going well for you. You need to start making plans for after the war." Haussman shouted, "To the cooler!" That night, the cell door opened and Ulrich entered alone, asking, "Just what did you have in mind?" Don said that if Ulrich would help them escape, he would help him out after the war. Ulrich thought it over.
The next day, Haussman took Hillman outside the camp where they could talk freely. Don saw the construction of fortifications around the city, and the camp. The Allies weren't aware of the existence of the new camp, he told Haussman. And if Patton's Tanks encountered the resistance that was being planned they would back off and shell the area until the resistance was neutralized. If they could get word to the Allies, it would be possible to save both the village and the Allied prisoners. The camp commandant bought it.
Don, Hank, Ulrich, and a Sgt. Hanneman, also an interrogator, left with their orders to ostensibly transfer the two prisoners to another camp to the west. They slept in local farms using Haussman's orders. After passing progressively inquisitive SS troops over the next several days, they awoke to the sound of gunfire. An Allied tank column had spearheaded toward their village.
They all ran into the nearby woods, and flanked the tank column. They crawled out in the tall grass until they were within a few hundred yards of the tanks. They then donned their flight caps and stood up calling out, with their hands raised. It worked. Walt and Ulrich gave their weapons to Don and Hank, coming along as their prisoners. As the tank column was in a hurry, the four were given a jeep with directions to headquarters, twenty miles away.
Don caught a flight to his headquarters, then was loaned a P-47, which he flew to a great overnight reunion with his old fighter group. They were quite surprised to see that Don was uninjured, because the instant he had bailed out of his burning P-47, his parachute had opened!
Having heard that liberated POW's were in for several weeks of debriefing, medical examinations, and rehabilitation in France , he went to General Spaatz' headquarters. There, he located a WAC Capt. aide he'd met when that HQ was in England . In short order, she'd arranged for priority orders for him to return to the Pentagon for debriefing. He flew there immediately, and did undergo several hours of debriefing. That evening, he arrived in Selma to a reunion with his wife Lloyd. It was VE Day!
Ulrich Haussman's name was in the Seattle telephone directory, after Don vouched for him, allowing Haussman to immigrate, until Ulrich died just a few years ago.
Read More about the 365thThunderbolts of the Hell Hawks
(Barnes, Crump and Sutherland)
320 pages, 500 photos and 98 illustrations of the group's P-47s.
(Dorr & Jones)
The story of the band of young American fighter pilots, and their gritty, close-quarters fight against Hitlers vaunted military. The "Hell Hawks" were the men and machines of the 365th Fighter Group.