It was 0350 hours on November 21, 1944 when T/Sgt. Herman L Hager was awakened by the Charge of Quarters. Breakfast at 0430, briefing at 0530 he shouted as the Enlisted men of the 398th Bomb Group sat up wiping their eyes.
Herman was a radio operator assigned to the 603rd Bomb Squadron and today would be his twentieth mission. Dressing quickly, he grabbed his mess kit and with the rest of his crew stepped out of their hut named Seldom Inn and started the long cold walk to the mess hall.
Breakfast over, he boarded a truck which was waiting to take the crew over to the Briefing room where they sat shivering and tense until the arrival, at exactly 0530 hours, of Col. Frank P. Hunter the Group C.O. Slowly raising the shade which covered the large map on the raised platform at the end of the Briefing room, Col Hunter revealed the Target for Today Merseburg Synthetic Oil Plant; always a tough target to attack. Main briefing over, Herman remained behind for the special briefing for radio operators, picking up code call signs, bomber weather codes etc.
Then it was over to the Crew Locker Rooms where he donned his flying kit, emerging weighed down with electrical heated suit, parachute harness, parachute, oxygen mask, flak helmet, gloves, boots and flying helmet.
Flat top trucks then took the crews out to the hardstands at the 603rd dispersal area where the B-17Gs stood silently waiting. Clambering into his assigned aircraft and quickly stowing away his gear, he commenced pre-flight checks on the aerials and radio equipment. Taxi time 0645 Take-off 0700 hours With a final wave to the Chaplain standing at the side of the runway, the pilot, Lt Fred Wismer gave the order to open the throttles B-17G 42-102600/Z Zoomeriago commenced its take-off run which ended as it rose slowly into the early morning sky above Nuthampstead.
Group take-off and assembly was as briefed, assembly taking place over the usual Buncher 17 at Debden. Flight times leaving assembly were one minute slow as the 398th joined the other Groups in the Division without incident and the formation departed the English coast at Clacton.
About ten miles before the Initial Point (IP) dense and persistent contrails were encountered and very soon thereafter a heavy layer of Cirrus clouds. The weather scout aircraft gave instructions for the Group to approach the target from below the clouds somehow these instructions were not received as the Group proceeded to climb above the cloud layer. The 603rd flying the High Squadron became separated from the other squadrons and levelled off at 30,000 feet. Heavy flak greeted them as they neared the target. Suddenly the aircraft lurched as a shell passed clean through the port wing without exploding! With no apparent ill effect the target was bombed using PFF methods without any further incidents.
About ten minutes after leaving the target six FW190s made a vicious frontal attack knocking six B-17s out of the formation including the Flight leader. Two other ships were also badly hit but were able to successfully limp as far as France where they both made successful emergency landings.
One of the aircraft hit was Hermans, losing engines two, three and four! The bail out order was quickly given and as he left the smoking radio room and peered down the fuselage, towards the tail, he could see the gunners straining to open the emergency handle on the waist door. By the time he reached them they had succeeded and two of the gunners quickly bailed out. Marvin Clark, a waist gunner, held back and motioned for Herman to go first, but with a sweeping movement of his arm he refused. Marvin Clark was a couple of years younger than Herman and looked up to him like a big Brother. Realising that Marvin was scared, Herman quickly pushed him out and then jumped out himself. After leaving the stricken aircraft (by now at 24,000 feet) he tumbled head over heels for about twelve seconds before pulling the rip cord that opened his parachute with a bone jarring jolt. He saw Marvin Clarks parachute away to one side, but they drifted apart. Sadly this would be the last time Herman would see Marvin alive, as he was almost certainly killed by angry civilians when he landed. Knowing how Marvin looked up to him, Herman took his death very badly.
Drifting down through the clouds he emerged to see a village about a mile from where he would land. He hit the ground very hard in a clump of trees breaking the scapular bone in his shoulder.
Soon after landing he was approached by a young French boy who had seen the parachute descend from the clouds. He took Herman to his horse and cart which was close by and they both started off towards the village which he had seen on his way down.
They had not gone very far, however, when a S.S.Stormtrooper appeared out of the woods and made them stop, pointing a pistol at them and ordering them off the cart with frantic and excited gestures. After searching them both, the German struck Herman on the elbows and motioned him back on to the cart where he joined them. They rode on down to the village with the soldier persistently screaming at them both.
On entering the small main street curious onlookers shouted and sneered as they passed. One German woman ran up to the cart and struck Herman across the back with a large piece of wood.
He spent the night shivering in the local jail and for the next four days, before he was taken to Erfurt where his injured shoulder was treated by a doctor who had studied medicine in the USA. Treatment took the next eight weeks, and then it was on to Aberrussle for just twenty seven hours, followed by Weizlar for two days and eventually on December 4th, he arrived at Stalag Luft 4A, Keif-Heide, Germany. Here he remained with his fellow prisoners until February 6th, when they were all herded together and force marched away from the camp. The Germans were determined to keep their prisoners ahead of the advancing Allied Armies and pushed them to their absolute limits. They were marched for eighty days covering a distance of 596 miles passing through countless towns and villages. Anybody dropping out of line was kicked back into it again, then beaten, then shot.
Finally, at a little town called Schlaitz on April 26th they were liberated by the 104th Infantry Division, the Timberwolves. Hermans ordeal was over.
After repatriation Herman learned that all his crew survived to become POWs with the exception of Marvin Clark Jr, the left waist gunner who was MIA.
In August 1977 Herman returned to Nuthampstead with the reunion party returning under the auspices of the 8th Air Force Historical Society. For the first time at such a reunion, our friend Barry Tyler was waiting with his aircraft to take the veterans and their wives for a flight around their old base. I watched as Herman and his charming Wife, Virginia, lifted off the grass strip. I felt so proud as I watched them touch down safely after their flight after nearly 33 years, Herman had finally landed back at Nuthampstead and completed his twentieth and the longest mission.