322nd BG, 450 & 452 SQ
|A story about 2nd LT. James Richard Hoel written by Don Kochi.
Ill-fated Mission to
Ijmuiden was originally published in the Spring 2008 Issue of the Military
Postal History Society Bulletin.
60 years later, piece of his past returns to vet
Published August 30, 2003
The memories came ticking back for Jim Hoel as he held a watch he last remembered wearing on May 17, 1943, the day German soldiers captured him when he scrambled from a Dutch canal after his B-26 Marauder ditched in the water.
"It's just eerie, isn't it?" Hoel said after his long-lost watch arrived this week at his Evanston home in a package from England. "That was 60 years ago. I've sort of got gooseflesh."
Peter Cooper, who lives in Kirton, a tiny "one-pub, one-shop" village about 75 miles northeast of London, persuaded a neighbor to give up the watch and tracked down Hoel through some amateur sleuthing.
"He didn't believe it," said Cooper, 56, a truck driver who called to make sure Hoel was the right person before mailing him the watch a week ago.
"He was a bit gob-smacked, as we would call it." Hoel, 82, said he had been counting the minutes until he received his old Gallet chronometer, an enlistment present from the Chicago bank where he worked before the war. It didn't bother him at all that it arrived broken and missing its chain bracelet, a minor detail for a veteran who spent two years in German prison camps after his bomber crash-landed during a doomed raid on a power plant. The inscription on the back of the watch--"J.R. Hoel, (address)" -- was the clue that prompted Cooper to begin his search.
About a month ago, an elderly neighbor, "Tiny" Baxter, showed him the watch, which he kept it in a drawer with other collectibles, Cooper said. At Cooper's urging, he agreed to let him try to find the owner and return the watch.
Baxter, 89, also of Kirton, said he was an engineer for the British forces in World War II. After the war, Baxter said, his mother gave him the watch when he returned home.
How she got it, he said, remains a mystery. "Whether she found it or it was given to her, I do not know," the retired carpenter said during a telephone interview.
He had the watch repaired, wore it for several years, then stored it, he said.
"I put it in a drawer and forgot all about it," said Baxter. "Really, if it's his watch, I'm very pleased. It's nice to receive something you lost."
Cooper figures he spent about three weeks trying to locate Hoel with the help of a friend who searched the Internet and found the name listed among survivors of World War II plane crashes.
"Then we came to a brick wall," Cooper said.
So he asked another friend who had some American ties. Soon the friend located Hoel, making the first call and establishing that he was at another address.
Cooper enclosed the watch and all the information he collected on Hoel's failed bombing mission in a large envelope and mailed it.
"It was a very fancy watch, with all the bells and whistles," said Hoel. "It was a large, heavy watch, and it had a very heavy metal link bracelet on it. It had a clasp, one that doesn't open all the way, that you have to slip over your wrist. It was difficult to get on, so I had no idea how it came off."
Hoel, a navigator on the B-26, is convinced he was wearing the watch during his final mission. His plane took off from a base at Bury St. Edmunds, about 30 miles away from Ipswich in Suffolk County. He remembers using it to navigate before the crash, then being surprised when he realized it was missing.
Ten Marauders, each carrying six men, were on their way to bomb a power plant in Haarlem, Holland, near Amsterdam, when they flew into heavy anti-aircraft fire, he said. Hoel and three other crewmen from his plane were among only 20 of the 60 men who survived.
"We happened to be flying down this canal or we probably wouldn't have gotten out alive," said Hoel, adding that the plane was flying low when it was hit.
"It's a really wide, wide canal, so we swam to the shore," he said.
"There was a very nice German officer there. He spoke perfect English and said, `I think for you the war is over.'"
Hoel was sent to the prison camp Stalag Luft III, about 100 miles southeast of Berlin, which was portrayed in the movie "The Great Escape." He was among the imprisoned officers who helped dig one of the tunnels as depicted in the movie, emptying the dirt through their trouser legs to fool the German guards, he said.
Hoel was moved to two more POW camps before American soldiers liberated him on April 29, 1945, from Stalag VII in Moosburg, Germany. He learned later that his plane had been lifted out of the canal, where it had broken in two.
Cooper speculated that a worker contracted to remove the plane might have found the watch, then passed it along. "It could have been anybody," he said.
Hoel said that he never expected to see the watch again. "I hadn't thought of it ... until these guys called," said Hoel. "His accent was so thick the first time I wasn't really sure what he said."
He remembers picking out the Swiss-made watch himself, after his Chicago employer, Harris Bank, sent him to a jeweler and told him not to worry about the cost. He paid $50, a lot of money in 1942.
"That was shortly after Pearl Harbor," he said. "That was a patriotic time."
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune