A Humble Man: The Tale of B-17 Waist Gunner Bill Hagans

Opine Nedles | For Bill Hagans with Deepest Gratitude Brethren of The Ohio Lodge, FAAM, Bladensburg, Ohio

You must remember this
That flak don’t always miss
And one of you may die.
The fundamental thing applies
As flak goes by—

And when the fighters come
You hope you’re not the one
To tumble from the sky
The odds are always too dammed high—
As flak goes by—

It’s still the same old story
A tale that’s too dammed gory
Some brave men have to die
The odds are always high
As flak goes by.

– Anonymous World War Two poem

Opine Needles | Bill Hagans BW, Young
Opine Needles | Bill Hagans

I’ve seen a lot of things I didn’t want to. They keep coming back. I never talked about it until maybe seven or so years ago. – Bill Hagans to the author

He was born when Warren G. Harding was president. “Two-three-twenty-three,” Robert William Hagans told me, with twinkly, friendly eyes and an easy grin. He said it would be an easy way for me to remember. I met him four years ago, after he started attending meetings again in our small country lodge in the hamlet of Bladensburg, Ohio. He has been in the lodge for decades. For a man of 90 Bill is in excellent shape, but avoids night highway driving. Three years ago, Bill showed up in lodge wearing a bolo tie with Purple Heart clasp. When asked, he told it took 65 years, from 1945 to 2010, to receive his medal ribbon: paperwork got lost. It sometimes happens in the complexity of military and governmental bureaucracy: SNAFU, as troops said in the Second World War.
Sitting across from at dinner in lodge this April I noted his silver gunner’s wings on his lapel, and his maroon tie with small Latin wording: Non Solum Armis: Not by arms alone. He was luckier than most of the crewman in his B-17. Progressive engine failure compelled the pilot to leave the echelon of twenty-four bombers and its fighter escorts of P-51 Mustangs en route to Germany. On 8 February 1944 German anti-aircraft artillery hit the already-disabled bomber. Bill recalls a three minute wait time until the pilot ordered crew to bail. In the interregnum he and a fellow crewman tried to extract a wounded tail gunner from his battle station, but to no avail. When the order came to jump, Bill and two others were the only ones to bail out. Aluminum skin is easy for flak, or the projectiles from Messerschmitt fighters to puncture. Bill doesn’t remember anything about the parachute opening, fall, or landing; but he does recall that he was within view of a German anti-aircraft battery, and knew enough not to run lest he be shredded by German bullets. He remained in his landing zone for about an hour until Wermacht soldiers came for him.
He had the presence of mind to leave his defensive revolver, a .38, on the plane. Just possessing it, or reaching to offer it for surrender was excuse enough for some Axis soldiers to kill an Allied airman. The most critical time frame for any POW, then and now, is from the moment he—and today, she—is captured until taken to transportation. Most arbitrary killings of POWS happened at that juncture. The Soviets and Germans knew this all too well; how many were killed immediately after capture we do not specifically know.
Most knowledgeable people, and certainly Central and Eastern Europeans, understand that the Eastern Front was different from Western Europe. The Pacific Theatre of Operations had a ferocity of its own. Of course all fronts are different, and it is difficult to place a qualitative value on any combat situation when lives are lost. I recall, for example, a Navy medic who spoke to my Kenyon classes three times. John Reep, a retired bricklayer, then attached to a rifle company in the Eight Marine Division, told us with how deeply he felt for the US and Allied soldiers who served in Europe. The winters must have been terrifyingly cold, he said with empathy. Note as a footnote, John was in the invasion of Okinawa.

Valid historical sources are unanimous in estimating that the five million Soviets captured, three million were starved to death. Few German soldier captured by the Soviets at the surrender of Stalingrad lasted. The fate of US and Filipino soldiers from the Bataan Death March is well-known. Less known is the German Winter Death March of allied POWS in 1945. A translation of German and policies toward their respective POWS, devoid of nuance and subtlety, comes out as payback. Those Axis combatants captured by the US or Commonwealth forces fared much better than Russians; still, there is no denying that at times Axis POWS did not fare well. The War in the Pacific was not fought in the bitter cold of a Russian winter, but nonetheless was fought as savagely. Allied airmen captured by Imperial Japan fared miserably—if they were allowed to live at all. One twenty-one year old naval aviator, who flew with Torpedo Squadron 51, USS San Jacinto, survived Japanese anti-aircraft flak which downed his Avenger, and parachuted safely into the waters of the North Pacific. Even after his craft was hit, the pilot persisted in his mission of dropping four five hundred pound bombs on a Japanese military target off Chi Chi Jima before jumping.

His two crewmen were not as fortunate. One could not exit the plane; and the second, who bailed with the pilot, fell to his death from approximately 1500 feet when his parachute failed to deploy. The pilot’s rubber life raft worked, but the Japanese sent a boat to capture him. Another Avenger came to his rescue, destroying the Japanese boat. The pilot was picked up by an American submarine, the Finback, specifically patrolling for downed naval aviators. Had he been captured by the Japanese his would have been a brutal fate. Other Allied prisoners of war experienced horrendous treatment. A photograph from the era, by now iconic, shows a Japanese officer, his troops as witnesses behind him, his code of conduct that of the Knights of Bushido, standing with his raised sword over a tied, blindfolded Allied airman. Decapitations were not uncommon. Had the Avenger pilot been captured, his life, and the lives of others—and the nation and world events—would have been altered forever. For his actions on 2 September 1944, George HW Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

As but one example of many, the British Fourteenth Army in Burma witnessed Japanese mass vengeance on POWS” “bodies with trauma marks, Commonwealth soldiers beaten to death, suspended by electric [wire] upside down from trees.” Those Allied soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who escaped Japanese imprisonment gave accounts so terrifying that the British government censored them, fearing that revelations would anger Imperial Japan even more, possibly encouraging additional Japanese reprisal. Should the reader wish to enter into the image search engine you may come up with the iconic beheading photograph. Behind the two-dimensional black and white photo were—lest we forget—flesh and blood human beings, with heartbeats—at least until the sword struck. Still, sometimes history dies hard. Ask people in the Balkans, or Asia. Ask older citizens of the UK, France, Belgium, and Central Europe. It finally boils down to living history, the fragile, ineluctable thread between past and present, the witnesses ever diminishing. Equally, history for some, simply doesn’t exist. Either denial or forgetting overshadows historical memory. Bill Hagans lamented that American teen-agers have no idea that the Second World War ever took place. You maybe even know some. There are not necessarily the ones hanging out at the mall, either. But Bill knows enough not to get angry, or to lay it all on youth. The man has wisdom accrued from the fires of experience. He, among others, comprehends the deep sadness of the human condition.

Bill was a Prisoner of War in Stalag Luft IV, and a veteran of the Death March, 2 February to 6 May, 1945. He saw things he would rather forget, but cannot. One cannot help but notice that he is a humble, quiet man. One doesn’t imagine him sitting on a bar stool at the American Legion hall bragging about how many Messerschmitts he shot. “I thank God for every day I have on earth.” Bill knows gratitude, takes nothing for granted. We could all learn from him. In his presence I sensed a man of keen native intelligence who attained great wisdom and understanding tempered by the crucible of war. When he was born Warrren G. Harding was president, Prohibition was in full force, and a victorious US military returned from Europe “only yesterday.” But the war wasn’t really over. The worst for Europe, Asia, and the world, just started. We now more fully understand the Great War as prelude to the Second World War. And in the grand scheme of things, the Cold War began, arguably, with the confrontation between Woodrow Wilson and VI Lenin.
Bill was born in Coshocton County, Ohio. His dad ran a three-man sawmill. He was one of millions who came of age in the 1920s – 30s. Today, Newcastle Ohio has approximately 475 people. Coshocton County, Ohio in the 1920s was light years removed from urban America of which Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. Bill recalls saving up for a bicycle purchased from Montgomery Ward, then iconic for catalog sales in rural areas as Sears-Roebuck. He pedaled so much he went through two bikes. He biked from Newcastle to Mount Vernon and back, easily over 42 miles. Either he does not have, or prefers not to share, whatever political memories he has of the 1930s. My own sense is that he doesn’t fret much about politics. I could be wrong. At moral levels, you can bet your last cent he knows the difference between right and wrong. Multiply him by the millions and you’ve an effective fighting machine—and more, an effective, productive citizenry. In his life’s work he mined coal, and then tried oil drilling, eventually owning up to eight rigs throughout Ohio and West Virginia. Mechanically inclined, he also ran sewing machine companies, setting up shops throughout the United States. In 1943 he entered the United States Army Air Corps, training at Kingman Arizona for gunnery school. His initial training involved riding in a bed of a pick-up going forty miles per hour; he recalls having to shoot clay birds with a pump shotgun, suddenly thrown at him from the side of the road. His fondest memory of a trap and skeet gun is his post-war Remington over and under. Clearly, he had an affinity for shooting. One had to be swift with his Browning .50 caliber. After training in the US, Bill was assigned to Royal Air Force Base Polingbrooke, headquarters for Bill’s 351st Bomb Group (Heavy).
By Bill’s time, electronically heated suits helped combat the sub-zero weather of high atmosphere. P-51 Mustang fighter escorts had sufficient fuel to escort bombing echelons to and from Germany, but on his seventh missions, February 8, 1944, Bill’s plane, with a combination of engine trouble, and anti-aircraft flak over Theinville France, was forced to leave the echelon. After the hits and the death of seven comrades he recalls waiting for three minutes—and eternity—until the pilot gave the order to jump. He recalled landing in place, not moving for a least an hour until picked up by German anti-aircraft battery crews, and then taken to Germany to Stalag Luft IV, in Eastern Prussia, today Poland. German prison camps for allied aircrew were run by the Luftwaffe; depending on the officer in charge and his policies, some were better run than others. Bill recalls constant hunger in Stalag Luft IV; Red Cross parcels were taken and consumed by German guards, most of whom held deep resentment toward Allied bomber crews for demolishing factories, air and submarine bases. Some were much older veterans mobilized specifically for guard duty. Others, of a meaner bent, were, recalled Bill, from the submarine fleet and Luftwaffe. One, he recalled was particularly brutal, bayonetting, and killing, a POW. That particular guard was pointed out to the British, who liberated Bill’s Winter Death March group on 6 May, 1945. British soldiers tied him behind a truck, taking him for a ride over the hill. Bill does not know the guard’s fate. If hunger, cold and privation were constants in Stalag Luft IV, they were even worse in the infamous Nazi Death March of March 2 to May 6, 1945. Knowing full well the Russians were advancing from the East into Germany, Stalag authorities marched the nine to ten thousand POWS westward, toward the Western Allies, in hopes of using the POWS as bartering pawns in negotiations. Traveling on foot, poorly clothes, constantly short on food, the men did what they could to survive.
Bill recalled two “good Germans,” one, an older guard who helped a POW find a pair of shoes that fit his hurting feet. The other was a kind German farm-woman. The POWS bedded down for the night in her barn. Upon seeing their plight she told them she was boiling potatoes for her hogs; they were welcome to help themselves to whatever they wanted. It helped save lives. Nutrition, which we take for granted, mattered to POWS. Many lost over one-third or more of their body weight in their imprisonment and the Death March. The larger the POW, the more nutrients were required to sustain his life. Thus it was that smaller-statured POWS survived more than heavier men. What introspective thoughts went on in Bill’s mind we can only surmise. He and his bunkmates kept a positive attitude—as much as one could under those circumstances. He also made a book of names of the POWS he encountered, writing their names underneath the plastic sheet of a deck of playing cards in hopes of having some memory of his fellow airmen. Starvation, dysentery, blisters, frostbite, illness, and brutality were inherent to the March. The POWS were marched approximately six hundred miles. Each man tried his best to survive, many helping each other. The hell ended on May 6, 1945, when English forces liberated the POWS. There were then gradually fed, deloused several times, cleaned, sent to England and then back to the United States where after a few days at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, they were demobilized. There was no recognition of post-traumatic stress or decompression for the psychological and emotional trauma felt by the POWS. Bill married in 1945, but his wife was unaware what he went through until years later. The resiliency of the man—and thousands like him—is amazing, speaking to a strength of spirit. Despite what he experienced and saw, he managed to make a successful life for himself. He is just one of many. What went on in his mind about the human condition we simply cannot say, and Bill is reluctant to speak to it. Now, in his nineties, he speaks, although not without pain, about the experience. This year, when his Masonic lodge honored him for his service and ninetieth birth day, we also presented him with a plaque of recognition, and a sketch of a B-17 waist gunner at his duty station, affirming our love, honor and gratitude for his service and sacrifice. He thanked us, but asked us to “never forget those who did not come home.” He knows, all too well, and reminded us, of the dangers of historical amnesia. With millions of others he made a sacrifice to keep us free from tyranny. As Andy Rooney reminded us, the Americans and their Allies came not as conquerors, but as liberators. Debates still rage about the necessity of Allied strategic bombing. Enemy industrial and military production did suffer. Whether Axis or Allied bombing decreased or furthered enemy civilian morale is yet another issue of debate. But there is no doubt that Allied bombers did limit enemy industrial and military movement and productivity. Ironically, when Hitler made the decision to bomb Britain and not expect retaliation, he was wrong. British air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris quoted Hosea: that those who sowed the wind reaped the whirlwind. And so it was in World War Two. Whatever words of gratitude we have for Bill Hagans’ generation cannot do justice for what he and his comrades-in-arms did for us. There is need to honor those who fought. Pericles’ words are more than apt for Bill and his comrades-in-arms. Without such understanding, meaning is denied:

What we ought to remember first is their gallant conduct against the enemy in defense of their native land. They have blotted out evil with good, and done more service to the commonwealth than they ever did harm in their private lives. Not one of these men weakened because he wanted to go on enjoying his wealth; no one put off the awful day in the hope that he might live to escape his poverty and grow rich… In the fighting they thought it more honorable to stand their ground and suffer death than to give in and save their lives. So they fled the reproaches of men, abiding with life and limb the brunt of battle; and in a small moment of time the climax of their lives, a culmination of glory, not of fear, were swept away from us.

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