This is one of those stories that throw sticks into to the spokes of our philosophical wheels. It involves three main characters. One was a German fighter pilot by the name of Hans Muller; the second, Francis Peacock, who was the navigator on an American B-17 Flying Fortress. Both men were officers and fliers who were brought together by the terrible calculus of WWII, somewhere over the North Sea on February 22, 1944. The third was simply a curious local historian, a Danish man from Hoerdum, Denmark, by the name of Nikolaj Bojer.
First thing’s first. Francis Peacock was the navigator on the B-17 bomber nicknamed Pot O’ Gold. Its crew of ten were involved in what they thought would be a simple “milk run,” or easy mission that day. Flying out of a base in England, they were supposed to bomb a German air base in the German town of Aalborg. Their mission was simply to act as a distraction for a larger, more important mission being carried out by other bombers. When they arrived over their target, the town was blanketed in clouds so they turned back to England and dropped their bombs over the North Sea.
This is where Hans Muller enters the story. He was flying that day simply as a forward observer. He spotted the B-17s and attacked them in his Junkers Ju 88. He shot down a B-17 named Hot Rock, then went after Peacock’s plane, the Pot O’ Gold. After a couple of strafing attacks, the Pot O’ Gold dropped its landing gear, which was an informal gesture of surrender and turned toward the Danish coast. Muller simply followed them for some 150 miles. When the Pot O’ Gold went over the coastline all ten crew members parachuted from the plane. Muller could have shot the plane down at any time. If he were a different kind of man, he could have strafed the falling parachutes, but he did not. He waited and counted the crew members as they left he B-17 and saw all of their parachutes open. He would comment later that he was glad of this and that he thought about it the rest of his life.
“If he were a different kind of man, he could have strafed the falling parachutes, but he did not…”
All ten men from the Pot O’ Gold did leave the stricken plane and all ten parachutes opened. Of the ten, only the pilot, William Ralph Lavies would die. He fell into a nearly frozen lake and died of hypothermia. Eight others were captured within a couple of hours. Francis Peacock landed further away from the others and remained free for another day, but was eventually captured and spent 14 months in a Luftwaffe POW camp, rather than a German Army POW camp. Because he was an officer and being held by the Luftwaffe, he experienced better housing and treatment than most. On May 1, 1945, he wrote in his journal: “Hitler dead! (10:20 p.m.). Russians arrive. Finally (10:25 p.m.). My God, it’s over.”
After the War
Nilolaj Bojer enters the story here. He grew up in the Danish town of Hoerdum, near where the Pot O’ Gold went down. He often heard stories told by his parent’s generation about that day. Part of the reason was that, though it was wartime, things like that were very rare in that isolated place way off in the far reaches of Denmark. He started to research the incident and was able to find the names of the crew members of the B-17 and the name of the German pilot that shot them down that day.
To make a long story short, he was able to arrange a meeting between the German pilot, Hans Hermann Muller, and the son of Francis Peacock (also named Francis) in Heidelberg, Germany, where the now spry 90-year-old Muller lives today. Francis Peacock, the son, found the old German ace pilot to be “nice, intelligent and polished,” and he spoke English.
After the war Hans Muller remained in the German Air Force, worked for NATO and, prior to retirement, rose to the rank of colonel. He turned down the opportunity to command the German Air Force. Francis Peacock, the B-17 navigator went on to earn degrees in chemical engineering and civil engineering and became an officer in the Seabees for his career after the war. Francis Peacock, Jr. said after meeting Hans Muller:
“Though they were enemies during the war, I think my father and this man would have felt comfortable with each other. They were a lot alike. Both were humorous, kind and sharp witted.”
The Heart of a Real Gentleman
Nikolaj Bojer, a man who was not yet born when the incident took place, but who grew up in the town near where the B-17 went down, was very moved by the unusual acts of Muller, the Junkers Ju 88 pilot that day. It was wartime. He had the advantage. He could have added the Pot O’ Gold to his kills and won even more praise from his Luftwaffe commanders, maybe even a promotion. But he disobeyed standing orders to do so and waited to see that all ten parachutes had opened before he shot through one of the wings of the big bomber, sending it crashing into a farmer’s field, near that small town in Denmark. When Bojer attended the meeting he had arranged between the Peacocks and Hans Hermann Muller, he remarked to Mr. Muller:
“In a war where one fights for one’s country on terms set from the administration, there was even a place for Hans Hermann Muller to control the situation. Hans Hermann, by your acts of doing your duty, you also proved that your heart was in the right place, set in the chest of a real gentleman. You were most noble in your conduct of acting.”
Makes you wonder about it all, doesn’t it. I’ve seen and heard stories from Vietnam veterans who have gone back to Vietnam to the places where they fought, who met men who had been their enemies back then, and found a strange, yet moving camaraderie between them. We humans seem to have it backwards so often. It would be nice if we could find more of what we have in common rather than always focusing on what divides us and causes us to go to war with each other. Some day, maybe. Someday we may get the point before having to go through hell to get there.
Image Sunset silhouette of flying fortress, Langley Field, Va (Image by Alfred T. Palmer, courtesy the National Archives).