Francis “Bud” Peacock III traveled to Germany to delve deep into his father’s WWII history and found this story of duty and mercy.
For Hans Müller, a WWII German fighter pilot expected to finish up 241 combat missions, shooting down an American B-17 war plane was just part of his job. It just so happened that that fateful plane had carried Francis “Bud” Peacock III’s father, the said plane’s navigator.
Hitting the Distraction
According to Peacock, his father’s plane was part of a WWII bombing mission — they were tasked to bomb an air base in Aalborg to act as a distraction, drawing the enemy’s attention from a more important bombing target.
However, when the B-17 hit the skies over Aalborg, the air base was obscured by clouds they just dropped the explosives they were carrying for the mission over North Sea and headed back to England.
“It was just supposed to be a milk run (easy mission),” he commented.
On the other hand, Hans Müller, manning a Junger Ju 88, was on air that day only as an observer; he had no backup when he saw the B-17s. So, as any good fighter pilot would do in face of the enemy, he attacked one of the B-17s, the one dubbed Hot Rock, then struck the Pot O’Gold. The latter dropped its gear straight away, an informal gesture understood as an act of surrender and turning away from the North Sea headed towards land. Müller came after the downed plane and upon seeing that its crew had jumped off the craft and opened their parachutes over land, he then shot its wing causing it to slam on a nearby farmland.
“Müller spared my father’s life where many other men would not have,” Peacock commented fully knowing that the German fighter pilot could have finished the plane off while it flew over North Sea.
According to a report about the said incident, among the Pot O’Gold crew, William Ralph Lavies, the plane’s pilot, landed on the iced Lake Ove causing him to die out of hypothermia while eight other crew members landed in different areas but were immediately captured and banded together within an hour.
Peacock, who was on his 1oth mission, landed on a location that was far from the others, thus, he had one free day before getting captured.
According to the younger Peacock, his father was very fortunate to have a more humane prison housing. He became a POW of the Luftwaffe, the aerial branch of the German military during WWII. He and his companions were treated sternly though not in a cruel way. They even had a sense of camaraderie with the officers who held them. However, Francis’ mother, Catherine, did not know that the older Peacock was not missing in action but a POW for six months.
Peacock along with the other captured crew members had the luxury of cooking their own food which was comprised of vegetables, dark bread, horse meat as well as offerings from the Red Cross in their room. In his journal, he even detailed the quarters in where he was housed through an architectural sketch, the books he read while in prison and his rations. On May 1, 1945, his journal entry had said:
“Hitler dead! (10:20 p.m.). Russians arrive. Finally (10:25 p.m.). My God, it’s over.”
As Francis recounted, his father’s German captors ran away in the middle of the night; the older Peacock spent about 14 months in captivity.
Digging the Story Out
WWII History enthusiast, Nikolaj Bojer, a Danish, was not yet born when a B-17 plane nicknamed Pot O’Gold crashed in a farmland near Hoerdum, Denmark. However, the story was very well-known in his neighborhood as the area saw little aerial combat during WWII and the crash was a rare occurrence. In time, he became so captivated with the story that when he found out its main players, he decided to actually let them meet each other – the old German ace pilot and the son of the B-17’s navigator.
It was in 2008 when he was able to get hold of one of the plane’s crew, Lester Shrenk of Bloomington, Minnesota who was the Pot O’Gold’s ball turret gunner. He then connected the WWII veteran to Danish residents who were anxious to meet him.
He searched for Müller in 2012 when he learned that the German pilot was still alive and was not in one of the cemeteries he was intensively poring through online.
“In a war where one fights for one’s country on terms set from the administration, there was even a place for Hans Hermann Müller 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,” Bojer commented during a meeting he orchestrated between Müller and Shrenk in 2012.
He then planned for Peacock and Müller’s meeting, contacting the former offering him an arrangement that would take him to the location where his father landed after the WWII shot-down and of course, the meeting with the German pilot who was responsible for it.
Peacock, a businessman, readily accepted the offer.
Francis and his wife travelled to Heidelberg to meet with Müller. According to him, the German WWII ace pilot spoke English and was “nice, intelligent and polished”.
When they talked about the incident, Müller opened up that he was elated to see all the crew members of the plane he shot down successfully opened up their parachutes and descend.
Francis, moved by the admission, said thanks to the old German pilot.
“I’m a father. I know what you’re thinking,” the German said in return and reached over to pat him on the leg.
Through their talk, Peacock found out that Müller remained in the German Air Force after WWII ended, was able to work with NATO and before retiring had rose in rank to being a colonel. Müller had also turned down an offer to lead the German Air Force.
Peacock them commented that had his dad, a Pittsburgh native who has degrees in chemical and civil engineering and was an officer in the Navy Construction Battalion, the Seabees, met Müller, he would have liked him.
“Dad always said ‘Americans were … like Germans 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 exhibiting humor, kindness and sharpness,” he said.
Müller, on the other hand, pointed out when they talked about his role as a pilot, that he had to look at it in a technical way; he had to instill in his mind that it was just a job. He had to separate it from anything else in his life so he could bear without difficulty.
Meeting the Others
After his meeting with Müller, Peacock with his wife drove to Northwest Denmark to have an audience with the residents so eager to meet them.
According to Bojer, their excitement had channeled through the decades as when they witnessed what happened that fateful day in 1944, “they have never seen anything like the parachutes floating and the plane rocketing toward the ground”.
“Danes are known for their stoicism and steadiness, but seeing a B-17 crash was a big deal to them. They couldn’t wait to meet us,” Peacock said.
One woman in her 90s still remembered the crash vividly. A man and a boy got hold of the plane’s door hatch and they kept it hidden in a barn. There was also a group in funeral procession at that time but upon seeing the descending plane dropped the casket and ran for their dear lives.
When they reached the place, Francis and his wife saw the coastline where the plane went over land first, Lake Ove where the Pot O’Gold’s pilot died, the school where the plane’s crew members were first assembled in captivity and the actual crash site, the farmland which at that time was planted with barley.
The owner of the said field even hosted a dinner for Francis and his wife and while in their home, they showed him the plane’s propeller. They also gave him some bullets from the B-17 as well as several fragments taken from the plane’s engine and radio.
“The farmer said they were always digging things up [from the B-17],” he said.
Francis, whose Chattanooga office is filled with WWII relics – photos, model planes and even souvenirs from that era, said that the trip and the meeting he had with Müller and the residents of Hoerdum just proved that WWII’s impact had not waned; it still lingers on not only in the individuals who were involved in it but also to the noncombatants who got to witnessed it and even through the generations that came after.
February 22, 1944 – when that WWII plane Pot O’Gold was shot down, Francis’ father was 22, Shrenk was 20, Lavies and Müller, 23. Some of the Danish witnesses Francis talked to in his trip were all but children when the crash happened.
“I never imagined I’d be meeting up with the guy who shot down my dad’s plane,” he commented. “All these guys — they were just kids. But it’s stuck with them.”