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Reflections on the Life of Kermit Peter Hansen

In the beginning . . .

Kermit Peter (Pete) Hansen was born on April 7, 1919 , in the small town of Melvin, Iowa . His grandfather, Peter Hansen, and his grandmother, Wilhelmina Bruer Hansen, came to this country from Denmark and Germany , respectively. Pete's mother Agusta Jurgens Hansen and father, Ernest Hansen were both born and raised in Iowa .

Pete was the youngest of three children: his sister, Luverne Hansen Katz, the oldest of the three is 93 years young and his brother, Ingwer was seven years older than Pete. Pete was ten months old when his mother died and as a result went to live and was raised by his father's sister, Laura Hansen Stelck and her husband Henry Stelck. Ernest gave money to his sister to help pay for Pete's care. Pete's father remarried and Luverne and Ingwer lived with him and their stepmother until such time as they were old enough to live on their own. Even though Pete never lived with his father, brother, or sister, he always had a relationship with them.

Pete lived on a farm located eight miles north of Hartley , Iowa , with his aunt and uncle. Even though times were hard, they always had food. The farm consisted of 160 acres and could feed a family of four. They raised chickens, cattle, sheep, and pigs, so there was always milk, eggs, and meat for them to eat. They churned their own butter. Once a week they would go to the town and sell some products from the farm, the proceeds from which they would buy flour, sugar, and other staples that the family needed to live.

Living on the farm was hard work. Pete had his chores. He would milk the cows, feed and water the cattle, pigs, and sheep, and take care of the horses. But he also had his own pony that he rode eight miles to school when the weather was good. Sometimes the weather was so severe that he could not get there.

School was a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher teaching all the grades. Pete attended first and second grades there. Either the teacher or the principal, by means of a paddle or perhaps a yank on the ear, meted out discipline. School was sometimes dismissed during the school year so that the children could go home to work on their farms.

Pete went to Sunday school every week and when he got older, went to the Trinity Evangelical Church every Sunday. He always got dressed up for church, wearing either jeans or double-knee (for strength) corduroy pants, shirt, and tie. In addition to religious services, the church was the center for social activities as well. As part of their social life on the farm, there were dances and gatherings of neighbors and Pete recalls wonderful dinners of fried young spring chicken and sweet corn.

Hartley was a small town with only one movie theater called the Capitol Theater. Pete was given 15 cents to go to the movies - 10 cents admission and 5 cents for a treat. If Pete was being punished for some reason, his movie privilege was taken away or he was sent to his room without dinner. He also knew what the switch on the wall was for. When Pete was eight years old, he stole a French dollar from his uncle and bought some rabbits. Being that a French dollar was unusual currency, he was quickly found out. When confronted, Pete was not truthful - he was in trouble. Auntie called the police. Nothing happened as a result, but Pete had a good lesson in honesty.

Pete moved with his aunt and uncle from the farm to Hartley where he completed grades three through nine. A good education was not a priority in these schools. The idea was to get through school and then go back to work the farm. Every summer right after school was over he was sent to the farm to work. Pete resented this because he had friends at school he would have liked to share in his summer activities. At the farm he had no friends his own age, only adults. Pete did go fishing while at the farm, however, with his cousin Frances who was fifteen years older than he. The reason Pete was sent back to the farm in the summer was not only to work, but also because he had stolen the French dollar.

After the ninth grade, Pete moved back to the farm where he graduated from high school in 1936. He got his first suit-of-clothes for this occasion in Sioux City . In addition, he got suspenders, belt, shirt, and shoes with plates on them, which were negotiated into the price of the suit.

After graduation he worked on the farm for two years and saved $300 for tuition to the University of Iowa . Uncle Henry did not want Pete to go to college; he wanted him to stay and work on the farm. Pete didn't know whether he would ever have an interest in the farm. He enrolled at the university and attended from 1938 through 1940 leaving with just five credits short of completing two years. He worked on the farm for the next two years; Uncle Henry had given Pete a partnership in the farm.

Pete wanted to join the Air Force. He did not like war, but he wanted the opportunity to widen his horizons, to get off the farm, meet new people, and to see the world. He wanted to be a pilot. He needed two full years of college to be accepted, so he obtained his five missing credits by taking a correspondence course.

The war years . . .

Pete joined the United States Army Air Corp. in January 1942, soon after airplanes from the Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor , Hawaii . The United States of America was at war.

As a cadet Pete trained at Minter Field in Bakersfield , California , from January to February. He was then sent to King City , California , from February to April for pilot training, but was sent to Santa Ana , California , for reclassification to bombardier school because of depth perception problems. From Santa Ana , Pete went to Roswell , New Mexico for bombardier training. He trained for three months from June to September 5, 1942 . Pete graduated as a Second Lieutenant and was sent to basic training in Tucson , Arizona , for the month of September. At this time the flight crew, consisting of pilot, Don Hurd; co-pilot, Arnie Good; bombardier, Pete Hansen; navigator, Jack Reiter, engineer, John Farnum; Don Emaus, Scott Farrington, and Art Johnson, gunners; and radio operator, Harry Crampton; was put together.

The crew went from Tucson to El Paso , Texas , for bombing and gunnery practice; to Topeka , Kansas for navigational training, including flying into thunderheads for instrument flying; and to Salina , Kansas , for more practice. At this time, the crew received their B-24D bomber, which they flew to Morrison Field, West Palm Beach, Florida, and then to combat overseas. Pete was 23 years of age.

At Morrison, Pete's crew received their secret orders to be opened after they arrived in Puerto Rico . The bombsite was also classified secret and two men accompanied Pete when it was installed into the airplane.

The pilot received $10,000 in cash from the U.S. Government from which to pay the nine crewmen their $6 per day per diem. While in Puerto Rico , they bought rum and other liquor to take with them overseas.

From Puerto Rico they flew to Georgetown , British Guyana, (now called Guyana ). On the way, two engines on the airplane were lost and they almost crashed into the jungle. The crew jettisoned what they could from the aircraft to lighten the load. A B-24 stalls at 90 miles per hour and the plane was shuddering. They then discovered that the landing gear was not lowered; they fixed that problem, and landed safely.

They stayed in British Guyana for two weeks waiting for the engines to be replaced. The weather was rainy and humid. Pete and his fellow crewmen used this time for some rest and relaxation. They played poker, using the aforementioned $10,000. Pete and his friend Jack went to Georgetown to go to a U.S.O. dance. They had a wonderful time. They were the only two Caucasians there. The rest of the people were natives from the region.

Next stop was Belem , Brazil , for one night and then to Ascension Island overnight and on to Accra on the Gold Coast of Africa (now called Ghana ). There they stayed for two or three days. The local natives did their laundry, shined their shoes, and were their servants. From Accra they flew to Central Africa en route to Khartoum and finally in February 1943, arrived in Soluch in the Libyan Desert . From this desolate area, the bombing missions began.

Pete and his crew bombed many Axis targets, including Palermo , Sicily , and other targets in Sicily , Greece , Southern Italy , and Vienna , Austria . Vienna was a seven or eight hour flight. They sometimes carried extra fuel in wing tanks for these long flights. They bombed the Messina Straits in Italy , which was a supply area. They also bombed the German headquarters in Sicily . They mostly bombed supply routes, air bases, and railroad yards.

Rome , Italy was considered an open city and was not to be bombed. Leaflets were dropped on Rome telling the Italians to watch at a certain date and time precision bombing of their railroad yards. The Pope in the Vatican was invited to watch. Pete was the lead bombardier on this raid, and, as a result, his name was broadcast over Reuters radio and was heard back home.

The Germans violated the conditions of an open city, so the U.S. bombed Rome .

After a bombing raid, Pete's plane nearly crashed in the Mediterranean Ocean off of Rome . They were running low on fuel and there was a problem with the fuel transfer of the extra on board fuel. Pete was getting prepared to ditch in the ocean when the co-pilot, Arnie Good, ran to the area where the fuel transfer switching was done and was able to fix the problem.

Another target was the German base close to the island of Malta . The British controlled Malta . The United States wanted to protect Malta because there were RAF fighters assigned there. These fighters would sometimes escort U.S. bombers. In addition, the British would deploy speedboats from Malta to rescue airmen who had been shot down in the area.

On August 1, 1943 , Pete and his crew took part in the raid on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania . This raid was known as the "Tidal Wave," because the planes flew over wave after wave. They practiced for this raid by flying low, no higher than the roofs of houses. Two groups, the 98th Bomb Group and the 376 th Bomb Group, known as the "Liberandos," were part of the 9 th Air Force. Three groups, the 44 th Bomb Group, the 93 rd Bomb Group, and the 389 th Bomb Group (part of the 8 th Air Force detached to the 9 th Air Force for this mission) based in London , flew support in this raid, for a total of 179 airplanes. When the first wave came over, they turned too soon and the Germans were alerted. After the low-level bombing runs, the planes would climb for the higher altitudes to fly back to their base. The German fighters were at these higher altitudes and there was air-to-air fighting. German fighters would attack after bombing raids - not before or during. One hundred sixty two aircraft arrived at the target and 54 were lost.

Pete completed 30 missions including 282 combat hours. He needed 300 combat hours to return home. His crew was to fly the oldest B-24, "The Blue Streak" back to the United States to participate in a 30-day bond tour.

On August 16, 1943 , on Pete's last mission, his airplane was shot down after bombing an air base near Foggia , Italy , on the Adriatic Coast . Engines 1 and 2 on the

B-24 were hit by anti-aircraft fire and were on fire. Don Hurd, the pilot called to the crew to prepare to bail out.

The crewmen in the rear of the aircraft bailed out first. Five minutes later Pete and Jack Reiter attempted to bail out from the nose of the aircraft but Pete's foot was caught in the nose wheel door. Jack kicked Pete out and then bailed out after him. As a result, Pete sustained an injury to his ankle.

On the ground Pete met his pilot Don Hurd and they were free for about 2 ½ hours. During this time, they took off their dog tags and buried them. This was a dangerous mistake because these dog tags were their only identification and, without them, they could have been considered spies. The Germans were firing at them, but the bullets went over their heads as they were lying in the underbrush.

Pete and Don were captured by the Italians, turned over to the Germans, turned back to the Italians, and turned back to the Germans again. Pete was transported on the top of an armored car with a German guard to an apartment where he was locked in a room. On the way, a small child ran into the street in front of the car. They did not stop - just rolled right over him, right in front of his mother.

At the apartment, Pete could talk to some Italians. Even though the Italians were allies of the Germans, they were treated poorly. The Italians hated the Germans.

Eight of the crew members were at this apartment. Three were injured: Pete's ankle, and Jack and Art Johnson both had broken pelvic bones. They were put in a hospital in Foggia and the rest of the crew was sent to a prisoner of war camp.

After three or four days in the hospital, the Germans moved Pete to solitary confinement in a building outside of Foggia . He was put in a room 7 feet by 12 feet that had a small barred window and a heavy door with a slit. His only companions were fleas. He was fed a piece of black bread served with some type of coffee once per day. He persuaded his guards to let him out of his cell where he read the German newspaper, rather looked at the pictures because it was printed in German. Along came the German captain and put Pete back in solitary.

A few days later, in the middle of the night, Pete was put into a German touring car with two Germans in the front and Pete between two Germans in the rear. He was taken to Foggia . When they arrived in Foggia , Pete was turned over to a guard named Shultz, and they were handcuffed together. They were en route to Frankfort am Main via Rome and through the Brenner Pass. While in Rome , Pete asked to see the Coliseum and Shultz took him there.

Pete was put on a train bound for an interrogation facility for prisoners of war in Frankfort . His guard took him to a car behind to see a Prussian officer. This officer had a scar on his cheek signifying bravery from fighting a dual. This "brave" Prussian officer spit on Pete. He was then handcuffed to an outside rail separating two railroad cars. Pete was wearing light clothing and the weather was very cold.

At the facility in Frankfort , Pete met his pilot, Don Hurd, and his co-pilot for this raid, James Carlisle (Snuffy) Smith. Pete was put in solitary again and was interrogated by the Gestapo or SS troupes. The interrogator wore civilian clothes but wore an army jacket with insignia. He might have been a captain. He had a lot of intelligence information about the missions that were flown, the training of the crew, and the fact that Pete's was one of the first crews near completion of tour of active duty. He had a book that had pictures of Pete's bombardier graduating class of 1942 from Roswell , New Mexico . It was not known just how much information the Germans had or how much they were guessing. Pete only answered vaguely questions that were asked of him, and never confirmed any of their information. He gave his name, rank, and serial number, as provided for in the Geneva Convention.

Along with other prisoners of war, Pete was sent by train to a POW camp in Germany (now Poland ), 90 miles southeast of Berlin . This camp, Stalag Luft III, housed 10,000 officers, all airmen. Pete met Snuffy Smith and Don Hurd at the camp, and the three of them were put in a barracks with Ken Allen, Charlie Hachett, Ambrose Riley, Squirt Miller, and Ralph (Speed) Goss. The barracks consisted of one large room furnished with bunk beds with wooden slats and straw mattresses. There were ten combines of eight men living in each barracks. The lavatories were outside.

The POWs who were already at the camp did not immediately accept the new prisoners. They were concerned that there might be German spies (or stooges as they were called) among them. They had their own intelligence within the camp. After questioning the new POWs and ascertaining that they were indeed downed airmen, they were accepted.

Roll call for the POWs was at 7:00 a.m. and at 4:00 p.m. The barracks were closed with lights out at 9:00 p.m. During the day, the men were occupied with many different activities. They cooked their own meals on a stove that was shared with the other nine combines. Before the Red Cross started sending parcels, the food for the men consisted of black bread and German coffee, potatoes, and jam, barley soup, and horsemeat. They had breakfast and dinner - no lunch. Once the Red Cross packages started arriving, they had more food, including Nescafe, powdered milk, Spam, corned beef, and condensed chocolate. They even made a chocolate pie from the condensed chocolate. They made an ice cream freezer and ice cream made from powdered milk and ice. Representatives from neutral nations such as Switzerland and Sweden came to the camp to make sure the POWs were being fed and treated according to the terms of the Geneva Convention. When the Germans gave Pete and the other men horsemeat, they knew the representatives were coming.

The Red Cross sent books and athletic equipment. The Germans allowed the POWs to participate in competitive sports, such as track, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Pete carved model airplanes out of wood.

The Germans provided no clothing for the men, only long French Army coats. Pete traded the watch that his aunt had given him for an Eisenhower jacket from a British airman who had been a prisoner since the battle of Dunkirk . The men were allowed to write three letters per month, so Pete wrote to his family and asked them to send heavy clothing, vitamins, tooth brush, and tooth paste. The family did send packages and even included hard candy that would not spoil. Mail call was a very precious time for the POWs.

The men spent time planning their escape. They dug tunnels using bed slats for support. They made a bellows system to bring fresh air into the tunnel. The dirt that was dug from the tunnel was passed out in cans, and the men concealed these cans inside of their long army coats. They would then walk along the perimeter of the yard inside the fence for approximately ½ mile slowly spilling the dirt on the ground, much like an hourglass. If they stepped outside of the fence, they would have been shot. When the dirt became too thick, they would stamp it down. With the excess dirt, the men planted gardens, using seeds they received from the Germans. Pete feels that the Germans knew about the tunnels, but did nothing about it. Pete knew of only one man who escaped, and he was never heard from again. There were about ten or twelve men who tried, but they were recaptured.

Some of the British POWs at this Stalag dug a tunnel and attempted to escape. Fifty airmen escaped; they were recaptured and all were shot. A movie was made of this daring escape called, "The Great Escape," starring Steve McQueen.

Parts to build a radio and camera along with film were smuggled into the camp in packages from the Red Cross. The camera and radio were secretly assembled and hidden behind books in their library. Pete thought the Germans knew that they had a radio, but they could never find it. The radio was tuned to BBC news and in this way the POWs could follow the progress of the war. They were aware of the D-Day landing in France , and knew it was just a matter of time before Germany would be defeated.

The following italized excerpts are from the Internet Website www.usafa.af.mil/dfsel/sl3/march/index.html,"The Story of Stalag Luft IIII," describing the march to Moosburg, Stalag VIIA at Moosburg, and the liberation of the camp:

On the night of January 27, 1945 , Col. Charles G. Goodrich, the senior American officer, announced, "The Goons have just given us 30 minutes to be at the front gate. Get your stuff together and line up!"

At his 4:30 staff meeting in Berlin that very afternoon, Adolf Hitler had issued the order to evacuate Stalag Luft III. He was fearful that the 10,000 Allied airmen in the camp would be liberated by the Russians. Hitler wanted to keep them as hostages. The Russians were within 20 kilometers of the camp.

In the barracks following Colonel Goodrich's announcement, there was frenzy of preparation - of improvised packsacks being loaded with essentials, distribution of stashed food, and of putting on layers of clothing against the Silesian winter.

As the men lined up outside their blocks, snow covered the ground six inches deep and was still falling. Guards with sentinel dogs herded them through the main gate. Outside the wire, Kriegies waited and were counted, and waited again for two hours as the icy winds penetrated their multilayered clothes and froze stiff the shoes on their feet. Finally, the South Camp moved out about midnight .

Out front, the 2,000 men of the South Camp were pushed to their limits and beyond, to clear the road for the 8,000 behind them. Hour after hour, they plodded through the blackness of night, a blizzard swirling around them, winds driving near-zero temperatures.

At 2:00 a.m. on January 29, they stumbled into Muskau and found shelter on the floor of a tile factory. They stayed there for 30 hours before making the 15.5-mile march to Spremberg, where they were jammed into boxcars recently used for livestock. With 50 to 60 men in a car designed to hold 40, the only way one could sit was in a line with others, toboggan-fashion, or else half stood while the other half sat. It was a 3-day ordeal, locked in a moving cell becoming increasingly fetid with the stench of vomit and excrement. The only ventilation in the cars came from two small windows near the ceiling on opposite ends of the cars. The train lumbered through a frozen countryside and bombed-out cities.

Along the way, Colonel Goodrich passed the word authorizing escape attempts. In all, some 32 men felt in good enough condition to make the try. In 36 hours, all had been recaptured.

The boxcar doors were finally opened at Moosburg and the Kriegies from the South and Center Compounds were marched into Stalag VIIA.

Pete was one of the POWs who marched to Moosburg. He remembers that they marched in the snow, they made sleds, and they carried their possessions. The march was so hard that little by little they left their possessions along the way. When they arrived at the boxcars, conditions were extremely bad. The boxcars were filthy with excrement from the horses that were carried at an earlier time. The men were dirty, hungry, were vomiting, and had diarrhea. Pete had a blanket that he secured over the heads of the men to make a hammock. The hammock lasted for only a short time. It fell down because of the bumpy train ride due to the ruts from bombing of the railroad. It was at this time that Pete felt despair. For the first time, he wondered if he was going to make it.

Stalag VIIA was a nest of small compounds separated by barbed wire fences enclosing old, dilapidated barracks crammed closely together. The camp had been built to hold 14,000 French prisoners. In the end, 130,000 POWs of all nationalities and ranks were confined in the area. In some compounds the barracks were empty shells with dirt floors. In others, barracks consisted of two wooden buildings abutting a masonry washroom with a few cold-water faucets. Wooden bunks were joined together into blocks of 12, a method of cramming 500 men into a building originally intended for 200. All buildings were infested with vermin. As Spring came, some of the Kriegies moved out of the barracks into tents.

Stalag VIIA at Moosburg

On the morning of April 29, 1945 , elements of the 14 th Armored Division of Patton's 3 rd Army attacked the SS troops guarding VIIA. Prisoners scrambled for safety. Some hugged the ground or crawled into open concrete incinerators. Bullets flew seemingly haphazardly.

Finally, the American task force broke through, and the first tank entered, taking the barbed wire fence with it. The prisoners went wild. They climbed on the tanks in such numbers as to almost smother them. Pandemonium reigned. They were free!

Two days later, General Patton arrived in his jeep, garbed in his usual uniform with four stars on everything including his ivory handled pistols. The prisoners cheered and cheered. The Longest Mission was finally over!

As Pete remembers, the American soldiers fought the young German soldiers for about two hours. Pete saw General Patton from a distance of about 30 feet and he could see his ivory handled guns. After the German guards left, Pete was told not to leave the camp; it was safer to stay because there were pockets of Germans outside the camp. However, Pete did leave for one day. He met an ordnance group; he asked for and received food. He remembers that the food was good and that he had chocolate pudding.

From the camp, Pete could see a church in Moosburg that flew the German Swastika flag. He saw that flag lowered and the American flag raised. The POWs cried for joy. Their country had not forgotten them.

The former prisoners from all nations including Britain and the United States flew in DC-3s to LaHavre , France . The Red Cross fed them and sent them on Liberty Ships across the Atlantic to Camp Shanks in New Jersey . From there, Pete called his sister in New York . He then took a train to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis , Missouri . The train had priority over all other trains except one in Indianapolis , Indiana that carried repatriated Japanese wounded prisoners of war. From St. Louis Pete went to Mason City , Iowa , where his Aunt Laura, Uncle Henry, Aunt Hilda, and Uncle Alfred met him. They took Pete to lunch, and all he wanted was an American hamburger and a coke. On May 29, 1945 , he went to Hartley and caught up on the news about his family. Pete called Peggy.

Civilian life . .

Pete met Margaret Elizabeth Duff (known as Peggy) in 1942 when Pete was a cadet in Santa Ana , California . Pete's roommate, Louis Grush's wife, Anabelle was Peggy's sorority sister at U.C.L.A. Anabelle and Louis invited Pete and several other cadets to Anabelle's parents home for dinner. Anabelle also invited some of her sorority sisters, one of whom was Peggy who drove the cadets to the dinner. Pete remembers her blond curly hair. Pete took Peggy home that night, and she remembers that he did not kiss her goodnight.

Peggy worked at the Bank of America. She saved her money and at a cost of $14 for an airplane ticket, flew to attend Pete's graduation at Roswell . She took the bus back home. They corresponded while Pete was overseas and through his aunt learned that he had been shot down and was a prisoner of war. They corresponded and she sent packages.

Pete invited Peggy to come to Hartley in June 1945. He proposed and they were married on July 15, 1945 , with Pete's family, Peggy's parents, and maid-of-honor, Durette Scott, in attendance. The bride and groom honeymooned for one week at Lake Okoboji in the Lake Region near Hartley. Pete had $5,000 which he had accumulated while he was in the service.

Pete and Peg purchased a 1939 Chevy for $800 and drove to Santa Monica , California , to start their life together. They stayed for a week at the Del Mar Club, which was made available for all former POWs. Pete was reunited with other POWs. He was given a physical examination, promoted to captain, and was given his discharge papers. Pete was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with Silver Cluster signifying 30 raids, the Purple Heart, and the POW medal, which was awarded several years later.

Pete and Peg rented an apartment on Patricia Avenue in West Los Angeles . Peg worked at U.C.L.A. evaluation credits for student athletes while Pete went to school at U.C.L.A. for one year and one summer session. His tuition was paid by the G.I. Bill.

Pete then went to work for Peg's father in the Gordon Duff, Inc. welding supply business. He worked there for 17 years. Peg's mother and father were like another mother and father to Pete.

In 1949, Pete and Peg bought a lot and built their first home in North Hollywood . It had two bedrooms and one bathroom. When their family started to grow, they moved to a larger home in Van Nuys. Their third home was in Northridge where they lived for 33 years. Peg's mother had passed away and her father lived with them until he died. Pete and Peg have three children: Janet, Nancy, and Tom, and two grandchildren, Kenny and Nissa.

In 1962, Pete went to work for Miller Electric Manufacturing Co., of Appleton , Wisconsin . They manufactured welding machines. Pete was District Manager for the West Coast and Arizona for 13 years. He then became their Account Executive. He sold equipment, making sure their customers purchased the right equipment. He held this position for seven years until he retired in 1982.

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