Happy Thanksgiving—it is that time of the year again to spend time with family and friends while stuffing ourselves with turkey, chicken, pork, and cranberry sauce. A good time for all even if some of the extended relatives are not on your top ten list of favorite people.
In the photo above the members of the X-1 team responsible for braking the sound barrier are depicted. They are, from left to right, flight engineer Ed Swindell, backup pilot Bob Hoover, B-29 pilot Bob Cardinas, X-1 pilot Chuck Yeager, Bell engineer Dick Frost and Air Force engineer Jack Ridley. Today I want to talk about Bob Hoover who was the original pilot chosen to fly the X-1. However, it is not his accomplishments as an Aviator, and an aviation pioneer, that I want to talk about but rather his accomplishments, and contributions, as a person. When Bob Hoover speaks publicly, or privately, it is never about himself but always about others and it is this quality, this side of Bob Hoover the man, that I hope to depict in the following articles and videos.
Robert A. “Bob” Hoover, the “greatest stick-and-rudder pilot who ever lived,” according to General James Doolittle, turns 90 on January 24, 2012. Last Friday at the annual Living Legends gala at the Beverly Hilton, Hoover reflected on his life experiences with the characteristic graciousness that also distinguishes him as the consummate Tennessee gentleman.
Hoover’s “infatuation with aviation” started in 1927 he learned of Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop flight across the north Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis. He told the crowd at Living Legends that his childhood heroes were Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner [and his pet lion], Eddie Rickenbacker and especially Jimmy Doolittle.
Fast forward to the early 1950s. Hoover was signing autographs at after performing in the F-86 at an airshow in Europe when an unassuming gentleman in the crowd introduced himself as Mr. Schwartz. The man asked Hoover if he could speak with him. Hoover told Mr. Schwartz that he’d have to wait until he finished signing autographs.
Mr. Schwartz waited patiently for Hoover to attend to his fans for nearly two hours. When the two finally met, it was apparent that Mr. Schwartz actually was the reclusive Charles Lindbergh in disguise.
Hoover’s jaw dropped. He had kept Charles Lindbergh waiting while he signed photos. Lindbergh wanted to discuss with Hoover the future of jets at Pan Am where he served on the board of directors. A bond between the two soon developed and Hoover helped Mr. Schwartz maintain anonymity while he explored new technologies with top aerospace companies, including North American Aircraft.
In 1969, Hoover was head of the Society of Experimental Text Pilots and he was charged with organizing SETP’s big celebration dinner. A once in a blue moon opportunity arose. Hoover had a long-shot chance of orchestrating the appearance of two of America’s biggest aviation heroes.
Hoover said the dinner was held in the very same ballroom at the Beverly Hilton as the Living Legends dinner. He was presiding over the ceremony at the same place on the stage behind the podium.
Seated at the head table, were the reclusive Mr. Schwartz [aka Charles Lindbergh] and Neil Armstrong, just back from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. In the middle of the two was Hoover’s wife Colleen.
When Hoover brought up the house lights and introduced Lindbergh and Armstrong to the SETP members, they were awestruck at the sight of the two air and space pioneers.
The media was just as awestruck. They assumed Lindbergh never made public appearances and that Armstrong was still in quarantine after returning to earth. When the wire services and other media saw Lindbergh and Armstrong together they snapped hundreds of photos and sent them all over the world.
The photos all showed Bob’s wife Colleen, right in the middle of Lindbergh and Armstrong.
“It was the proudest moment of my life,” Hoover says. “There was dear Colleen, now my wife of 65 years, together with two of my biggest heroes. Her picture with them was seen all over the world.”
“To this day, I assume she is the only person to have sat with the first man to cross the Atlantic in an airplane on one side and the first man to set foot on the moon on the other,” Hoover writes in his autobiography Forever Flying.
That moment, some 43 years ago, is so emblematic of Bob Hoover. He speaks infrequently of his many accomplishments as a barnstormer, World War II fighter pilot, USAF and North American Aircraft jet test pilot and air show performer during his 60+ year flying career. He’d much rather laud others for their feats and stand on the sidelines as a humble spectator.
He also calls virtually all his friends on special occasions, such as birthdays and Christmas. Imagine my shock when, out of the blue, my hero Bob Hoover first called me several years ago on December 24 to wish me a Merry Christmas while I was driving on Pacific Coast Highway. I was so awestruck, I nearly crashed my car. That tradition has continued ever since, but now I’m less likely to lose control.
But, that’s Bob Hoover for you. No wonder the Living Legends gala was packed with all of his friends who were there to wish him a Happy 90th Birthday. All of us hope we’ll be saluting him when he turns 100 in January 2022.
The video above is well worth your time but what is also important is the information that follows. Most people do not realize that Bob Hoover was a POW during WWII. The article below details those events.
On Jan. 24, 1944, Hoover’s twenty-second birthday, he lost his roommate and best friend. After being shot down near the coast of Calvi, Corsica, Tom Watts had successfully bailed out of his Spitfire. But high winds dragged his parachute into a reef of rocks offshore, and he drowned. It wasn’t the first fatality for his band of men, but it hit Hoover the hardest.
A little over two weeks later, on Feb. 9, 1944, Hoover, who had been promoted to flight leader, took off from Calvi. He was heading a four-plane-formation of Spitfires on a mission to patrol the waters off the Italian and French coasts, between Cannes and Genoa. Hoover was flying Black 3, a Supermarine Spitfire Mk. Vc, on a harassment mission to search and destroy enemy ships and trains. After Hoover and his fellow pilots had successfully destroyed a German freighter in the harbor near Savona, Italy, they flew back to base to refuel and then returned to patrol.
When Hoover caught sight of four German Focke-Wulf 190s, he called out their position. One of the FW-190s was on the tail of James “Monty” Montgomery, a friend who had been shot down a few months earlier and had spent three days in a life raft before being rescued. Hoover frantically called for Montgomery to break left to avoid gunfire. He knew he would need all the speed he could get, so he had to get rid of his aircraft’s external fuel tank. “That’s high drag,” he said. “It really slows the airplane down. I had only 1,100 horsepower and was capable of doing only 215 mph. The airplanes I had engaged had capability of 350 mph. It’s like racing a Model T Ford with a Cadillac.” But when Hoover pulled the handle that would release the external fuel tank, the handle came off in his hand. With the Spitfire’s superior turning ability now his only defense, he headed straight for a German fighter. He spat out a burst of .50 caliber gunfire and then saw billows of smoke streaming through the sky.
He had his first kill of the war, but had no time to celebrate. Montgomery had been hit, and Hoover watched his aircraft burst into flames. Now, two FW-190s were after Hoover. As he dove left, he noticed that his two friends had veered off and left him to fend for himself. Not being able to release the external fuel tank seemed unlucky at the time, but now it made Hoover’s Spitfire so slow that the F-190s overshot him. When two more enemy aircraft turned in toward him, Hoover fired and hit one of the FW-190s. Just when he thought he might escape, shells hit his engine cowling from underneath. An enemy fighter had hit him with a high-angle deflection shot. “I saw this airplane, 90 degrees out here, and I just ignored it,” Hoover recalled. “How could you ever get an angle shot like that?” Hoover felt severe pain shoot through his lower body as another FW-190 closed in on him. The enemy pilot must’ve thought Hoover had no firepower, because he swooped under Hoover and pulled up in front of his nose. Hoover shot a burst of gunfire, but seconds later, the Spitfire’s engine exploded, and a ball of flames engulfed the aircraft’s nose. “I called and told the British patroller, ‘I’m going down at sea, so alert the Dumbos (Walrus amphibian rescue planes) to start flying,’” he recalled. He opened the cockpit, released his shoulder and seat straps, rolled the plane and pulled his parachute’s ripcord. The parachute didn’t open until three or four hundred feet above the water. His life vest, riddled with shrapnel, wouldn’t inflate, and when he hit the cold water, he felt immense pain in his lower body. As he floated in the icy water, about 20 miles off the coast of Nice, France, he saw four Spitfires approach. When a group of FW-190s swooped down on them, one Spitfire was shot down and the others turned away. After four hours in the water, Hoover was picked up by a German corvette.
At Nice, France, German guards took Hoover to a local jail. Even though he was searched, he wasn’t given medical attention for his shrapnel wounds. “Fragments of metal got into the backs of my legs and my private parts,” he said. “It wasn’t anything at that time; they were just flesh wounds.” Hoover was transported to the Continental Hotel in Cannes, headquarters for German officers. There, to all questions, Hoover answered as he’d been taught: “Robert A. Hoover, flight officer, 20443029.” After days of lengthy, futile interrogation, he was transported to the southern coast of France, near Marseilles. There, he made his first of several escape attempts. When he was caught, he was confined to a dark basement cell.
He was then herded into a train compartment, and was soon heading north, toward Switzerland. Near the border, Hoover slipped out a small bathroom window and made his way along the tracks. He heard gunshots, and guards soon surrounded him. When they arrived at the German Luftwaffe interrogation headquarters at Oberursel, north of Frankfurt, Hoover was put in solitary confinement. Over the next week, he would be questioned several times, but was still obstinate. One day, as he stood before a bullet-riddled cement wall, a frustrated German captain addressed him. “You still have a chance,” the captain said, and Hoover responded, “Robert A. Hoover, flight officer, 20443029.” “When they stood me against the wall, I thought, ‘Well, it won’t hurt for very long,’” he recalled. As Hoover waited for the end, the captain said something to the Germans, who dropped their guns. Once back inside, the captain addressed him again, asking why he continued to be stubborn, since they already had information on him and knowledge of his aircraft from gun camera film. After repeatedly giving his name, rank and serial number, Hoover was returned to his cell. The Germans eventually did learn additional information about him, and Hoover was furious to know someone wasn’t able to hold his tongue.
Hoover became even more determined to escape. After one attempt, he was kicked repeatedly, resulting in head and facial injuries that left permanent scars. The Germans still hadn’t offered to treat his other injuries, which were now infected. Finally, an interrogator told him to drop his trousers. His swollen testicles and red, inflamed groin led the interrogator to believe Hoover had syphilis. “I thought, ‘Maybe I do!’ I’d been having a lot of fun,” Hoover chuckled. “But it was actually blood poisoning. They didn’t treat me until I got to the main prison camp.” The next day, Hoover and other POWs were stuffed into a boxcar in the marshaling yards near Frankfurt. “The British were bombing the marshaling yards,” he said. “One of the British POWs had been the lead navigator on some night flights a few weeks before. He said, ‘I say, old chaps, it looks like we’ve had it. We’re the target.’ Everybody was praying; bombs were bursting all over the place. The guards went to the air raid shelters and left us there to die.” Although those in his boxcar were unhurt, one car exploded, killing everyone inside. The prisoners finally arrived at Stalag Luft 1 in Barth. Double 10-foot barbed-wire fences surrounded individual compounds, while a similar fence enclosed the entire camp. POWs were aware that if they crossed a “warning wire,” they would be shot. Searchlights, mounted on the guard towers, illuminated the entire area.
Guards boasted that no one had ever escaped from Stalag 1, but Hoover and many fellow “Kriegies” continued their “obsessive pursuit of freedom.” He tried to escape at least 25 times, and as a result, spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. Sometimes, while in confinement, Hoover talked through the walls to other prisoners. One was Col. Russ Spicer, who became an inspiration to his fellow POWs. Within earshot of German officers, he had given a bold speech about Nazi atrocities and reminded the prisoners not to get friendly with their captors. “Russ was my hero,” Hoover said.
In early spring 1945, Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower believed the war was almost over. He issued orders to POWs. “He told the soldiers that were going out on missions to pass the word: POWs were not to escape after a certain date,” Hoover recalled. By that time, 10,000 prisoners were held at Stalag I. It was a significant increase over the 1,200 who were there when he arrived. Despite Eisenhower’s directive, Hoover and others still devised ways to escape. “I had been on an escape committee,” Hoover explained. “We’d been trying for so long. We were dedicated, digging tunnels and running at the fence. I once got caught hanging on the barbed wire, with dogs nipping at my feet. I really was scared, but I’d been working so hard at it, and I wasn’t about to quit.” In April 1945, the Russians were getting closer, and German guards started deserting. Hoover had been a POW for more than 15 months. His partners in his latest escape scheme were Jerry Ennis, from the 52nd Fighter Group, and a Canadian airman named George. “We found a board underneath one of the buildings,” Hoover said. “A bunch of people who had worked on the escape committee created a diversion. They started a fight on one side of the compound, so the guards were all looking over there. We ran out with this plank, put it up over the top of the fence and climbed out.” The prison camp was located on a peninsula that jutted into the Baltic Sea. The three escapees went through the woods and gathered wood and grapevines for a raft.
“Jerry was on the raft,” Hoover recalled. “He held our clothes while we were in that cold water, pushing this thing across. We had to go about 2,000 feet, before we could get to the other side of the little inlet. When we got over there, the Canadian thought he’d be better off by himself.”
Hoover and Ennis spent the night at a deserted German farmhouse, under hay in the barn. The next morning, they stole bicycles from a small village. “We kept heading west and landed in the middle of the Russian lines,” Hoover said. “They were still fighting the Germans. It was a slaughter.” As Allies, Hoover and Ennis spent the night with a group of Russian soldiers. Ennis spoke fluent French and was able to communicate with some French-speaking Russians. The next day, another group of drunk, friendly Russian soldiers stopped them at a nearby village and invited them to a local church. Later, at another German village, a distraught elderly woman with a bloody cloth wrapped around her hand asked Hoover and Ennis if they were Americans. “The Russians had cut off her finger to get her wedding ring,” Hoover recalled.
The woman led them to an area where they found many victims whose throats had been slit, then another spot where hundreds more had suffered the same fate. “The Russians showed no mercy,” Hoover said.
While Hoover and Ennis traveled, they avoided revealing that they had been POWs. “The Russians believed if you were captured, you were a collaborator,” Hoover said. “We knew the Russian philosophy by then, so if they asked what had happened to us, I would say, ‘We were shot down over Berlin, and we’ve been evading ever since.’” The two men eventually ended up in a walled compound of farmhouses, where more than 50 people were staying. Most were French, who had been forced into labor camps when France fell to Germany and were now trying to flee the Russians. “These people were all trying to get back home,” he said. “Since Jerry could speak French, they opened their arms to us.” That night, as Ennis and Hoover slept in a hayloft, a tank broke through the wall of the compound. “We could hear them speaking Russian,” Hoover remembered. “They were looking for people and anything they could take. They came into the barn, and I heard somebody scream. They were poking the hay with a pitchfork. When they finally came near us, we stood up and held up our hands. Jerry started speaking in French. Eventually, we found somebody who understood a little bit. We said we were Allies and had been evading, and we were trying to get back to our lines. They killed almost everybody else.”
When Hoover and Ennis left that area, they came across an abandoned Luftwaffe air base, just inside Germany’s border. The base was deserted, except for a few ground crew. As the men looked for an aircraft that might be flyable, they were surprised to be totally ignored. They discovered at least 25 Focke-Wulf 190s, but none were airworthy. “They were all shot up,” Hoover said. “I finally came to one that had a lot of holes in it, but not in any of the vital organs.” Although he had never flown a Focke-Wulf 190, Hoover had learned about the aircraft from a fellow POW, Gus Lundquist, who had gone to England to evaluate captured German airplanes. “He talked one of the lead generals into letting him fly a mission, and was shot down,” Hoover said. “One day, I told him that I wanted to go to Wright Field after I got out, and he said, ‘I’m from Wright Field!’ When we’d have an opportunity, he’d sketch in the dirt where everything was.” The men made plans to use the plane, but Ennis had decided not to fly out with Hoover. “He never wanted to fly again,” Hoover said.
When a mechanic noticed the men, Hoover motioned him closer with a gun he’d acquired during their travels. They discovered that the German could speak French. “Jerry told him that if he didn’t help me get airborne, he’d kill him,” Hoover said. “I got in the cockpit and the German helped me get the engine going. The fuel gauge was full and the engine ran up nicely.” Realizing that the Germans could shoot at him as he took off, Hoover closed the canopy, opened the throttle full power and went across the grass field to the runway. “I got airborne and pulled the gear up,” he remembered. “The stupidity of what I was doing hit me. I thought, ‘Here I am in a German airplane, without a parachute.’” Since he was flying a plane with a swastika painted on the side, the Allies might take aim as well. German aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt pats Bob Hoover on the back. “It was overcast at about 4,000 feet,” he said. “I pulled up to the bottom of that overcast, so I wouldn’t be a target.”
Hoover headed north until he saw the North Sea.“I didn’t have any maps or charts,” he said. “I knew that if I turned west and followed the shoreline, I would be safe when I saw windmills, because the Dutch hated the Germans.” He followed the coastline to the liberated Zuider Zee in Holland. When he saw windmill, he looked for somewhere to get fuel. “I had passed over some airfields that appeared to be deserted, but I knew that deserted runways were often mined,” he said. He found a field and decided to land, but hit a ditch he hadn’t spotted from the air.
“I ground-looped it and wiped the landing gear out,” he said. Hoover was disappointed. “I wanted to get the plane back to England,” he said.
As darkness approached, he remembered seeing a road past some trees. “I thought if I walked to that road, maybe a military vehicle would come along,” he said. “Just as I got ready to go into the trees, farmers with pitchforks came at me from all sides. They thought I was a German. They couldn’t speak English, so I kept pointing towards the other side of the trees, and they took me there. I stopped an English truck. I said, ‘I’m an American, but they think I’m a German!’ This fella said, ‘Get in here with us.’” Hoover grins and says that later, everybody considered him a hero. “People made it sound like a great escape, but the guards had deserted us,” he said. According to Hoover, in the two weeks before the Americans liberated the camp on April 30, 1945, about 200 POWs actually escaped. “General Eisenhower was correct,” he said. “We would’ve been safer to stay there. It was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.” Bob and Colleen Hoover celebrate with Charles Lindbergh (second from right), the first man to fly across the Atlantic, and Neil Armstrong (left), the first man to land on the moon, shortly after Armstrong returned from space. Lindbergh was being inducted. Hoover doesn’t know of anyone else who flew an enemy plane out of Germany. He didn’t talk about the incident for many years, even though a Nashville paper had reported his story soon after his return to the U.S.
He finally talked publicly, 20 years later, at an air show performance in Redding, Penn. “A security person came up to me and said, ‘A man over here says he was in prison camp with you,’” Hoover recalled. The man was Jerry Ennis. After he took the microphone and told the story to the air show visitors, Hoover decided to tell his story and dispel exaggerations.
After hitching a ride on that English truck in Holland, Hoover hooked up with a former fellow POW. “Nelson had gone over the fence in another direction,” he said. “We were both headed for somewhere near Le Havre, France, where the U.S. Army had established a series of camps. We were skin and bones. They’d get you back to your normal weight, give you a thorough physical examination and de-lice you.” The men hitched rides on military vehicles and trucks, but decided they could get home sooner if they skipped the U.S. camp. “We got on a train heading for Paris, because they let the military go for free,” Hoover said. A gentleman in their compartment shared his food and a plan. “He’d been in flight school training, but was now in the Merchant Marines,” Hoover said. “He said, ‘I’ll smuggle you on board my ship; we’re heading for the U.S.’ He smuggled us on, but the ship ended up going back to England!” Hoover said. They hid in a compartment, but Nelson, feeling restless, left the compartment and went to the ship’s commissary. A suspicious intelligence officer followed him back to their hiding place. The officer thought Hoover and Nelson were German spies, and they were taken to the brig. When their Merchant Marine friend found them, he assisted in their escape and helped them off the ship. With the help of Nelson’s friend in London, their luck turned. “We lived pretty high on the hog,” Hoover said.
While in England, Hoover visited his brother Leroy, and found out that their mother was gravely ill. He and Nelson returned to the ship, now headed for New York. They explained their situation, and this time, were treated differently. “They treated us royally all the way back,” Hoover recalled.
Enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend and when you have a few extra minutes take a look at the video below – Bob Hoover talks about Bob Hoover.
November 27, 2014