Jim Hoel, POW in ‘Great Escape’ camp in WWII, dies at 92

Written By BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter Posted: 08/26/2014, 09:04am
Array April, 2005, on the shore of the Maas River near Rozenburg, the Netherlands.

The phone trilled at 6:30 in the morning at Jim Hoel’s Evanston home on August 27, 2003, a day that proved unassailably that truth is stranger than fiction.

He fumbled for the phone and listened as a man with an English accent asked, “Hello, is this Jim Hoel?”

When Mr. Hoel said yes, Peter Cooper exploded with excitement.

“We’ve got your watch!” said Cooper, who was calling from near London.

A World War II veteran, Mr. Hoel hadn’t seen his Gallet Commander for more than 60 years, since his B-26 Marauder plane had been shot down in the Netherlands on May 17, 1943. He scrambled from the wreck, inflated his “Mae West” life vest and swam to the bank of the Maas River, where a dozen Nazi soldiers waited, guns aimed at him.

“One German, in the Queen’s English, said, ‘I’m afraid for you, sir, the war is over,’ ’’ said Mr. Hoel’s son, Gil.

Mr. Hoel became a resident of Stalag Luft III, famed for the tunneling Allied POWs whose story was the basis for the rousing 1963 film “The Great Escape.’’

His watch, given to the Evanstonian as a World War II enlistment gift by his employer, Harris Bank, found its way back to the U.S. after Cooper phoned from England. Cooper’s neighbor had found the timepiece in his late mother’s jewelry box. Mr. Hoel suspected that the wristband snapped when his plane crashed. No one knows how it got from the Netherlands to England.

Cooper tracked him down through the engraving on the back of the watch, which listed Mr. Hoel’s name and address at 2200 Grey Ave. in Evanston, the home he returned to after the war. He mailed it back to Mr. Hoel.

Mr. Hoel, whose experience inspired a museum exhibit and the Gallet Watch Company’s planned 2015 re-issue of his Commander chronograph, died July 20 at Westminster Place in Evanston. He was 92.

He graduated from Evanston Township High School, where he co-captained the football team, Gil Hoel said. At 16, just for adventure, he pedaled his bike around Lake Michigan for 230 miles to visit YMCA Camp Echo in Fremont, Michigan.

It was an early hint of the willpower that helped him survive as a POW, his son said.

Mr. Hoel enrolled at Colgate College in New York, but after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and trained as a bombardier navigator.

His unit was assigned to bomb a power plant in the Netherlands. But close to the target, “all 10 planes in the squadron were shot down,” the former 2nd lieutenant said in a memoir after the war. “Forty of the 60 crew members were dead, and I stretched my luck even farther being the only bombardier-navigator . . . to get out alive.”

In the POW camp, Mr. Hoel became one of the so-called “penguins” who waddled about — ostensibly exercising — as they surreptitiously removed dirt from the escape tunnels.

“They had bags of dirt in their clothes. There were little strings they would pull and the dirt would go down their pants legs and they’d kick it around” to hide it from guards, his son said.

As the Russian Army grew closer in the final months of the war, the POWs were forced to evacuate and march for miles during one of the coldest winters in German history. Sick and hungry, many didn’t survive.

“They were on the crew that had to march through 8 inches of snow to break trail,’’ Gil Hoel said. “Men were dropping all around them.”

Mr. Hoel recalled what kept him going in “Male Call,” a wartime newsletter in Evanston. “Every one of us always had the same experience when we figured it was time to cash in,” he wrote. “The old hometown and all our friends started to run through our mind and we could see them clearer than any movie made.”

For the rest of his life, Mr. Hoel’s feet hurt from the frostbite he suffered. He lost all his upper teeth to malnourishment. “At the end of the war, my dad weighed 110 pounds,’’ his son said.

After liberation, he and other soldiers commandeered a Jeep and began driving toward France. They saw corpses piled up at the Dachau concentration camp, a memory that haunted him. Arriving in Paris, he walked into an officers’ club and ordered a drink at the bar. His clothes were rags.

“An officer dressed to the nines walks up to him and says, ‘You know, there’s a dress code,’ ’’ Gil Hoel said. “My father turned around and punched him in the nose.”

He returned to Evanston in June 1945 and reconnected with Jean Carver, a classmate from Evanston Township High School. They courted through the summer and wed in December.

“As my mother was dying last year, dad would look into her eyes and talk about the great summer of ’45,” said another son, Rick Hoel. “He would say, ‘You and me kid, remember the summer of ’45?’’

She replied, “ ‘I’ll never forget.’ ”

They raised their family in Evanston. Mr. Hoel became a sales manager at WMAQ-Channel 5 and a real estate broker at Baird & Warner, Rick Hoel said.

After Cooper returned his watch, Mr. Hoel flew to England to meet him. Mr. Hoel’s family arranged for him to travel to the Netherlands to retrace his wartime journey. He was greeted as a returning hero in the town of Rozenburg, and he visited the graves of fellow airmen at the Netherlands American Cemetery.

His reunion with the timepiece “was amazing,” said David Laurence, managing director of the Swiss Gallet Watch Company, which sponsored an exhibit about him at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. Gallet plans to reissue a new version of his timepiece, a favorite of the military for its built-in stopwatch, in 2015.

“We want to dedicate this new line of watches to Jim,” he said.

Mr. Hoel is also survived by his daughter, Kim Creadick; his sister, Milnore Hall, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His life will be celebrated in October at the Elliot Chapel at Westminster Place in Evanston.

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