The World War II Hell Hawks
A few years ago, I wrote an editorial about a P-47 World War II pilot who I knew from my architect days in the northwest. Recently, those memories came flooding back when I was invited to hear firsthand stories from other P-47 pilots that flew together over Germany. Archie Matlbie, Ed Lopez and Ralph King are lifelong friends that share a bond stretching 70 years. Their real life war experience is something most of us can never fully appreciate but should. Each pilot’s story was nothing less than amazing. Two of the pilots had been captured and held prisoners of war by the Germans.
Behind Enemy Lines
My wife found Archie “Lin” Maltbie’s story particularly interesting as he recounted a German plane breaking up in front of him, the debris of the Messerschmitt tore holes in his plane and caught his engine on fire. With the smell of fuel in the cockpit, he made the right choice to parachute out. He mentioned the need to survive to keep fighting with his friends (and to carry out his recent engagement to an English girl). He told us about his eight-day journey in occupied France, encounters with German soldiers, being forced to spend the night in a tree to avoid vicious wild boars and more. Maltbie was directed to destroy all his American ID, yet he was undaunted in his effort to get back to the allied lines.
With the help of the French underground, Maltbie eventually reached British lines. He expressed his desire to rejoin his Hell Hawk squadron that was only about 10 miles away. The British insisted that with no ID, he must go back to headquarters for debriefing. This was unacceptable to Maltbie as he wanted to be with his friends. He decided to sneak out in the middle of the night and walk back to American lines under the cover of darkness. He then spotted an empty U.S. Army Jeep and waited. When the young American driver returned, Maltbie came out of the bushes and told him he was an American pilot who had just escaped and needed help. The Army driver had a puzzled look and asked, “From the British?”
After all the great stories, the pilots fielded questions. As they passed around the microphone, my wife was dying to ask a question but opted to let others get a turn.
A Moment in Time
After the questions were asked, we decided to have lunch with our friends at a local diner famously known as a pilot hangout. As we exited the 1930s-style restaurant, a vehicle pulled up to the front door to let some people out. The passengers needed a little extra time as they were all over the age of 90. We politely waited and, lo and behold, Maltbie gingerly was making his way out of the car. Reaching out to lend a hand, I thanked him for his service to our country and let him know how much we all loved the stories. I asked if it would be alright for my wife to ask a question that was driving her crazy. He was gracious and said, “Of course.” My wife asked if he ever reconnected with the young girl from Great Britain. “Yes but it did not work out,” he said. All our hearts collectively sank in the momentary pause that seemed to last an eternity.
“Our marriage only lasted 67 years,” he added. Our group heartbreak turned to smiles. Maltbie continued as he informed us his wife passed away three years ago. He noted that sadness again and continued, “We had 67 great years together and I felt fortunate to get that.”
On the drive home, our group commented that we need to savor those moments that pass. You may look back in the decades to come to think of them as the good times. Just remember, pardon the pun Maltbie, the saying “time flies” was created for a reason. If you get any opportunity to listen to guys like these speak, do it. I have watched movies, read books and even heard the stories second-hand about historic wars. However, listening to them tell the stories in person and then able to ask questions, is indeed special.