was born on June 4, 1921, and grew up in East Lansing, Michigan,
where he graduated from high school in 1939. He went to work at
Wolverine Typewriter, which was founded by his father in Lansing,
and spent all of his spare money taking flight instruction at Capital
City Airport. He soloed October 4, 1941 in a 65 hp Taylorcraft and
also flew a Fairchild Model 24.
World War II started in 1941, Russ decided to enlist, but he wanted
to join the Army Air Corps, so he waited until May or June of 1942,
when a recruiting sergeant came to Lansing. He took the exam, but
wasn't called in until the following October. Meanwhile, he entered
Acme Business College, and continued to fly.
He received his primary flight training in PT-22s
at Ryan field, Tucson, Arizona, went on to basic training in
BT-13s at Marana, Arizona, and received advanced training
Army Airfield in Texas. He
received his Air Force wings and commission in September 1943. Next
school at Roswell, NM, followed by full crew training at Rapid City,
Russ became captain of a B-17 in the Eighth
Air Force's 447th Bomb Group, located at Rattlesden
Airfield, northeast of London, where many other bomber and fighter
groups were located.
July 13, 1944 during a daylight raid on Munich in heavy flack, his
B-17 lost an engine, and some of the crew were wounded. He was able
to keep flying, but lost speed and wasn't able to keep up with his
group, so he tried to drop to a lower altitude and join another
group, but was hit by German fighters. While heading back toward
England in cloud cover, his navigator was unable to determine their
position, and they lost two more engines.
they broke out of the clouds over green fields, Russ gave the order
to bail out. Only he and the co-pilot were left on board, and he
had to return to the cockpit to level the plane so the co-pilot
could drop through the floor hatch. He then banked the plane, so
that by the time he reached the hatch the plane would be level.
He jumped, and when he saw a tail wheel pass by, he pulled the ripcord.
On the way down, a P-47
zoomed below him, and he was shaken by the prop wash. The P-47 was
checking for survivors, and counted all ten.
Russ landed in a tall wheat field, and sitting up, he saw a Citroen
on a road and two men approaching. They were smiling and seemed
friendly, but he couldn't understand their French. One took his
parachute and went on to find the others, and the second man helped
him to the car and put him into the back floor. Exhausted and nauseous,
he was driven to a farmhouse with a family, and taken upstairs to
bed. That evening he was brought downstairs and given a meal, and
went back to bed. He was joined by the co-pilot and bombardier a
day or so later.
who had rescued him were members of the French Underground, and
they had found all of the crew. After sleeping above a bakery for
a time, Russ and another crew member, his bombardier, were taken
to Paris by train, hoping to cross the Pyrenees to Spain. After
being moved around Paris, and being suspicious that they might be
stopped, they were riding in a car when the driver stopped, pointed
a pistol at them, and said in perfect English, "Sorry boys,
the war is over for you." Arrested by the Gestapo, they were
taken to Fresnes Prison in Paris, which held 167 other Allied prisoners.
Considered to be "Terror Flyers," they were moved in boxcars
to Buchenwald, a concentration camp. Two months later they were
moved to Stalag
Luft III, a regular P.O.W. camp run by the Luftwaffe, and put
in the British compound. Surprisingly, they were admired by their
Luftwaffe guards, even though German farmers often tried to kill
Allied airmen with pitchforks.
the Allied prisoners were civil engineers, radio technicians, and
a variety of talent. They were able to bribe some of the guards
with D rations or cigarettes received from home, or the Red Cross.
In this way they obtained tools and electronic components, and were
able to build a radio receiver and transmitter, and begin to dig
escape tunnels, code-named Tom, Dick, and Harry. In each barracks
was a stove, set on a concrete foundation. They were able to remove
the lid and start their tunnel from this location. They used bed
slats to build a ladder, and built a railway to move the sand back
to the starting point. They sewed panels into the insides of their
pants, connected to their pockets, and filled them with sand, which
was released as they walked around the camp perimeter for exercise,
or a smoke. Other prisoners followed and scattered the sand.
months before Russ arrived, 79 prisoners escaped before the plot
was discovered. Those remaining were fortunate not to escape, because
only two made it back to England, and the rest were captured. Hitler
was furious, and ordered that all be shot, and 50 were executed.
The story of this camp was told in the book and film called "The
Great Escape." Russ was in the British compound where the escape
had occurred, and roomed with the prisoner who had been number 80,
but was thwarted when the escape was discovered.
Christmas 1944 the Russians had reached the Oder River 35 miles
to the East, so the Germans evacuated Stalag Luft III. The prisoners
were told to fill their pockets with food and were marched and moved
in boxcars to a camp near Munich. When there, they saw an L-4 overhead,
followed by a tank outfit, and they were rescued. A mess kitchen
was brought in to feed them, and they were flown by C-47 to Lucky
Strike Camp at LeHavre, France. On the way, Russ got to fly the
C-47 from the right seat. Russ later learned that only three of
his crew had been captured. The others had stayed with the French
Underground or holed up in woods, and were rescued when Patton moved
they were given new uniforms, medical exams, and given a controlled
diet. Placed aboard the troop carrier "S.S. LeJeune,"
they stopped at Southampton for some wounded, and continued on to
New York, arriving at the Statue of Liberty on June 4, 1945, Russ's
23rd birthday. Traveling to Fort Sheridan, Highland Park, Illinois,
he was processed and sent home on leave. His next duty station was
at Hendricks Air Force Base, Sebring, Florida, where he again flew
B-17's. From Lubbock, Texas he flew a B-17 to Kingman, Arizona to
be scrapped. Later transferred to a B-17 base at Smyrna, Tennessee,
Russ decided to leave the service in February 1946.
returning to Lansing, Russ went to work for Hilding Office Supply,
which had been started by his father on South Capitol Avenue, and
met Marie, a Michigan State student, on a blind date. He courted
her in a plane, and they were married in December 1946. Russ continued
flying, getting his instructor's rating in 1948. He joined the Army
National Guard, Aviation Section in Grand Ledge in order to continue
his flying. Among the planes he flew were L-19's, which he sometimes
landed on his 800 foot strip next to the 1900's farmhouse and 40
acres he and Marie purchased west of Lansing on Canal Road. That
strip is now a very nice apartment development.
has owned four aircraft, a J-3 Cub, an Aeronca Champ, a Cessna 140,
and he is still flying his 115 hp Citabria 7ECA out of Grand Ledge,
and often flies to EAA Chapter 55 pancake breakfasts at Mason Jewett
Airport. Among the many planes he has flown, his favorites were
the: Ryan PT-22, Navion, Fairchild 24, D.H. Beaver, Cessna L-19,
Boeing B-17, and of course, his Citabria.
is filled with aircraft models, photos and prints, and many books
about airplanes and WW-II. He is also interested in old cars, and
has a black 1953 Ford Convertible, and a dark red 1979 Oldsmobile
98, both of which he bought new.
volunteers at his church and the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum,
and he and Marie like to take long drives around the USA and Canada.
Wilke 8/23/02, Rev.9/19/02
interview of Russel D. Hilding by Richard Wilke conducted August
Wright Patterson Air Force Museum web site for aircarft information.
Indiana State University Geography department for bomber range maps.