Russell D.Hilding

Russ 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.

When 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-22’s at Ryan field, Tucson, Arizona, went on to basic training in BT-13’s at Marana, Arizona, and received advanced training in UC-78’s at Marfa Army Airfield in Texas.
He received his Air Force wings and commission in September 1943. Next came B-17 school at Roswell, NM, followed by full crew training at Rapid City, SD.

In England, 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.

On 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.

When 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.

The men 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.

Among 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.

Several 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.

After 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 across France.

At LeHavre 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.

Upon 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.

Russ 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.

His study 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.

Russ 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.

R. J. Wilke 8/23/02, Rev.9/19/02



Personal interview of Russel D. Hilding by Richard Wilke conducted August 23, 2002.

Wright Patterson Air Force Museum web site for aircarft information.

Indiana State University Geography department for bomber range maps.

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