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Once again, we are in debt to Erwin Ritter who uncovered this incident through his careful research and then asked a simple question, “ What did we know of a U. S. helicopter with pilot captured by the Russians in 1955 in the area near Gompertshausen? “. After he provided a few more leads, suddenly the story unfolded with great detail. We were able to contact the pilot, LTC USA Ret. Louis H. Jacquay who happily in retirement believed that anyone who had ever wanted to here his tale of adventure in Germany had, by now, already heard it.

Digging into his well kept records, he graciously provided a vivid recollection of those days in 1955 when he briefly became the object of high stakes East - West Cold War drama with one small caveat. He is only taking calls to further discuss this incident from screen writers in Hollywood who are interested in optioning the tale for film development. After all, he has grandkids to impress and the actor Hugh Jackman would make an excellent choice to play the key role as the dashing American aviator on the silvered screen!

Crossing the Border 1955

1st Lieutenant Louis H. Jacquay’s German Assignment

I departed the United States on an MSTS ship leaving the Brooklyn Navy Yard in mid December 1954. I was accompanied by my wife Sharon and three year old daughter Denise on an uneventful ten day trip to Bremerhaven Germany. We were among the first families to receive the newly created concurrent travel option.

     
  Aviation Section, 97th Sig Bn. taken on 7 Aug 1955 at Panzer Kaserne, Boeblingen, Germany. I am seated in the first row, last officer on right   This is a period image of the L20 type aircraft used to provide orientation flights for Army aviators newly assigned to Germany. Image courtesy of USAR in Germany web site.  

Upon arrival, we took an overnight train to Stuttgart and were billeted for several nights at the Bahnhof Hotel while government quarters were being arranged. I recall we went to the famous Weihnachts Markt and purchased a tree and selection of beautiful ornaments. I received family quarters at Panzer Kaserne in Boeblingen and our first Christmas overseas was a happy one.

I was assigned as a fixed - wing pilot and rotary - wing qualified Army Aviator to the Message Center - Aviation Section of the Operations Company, 97th Signal Battalion. The battalion was in support of the 160th Signal Group whose mission was to provide communications from 7th Army Headquarters to V and VII Corps and a separate Armored Division in Germany.

All Army aviators arriving in Western Germany were required to have orientation flights to familiarize them with flight ops and in particular, the East German border area. Along with several other newly arriving aviators, I received my orientation by riding in the rear seat of a 7th Army Aviation Section piloted L-20 aircraft. During our orientation flight, the weather was so bad along the border area that this portion of the flight was scrubbed. We did an over flight of the Rhine River valley with an overnight stay in Mannheim prior to returning to Stuttgart - Echterdingen the following day. I never received the border area over flight that was supposed to be part of this orientation but nevertheless, was shortly released for operational flying in Germany.

March 17 1955 High Adventure Begins

In mid March, I was flying from a field location for the German Army Airfield at Hanau. I was happy to be pilot in command of a rotary wing, bubble canopy H13 model Army helicopter. My mission that day was to fly Herr Horst Kuehn, the Commander of a German Signal Corps Labor Service Battalion from his Command Post in a field location near Friedberg (Hesse) Germany to an area south of Fulda so he could inspect his unit’s communications lines, visit his field units and then return to his CP location.

    click on the thumbnail below to view the full-sized photo
 
  This is a file image of the H13 aircraft similar to the type I flew on the day of the border crossing. The specific model I flew that day was an H13E. I also flew the G model and later in Germany, the Sikorsky H-19D (Chickasaw) Helicopter.   This map shows the areas important to the story. At the X is where, to the best of my ability to recall, I set the helicopter down and began the adventure. At the O is the town of Gompertshausen where, at the border, Herr Keuhn and I were finally returned to American control.  

Of note, Army aircraft flight - following procedures during this era were practically non - existent. This was the beginning of the true Cold War but some procedures were still in place from the U.S. Army Constabulary Period.

At fixed field locations, arriving or departing pilots would sign in and out on a Constabulary Sign Out Book which could be reconciled through the phones or radio if necessary but even this simple system did not exist at field locations. It was possible to fall “ through the cracks “ if no one was carefully monitoring an aircraft departure and subsequent anticipated arrival at another field site.

On the specific day in question. The weather was not good but considered flyable. I picked up Herr Kuehn and began the flight to Fulda. I elected to fly a compass heading to the Fulda area and calculated the time of flight. I planned to refuel at Fulda Army Airfield and then begin the specific itinerary of Herr Keuhn’s inspection. In retrospect, I should have been much better at the time honored traditions of flying IFR ( I follow roads ) and was unaware that the magnetic compass that I was using as the primary navigation aid had, if fact, a 20-25 degree error.

I was following an east - northeast compass heading and flying into a strong northwest head wind, the combined affect of the compass error and the weather soon had me much further south and east than my anticipated flight plan. I would have caught the error had I been regularly checking the roads and towns on my map with what we were observing thru the bubble but, this was not the case. As heavy snow showers further complicated the situation, I realized I was disorientated and unsure of my location. As stated earlier, this was well before all the navigational, radar and radio tracking Army air traffic controls that would become so routine to aviators a few years later.

One cannot be too proud to ask directions and that is what we attempted to do. From the air, we spotted a farmer and his ox cart and I set the helicopter down in an open field to allow Herr Kuehn to find out where we were. I stayed with the aircraft to study the maps, Herr Kuehn spoke with the farmer. We naturally assumed we were still in West Germany; sadly, this was not the case.

Captured

I guess if you’re going to be flying in marginal weather with a bad compass and you become so lost as to have to ask a German farmer for directions, you figure it couldn’t get much worse. Well, it got worse.

     
  These photos come from the press coverage of the event. Seen here, we are walking back to the sedans after having been returned to U.S. control. From left: Herr Keuhn, myself, CPT Gigouard and Lt Cohen.   Smiles all around, Herr Keuhn and Lt Jacquay safe at last.  

At about the time that Herr Keuhn determined we had crossed the border and landed in East Germany, rumbling down the road towards us came a bus load of East German border guards. At any other time of the day, the road would have been just for farm use, but as luck had it, they were in the middle of changing the guards so the bus was filled with troops and we were truly in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Looking back at it, we were somewhere very close to the poorly marked border in the rolling farm country to the southeast of Meiningen.

I looked up from the maps to see Herr Keuhn being loaded into the bus and a group of guards approaching the aircraft with weapons drawn. I shut the engine down and was allowed to secure the blades with the tethers before I too was loaded into the bus, a prisoner of the Cold War. We were taken to their Headquarters.

Gone Missing - Search and Rescue Operations

When I failed to show up at any of the locations Herr Keuhn was anticipated at on 17 March, we were reported missing and Army and Air Force units under the direction of the 12th Air Force Rescue Service began a search. Because of the bad weather and prevailing winds, they correctly concluded that we should be in the near border area and by the 20th, concluded we had in fact gone down in East Germany. While U.S. Army and West German ground units continued the ground search, U.S. Army Headquarters notified the Military Mission in Potsdam, Berlin to contact their Soviet counterparts and request assistance from their side in locating a crashed aircraft, military pilot and West German civilian. We were now an international incident.

  click on the thumbnail below to view the full-sized photo
   
  This image shows the attached press slug for captioning of the photograph as released by the PAO.   This photo ran in the Stars and Stripes 26 March 1955 with an article that recalled the adventure. Left to right, Lt Jacquay, Herr Keuhn and LTC Bottomly as the press conference wraps up.  

Russian Confinement

After a short time at the East German Border Guard HQ we were turned over to members of the Russian Army. We were taken to the HQ of an infantry unit in Hildburghausen  and placed under armed guard on the second floor. Two beds were brought into the room.

We assumed the room was intended as some sort of information office, it was filled with Soviet literature. The windows had bars but it was not a prison cell. We had a good view of the Soviet military base, barracks area and main gate. The immediate street below was used as an assembly area for the Russian infantry platoons, traffic on the street consisted of older lend - lease US built ¾ and 2 ½ ton Dodge trucks. There was very little traffic through the gate, my impression was that the town was off limits.

In spite of the run of bad luck, I recall the humor of while watching Soviet troops standing in the rear of a formation make snow balls and lob them over the heads of the assembled troops at NCOs at the front. So much for their discipline.

     
  This is a present day photo of a water color painted by Herr Keuhn after our return and then given to me as a memento of our shared adventure. One of my favorite souvenirs from my long Army career.   The image of the son of the Soviet LTC who defected in Berlin and then was returned to the East at the same time as my release from East Germany. This photo and an accompanying article ran in Stars and Stripes on 23 March 1955. The article made no mention of a deal but I always thought there was linkage between his return and our release.  

For the first few days there was no attempt to interrogate either myself or Herr Keuhn. I came to believe that no one in the unit spoke any English. On several occasions, a Russian major escorted us on exercise walks on the street in front of our building but nothing was said.

We were fed twice daily, on the same schedule as the Soviet troops, the second meal was usually at about 20.00 hrs. Our meals were the same as our guards, sort of a thin meat broth with some vegetables and potatoes tossed in. We were also given a bottle of cognac. We were also given a checker board set, paper and pencils. Herr Keuhn and I passed the time with checkers and playing the grid game of Battleship.

On the forth day of confinement, the interrogators finally showed up and Herr Keuhn and I were questioned separately. They seemed more interested in learning personal information from me and appeared to accept at face value, the story that I was simply ferrying the German national, became lost in the bad weather and had by accident, landed in East Germany. At no point did I feel threatened or intimidated. The same seemed true for Herr Keuhn.

Meanwhile … Back in the West

While all of this was going on, events were unfolding in West Germany. A German national who was employed at the Coburg Officer’s Club located at the former German barracks had been visiting family in the border area and in fact observed from a distance, the landing and capture. He reported this to his American employers and the story filtered up the chain of command to the State Department. The Russians still had not verified that we were being held or lodged the expected complaint. In Berlin, the Soviets were formally notified that the U.S. was aware that an Army pilot, West German civilian and US helicopter were being held and that the personnel were not injured at the time of capture.

Return to US Control

On the morning of 24 March, we were given hot water, soap and razors. We figured something was going to happen but because the English speaking Soviets were not around, it became a matter of some speculation. Our personal belongings were returned and we were placed into a sedan. Under armed escort, we departed the Kaserne and drove off in an unfamiliar direction. After driving about 25 miles, I could see the bubble canopy of the H13 in the distance. It was under Soviet guard and we were not allowed to approach further.

After waiting for approximately 30 minutes, several olive drab sedans bearing large American flags on each front finder came down the road. Inside were U.S. Army personnel from the Military Mission in Potsdam and a pilot and crew chief to look after the helicopter. The pilot was Captain Phillip Neary of Manchester, MA and the Chief was Sergeant Jack Henderson from Fort Wayne Indiana, my home town. They were assigned to the 6th Infantry in Berlin and were to check out the aircraft and then fly it to Straubing in the West. I was amazed that we were allowed to take the aircraft back into U.S. control.

In due course, Herr Keuhn and I were driven to an ad hoc crossing point along the border in the area between Alsleben and Gompertshausen, about 22 miles northeast of Bad Neustadt. At the border, First Lieutenant Theodore S. Cohen, HQ 14th ACR in Fulda and Captain T. J. Gigouard, Hq 7th Army signed documents that they had received us from Russian custody. It was 9.45 AM on 24 March 1955.

Herr Keuhn and I then were driven to Fulda where a thorough physical examination occurred to confirm that we were in good health and had not been injured while in Soviet hands. 7th Army Aviation Section then flew us to Stuttgart - Echterdingen airfield and then by car for a full day of intelligence debriefing conducted by 7th Army personnel at Ludwigsburg. At this point, they made it clear what we could and could not say about the incident.

The Trip Home

The following day, Herr Keuhn and I parted ways, each in our own separate Army sedan. I was being driven through Stuttgart en route to Boeblingen when we suddenly heard the wail of an MP siren. As we pulled to the side, an MP jeep passed us leading a procession of two civilian cars. Much to my surprise, as the cars shot by, I recognized my wife in the first car and members of her family in the trail car. I asked my driver to follow the group and we headed off towards the main U.S. Army Hospital at Bad Cannstadt. When I finally caught up with them, my wife was on the elevator on the way to the Maternity Ward. That day, she delivered an eight pound 12 ounce baby boy, my son Jeffery Robert.

Press Conference

On 26 March, 1955 a press conference was held at the Graf Zeppelin Hotel in Stuttgart. Herr Keuhn and I were present and were interviewed by LTC Howard Bottomley, 7th Army Public Affairs Office. I was quoted as saying, “ I am grateful for the aide and assistance given to my family by American friends during my absence. “. I also thanked the personnel involved in the search and rescue operation, my fellow pilots who flew the border search missions and the men of the 14th ACR who conducted ground search operations in the border area.

My Letter of Reprimand

The dust finally settled on this rather exciting week in my life but not before it was punctuated by a Letter of Reprimand signed by no one less than the Commander of 7th Army, Europe! Imagine, General Henry I. Hodes took the time out of his undoubtedly very busy schedule to send me a letter! I was reprimanded for exercising poor judgment in continuing to fly the mission in such poor weather and for using an aircraft not equipped for operations in such weather. The letter was placed in my Field 201 file and removed upon my departure from Germany at the end of my normal three year tour. I guess that the Army needed aviators or the letter was not widely read, in due course, I was promoted to Captain, integrated into the ranks of the Regular Army and continued a long and exciting career in Army aviation.

 
 


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