Remembering one of the Bomber Boys

A World War II bomber breaking apart in mid-air

As the World War II generation of veterans passes away, with them go the letters, photographs, and artifacts documenting their service in a conflict whose outcome continues to influence our modern world. While cleaning out the houses of recently deceased individuals in 2008, a gentleman came across photos and documents relating to one long-deceased combat veteran of the Eighth Air Force. These items are now safely in the military collections of the National Museum of American History. The documents and photographs relate to Donald Ley Hein. Shot down in December 1944 on his ninth combat mission over Europe, Hein was swiftly captured by German authorities. Within hours, he lay dead—not as a prisoner of war, but as a victim of the poisonous ideology of Nazism.

Donald Ley Hein, in uniform
Donald Ley Hein, in uniform, after completing basic training in late spring 1943 (2008.0049.02)

When American airmen first entered the skies over Europe in 1942, they fought battles above the clouds in an entirely unforgiving environment. At altitudes over 20,000 feet and in temperatures of over forty degrees below zero, loss of a glove meant loss of fingers; loss of an oxygen mask, death in mere minutes. Between 1942 and 1945, men of the Eighth and Fourteenth Air Forces flew heavy bombers in daylight raids over Nazi-occupied Western Europe, dropping an immense tonnage of bombs with the intent to disrupt and destroy the industrial economy of the Third Reich. Casualties among the Bomber Boys were extremely high due to enemy aircraft and flak (an acronym of the German Flugabwehrkanone, aircraft defense cannon). By Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945, more airmen of the Eighth Air Force had died in the skies over Europe than all the Marines killed in all the battles of the Pacific War combined.

Born on January 14, 1919, in Benwood, West Virginia, Hein grew up in the Mountain State and Pennsylvania before his family settled in Baltimore in the 1930s. His father, the Reverend George F. Hein, served as pastor of the city’s Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church. Donald found skill in numbers, graduating from Baltimore City College and the Maryland School of Accounting before becoming an accountant for the city’s Consolidated Gas, Light and Electric Power Company. In late June 1941, he married Miss Melva Mae Wright in Baltimore.

By year’s end the United States found itself engulfed in World War II. In January 1942, the U.S. Army Air Forces established the VIII Bomber Command and by February sent an advanced detachment of the unit to England. By June, ground elements of the 97th Bombardment Group had arrived in the United Kingdom, the start of what would become known as the Eighth Air Force which entered combat in August. Grounded in prewar theories of strategic bombardment, American military leaders believed that high altitude precision strategic bombing could destroy industrial targets, delivering devastating blows to both the production of weapons and morale of the enemy population, thereby shortening the war. Planners thought that American heavy bombers, bristling with machine guns and cruising at high altitude, would be able to defend themselves from enemy fighter aircraft.

Aerial combat over Europe swiftly proved prewar planning inadequate. Adverse weather thwarted precision bombing, even when accurate navigation brought bombers to the designated target. Enemy fighters and flak readily tore into bomber formations that lacked friendly fighter escorts. Large raids to attack targets deep in Nazi-occupied Europe cost the Eighth dearly in the latter half of 1943. The losses thereby necessitated changes—notably changes in fighter tactics and the introduction of the North American P-51 Mustang long-range escort fighter—but especially the need for replacement aircrews.

On March 10, 1943, Hein enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces. After completing basic training at Miami Army Airfield, he trained in Illinois as a radio operator and then at Yuma Army Airfield in Arizona as an aerial gunner, earning his aerial gunner badge in May 1944. Hein sent a pair of his silver wings to Melva, who wore them proudly. After completing training for operations in Europe at Mitchel Army Airfield in New York, the army promoted Hein to Technical Sergeant in September and assigned him as a radio operator/gunner aboard a B-24J bomber assigned to the 700th Bomb Squadron, 445th Bombardment Group (Heavy).

Melva Mae Hein wearing Donald’s aerial gunner badge, shaped like a winged bullet superimposed over a pair of outstretched wings
Melva Mae Hein wearing Donald’s aerial gunner badge, shaped like a winged bullet superimposed over a pair of outstretched wings (2008.0049.02)

After a year of training, Hein headed overseas by troopship, arriving in Liverpool, England, on September 26, 1944. Three days later, he joined the rest of his crew with the 445th at Royal Air Force Tibenham, near Norwich, England. The airfield had been home to the group for nearly a year. His arrival presumably coincided with other crews joining the 445th around the same day. Two days prior, in a raid over Kassel, Germany, the 445th lost all but four of the group’s thirty-five bombers sent out on the mission.

Hein’s bomber had a crew of ten men, who christened the plane “Willie’s Wagon” in honor of the pilot, Second Lieutenant William A. Thompson. At 25, Hein was the oldest of the crew, lovingly referred to as “Pop.” On October 18, the crew of “Willie’s Wagon” took off on their first combat mission, targeting a chemical factory over Cologne. In a mission diary kept by Staff Sergeant Frank J. Russo, the armorer noted that the bomber sustained fifteen flak holes in the waist, tail, and wings—a “considerably rough mission for a start.” Missions from the remainder of October into December found the ten-person crew hitting marshalling yards in Hamm, Bingen, and Munster, oil refineries in Hamburg, and railroad sidings in Bebra. In the mission over Bingen on November 25, Hein’s quick actions saved the life of the flight engineer, Technical Sergeant Edward W. Bald.

Pages from the mission diary of Staff Sergeant Frank J. Russo, listing the crew of “Willie’s Wagon” and describing Hein’s actions on the mission of November 25
Pages from the mission diary of Staff Sergeant Frank J. Russo, listing the crew of “Willie’s Wagon” and describing Hein’s actions on the mission of November 25, which likely saved the life of Technical Sergeant Edward W. “Putt Putt” Bald. Russo's diary survives in part because he was replaced by Technical Sergeant Ernest R. Fletcher on the bomber's crew just before their fateful December 12 mission. (2008.0049.03)

On December 12, Hein took off on his ninth mission to strike the marshalling yards at Hanau, Germany. For this mission, Technical Sergeant Ernest R. Fletcher, working as a special radio operator to jam German radar, replaced Russo. After reaching the target and jettisoning its bomb load minutes after high noon, a flak burst hit the B-24’s left wing between the engines, causing the outer wing to separate. Fellow airmen observed the bomber enter a flat spin and only one parachute opening before the stricken bomber crashed approximately one and a half miles north northeast of Hanau.

A group of airmen pose in front of a bomber
The crew of “Willie’s Wagon” at RAF Tibenham (2008.0049.02)


A World War II bomber breaking apart in mid-air
Hein’s bomber, B-24J serial number 44-10493, moments after the outer left wing tore away after a flak hit just after noon on December 12, 1944. The bomb bay doors are still open. As radio operator, Hein’s position placed him just in front of the forward bomb bay. (2008.0049.02)

Christmas came and went in Baltimore without a word from Hein. Holiday presents for him sat unmailed with his wife. Then on January 2, 1945, the Hein family received a telegram from the War Department listing him as missing in action. Months passed without any further update about Hein’s status, either as a prisoner of war or as killed in action. The elder Reverend Hein made trips to Washington, D.C., to speak with Army officials and other airmen to understand what might have happened. Veteran airmen comforted Reverend Hein by informing him how his son, as a radio operator positioned near the bomb bay, had the best chance to escape. Sadly, on June 24 the army informed the family that Hein and the entire crew were killed in action.

Hein’s certificate for his Purple Heart
Hein’s certificate for his Purple Heart (2008.3023.01)
Hein’s certificate for his Citation of Honor
Hein’s certificate for his Citation of Honor. Both documents were issued to his widow by the Army Air Forces. (2008.3023.03)

Mere weeks later, however, the actual story of what happened to Hein shocked his wife and family when they opened their morning newspaper on July 17. Back on December 12, 1944, Hein had managed to bail out of his bomber and land in a field amidst trees, breaking branches as he descended and slightly injuring his back. A German gardener, Julius Reith, and a soldier named Garp found Hein around one o’clock standing by a tree and calmly smoking a cigarette. In his pockets the Germans found a first aid pack and a copy of the New Testament. Both men marched Hein, who did not resist or attempt to escape, two miles to the Langenselbold police station in Hanau, turning him over to policeman Wilhelm Häfner. Shortly thereafter police chief Albert Bury arrived at the station.

During a U.S. military commission convened at Freising on July 15, 1945, Bury testified that two of his superiors, Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Loser and George Heinrich Kalte, had instructed him that every Allied airman, so termed terrorfliegers (“terror fliers”) who landed within his jurisdiction would be shot immediately. The instructions, illegal under the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, represented a shift in German policy voiced and then reinforced at the highest levels of the Nazi regime. Propaganda inflamed public sentiment, describing Allied airmen as murderers and gangsters and encouraging and condoning extrajudicial lynchings and executions. Bury claimed that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had issued this order in October 1944, and that he was only following orders.

Alone, his fate a mystery to other Americans, Hein did not know what would befall him. Without hesitation, the police chief ordered Häfner to execute Hein. Häfner, together with policemen Karl Henkel and Wilhelm Plitt, marched Hein a short distance from the village to a secluded patch of woods. Ordered to halt, Häfner stood fifteen feet from Hein, drew his revolver, and shot the American in the head as Henkel and Plitt stood by. The Germans then placed Hein’s body in a coffin and buried him in the Langenselbold cemetery.

At the conclusion of the U.S. military commission, the six-man court found Bury and Häfner guilty of violating the laws and usages of war and sentenced the men to hang by the neck until dead. Reverend Hein, commenting upon learning of the outcome of the court, stated “There was no real reason to take the life of my son. It was a fiendish thing to do and represents the fruit of the Nazi philosophy.” American military leadership reviewed, approved, and confirmed the sentences later that year. On November 19, a professional German executioner hanged the guilty parties at Landsberg Prison. Bury died without comment; prior to his hanging, Häfner claimed innocence, declaring “I was forced to do it or [else] the SS would have killed me.”

A graveyard filled with crosses. In the foreground, Hein’s cross has been decorated with a bouquet of flowers.
Hein’s postwar grave in the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten in 1946. His remains were returned to the United States in 1949. Today, he rests in Parkwood Cemetery in Baltimore. (2008.0049.02)

Eighty years later, we remember Donald Ley Hein. His life is but one of over 26,000 young lives in the Eighth Air Force cut tragically short. We pause to reflect on those who fought above the clouds and paid the ultimate price for the pursuit of freedom and democracy against the ideological evil of Nazism. Then, as today, we take comfort in the words of the poet Mary C. D. Hamilton:

Lord, guard and guide the men who fly

Through the great spaces of the sky;

Be with them traversing the air

In darkening storms or sunshine fair.

. . .

Aloft in solitudes of space,

Uphold them with Thy saving grace.

O God, protect the men that fly

Through lonely ways beneath the sky.

Frank Blazich Jr. is a curator in the Division of Military History