A prisoner of war’s journey

12 months ago

National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day was April 9.  It is hard to fathom that in our small rural area we have had more than one POW, but unfortunately it is true.  One such man was Norman Hanson.  

Norman was born on July 23, 1924, in Mars Hill, the son of Fred Chester Hanson and Pansy D. Shaw.

During WWII, Hanson served in the U.S. Army with the 751st Bombardment Squadron of the 457th Bombardment Group.  Ultimately, the aircraft of the 457th Bomb Group was sent to Glatton in the British Isles, arriving between Jan. 21 and Feb. 1, 1944.   The group entered combat during the “Big Week” in February 1944 and by year’s end had flown 166 missions.  Its last mission was flown on April 20, 1945.  On June 4, 1945, the group’s aircraft began flying back to the U.S. and on Aug. 28, 1945, the 457th Bombardment Group was disbanded.  

The 457th Bomb Group flew the B-17G model, also known as the “Flying Fortress.” The B-17G was an improved version of the B-17.  The B-17 lacked adequate defense from head-on attacks.  As a result, by September 1943, the shape was modified with a chin turret.  In addition, with this newer body model, the number of guns was increased from seven to 13 and other adjustments were made.  

Lt. Norman Hanson served as the co-pilot of the B-17G known as “Miss Cue.”  Miss Cue flew 37 missions.  On Nov. 30, 1944, the mission was to take out the synthetic oil refinery at Bohlen, Germany.  Smoke and haze restricted visibility and a second run was attempted to take out the target.  During the second run, flak was intense and two planes were shot out of formation.  

One of these, Hamtramck Mama, was hit and burst into flames.  The second, Miss Cue, was hit by heavy flak, knocking out engines 3 and 4.  The plane was losing air speed and altitude, but was able to drop its bombs.  After turning back toward Allied lines and jettisoning every possible weight, the plane continued to lose altitude until engine 2 froze up.  The crew had to bail out between 1,200 and 1,500 feet.  The plane crashed about 10 km south of Koblenz, Germany, and 1 km south of Kasdorf, Germany.  

Crew member Sgt. Ward Price was killed when his parachute failed to open.  Sgt. Granville Billingsley, first out of the aircraft, evaded capture for eight days.  However, Billingsley and the remaining seven members of Miss Cue’s crew were ultimately all captured by German civilians and soldiers and taken to German Stalag Luft 1.  

Stalag Luft 1 was a German prisoner-of-war camp near Barth, Germany, and was only for captured Allied airmen.  About 9,000 men from the U.S., Britain and Canada were imprisoned there, of which 7,588 were American.   The barracks were rough, wood frame structures on small foundation posts 8-10 inches off the ground to allow guard dogs to search under the buildings for tunnels.  Sometimes, the German guards would crawl underneath as well to listen to the prisoners’ conversations.   

Despite the dogs and guards crawling under the barracks, 140 tunnels were dug at the camp.  A hidden camera was used to take photos and make fake passes; and there was a hidden radio.  There was also an “escape committee” composed of senior camp officers who approved all submitted escape plans.  

Hanson and the other surviving members of his crew were in Stalag Luft 1 from the end of November 1944 until the camp was liberated by Russian troops on April 30, 1945. An American officer threatened to shoot the Russian troop commander in order to free the Americans.  

Hanson was awarded the prestigious Air Medal, a military decoration of the United States Armed Forces created on May 11, 1942 by Executive Order 9158 as signed by President Franklin Roosevelt.  The medal is awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while serving with the Armed Forces in aerial flight.   

After being released, Hanson returned to civilian life.  On August 25, 1945, he married Mary Bishop in Fort Fairfield, Maine.  Together, they had three children. Norman was employed by Northeast Airlines and became one of the first civilian air traffic controllers at Presque Isle.  

In addition to having U.S. military dog tags for official identification, the POWs were also issued metal dog tags from the Stalag.  Hanson’s US military dog tags, Stalag dog tags, Air Medal, sterling silver pilot wings and honorable discharge pin are in the collections of the Presque Isle Air Museum.  

Hanson died March 20, 2000, in Lexington, Kentucky.  

A static display on Hanson can be seen in the history wing outside of the gymnasium at Northern Maine Community College.  A narrated presentation on Hanson is also available for viewing on YouTube at no cost at https://youtu.be/fKxf9TBmMt4.  

Kimberly R. Smith is the secretary/treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society.