Another mission for Milford pilot

MILFORD — Bernerd Harding remembers the German farmers with pitchforks and a rifle who herded him and the other airmen to the farmhouse after their planes were shot down in 1944.

And he remembers where in the farmhouse cellar that he dug a shallow hole to bury his pilot wings so that the Germans wouldn’t know he was a U.S. pilot on a bombing mission.

He’s just not sure exactly which farmhouse it was in the village of Klein Quenstedt.

But on Sunday the 90-year-old Harding and his wife, Ruth, flew to Germany where he will try to find the house and retrieve his wings.

Harding was a 25-year-old first lieutenant piloting a B-24 bomber over Germany on July 7, 1944, leading nine other B-24s in the squadron. They had just dropped their bomb load on an aircraft assembly plant and were heading back to England when the squadron was attacked by German fighter planes. All 10 planes went down and both of Harding’s inboard engines caught fire.

Harding gave the order to bail out, and when the copilot hit his shoulder and said “Everyone’s out,” he went through the door underneath the plane and parachuted to the ground.

One of Harding’s men was shot after he hit the ground and the rest of the surviving airmen in Harding’s plane were captured, but half of the 100 men in the squadron were killed.

“Three farmers surrounded me, two with pitchforks and one with a rifle, and they motioned to me to pick up the parachute and head to the farmhouse,” Harding remembered during an interview in his Milford home a few days before his trip. “There were women and kids and dogs, and one young man was on a bike and kept running into the back of me. The town constable took charge and took me to the farmhouse.”

Harding spent 10 months as a prisoner of war, and then came back to New Hampshire, married, raised three boys, and went into the construction business.

“I never thought much about (the pilot wings),” he said. But then in the 1990s his friend Robert Korkuc, of Amherst, wrote a book about his uncle who was killed in World War II and his family never knew what had happened to him.

Korkuc went to Germany and learned that German civilians had buried three men, including Korkuc’s uncle, outside a church. He was later re-buried in France and eventually in Arlington National Cemetery without his family ever knowing.

Korkuc told Harding that German villagers opened their arms to him and even had a photo of his uncle’s plane after the crash.

As a result Korkuc was able to take his father to Arlington National Cemetery to visit his brother’s grave.

Harding said he probably would never had gone to search for the wings, “if it hadn’t been for him getting me all stirred up about it.”

And he has no doubt that if he finds the farmhouse he can find his wings if they’re still there.

“The big problem is finding the house,” he said, because 65 years ago he only viewed it from the rear.

Helping him will be a German doctor, Ulrich Heucke, who lives in the village and who was contacted by Korkuc.

Heucke plans to take Harding and his family to four farmhouses this week in search of the wings.

“There are some places I definitely knew American airmen were. Some I just suspect,” Heucke told the Associated Press. He said the chances of finding the three-inch long wings are slim, but people in the village of 750 people want to help.

The search for his wings has also given Harding a chance to remember and talk about his experiences, including the 10 months he spent in Barth, Germany, on the Baltic Sea, with 7,500 other U.S. airmen and 1,500 British airmen. They were not well fed, he said, and “food was a major subject” of conversation.

The ordeal ended on April 30, 1945, his birthday, when they awoke to find “not a German in sight — a good birthday present,” and two days later they were liberated by the Russian army.

He remembers the chicken and eggnog diet he and other freed prisoners ate for two weeks during their stay at Camp Lucky Strike in France to get their bodies used to food and to put on weight.

Then they were put on a luxury ocean liner to Boston and then were brought to Atlantic City, N.J., for 60 more days of recuperation.

Harding is philosophical about the quest for the pilot wings.

“I don’t know if I’ll find it, but if not, it will be a nice trip,” he said.