Pilot, Prisoner, Pugilist, Paragon
I had a lot of trouble coming up with a way to introduce Hubert Zemke. I wanted to talk about how he excelled at various things. I wanted to say some nonsense about rising above and beyond his already impressive peer group. But none of it was quite right.
I believe I have come up with an introduction that *is* quite right.
Hubert Zemke was an impossibly useful human being.
Zemke was born in 1914, in Missoula, Montana. Or, to put it in 20's-40's terms, Zemke came from The-Bumfuck-Middle-of-Nowheresville. Missoula is currently a decently sized city with an airport, so we don't get to call it that anymore, despite it being in Montana. Also, he was the son of a pair of German immigrants, the irony of which was probably not lost on him.
As a kid, Zemke was bullied at school, at least according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Whether or not this fueled his interest in boxing is debatable. Sports explicitly dedicated to injuring other people were more popular back in the day. Still, it meant he knew how to handle bullies, boxing or not.
In 1936, Zemke entered the Army Air Corps, and a year later was a fully qualified fighter pilot, assigned to a squadron of P-40 Kittyhawks in Texas.
In 1940, the United States entered a long running trend of foreign policy that hinged on not really knowing what "neutral" means. To express the nation's uninvolvement in the war, President Roosevelt sent representatives to countries engaged in combat with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to learn and exchange military theory. This occurred in tandem with "lend-lease", which, to keep it simple, was functionally the US giving free weapons and equipment to Allied nations.
Zemke was sent to England to act as a liaison to the RAF. He would be one of the first American pilots to see how the Luftwaffe operated, and how the Brits developed counter-tactics to those operations. Without flying a single combat mission, Zemke had become a valuable asset to the Army Air Corps.
A year later, he was sent to the USSR to do the same thing. Zemke had a certain degree of fluency in the Russian language. That and his training on the P-40 meant he was exactly the right man to go teach the Russians how to fly the P-40. Zemke would later have "мой товарищ" painted on the side of his P-47 Thunderbolt, to celebrate the connection he made through the imminent Iron Curtain.
On December 7th of 1941, the Japanese launched a daring strike on US Navy ships stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Four days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. It seemed America's weak attempts at neutrality weren't going to be enough to stop Hitler and Hirohito. Someone needed to go over there and help the the Allies wreck the Axis' shit.
In March of 1942, Zemke was assigned to the 56th Fighter Group, transferring to P-47C Thunderbolts, and deploying to Europe in January of 1943. The P-47 was a heavy bastard of a fighter, armed with 8 Browning AN/M2 .50 caliber machine guns in the wings, and capable of carrying 2500 lbs. (Just over 1100kg) of bombs and rockets for ground attack. The Thunderbolt also boasted good performance at low and high altitudes, decent range for a fighter, and exceptional durability for a fighter. The only downside was the somewhat high cost.
By October, Zemke was an ace and his "Wolfpack" squadron was developing new tactics of air combat that would shape how every other fighter unit in the world operated. One of the more innovative tactics was the "Zemke Fan". The Fan was an arrangement of 3 fighter squadrons. The lead squad flew low, with the next squad flying above, and the last squad flying high as a reserve for the other two.
The positioning and doctrine of this tactic meant the Zemke Fan could cut off interceptors from all manner of approaches without leaving escorted bombers vulnerable. The stacked squadrons could reinforce any squad below them if the need arose while the other regrouped.
Later, in August of '44, Zemke transferred to the 479th Fighter Group. The 479th was being issued the new P-51 Mustang to replace their P-38 Lightnings, and he wanted to get him some of that. Unfortunately, Zemke's plane was damaged on October 30th, and subsequently caught in a thunderstorm.
He had no choice but to ditch over enemy territory. Unable to evade capture, Zemke's role in Europe's air war was over with 17..75 victories credited and over 150 missions flown. His role of being impossibly useful, however, remained unchanged.
Just as an aside, Russian wasn't the only other language Zemke knew. His German parents meant he spoke the language of his captors. This was good for Zemke. Not only could he better communicate with the guards (and interrogators), he could also endear himself to them and start building up favors for himself and the other prisoners.
Though not as imperiled as, say, Polish Jews, captured airmen in Germany had two huge burdens to deal with.
First, there was a chance they'd be caught by the SS and not the Luftwaffe or Wehrmacht. The Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht drew from the greater population, and had people who appreciated the experiences of the soldiers and pilots they apprehended. The SS drew from dedicated members of the Nazi party, and encouraged a brand of hatred as of yet unmatched by any other organization.
The second is that the US and UK were bombing the ever-loving hell out of Germany's industrial infrastructure. The collateral damage was extensive. The Nazis used this fact as propaganda against the Allies, but it was also not an unreasonable thing to be upset about. More than one captured pilot and crew-member was subjected to torture (or a mob beating) by people wanting to get even for the bombing.
Zemke was shipped off to Stalag Luft 1. It wasn't a concentration camp, but it wasn't great by any stretch of the imagination. Stalag Luft 1 was also located in Barth, Germany. Barth is in a part of Germany that would best be described as "The shitty cold part for most of the year".
He also spent some time with Hanns Scharff, the legendary interrogator of the Luftwaffe, known for being able to get all kinds of useful information from prisoners. Scharff's technique was brutal. He took efforts to ensure prisoners were treated humanely, and then he'd get in casual and polite conversations with them, sometimes after getting them drunk. Scharff was a trailblazer in the field of interrogation, and his methods of "treating people like people" and "malt liquor" live on to this day in the form of things that are eschewed in favor of unreliable torture.
Scharff knew a lot about Zemke and the 56th Fighter Group. In fact, aside from what he knew as an intelligence worker, it seemed that Scharff was a genuine fan of pilots in general. Still, underneath his amicable exterior and distinctly un-Nazi concern for his enemy's well-being, Scharff was still an interrogator.
In Zemke's own words:
"There is no doubt in my mind that he did extract something from me, but I haven’t the slightest idea what. If you talked to him about the weather or anything else, he no doubt could get some information or confirmation from it. He reminded me of the typical American insurance salesman who left you with a $10,000 insurance policy after getting his foot in the door. Though he never seemed to press for information, he’d pop an innocent remark out of the blue, making me think twice."
Whether Zemke actually gave anything away to Scharff, it definitely wasn't enough to change the balance of the war. After the war, Zemke would invite Scharff to dinner. Also Scharff would design the mosaic inside Cinderella's Castle for Disney World in Orlando. But that's a story for another time.
At the rank of Colonel, Zemke was the highest ranking Allied officer at Stalag Luft 1. Under the Geneva Convention, that meant that the US prisoners all reported to him, *and* the Germans were obligated to respect his rank in matters of prisoner interaction. To translate, that means that Zemke was only obligated to salute and hold attention for a German soldier only if their rank exceeded Colonel. In fact, Zemke technically didn't have to even speak to a German soldier of a lower rank. Most of the Allied officers took pleasure in exploiting these rules to annoy their captors. While risky, these shows of defiance were a source of inspiration to the rest of the prisoners.
In addition to shows of defiance, Zemke found other ways to boost morale. One notable example was the staging of a boxing match. Zemke's opponent was drawn from a pool of volunteers with backgrounds in boxing (or not, anyone who wanted to throw their name in was able). The name drawn for the bout was Major Cyrus Manierre. Let's talk about Manierre for a minute. Stalag Luft 1 was a cesspool of fascinating people.
Major Manierre was a captured OSS agent who had been working with the French resistance. But the Germans didn't know this. The Major had spun a convincing story of being a downed bomber pilot, and was able to back that up thanks to the fact that his brother was a bomber pilot. Cyrus's brother, Bill, was, in fact, a bomber pilot who had been downed over Germany and captured. When the Germans found out they had captured two pilots who were also brothers, they made a big point of "reuniting the brothers", then shipped them to Stalag Luft 1. If they had known Cyrus was really an OSS agent, they'd have turned him over to the SS, and he almost certainly would have been hanged.
Major Manierre outweighed Colonel Zemke by a fair margin, and also had 4 inches of height on the Colonel. Although both men had boxing experience, Zemke's greater experience was more than enough to close the weight gap. After Manierre held his own in the first round, he began to tire and Zemke would win by a unanimous vote from the appointed judges.
Soon, the year was 1945, and the Allies were closing in from the East, South, and West. The so-called "master race" was having its ass handed to it by a group of starving, scared Soviets on one front, and a huge, multinational military that was quietly starting to de-segregate on the other front. It was a bad year for nationalism and racism. It was also a bad year to be a prisoner to the Axis.
POW camps all over Germany were being liquidated, and prisoners were being forced to move hundreds of miles to alternate camps further away from the advancing armies. In April, the German officer in charge of Stalag Luft 1 informed Zemke that they were to be moved to Hamburg. Zemke refused to follow this plan. Instead, Zemke convinced the Commandant that it was in his best interest to get his 200 or so poorly armed men and bugger off before the Russians showed up.
The Commandant agreed and left the camp with his men. 9,000 Allied airmen (and at least one spy pretending to be an airman) now controlled Stalag Luft 1, under the direction of Colonel Zemke. In the event the Germans had been stubborn, Zemke had spent the past several months getting weapons smuggled in and stashed around the camp. Fortunately, it didn't come to that.
On May 1st, the Soviets finally showed up, led by General Marozil, a man I am having an astounding amount if difficulty finding any information about. The liberating Soviets immediately set about planning to move all the prisoners to Odessa. Zemke, again annoyed at the prospect of a pointless march to somewhere worse, also refused this plan. The Colonel's mastery of the Russian language meant he could better communicate the needs of the prisoners to the Soviets.
Once the containment fences had been ripped down, the Soviets asked Zemke what he needed, and his first answer was food for 9000 men. The Russians went into the surrounding countryside and rounded up several hundred cows and pigs.
Actually, according to one account, the cows were more than enough, but a Soviet soldier rolled up with a couple hundred pigs and explained that he couldn't reach the goal of 1000 pigs. When a prisoner explained that the cows were enough, the Soviet replied "The General has ordered me to get you the pigs." So this prisoner went into the abandoned admin office and used a typewriter to work up a receiving message saying all 1000 had been delivered. He probably saved that Soviet a lot of grief.
Zemke's next objective after feeding his men was to let the Western Allies know where they were. He gave this task to RAF Group Captain Weir, who went to the Russians to further convince them that moving everyone to Odessa was a waste of time, and that what they really needed was a working telephone or radio. Between Zemke and Weir, they finally convinced the Soviets to get in touch with General Eisenhower, who had several hundred B-17s sent to a nearby airfield to bring the prisoners home.
To summarize Hubert Zemke's role in the War, I'll make a bulleted list. This list can also be my TL;DR, for the impatient
- Zemke oversaw lend-lease deliveries of P-40 fighters to the UK, USSR, and China (to a smaller extent).
- During his time in these countries, Zemke crossed cultural and political gaps between the western and eastern Allied forces.
- He also got a closer look at the Luftwaffe than most other American pilots would get until 1942.
- Zemke developed and applied new tactics for bomber escort and fighter suppression that became a standard for other units in the Army Air Corps.
- Zemke survived being shot down by God.
- Zemke met Hanns Scharff, famous Axis interrogator and Disney mosaic designer.
- Zemke ably represented the prisoners at Stalag Luft 1, and protected them against being put on a death march by retreating German forces. He spoke German, too.
- He also guarded the prisoners from being shipped to Communist controlled Odessa and presumably having their souls devoured by Stalin. Zemke was fluent in Russian.
- Hubert Zemke kind of looked like Tom Hanks.
Hubert Zemke was an impossibly useful human being.
- W.Smith, Mary. World War II - Prisoners of War - Stalag Luft I. http://www.merkki.com/.
- Just as an aside, Merkki is a site that's crammed full of fascinating stories.
- “Zemke, Hubert A. ‘Hub.’” Atlantikwall - Batterie D'Azeville - Azeville - TracesOfWar.com, www.tracesofwar.com/persons/46544/Zemke-Hubert-A-Hub.htm?c=aw.
- “Secrets of the Nazi Interrogators.” HistoryNet, 25 Apr. 2018, www.historynet.com/secrets-nazi-interrogators.htm.