On a winter day in 1943 warmed by winks of sunshine, Leif Hoklin, a ball turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, began the longest combat mission of his life.
His ordeal officially ended in June 1945, and, like hundreds of thousands of World War II veterans, he came home, started a family, launched a career and rarely talked about what he had been through.
But he carried the weight of his experiences until he died in Billings in 1986. This week in France, he will receive the honor for his service that he largely avoided in life.
His widow, Darlene Hoklin, and son Noel Hoklin are flying to France on Wednesday to be part of the ceremony honoring crew members of his B-17, the Yehoodi.
While they are pleased about the recognition, Darlene shed a few tears as she recalled her husband’s life.
“This has been a real hard time, bringing up all of this again,” she said during in a lunchtime interview last week at Commons 1882.
“He was a great man, a great father,” said Noel, who now runs his father’s firm, Hoklin Chiropractic.
Because he was so reticent about discussing the past, much remains unknown about Leif Hoklin’s experiences during the war. But family members, especially his wife, have pieced together bits of the story from him, news accounts, letters he wrote during the war, and online sources.
Hoklin grew up in South Dakota and joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. In 1942, he was shipped to England to serve in one of the most visibly exposed combat roles in the air: a ball turret gunner enfolded like a fetus in the womb inside a sphere attached to the bottom of a bomber.
The Yehoodi, named after a popular catchphrase derived from an appearance by violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a Bob Hope TV show, flew six missions as part of the 359th Bomb Squadron of the 303rd Bombardment Group, known as “Hell’s Angels.” The sixth mission, on Jan. 3, 1943, was an attack on a German submarine base built largely of impossibly sturdy reinforced concrete in St. Nazaire, France.
The allies sent 72 airplanes on the mission, and 60 reached the target. Seven airplanes didn’t come back, and 44 returned with damage. The mission did little to dent the concrete base, and 58 airmen died, but allies did claim 14 enemy planes destroyed and 18 “probably destroyed.”
After dropping its bombs, the Yehoodi was headed back for England when anti-aircraft fire knocked out one of its engines and enemy fighter planes took out two more. Eight members of the 10-member crew parachuted; some were cut down by anti-aircraft fire as they dropped to earth, and at least one died from hypothermia after landing in the cold ocean off the coast of France.
Hoping to avoid enemy fire, Hoklin waited a bit longer than the others to pull his ripcord. The pilot, Frank Saunders, who reportedly had said he would never bail out of an airplane, stayed on board, as did the co-pilot, and both survived the ditch landing into the sea. The co-pilot died in the water shortly afterward, and Saunders reportedly was near death when he was rescued. Hoklin was one of only three survivors.
Only one side of Hoklin’s Mae West life preserver inflated, and he floated in the icy water for perhaps two hours before help came. There is some uncertainty about the form of that help, but apparently it was a German minesweeper that took him aboard. Under interrogation, he gave out only his name and serial number.
His family back in South Dakota received a report saying that he was missing in action, then a telegram saying that he was a prisoner of war. Confirmation came, according to an account Darlene Hoklin wrote of what she knew about the events, from a “woman in Rhode Island who was listening to a German radio broadcast by short wave and heard Hoklin broadcast a message to anyone in the States hearing him to please notify his mother, Mrs. John Hoklin of Elk Point, S.D., that he was in a German prison camp.”
Word from Hoklin himself came in February. It apparently was not the first letter he wrote home because he began by hoping his parents had received his last letter. No record of that letter exists.
In the February letter, reprinted in the local newspaper in Elk Point, S.D., he wrote that he was feeling “perfect and am getting along O.K. in my new home.”
“You probably wonder how I happen to be here,” he wrote. “Well one day we ran into a little trouble and had to bail out and fortunately I was picked up by a German boat. I was not hurt at all except for a scratch on one finger. The time so far has been passing quite rapidly. Before you know it I’ll be home again for a nice long vacation.”
The letter was inaccurate in a couple of ways. He mentioned a scratched finger but did not mention that he had been hit on the way down by shrapnel in his neck and lower back. He carried that shrapnel for the rest of his life.
He also was wrong about being home soon. It would be two-and-a-half years before he was released from captivity, one of the longest stretches of captivity of any American airman.
Hoklin was moved from camp to camp, at one point spending two weeks in solitary confinement with meals fed to him through a slot and nothing but a Bible to keep him company. He also was interrogated heavily.
Records indicate that he spent most of his time in Stalag XVII-B near Krems, Austria. The camp was widely considered one of the worst POW camps operated by the Germans, with crowded barracks, little heat or light and scant rations, often consisting of little more than bread and soup made of fish heads, rutabagas or potatoes. Dysentery and diarrhea were common.
While some guards who had been airmen themselves were sympathetic to their prisoners, others were cruel. According to America in World War II magazine, a post-war inquiry documented 30 cases in which guards struck prisoners with bayonets, pistols or rifle butts.
On the positive side, the camp had an infirmary, a library and a repair shop. Some prisoners were able to fashion crude radios to keep up with the news. Prisoners staged boxing matches, and Hoklin became a skilled bridge player.
The meager rations were supplemented by occasional parcels from home and from the Red Cross, which sometimes sent cans of meat. The guards would puncture those cans so they had to be eaten right away rather than stored for escape, Darlene said.
Hoklin’s letters home, as transcribed by Darlene, remained characteristically upbeat, but the camp did appear to weigh on him as time went on. A few excerpts, in chronological order:
♦ “The time has been going fairly fast for me so far and I hope it keeps doing so. It seems an awful long time since I’ve been home and I really am very lonesome for you and dad and the rest. Perhaps I’ll be home before so very long; sooner than you expect.”
♦ “Thanks for the personal and cigarette parcel which I received yesterday. Those slippers are perfect.”
♦ “My parcels have been coming quite regularly; I want to thank you for them because they sure come in handy. I’m going on 17 months as a POW and that is too darn long but not much I can do about that. I’m thankful to be well all of the time. We’re having a ball game in a few minutes so had better sign off.”
♦ “Received a letter from you mailed latter part of March [it arrived in June]. You know, I’m always waiting for mail from you. … If I get home O.K. this time I’ll never leave for such long periods again. It will be a year and a half tomorrow since I was taken prisoner and that’s an awful long time. But I’m thankful that I’ve been in good health all the time and I pray that you are all well and happy. Will close with the same love which I’ll always have for you.”
♦ “Haven’t written for a few weeks as I expected to be on my way home by this time. Got mail from you and glad you are all well. Your last letter was mailed latter part of May [it arrived in September]. I have the hardest time to persuade myself to write for the reason, I don’t have anything to write about; just the same old stuff and am well and getting along OK. I had run out of Camels when two more parcels of smokes arrived. … I pray you are all well and please don’t worry about me because I’m OK.”
The camp was crisscrossed with tunnels, and there were a number of unsuccessful escape attempts. Details are sketchy, but Darlene wrote this: “One escape was from a train transferring them to another camp. When the train stopped, three of them climbed out an upper narrow window and jumped. One broke his leg. The three managed to hide and going was very slow. They traveled at night; hid in trees during the day.”
In the final days of the war, the prisoners were marched west ahead of the approaching Soviet Army. They slept along roads and had little to eat except what they could scavenge from fields and farms.
Darlene recalls that at one point they stopped at a monastery and asked for food. A nun traded an egg for soap shavings, and the prisoners split the egg three ways.
On another occasion, they managed to find “meat,” but it made them sick. Hoklin’s blanket was stolen and his toes were frozen, which affected his feet for the rest of his life.
The evacuated prisoners were liberated on May 3, but records indicate that he was not officially freed until June.
World War II veterans were famous for their reluctance to discuss their experiences, and Hoklin was no exception. He came back to South Dakota and married Darlene, who had been a skinny eighth-grader when he left.
They met at a dance, she said: “We danced all the dances, and we dated, and two months later we were married.”
The newlyweds lived for a time with his parents near the railroad station. Hoklin would wake up at night and hear the train whistle, then run downstairs, thinking it was an air raid alarm.
Hoklin went on to earn a doctor of chiropractic degree and traveled to Billings to check out an opportunity to take over a practice here.
“He called me and said, ‘Bring the kids,’” Darlene said. They remained here for the rest of his life, except for time away from 1967 to 1975 to open a clinic in Laurel.
Although the term posttraumatic stress disorder did not come into use until the 1970s, Hoklin showed all the signs of it, Noel and Darlene Hoklin said.
“People used to accuse Dad of being antisocial,” Noel said. He added, “He was a great chiropractor, loved his patients, and they had tremendous respect for him.” But after work he didn’t want to see anybody but his family.
He was a man of few words, Darlene said, but when he talked people listened. He was reluctant to fly, especially over water, she said, and struggled internally before agreeing to fly to Chicago for Noel’s graduation. He also was uncomfortable traveling off main roads and packed a .357 Magnum under the front seat even for a Sunday drive.
“Hoklin never recovered from POW days,” Darlene wrote in her memoir about his life. “For years later, he would have nightmares about camp. He told me he would dream that he was a POW again and could not believe that one could be that unfortunate. The third time, he dreamed that he was taken prisoner again and I was a prisoner with him!”
In the 1970s, he decided at the last minute against attending a reunion of American POWs in Denver.
“He said, ‘I cannot go and listen to those stories,’” Darlene said. They went camping instead.
But he never let any of that interfere with his devotion to his work and his family, which included four sons.
“Our folks always included us in everything,” Noel said. “The number of times I had a babysitter I could count on one hand.” Hoklin was an avid fisherman and active in his church, and he made sure the boys behaved themselves in public.
“Dad said, ‘If you don’t behave I will take you to restroom, and you will wish you had,’” Noel said. “Well, I was never taken to the restroom, but the threat was always there.”
Two of Hoklin’s four sons followed him into chiropractic, and Noel joined him in his practice in 1982. He learned more about chiropractic from his father than he did in nine years of college, he said.
When Hoklin died in 1986, Noel said, tearing up slightly, he lost not only his father but also his best friend and his work mate.
This weekend’s ceremony will be held in Batz-sur-Mer near where the plane was ditched off the French coast. The visit includes a tour of a castle near St. Nazaire and a of the U-boat base itself. Speakers include Lt. Col. John Fowler, assistant air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
Darlene acknowledges that Hoklin himself might not have wanted to make the trip to France. But she and Noel see it not only as a chance to honor their loved one but also to meet family members of other airmen who were on that mission and to learn more about what happened.
Hoklin was never comfortable telling his own story, but it is still being told.