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Unearthing history

Last modified: 10/17/2010 12:00:00 AM
Kenneth Hindersinn bailed out of his burning P-47 Thunderbolt over Normandy on a winter day in 1944.

The 23-year-old American fighter pilot was escorting Allied bombers into the skies of occupied Europe when his flight was attacked by German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters. His radio disabled and smoke in the cockpit, he knew he wouldn't make it back to England. He punched out and took his chances.

Now, nearly 67 years later, his plane has turned up.

The wreckage of 2nd Lt. Kenneth Hindersinn's P-47 - shot down on Jan. 5, 1944 - was apparently unearthed last month on a farm in Gourbesville, near Cherbourg in northwestern France.

For his part, Hindersinn landed on the roof of a farmhouse, was taken prisoner and survived nearly a year-and-a-half in a German prisoner of war camp. After the war, the Rhode Island native went to Brown University on the G.I. Bill, became an engineer and raised four children before retiring to the Lakes Region in 1982. He died in 2003 at the age of 82.

But for Sally Porter, the astonishing part of the story isn't the discovery of her father's plane. It's the excitement of the French citizens who found it and want to honor Hindersinn's service to his country, and theirs.

"It makes me tingle just thinking of it. It's just amazing to me," said Porter, who lives in Meredith and has been in touch with the French enthusiasts by e-mail.

Her father, she said, "would be as shocked as I was. And humbled."

 Pilot to POW

Hindersinn, who would spend the last quarter of his life in New Hampshire, was born June 11, 1920, in Central Falls, R.I., and grew up just across the border in Seekonk, Mass.

A picture of Hindersinn's life and wartime service was drawn from a number of sources, including his daughter's recollections,

World War II-era documents provided by her or posted online, military databases at the National Archives and Records Administration, files in the Brown University Archives, an interview he gave late in life, and obituaries.

Hindersinn graduated from Hope High School in Providence, R.I., and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design before joining the Army on St. Patrick's Day 1942 in Boston.

He became a fighter pilot and a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the forerunner to the modern Air Force. By 1943, Hindersinn was assigned to the 78th Fighter Group, flying P-47 Thunderbolts out of Duxford, England, to escort bombers as they raided German targets.

He wasn't the only aviator in the family. Raymond Hindersinn had enlisted a year earlier than his younger brother and piloted a B-24 Liberator bomber in the Pacific theater.

On Jan. 5, 1944, six months before Allied forces invaded Normandy during Operation Overlord, Kenneth Hindersinn and several flights of P-47s were escorting B-17 Flying Fortresses toward Bordeaux on a bombing raid.

As he later told Porter, and she recalled in an interview Wednesday, they came under attack from German fighter planes flying from the direction of the sun, so the Americans couldn't see them coming.

"Dad was at the end of the pack, and he knew they were there, because the tracers flew by his canopy," Porter said. "And they hit the plane somewhere. He tried to get the German off his tail, but the plane was damaged. Smoke was in the cockpit, and he felt he had to get out."

Hindersinn's section leader, 1st Lt. James Stokes, wrote in a Missing Air Crew Report a few days later that the planes "were bounced by at least four FW 190's (there were many more in the sun) from dead astern. They were firing when we broke and I didn't see what happened to the other three in my flight."

Hindersinn later told the Meredith News that he shook the enemy plane and leveled off, but then couldn't tell if nearby planes were friendly or German.

"I got on the radio and felt like saying, 'Geez, guys, don't leave me,' " he told the newspaper for an article published in 1995. "I knew the radio was gone and never felt so damn alone."

Hindersinn made it to the English Channel, but he was losing altitude and didn't want to ditch in the icy sea. Turning back over Normandy, his engine ignited. Unable to open the canopy, he tried to bail out through the Thunderbolt's escape panel.

But he got stuck. His parachute pack was caught on the plane, and as the fighter began to spin, he blacked out, his daughter said.

He must have been thrown loose, though, because "he woke up falling in the air, and had sense enough to open his parachute," she said.

Landing on a farmhouse roof, he was quickly greeted by German soldiers, who took him prisoner. After an escape attempt that ended with the young American caught in barbed wire on a hedgerow, "they weren't so nice to him," his daughter said, and "he didn't try to escape again."

He ended up in Stalag Luft 1, a POW camp in Barth, on the Baltic Sea in northern Germany. He spent the rest of the war there, until the camp was liberated by the Red Army in May 1945.

 After the fighting

Hindersinn returned home after the war and attended Brown University on the G.I. Bill. He graduated in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in engineering.

In 1948, he married Elizabeth Tompson, who like him had grown up in Seekonk and served in the Army Air Corps during the war, as a control tower operator at Langley Field near Hampton, Va.

His brother Raymond, too, graduated from Brown in 1949, and became a research chemist with 157 patents before his death in 1999 at the age of 81.

Kenneth Hindersinn, after spending time in Ohio and upstate New York, moved to California, first in the Los Angeles area and then near San Francisco. He had four children, two sons and two daughters, and worked as an aerospace engineer for United Technologies Corp.

Porter, the third of Hindersinn's four children, said her father was a fitness buff who wanted "to be the best at whatever he did," and rode motorcycles and dirt bikes.

"Everything you hear about a P-47 pilot, that was him," she said. "He liked the fast cars when he was younger, and a little bit when he was older, too."

He was a barber in Stalag Luft 1, "so he was always our barber when we were growing up," Porter said.

But he didn't talk about the war, at least at first.

Porter said he had lifelong nightmares "about being lost. They were always about being lost and alone and that sort of stuff, which of course went back to being shot down. . . .

"That was always the biggest thing for him, was that feeling as the planes went away. . . . It really made a big impression on him," she said.

Later in life, she said, he talked more about his wartime service.

In 1982, Hindersinn retired, and he and his wife moved to Sandwich, later moving to 44 wooded acres in Meredith.

"He said he'd never return to New England because of the snow and such, but when he retired, they said, 'Let's move back,' " Porter said.

In 1993, Hindersinn, then 73, was injured in the neck and shoulder when his eldest son, Richard, attacked him with an ax. The younger Hindersinn had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and didn't take his medication. He was committed to the state's secure psychiatric unit in Concord the next year, the Associated Press reported.

The elder Hindersinn recovered, and Porter said he chopped his own wood until a year before he died in his Meredith home on Feb. 9, 2003, at the age of 82. His wife, Elizabeth, died the next year.

 Plane found

But the story doesn't end there.

Last month, Porter's cousin, who shares his name with Kenneth Hindersinn, got a Facebook message from an American who was in contact with a group of French aviation researchers, who try to honor Allied air crews from World War II.

He passed the message on to Porter, who has since been in touch with several of the French researchers via e-mail.

Apparently, they had found her father's plane.

Drainage work on a farm in Gourbesville, near Cherbourg in the Manche department had uncovered metal parts. The decision was made to excavate whatever was there, Porter said, because in the past airplanes containing human remains or spilled fuel had been found.

And there were local stories and research to support the notion that a P-47 had gone down nearby during the war, she said.

In mid-September, the mangled remains of a P-47 were lifted from the ground. The serial numbers on parts like the engine and propeller, Porter said, were compared with numbers on a Missing Air Crew Report for Hindersinn that had been posted online on a website that collects such reports from his unit.

The numbers matched.

"Le pilote americain du P47 identifie," declared a headline in La Presse de La Manche, a Cherbourg newspaper, on one of several articles about the find sent to Porter by her French friends.

Photos published in the newspaper show the excavation work under way, the mangled remains of the fighter uncovered and several people standing with its twisted propeller and a U.S. flag. An old photo, reprinted in the French newspaper, shows Hindersinn in the cockpit of his plane earlier in the war.

There are now plans to erect a memorial to Hindersinn in the town, Porter said, that could include displaying part of the plane. The memorial could be unveiled at next year's anniversary of D-Day, June 6.

If that happens, Porter said, she and her family will cross the Atlantic to visit.

"These people over in France, it's simply amazing. . . . The network of people and what they go about to do to honor our fallen and not-fallen soldiers," she said.

"They still want to honor that man who crashed a plane into their country, to save that part of the world," she added.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)


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