21 March 1945 : Wednesday
1430 a few miles north of Trier, Germany
Second Lieutenants Gilbert Nicklas and Leo Elliott Jr. raced homeward in their F-6 Mustangs (the reconnaissance version of the famous P-51) winging their way back from a reconnaissance mission near the Landau region.
Cruising at 7,000 feet, eight angry puffs of charcoal colored smoke erupted around them. Shrapnel from the well-placed enemy flak rounds ripped through Nicklas’ Mustang. Elliott spotted smoke trailing from Nicklas’ radiator shutters (located under his belly just behind the Mustang's air scoop) confirming what they both knew. Nicklas was flying on borrowed time. He only had moments before his liquid cooled Merlin engine overheated and seized grinding his twelve thumping pistons to a violent halt.
...shrapnel ripped through Lt Nicklas' F-6 Mustang.
Over Axis territory, the flight of two banked northward searching for friendly troop columns. Nicklas’ coolant temperature soared to 150ºC (29º above the maximum allowed and 39º above optimum operating temperatures). They’d made it as far as Friedelsheim but now they were out of time.
Nicklas prepared to bail out now for the second time in five days
Nicklas prepared to bail out now for the second time in five days. He’d performed this very same procedure last Saturday while returning from a mission on St. Patrick’s Day. Then too, he bailed out over enemy territory and after an uneasy night in the woods, linked up with American troops. Not even a week later he was doing it again.
Nicklas pulled the Cockpit Emergency Hood Release handle located on the forward right side of the cockpit. The canopy tore itself away. Next, Nicklas released his safety belt and shoulder harness. Lt. Elliott watched as Lt. Nicklas rolled his stricken plane on its back. For a tense moment Elliott aswaited his wingman’s fate. Circling overhead with eight P-47s, Elliott at last spied Nicklas gently floating beneath the canopy of his white silk parachute. A few moments later, Nicklas crumpled to the earth, got up and began bundling his chute. Elliott, satisfied Nicklas was safe, turned for A-94, his home field back in Conflans, France.
Nicklas was no doubt relieved to be on the ground but this was hostile territory and there was no time to lose. He quickly detached himself from his chute, bundled the silk and stashed it into a nearby haystack concealing his landing site. Crawling towards safety several rifle shots rang out. Any doubt these were for him evaporated when several rounds burst forth from a German “burp gun” (likely an MP40 sub machinegun) zipping far too close for comfort. Lt. Nicklas took cover and mulled his options. It was clear he’d been spotted and even clearer his assailants were no amateurs, given the accuracy of the machine gun fire. Any additional attempts to escape would surely result in severe injury and capture or death. Only one option remained. Lt. Nicklas surrendered.
The German soldiers took him captive and talked local civilians out of executing him. The soldiers brought their prize to Iggelsheim for interrogation where a German officer relieved Nicklas of his watch. After interrogation, Nicklas boarded a vehicle convoy bound for Heidelberg about 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the east.
Open the map for more information.
At Heidelburg, Nicklas linked up with several more American POWs where they learned they were being sent to Frankfurt, 52 miles deeper into Germany. They marched north by night about 12.5 miles per day (20km). Keeping this pace would place them in Frankfurt in about 4-5 days. Every step north, Nicklas must have surely felt the Reich tightening its grip on him. If he was ever to escape, this was the time. During the forced march, Nicklas made a break for freedom only to be recaptured. Undeterred, he tried again. This time he and three other POWs slipped past their guards and headed for Allied territory.
Over the next several days they travelled by night avoiding capture until finally linking up with an American patrol from the 63rdInfantry Division near Jagsthousen. Altogether they’d crept through at least 44 miles (72km) of enemy territory.
In early April, Nicklas returned to a joyous 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. He had been shot down twice in five days and each time gave the enemy the slip. Later that same month Uncle Sam decided Lt. Nicklas had risked enough for his country and sent him home to the good ‘ole U.S. of A.
- 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron War Diaries 1917-1947 Air Force Historical Agency
- AN 01-60JE-1 P-51D Mustang manual DoD April 5, 1944
- Elmer T. Olson Collection
- Missing Air Crew Reports National Archives
- Mustang Thoroughbred Stallion of the Air by Steve Pace Fonthill Media © 2012
- U.S. Army Air Forces Continental Airfields (ETO) D-Day to VE-Day, 1Lt David C. Johnson, research Division, USAF Historical Research Center, Maxwell AFB, AL 1988