By Tom Morrow
During World War II, Adalbert “Bert” Messerschmitt “was a “great escape artist.” He began his life-preservation exploits on the Russian Front in 1941. Some years ago the wife of Messerschmitt called me and asked if I’d be interested in talking with her husband … a former member of the German army during. They lived in Oceanside and I couldn’t get out to their house fast enough.
Born in 1921 in northern Bavaria, Germany, Messerschmitt was the son of a forester. In 1937, he had to serve a year of national service on the Siegfried Line along the western German border with France, then in 1939, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht (German armed forces).
About that name, Messerschmitt. He was the grand-nephew of famed aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt, who designed the core inventory of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, including the ME-109 fighter and later the world’s first operational fighter jet, the ME-262.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but in December 1941, Uncle Willy arranged to have me pulled out of the fighting in the Ukraine and sent to fighter-pilot school. When I found out, it made me mad and I got a transfer back to my old army unit,” Bert recalled.
This was a time when Germany was fighting the Russians in Chechnya.
“The Chechnyans hated the Russians, so they were pretty friendly to us Germans,” recalling his time serving in Chechnya.
Messerschmitt was wounded during a battle in the Caucasus Mountains in the south of Chechnya and simultaneously came down with malaria. His next experience was somewhere between a miracle and the “Twilight Zone.”
In Chechnya Messerschmitt was befriended by a local family when he came down with malaria. He became infatuated with the family’s beautiful young daughter, Vera. Bert was visiting one evening when a Russian scout plane flew low over their village. “We all took cover, except for Vera,” he recalled. “She just laughed and told me it was her brother, a reconnaissance pilot for the Russians. He flew low over the village each night to check on the family.
Messerschmitt came down with malaria and fell into a coma when he got worse. “I needed to get to a German hospital some one hundred miles to the north in Rostov,” Bert recalled. “When I woke up several days later, I was at that very hospital.”
No one knew how he got there, only that he was found wandering around on the road near the hospital.
“I could never prove it, but I figured Vera’s brother flew me there in his Russian scout plane, landed on the road, and dropped me off. It’s a wild, crazy story, but there it is.”
When he recovered, he went back to the fighting and was soon captured by the Russians.
Again, his captivity was short-lived. “I was with about 20 other German soldiers being kept by the Russians to shuttle ammunition to their lines,” he recalled.
On the third day, a German Stuka dive-bomber began strafing and the two Russian guards dived for cover. Messerschmitt escaped down a drainage ditch, hiding inside a culvert. He packed mud to cover the opening and waited until dark.
Back again with the German army he was sent to France. On Oct. 21, 1944, he was captured yet again, this time by the U.S. 7th Army. He remained a POW until Feb. 15, 1946, nearly a year after the war was over.
“The Americans said we could go home, but we were marched out of the camp near Dijon, (France) across the road to a French POW camp.”
Bert said he spent the next several months cutting firewood.
“The war had been over for more than a year. I just wanted to go home.”
It was July 14, 1946, the French celebration of Bastille Day. Messerschmitt knew the guards would be drinking so if he was going to escape that would be his opportunity.
Messerschmitt and three other German soldiers slipped through the barbed wire fencing and escaped into the nearby forest. They traveled north for 13 nights eventually crossing the German border.
When he and a comrade were within a few miles of Messerschmitt’s hometown in Bavaria, they were nearly caught again; this time in a train station. They joined two girls in the waiting room sitting at this long table. Two French soldiers were nearby having a beer. Suddenly two American MPs started checking papers. One of the girls noticed the two escapees were getting nervous and asked what was wrong.
“When I told them, one girl motioned to hide beneath their wide skirts under the table. The MPs never saw us.” Messerschmitt accomplished his last escape and was home within an hour.
In 1948, Messerschmitt joined the U.S. Army, and rose to master sergeant. Then in 1953, he and wife, Rita, immigrated to the United States.
“During the war, I was a loyal German soldier, but since coming to this country I’m every bit an American and very proud of it!”
Perhaps a story perfect for Hollywood … at least one for the history books.