Norm Achen was born in Kenosa, Wisconsin, and brought up on a farm during the Depression. After the start of WWII he joined the Army Air Forces, completed pilot training and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was deployed to England and was assigned to fly P-51 "Mustang" fighters with the 334th Fighter Squadron "The Eagle Squadron", 4th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force.
While returning from an mission escorting B-24's to Hanover, Germany he was ordered to descend and attack targets of opportunity. Rolling in on his first target, a railroad locomotive, his P-51 was critically hit by ground fire, before he could bring his guns to bear. Wounded and too low to bail out, Norm crash landed in a farmers field. The farmer, upset because in crash landing Norm had killed three of his cows, turned him over to the authorities and he soon found himself in the Luftwaffe's interrogation center near Frankfurt, where he underwent initial in-processing as a POW. After more than a week in solitary confinement he met the man renowned as Germany's master interrogator, Hanns Scharff
Lt Achen credits Scharff with saving his life that day because he stood accused of strafing civilians, a war crime. Scharff told him that he had been confined while the Luftwaffe recovered the film from his planes' gun camera to use as evidence against him. When he said there was nothing on the film because he'd never fired his guns, Schraff called on another captured American airman in the center's hospital who verified that he couldn't fire his guns without the camera rolling, then convinced his superiors to drop the charges. The next stop in his captivity began when he was moved to Stalag Luft III, near the town of Zagan in present-day Poland, where two of the most famous escapes during the war occurred.
As Allied forces made their way into German territory from both the east and the west, the Luftwaffe began moving the POWs to other camps. Eight months after arriving at Stalag Luft III, Lt Achen was among 2300 POWs forced to march south toward Nuremberg in January 1945. He recalled that, due to the cold weather and lack of food, by the second day of the march more than 800 men couldn't go any further and were sent to other camps along the way. Along the way, an airman Lt Achen only knew as “Moose” asked him if he was interested in escaping. When he said yes, Moose told him to keep an eye out for an opportunity. Over the next couple of weeks they marched from camp to camp in response to the Allied advance, which increased their odds of success.
One evening Moose limped toward him and put his arm around him, which was the signal that it was time to make their move. They slowed their pace and fell back through the line toward a wagon that carried prisoners who could no longer march. A German guard pointed his rifle at them, but lowered it when Moose pointed toward the wagon, as if he intended to get on it. They continued to slow their pace until the wagon passed them, then ran into the woods.
After two weeks of foraging for food at night and evading German patrols by day they got to the Autobahn, which Patton's Third Army was using to move into the German interior. They stepped out of the woods, flagged down one of the tanks and talked to the tank's commander.
“When they stopped, every gun on the tanks were pointed at us,” Norm said. “After we told the Major we were escaped POWs, every tank in the line saluted us".
The Army took them to England, where they went through debriefing and were given the option of taking two weeks of rest and relaxation (R&R) in the Mediterranean before going back to the United States. Norm was married, so he chose to go back to California immediately. After a month of recuperation at home with his wife Gail in California he volunteered to fly again, this time in the Pacific, but by the time he reported for re-qualification flight training, the hostilities of war ended.
After the war Norm returned to California where he attended UCLA, Western State Law School and did graduate work at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. He earned BSL and JD degrees. He went on to become very successful in business and was President of Hyland Labs, International Medical Labs, Don Baxter, Baxter Labs, was the founder and chairman of Overland Bank and President of Nicols Institute Clinical Labs. He practiced law in Temecula, CA, and was a Judge pro tem for the Court in Riverside, CA.
In 2007 he authored "Go with God". The book chronicles his experiences as a World War II Fighter pilot, POW and escapee.
Gone West - on Feb 17, 2010 the Greatest Generation lost another of its members.
* An Old Bold Pilots connection: Hanns Scharff is the father of our Chris Scharff
Some of the above content is re-printed in part from The San Diego Union Tribune and U.S. Joint Forces Command's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency articles.