Valor: Behind Enemy Lines

Nov. 1, 1993

In July 1942, a 21-year-old Texan, SSgt. Herman Hochman, arrived in Palestine for duty with the 98th Bomb Group. Sergeant Hochman, who had fired a machine gun once in Florida–on the ground–became tailgunner on a B-24. In 31 missions during the next seven months, he shot down three enemy planes over North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

Another blank in Sergeant Hochman’s training was the complete lack of instruction in escape and evasion, soon to be compensated for by his leadership, imagination, and daring.

The 98th deployed some of its B-24s to Tobruk on the coast of Libya for a Feb. 9, 1943, strike against targets near Naples. Resisting heavy fighter attacks, the B-24s ran into violent thunderstorms short of the target. Only four of the 22 bombers, including Hochman’s, penetrated the storm to drop their bombs. His damaged B-24 had to crash-land in Sicily, which, like the entire Italian peninsula, was still under Axis control. The crew was captured immediately. Its enlisted members were taken to an interrogation center and prison for enlisted men north of Rome. The prison was commanded by an Italian colonel, whom Hochman later was to meet again under very different circumstances.

The Italian government withdrew from the Axis on Sep. 3, 1943, and joined the Allies. When the surrender was publicly announced on Sept. 8, Hochman, the senior NCO in the prison, convinced the Italian guards that the Germans would kill them. The guards took off, and the POWs walked out.

Led by Hochman, they soon broke up into smaller groups. He and his friend, J. C. Moore, contacted Italian partisans, who gave them guns, grenades, and civilian clothes. The two headed for the mountains of central Italy, living off the land with frequent help from friendly locals. Rather than avoiding the Germans they ran across, Hochman would ask for cigarettes in Italian, which he had learned in prison.

On Nov. 28, while making their way through deep snow, the two were captured again just as they were about to enter a mine field. They were taken to another prison. At Christmas time, the POWs were driven to Rome and forced to march down the streets, singing carols to demonstrate the good will of the Germans. Taken to a sumptuous banquet attended by the German brass, Hochman was asked by German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring how he liked the food. Hochman replied that it was great but in the prison camps the POWs would starve without Red Cross packages. Kesselring grunted and walked away.

On the way back to prison, Hochman found a wire cutter in the driver’s tool bag and hid it in the lining of his coat. Three days after Christmas, the POWs were told they were to be moved to Germany by train. Before being crammed into boxcars, they stood in the snow and were strip-searched. Hochman’s wire cutters weren’t discovered.

Near the roof of the boxcar was a small window covered with heavy wire. Hochman spent all day working on the wire. At nightfall, he and two others squeezed through the window and jumped from the moving train as the guards fired on them. Inadequately clothed for the bitter winter weather and often with no food, they crossed the mountains to Perugia in central Italy, where they were once more captured by die-hard Italian Fascists working for the Germans. A crowd of friendly Italians forced the Fascists to let them go and told Hochman of an American woman living in the city. She and her husband, the Italian colonel who had commanded Hochman’s first prison, gave them food, maps, and advice.

In the next five months, Hochman and others who joined him worked their way across the mountains to the Adriatic coast near Ascoli. After several attempts to escape by boat, Hochman found a seaworthy sailboat and, with the help of a hand grenade, persuaded the wealthy Italian owner not only to give it to them but also to accompany them in an escape attempt. Sailing all night and until sunset the next day, they moved south until crossfire on shore told them they were beyond the lines–in friendly territory.

On June 1, 1944, Hochman landed south of the Sangro River, bringing with him a South African pilot, four Yugoslavs from Tito’s forces, six Italian partisans, and his old friend J. C. Moore. He also brought much military information of value to Allied forces.

For his “conspicuous gallantry, courage, and daring” during an extraordinary 16 months behind enemy lines, SSgt. Herman Hochman was awarded the Silver Star, presented by Maj. Gen. Nathan F. Twining, commander of Fifteenth Air Force, later to become USAF Chief of Staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

After the war, Herman Hochman became a stockbroker in Houston, Texas, where he now lives as the semiretired president of his own brokerage firm. His stories about escape and survival in wartime Italy would fill a book.

Thanks to Abraham Friedman for putting us in touch with Herman Hochman, who shared with us his records and memories of a remarkable experience.

Published November 1993. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.