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Enlisting Time - The Great Escape-ment.

"Memento Mori' - 'Remember your Mortality'​

Dating from the mid-17th Century some of the early timepieces made were timepieces in the shape of a skull with the words "Memento Mori" from the Latin 'Remember your Mortality' or 'Remember you must die'. For men like James Richard Hoel, and others here in the ‘Enlisting Time' exhibition, I suspect that thought never left their mind during the dark times of war. Therefore:

If ever a story needs telling it is this one. This remarkable story of courage beyond what any human should endure is only surpassed by the return some 60 years later of the Gallet chronograph watch that went down into the sea with 2nd Lieutenant James Richard Hoel (aka Jim Hoel), when in May 17 1943, his B-26 Marauder was shot down while flying at 250 miles per hour less than 50 feet above the North Sea (to avoid German radar). There fateful and if truth told ‘suicide mission’ was to bomb a heavily protected power plant in Haarlem, Holland, near Amsterdam.

The B26 Marauder (crew of six)

Jim Hoel’s plane took a direct hit and smashed at 250 miles per hour into Maas River, splitting in half on impact. The front section sank like a stone in a few seconds. Jim, the radio operator, pilot and co-pilot managed to get escape. Their turret and tail gunners sadly never made it out of the Marauder.

Jim Hoel was 22 yrs. of age, and that event and what followed on that fateful day changed his life forever, and how his Gallet Chronograph traveled from the bottom of the Maas River in Holland to a small town in England UK is another remarkable story - but- let us start with the man and not the watch. “Man” is a “piece in time” the other a mere “timepiece”--in this case, both with remarkable provenance.

2nd Lieutenant Jim Hoel - "The heroes were those who didn't return" Jim Hoel

As I said, Jim Hoel was a mere 22 years of age on that eventful day. They swam to the shore only to be met by a German officer, pointing his rifle at them. Who said in perfect English: "For you I think the war is over". At that moment Jim glanced down at his wrist to check the time on his watch, which had special significance, as it had been given to him in February 1942 by his employer, the Harris Bank of Chicago, as a departing gift after Jim had enlisted as a cadet in the Army Air Corps.

The watch, in Jim's own words, was "a beautiful Swiss Gallet Chronograph", which he had used to navigate with in his Marauder. Sadly the watch was gone, lost forever he thought, in the deep Maas River.

For Jim, the story of his watch was over, while his story was just beginning! Anyone here remember the great actor Steve McQueen? Do you remember Steve in that epic film “The Great Escape?” You guessed it! That is where Jim was transported to. Stalag Luft III, 100 miles southeast of Berlin, from which, on the nights of March 24th or 25th, 1944, 76 Allied prisoners escaped through a tunnel named 'Harry'. There were three tunnels being built concurrently, Tom, Dick and Harry.
Within days most were captured, an outraged Hitler had 50 of them shot, twenty-three were re-incarcerated and three made it to freedom - a Dutchman, and two Norwegians, all fliers with the British Royal Air Force.

Was it a failure that only three out of 76 men escaped? Was it a failure because 50 brave men were murdered by an outraged Hitler? No, not at all, it was the duty of every soldier to try to escape, to cause as much disruption as possible to the enemy. These were all ultra-brave men.

The actual “great escape” only involved British prisoners, although American prisoners helped dig the tunnels. Jim’s task in the digging of these three tunnels was what they called a “penguin" because they would fill pouches attached to a string around his shoulders with the dug-up sand from the tunnels, then pull the string to let the pouches slowly empty on the ground outside the huts. However as the colors of the tunnel sand and dirt were different, the “penguins” had to shuffle their feet around, patting the sand down into the earth. Three tunnels of sand and dirt, and Jim and his fellow “penguins” dispersed it all, so slowly the Germans never caught on.

Hitler, realizing he was losing the war, decided to march all the American prisoners to locations where they could be used as hostages in negotiating demands.

From Stalag Luft III to the Death March

So from the horrendous conditions in the prisoner of war camp, events took a further downward spiral – “The Death March”, which sent 10,000 men seventy miles during one of the coldest winters in European history. In Jim's words "it was brutal". Forget losing his watch, these men had lost everything. Their clothes were totally inadequate for winter weather; their coats (for the few that owned one still) were tattered, torn and worn out.
It was a horrendous journey. The Germans would march them for an hour in the bitter cold - and while they were walking they would sweat. When they stopped for a break to rest the sweat froze to their bodies. Many could not continue; they just lay down and died.

One day during the freezing forced march, he saw an old woman, in that freezing weather with a pot of tea in one hand and a mug in the other. She walked up to one of the GIs (remember 10,000 marchers spreading out twenty miles!) and said to him, "would you like a cup of tea?"- which she gave to the GI.

One would normally think, “How does that help - helping just one person?” But it was a gesture, a symbol that inspired the men who saw this gesture as a single act of kindness.

Finally they reached Moosburg, a prison camp northeast of Munich. Conditions there were horrible. The camp originally built for 15,000 POW's already housed over 100,000. On the day the war ended, the German guards just left the camp. Jim Hoel weighed a mere 110 pounds.

Dachau - nothing could prepare you for that!

After being freed, Jim traveled to Dachau. He was one of the first observers into the camp to view the horrors there, so horrific as to be painful to discuss.

Evanston, Illinois - August 27, 2003, 6:30 AM

In Jim's words “The ringing woke me at 6:30 am. At 82 years old, I was not usually up at this hour." I reached for the telephone and fumbled with the receiver. Hello? I said. "Is this Jim Hoel?" the distinctly British voice asked expectantly. "Yes" I said, confused. "Did you fly a Marauder airplane in the war” I again said yes though I hadn't thought about the Marauder for some time.

"We've got your watch" the caller said excitedly. I was ready to hang up and go back to sleep but asked "Just what watch are you talking about?" My watch was sitting on my bed stand. "The one you lost when your airplane crashed in 1943.” I was stunned. All of a sudden, 1943 seemed like yesterday.

Until that call Jim had not thought about his Gallet watch since the eventful day his Marauder went down 60 yrs. earlier in the Maas River. After two years as a POW in Stalag Luft III, helping to dig tunnels made famous by the movie “The Great Escape”, a seven-day forced march and the sights of Dachau, Jim had returned from the war only to get on with his life.

That phone call on August 27, 2003 brought back an immense flood of memories.

Here is a distinguished picture of Jim Hoel 2nd Lieutenant (retired): The Man, The Veteran.

The watch, in Jim’s words of 60 years ago –“a beautiful Swiss Gallet Chronograph”

How the watch survived is a miracle. How the watch ended up in England remains a mystery. We know the watch somehow reached England sometime during WWII. Unfortunately how the watch traveled from the bottom of the Maas River in Holland to a lady in England (who subsequently gave it to her son) is anyone's guess. The son never thought to ask his mother. The watch subsequently lay in a drawer for years until a neighbor offered to try to track Jim Hoel down. The rest, as they say, is history.

And to the timepiece, made by Gallet in 1940. Look at that lovely 100% original dial. Two buttons, two counters, lovely face. It is majestic.

The watch is a 1940s mid-size Gallet MultiChron Commander with white dial and telemetry scale. It is powered by a Caliber 42 movement manufactured by Excelsior Park, Gallet's sister company (essentially in-house). See link below for full details.

Gallet Service in the US did a full servicing, including reluming of the hands with a special color blended material that causes the hands to continue looking like the vintage original.

And the Inscription that led this timepiece safely home - albeit 60 years later. Crisp as the day it was engraved.

The watch originally bought by Jim in 1942 cost $50 – a lot of money in 1942. Just shortly after Pearl Harbor – “a patriotic time” in Jim’s words.

Full Circle – Tempus Fugit

A few years ago with his son Jim first travelled to England to meet Peter Cooper, who had returned his watch. Then they travelled to Holland where the entire town came out to greet him as a hero returning. But for Jim Hoel not all the memories that the watch and trip reawakened could be felt as ‘good news’. While in Holland he visited the graves of many of the men that lost their lives that day. Sixty brave men left England that day, on a mission doomed to failure – a suicide mission, with only 24 of that mission’s crew surviving (one later died in captivity).
To Jim it is more important than his watch that people understand, that the whole story, which is more about the men that he served with who did not return – “the real heroes in Jim Hoel’s eyes.”

Gallet et Cie – An Excerpt by David Boettcher

“Gallet is one of the oldest watchmakers in the business, tracing their history back to one Humbertus Gallet, who in 1466 moved from Bourg-en-Bresse in France to Geneva, and was a builder of tower clocks. His family was joined some 220 years later by other members of the Gallet family who were recorded as goldsmiths and watchmakers.

In 1912 Gallet made the first wristwatch to include a center second hand that is one originating from the center of the dial along with the hour and minute hands. Previously wristwatches either lacked a second hand or had a small subsidiary seconds dial which was difficult to read accurately. A center second hand is useful for timing tasks such measuring the human heart rate. Gallet's "sweep second" watches were issued to nurses and military medical personnel during World War 1.

In 1914 Gallet made the first chronograph wristwatch, which they say was made to the order of the British military, but I have not been able to substantiate this claim. This watch was a reduced size version of a traditional pocket chronograph, for which Gallet were well known, and still featured the three piece case, porcelain enamel dial, and center button (pusher) crown of its larger predecessor."

I leave you all as I started; this story is about the man and not the watch. “Man” is a “piece in time” the other a mere timepiece, both with remarkable provenance. Which has the greater story to tell? Who knows, as in all Horology we, “the man”, have to fill in the gaps Horology cannot answer.

Richard Ollard in his foreword on Clocks and Culture by Cippola says that "Clocks are the prototype of all precision instruments.” Therefore, people who study horology or collect timepieces possess the source, ideas, and inventions from which all other industries have derived.

To trace the evolution of the modern watch from its early days of 1550 makes an entrancing story, but too long to relate here. Sufficient to say that it has taken centuries of study, trial, experiment and error to bring the watch to its present state of timekeeping perfection, its reliability and above all, its complications, compactness and beauty, as we can enjoy in timepieces by Gallet today.

Authors Note
This story brought back strong memories to me too. As a young child living with my parents in Glasgow (sadly both deceased) they related at many times a story to me of a friend of theirs, a Mr. Karp, who had been interned in Stalag Luft III - the camp of “The Great Escape”. I wonder if Jim Hoel and Mr. Karp were “penguins” in arms.

NAWCC- “Images are the property of the National Watch & Clock Museum, Library & Archives and may not be reproduced without permission.”
Jim Hoel - 2nd Lieutenant (retired). A veteran of honor who served his country with distinction
Rick Hoel - Jim's son, who gave this account of his father.
Arnold Rosen - Excerpts published in the SCVA Newsline, from his book Before It's Too Late ([email protected])
Gallet et Cie - Gallet Chronograph Watch -  MultiChron Navigator GMT
Jewish Virtual Library - Dachau: Google Image Result for
David Boettcher – Gallet History
Arthur Tremayne - Everybody's watches - NAG Press Ltd.
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1,573 Posts
Thanks for posting! This is a great read!

My thanks to Lt. Hoel for all he and thousands of other veterans have given to preserve our freedom!

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Great real life Man & Watch story!...excellent to post this

Good men & there watches being reunited is always a great uplifting thing to read & think about.

Thanks for this story, as I come from a long line of Military veterans who love there duty watches, as well as the times they served and the memories that can be shared!

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