Until Wilhelm Simonsohn walked into Warsaw in September 1939, he hadn’t seen the consequences of war up close. The 19-year-old spent the 18-day German invasion of Poland in a spotter plane, guiding tanks and infantry to their targets far below. From thousands of feet in the air, the first days of the war seemed like a great adventure.
All that changed when Simonsohn drove into the captured Polish capital, shattered by German bombers in the closing days of the campaign. Some 20,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the assault, one of the war’s first air assaults on a civilian population. The smell of rotting bodies trapped under the rubble is what Simonsohn remembers most vividly.
“I had to come to grips with a city destroyed by bombs,” he says. “I aged 10 years in a single moment. It made such an impression on me I said to myself, I’ll never drop a bomb on a human being. And I stuck by that.”
Simonsohn was no Nazi. Barely a year before, his adoptive father Leopold—a Jewish convert to Christianity decorated for his service in the trenches of WWI—had been swept up on Kristallnacht, a nationwide spasm of anti-Jewish violence that foreshadowed worse to come.
Sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, Leopold was released after Simonsohn rushed home to Hamburg from basic training and begged local Nazi bigwigs to intervene. His booming laugh silenced, Leopold died a broken man a year later. “I never saw him smile again,” Simonsohn says.
Yet hard as it is to understand in hindsight, neither his father’s fate nor the horrors of Warsaw kept Simonsohn from fighting in the invasion of France, or from joining the Luftwaffe as a pilot-in-training in 1940. “I flew with the idea that I’d prevent the English from setting our cities on fire,” he says. “I was 22 and naive.”
At the controls of a JU-52 “Night Hunter” interceptor, Simonsohn flew dozens of nighttime missions in the skies over Germany and Belgium, scrambling to intercept British bombers headed toward the German heartland. By his count, he stopped three.
By the spring of 1944, Simonsohn had the feeling that Germany’s fortunes were shifting. Often, he remembers, burning German cities lit the nighttime skies with ghostly red light.
In May 1944 Simonsohn and his crew were shot down over Belgium. Re-posted to an airbase near Berlin, he met pilots on their way to and from Germany’s many combat zones. In whispered conversations he learned the truth behind the official propaganda: From the Atlantic to North Africa, his fellow flyers reported nothing but defeat and retreat. “That’s when I knew the war was lost,” he says. “At that moment I realized I just needed to survive.”
As Allied forces closed in on Germany from the east and west, Simonsohn was assigned to the south. He spent the final months of the war flying light courier planes in Austria, following the fierce battle for Berlin from afar and dodging American bombing raids.
At dawn on May 3, 1945—two days after German radio announced Hitler’s death and the day after Soviet forces conquered the German capital—Simonsohn put his girlfriend, Elisabeth, in the passenger seat of his plane and flew from a cratered airfield on the outskirts of Vienna to a remote mountain village.
Smashing the wood and fabric frame of his aircraft, Simonsohn threw his service pistol in a pond and hid in the nearby forest while his girlfriend made herself useful milking cows. Seventy-five years later, 100 years old and nearly blind, he explains his decision to “demobilize” himself with a dose of black humor. “Hitler had deserted already,” he says. “Why should I have kept fighting?”
News of the final German surrender came not as disappointment but as tremendous relief. “May 8, 1945, was a second birthday for me. It meant an end to all the killing, all the fear,” he says. “Since then we’ve lived in peace with our neighbors for 75 years. We’ve never had that in all of German history.”
Simonsohn never flew a plane again. He returned to Hamburg, married his last passenger, and built a postwar career as a hospital administrator. In his apartment, not far from the neighborhood where his father delivered coal in a horse-drawn wagon a century ago, he keeps a shred of stiff, lacquered fabric in the back of a dusty glass cabinet. It’s a piece of his last airplane’s wing, one last souvenir from a war that never should have happened.
“Never again’” is my motto,” Simonsohn says. “The burning cities, the killing—it all made me a pacifist. And I’ve only become more of one as the years have gone by.”
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