Lost watch reunion
AMERICAN fighter pilot Jim Hoel today saluted his hero of the hour who helped reunite him with the watch he lost in battle during World War Two.The 83-year-old said he was delighted to make the 4,000-mile journey from his home, in Evanston, Illinois, to thank the man who made it all possible.
AMERICAN fighter pilot Jim Hoel today saluted his hero of the hour who helped reunite him with the watch he lost in battle during World War Two.
The 83-year-old said he was delighted to make the 4,000-mile journey from his home, in Evanston, Illinois, to thank the man who made it all possible.
Peter Cooper, of Falkenham Road, Kirton, set the cogs in motion for the transatlantic investigation that saw Mr Hoel given back his treasured timepiece.
The Swiss 17-jewel Gallet chronometer had been presented to him by the Chicago bank he worked at before he went to war.
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He last remembered wearing it on May 17, 1943, the day German soldiers captured him when he scrambled from a Dutch canal after his B-26 Marauder ditched in water.
He said: "After we crashed I remember sitting on the riverbank with a whole load of German guns staring at me and looking down at my wrist.
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"I was surprised that it had come off as it had a strong metal strap on it. That was the last I knew about it."
More than 60 years ticked by before Mr Hoel saw it again, in August 2003.
He admits he had forgotten all about it and was stunned to receive a phone call saying it had been found.
Mr Cooper's friend, Michael Smith, of Trimley St Mary, made the first contact.
Mr Hoel said: "Michael woke me up at about 6.30am one morning. He asked if he had the right person and then said 'we've got your watch'.
"I was startled and said 'what watch is that?' He said it was the watch I'd lost in the big war. It just brought back so many memories. It just reeled me back in time to when I'd lost it. It stunned me."
Mr Hoel had his name and address inscribed on the back of his watch when he first received it.
This was enough for Mr Smith and Mr Cooper, a 57-year-old lorry driver, to make the connection with Mr Hoel.
Their inquiries found the war veteran had not travelled anywhere near as far as his watch, and he lived just a few miles away from his address in the 1940s.
Back in America, Mr Hoel since has become something of a celebrity telling his tale, appearing on chat shows and in various newspapers
He said: "I can't believe the interest this has created. It has absolutely amazed me. It seems to have caught everyone's imagination."
Mr Hoel, who was accompanied on his trip to England by his son Gil, 53, said: "It's so beautiful to be here and to be able to meet Peter. I just love it.
"As soon as I heard about what he'd done I wanted to come over and say thanks personally."
Today, he was planning to visit the place his plane came down, in the River Maas, near Rotterdam, in Holland.
Mr Cooper said the incredible story has seen him become close friends with Mr Hoel, adding: "We have become like blood brothers."
The story so far.
On August 27, 2003, The Evening Star tells the story of how the watch is given back to Mr Hoel.
It had been in the possession of Peter Cooper's neighbour, Herbert "Tiny" Baxter. The 91-year-old was presented with the watch by his mother following the Second World War.
No-one knows how it got into her hands. One theory suggests it may have been passed to her by prisoners and refugees who lived near her home in Bredfield.
It is thought they may have found the watch at the site of the crash, near Rotterdam, in Holland, and brought it over to Suffolk.
Having been told about the watch and its inscription on the back, Mr Cooper is keen to place to trace the owner.
Several years after the first suggestion was first made, Mr Baxter agrees.
Mr Cooper, along with his friend Michael Smith, begin the research that eventually leads them to Mr Hoel.
After getting in touch, they post the watch over to the United States. Mr Hoel immediately pledges to visit Suffolk to say thank you.
He kept to his promise this weekend, when he visited Suffolk for the first time since the 1940s. He previously served at Rougham in the American Airforce for a three-month period.