Watch mystery solved after 60 years

SUFFOLK sleuths have solved a timeless international mystery surrounding a lost watch which travelled hundreds of miles over 60 years.And now an American airman is to be reunited with the cherished watch he lost during a doomed wartime raid.

SUFFOLK sleuths have solved a timeless international mystery surrounding a lost watch which travelled hundreds of miles over 60 years.

And now an American airman is to be reunited with the cherished watch he lost during a doomed wartime raid.

James Hoel lost the watch as his Marauder bomber ditched in a Dutch river. He then spent two years in a prisoner of war camp while his watch began a remarkable journey which would see it surface in Suffolk.

Now the war veteran is set to be reunited with the watch after Kirton man Peter Cooper carried out a transatlantic investigation.

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Mr Hoel was stunned when he received a phone call from strangers thousands of miles away telling him they had found his watch.

Speaking to The Evening Star from his Illinois home, the 82-year-old said: "It absolutely stunned me, I still can't believe it.

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"I had no inkling at all. The first guy who called me had quite a strong accent and I couldn't really understand what he was saying, so I think I sounded a little confused.

"I worked for a bank in the Chicago area and that watch was quite an expensive leaving gift, I really cherished it.

"It had a really heavy bracelet to strap it to your wrist. After we crashed I remember sitting on the river bank with a whole load of German guns staring at me and looking down at my wrist.

"I couldn't believe the watch had come off because it took such a lot of effort to get it on."

Mr Hoel's squadron had been on a doomed low-flying mission to bomb the Dutch town of Haarlem. All 10 planes were shot down and Mr Hoel was one of only 20 out of 60 men to survive.

As a PoW he was then sent to Stalag Luft 3 - the prison that became famous for the Great Escape film. And he revealed he helped dig one of the tunnels before being transferred to another camp.

The amazing tale unfolded when Mr Cooper, of Falkenham Road, spotted an inscription on the back of a watch belonging to his 90-year-old neighbour Herbert 'Tiny' Baxter.

Mr Baxter was given the watch by his mother after he completed his own tour of duty through North Africa and Europe.

Mr Baxter said: "I am amazed by it all really. When my mother gave me that watch I didn't really think anything of it. I used it for a while and then it stopped working so I just put it away in my drawer with a load of other things and forgot about it.

"I just can't make out how, if that watch was on that plane, it got back to my mother.I never once thought about the history behind it until Peter got so interested in the inscription."He could offer no explanation about its origins, but Mr Cooper's curiosity was aroused by the inscription 'J R Hoel, 2200 Grey Avenue, Evanston' and he began an internet investigation.

And he unearthed harrowing information about a failed bombing mission over Holland on May 17, 1943. The aircraft was fatally wounded by flak over the North Sea and ditched into the River Maas.

Mr Hoel and three colleagues survived the impact. The watch did too - but no-one has any idea how it ended up in Suffolk.

Mr Cooper recruited help from friends as he tried to track the American, but thought they were stumped after failing to find anything other than wartime information.

He said: "We got this far and then we came to a bit of a brick wall. We didn't think we would be able to find out any more but then I got speaking to a friend who had been to Illinois for a commercial jet course.

"He still had a lot of contacts out there and through them we were able to narrow the search down."

He contacted friends in America and eventually tracked down an address through a Vietnam veterans' association.

It turned out Mr Hoel had not moved anywhere near as much as his watch - he was still living about 15 miles from Chicago in his home town of Evanston.

The watch's transatlantic travels will finally be completed when Mr Cooper packages it up with a copy of this story and posts it back to Illinois next week.

Mr Hoel added: "I'm not a wealthy man, but I'm thinking about how I can try to scrape the money together to go over there and thank those guys in person."

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