Towson WW II airman's prayer book returned from Europe after 70 years
By Nelson Coffin
May 25, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Larry Hilte, of Towson, lost a prayer book while flying over Europe in World War II. It was somehow preserved under a slate roof, discovered, sold and returned to him in 2014 by a Belgian memorabilia collector. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun video)
By the time he was drafted and deployed to Italy in 1945, Larry Hilte was probably familiar with one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer."
The lyrics of the song describe the plight of desperate airmen trying to find their way back from bombing runs over enemy territory in airplanes either shot full of holes, on fire or both.
Little did the Towson resident know then that 70 years later his prayer book, which fell from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he rode on a mission over Europe in the final months of World War II, would find its own safe landing.
Hilte does not know exactly when the prayer book fell from the plane, and, at this point, it doesn't really matter.
He didn't even realize the family keepsake was gone until his grandson, Brandon Hilte, was contacted through Facebook by a stranger in Belgium.
That man, Chris Cornelissen, said that he was trying to locate the owner.
"Chris contacted me and asked if I knew Larry Hilte," Brandon, 31, said. "He said, 'You probably won't believe this, but I have his prayer book.'"
When he discovered the book, Cornelissen was on a historical walk through Bastogne, the centerpiece of the German army's last major offensive of the war in what turned out to be the renowned Battle of the Bulge.
Curiosity led the avid WWII buff to a flea market in the heart of the city.
"At a small bookstand in the middle of one of the rooms, a Dutch lady was selling old field manuals, song books, pocket bibles and prayer books," Cornelissen said in an email to CeCe Brooks Hilte, Larry's wife of 15 years.
"After looking through some of them, I picked up a small black prayer book. It was not in perfect condition, but there was something else what made me instantly very interested. On the first page I found a name and address for Joseph Frank Hilte. Who was this man? Was it a soldier? Where did he fight? Would he still be alive? No doubt about it, I just had to buy it and start a research."
Fell from a pocket
The prayer book was originally given to Larry's older brother by their mother at his First Holy Communion in 1930.
Joseph had returned from duty in the South Pacific and gave the prayer book to Larry, who was being deployed to Europe in January of 1945 as a ball turret gunner with the 15th United States Army Air Force 460th bomb group.
A ball turret gunner's main role was to protect the 64-foot long plane's undercarriage with two 50-caliber machine guns from a small plexiglass orb that was lowered into place once the plane was in the air.
He pushed buttons to automatically move both guns and his position in the turret in order to fire at the enemy from any angle.
Because he was in such a vulnerable spot where he could see much smaller and faster enemy fighter planes, Hilte was very aware that the B-24s would need help to reach their destination, deliver 10 500-pound bombs on a target and return the nine-man crew safely back to Spinazzola air base in the eastern side of Italy's boot near the Adriatic Sea.
He said he is still indebted to the famed Tuskegee airmen, who shielded the bombers from the German Luftwaffe's feared Messerschmitt fighter planes.
The African-American pilots painted their planes' tails red and were a great comfort to Hilte and his crew.
"We always felt safe when we saw those red tails," he said. "We lost a lot of planes, but I never (personally) saw one go down."
Still spry at 88 with a shock of gray hair, twinkling eyes and a toothy grin, Hilte said that he thinks he knows how the book fell from the plane at 30,000 feet somewhere over the European theater.
"Most of the missions took seven or eight hours," he said about bombing runs that could cover 1,500 miles. "There was a lot of waiting around and it could be boring, so I'd climb up into the body of the plane and wrestle around with the waist gunners to pass the time. The prayer book was probably in my top pocket, and I guess it fell."
It most likely dropped through openings in the aircraft's midsection where the waist gunners stood behind machine guns protecting both sides of the Liberator, which also featured a top turret gunner, nose gunner and tail gunner.
When his grandson told him that the treasure was being returned, Hilte was incredulous.
And when the prayer book arrived, he knew it was the real deal.
"I recognized my mother's handwriting right away," he said about his late brother's name and address written in cursive on the first page.
The book is in remarkably good shape, with the original binding still intact, considering it most likely fell from such a high altitude onto the roof of a house.
One theory goes that the book somehow lodged under a shingle and was discovered when a new roof was being built, although no one knows for sure.
Regardless, it found its way to the flea market in Bastogne from which it was purchased.
"I couldn't believe it," Hilte said when he first heard the missal was found.
It's understandable that Hilte did not realize the prayer book was missing, considering that he had plenty of other things on his mind at the time.
He flew 25 missions, was shot down once and returned to the U.S. to train for an invasion of Japan before the war ended in August of 1945.
"It took Grandpa awhile to figure out how it got out of his pocket and into Chris' hands," Brandon said. "Obviously, the hand of God protected the book. And with Chris going the extra mile, like he did. How else could it have been in such good shape after all those years?"
Brandon said that he wants to make sure his infant daughter, Taylor Brynn, "knows all about him and what he did. I mean, those guys were just kids, 17, 18 years old, and that's what they did."
Thanks to Cornelissen, she will also have a relic from her great-grandfather's days liberating Europe from Nazi oppression.
"Bringing the book and the relatives of the former owner back together was the right thing to do, and being able to achieve this made me a very happy guy," he said. "The men and women who came to Europe to fight for our freedom, are the true heroes of this world and deserve the most respect and honor we could ever give them."