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Werner Koester: War pilot remembers

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | December 19, 2010 8:00 PM

HAYDEN LAKE - Werner Koester, at age 87, is hooked on the iPad.

He doesn't own one yet, but may soon.

"I'm learning about it. I became fascinated with it. Do you have one?" he says. "You can read books on it. There's so many things. I think it will replace the laptop, put them out of business."

Koester, a soft-spoken man with a warm, friendly smile, is sitting in the study of his Hayden Lake home, which he designed and built. It is quiet and tidy, with books on shelves and a monitor sitting on his desk. Outside the window, in the backyard of his Hayden Lake home, there is a blanket of white snow.

The retired businessman, worldly traveler, and father of two is in a cheerful mood. This year, he says with a smile, he had three operations.

"I survived them all," he said. "I'm in good shape again."

Not even war, you see, could kill him.

It is war that Koester is about to talk about. It is why he is sitting down on a Tuesday afternoon. Because he still remembers the time when he was a fighter pilot in The Luftwaffe in the German Air Force during War World II. He remembers flying, firing, fighting for his country, his life.

Many of the memories are not pleasant. War, he says, no matter which side you are on, is horrible.

"It's primarily in memory. I don't have any physical evidence," he says.

Koester earned his pilot's license at age 16, in 1939. When he graduated from high school, he became a pilot in the Lufewaffe.

Koester flew the Junker Ju 88, a fighter considered a keystone in the air defense of Germany.

"As a pilot, I liked to fly planes," he said.

He estimates he flew hundreds of missions, was shot down twice, and had friends who were pilots and didn't survive.

When the war ended, Koester was a changed man, a disillusioned man.

"When the war was over, I lost everything. I became almost a rebel. I started to hate Germans."

In 1951, he immigrated to the United States. He worked hard and studied hard. He got married to Ilse and they had two children. He recalls one of his first jobs was a technician with a small company for 75 cents an hour. Within months, he would become their chief engineer.

In a successful career that spanned about 30 years, he would be an executive vice president, build homes in San Diego, sell motor homes, operate companies, and buy broadcast stations.

He enjoyed business, he says.

"I liked to work with people," he said.

In 1961 he retired and 19 years ago, settled in Hayden Lake.

Koester recounts the phases of his life - education, war, work, life without his wife of 54 years, who died in April, and retirement.

"In my current phase right now, I love to go on cruises," he said.

And he likes stocks, too.

"I only own stocks which pay me something in the form of distribution if a company doesn't do anything for me, why should I buy anything?" he says, laughing.

Despite war, when Koester looks back on his life, he is thankful for what he has, for his friends, for his family and for the country he calls home today.

Because he refused to dwell on death and destruction. There is too much good in this life, he says.

"I had a life I basically, I really enjoyed."

Can you talk about your experience as a pilot in World War II?

Let's put it this way. I did fly as a night fighter pilot most of the time. I did fly long range all the way to Iceland.

Most of the times we were in the clouds, so we played cards.

And then I was on special assignment, with something chained or locked to your wrist, I didn't know what was in it. I put in a lot of hours. But I had a wonderful education as a pilot.

Later on during the war, other pilots who had less training than I ever had, they usually only would last two or three or four weeks in action. They got shot down or killed.

Were you ever shot down?

I got shot down once too, or twice. Once was by our own anti-aircraft and I had to bail out and landed in the potato field north of Munich. Another time turned out pretty tragic. There were three of us, the pilot, the radio man and someone operating the guns. We were hit. One of the crew members opened his chute inside the plane. That was a holy mess. So I gave him mine. He got out. But he was a left-hander. The handle for the chute was here (Werner uses his right hand to show where he would pull the cord) and he had scratched all of this off down to the skin. It never opened. They found him about a week later.

So without a chute, how did you survive?

I crashed landed. That's the irony again. I had a life of surprises. Sometimes it became fairly good. I was able to make a landing southeast of Berlin. The hydraulic system didn't work, so we made a belly landing, it was during the night.

We jumped out and I was running as fast as I could from the airplane because I was afraid it might explode. And I ran right in the canal. The water was about 8-10 feet deep. And being with the heavy boots on, I couldn't get the darn things off. I almost drowned.

What fighter plane did you fly?

Junkers 88, primarily. It was a good aircraft. First of all, German pilots didn't like it because of the difficulty, but I liked it.

How many missions did you fly?

Anywhere between 200 and 300.

What made you such a good pilot?

I enjoyed flying. I started so early to fly, it just stuck with me. For a time during the war I could not hold a cup of coffee. I would drink a cup of coffee with a straw. But on the airplane I was cool as a cucumber.

I would have been a bad commander of a tank or in the Navy. I wouldn't have liked it.

Were you going up against British and American pilots?

Both. We did fly with the buddy system. We were always two planes. One would go in shooting range and the other stayed higher in case he had to jump in. But later on it became almost impossible because No. 1, we didn't have much fuel anymore. And secondly, the P-38 was there by the thousands, hundreds at least. With the buddy system we used, after a while we had four, six, eight on our tail. I developed a technique where I would go in a very steep dive. I cut the left engine down to idle and was able to make a very tight circle that most American and British pilots could not follow, but I could do it because of my experience.

Could you guess the number of planes you shot down?

I'm not talking about that. I did some, yes, but that's history.

What were your thoughts during the war?

I was horrified at what was going on. And after the war and before I went to the United States, I was very bitter at how Germany was destroyed and misled and lied to.

Were you aware Germany was losing the war?

I was very fortunate. My oldest brother, he listened to the BBC and told me about the Yalta Conference. I knew well in advance that Germany had lost the war.

What was it like growing up in Germany?

My father, I was the youngest son, wanted me to get an education, which I certainly did. I was fortunate. I went to a school. Every day we had Latin. They trained us in logical thinking. They trained us in debates. There were only three schools left like that. All the other ones were controlled by Hitler.

When you were a boy, did you see any signs of war coming?

When we were kids we did see the freight cars full of people they detained. As kids, we saw it every day. After the war, everyone claimed they didn't know about it. That just added to my bitterness. The son of a bitches didn't have the guts to say yes, we knew about it. Everybody knew about it.

What were your thoughts when the war was over?

I was happy that the war was over, but our family lost a lot. One of my uncles had four sons and one daughter. He lost four sons in the war. Our family had several big farms, which is now Poland.

What did you want to do when the war was over?

I wanted to become a nautical engineer. Another brother said, 'Why don't you go into agriculture and at least have something to eat,' which I did.

When you look back at the war and your role, what do you think about?

I didn't like the war at all.

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