Fighter pilot Capt. Kenneth Dahlberg had already crashed and eluded capture twice when his plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire over Germany on Feb. 14, 1945.
The plane’s tail erupted in flames and was soon shedding pieces. While the aircraft hurtled toward the ground, Dahlberg ejected.
“I just barely regained consciousness in time to pull the rip cord for what was a very hard landing,” he recalled
Once he recovered from the crash, Dahlberg limped along a main road, weakened by a large gash to his head. German soldiers quickly captured him and then sent him to a prisoner-of-war camp in Moosburg, northeast of Munich. He waited out the rest of the war in the overcrowded barracks.
The remnants of the P-47 Thunderbolt from Dahlberg’s last flight were recently unearthed by engineers inspecting a tract of farmland owned by the Bitburg Volksbank and slated for development.
The plane’s scraps are now in a heap in the bank’s cellar, placed there for safekeeping after a panel marked with a reverse swastika — an emblem commemorating one of Dahlberg’s kills — was stolen from the excavation site.
On Wednesday, Bitburg historian Horst Weber showed off the few bits of bent and corrugated metal that still could be distinguished as coming from Dahlberg’s Thunderbolt: a mangled gun shield and paneling pieces, faded to a pale yellow. The markings on the panels, including crossed bones and a squadron number, could be traced back to Dahlberg’s plane.
To the untutored, though, the plane looked more like junk. Weber, who has been researching World War II history here since 1993, said it was a rare find, but it did not surprise him.
“When they told me where they found the plane,” Weber said, “I knew whose it was.”
Dahlberg began the war flying cover for the paratroops during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. A year later he was credited with 14½ kills — he still disputes the half. He was shot down three times, and he recalled how difficult it was to handle the P-47, known fondly as the “jug” for its immense weight.
“Those old P-47s, they shook you to death,” he said. “You had 18 cylinders barking away at you.”
After the war, Dahlberg manufactured electronics, producing headsets for pilots. He later went on to found the Miracle-Ear hearing aid company and the restaurant chain Buffalo Wild Wings. Despite his business and military successes, however, Dahlberg will likely be remembered as the answer to a trivia question after his unwitting role in the Watergate scandal.
In 1972, Dahlberg was the Midwest campaign chairman for Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President, known widely as CREEP. It was his $25,000 check, passing through the hands of Maurice Stans and G. Gordon Lidddy, that eventually wound up in the coffers of one of the Watergate burglars, Bernard Barker. The check was the first direct link between the bungled burglary and CREEP, and led Nixon to ask the memorable question chronicled in the smoking gun tapes: “Who the hell is Ken Dahlberg?”
Dahlberg was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case, and he said he was not concerned that his legacy might be reduced to a question by the infamous president.
“I was in business. I was in politics and flying and the military,” he said. “I’ve been all over the place and I’m still enjoying life.”
Though most people who have survived three plane crashes might consider themselves lucky and stop flying, the 92-year-old Dahlberg still pilots a Citation jet, flying each June to France to commemorate his service as a war pilot.
“I don’t have to worry anymore,” he said by phone from his home in Carefree, Ariz., “because nobody is shooting at me.”
He still has 20-20 vision, he said, and would like to see his P-47 one last time.