Monday, September 16, 2019

When the Nazi flag flew over Harris Hill

By Andrea Rozengota, education volunteer

It was the summer of 1938, during the two-week annual National Soaring Competition, when a Nazi flag was seen flying over one of Chemung county’s Harris Hill cabins.  Though the war had not begun yet, this was still a strange and unsettling sight to many people.  Shortly after its appearance, a group of Elmirans took it upon themselves to confiscate the Nazi flag being flown above the cabin of German pilots, Peter Riedel and Alfred Bayer.  When the citizens were discovered later, they justified their actions, claiming they believed foreign flags should not be displayed without an accompanying American flag above them.  

Star-Gazette headline from the incident, 1938
Unlike the response you would imagine, incident of the Nazi flag was quickly dropped by both sides.  Chemung county was anxious at the possibility of hosting an international soaring event in 1939, and did not want an international incident to ruin their chances.  The Germans were also uninterested in pursuing the theft, partly because they wished to be invited back, but also because neither seemed to have a strong allegiance to the reigning Nazi party.  

Peter Riedel (center) and his ground crew. Courtesy of the National Soaring Museum.

1938 was not Peter Riedel’s first appearance in the national event, and though he was representing his home country, he understood the American’s growing aversion to the symbol. It must have come as a slight surprise however, since there had been little reaction to the swastika-adorned Sperber sailplane that Riedel flew in 1937.  But in 1938, not only had world politics grown more hostile, but Riedel was now officially a German State representative, as Air Attaché to the German Embassy in Washington D.C.  Riedel felt the growing sentiment, and willingly left down the flag, but also knew his new position as Air Attaché meant that there was no way he could fully remove himself from the Nazi government.  The German-owned sailplane he was flying would have to keep its swastika tail markings.

This was not the first time Harris Hill had hosted German pilots.  Germans, and German aircraft were a regular part of soaring in America.  Since the creation of the national contest in 1930, Germans had participated in the yearly events at Elmira.  In fact, Elmira was originally chosen as a soaring site by Wolfgang Klemperer, a German-American citizen who was very influential in early soaring in Germany and the United States.

Bayer & Riedel's sailplanes at Harris Hill, 1938. Courtesy of the National Soaring Museum.
The 1938 contest turned out to be a great success regardless of any background hostilities, with several records broken.  Despite some disgruntled participants and spectators, Peter Riedel, flying for the Aero Club of Germany, went on to place in just about every event.  One of his more significant feats was breaking the international distance record by flying from Harris Hill to Hoover Field, outside of Washington D.C., a 225-mile flight!  Another German Pilot, Alfred Bayer, (who did not have a swastika on his plane), was flying for the New York German Aviation Club placed well in the ranks, even after a road accident that greatly damaged his aircraft.  Peter Riedel accumulated the highest number of points and, therefore, won the contest.  But because he was not an American citizen, he could not be the official winner.  He did, however, go home with two trophies and $500 in prize money. 

When war broke out with Germany, Peter Riedel, along with over 31,000 other Germans still in the United States, were interned for questioning. Riedel was returned to Germany. He was reassigned as Air Attaché to Sweden, where he eventually worked as an informant for American forces.  He later returned to the United States.


  1. My uncle Leo Campbell was volunteer at Harris Hill and took a number of photographs that were given to the Hill museum when his wife died. The story I heard was the German glider pilots were Luftwaffe in training at that point because the Treaty of Versailles didn't allow Germany military aircraft.