David Hemler: 28 years on the run

David Hemler

David Hemler deserted from the US Air Force and was on its most-wanted list for 28 years. He assumed a false identity, got married and had a family in Sweden. But in the end, the truth came out.

It was 1984, the height of the Cold War, and President Ronald Reagan was deploying Pershing II missiles in West Germany. At the time David Hemler was a 21-year-old linguist working for the US Air Force in Augsburg, Bavaria. But he was not happy.

He approached his superiors and asked for a discharge on the grounds that he had become a pacifist.

Their response was to send him to see a psychiatrist.

"I did not think being a pacifist meant I was mentally ill. But I had been feeling bad," says Hemler. "At night I stayed up thinking and I could not sleep. I had difficulties eating also. I had passed out a few times."

The air force did not let him leave. Instead he was stripped of his top secret job and given work as a cleaner.

Start Quote

My brother asked me what the name of our turtle was when we were young”

End Quote David Hemler US air force deserter, on how he proved his identity to his family

After a year cleaning floors, Hemler realised that the air force was not going to release him easily.

"It felt pretty hard. I had been through three years and had another three years left."

So he began to think of going absent without leave.

"I was just feeling so miserable. I needed to get away."

Hemler only planned to go for a short time. "It would be like a call for help to get people to understand that I was not feeling that well."

But it did not turn out like that.

He decided to go to Sweden. He had been there before and believed that Sweden had harboured US soldiers who had deserted during the Vietnam War. When he got there he called himself Hans Schwarz and claimed he was the son of travellers who had lived in 35 different countries.

The Swedish police were suspicious and wanted to deport him. They guessed from his accent that he came from the eastern US. "But no-one knew where to send me," says Hemler. "I said I was born in Switzerland."

Find out more

  • David Hemler was speaking to Outlook on the BBC World Service

In the end, the police could not get enough proof of his origins. Rather than keeping him in prison, the Swedish authorities let him stay in the country. A year and a half later, he had a residence permit.

Nonetheless, Hemler lived in fear. He knew that his permit was based on a false identity and he knew the US would be looking for him. "Every time I heard a police siren in the distance, I thought it was coming for me."

The US Air Force put him on its list of 10 most-wanted fugitives - along, says Hemler, with murderers and rapists.

His picture was regularly updated on its website and was only taken down a few weeks ago.

To avoid being caught, Hemler learned Swedish and disguised his appearance. He let his hair grow down to his shoulders and he stopped shaving.

He had various jobs, including as a nurse in an old people's home. He went to university and studied statistics. He now works for a Swedish government agency in the city of Uppsala.

David Hemler, in his teens and now

Throughout the past 28 years, Hemler did not reveal his identity to anyone - neither to his first girlfriend in Sweden with whom he had a daughter, nor to the woman he married years later and with whom he had two further children.

Hemler could not risk getting in touch with his parents either. "I was scared that if I contacted my parents, I would be deported and would not see my daughter again," he says.

He had to make a hard choice between keeping in touch with his daughter or getting in touch with his parents, and he chose his daughter.

Once his eldest daughter had grown up, Hemler could not bear the separation from his parents any longer. "I had been waiting too long already and they had been waiting too long for me."

When he tried to call them he could not get through. So he called an aunt. His Swedish accent made her suspect his story, however. In the end, Hemler had to speak to his brother to prove that he was who he said he was.

Just deserts?

Jeremy Hinzman
  • Pte Thomas Highgate was first UK soldier executed for desertion during WWI
  • 306 executions by UK/ Commonwealth military
  • US Pte Eddie Slovik was shot by a firing squad on 31 January 1945, the only American to be executed for desertion during WWII
  • About 20,000 executed by Nazis for desertion or treason during WWII
  • Both Nazis and Soviets used punishment battalions to prevent desertion
  • US soldier Jeremy Hinzman (above) deserted and fled to Canada in 2004 to avoid fighting in Iraq
  • US soldier Victor Agosto court martialled in 2009 for refusing to serve in Afghanistan

His brother asked him about his childhood in eastern Pennsylvania. "He asked me what the name of our turtle was when we were young."

Hemler got the question right. "My brother was very happy, of course, excited and telling me about all the news in our family for the past 30 years. It felt wonderful to speak to him."

Then came the first conversation with his parents.

"I expected everyone to be angry, and I deserved to be scolded, but everyone was just so happy I was back that no one even asked for an explanation. They were just happy to know that I was alive and well."

The other person that he had to break the news to was his wife.

"In the beginning, she did not know what to believe. So I showed her my picture on one of the air force's investigation sites of the 10 most-wanted."

Hemler says that his Thai-Swedish wife does not feel betrayed and understands why he had to pretend that he was Hans Schwarz. She is hoping he will soon be able to travel to Thailand to meet her family there.

Hemler would love to meet his parents, but he is currently under investigation by the US and if he risks up to 30 years in prison if he sets foot in the country.

Now a Swedish citizen, his lawyers have told him it is unlikely he will be extradited.

Despite having married and had children in Sweden, Hemler still regrets his decision to desert.

"It was a gradual process. I got myself into a mess that I could not get out of."

David Hemler spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.