The Raid on Munster, Germany, October 10, 1943
My Escape from German Occupied Europe
by: John K. “Jack” Justice (Supplied by Corie Hill in March 2003)
I was a First Lieutenant and pilot of a B17 bomber of the 100th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, and had a crew of nine great men. We had named our B17 the “Pasadena Nena” and had completed 17 missions prior to the time we were shot down.
The 100th Bomb Group which became operational in May 1943, had participated in missions on the 8th and 9th of October and had sustained losses in aircraft and personnel to such an extent that on the Munster raid (the 10th of October) they were able to put only 13 planes in the air instead of a complete group of 19 or 21. The other six or nine aircraft were to be supplied by another Bomb Group but they never appeared.
The practice of the Germans was to concentrate on the weakest unit and on the 10th of October 1943, the 100th was the weakest with only 12 planes.
We were over Germany and had been under attack for some time when the group leader was hit and caught fire. The pilot performed the prescribed procedure of putting his nose down and getting away from the formation. His wing man, according to procedure, should have take over the lead formation, instead, all five ships in his squadron followed him down, leaving our squadron with three aircraft and the high squadron with three aircraft. The Germans immediately came in at all of us and split the remaining formation all over the sky. We found ourselves completely alone. I observed a group to our left returning from the target area. They were some five or six miles away and lower so we dove to meet them and joined their formation taking a position between all three squadrons. It was a presumably safe place and we headed homeward. Shortly, a Jerry attacked this group and was aiming, I am sure, at the lead aircraft. Instead, he hit our No. 4 engine with a 20mm shell, which completely knocked it out and sent us in a fast spin.
From approximately 20,000 feet, John, the co-pilot and I tried to pull the aircraft out of the spin. At about 5, 000 feet we succeeded, but the aircraft was still in a dive. John and I continued to try to right the aircraft and leveled off below 1, 000 feet, at which time it was apparent that the rest of the crewmembers had parachuted out. We counted seven chutes, and John tried to stop the engineer from going out the bomb bay, but he could not hear him and abandoned the aircraft.
John and I, without discussing it, decided to head for home, crew-less and crippled. The No. 4 engine was still on the aircraft, but there was no cowling all the way back into the wing. We were able to control the aircraft and John decided to take up a position in the upper turret, to protect us from any further attack. We had no communication so it is my supposition that John, upon entering the turret, saw a German following us down and turned the turret to take aim. The German seeing the turret move, realized that there was still life aboard and sprayed us from one wing tip to the other with 20mm shells. Both wings were completely on fire and the whole side of the cockpit, my side, was blown away.
John, realizing our situation, came forward from the upper turret. There was blood across his forehead. He reached under my seat, handed me my barrel chute, then put his on and went out through the bombardiers’ hatch. I put on my chute and went toward the bomb bay. The turret had been turned so I was unable to get out that way. I turned around and, for some reason, I stepped up into the cockpit to retrieve something and then proceeded down and out the bombardiers hatch. To this day I don not know what it was I took from the cockpit. I was not over 500 feet in the air when my chute opened. All I could see below me were trees and one sandy patch ahead. I decided to try to land in the sand. Having had instructions on how to guide a chute, I grabbed an armful of shroud lines hoping to make the sandy area, but found I was going away from it. I let go of the shroud lines and decided to let well enough alone and go into the trees.
Fortunately for me, the trees in this area were planted and were all the same size and just about 2 feet higher than my collapsed chute. I did not hit the ground, but rather hung in the trees, with my feet just about 2 feet in the air. I received no scratches, bruises, or injuries of any sort, with the exception of a wound on the back of my neck, which had occurred when the side of the cockpit had been blown away. I unbuckled my chute harness and dropped to the ground. About that time, to the south of me, approximately on mile, the aircraft crashed.
The recommended procedure for evading capture was to go away from the downed aircraft and that the first hour would be the most important. I did not know if I was in Germany or Holland, but decided that the direction I wanted to go was south and west. The Germans knew where I had landed, because the chute was in the trees, so I decided instead on going away from the aircraft. I would go around it and proceed to a southwesterly direction. I started through the forest and after about 20 to 30 minutes, I saw a clearing up ahead. My thoughts again wee that the best place to hide was in the forest, but figuring that the Germans would think the same thing, I decided to go into the open areas and attempt to find a hiding place. As I approached the clearing, I found there was a dirt road between the forest and the clearing. I stopped to survey the situation. I found that the clearing was a German airfield. I hid back into the forest and watched. I observed several truckloads of Germans with slung rifles come out of the airfield and turn to the east. I suspected they were going out to look for others and me. I also saw a German soldier on a bike, with a girl riding behind him. I felt that I was no doubt still in Germany, because I didn’t think the Dutch girls would socialize with the Germans. Therefore, I decided to stay in the forest and continue due west until I could circle the airfield and then continue south and west again. I stayed in the forest until about dusk, then circled the airfield and picked up a country road that went in the direction I wanted. I do not know how long I followed this road. I was in constant fear of being seen and did not know what lay ahead. Suddenly, I saw a couple walking toward me. I hid in a ditch beside the road, hoping they had not seen me and would pass. They stopped on the road directly above me, remained for several minutes looking down at me and then went on their way. After they had gone, I proceeded on my way, and walked until somewhere between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., at which time, I saw an intersection ahead of me where several people were congregated. I decided to bypass the intersection by going around some farmland, and coming back to the same road. When I reached the crossroad, I hid in some hedges while some people passed. I then ran across the road and hid in some bushed until everything was clear.
I stayed in there for some time. I heard no movement, so I stepped out onto the road and suddenly found myself facing two young boys standing by their bicycles. Well, what does one do? I decided to go up and talk to them. I asked them if they were Dutch. They recognized that I was an American and answered my question with and emphatic “No, they were Netherlanders”, which I could not understand. They thought I was asking them if they were Deutch (German) because they do not use the word Dutch in Holland – they use Netherlanders. We finally got the communications worked out. They had a discussion between themselves, which I did not understand and after a few minutes, they motioned for me to follow them and we went about one-half mile up the road. They had me hide in a ditch next to the road and one lad took off on his bicycle. I think he went to his home to see if his parents would help me. He came back and evidentially the parents had said, “No!” We proceeded down the road about another mile and again they had me hide in the ditch. One of the boys went to a farmhouse that was only about 100 yards away. He soon returned with a man and a woman. The four of them stood above me for some time discussing the situation, which I could not understand.
They finally motioned for me to come up and the five of us proceeded to the farmhouse. The family took me into the kitchen. The two boys stayed for a short period of time, then left. The wife fixed hot tea and cookies for me, and washed the wound on my neck. There was some commotion in another room, and they took me in there. It was a bedroom with three young children all in the same bed. They knew what was going on, and had to see the American! The two young boys were boy scouts and had attended the worldwide jamboree in Holland prior to the start of the war. They showed me mementos for which they had traded with some American boy scouts and the little girl had to hug and kiss me. The mother quieted them down and we went back into the kitchen. The Germans had imposed a curfew and it was after curfew at this time. However, the word had gotten out, probably by the two boys, that I was at the farmhouse, and neighbors started coming over to see the American. I felt as though I was someone great.
During this period, a young man in his early twenties appeared and took charge. I turned out that his father, who lived some miles away, had heard about the situation and knew that if I stayed there and people kept coming to see me, the Germans would get wind of it, and I would soon be taken into custody. So, he had dispatched his son to get me out of there. They asked if I could ride a “feets” which, of course, I couldn’t understand. After awhile, it was apparent that a “feets” was a bicycle, so I was taken into the backyard, given a bicycle, and followed the young man away.
We rode mostly down paths next to the railroad tracks. These railroad tracks have 4 x 4 posts every so many feet and it seemed that everytime my left leg went down on the pedal, I would hit my shin on a post (it was very dark). We traveled for several miles to his father’s home. His father had spent several years in South Africa and spoke English very well. He wanted to keep me in his home that night, but I was afraid that if I were caught in his home, he would be killed by the Germans. Therefore, I insisted on sleeping outside. There was a loose haystack, so I crawled in there, covered up, and stayed the night.
The next morning, he came and got me and put me in the barn. There was a large barrel in this barn and I turned it around away from the bard door, planning to use it as a hiding place if anyone came to the barn. There was a small bicycle factory on this particular piece of land. The man brought my food into the barn and had me lock the door from inside, hoping that no one would enter.
During the day, I was watching through the cracks of the barn door and I saw a strange man coming toward the barn. I hid in the barrel. The man broke the door lock, and entered. He looked around and then came up to the open side of the barrel and then left. I am sure he saw me. My host later told me the stranger was his partner in the bicycle factory and knew something was going on. Because he could trust no one my host did not want anyone to know I was there, but evidently his partner was anti-German and made no further problems. That evening, after dark, the gentleman took me into his home again and we had a long talk. He introduced me to a doctor who was a friend of his. The doctor took me out to the back porch and looked at the wound in my neck. He was extremely nervous about the whole thing, but he got his bag, opened the wound and poured a bottle, as he said, of “yodium” into the wound. Yodium it turns out is iodine! I slept in the barn again that night.
The next afternoon the man informed me that he had made a contact and would meet some people at 8 o’clock that evening. At 7 o’clock I was watching through the barn door, when he came from the house towards the barn. I didn’t realize what was happening, but, as it turned out, the people he was to meet at a certain place at 8 o’clock came to his home at7 o’clock. The purpose was to catch him before he left so that if anyone else were aware of the scheduled meeting, they wouldn’t find them there. We went into the house. One of his friends was a Dutchman; the other man was a British spy, who had been parachuted into Holland. His job, in my case, was to verify that I was an American and not someone planted by the Germans to infiltrate the Underground. He questioned me very, very thoroughly, but being sent in by the British, his prime objective was quizzing British escapees and he did not have too much knowledge of Americans. However, he was satisfied with my answers, and asked to give him questions and situations that he could use in the future when working with Americans. No information was given as to how long I would stay or where I was to go, so I spent another night in the barn.
The next evening, after dark, I was again taken into the house and introduced to yet another man. I was instructed to stay approximately 50 yards behind him. We rode for many miles down railroad tracks again, dirt roads, and paved roads, to where, I wasn’t sure. We finally came to a small town and went into one of the village homes. It turned out to be the home of the Chief of Police of the City of Barneveld. It was here that I discarded my uniform and was given a suit of clothes. I was fed and because they spoke no English, communication was difficult. There were three in the family; husband, wife, and daughter (who was approximately 22 years old). I was given a bedroom in the attic, which was to be my “home” for 30 days.
The daily routine was every morning about 7 o’clock I would go down stairs, wash and have breakfast. The breakfast, each day, consisted of a choice of three types of bread, cheese and coffee. The father and daughter would go to work and I would return to the attic. Midmorning, the wife would bring me tea and cookies. At noon, I would come down again for lunch. The lunch, each day, consisted of a small roast, potatoes, and either “blumcol”, “vitchecol”, or “arroiecol” (cauliflower, red cabbage, or white cabbage). The next day, lunch would be the same, except we would finish the roast having it cold. I then returned to my attic room and in the mid-afternoon was served tea and cookies. The evening meal was always the same as the breakfast meal and I was allowed to stay downstairs until bedtime, unless they had visitors other than people from the underground. One of these visitors, whom I never met, was the Chief of Police’s own son, because they were not sure where his sympathies lay. An explanation of why we had meat each day was that the daughter worked in the ration office for the city and would get extra coupons. At the end of the 30 days, I was informed that I would leave the next morning and was told that I had been detained there for that period of time because the Germans had maintained checkpoints in an attempt to capture me. After the checkpoints were closed, they were taking me on my way.
Early the next morning, a man came and we rode on bicycles to the City of Arnhem. Leaving the bicycles at the railroad depot, my escort bought tickets on a train going to Tilburg. On arriving in Tilburg, we walked into town to a small art shop where we met two men. After a short discussion, my escort left. The art shop owner, Kees, and his friend did not speak good English so they obtained an interpreter who was a Catholic priest. After two or three hours of questions and conversation, a man came to the art shop and, again on bicycles, we rode out into the country, to a home by a Dutch windmill.
This was a family of four, husband, wife and two daughters in their teens. We spent most of the time in the kitchen of their home trying to communicate. There was a knock on the door and in walked a policeman. I froze and my heart skipped a beat or two! They conversed for some time and the policeman went to the telephone and talked to someone. I felt certain my freedom was short lived. The policeman motioned to me to come with him and the two of us rode off on bicycles. After fifteen or twenty minutes, we came upon a large brick building, which turned out to be the police station. I was taken inside and led through a door to the Chief of Police’s living quarters. There I met the Chief, his wife and his sister-in-law. The wife and sister-in-law spoke some English and again (to my relief) I was treated as though I was of royal blood. When the first policeman had seen me at the farmhouse, he had called the Chief of Police. The Chief being on the high officials in the City, felt that he had the right to the honor of my staying at his home. The Vice-Chief who lived in the same building area immediately come over and learning that I was an American, rushed out and returned with a briefcase which he opened and produced a bottle of Dutch whiskey. One of the women got a single glass, which the Vice-chief put in front of me and filled it with whiskey. With the aid of the two women, he proceeded to ask me about the war – how it was going, and about liberation. Each time my glass was empty he would refill it. I would stop drinking, not wanting to consume too much and he would say, “don’t you like it?” “Oh yes” I would answer, so he would tell me to drink up! This happened every day at least once, sometimes twice. The sister-in-law was living with her sister and brother-in-law because her husband was in hiding. He had committed some crime against the Germans.
One day some gentlemen, including Kees, came to the Chief’s quarters and had a long talk with me. There was an airfield nearby called Gilze Ryen, which had been bombed many times by the Americans and British, but had never been hit. A map was produced showing all of the landmarks and camouflaged areas, which they gave me to study. I was advised that the map would proceed with me back to England, but that I was not to have it in my possession for if I were caught with it, I could be listed as a spy and shot. I was given the description of a British Intelligence agent, whom I was to contact, or who would contact me, when I arrived back in England and this information was to be passed on to him only.
I stayed at the Chief’s quarters for three days then something occurred (I do not know what) that caused them to move me back to the farm with the windmill for one night. I was told I would return to the Police Station the following day. During my stay in this area, I became familiar with radio-free orange, which was the British broadcast to the Netherlands. The people wanted a code word, or song, that could be played to them so they would know that I had arrived safely back in England. They explained just how this would work and that whatever song I would come up with had to be something of my very own. After thinking it over for awhile, I asked them if they had ever heard the song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas”. They were not familiar with it, so they translated the words to the tun into their language. After the war, I learned that they had heard of my safe return to England.
I did not return to the police station the following day. Instead, a man came to the farm and said that we were going to cross the border into Belgium. We took off on foot through woods, crossing streams, etc. and came to a small village called Turnhout. Before we started, my guide explained that I was to follow him at a distance of 100 yards, and that he would turn into a building, and when I reached it I was to do the same. I did as I was told.
It was a small home with a bar, joined together. There were about five people there including the owner and his wife. The owner was a quiet little mad, the wife very outspoken, and carried on most of the conversation. Everyone was drinking beer and I was invited to join them. As with the Vice-Chief in Tilburg, if I didn’t finish a bottle right away they would ask, “don’t you like it?” I would reply, “Oh yes” and they would instruct “drink it up!” After a period of time, they decided to go into the back courtyard and take some pictures. The picture taking ended and we headed back into the bar. I spotted the outhouse and noticed a urinal on the outside of the building. Having consumed several beers, I decided to lag behind and then relieve myself. When I thought the time was right, I stepped up to the urinal and proceeded to relieve myself. When I had finished, I turned around and right beside me stood the owner’s wife. She said, “We decided to take more pictures.” Needles to say, I was thoroughly embarrassed. However, this sort of thing is not at all uncommon in Europe.
After a few more beers, my guide and I left on bicycles for another small town, which had a railroad station. My guide bought train tickets to Antwerpen, where we changed train and went on to Brussels. We walked through a great portion of the town, and came to a lovely woman and her sister, who apparently were expecting me. The young woman looked at my clothing and realized that I needed a bath and clean clothes. She arranged with the maid to wash my clothes, filled a tub with hot water, and I laid there, washing and soaking, while my clothes were washed and dried. While I bathed, the sister left and the young lady’s husband came home. We had a lovely dinner, talked for a long while about the war, and then went to bed. The next afternoon, the young lady explained that it was too dangerous for me to stay there. She gave me instructions that I was to follow her down the street. She would stop and talk to someone and I was to follow that person onto a streetcar. Later, someone would get on the streetcar and speak to the man I was following. I was then to follow this new contact. During the streetcar ride, my contact changed five times and when the last contact spoke to no one and got off the streetcar, I followed him. He went into a building and I followed. It was somewhat like a delicatessen. I was taken upstairs to the living quarters and receive my first taste of the real organized Underground. My clothes were inspected, all my personal effects, the few things that I had, were checked and I was declared ready to go.
I was taken about eight to ten blocks away and into a home where I was to stay for about ten days. Each day different people would come to the home. Each had a particular assignment. One was to cut my hair in the proper fashion; one was to check on my needs for toilet articles such as a toothbrush, razor, etc; one came everyday for about four days to teach me the script with which I was to sign my false papers. A group of nurses would stop by on their way home from work everyday and bring me milk and other goodies that most people could not afford. They also left small bottles with corks on the sideboard and other people would take them out as they came to visit. After some time, I questioned what these bottles were, thinking, no doubt, they were medicine. They brought a bottle over to me and pulled the cork out and let me smell it. They were homemade stink bombs, which the people would throw into German offices and cars.
This was the real Underground, well organized, well aware of what the Germans were doing, as well as who was doing everything they could to frustrate the Germans. As an example, the morning of the day I arrived in Brussels, American flags were found hanging from telephone lines throughout the city. That same evening, an Underground published newspaper, identical to the La Soue, was distributed throughout the city and to all German headquarters. It was strictly anti-German. In the upper right hand corner, was a picture of a B-17 with the bombay doors open and in the lower corner was a picture of Hitler, with his hand on his chest, with the caption reading, “I did not ask for this”. The women would take three Belgium coins and arrange them in an overlapping way and make pins out of them. The letters would then form a RAF, Royal Air Force. The Germans banned these pins, so the women started wearing a plain safety pin in the lapel of their coats. This still so infuriated the Germans that the simple thing of wearing a safety pin in the lapel of a coat was banned.
After about four days in this home, another American, Carl Spicer, who was also from the 100th Bomb Group, joined me. He had been assigned to the group after I had been shot down, so I did not know him, and for awhile, did not even trust him. On our last day in this home, the wife was called across the street to answer a telephone call. This was about noon. She came back very, very nervous and said that she was going to be investigated by the Gestapo for some activity prior to our arrival. Carl and I had all of our clothes on, including overcoat and were ready to depart at any instant. We waited all afternoon and evening, and at about 8:00 p.m. a group of men came to the house. There was a lot of talking, which we couldn’t understand, s we cornered a middle-aged man and asked him what was happening. He said that a woman down the street had reported our host to the Gestapo for aiding Frenchmen coming back from Germany’s forced labor camps. We asked why we were not being taken away immediately and he said not to worry that the Gestapo would take a long time to get the investigation started. When we asked what would happen to the lady down the street, he replied, “Oh, I just shot her!”
Finally, one of the men motioned for us to follow him. We walked and took streetcars across the city of Brussels and arrived just at curfew at a bar owned by Cyprien and his wife. This was a corner building with the bar on the first floor, the kitchen and bath behind it. The second and third floors were the living quarters for Cyprien, his wife, and his young daughter. Carl and I were quartered in the attic loft, a small room just large enough for a double bed and nothing else. We stayed a week and our ritual was to come downstairs to the kitchen about 5:00 am, wash, clean up and have breakfast, then back to the loft. The wife would bring us food at noon, then after the 9:00 p.m. curfew, we would come down, have a few drinks, talk and have dinner. Then back to the loft. The loft was so small that Carl and I were only able to sit or lay on the bed.
A very amusing incident occurred while we were there. One afternoon we had steaks and that evening when we were downstairs having drinks, I was talking with Cyprien and Carl was talking with his wife. They were unable to communicate so Cyprien and I were brought into the conversation. The wife had been trying to ask Carl how he liked his steak at noon. She was asking him how he likes the horsemeat! Carl excused himself and went to the bathroom. I think he tried to throw up what he had eaten more than nine hours before.
Cyprien worked days as a policeman and in performing some of his duties, and because of the intense secrecy, some members of the underground felt that he was pro-Nazi. On our last evening in their home, we had retired to our loft when suddenly a huge explosion occurred. There were fire trucks, police vehicles, and lights all around in the street. Needless to say, we were scared! We put on our clothes, and laid on the bed awaiting whatever might happen. About two hours later, we heard footsteps on the stairs and a knock on the door. It was Cyprien and another policeman in civilian clothes. They told us that homemade bombs had been thrown into the bar. No one had been hurt because Cyprien and his family had retired to their upstairs quarters. It was after curfew and they knew that there would be further investigation, so they instructed Carl to follow the other policeman at a distance of about 50 feet, and I was to follow Cyprien at the same distance. We walked through town approximately four or five miles to another home where a relative of Cyprien lived. We stayed there that night.
The next day we were moved a few blocks away to stay with a family who lived in an apartment. Here, both the man and wife worked and Carl and I were alone most of the day, but we had room to move around. The couple’s daughter and a friend would sometimes come over during the day and stay with us. The daughter’s husband was a prisoner of the Germans in Poland. The friend’s husband has escaped to England through Dunkirk, so there were many, many questions. In the evening, the gentleman would take us for walks before curfew. One evening we walked right in front of the Metropole Hotel and stopped and looked. This was the High German Headquarters!
One night, for dinner we had hamburger “a la American” which sure sounded good to Carl and I. But to our surprise, it was raw hamburger patties, mixed with onion, spices and an egg. Again, poor Carl Spencer, just could not eat.
After a week in the apartment, a man came and took us across town to the railroad station. Carl and I walked together, just a few feet from the man. We boarded the train and headed for the French border. We got off the train, still in Belgium, and hiked through the woods to a farm home where we were to stay the night. Here another Belgium escorting an American and a British solider joined us. We stayed the night in the farmhouse. The farm family was so-called “smugglers”. The Belgium people had some things the French did not have, and vice versa, so this home was used to transport commodities back and forth. One of the smuggled items was butter and the farmer had a cooler full of butter. For our meal that night, we ate French fried potatoes cooked in pure butter.
Early the next morning, the six of us walked through the forest and across the French/Belgium border into a small town. We boarded a train and rode into Paris. Upon arrival at the depot in Paris, all German military personnel were required to show their identity cards. We had been advised that, from day to day, the Germans would change from checking military to checking civilians, and the Underground knew that this day civilians wee not going to be checked. We passed right through.
Carl and I were taken to an apartment; the other two airmen went somewhere else. This was a Saturday. Our hosts, a man and his wife, welcomed us with open arms and as always we had a long discussion about the war, “When would the allies arrive” etc. The man of the house worked in a machine shop and he showed us closets full of items that he had stolen just to keep the Germans from getting the required products and to slow down the German war machine. He took nuts and bolts, anything that he felt would hurt the Germans.
On Sunday, we were told that we were going to have a beautiful Sunday dinner. The man took us for a long walk while the wife prepared the dinner. This was in the Fort Issy area of Paris. When we got back home, we sat down for our beautiful meal. It started with several dozen oysters on the half shell, which Carl could not swallow, and I didn’t care for, as they had come from the Seine River and tasted and smelled like sewage. The main course was served and it consisted of approximately four dozen snails. This was the last straw for Carl, and needless to say, I had to make up for his failure to appreciate what they were doing for us.
We stayed here just one week and had only one visitor besides the hosts. The day that we left, a small woman came and picked us up. Her code name was “The Little Lady In Black”. She had been in the Underground for a long, long time. We took a subway along the bank of the Seine where we saw the other two airmen accompanied by a Frenchman. The two groups stayed several hundred feet apart. The Little Lady in Black gave us full instructions. She was turning us, Carl and I, over to another lady who would accompany us to Southern France. We met our new lady guide and she told us we were going to go to a café and have dinner, then we would go to the railroad station and depart for Southern France. She also instructed us that whenever we ere around anyone, we were not to speak unless she spoke to us, and our only answer would be “oui”. She asked if we liked rabbit, and if so, when we arrived in the restaurant, we would read the menu and she would say do we like “lapin”, which is rabbit, and we, of course, would say “oui”. Everything wen well. The waiter took our order and went to the kitchen, only to reappear and yell clear across the restaurant that the cook had no more rabbit. This caused all kinds of confusion, our guide and the waiter were yelling at each other across the restaurant, and all Carl and I were doing was saying, “oui, oui, oui”! I do not remember what we finally had for dinner. All we wanted was to get out of the tense situation.
We boarded the train and she sat between Carl and I in a compartment with five other people. We traveled all night to Bordeaux, and all night long she would talk to us and ask questions, and when we would start to give an answer, she would say, “Don’t’ say yes, say oui”
Upon reaching Bordeaux and a short distance from the station, we were turned over to four Frenchmen as were the other American and British airmen. They advised the four of us what to expect next. They purchased tickets to a small town South of Bordeaux and we left the station and they motioned to some bicycles, which we were to take. We pedaled out of town, and into a small forest. We stopped, had lunch, and they told us that we would be riding for about fifteen miles. We started off again and after what must have been 30 or 40 miles, we stopped in another wooded area to await darkness before going through the next village, which contained many Germans. While waiting, I somewhat complained to the other escapees saying, “15 miles, my God!” One of the Frenchmen heard me. He came over to me and asked, “What is 20, 20, and 10?” He said that his English wasn’t good enough, and he had used 15 for 50. After dark, we proceeded through the village without incident and stopped a French mountain inn in the foothills of the lower Pyrenees. We were housed for the night, fed a lovely meal (which Carl enjoyed), and all the wine we could drink.
The four French guided were replaced by two new ones and the next day in the early afternoon, we went a few miles by bicycle to the bank of a large river. We left the bicycles, crossed the river by rowboats, and took off on foot for the Pyreenes. At this time we were advised that we would walk into the mountain for about two hours and come to a cabin where we would be fed and bedded down for the night. The following morning we were to walk down the other side of the mountain where we would be picked up by a car from the British Embassy. After awhile, two Spanish guides joined our two French guides. There was a discussion and our two French guides left, and we continued walking until one or two in the morning. We came upon a very small cabin way up in the hills and went inside. The four of us sat to one side, the man who lived in the cabin, the two guides, and two other Spaniards sat and talked and talked, ate bread and cheese, drank wine and offered us absolutely nothing. We tried to ask for food, but these people were mercenaries and mean and refused to feed us. We asked to go to bed. They took us into an adjoining building where the chickens were sleeping and told us to sleep on the floor.
We were up bright and early the next morning and back into the house where food was cooking. They had what appeared to be beautiful rich sausage in the fireplace and bread-like tortillas cooking on the hearth. I got a pie pan, found a fork, and grabbed some sausage and a tortilla. When I put my fork through the sausage, I realized my mistake. It was blood sausage, which had been made with no fillers such as flour, grain, etc., like we have in America. When I put my fork through it, it just oozed. I ate the tortilla and that was the last meal I had for four days. The trip that we had been told would take us down the mountain to meet the Embassy car never materialized. We walked mostly at night, staying in barns and eating sugar beets and fodder, which we found in the barn. We were accosted several times by bands of roving Spaniards and there was always some sort of confrontation between our guides and the roving bands. We were never molested. The fourth night we came to a roadside building and did receive some food. I could hardly walk, my muscles were stiff and if I sat down, I could hardly get up. The next evening we started out and walked all night, just before sun up we were on top of a mountain where we could see for miles in every direction. The guide stopped for a few minutes and someone asked him how much longer. We had been asking this question for day and always received the same answer “tomorrow”. This time the guide said “five minutes”. The Englishman, looked around from the top of this high mountain and said, “My, we must be going down on a bloody lift!” Yet, in about one-half hour we rounded a ridge of the mountain and there, in the valley below, were buildings.
We picked up a road and in another twenty minutes were at the buildings. One building was similar to a hotel. We were taken upstairs, given towels, wash clothes, and soap. We bathed and then had a wonderful meat and egg breakfast. The evening an old Model A Ford arrived (it definitely did not come from any Embassy). The four of us and the driver crowded inside and we took off down the mountain. A couple of hours later we arrived in San Sebastian and stopped in front of a small but lovely hotel. We were given the complete second floor with a dining room in the middle. After resting awhile, we were taken into the dining room where we were served one of the most beautiful meal I have ever eaten. It started with a bottle of gin, quart of vermouth and a siphon bottle of soda. This was followed by a huge antipasto platter, wine, soup, steak and vegetable; ten more wine and a bowl of fresh fruit (such as none of us had seen since leaving the US). It was a huge bowl and we ate everything, including the lemon! Coffee was served and then a bottle of cognac was put on the table. Needless to say, we all went to bed early.
At noon the next day, the awaiting limousine from the British Embassy arrived and drove us to Madrid, where we were placed under British custody. The following day the American Military Attaché from the American Embassy visited and advised us what events lay ahead of us. The British were going to take us to the Spanish government and obtain the necessary papers declaring us French Canadians, after which we would be taken from the Embassy and placed in a hotel at the expense of the British. The American attaché offered us a loan from our back salary to pay for incidentals. Not knowing the rate of exchange, I said “Fine, I will take $100.” He laughed and said, “Look, I will give you $25 and the other three nothing. You can pay their way for the next wee and you will still leave Spain with money in your pocket, which cannot be redeemed for U.S. currency.” I accepted and he was very correct. We all spent money sightseeing, buying extra food, etc, from my $25 and I still have today a bunch of the Spanish currency.
At the end of the week, we were told to assemble at a certain hour and we were driven to the railroad station and loaded aboard. We had been told that the British would have food on board for us, but having all this money left, we went out and bought all kinds of food; fried chicken, French pastries and cigarettes. Twelve Frenchmen who were going to England to join the Free French joined us on the train. We had twenty tickets and there were only sixteen of us, so where there was supposed to be five persons to a seat, which was crowded, we were comfortable with only four to a seat. The remainder of the train was filled with Spanish soldiers, many wearing the Iron Cross from Germany. They were returning from the Russian front. Most had no place to sit down except on the floor of the isles. A Spanish policeman was sitting on the floor next to my isle seat. We gave him wine, cigarettes and food as we rode along. After we had traveled a few miles, one of the Spanish soldiers became angry and demanded to be seated in our compartment. I was rather worried, but the policeman asked to see our tickets and when we showed him that we had the twenty tickets, he cleared the air and we had no further trouble. We got off the train at a small town just outside Gibraltar. We were taken a short distance by car and walked through the gate onto British soil. We had made it and we were free!
Gibraltar was so crowded that there was no place to stay or eat, so we were advised that as soon as possible we would be flown out. This was Christmas Ever 1943, 75 days after being shot down. Around midnight, we were called, driven to the airport, put aboard a C-47 carrying British markings and took off for England. We arrived in Bristol, England, early Christmas morning. We were given train tickets to London and told to go to a British Security Agency, which was occupying a certain hotel. Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the agency in London and were immediately put under house arrest until we could be identified. It was long after dinner hour, but the British cook did everything he could to give us a Christmas dinner.
Two days later, Lt. Daniel Smucker, from the 100th Bomb Group came in, identified me and I was released. Each of the others were identified in a like manner. We had been given GI uniforms and insignia of rank and being loose in London we looked very conspicuous. The only Americans who knew who we were were the MP’s and they treated us royally and saw that we were given no trouble or difficulty.
Shortly after our release by the British, the American Intelligence opened an office with living quarters into which we moved. We has a lot of free time but were interrogated daily by a WAC Captain. During one of these sessions, the Captain was called away and returned with a British gentleman. I recognized him as being the man who was described to me at the time the map of the Gilze Ryen airfield was shown to me. He joined us and asked a good many questions. When the Captain was again called out of the room, he flew into a rapid-fire interrogation of his own and I drew the map of the Gilze Ryen for him. By the time the Captain came back, he had received from me all the information that he wanted and a short time later departed.
I stayed in England for about thirty days touring Air Force fighter stations and army units relating my experience behind enemy lines and answering questions they would ask concerning procedure if somehow they found themselves in a similar position. I was then allowed to return to the U.S. This was sometime in February 1944.
Upon arrival back in the United States, I contacted my sister and learned the fate of my crewmembers. She had been corresponding with their families since being informed that our plane went down and I was listed as “missing in action” Seven crew members were in prison camps and two were reported killed in action – my tailgunner, Sportelli and my co-pilot, John Shields, who had handed me my chute prior to his leaving the aircraft.
For security reasons, I never knew the names of those who aided in my escape, but I did leave my sister’s name and address as one where I could be contacted. Several months after the war ended, my sister received a letter address to me from overseas. After having it translated, I answered it and asked for other aircrew helpers names and addresses. I wanted them to know of my safe return and tell them how much I admired the courage and the selflessness of all who aided in my escape.
Food was not plentiful and most was rationed; yet they shred their meager goods with us, who represented their hope for liberation.
It was through my correspondence with them that I learned of the fate of some of my helpers. Some were caught by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps. Some died in the camps at the hands of the Gestapo. The Germans looted their homes and families were separated. They endured many hardships, but all were proud people and were able to overcome those horrible years.
Additional Information of Interest
Our plane was named “Pasadena Nena” by William Brothers, bombardier, because if had lived in Pasadena, California and “Pasadena Nena” was his lucky word for the number “nine” when he played craps.
The wound in my neck continued to fester throughout my escape. X-Rays showed it was a small metal object. I thought it was a piece of shell fragment, but when I had it removed several years later, it was a piece of my airplane.
Medals awarded to me were The Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 3 oak leaf clusters, and the Purple Heart.
Our group was based at Thorpe Abbots, England
The serial number of the Pasadena Nena was 42-3229 A.