by Arthur J. Lichte, General, USAF
Navy Corpsman in Pearl Harbor
Elmer “Dick” D. Troxcil
Marine Aboard the USS Nevada
Robert “Bobby” L. Hite
Doolittle Raider and Japanese POW
Escape from Nazi Terror
Robert “Bob” Coates
Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
English War Bride
Escape through the French Underground
Robert “Bob” Johnson
Bonnie (Williamson) Gwaltney
Rosie the Riveter
David W. Lester
Battle of the Bulge
Edith (Sairs) McClure
Army Nurse in England
Robert “Bob” A. Hoover
Escape from Stalag Luft I
USO Actress in the Mediterranean Theater
Violet “Vi” Cowden
Women Air Service Pilots (WASP)
Claude C. Davis
Thomas “Tom” C. Griffin
Shot Down over Sicily
One of Patton’s Men
Japanese American Soldier for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)
ESCAPE THROUGH THE FRENCH UNDERGROUND
The first enemy fighters came at us from the 11:30 position. Two ME-109s, in shallow dives, executed identical half-rolls, firing continuously. They passed under the Stardust, fully inverted with guns blazing.
Our navigator returned fire and the twin 50s in the upper turret hammered away, filling the cockpit with the deafening thunder of machine guns.
Oil pressure in the number two engine dropped.
“Feather number two,” I called out to Bob Johnson, my copilot. He pushed the red “feather” button, shut off the fuel and turned off the ignition.
I held the B-17 in steady flight.
The prop on number two slowed, and then finally stopped as the feather button popped out, the number two prop now streamlined with the airflow.
I could see where a bullet tore through the rear section of the propeller blade, breaking it and leaving a gap that resembled an old-fashioned horizontal keyhole.
The Stardust fell out of position and pulled slightly to the left. I increased power to our three good engines and we climbed back into formation. Our scheduled mission was at the maximum range of our fuel endurance. If we avoided all problems, we would still sweat out the fuel on the return from our target, the airdrome at Salon-de-Provence in France. I was thankful that our course would take us back over Naples, where we could land and refuel. I had no desire to end up in the Mediterranean Sea, especially in the dead of winter.
The second attack started lower but followed the same path. I could see the red blasts from the guns of two FW-190 fighters as they made a shallow climb, rolled and passed just beneath us in inverted flight. I could hear the bullets rip into the Stardust and feel the jolting vibrations as the number one engine’s rpm climbed higher and higher past the red line and caught fire.
Extensive damage made it impossible to feather the number one propeller. The spinning disc created by the propeller increased the drag on the B-17, pulling us more and more to the left. I tried to position the control surface trim tabs to help us fly straight and keep our wings level, but the tabs were already at their limit. Turning slowly to the left, we lost altitude and the protection of our squadron.
I decided to lighten our load and pulled the bomb salvo handle. The bomb bay doors opened and 12 500-pound bombs dropped off out of the bomb bay. Our rate of descent slowed, but the runaway propeller on the number one engine made it impossible to hold a straight course. I began to wonder if we would even make it to Corsica and the recently liberated airfield at Ajacio.
A single ME-109 came at us from one o’clock. Her bullets tore into the fuselage and the underside of our right wing.
“Waist to pilot,” Sgt Joe Kinnane’s voice crackled in my headset. “Number one is really burning.”
“There is white smoke coming out of number three,” Sgt Harold Rice, the ball turret gunner reported and I knew then that our underside had been hit.
“Roger,” I acknowledged both of them. This definitely qualified as a “no win” situation.
Fire poured out of the number one engine and heavy vibration from the damage threatened to separate the left wing from the airplane. An emergency landing at Ajaccio, Corsica, evaporated as a viable option.
I rang the “bail out” bell and announced over the intercom system.
“Bail out—BAIL OUT!”
Bob and I fought to keep the airplane level. I reduced the power on number four and increased our descent. SSgt Edward Madigan, our flight engineer, tried to release the hatch pins from the escape hatch in the tunnel below the cockpit seats. They wouldn’t budge.
“I’m going out the back of the airplane,” Madigan said, before making his way toward the tail section, carrying his chute pack. I never saw him again. Ed never made it out of the plane.
It took both the navigator and bombardier to remove the pins and force the forward escape hatch open. Still fighting to control the plane, I looked down the tunnel. Walter Amundsen, our navigator, sat motionless on the edge of the opening. I unbuckled my seatbelt and made my way down into the tunnel. I placed my hands on his shoulders and pushed him out.
Returning to the cockpit, I reached to the left of the pilot’s seat, grabbed my parachute pack and clipped it to my harness. I looked over at Bob Johnson. He motioned for me to jump, and indicated that he would follow. I bailed out, believing he was right behind me.
A final German fighter attack raked the Stardust with bullets from the tip of her nose to the back edge of her tail. Our cherished Stardust was going down.
I dropped through the escape hatch and floated on my back, the world slowly turning in a horizontal attitude. I could see the Stardust, burning brightly and spiraling down in a steep spin. Relieved to be out of the doomed bomber, I resisted the urge to pull my ripcord. I’d heard too many accounts of Allied airmen shot by Germans while drifting in their parachutes.
I looked at my watch. It was 12:26 on January 27, 1944. I was about to land in occupied France. I surveyed the ground beneath me and saw electrical transmission towers bisecting the barren and rocky hillside below. Knowing that I’d waited long enough, I pulled the handle on the ripcord. The chute flew out from the pack on my chest and cracked the air with the retort of a rifle shot as it opened above me. A strong wind pushed me toward the high-tension power lines and I envisioned myself entangled in the wires.
I made one last rotation before hitting hard on my back against the rocky ground. I saw the Stardust pass behind a hill and explode in a ball of fire, the brilliant flash followed by a loud thunderous clap. I checked my wristwatch. It was 12:29. The wreckage lay between me and the heavily fortified German-occupied coast of France.
I gathered my chute, removed my life jacket and throat mike. Stuffing them under a large bush, I covered the makeshift burial site with the few available rocks. An automobile passed on the bluff above me and I prayed that the occupants were more interested in the burning plane than in the white silk parachute that landed me safely on French soil.
Unsure of my precise location, I kept the smoke of the wreckage at my back and alternated running with rapid walking in an attempt to put as much distance as possible between me and the fallen Stardust. The barren, rocky terrain eventually gave way to a thick wooded area. I heard the sound of chopping and the guttural growl of what sounded to me like German. I made an exaggerated detour, avoiding the area and then continued in a north to northeast direction.
After hours of walking, I stumbled upon a stream that cut through the forest. I stopped to wash my face and hands and filled the small bladder from my escape kit with ice-cold water. Believing I needed to get as far away as possible from the downed plane, I continued picking my way through the woods.
A dog barked as I passed a small farm, causing my heart to race. Winter nights come early and the sky rapidly darkened around me. Silence reached out in every direction. I found myself alone, hungry and afraid. The seriousness of my situation slowly penetrated my overactive brain.
I didn’t want to spend the rest of the war in a German POW camp. As a pilot assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force, I hadn’t heard the stories told by members of the Eighth Air Force. I knew nothing about the Allied airmen routed out of France by members of the French Resistance.
On my own in an enemy-held country and unsure of my next move, I returned to the small farm and climbed into a haystack for the night. I offered a prayer of thanks for my safe delivery from the burning Stardust and asked for safe passage through occupied territory.
Restless sleep came in short stretches, punctuated by long, cold hours of worry. I feared the dog would hear me climb out of the haystack in the morning and desperately hoped no one would discover and follow my trail. I knew the Germans would find the wreckage of the Stardust and look for survivors. My spirits sank further as I contemplated the dismal future.
When the first reaches of dawn streaked the sky with pastel watercolors, I returned to the stream, washed my face and hands, refilled my water bladder and then followed its course through the woods. I crossed over the water at a small footbridge and took a path that led in a northeasterly direction, eventually climbing to the top of a hill partially covered with trees and shrubs. From the summit, I saw a valley filled with row after row of grapevines and divided by a simple lane that ended with a cluster of small homes.
Working my way down the hill, I sat in the shelter of a stand of trees and watched as a man labored in the vineyard nearest me. When he worked his way to the end of the row, I stood and crossed the short distance to the edge of the field.
Up close, I realized the worker was just a boy, somewhere around 15.
In the little French that I had picked up while based in North Africa, I blurted out, “I am an American. I am hungry and thirsty.”
Without uttering a word, the boy dropped his tools and ran into the closest house.
I retreated back up the hill and watched.
Not more than 15 minutes later, a man and woman emerged from the house. He carried a French-English dictionary and, when they drew close, they both shook my hand. The man opened the book and pointed to the word ami, then to the French word for resistance, and then, with a smile, to the word safe. I breathed a grateful sigh of relief; I found myself among friends.
The wife carried a basket that contained a loaf of bread, cheese, a roll of hard sausage and two bottles of wine. She laid a tablecloth on the ground and spread out what, for me, after so many hours of not eating, truly was feast. I ate quickly while they watched.
Using the dictionary, the couple told me that someone would come for me after dark and take me to a safe place. I thanked them for their kindness and retreated a short distance up the hill where I would be sheltered from view. I finished the food, stretched out in the sun, dozing on and off throughout the afternoon. The tinkling of tiny bells awakened me and I found myself surrounded by a flock of grazing sheep. The sheep herder passed within 30 feet of my grassy bed, but, although I’m sure he saw me, paid no attention.
When darkness fell, the husband returned with his brother. He indicated that I was to follow them and they would lead me to a safer place. We stopped at the house and dropped off the empty basket. The wife brushed both of my cheeks with a light kiss and wished me Godspeed.
We emerged into the dark night and walked across the uneven ground through rows of dormant grapevines, their branches catching our pant legs as we passed by. We trudged through neighboring vineyards, up steep hills and across overgrown fields until we finally reached the main road.
I crouched with the husband in the bushes and waited as his brother investigated.
Within minutes, we heard the soft whistle. Keeping low, we hurried across the road, ducking into another large vineyard. Finally, we came to an isolated lane that led to a large dark house that looked deserted from the outside. Two of us stayed back, hidden behind trees, waiting for the soft whistle.
Bright light flooded the interior. Seven or eight people sat around a table, lilting French conversation, melodious and flowing, filled the room. A few of the guests spoke English making it possible for me to explain that I was an American pilot and that my plane had been shot down while participating in a bombing raid on Salon-de-Provence airdrome.
I repeatedly asked if they had news of my crew, but no one admitted knowing anything other than the fact that six or seven parachutes had been spotted. That gave me reason to hope that most of my crew made it out of the plane alive.
Our hostess served a dinner of fried rabbit, oven-browned potatoes and a spinach casserole. My mouth watered and my stomach growled. The food tasted wonderful. I washed it down with numerous glasses of wine and finished the meal with hot cookies and crisp apples.
I learned that my new friends were members of the French Resistance, community members who went about their normal daily lives, but aided efforts to defeat the Germans whenever possible. They were crucial links in the underground chain that actively rescued Allied airmen.
The Resistance replaced my uniform with civilian clothes. They gave me a pair of dark trousers, a plain black belt, a long-sleeve shirt and a French navy-issue sweater. A heavy navy-type peacoat with ordinary buttons and a heavy black knit cap completed my disguise. The only things I kept were my long johns, socks, shoes, wristwatch and dog tags.
Exhausted after a sleepless night, I turned in around 10. I climbed into a feather bed with a thick feather comforter and plump feather pillows. I immediately drifted off and slept soundly through the night. Around eight the next morning, my hostess awakened me with a soft knock on the door.
I could smell the food before she brought the tray to the bed. I sopped up the yoke from a soft-boiled egg with several slices of bread coated in jam. The ersatz coffee tasted bitter and she apologized for its poor quality. I assured her it tasted fine.
The absurdity of awaking in the comfort of a feather bed with the warmth and smells of a hot breakfast served to me versus spending a cold and frightening night in a haystack was hard to comprehend.
Around 2:30 that afternoon, three men, driving a small covered van, picked me up. Two of us climbed into the back. I noticed my companion carried a small British-manufactured Sten submachine gun.
The van, powered by a strange charcoal burning engine, was not particularly powerful, and several times we climbed out and pushed the little vehicle up a hill.
At dusk, we pulled into a commercial garage that had closed for the night. We made our way to the rear of the building, where four people waited for us in a small office. Greeted with handshakes, they invited me to sit in an unoccupied chair.
They passed around a small box of cookies. I helped myself to one. Fumbling, I dropped the cookie onto the very dirty floor. I picked it up and started to toss it into a wastebasket.
“Non!” one of the men barked. He reached over, took the cookie from my hand, brushed the dirt off, and handed it back to me.
I ate it. Lesson learned—we do not waste anything here.
One of the women in the group spoke excellent English.
“Are you the pilot?” she asked.
“What is your name?”
“What is your squadron?”
On and on she went, questioning me in detail about my fellow crew members, their hometowns, and our mission. I learned later that it was her job to establish my true identity as an American and not a German plant inserted to trap members of the Resistance. Had I not thoroughly convinced her, I would have been shot as soon as we left the area.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized the grave risks taken by the French who assisted the Allied airmen. Discovery guaranteed either immediate transport to Nazi concentration camps, or, more likely, instant execution.
The night turned pitch black by the time we left the garage. We alternated driving and pushing the little vehicle for hours, eventually parking in front of a deserted house at the top of a steep hill. My escorts made sure the blinds were securely drawn before turning on any light. The house, a vacation home nestled on a creek in the mountains, served as a safe house for the Marquis, a collection of rural guerilla resistance fighters. They would play a significant role in Hitler’s eventual defeat.
My new hosts pulled together some food for dinner. Not nearly as savory as our meal the prior night, at least it filled our bellies and I was grateful. Worn down with fatigue and anxiety, I checked the clock on the mantel. It was 10:30.
“Good night,” I said, turning toward the couch.
A soft whistle sounded outside the window. One of my hosts opened the door and a man, obviously the boss, stepped into the room.
“Come with us,” he said to me in English.
I climbed into the back of the van with one of the three Marquis fighters, all armed with Sten machine guns. We coasted down the hill, putted through the valley and stopped in a small village. The boss and one of the fellows who had ridden with me in the back, climbed out, with their guns. Minutes later they returned, carrying a box.
We retraced our route, pushing the van up the hills and coasting on the down slope. When we turned on to the main road, an automobile, driving very fast, came up on us. Their headlights bathed our little van in bright light. My companion peeked out through a small hole in the canvas.
He didn’t need to say anything else. I knew the Marquis would not be taken alive. I doubted I would survive the shoot-out.
“Passay! Passay!” The driver yelled, waving his arm from the driver’s-side window, signaling the big car to pass us.
Finally, the Gestapo sped by and disappeared into the night. I breathed a big sigh of relief.
We pushed the car up the hill to our hideout. The haul that night was a box of ration coupons—food for the Resistance workers. Somewhat disgusted and pissed off by the risks taken on this dangerous raid, I bundled myself in blankets, curled up on the short couch and attempted some restless sleep. My companions slept with their machine guns.
A chunk of cheese, bread and jam made up our breakfast the next morning, along with ersatz coffee, a bitter combination of what tasted like oats, chicory and maybe a hint, just a small hint, of coffee beans.
At about 9:30 that Sunday morning, three days after bailing out of the Stardust, two men in a four-door automobile arrived to pick me up. I couldn’t tell if we were driving east or northeast when we set off that morning, but we continued up through the rolling hills and into the mountains, eventually stopping at a farm nestled at the base of a sheer bluff.
The farmer took us behind the barn where we found two grossly overloaded donkeys tethered to the corral fence. Church bells rang in the distance as we began our trek along a steep, winding path up the bluff. It took over an hour of climbing to reach the top. When we stopped to catch our breath, my companions, Jean Juvenale and his friend Pierre, told me that some of my crew members would soon join us.
Finally, the terrain flattened out. A path led us through the brush and trees to a clearing where we paused to wait for the others. Eventually, Bob Johnson, Ernie Jenkins and Joe Kinnane joined us. I was overjoyed to be reunited with my copilot, bombardier and left waist gunner.
“We must keep you hidden until the Germans stop searching for survivors,” our guide told us. “We anticipate your stay here will last about two weeks.”
About a mile up the path, we stopped at a two-level stone building. The lower level housed sheep, the upper, which was even with the ground in the front, provided living quarters for the sheep herder, Marcel (pronounced Marseal).
The four of us shared the twelve-by-fifteen-foot room. One wall was dominated by a stone fireplace that provided the only source of heat. A small six-by-eight-foot kitchen and stone storeroom completed the farmhouse. A fire had destroyed the roof over the main room, so we put together a makeshift bed of straw and two old blankets, placing it as close as safely possible to the open fireplace. The kitchen, haphazardly covered with corrugated metal, overlooked the sheep’s watering trough. Thick stone walls surrounded the three-sided sheep enclosure under the house. A bench of stone about two and a half feet wide and three feet high ran along one wall of the pen. Marcel, wrapped in his thick coat, slept on this bench.
The winter was brutally cold. Thin layers of ice formed on the watering trough during the night. We struggled, two per blanket, to keep warm while sleeping, moving our makeshift bed into the unheated kitchen on rainy nights.
Most meals consisted of mutton, beans and potatoes, although some days Marcel returned with wild rabbits tucked into the deep pockets of his ankle-length overcoat. We looked forward to those nights. . . .