March 1944 – Escaping the Germans – Pyrenees – Slow Going

April 19th, 2014

Exhausted from climbing for 2 days and a night in three foot thick snow, close in trees, not much to eat, we fell asleep in a hut we came upon.

It seemed like minutes later when we heard gunfire. The Germans had spotted the other guys socks he had hung out to dry. Shoot, then ask questions.

I flew out the back window. He was right after me. I had to carry him – he was hit. I shoved him down a chute and jumped in after. We both landed in a creek.

From then on, I had to carry him. Well, I carried him up the mountain and pushed him in the snow down it as I climbed up and down, up and down ultimately gaining more altitude. Resting every 10 minutes, it seemed. Slow going. But having Germans shooting at your back gives lots of reasons to keep going.

I learned years later this was the roughest of the Pyrenees – the better to evade Germans who didn’t like to climb steep terrain. I wasn’t so keen on it either.

I went as far as I could go, found some cover for us and holed up for a quick nap. I just could not get one more foot in front of the other.

I only catnapped though – one eye and one ear listening for footsteps or crunching on the snow.

c. GCYI

 

March 1944: Escaping the Germans over the Pyrenees

April 6th, 2014

By the first light, we set out in the rain, deciding to at least start out together and see how it goes. By noon, two of us have made it to the timberline in gale winds. The others are not even in sight. The French have provided bread, cheese, and chocolate in our knapsacks.

The snow has not melted at all. In fact, it is 3′ high and higher in places. The Pyrenees make the hills back home look like straightaways. We are crossing slightly south of the central ridge that forms the boundary line between occupied France and “neutral” Spain. The highest peaks are 11,000; , but we figure we won’t get higher than six or seven thousand; the trouble is we are up to our knees and higher in wet, heavy snow. We cross ridges so slick with ice that we cross thme on the seat of our pants. I keep wondering why the Maquis didn’t wait a little longer – till the snows had melted.

(I learned a couple of years ago – when I revisited the area – that 1944 was a very severe winter and that Gabriel, Mayor of Nerac, head of the Maquis, had gotten a tip that the Gestapo had been tipped off and had come into Nerac to round us all up just days after I left. One farmer refused to leave his home. He was picked up and never heard from again.

Gabriel went out the back door as the Gestapo was coming in the front. He ran to the cemetery and hid in a coffin. Then hid in the woods for six weeks, leaving Dr. Henri, the assistant chief (of Maquis) acting chief, Many years later, it is where Gabriel is buried.)

At first we rest every hour, then every half-an-hour; but as we climb into the thinning air, we are stopping every 10 or 15 minutes, cold and exhausted. The climb is endless, and I’ve got to wonder how many of our guys actually make it across these mountains and how many feed the crows that caw overhead.

We sleep and rest when we can using outcroppings to protect us somewhat from the constant, freezing wind. Our feet are numb, and we both worry about frostbite. The French have given us four pairs of wool socks. We wear two pair at  time but our boots leak.

By the end of the second day, we are not sure how long we’ve been up here; we wonder if we are lost; late into the next day, we’re almost ready to give up. We should be near the frontier but low clouds restrict visibility to less than fifty feet. It’s four in the afternoon, and we are so exhausted that we catnap between each step we take, staggering like two drunks. I’m thinking this is just the kind of situation that produces fatal accidents….

March 26, 1944: Pyrenees Foothills: AVOID border Spanish-might sell us to Gestapo

April 2nd, 2014

The moment I hop in the back, the truck takes off. There are four or five other guys seated on the benches, and nobody says a word. mainly because they are too busy hanging on while the driver barrels down twisting backstreets, doing fifty or better. I hear the guy seated next to me mutter, “Jesus Christ.” I’m figureing I’m in with a bunch of bomer guys who will be crossing the Pyrenees together.

Soon the gears up front are constantly switching between second and first as we begin to travel up steep grades. It would be nice to be driven across the mountains into Spain. A flashlight is switched on by a guy seated at the end of one of the benches. He hunches down on the floor between the rest of us. He’s a Frenchman who speaks good English. “We’re just outside Lourdes,” he tells us, “heading into the foothills.” He ditributes hand-drawn maps to each of us., detailing our routes up and over. “You can either go together as a team, or pair off. It will probably take you four to five days to cross, depending on the weather. It’s been rather mild, so I don’t think you’ll encounter any blizzards. But it will be rough- I won’t deceive you about that. The most dangerous part will be just before you corss the Spanish frontier. It’s heavily patrolled by the Germans and there are all sorts crossing over-smugglers, refugees, military personnel like yourselves. Your best bet is to cross over at night, as late as possible. We’ve mapped out a southerly crossing- the father south, the better, because the Spaniards up north have a nasty habit of turning in American pilots to the Gestapo and collecting a few francs reward. If that should happen you can expect to be tortured to tell all that you know about us then taken out and shot. So, please be careful.”

I notice a pile of bulging knapsacks stashed against the wall of the cab. When we finaly stopped well past midnight, in the middle of nowehre, each of us grabs a knapsack and climbs out. “You’re at the starting point,” the guy tells us. “There’s a woodsman’s shed about a hundred yards directly ahead. You can use that. But no fires and no talking. This place is patrolled. Start out at first light. Today is March 25. With luck, you can expect to be in Spain by the 29th or 30th.”

He wishes us well and then takes off in the truck.

We spend the night shivering in the hut…..all with our own thoughts. I try to get some sleep – sounds like we’ve got some great challenges ahead….

c. GCYI

TODAY: I met the driver’s granddaughter-in-law recently. I’ve been to her grandfather’s house where we switched trucks. Beautiful area. As I was there at night the first time – I hadn’t noticed.

March 25, 1944: Maquis Kick Me Out

April 1st, 2014

The Maquis live off the villages, not off the woods. The villages are dangerous, crawling with Germans and Vichy police, but guys slip into town to buy food, cigarettes, and medicine, using phony ration stamps and money. I’m amazed that no one is ever caught, or if they are, maybe I’m not told about it.

But on this very wet afternoon, R takes me aside to tell me that I’m to accompany two fo the guys into town. He grins and slaps me on the back. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Just stay with the men.” Then he turns his back and walks away. I was not to see him again for 64 years.

I’m not happy about it, but the two guys I am to accompany start walking into the woods, and I hurry to catch up.

Is this a set-up? Is it too risky?

We don’t walk very long. There’s a van parked along a dirt road used by loggers; as we approach, the back opens and a young guy motions for me to climb aboard. I reach for his hand, climb in and we take off.

It’s pitch black in the back and my companion speaks no English, but I don’t have to be told that this is it; we’re driving south, heading toward the Pyrenees. Finally. But a lot between here and freedom. And still a lot of snow. Three to four feet and more in places. How are we going to get across the Pyrenees in this? I don’t care. I’ll find a way…..I hope.

We drive for several hours before the van lurches to a stop. It is early evening, but dark and drizzly, and we are parked against a wall in what seems to be a backstreet in some village.

Waiting.

A Frenchman quickly takes me across the street and where another truck is parked, it’s engine idling.

A lot of faith here as I follow him, my eyes taking everything in, in case I need to escape and disappear quickly.

c. GCYI

March 24, 1944, Maquis’ Moon-face

March 31st, 2014

I’m the first American pilot they’ve encountered and they’re curious about what I think of the German air force. I tell them that the FockeWuld 190 is a damned good fighter, probably on a part iwth our own P-51 Mustang: but the Mustang using 108 gallon wing tanks, can escort bombers and dogfight deep into Germany, and that is a tremendous advantage to the American daylight precision-bobing campaign. Although our intelligence has warned us that the Germans have recalled their best fighter pilots from the Russian front to fight against us over Germany, I tell them that the difference between the respective fighters is not nearly so important as the difference between the abilities of the pilots flying them, and that so far, Americans have proved their superiority with a ten-to-one kill ratio.

R translates this and everyone is smiling and nodding at what I’ve said except for one moon-faced guy I didn’t like the first moment I saw him.

This moon-face I don’t like or trust. He asks a question in French that causes R to frown and argue with the guy for even asking it. Finally, Robert puts moon-face’s question to me in English. If you Americans are as good as you say, then why do we see American planes falling out of th sky like hailstones – and why are you here with us?

The SOB!

We eat under the trees, our table a long board. They’ve made a huge kettle of beans and beef from the cow we slaughtered. I look down the table and see moon-face stuffing himself with stew, his beret pushed down to his eyebrows. I get up, walk over to him, take off his damned hat, and put it down on the table.

He’s furious. He reaches to his belt, takes out his Llama pistol, cocks it, places it next to him on the table, and puts on his hat.

I get up, pick up a Sten gun, unlock the safety, and stick the barrel against moon-face’s nose. One flick of the trigger would fire off about thirty rounds. Moon-face turns chalk white. I grab the beret off his head and slam it on the table.

The others choke not to laugh, because moon-face is a general pain in the ass, but finally everyone explodes.

Moon-face manages a sick smile. His hat is on the table and it stays there.

Till several leave again on a mission, leaving me behind with the old man and a few guards.

As I try to get some shut-eye, it starts snowing. Groan. This is not helping – it will delay my getting over the Pyrenees even longer. Wish I could go out on the missions. Wish I had an airplane with loaded guns….

c. GCYI

March 23, 1944: In the woods with Maquis

March 30th, 2014

The Fiesler Storches (German spotter planes) haven’t found us….yet.

We’re well-armed – British Sten guns, Spanish  .38 Llama automatics – and I’d love to fire off a couple of bursts at one of those damned Storches, hit the radiator in its belly, and bring it down.  But if the pilot radioed our location, we’d have the German air force bombing the hell out of these woods in fifteen minutes. Of course we never know for sure when we’ve been spotted by one of these recon planes and our position reported. So we stay alert as deer, knowing that every stop can lead to a German ambush.

The Maquis hide by day and strike at night. Through the French Underground, the Maquis are wired in to most of the towns and villages in the south of France. Their people in the marshalling yards and train depots keep them fully informed on the latest movements of troops or munitions. But it is tricky. because every village has its informers or double-agents. And from time to time, assassinations are carried out against these people, supporters of the pro-Nazi, Vichy French government.
I wonder whether there are any double-agents in our group. Running around in the French woods in civilian clothes is not exactly safe duty for a downed American flier. If I were caught, I’d probably share the same fate as any of these Maquis – turned over to the Gestapo for torture-questioning, then shot.

Traveling around with the Maquis, the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war would not apply to me. But I need these guys if I’m to get out across the Pyrenees.

I’m not included in any of their nighttime operaions. They are a close-knit bunch and I’m definitely an outsider. Most of the time I don’t even know what they are up to. I’m left behind with an old man who’s the cook and a few others guarding the camp.

My first day for example, I led a tethered cow, which a couple of the guys had “borrowed” from a farm, while we hiked to a new camp. Later I helped in the butchering, which somehow amused the Maquis. I do my best to contribute what I can. I don’t want to be expendable.

The snow seems to have no intention of melting and letting me climb the Pyrenees to escape into Spain.

c. GCYI

March 22, 1944: Hiding from German Air Patrols

March 29th, 2014

March 22, 1944. We are in the woods, eating. It’s early morning.

We hear the German patrol airplane. Everyone stops still.

We listen. It’s fairly close.

We check our surroundings.

We are under good cover but…recently a few of the guys had gone off and ambushed a German patrol.

The Germans are very angry.

No one moves.

After it passes, we finish eating quickly, put things away, and get on the move, staying undercover.

It does another pass. Too close. When we hear it, we all stop still. No one moves a muscle.

While we are moving, we all are primed, in case we have been spotted from the air and a German patrol is trying to return the favor and ambush us.

I’m itching to get back in an airplane…..

And shoot the patrol down.

c. GCYI

March 20-21, 1944: Evading Germans & Recon planes

March 21st, 2014

Most of the time I have no idea where we are. We are constantly on the move, making camp twice a day to eat and sleep never staying anywhere more than a few hours at a time.

The Germans are always hunting for us, their Fiesler Storches skinning in low over the forest while we rush for cover under the biggest trees we can find. We’re well-armed – British sten guns, Spanish .38 Llama automatics – and I’ve love to fire off a couple of bursts at one of those damned Storches, hit the radiator in its belly, and bring it down. But if the pilot radioed our location, we’d have the German air force bombing hell out of these woods in 15 minutes. Of course, we never know for sure when we’ve been spotted by one of these recon planes, and our position reported. So, we stay as alert as deer, knowing that every step can lead to a German ambush. It has happened before in these woods, although it has usually been the Maquis, not the Germans, who have staged the ambushes – getting the drop on a German foot patrol, or wiping out a small motorized convoy

The Maquis hide by day and hit by night, blowingup bridges, sabotaging rail lines, hitting trains carrying munitions or military equipment. Through the French underground, dozens of Maquis contingents like ours, hidden in the forests and mountains are wired in to ost of the towns and villages in southern France. Their people in the marshalling yards and train depots keep them fully informed on the latest movement of troops or munitions. But it is tricky because every village has its informers or double-agents. And from time to time, assassinations are carried out against these people, supporters of pro-Nazi, Vichy French government. I wonder whether there are any double agents in our group.

Running around in the French woods in civilian clothes is not exactly safe duty for a downed American flier. If I were caught, I’d probably share the same fate as any of these Maquis – turned over to the Gestapo for torture-questioning, then shot. Traveling around with the Maquis, the Geneva Convention of the treatment of prisoners of war would not apply to me. But I need these guys if I’m to get out across the Pyrenees.

We’re just waiting for the snows to melt so I can. It’s an unusually frigid, long winter with very deep snow.

It doesn’t seem like it will ever melt…..

c. GCYI

March 18-19, 1944. WWII.In the Woods with the Maquis

March 20th, 2014

March 18-19, 2014 We bike ride back to Nerac in record time and sack out in the shed at Gabriel’s. At night, Raoul leaves. Gabriel takes me out in the forest.

Uh oh.

We hike for hours. I’m on guard. Where is he taking me? Why? I try not to think about how freezing cold it is.

After several hours, we meet up with a group of pretty tough looking men. Gabriel explains that I’m to stay with them for now. In the village is too dangerous. More Gestapo coming.

We have a bite to eat and Gabriel leaves. I’m left with about 20 men.

We get up and hike some more. I’m exhausted but hiking does keep me warmer.

Finally at first light, we find good cover in the thick woods, hunker down and get some – for me – much needed shut eye. The snow actually affords a little warmth. Some guys go back and re-direct our tracks.

I was just getting used to Gabriel and Raoul.

What next? Can I trust any of these guys? Where are we going?

One thing I think I understand: the Germans are looking for us.

c. GCYI

March 17-19, 1944: WWII. Blowing up Bridges.

March 18th, 2014

March 17, ’44:  Gabriel sends me with Raoul by bicycle up to Gabriel’s family home. I don’t know anything except I’m to go with Raoul. Hope I can trust him.

We get to Gabriel’s parents’ house in about 3 hours. My legs are a bit stiff but I don’t have an alternative or a car. We rest for an hour and then bicycle about a mile away to a field.

We hear a Halifax approaching. For about a second the field lights up with candles along 2 sides; then dark.

I’ve always wondered how the Halifax could pinpoint the drop spot so exactly in the dark. That’s some good navigation. I did learn years later from Raoul that the signal was a radio broadcast: “It is raining tonight.”

Gabriel had gotten the broadcast, sent word to Raoul to come visit. At the visit, Gabriel told him the message, and got me out of the house where the Germans might come back to see who was sitting on the lawn. Any young man was usually conscripted for service for work camps so it was unusual to see a young man idle on a lawn.

The Halifax makes only one pass but oh what a pass – lots of canisters presumably full of much needed supplies.

Raoul signals me to help collect the goods, load the wagons and the trucks. The trucks were the same ones supplied by the mysterious Belgian who owned the pencil factory. He did much to help the French Underground and the airmen like me. He disappeared after the war so I never did get to thank him

When we’re finished loading, others drive or take the wagons away. Gabriel and I go back to his parents house, have a little to eat, and sack out for much of the morning and early afternoon.

When I’m finish sleeping, I get on my bicycle and ride around the countryside. Good idea to get familiar and stay in shape. Don’t know what will be my escape route but don’t want being out of shape to be my downfall. I didn’t realize how much I had scared Gabriel when I did that (he told me years later) – he was very worried if something should happen to me while in his care.

When I get back, Gabriel is concerned – we have received plastique explosives but no one knows how to fix the fuses.

Well….I do.

Gabriel is surprised, suspicious, and then relieved when I tell him my Dad was a gas well driller.

I show them how. But they won’t take me that night on the mission to blow up the Damazan bridge and canal that is the main connector between Bordeaux and Marseilles, not only for water traffic, car traffic, but also the telephone line goes across that bridge.

Too dangerous, he says.

I learned years later: Raoul’s “day” job was night watchman for the Germans – guarding the bridges!

While they are gone, I make as many fuses as I can in that time. When they return, Raoul and I bicycle quickly back to Nerac.

I found out why later.