Chapter 2, Draft 2
Chapter 2: Come On!
Immediately as I turned the plane inverted and dropped through the plexiglass canopy I felt the wind suck me back toward the tail of the P-38. That was my single thought now. Watch the tail. I didn’t want the Germans or the French farmers below to come across the burning hulk of my fighter with me toasted like an overdone marshmallow with my parachute still draped over the tail. And I didn’t want to be flung into it by the rushing air, knocked out cold and not be able to pull the ripcord on my ‘chute. Hitting the ground 3000 feet below without a parachute did not seem a good way to die either. Because my doomed fighter was climbing on one engine, the airspeed was only about 160 knots. At that low speed the danger from the tail was greatest. Over 240 knots and the wind would likely pull me clear. But not now.
As soon as I felt the wind push me I craned my neck as far back as I could to watch the tail. When I saw it fall away, I would pull the cord. There it was. That flat blade between the twin fuselage booms of the P-38; the booms, extended narrow cones ending into flat, egg shaped tail fins with rudders. Yes, there it was. Should be falling away any time now. The sky was the grayish yellowish white of a muggy mid-August day. My neck was craned back as far as I could see. My hand had instinctively moved up to the parachute harness until I could feel the ring of the ripcord firmly in the grip of my right hand. I needed to pull it and pull it soon. With the power cut, the fighter with its whole left side now engulfed in wind-fanned flames had slowed even more, then nosed over, inverted, and began to pick up speed as it gently headed for its final destination– French farm soil. The tail was still there, floating down with me. What was going on? The rapidly increasing pressure from the wind was pushing me back further. I thought of looking down to see where I might land, but I kept my eyes locked on that tail.
“Come on,” I said out loud to the tail. It is time you go away. I can’t pull this thing until I am clear. Why aren’t you leaving? Why are you going down with me?
Faster and faster we dropped. “Come on,” now more a command than a question. It was getting urgent. That tail was supposed to leave. Float away. Why was it still there? “Come on!” I shouted at it. The wind was pushing on me and I felt it would push me right into that flat metal plane, but still it floated and still I craned my neck as far as I could to keep it in sight. Now, for the first time I began to get a sense of panic. The tail was still there. Why? It should leave. It should float away. The pressure from the wind felt it could pull my body apart, torso from leg. Something had to give and had to give soon. “Come on!” this time a quiet and desperate prayer. “Come on!” And then, suddenly, release. The tail floated away and I jerked on the ripcord with a ferocious sense of relief.
The silk billowed out and for the first time I saw the brownish green earth below me. My God, right below me! I was on top of it. I would hit in seconds! The silk began to open and fill with air and my body, hurtling toward the ground at over 400 miles an hour was viciously jerked by the harness to a near stand still. At that instant I heard a terrific “crump” as my fighter dove into the ground and exploded into a huge ball of dust, fire and black smoke. A split second later I hit the ground. Hard. Still gyrating wildly under the just-opened parachute, it hit first on my legs which felt they might break under the collision and then fell heavily onto my butt and back. Stunned for a moment by the sudden collision with earth, I laid there for a moment trying to decide if I was still alive.
It didn’t really hit me until much later what had happened and how close I had come to riding my burning fighter all the way down into that fiery death. The toe of my leather GI boot had caught on the canopy as I dropped through. Instead of dropping into that murky sky, I was firmly fixed by one foot to the stricken plane. My only thought was the tail and clearing it before pulling my parachute, but I had ridden that plane down, upside down as it went into its accelerating death dive. The extreme pressure from the wind, faster than any hurricane, tore the heavy leather freeing me at the last possible second. My single minded concentration on the tail kept me from certain panic and probably helped save my life. If I had realized my toe was caught I probably would have been watching that instead of watching the tail and pulling my ripcord the instant I was clear. I would have plenty of time to think about this narrow escape in the dreadful days ahead and the sense that any time I had on earth, any time at all, was a miraculous gift from the Giver of Life.
But now, there was not time to think. I moaned as I picked myself up from the freshly cut grain field and saw the billowing black smoke from my plane. My sorrow at having lost such a wonderful machine and faithful fellow warrior was immediately overcome by a gut wrenching fear. It had exploded practically on top of a French farm house. It looked from where I stood, less than a quarter mile away as if the house was burning as well as the plane. Oh my God, I thought, as I stared at the sickening sight while slapping the French dust off my flying suit, what if I killed some people in there? What if there were kids in there? I should have stayed with that plane. I should have just crashed landed it somewhere where it couldn’t hurt anybody. I was trying so hard to save my own life, to get back to the lines, but I might have killed some poor innocent people just thinking about myself. I kept looking at the house, hoping that I could see someone running out of there safe, unhurt.
Throughout all my experiences including the horrible days ahead, there were few sights that caused me more nightmares in the many, many years following the war than watching my plane burn next to that little stone house. The image was seared into the deepest part of my brain and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t remove it. The nightmares of what that crash might have done to a French family, probably a family very similar to my own who had come to America from Switzerland only a generation before, continued for over forty years. They would not stop. They would not get better. The burning plane and the image of burning kids haunted me night after night. Until I finally found release one memorable day in 1988.
My good friend Jim Hastin had been elected treasurer of the KLB—Konzentration Lager Buchenwald, the organization of Buchenwald survivors. Jim lived in Anacortes, Washington, just a forty-five minute drive from Ferndale, where I lived. He went to visit Art Kiniss in Victoria, B.C. Art had been elected the head of the KLB. Jim had been brought down by the explosion of an ammunition train he had hit in his P-51 in mid-June, just a few days after D-Day. He had bailed out near the town of Anet, about five kilometers away. And Art, a Canadian flying with the RAF had been shot down in his Lancaster bomber shortly before me—it came down just a half mile from where my P-38 crashed. Art spent a couple of weeks hidden by a wonderful French farm family before being betrayed into the hands of the Gestapo by someone who had infiltrated the French underground. It was quite a coincidence that us three Allied pilots, all shot down within a few kilometer radius of each other, now lived so close together in the Pacific Northwest.
Jim went to visit Art in his home in Victoria in 1988 because they were working on making contact with as many Buchenwald survivors as they could find. Art’s wife Betty told Jim about a letter Art had received forty three years earlier, in 1945, from Francois Vermeulen, the French farmer who with his wife Jacqueline had helped hide Art. But the letter was written in French and had never been translated. Jim and Art took the letter to the library in Victoria to find someone who could translate it. That letter changed my life.
They called me on the phone and read the letter to me. It was the story of my own capture by the Germans after attempting to be rescued by the French farmers. From this letter we concluded that no one in the farmhouse was hurt by my crash. I cannot tell you what a relief that was to me. The nightmares immediately stopped and never came back and now that terrifying scene of a crumpled heap of fighting machine next to the farm house only returns at my bidding, coming into my mind like an aged, fading photograph.
The column of black smoke in the heavy August air would be a beacon for the Germans. Any minute they would arrive to try and find me. “I can’t believe this,” I said to myself. It just didn’t seem possible. I looked around now and saw that I had landed in a field that had recently been harvested. In that field twenty or thirty farmers had been busy shocking the long stalks of oats. Peaceful looking shocks dotted the field including right near me. I dropped the parachute harness from my shoulders, but I still did not feel the burn on my back from the shattered glass. That would come later. My legs were rubbery, stiff and painful but other than that I knew I was uninjured. I quickly pulled on the parachute lines and gathered the clean white silk toward me. I needed to hide it and there was no time to waste.
Now several of the farmers had come up to me. They grabbed my hand with big smiles and clapped me on the back. It was perhaps the first chance they had to say thank you to the Americans who were rescuing them and their land from over four years of darkness and fear. But I could also see fear on their faces as they kept an eye on the narrow dirt road that ran at the edge of the field toward the village of Marchefroy. A couple of young teenage boys starting grabbing at the silk, pulling it all together. I quickly pulled off my leather helmet, undid the clasps that held my zoot suit–anti-gravity suit– and then unzipped the long front zipper from my flight suit.
I could understand a little French, when they didn’t talk too fast, and one farmer, Francois Vermeulen as I would find out much later, seemed to take charge. The field had twenty or thirty of them and when the Germans came, they and I hoped I would blend in with the rest. The plan was simple, I’d become just another French farmer. But I had to get rid of anything that made me stand out or look like a pilot. The shocks were big enough so that one could hide my parachute, flight suit, helmet and all the other paraphernalia of my recent, now past, occupation. I was down to olive green GI pants and tan tee shirt. I kept my boots on, with the missing toe leather on my left boot. All the more realistic I ridiculously thought. Just a poor French farmer.
The young farmer who had taken command told me to stay with him. The small crowd that had gathered around me was to disperse, get back to work. And not a moment too soon. No sooner had I joined the work of gathering up the stalks of cut grain, I heard the distant sound of a motor. Motor car? French? No, I realized. We had just received orders that we were to strafe anything that moved around here. It was only the Germans who had any form of transportation now, especially any form of motorized transportation. No, it was German. I looked up and over my shoulder. I would keep my back to them at all times even though my swarthy complexion and black Swiss hair made me look as southern European as in origin I was. I saw the dust cloud moving fast from the direction of the village, not more than two kilometers away. I worked away, my back strained by the hard fall, tightened against the stooping over required to gather up the grain. I was careful to keep pace with my fellow farmers, old and young men and women, children and teenagers, who would steal quick glances at me and smile. Nervous, fearful smiles. But smiles that conveyed so much of what they had endured in the past four years.
Some stopped now to look at the dust cloud as it quickly advanced in our direction. I glanced as well, not wanting my over industriousness to give me away. It was a motorcycle. I could hear that now by the distinctive two cylinder motor sound and soon after could see the helmeted rider keeping just ahead of the billowing dust. Sidecar, I could see now. Two helmeted Germans. My heart pounded again, but now, without the activity required of me in bailing out of a plane, I could feel it and I swear I could hear it. Perhaps the farmers could too and might the Germans sense this kind of fear even from the road? The motorcycle continued at top speed right toward the plane. The flames were gone but dark smoke still rose into the late morning air. It was about 11:00 a.m. How strange I thought. Breakfast near the beach. Briefing. Into the air at 10:00 a.m. Shocking grain in a French farm field an hour later. Now, looks like lunch with the enemy.
We kept working. Sweat was turning my tan tee shirt dark. Sweat from the exertion and more sweat from the fear which tasted like dust in my mouth. The two German soldiers dismounted near the plane which was about 300 yards away. I kept working but kept a close eye on them. Run? I looked over at the farmer who had given the orders. He kept his head down and waved at me to keep working. Right. Stay with the group. It was my best chance right now. The Germans walked all around the plane. They looked around the house. They stopped and looked out into the field, right toward our group. What if they came out here? I glanced over again. The farmer kept working, kept his head down and I did the same. What would a bullet feel like? I didn’t want one in the back. Yet, facing a barrel seemed unpleasant. I kept picking up the stalks of oats and stacking them into the growing shock.
‘Hruuumph!” I heard the motorcycle start up again. Keep working, keep working. Amazingly, the two drove off through the diminishing cloud they had created when they came and now created another thick sluggish dust cloud on their way back to the village. I felt myself get weak and at the same time my heart get lighter. Two close calls in one day. Thank you dear Mother.
The noise was gone now and the cloud slowly dissipating in the noon time air. Several of the farmers gathered around. The farmer who had taken charge gave instructions in French to the others and I could catch enough to see the plan evolve. There was a patch of woods about a quarter mile away, northwest of where my plane landed, past the road and at the edge of the next field. Two young men, late teens, maybe just a little younger than me, were to hide me. One was the younger brother of the farmer who was running the show. He pointed at the nearby woods.
“Non,” the older farmer said. He pointed beyond that, more due west. There was a larger woods. Two kilometers away. The Germans would send a search party, he was sure. And they would search the nearby woods first. Much better to get to the farther woods. If we could make it.
The farmer looked at me and then at my belt. “No,” I said, anticipating his question. “No gun.”
Most pilots carried the .45 pistol they were issued but at this stage many opted not to. Too dangerous. If you were caught with a gun, we were told, they would likely just shoot you. There were too many stories of pilots who were shot down or maimed because they were carrying a gun that now we were advised not to. I wasn’t going to get shot down anyway, I thought, so I left my pistol at home. If I had it now, I would have to do what most pilots who bailed out did and that is bury it.
The decision was made. We’d head for the woods two kilometers away. Years of running nearly five miles every night after football practice at Ferndale High School back to our farm just off the Slater Road and right next to the Lummi Indian Reservation came to mind. This would be easy—even with my banged up legs and back.
We started off at a good trot and crossed the little dirt road that the motorcycle had used just fifteen minutes before. I felt a smile come across my face as I ran. Maybe this day wouldn’t end so badly after all. I’d get to the woods and then wait until night. Maybe these brave young men would stay with me. It was only sixty, maybe a hundred kilometers, back to the American lines. Who knows, as fast as they were moving, may be I’d just hide out in the woods for a couple of days and I’d find myself in American hands. The Germans would be too busy trying to save their own necks to worry about me. I felt half way home already just running across that field.
Then, what was that? A motor? No, couldn’t be. Not that motorcycle again. Run. Run fast. We looked back. The dust cloud billowed up again from the direction of the town. Run! Now there were just three of us and no hiding as farmers. We were obviously running away for a reason. Guilty and visible. And they spotted us. Still we ran, looking for cover. There was no place to hide. Just open field and now the motorcycle was bouncing crazily through the field behind us. It came closer. I thought for a moment I might here the crack of a rifle. Instead, over the roar I heard, “Halt! Halt!”
The boys stopped. Come on, I wanted to say. Dodge. Run like a half back. But I couldn’t leave them. I didn’t want a bullet in the back either. I stopped, turned and walked up to the boys.
The boys were staring into the muzzles of two rifles. One of the boys looked at me and I knew what he was trying to say. Say nothing. Keep quiet. We had been trained to pretend to be deaf and dumb if we were captured. No problem. I was a quiet guy anyway. Avoiding the temptation to talk would be easy.
“Wo bist du?” they asked roughly, one now standing back a pace with his rifle leveled at the young man standing directly in front of me and the other one. The two young men reached into their pockets, which drew a nervous reaction from the soldiers. The boys produced their identification papers while the first soldier looked at me. I looked back dumbly. They exchanged words with the boys and I could tell through the mix of German and French that the brave young Frenchman was telling them that I was deaf and dumb. I’m sure the look on my face was convincing.
The first soldier handed the boys’ papers to the second one who studied them. Then the lead German moved the young men aside with his rifle and came to me. With the other rifle pointed at my chest, the first soldier searched my pockets. Nothing. I had hidden everything under the shock of grain. He reached toward me, touched my sweaty tee shirt feeling metal against my breast bone as I breathed heavily from the run—and adrenalin. Dog tags! He reached roughly under my shirt, and jerked them over my head. He looked at me and laughed.
Then he looked around, behind us, up and down the field.
“Wo ist der andere flieger?” he asked.
I looked at him with a blank stare. It was easy to play deaf and dumb when you didn’t know what they were saying. I looked around to see what he was looking for. He looked at me questioningly and I returned his stare blankly. Flieger was pilot. He was looking for another pilot. Suddenly I noticed these two Germans were not alone. The field was crawling with them. They were emerging with rifles in hand from the small woods we had opted not to try and hide in. Perhaps a hundred Germans were now searching up and down the fields.
“Der andere flieger?” he demanded. More words were exchanged with the French boys and I could tell they were not polite requests. The Germans were certain another pilot, or maybe more crew members, were hiding nearby. They must have thought the P-38, admittedly a big plane, held two pilots. Perhaps they only judged it by the size of the crash site and thought it was a bomber. They threatened all of us with execution if we did not tell them where the other flyers were. I just looked at him and shrugged my shoulders. Playing dumb was getting to be a habit.
Several of the Germans now took the boys off into a different direction, while another group motioned me to start moving. I looked over at those two French lads. What would happen to them? I was too preoccupied at the moment with my circumstances, but for forty three years after this moment, I thought of those boys. Thousands and thousands of times. In my dreams, while eating dinner, while working on furnaces. Tens of thousands of prayers for their safety. As for me, I was now a POW, marching toward Marchefroy, securely in the hands of the enemy I had been trying to destroy just an hour before.