Chapter 3: Marchefroy (Draft 1)

Chapter 3     Marchefroy

Marchefroy has such a sweet and peaceful name. And so it is today as it was before the Germans invaded in 1940. Just a handful of homes and outbuildings. A few small shops. One narrow street separating the picturesque and ancient stone houses and buildings. It’s a place you might consider going for a quiet retreat, wandering through the countryside with small, irregular shaped fields fenced by centuries old hedgerows and dotted with small thickets of woods.

For me, on that hot August day, marching into Marchefroy at the wrong end of a rifle the scene before me was anything but peaceful and serene. Sure, I was concerned about myself and my fate. But I was quite certain that I would soon be in a POW camp in the company of fellow fliers who had similar bad luck as I had just an hour before. I was even more concerned about what might happen to those two young men who had tried to help me escape. I knew the Germans did not treat the French who were caught helping fliers with tenderness and respect. The sentence was death for anyone caught helping the enemy. I figured they were goners and I couldn’t help thinking it was my fault.

After I was separated from my two would-be rescuers, the Germans who held me directed me back toward my plane and away from the town. They continued asking about the other crew members and I watched in silence as they searched intently. It was obvious no one could have survived the crash. There was little left of my fighter except a whole in the ground and bits of equipment. It was very close to the house and when I saw how close it was I was very afraid for anyone who might have been in the house. Tiles from the roof had been blown off the house from the explosion. A wooden house would likely have exploded into fire, but this house was stone. For an hour they searched and then gave it up. They turned me toward Marchefroy.

It was about two kilometers march into the small village. The German soldiers accompanying me asked me no questions and I attempted no conversation. We entered the town on the road leading from the field and made a right turn toward the center of the groupings of homes and shops. The business end of the rifle kept me steered in the right direction and directly to a building right in the center of the village. I was pushed through the door. It was a small office. My eyes had to adjust to the inside room; one window illuminated it. There was a desk and behind it an officer. Gestapo. German state police and those responsible for gathering information. I was in for an “interview.”

He looked up at me as I came in but he did not stand up. He was older than me, about thirty. He did not smile but looked directly at me and I returned his stare. My heart was racing. I was glad I was in uniform, glad I had not taken my 45 pistol. But I knew they could be rough in their search for information and I steeled myself for what they might dish out. I would not be one who would break. I would stick to the rules, do with me what they might.

“Sit down,” the officer ordered in such heavily accented English I had a hard time understanding him.

I sat in the chair facing the desk. He remained sitting. He told me in quite friendly terms that he wanted to find out some information from me about my mission. Would I tell him what I was doing when I was shot down?

“Joseph Frank Moser. First Lieutenant United States Air Force. 0755999.”

He looked at me with a half smile. I couldn’t tell if that meant he thought, oh good, this is going to be fun, or if he was just mildly disgusted. But he continued.

“Vhat iss your squadron?” he asked.

“Joseph Frank Moser. First Lieutenant United States Air Force. 0755999.”

“Vhat airplane you fly?”

“Joseph Frank Moser. First Lieutenant United States Air Force. 0755999.”

“Vho iss your base?

“Joseph Frank Moser. First Lieutenant United States Air Force. 0755999.”

With each question the tone became less friendly. But he persisted. He asked where the other crew members were hiding. That was my exception to the questions. I tried to explain that I was the only pilot. Then he returned to trying to find out more about my unit, my mission, who our commanding officers was, how many in our unit, what we were trying to attack, and on and on and on.

“Joseph Frank Moser. First Lieutenant United States Air Force. 0755999.” If I repeated it once, I repeated it fifty times. He stopped for a minute and stared at me. There was no hint of friendliness any more. He was angry and frustrated and the angrier he got the more certain I became that I was only moments away from a beating or far worse. Again I tried to steel myself. I would not give in. I would give them nothing. They could kill me but they would not break me, of that I was as convinced as I could be. But I was awfully scared.

This went on for a half an hour and my interrogator became convinced I would give him nothing useful. He called for the soldiers outside the door who immediately came in. It was the same one who had marched me in from the field. The spoke fast German and although it had to do with my fate it was nothing I could understand. He motioned with his rifle for me to go out the door and I was once again in the bright mid-day August sunshine.

We walked only about two blocks and he pointed toward a small stone outbuilding attached to a home or barn, I couldn’t tell. All the time I was marching in front of them I was continually looking for an opportunity to escape. For some reason, I thought that opportunity would come. I knew if it looked at all feasible, I would make a break for it. Sure, it was risky, but if I wanted to avoid risk I wouldn’t have wanted to be a fighter pilot anyway. So when I saw what was to be my prison I quickly scoped out the walls. Heavy stone, about twenty inches thick. We entered through a very heavy wooden door and I could feel the damp coolness of a cellar. My eyes needed to adjust but while the door was still open I could see that it was a bare cellar, probably a wine cellar but with no wine or shelves or windows. Just a small room with a dirt floor. Empty except for one garden hoe and I saw that only for a moment before the door closed behind me and I was in complete darkness.

I heard them latch the door and I thought hopefully I might be able to find a way to jam it open. And then I heard the sound of a heavy motor, a truck no doubt. It came closer to the door until I could tell they had backed it up directly against the door. They didn’t want to post a guard there and parking a truck against that door would hold me they figured.

I leaned against a wall. The sound of that truck backing against the door discouraged me but only for a moment. Dirt floor, garden hoe. If there was one thing a farm boy from Ferndale, Washington could do it was dig. Hah. No stone cellar would keep me for long. I waited, impatiently, but I could hear soldiers outside just beyond the door. I would wait until all was quiet and then dig.

I could hardly stand the wait I was so eager to accomplish my escape. I imagined walking into our camp at Nueilly near Isigny. Or perhaps riding in on a jeep, driven by an American sergeant after being found hiding in a ditch or a woods by the vanguard of the liberating troops. They would clap me on the back. “Good old Moe!” the would say. “We knew those goons wouldn’t be able to hold you down.” I’d write a letter to Mom letting her know I’d had a narrow escape but soon I’d finish my 50 missions and would probably come back home to see her and my brother and sisters. I’d be back in a brand new 38 hammering away at my captors. I hoped I’d get a chance to unleash a little ordnance on those guys who took away my two young French friends. But I held back and waited until I thought it might be mid-afternoon and long after I had heard the last of the soldiers outside the door.

I picked up the hoe and I dug. This was no gardening job. I was digging for my life. The dirt flew and sweat started flowing down my face, into my eyes, and down my chest. While much cooler in the cellar than out in the field, it was still warm and I was digging as if my life depended on it. I dug for maybe fifteen, twenty minutes before pausing to check how I was coming. I felt the footings and I could tell they were deep. Maybe three feet below the floor. I knew how thick the walls were from my quick assessment and I calculated by the progress I made that it would be well into the night before I would have a hole big enough to crawl through. I was grateful for my relatively small size—five foot six inches and all of 155 pounds.

I was thirsty, dreadfully thirsty. It was now mid to late afternoon and I had had nothing to drink since breakfast. I had dropped into a field, literally feet from death. Had run for my life trying to escape. Had marched in the hot sun, been interrogated and now had dug frantically. All the time experiencing the kind of fear that leaves your mouth dry and an acid taste on your tongue. Nothing I could do about the thirst, except dig. I would find a stream or water from a friendly farmer once I got out.

I had no real idea where I was and I counted on moonlight through the haze to find my way. But I would figure out how to find my way back to the American lines once I got out of this cellar. So I set to digging again, quickly, strongly, steadily. The hole was now almost two feet deep. I figured I had been at it about a half an hour, maybe forty five minutes. A few more hours for sure and I would be under the heavy footings and digging out on the other side of the wall. It was looking good.

Then, the sound of voices outside. I froze. The truck next to the door suddenly started up. They were moving the truck! They’d open the door and see my escape attempt. Frantically now I tried to cover the hole with the dirt that had been mounding up next to it. I got down on my knees and pushed the dirt as fast as I could back into the hole. All that work! I heard the truck move away from the door. They’d open it any time. The dirt flew and now I heard them unlatching the door. I jumped up and moved against the wall. The hole was only partially filled in. My heart sank as my hopes for escape disappeared.

The door opened and the bright light nearly blinded me. I could see the outline of a German soldier from the ugly helmet shape. And then a man. He was pushed into the cellar. I couldn’t see him clearly. I strained, still pushing myself against the back wall. Who was it? Then, another man. The soldier never entered through the door. Never looked in. Never checked to see if I was still there. This was strange.

The heavy wooden door closed again, but now there were two others in the darkness with me. The latch closed again and once again I heard the truck backed up against the door. Now there were three prisoners. Who were they? They might be the young farmers who had tried to help me. I tried to remember their shapes and the quick look I got at these two who entered. But I couldn’t be sure. Were they soldiers imprisoned with me to keep me under close watch? I didn’t think I could see uniforms, but now I couldn’t really remember, it happened so fast.

I said nothing. They said nothing. They did not speak to each other and so there was no language I could use to determine who they were. I finally decided they had to be placed in here to spy on me, to make certain I wasn’t doing anything crazy like trying to dig my way out.

“Shit!” I said quietly to myself alone. I couldn’t dig. I saw no chance of escape now. I was stuck in the cellar, getting very hungry and thirstier by the moment. I slid down against the cool stone wall and sat in the pitch darkness. I could hear their breathing and knew they too had settled down against the wall. We would be silent partners in this prison, friend or foe I could not tell. Whether we would share the same fate or if they would be party to mine I could not tell. There was just the quiet breathing of three men in a dark hole.

It was the first time I could think quietly without my mind rattled with thoughts of escape and what might happen in the next moment. I knew now that the morning would tell more than this night possibly could. Whether it was day or night, I had no idea. I just leaned against the wall and thought about this perfectly strange day that had turned my life upside down. Sure, I knew it was possible that something like this might happen. But I never believed it would. Never for a moment. Sitting there in that darkness I still didn’t believe it. Was this real? Might I have died? Could this be purgatory? It certainly wasn’t heaven and I couldn’t say it was hell either. Had all those things that had happened in the field, running away with the young farmers, capture by the Germans, the fire in my engine, trapped by my foot to my plummeting plane—had all those things really happened. It seemed dreamlike and yet more real than my pitch black life right now.

I thought about my family. They would get a notice once my unit had decided I was missing. No one had seen me go down. Where was my wingman? Why didn’t he go down with me? Suddenly I was angry, and anger that has never completely left me. Why was I left alone in the attack? They could have seen my parachute, known where I was, and could have given my family some hope. Now they would just say I was missing, not certain if I was dead or alive.

I thought about my sisters, Louise and Rosalie. That’s what really hurt. I had no girl back home. Hadn’t even given much thought to that sort of thing yet. But thinking about my sisters and thinking about the possibility that I might not see them, might not be there for them, might not be the big brother they counted on. That’s what hurt in that dark cellar.

I prayed, certainly I did. I prayed the Rosary over and over as I would thousands of times in the days and months ahead. I prayed for those two young men. I prayed for my family, for my friends back at the base who would be worried for me. I prayed for myself, that I would find a way to escape, that I would be strong, that I would be a good airman despite what they might do to me. I prayed that if it was my time to die I would do so with strength and dignity. And I prayed for food. Oh was I hungry and thirsty.

Finally, I slipped off to sleep. A dark, troubled uneasy sleep, the sleep of a prisoner. And then I heard the sound of the truck starting up. Suddenly and in an instant I was awake and quickly to my feet. The sound of the latch and then the door opened with a rusty screech. Light came in but it was weak and dim. Early morning. A soldier came in with rifle in hand and now through the shadows cast by the ominous shape in the doorway I could see my fellow prisoners. They were farmers, Frenchmen. They were not the boys who had helped me and they certainly were not Germans. The soldier grabbed them and pushed them through the door. Why were they here? What did they have to do with me? The door closed again and once again I heard the sound of the truck backing up against the wooden door.

I was alone again. I listened intently for the sounds of them leaving. Suddenly there was a shot. A rifle shot. Then, another.

Oh my God, I thought. They have been shot. I slumped down against the wall and felt that I was going to throw up. I felt as if the shot had gone into my own gut, or that someone had kicked me. There was no doubt in my mind what had happened. They had simply lined these two young men up and shot them. Late twenties, maybe early thirties, I didn’t really get a good look. But two men had died because I had the stupidity to get shot down. Two men who had spent that quiet night with me in that cellar had died for trying to help me. We could have dug out. Why didn’t I try to find out who they were and why there were there? We could have dug out. We could have escaped together. Now, I could picture them, lying against the wall of one of those homes I had walked by yesterday.

And I knew something else now. If this is what these bastards would do to two French men, probably farmers from the field who tried to help me, what would they do to me? What was my life worth? Someone who yesterday had been flying big guns and bombs around trying to kill them? There was no thought of escape now. Only fear of what would happen when they opened that door for me.

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