Chapter 4 (DR1) Fresnes Prison
Chapter 4: Fresnes Prison
I had about forty five minutes or an hour to think about what would happen to me when the Germans would again open the door. My hunger and thirst were gone, replaced by a painful vice grip in my gut. Then I heard the truck starting up again and I knew it was my turn. Forty five minutes in the pitch darkness to agonize over the killing of those two French men who died because they were brave enough or foolish enough to try and help an American flyer stay out of German hands. I cannot tell you now if my dread and sick feeling was more for them or for the almost certain fate that awaited me just beyond that door. All I know is that I was more scared than I had ever been. More scared then when running away and expecting a bullet in the back. More scared than when bailing out. More scared than when I realized my caught foot had nearly brought me into the middle of that explosion.
The heavy wooden door was unlatched and creaked open. The German soldier’s silhouette appeared and looked into the dark cellar to see where I was. He grabbed me, rifle in one hand; not roughly, just firmly as if he was in complete command which he was. I was pushed into the bright morning August sunlight half expecting to see my executioner’s rifle leveled against my chest. Instead, I saw a black car, waiting. Without any attempt at explanation I was pushed in. I did not even have time to look around and see where they might have executed my fellow prisoners or buried them in the short time since they were taken from the cellar.
In the back seat of the black sedan a German soldier sat next to me with a rifle leveled at me at all times. The driver pulled out sharply and so I left Marchefroy behind. But the sickening dread of what havoc my crash had left in the lives of the brave French villagers of Marchefroy never left me. That is, until 1988.
Many years after the war I began to get involved in POW groups including the rather exclusive club known as the KLB—the Konzentration Lager Buchenwald association. This was a group for survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. In one of the meetings for POWs that I attended in Seattle I reconnected with Jim Hastin who had become my best friend starting on the train from the prison in Paris to Buchenwald. Jim’s P-51 went down in flames while on a strafing run in May, 1944 and he had bailed out near the town of Anet, less than five miles from Marchefroy. After his retirement Jim moved back to his hometown which was only about an hour away from where I lived. The town is a picturesque seaside community right on Northern Puget Sound called Anacortes, so we had many opportunities to get together. In Buchenwald I also met Art Kinnis, a Canadian flying as navigator on a Lancaster bomber for the Royal Air Force and who had been shot down only a half mile from where my P-38 crashed. After the war, Art returned to his home in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada which while in another country, was only a few hours by ferry ride away and literally less than 40 miles away from my home in Ferndale as the crow flies.
By 1988, these two gentlemen had both become officers of the KLB, Art was the president and Jim was the treasurer (?) So they got together frequently to work on KLB business which was usually focused on trying to find what happened to the survivors of Buchenwald and getting in touch with them. On a very memorable day in (month) 1988, the two of them were working together at Art’s home in Victoria. While going through Art’s papers, they came across a letter from Francois Vermeulen to Art that was written in November, 1945. It was written to Art because he had been hidden by Francois and his wife Jacqueline in their farmhouse for several weeks to keep them out of German hands and help him get back to England. A strong bond had been created with the Vermeulen family which exists to this day. The letter, sadly, had been misplaced and never been translated so Jim and Art took the letter into the library in Victoria to find someone who could translate it for them. They now read the translated letter to me over the phone.
Francois explained what was happening in the village after the war and told of some of his and his family’s courageous underground activities. And then he told the story of the attempted rescue of the American “captain” who crashed near their house. The “captain” was me. I found out that Francois was one of the farmers in the field and he was the one who had more or less taken command. It was Francois’ brother Leon who had been one of the two young men who had tried to help me get to the woods and who was captured by the Germans along with me. And the prisoners in the cellar with me were farmers from the field. One most certainly was Henri Eustache, the mayor of Marchefroy. And the other was most likely Leon, Francois’ brother—the young man who was caught running with me towards the woods. I found out that while the plane crashed very near a farmhouse, no one was injured or killed.
Not all of these details were in Francois’ letter. Many were provided during the writing of this book by a wonderfully helpful school teacher in France by the name of Remco Immerzeel. Remco has made it his hobby and passion to learn the details about the capture and fate of the Allied flyers who ended up in Buchenwald. It was through Remco that I found some amazing details of the story of my capture and the fate of the brave resistance fighters and farmers who were helping me.
Through interviews with the Vermeulen family, other farmers who were in the field that day such as Mr. Rene Saillard, Remco was able to piece together a fairly complete picture of what happened on the 13th of August following my crash.
Several of the farmers were arrested by the Germans after my capture and taken to Bercheres, a village southeast of Marchefroy on the main road. Bercheres is where the German Werhmacht commander for the area had his headquarters. There they were interrogated and some of them were let go because they did not have information. Those arrested included Rene Saillard, two others named LeDuc and DeCeranno. Francois had escaped the Germans, made a run for it and hid out for some time about 30 km away. Leon and Henri Eustache were returned to Marchefroy and put in the cellar with me. Likely because they were most seriously implicated in my attempted escape and the cellar was the most secure holding cell the Germans had.
Reading the translated letter from Francois made it clear that the two in the cellar with me had not been killed. But it took another nearly twenty years after discovering that letter to find out how they escaped. One of the German soldiers involved in my capture and the arrest of the Frenchmen was a Frenchman from Alsace by the name of Paul Renaud. He had been pressed into the German army and served as a French translator. He was the Kommandant’s sidecar driver and it is quite possible that he was the one driving the sidecar through the field when I was caught. But although in German uniform, he did all in his power to help his native country including supporting the resistance activities. After helping secure the release or escape of some of the French farmers who had been taken to Bercheres, he was assigned to go and get the two men out of the cellar that morning. Instead of returning them to his fellow soldiers, he told them to run for it and then fired two shots in the air to make it sound as if he had tried to foil their escape.
After the war, Mr. Renaud was a very popular man in the area because the French villagers were very aware of his heroism in helping the French cause. He married a local woman, ran a gas station in one of the villages nearby and died in the mid 1990s.
While many of these details came later, when I heard Jim Hastin reading Francois’s letter to me over the phone in 1988, my life changed forever. I felt weak in the knees and a heavy burden that I had carried for 44 years was lifted. My crash had not resulted in any injuries or deaths. The brave men and women did not suffer because of my unwelcome arrival in their oat field. The nightmares that plagued me all the years after the war stopped and did not return. It seemed the last fetter the Germans had placed on me dropped away and I was free.
But that was all in the future as I road in that hot black car staring at the end of a rifle in my face. I’m sure the scenery was pretty but you couldn’t tell it by me. I guessed we were heading to Paris. That is where the German strength was and Gestapo headquarters. Besides, the villages were getting closer together and soon there were signs of a large city. This was not how I wanted to visit this city. I had seen Paris from the air many times, but I had assumed we would be enjoying R&R in this great city soon. This clearly was not going to be quiet peaceful visit to the City of Lights. We pulled onto a broad boulevard lined with trees and then swerved sharply and drove through an archway into a brick courtyard of a handsome, ornate building covered with large Nazi flags. The car came to a quick stop and the door was opened by a grim faced soldier. Gestapo headquarters, no doubt. Again, I could taste the fear in my mouth. The questioning I had in the quiet village of Marchefroy would likely seem like a chat with my buddies compared to what was to come next.
I barely had time to look around the courtyard before being ushered through the tall, ornately carved doors. We climbed the stairs facing the entrance and our footsteps echoed along with the conversations of German officers who were walking through the massive halls. I was pushed through a door and entered a very large, very impressive office. Lots of windows, paneled walls, massive desk, and one German officer sitting behind the desk reading some papers. The soldier accompanying me brought me right in front of him and I stood there. He looked up. He had an immaculate uniform with enough decoration on it to communicate that he was an experienced, high ranking officer. About thirty years old, dirty blond hair and very handsome. His English was considerably better than my inquisitor in Marchefroy.
“Lieutenant Moser,” he said, casually and with a slight smile. “We would like to know the names of the men in your airplane.”
I wanted to say, look you ignorant goon, don’t you know what a P-38 is? There’s only one pilot and that was me! But I didn’t.
“Joseph Frank Moser. First Lieutenant United States Air Force. 0755999.” I said it quietly and firmly. He stared at me and smiled. I tried to read his expression. This man could order my execution in a moment, or have me beat to death or until I broke. But I would give him nothing more. A slight smile cornered his lips but I couldn’t tell if it meant you poor bastard, wait until you see what’s in store for you or if it was a sign of recognition of a military man of dignity. It didn’t matter.
“What unit are you in?”
“Joseph Frank Moser. First Lieutenant United States Air Force. 0755999.”
“What’s your commanding officer’s name?”
“Joseph Frank Moser. First Lieutenant United States Air Force. 0755999.”
He stood up and I could tell there was anger boiling beneath his disciplined face. I felt my knees knocking. He was a big man and no doubt had done his share of the rougher forms of interrogation. I was sure at any minute he would come around the desk or bark an order to the soldiers standing outside the door. Instead, he kept asking questions.
For two hours this went on. He became angry and frustrated, but never stopped the questions. He sat down and was quiet for a bit. Then he looked at me with that enigmatic smile and said.
“Joe, you come from a town called Bellingham in Washington State. Your mother’s name is Mary. You were promoted to First Lieutenant on July 10, 1944. Congratulations. Apparently you’ve been doing some pretty good flying. You fly with the 429th Fighter Squadron of the 474th Fighter Group. You fly out of a temporary base in France called Nueilly right near Isigny.”
My mouth dropped open.
“Your fellow pilots include Lts. Nolby, Lane, Cobb, Patterson, Mills, Skiles, Schwarzrock, and Hazzard. You want me to name more? Your CO is Major Burl Glass.”
He proceeded to tell me more about my buddies, unit and missions than even I knew. It shook me more than a fist to the solar plexus. What didn’t this guy know? How did they know all this? Was there a spy in our unit? Had they tortured captured pilots to get this information?
“Oh yes, George Knox, he was shot down on 23 May, right? He’s a POW. Don’t worry, he’s doing fine.”
Now I was shook up and he could tell. I was sweating profusely but stayed at attention. What about Captain Larson, I wanted to ask. What can you tell me about him? But I didn’t say anything. My back was hurting and I was terribly thirsty—and hungry.
“So Joe, help yourself out here a little bit. I just want to know that you are going to be helpful. Tell me what your orders where on 13 August—what was your target?”
I hesitated. What was the point of this? They knew more than I could tell them. Nothing I could offer would add to their information. Then I answered: “Joseph Frank Moser. First Lieutenant United States Air Force. 0755999.”
And then it was over. He called for the guard who quickly entered, spun me around and I left the interrogators office. Confused, upset, feeling like somehow I had given them something. I was disoriented and angry.
I don’t really remember the car ride to the prison. I was relieved that the interrogation was over and at least for now had avoided a vicious beating or worse. But I was getting weak from lack of fluid and food. It was now about noon and no one had offered me anything to eat or drink. And I didn’t ask.
We pulled into another big archway into another courtyard but it was clear that this was not some ornate hotel or office building that had been commandeered by the Germans. This was a prison, dark, ugly and foreboding. The small windows circled around the courtyard; 1200 cells Fresnes was well known before and after the war as France’s toughest prison.
There were two massive wooden doors at the entrance and they were opened to let me in. I immediately was sent down a hallway to the right. The hallway was incredibly long and dark, lit with an occasional bulb—enough to see with but dim enough to make the hallway look like a tunnel leading to a tomb. The walk down the hallway was short. The guard opened up a cell door near the entrance and I was escorted in. Clearly, they knew where I was supposed to go. My arrival was planned.
It was dark and mercifully cooler in the tiny cell. The door slammed and locked behind me and I was alone. My eyes adjusted to the dim light and I could see a concrete bed on one wall, covered with a dirty and very thin straw mattress. There was no toilet. Only a hole in the floor and a small concrete sink. Cold water. I drank deep and for a moment felt like I might still be alive. I splashed the water on my hot face and breathed deep with my eyes closed, hands propping me up against the sink and my head drooping down. Yes, I was alive, weak, tired, afraid, terribly alone, but alive.
My thirst finally quenched I sat down on the bed. I felt the thin, filthy mattress. Looking around the cell I noticed a small window up near the very high ceiling; there were bars on it. A little light was coming through the dirty glass and I was grateful for that. I laid down and felt the hard concrete right through the mattress. I did not notice until after leaving the cell how many “friends” shared this cell and mattress with me. The place was literally crawling with bugs. Like everyone else who experienced the delights of Fresnes, I carried with me the scars of those bug bites forever. But, as I laid down, my thoughts were not on fighting bugs or even fighting Germans.
It was the first time I had been alone for any length of time since my capture. The two hours of digging frantically in the cellar didn’t count because I had hope of escape. There was no hope here. My fate was completely in the hands of an enemy who had demonstrated to me, I thought anyway, through the murder of those two Frenchmen, that they were without humanity or mercy. No, my fate is not in their hands. I fingered the Rosary in my mind and felt some moments of a deep sadness that felt almost like peace.
How would Mother deal with the news? Would they tell her I was dead? No one had seen me go down. MIA. I choked up thinking about her getting the dreaded envelope. At least with that telegram there would be some hope. Keep hoping, Mom. Keep hoping and praying as I know you are.
My dear sweet sisters. And little brother Frank. I dreamed of being a fighter pilot, ever since I saw that story about the new P-38 while in high school, all I thought about was learning to fly that marvelous machine. I thought about shooting others out of the sky, about coming home a hero, about telling my brother and my sisters how I made them proud during the war. Now, I would have done anything to be home again. This part of it just wasn’t in the plan. Sure, I knew something bad could happen. But it wouldn’t, not to me. I was brave, a good pilot. I would come home. Mom was working at Safeway now. She couldn’t work the farm by herself and sold it in ’42. Louise, eighteen now, practically grown up, thinking about boys all the time. And sweet, sweet Rosalie. Little Frank—he needed a big brother at home to show him the way. Dear Mother, let me see them all again. Please! I wondered what time it was back home. I tried to think about what they were doing, when they would get the telegram, what they would think.
In the meantime, the fleas were feasting and I dropped off to a tear stained sleep.
Translated copy of Francois Vermeulen’s letter to Art Kinnis:
(November, 1945) First translated 1988
I was really glad to receive your news and to know that you are safe and in good health. I think of your wounds that you had while hiding. I have asked myself what you thought of us while you were trapped in that camp. If your friends had not arrived we would have joined you at Buchenwald.
Now I will tell you what happened after you left. We thought that you had arrived home and now I see that the opposite was the case (by your letter) a large deception for me.
In July we again did some nice work because we blew up a railway bridge and also there were about 50 goons [German soldiers] who died and the railway was completely out of order until the end of hostilities; and after we received an order to destroy a tunnel and a munition train at the same time but sadly were short of ammunition. After that we were occupied by the Germans and bombs were coming from all corners and also airplanes.
An every day occurrence until August 13th at 10 o’clock we saw an allied airplane in flames the pilot who was an American captain jumped from the burning Lightning. Pilot and plane fell 800 m from your Lancaster. Immediately I joined the captain in questions and gave him one of my shirts, a cap and sweater and all that in a few minutes;* we were passing the German barrage for they were in every corner. I told the captain, always with me, to take my brother’s directions who was working in a field. That was around 600 m from where he fell. The Germans knowing what happened arrived in a sidecar made him and my brother prisoners and threatened them with execution if they didn’t give information about other pilots. The Germans 3 in each sidecar had spread out and looked all over the fields to find some other aviators.
While that was happening my brother evaded and was obliged to hide himself and I did also.
I left the backyard of the farm while some other Germans SS were coming in to take my brother and the farmhands to hold for ransom. They took 2 from the farm, the mayor that you know very well and also 2 others**. They kept them for 24 hours without food or water telling them that they would be executed.
I left home for 2 days and when I came back 15th Aug I was forced to hide myself in a tree and shrubs the whole afternoon because I did not wish to be caught by the Germans because in their retreat they were taking men, horses, carriages to carry their luggage. 16th and 17th Aug was a (indecipherable) but on the 18th at 15 hours they all returned and at the same time we felt at liberty in movement and speech and at last a joy that can’t be described.
As for your bad departure we are working on it and the man that gave you away will have an accident during the last bombardment. As soon as I have more details I will send them to you.
I have to tell you that you were mistaken, it is that my parents and also Paulette’s parents where you were because Paulette and Maurice were at Evereux.
As for Andre he is in good health and came out safe from his torture. If you remember well he didn’t have any news of his wife that the Germans had imprisoned. She was at Fresnes on 17th August and the 18th she was to have been executed but the advancing Allies opened the prison doors. She was able to go back to her home around the end of August.
Other news of my wife Jacqueline. She gave birth to a nice big son 10 Nov 1944 that we baptized Jean Bernard. In 2 days he will be 9 months old and already is a little devil.
I will also give you my new address because I hope that we will receive some of your news. It will please me very much.
If one day you anticipate returning to France do not forget to visit us. I will see you with pleasure. Write soon. Please receive from my wife and self our good friendships for your wife and self and big kisses for your little girl. If you can send me a little tobacco and chocolate it will give us much pleasure for we are very restricted.