Chapter 5 The Train
Chapter 5: The Train
It was eight or nine in the morning. I had woken earlier from an uneasy, flea-bitten sleep in the most notorious prison in all of France: Fresnes. I could hear sounds of cell doors being unlocked and prisoners talking over the shouts of the German guards. Since I was only in Fresnes one night, I couldn’t know how unusual this was. Many others had been in this depressing and frightful place for a long time, and they knew better than I that the sound of cell doors opening would usually lead to the sound of the firing squad outside. For me, however, it was a welcome sound. Perhaps food, perhaps exercise.
As I heard the sound of the cell doors opening closer and closer I also noticed a distant rumbling. Thunder? It looked too light outside through my small window high up on the wall. Could it be shelling? The continual rolling sound made it clear. The Allies were close enough so the distant sound of artillery could be heard. It cheered me, but for the French resistant fighters who made up the bulk of the inmates, that too was a frightening sound. They were all but certain that as the Allies closed in, their days would be numbered. The Germans certainly would not just walk away and let the Allies open the prison doors.
“Raus!” They shouted. “Get out! Get out!” and now the shouting and clanging was just outside my door.
Now what? I thought. What new horrors might this day unveil? Maybe it will bring good news. Hopefully, get out of this hell hole of a cell and get to a POW camp. Get with my fellow flyers, get some Red Cross packages, and start to be treated like captured combatant rather than a common criminal. I had no idea at the time just what was going on in this horrible place and in the stirred city outside. Hitler had replaced the top commander of Gross Paris, or greater Paris, with General Dietrich von Choltitz, a hardened battle commander who had commanded the German army during the siege of Sebastapol. Before heading to Paris to take up his new command, von Choltitz met with the Führer who made it clear that von Choltitz was to fight in the streets of Paris to the last man, and if defeated, to leave the city a wasteland. The new commander was well known for his unerring loyalty to the Nazi cause and Hitler had every reason to believe that von Choltitz would make sure that not a brick of the most beautiful city in the world would be left in one piece.
Both sides in the conflict were aware of what happened in Warsaw, Poland as the Russian armies advanced. The people rose up against the hated occupiers and a bloodbath ensued leaving hundreds of thousands dead and a city largely ruined. The same fate was awaiting Paris, particularly if the Resistance were to lead a wholesale uprising of the population—many of whom were eagerly waiting for the signal “Aux Barricades!”
It was now August 15—two days after I bailed out—and this was the day the officials and citizens of Paris began openly defying their German occupiers. The Metro workers, Gendarmerie (military police) and police all went on strike. The strike was actually ordered by the Communist wing of the Resistance which was in a life and death battle with the French Resistant fighters loyal to General de Gaulle, the leader of Free France. The first sign of general uprising was followed by a general strike of the entire city on August 18 with open battles between armed resistance fighters and the occupiers. Behind the scenes, both sides of the Resistance were fighting to take control and Eisenhower, who had decided to avoid Paris, was forced to march on the city with French General LeClerc in the lead. On August 25, the Allies entered Paris and the next day the famous Champs-Elysees boulevard was the scene of the first victory parade.
At the time, I had no idea that I was an eyewitness—with a very limited view—of some of the most gripping and dramatic moments of the war. I just wanted out of the hateful place. The Germans were intent that the 3500 prisoners held in Fresnes would not be liberated. So as the Allies approached, and the unrest in the streets started turning into open battles, the executions intensified. And now, just a day after I arrived, they were evacuating most of the prison, starting with the order “Raus!”
I heard the jangle of keys outside my door and it was flung open. I could see prisoners outside and I quickly joined the crowd in the long, dark corridor. Almost immediately I saw a familiar face and an incredibly welcome one.
“Captain Larson!” I shouted.
“Lieutenant!” He called with as much surprise and delight as I felt. Now I’m not the huggy kind, but we embraced and to this day I can still recall the feeling of joy, comfort and relief in seeing not just a familiar face, but the face of a leader whom I deeply respected. Suddenly, the world felt a different place despite the circumstances. For some reason, with Captain Larson there was hope and hope is one of those few things that are needed in even the most desperate circumstances.
“What are you doing here?” we both asked each other at exactly the same moment. I wanted desperately to find out what had happened to him. We hadn’t heard a word from him since he had been shot down in June—just a few weeks earlier. He was our squadron leader and things hadn’t been the same without him. He was a genuine hero to us and a real veteran having fought in the air war in North Africa in ’42, shooting down several enemy planes. He was the only one in our unit to have been shot down twice. In North Africa he had eluded capture and returned to fly again and lead us with his courage and skill. We hoped that he had escaped twice but now I knew this time he had not been so lucky. Unfortunately, there was practically no time to talk. The Germans were in a hurry and they were herding the prisoners down the crowded corridor toward the main entrance. We were pushed and jostled until we once again emerged into the big courtyard in front of the heavy entrance doors.
As my eyes adjusted to the light and scanned the gathering crowd, I could see most of the prisoners were French men with some women mixed in. I could also see I was not the only American. In fact, I would soon find there were 168 Allied flyers in the courtyard along with almost 2500 French men and women. In Fresnes there had been 803 French women to be exact, and 400 of them along with 2104 men—including us– had been selected for the ride out. Fresnes was primarily where the Germans held captured French resistance fighters before they were sent on trains to concentration camps deep in Germany. Most never returned. In fact, of the more than 2300 French men and women who stood in the August morning sunshine that day, only about 300 returned to France.
The 168 Allied flyers were there because almost all of us had been captured while in the hands of the French resistance. I was in that group too, even though it could hardly be said I was in the Resistance’s hands. Altogether we would find out that there were 48 Royal Air Force (British) flyers, 82 Americans, 26 from the Royal Canadian Air Force, two from New Zealand, nine from Australia and one from Jamaica. Almost all of them had been betrayed by one man and his red-headed girl friend who had successfully infiltrated five major resistance cells. Those betrayed included my good friends Art Kinnis and Jim Hastin. I was one of the few who had not been betrayed but had been caught with those trying to help me escape. So, we were all in the same boat. In German eyes, we were not just captured combatants, but a part of the resistance effort that had caused them so much trouble, death, inconvenience and frustration. Being caught up in the web of betrayed French resistance was the real source of our troubles—the result of which would soon become painfully clear. To the Germans, the Resistance fighters were terrorists, not enemy combatants. And because we were caught with them, we too were considered terrorists, actually given the official designation “terrorfliegers” or terrorist flyers.
While 2500 of us had been released from our cells and were getting organized for the trip out, there were over 500 prisoners left in their cells. There is little doubt that the reason these were left is because the Gestapo intended to execute them at Fresnes before the Allies arrived. Indeed, that is what the prisoners themselves expected. Instead, according to the book Is Paris Burning, they survived and were liberated through the extraordinary efforts of the Swedish Consul officer Raoul Nordling with invaluable assistance from a German counter-intelligence officer Emil “Bobby” Bender.
While we were focused on trying to find our flying buddies, the Germans were trying to get us organized for the journey ahead. I had no idea where we were going, and neither did Captain Larson I found out. We assumed again it was to POW camp and that would be none too soon as far as I was concerned. I didn’t like the looks of these Gestapo guards one bit. We should be in the hands of the Luftwaffe. An assortment of trucks and buses appeared outside the big archway leading to the street and the outside world and soon we were boarding these, all jumbled together without any order and closely guarded by well-armed Gestapo officers.
Personally, I don’t remember the ride, but I do remember marching to the train station. I recall it being about a two to three hour march in the hot sun closely guarded all the time. But it finally gave us the opportunity to start meeting our fellow prisoners and learning how we all ended up in this particular desperate situation. If one had to be in these conditions, it was at least made inestimably better by being in the company of fellows bound by training, experience and values. Misery, indeed, loves company.
It was hot and the August sun was now beating down on us mercilessly from overhead—it was early afternoon and the air was heavy with humidity. We arrived at the Pantin freight yard, northeast of a main train station, Gare l’Est. Pantin is adjacent to the Paris stockyards and I would soon find out that this was no coincidence. When we got to the train station I could see we were in a large freight yard. I saw two tracks and there in front of us was a long train—not of passenger cars, but cattle cars. I looked at them for a moment. This was to be our transportation? How long would it take to get to POW camp? This could not be pleasant. I would soon find out that unpleasant would not describe it.
Art Kinnis recalls that before boarding we were given food. He says one loaf of bread, a box of knackerbread and a tin of horse meat. This, he was told, was for 6 prisoners and would last the two to seven days of the journey. Jim Hastin also recalls getting food. I do not, but I do remember being very, very hungry.
In the freight yard, our guards worked to get some semblance of order. Now for the first time our group of airmen was more or less brought together. We would be loaded into cars as a group—two cars for the lot of us with a few Frenchmen mixed in with us. The French resistance fighters had been separated into groups of men and women and the women had been the first to be taken to the rail yard. Then the loading began. The cars were marked 40/8. That meant they were intended to carry up to 40 men or 8 cattle. Forty men would have been a fairly tight fit. The 95 they put into our car was more than inhuman. If I felt uneasy about the looks of these cattle cars, I became almost panicky as they began pushing me into a car already overloaded with fellow prisoners.
I found myself near the middle of the car. At least I was in the company of fellow airmen including many Americans. But instantly it was unbearably hot and when the big doors were pushed closed and bolted down with a metallic clank, the air quickly disappeared, filled instead with the odor of 90 men, complete strangers to each other, who were now nose to nose, arm to arm, leg to leg. It was immediately obvious that I was not the only one who had not bathed in days. In fact, I guess that because of my very short stay in Fresnes compared to most of the others and the fact that only three days ago I got up for a shower in my own rustic base that I was probably one of the cleanest on that train—and that wasn’t saying much. The only ventilation was provided by openings about a foot high and three feet wide near the top and at each end of the car. Barbed wire was stretched across these small openings to discourage anyone from thinking they might fit through. Two five gallon buckets had been pushed into the car with us. One had water and it was to be our water supply. The other was empty, and it would be our toilet. It would only be a few minutes before the incredible stench of 95 hot, unwashed bodies was blended with the even greater stench of the urine and excrement that quickly accumulated and then overflowed from that bucket. The problem of simply squeezing through that press of dirty men to get to the bucket was enough of a problem; then to find it overflowing and sloshing about against the men unfortunate enough to have to stand near it was, well, sickening.
I heard the train engine roar louder and started hearing the distinctive sound of the train cars being jerked as the slack in the couplings was taken up one by one, a loud bang accompanying each violent start. Our car was in the front third of the train. Suddenly, there was a sharp jerk as our car was caught up in the acceleration, bodies pushed against each other even tighter, curses, shoves, apologies, and pushing against each other for balance. Our journey began. We had no idea how long this extreme misery would last. We only had the very reasonable expectation that whatever would come next would be better than this. Reasonable, and wrong.
There was little opportunity to move around and the bodies were so close that normal conversation felt awkward. But it wasn’t long before I heard a strong voice and saw that it belonged to someone standing near me. A big, blond man with a big, engaging smile and obvious charisma. It didn’t take long before I heard he was from Victoria, B.C., a navigator for the Royal Air Force, shot down in a Lancaster bomber right near where I was shot down, only many weeks earlier. It was Art Kinnis, and a friendship that lasts to this day was started.
Then I picked up on another conversation. This was coming from the front of the car. I struggled to move to get a little closer. I thought I heard the name of a familiar town. I got close enough to see who was talking. Another good-sized guy—of course, being all of five feet six inches in height, most of the guys seemed pretty big to me. He had light brown hair, and seemed a very pleasant fellow.
“Did I hear you say you were from Anacortes?” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Anacortes, Washington. Way up by the islands, not far from Canada.”
“Yeah, I know where it is,” I said. “I’m from Ferndale.”
“Ferndale, Washington?” he said with a laugh. “That’s practically in my back yard.”
“Yep,” I said. “My name is Joe. Joe Moser.”
“I’m Jim Hastin,” he said, and so I met my closest buddy during the horrible experiences ahead and someone who became one of my closest friends years later, in the 1980s, when we met again at a POW meeting in Seattle. Jim was simply one of the best friends any guy could have.
“How’d you get here?” I asked. It was the standard question now. We all had stories to tell and wanted to hear each other’s as well.
“I shot myself down,” he said with a wry smile. “Flying a P-51 I blew up a train that had a little more ammunition on it than I figured. The fireball lit my engine on fire and I bailed.”
By this time we were sitting down on our haunches. It was the only way we could get any rest from the endless standing, but only a few could do it at a time. After awhile, we even gave up this strategy and we all ended up just falling down on each other, two and three deep.
“Well, I ran into a little anti-aircraft fire. Lost my left engine on my P-38.”
“You got two engines on those planes. You couldn’t get back?”
“Fire,” I said. “It got too hot and I had to bail just a few miles from our lines.”
“Where was that?” he asked.
“North of Houdan,” I said. “Bailed out near Marchefroy.”
“You got to be kidding me,” he said. “I came out close to Anet. That’s only about three miles from there.”
It wasn’t too much before we found out that Art also came from the same neck of the woods as we did, but that he also had crashed in the same area as Jim and I did. In fact, Art’s crash site was almost exactly the same as mine near a farm called Les Gatins des Oulins. We shared a home territory, we shared similar ends to our careers as airmen and now we were sharing the same fate—not just of captured enemies, but of evaders, of being a part of the hated French Resistance, of being designated not just enemy flyers by Hitler and his thugs, but of being “terrorfliegers,” terrorists deserving not of Geneva Convention protection, but of concentration camp and execution. We didn’t know it at the time—ignorance is bliss sometimes, but we did know that the misery we were now enduring we would do together. And there was some small comfort in that.
We would have taken comfort in something else if we had known it was happening. We had not been abandoned when leaving Paris. The resistance fighters in Paris were very well aware of our departure as our train carried many of the Resistance leaders and family members of those still in the city and actively engaged in undermining the occupiers. In fact, on the train was the leader of the Resistance fighters in Paris, Pierre Lefaucheux, who had been arrested on June 7. His wife, on hearing that Fresnes had been emptied of prisoners, jumped on her bicycle and followed the train outside the city. She followed it for miles and miles. Remarkably, this incredible woman later successfully got her husband released from Buchenwald. The Resistance was not about to let all their fighters, leaders and family members disappear without a fight. Once it was determined which rail line the prisoner’s train was on, the order went out to stop the train and rescue the passengers.
While we were waiting in the sweltering heat of the loaded cars still standing in the Pantin freight yard, a teen-age boy was frantically pedaling his bicycle to the village of Nanteuil-Saacy. He carried an oral order to the leader of the Resistance in this village. “Cut the rail line from Paris to Nancy—at any cost.” And this message was sent by coded radio to London: “Germans ordered organized evacuation detainees Paris prisons particularly Fresnes by rail via Metz Nancy. Fear general massacre during trip. Take all measures possible sabotage transport.”
The effort was underway to rescue us—but we had no idea at the time. And such a rescue could be as dangerous to those they intend to rescue as to the attackers and guards.