After being shot down on 13 November 1944 and bailing out, Eddie Roberts had broken his shoulder on landing, causing him great pain, but after three days during which we hid for several hours in the waters of an icy pond, then a hayrack, the Dutch underground made contact. Peter Van De Hurk and his girlfriend questioned us closely to ensure that we weren't German spies who had parachuted into Holland, posing as Americans, to flush out the resistance leaders. A Dutch lady, whose husband had died two weeks previously, kindly gave us some of her late husband's civilian clothes. That was a big sacrifice on her part, because it's a custom in Holland to retain the clothing of a deceased relative in remembrance.
Peter and Mimi took us, on the backs of their bicycles, to the home of a minister in the town of Meppel, northern Holland, whose house was directly opposite a German Army billeting center. There were German soldiers all over the place. We were put in the attic that night, and the next morning I could hear the Germans singing as they lined up for breakfast.
Later, the minister called us downstairs and told us he'd been helping the underground because no one believed they could harbor American airmen right across from 1,500 German soldiers. Also, as a minister, it wasn't unusual for him to have different people going in and out of the house.
We stayed in the attic for the next month, eating what little food could be provided. Then Mrs. Joke Folmer, a member of the underground, took us to the Meppel railroad station for our journey to Maastricht, a city on the Dutch/Belgian border. She told us to act as deaf mutes and pretend to be asleep so no one would question us. I sometimes wonder why the Germans didn't get suspicious.
At Maastricht we were hidden in the house of an engineer and his musician wife for two weeks. Because of his position in the city, we ate more and were much warmer than at Meppel as he could afford to heat his home. With further assistance from the underground, we eventually arrived in Brussels, the headquarters of the Comete organization. Mrs. Joke Folmer, at that time a 20-year-old Dutch resistance member, recalls:
I guided Mr. Ferrari and Mr. Roberts from Meppel, where they had stayed at the home of the Rev. Van Nooten, down to the Belgian border at Maastricht by train, where they then came under the care of the border helpers, whose leader, Mr. Jacques Vry, was and still is very dependable. We got off the train, after a warning by the train conductor (a "good one"), via the luggage ramp. There were Germans at the station exit, but fortunately it was rather uneventful. Both evaders knew their forged identity cards and the signs of deaf mutes: one finger for a "yes" (with a nod) and two fingers, touching an ear, for a "no." They were also told not to jingle the loose coins in their pockets and not to look Germans in the eye because we Dutch didn't.
(They were sensible and quiet young men. I still have a photograph of Victor Ferrari during his leave in Atlantic City in June 1944, which, of course, I received after May 1945.)
Nick Mandell picks up the story of the five bomber crew members: The Comete organization gave us five airmen new identities. We were all labeled as "Flemish." I was labeled a Flemish pharmacist's assistant working for the German "cause" in Toulouse, France. My travel papers showed that I was home on a short holiday.
In Holland our travel plans had been quite restricted. We were unable to travel late during the night because of the wartime curfew, 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. But our travel through Belgium and France was possible, both by day and by night, despite the curfew hours. The Comete organization had access to the official bonded Gestapo paper on which travel orders could be made. This gave us the authority to travel all night, despite the curfew. We were among the first escaping airmen to use these special travel orders.
At 1 a.m., 24 January 1944, we five "Flemish" workers left Brussels by train en route to Paris. During the early morning hours the train stopped at the border crossing of Belgium and France. We all left the train and entered the train station in order to go through the Customs search before entering France. As normal travelers, we all carried a small suitcase. When we opened our cases for customs inspection, I was shocked to see that each case contained one piece of women's underclothing, with a few men's clothes.
One of the customs inspectors was a Comete worker. The pieces of women's underclothing in each suitcase was his "clue" to our false identity. Under the watchful eyes of the many enemy patrols and Gestapo agents on guard throughout the train station, our border crossing into France was a big success.
At the end of the line of inspectors was a German officer checking ID papers, looking so haughty and superior. I saluted him and presented my papers which stated I was a Flemish worker employed at an airfield near Paris, but he barely looked at me, just waved me through as if I were someone insignificant. I can recall thinking: "Wouldn't he just die if only he knew who I really am??"
We arrived in Paris during the afternoon on 24 January 1944. Our contact at the Hotel Pari was not available, but our guide was able to relocate us at another hideout in a villa somewhere out of the city limits of Paris. We spent about two days at the villa, owned by an elderly woman, her daughter and son-in-law. We returned by train to a new hideout in Paris on 26 January 1944.
The new location in Paris was a small vacant room in the basement of a school. In command was a high-ranking member of the Comete organization, Madame De Greef, known as "Tante Go" and her teenage daughters, Janine and Vernon De Greef. We called this hideout "The Dungeon" because the room contained no furniture nor any conveniences. Several blankets were spread out on the concrete floor to give us a little protection against the cold. We ate our meals on the floor and slept on the floor. To keep ourselves occupied we played cards, told jokes and stories about our past experiences in civilian life.
"The Dungeon" was much more than a temporary hideout for us five airmen who had escaped from Holland. It soon became the main Comete center for other rescued Allied airmen. Day after day, more rescued airmen throughout central and northern France were escorted to this location. By 3 February 1944, there were 18 airmen gathered there.
On 4 February, 17 of us departed from Paris by train on an overnight journey to Toulouse, in southern France. My navigator, Victor Ferrari, remained in Paris because he needed medical attention to cure a severe skin infection. Our guide on the train south was the young girl, Janine De Greef. My identity during the journey south was as a pharmacist's assistant.
Later that night, somewhere in central France, our train came to a sudden stop because RAF bombers were on a bombing mission in the area, causing our train to be delayed for about 30 minutes. Many hours later, during the early morning hours of 5 February 1944, we all arrived in Toulouse.
At the Toulouse train station Janine was greeted by two Comete mountain guides, Jean Greindle and Jean Francois "Franco" Nothomb. With Greindle and Franco were the two Belgians who, like us airmen, were escaping over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. It is my belief that the two Belgians were former Comete underground workers who were fleeing into Spain for safety reasons.
The road and trails our guides traveled over the Pyrenees Mountains were about 10 miles from Toulouse. From Toulouse train station our guides hired two taxis to transport us to the mountain roads. A total of 21 men were squeezed into only two taxis, but we all arrived safely at a small village at the foothills of the Pyrenees. However, unknown to us and by some unknown way, the German mountain patrols in this area of southern France were informed of our plans to cross over the mountains en route to Spain.
As we began our march up over the mountains, heavy snow began to fall. The journey over the first mountain range required about 20 hours or more. On 6 February 1944, at a deserted farmhouse in the valley between the first and second mountain ranges, we unexpectedly walked into an enemy ambush. There were six German troopers on skis, armed with rifles and with two tracker dogs. We were within range and many rifle shots were fired at us.
Twelve of the escapees were captured, including my bombardier, Omar Roberts, and became prisoners of war. The RAF flier George Watts, three other Americans and I were the only airmen that escaped. The two Belgians and our guide Greindle also escaped. Franco, the other guide was captured, but only for a short time. He luckily managed to escape and rejoined us the following day at a village.
On 8 February, Watts, the three American airmen and I left for a new hideout, high up on a mountain range near the village of St. Lawrence. We lived in small cave-style huts that the village shepherds used as their living quarters during the summer season while watching over their sheep and cattle. These caves are vacant during the cold weather season.
During the following days and weeks, other Allied airmen joined us, including my navigator, Victor Ferrari. By 15 March 1944, the Comete organization had a total of 37 escaping Allied airmen hiding in this mountainous area.
On 16 March, three new Comete mountain guides, each armed with a sub-machine gun, arrived at our mountain hideout. They were accompanied by an American. I didn't know his duties, but I'm sure he wasn't a missing airman and recalled first seeing him on 5 February, the same day we'd started our first journey over the Pyrenees.
The 37 airmen were gathered together into one large group and we began the long march over the snow-covered mountains to the Spanish frontier. The route selected by our guides took us over the high elevations of the Pyrenees. It was an exhausting two days' and two nights' march, nonstop.
About I a.m. on 19 March, we finally arrived at the Spanish frontier, which was a snow-covered mountain top, with no fence or other marking. Our guides, for security reasons, would not enter Spanish territory with us, but they gave us instructions and directions before turning back. About 8 the same morning, we entered Bosost, a small village near the base of the Pyrenees in Spain. We surrendered to the local police authorities for safety reasons. From a small grocery store in Bosost, telephone contact was established with the American, British and Canadian Embassies in Madrid.
Because of the avalanches on the Spanish slopes of the Pyrenees, many roads were blocked by deep snow, thereby preventing our American military attaché to reach Bosost, but on 20 March, we Americans were taken by bus down mountain roads to Viella. For reasons unknown, we were not allowed to ride inside the bus even though we had purchased tickets. We were forced to ride on the roof of the bus, despite the many available seats inside. Luckily, we arrived safely in Viella at the base of the mountains. There we were greeted by Mr. Garcia, a Spanish employee at the American Embassy, accompanied by two armed Spanish military personnel as our escorts.
On 22 March, we traveled by bus to the village of Sort and on 23 March to Lerida, where we finally made contact with our Military Attache. It was here that several of our American airmen were badly mistreated and jailed by the local police, but were freed after four days due to intervention by the American authorities. We then spent the next five weeks at a recreation center, and on 3 May, we departed from Lerida by bus and arrived at a small hotel in Alhama de Aragon.
On 7 May 1944, we left Alhama de Aragon by Embassy automobiles and arrived at the American Embassy in Madrid. Later that same day we departed Madrid by train, escorted by the American Military Attache, and arrived in Gibraltar the next morning.
We were issued military clothing in Gibraltar and during the early evening of 10 May 1944 we boarded a C-47 cargo plane, piloted by two British Intelligence personnel. After an all-night flight over the Atlantic, off the west coast of Europe, we arrived safely at Bristol Airport, England, very early on the morning of 11 May 1944. It was the end of a six-month journey to freedom.
The C-47 flew a roundabout, dog-leg route to avoid the Germans. Just as we turned north for England, the left engine, only one of two, began to sputter. The pilot called back, "We're having trouble with an engine, but it's still going and as long as it keeps going I can hold it. If not, we'll have to ditch and you all know the difficulties of ditching at night."
Everyone else inflated their "Mae West" life jackets, but mine wouldn't work. I was in trouble if we ditched and I recall thinking, "Why does everything happen to me?" That engine spluttered all night and I prayed.... I was praying Hail Marys continuously and thinking, "What a way to die.... "
Fortunately, the sputtering engine held out, but instead of going to London we landed at Bristol, in southwest England, and continued onto London by train. I was allowed to return to Wendling. However, according to the Geneva Convention, I was technically considered a spy after coming out of occupied territory and, like other American evadees, I was removed from further combat duties and awarded the Air Medal.
The other eight members of our crew who went down during that second combat mission of ours on 13 November 1943 were in various POW camps in Germany and Austria until the end of the war: S. Marx, pilot; J. Chenet, copilot; E. Roberts, bombardier; H. Posey, top turret gunner/flight engineer; M. Sanna and S/Sgt. Fletcher, waist gunners; Wright, ball turret gunner; and J. Stewart, tail gunner.