Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.
Escape and evasion files are firsthand accounts of a military personnel’s escape from behind enemy lines. In World War II, thousands of U.S. troops crashed in Nazi territory and had to evade capture or escape from German prisons. The National Archives recently digitized 2,953 firsthand accounts of escape and evasion during the war.
Each account reads like a Hollywood script, and although each is a gripping tale of perseverance, there are some that stand out as truly remarkable. We here at POH have summarized and linked our 10 favorite tales, including emergency landings into soccer games, fake Nazi salutes, and Boy Scout disguises.
2nd Lt. John Dunbar – It was the Fourth of July in 1943 when Dunbar’s plane was shot out of the sky over La Pallice, France. After receiving assistance from local Frenchmen in the German-occupied territory he marched for 18 days through France dressed as a peasant. For five of those days he had no food. For the rest, he survived off beer and scraps of food that had fallen off carts along the road. Three weeks later he crossed the Pyrenees mountains on foot into Spain, where he was captured by the Guardia Civil and later released.
Sgt. William Davidson was taken prisoner after becoming lost in the woods near St. Die, Germany, on October 25, 1944. A Nazi patrol captured him and interrogated him and were moving him to the rear when artillery struck nearby and he escaped. He headed south toward Switzerland. Three weeks later he arrived at the Swiss border, where a Swiss soldier put him in a cell block with 60 German officers. When he was identified as an American, he was removed and eventually asked if he wanted to stay in Switzerland or return to his unit. He asked to be returned to duty and was released at the Swiss border, one month after his initial capture.
Maj. Donald Willis crash-landed his P-38 in the middle of a Dutch soccer game, scattering 500 players and spectators in German-occupied Holland. He immediately disembarked the plane, stole a bicycle, donned a stolen jacket, and started riding toward a German patrol with a group of other bikers. Days later, after sleeping in barns and haystacks, he accidentally wandered into a German anti-aircraft battery and was sent away, mistaken as a civilian on his way into friendly territory. Later, he entered a bar in Antwerp and ordered a Bock beer. “The few people in the cafe paid no attention to me,” he writes, “but the Belgian who gave me the beer guessed my identity.” The bartender took him to a back room and fed him. “Just as I was leaving the Belgian brushed off some straw that was clinging to the back of my coat and smiled while doing it.” At Broom the only way to cross into safe territory was to cross a German-controlled bridge. He watched workers moving back and forth, carrying heavy poles for much of the day, and after the German guards tired of their presence, Major Willis tailed onto the back of one of the crews and crossed the bridge with them. He was rescued soon after.
Anonymous – Buried within Major Willis’s escape and evasion account is the tale of another soldier who may have escaped the clutches of the German military. Willis writes:
“During my evasion while I was living in a large Belgian city I watched a . . . B-17 catch fire and leave formation. Soon after that several parachutes opened above the city and one floated down into the section of town where I was. I had a good view of it and watched this parachutist land in the walled-in garden of a house. Just as he touched the ground a German motorcyclist stopped in front of the house and ran around to clamber over the garden wall at the back. When the German got into the garden the American burst through the front door of the house and hopped on the German’s motorcycle and tore off down the street blowing his horn as loud as he could and cheered on by the Belgian people.”
2nd Lt. Jack E. Ryan was co-pilot of a bomber on a mission to Le Bourget airdrome near Paris on August 16, 1943, when the plane was attacked by a German Me 109F. The order to bail out was given at 18,000 feet. As Ryan parachuted down, he saw the scattered pieces of the bomber burning on the ground and the fighter passed so close to him that he thought “he was going to take my chute with wing tips.” A French family saw him on the ground and urged him to hide. Five minutes later, two Germans arrived and offered candy and tobacco to the group of children that had gathered, rewards for finding the American parachutist. Even though the searchers came with 10 feet of Ryan, he was undetected and remained hidden in his brush-covered hole for four hours. He then encountered French Resistance agents who guided him to a safe farm. There Ryan met his bombardier, 2nd Lt. Wayne Rader. Rader’s own escape from the burning plane had been far more dramatic than Ryan’s: “Did not jump. Was trapped in plane in a spin. Plane spun down 10000 feet and exploded. Was blown from plane by force of explosion through the nose. Blacked out for a few seconds but came to in time to open parachute.” The rest of the crew were either killed or taken as prisoners of war. After six weeks at the farm, they were taken to Paris and given false papers. They then proceeded to the coast of Brittany, where they and a larger group of Allied fliers were put on fishing boats bound for England.
Sgt. Richard C. Hamilton’s file combines his report with his crewmate Sgt. Rudolph Cutino. Their bomber was attacked on February 11, 1944, as it was returning to England after a bombing raid over Frankfurt. Hamilton, the ball turret gunner, stated that he “was last out of fuselage. Opened chute at once.” Upon landing near Amiens, a couple of Frenchmen hid him, but two Germans found him and took him to a shack. Hamilton tripped one and hit the other in the cheek and dove through a row of trees, where the Frenchmen were waiting for him. After staying in a safe barn for a few days, Cutino, the bomber’s right waist gunner, arrived. Five days later, three more crew members—Sgt. Thomas Glennan (left waist gunner), Sgt. Abe Helfgott (radio operator), and Lt. Philemon Wright (navigator)—were brought in. All the Americans were taken to Paris, where they got false papers and met the pilot of their plane, 2nd Lt. Robert Laux. All the crew had gotten out of the plane by parachute. Six of the 10 successfully made it back to England. After a train ride to Quimper in Brittany, they (along with other Americans and Canadians) were taken to the coast and put on boats bound for England.
2nd Lt. Robert Laux – Laux’s own report contains some amazing close calls for the downed pilot. After getting some civilian clothes from a friendly French woodcutter, he headed south down a road, thinking to escape through Spain. Along the way, a “German motorcyclist stopped, raised his hand, and shouted ‘Halt!’ I thought he was saluting me, so I gave him the Hitler salute back. A number of truckloads of Germans passed, and I saluted all of them. They returned my salute.” That wasn’t his last encounter with German forces in France. The next day, he set out and as he was looking at road signs at a crossroads, “a German staff car full of heavily armed MP’s pulled up. I was still carrying my flight jacket to use at night. I thought to myself, ‘Here goes,’ and walked right on. A German got out of the car, motioned to me to come over, and said in French something I did not understand. I looked dumb. He repeated slowly with gestures asking whether to go this way or that. I pointed down the road and the car drove off.” After this lucky break, a woman at the next house took him in, and the rest of his journey back to England was arranged.
S/Sgt. William Howell was a tail gunner in 533rd bomb squad when his plane was attacked by Germans and there was an explosion in the plane. Although his oxygen was cut off, he continued to fire at the enemy planes before bailing out and tearing open his parachute with his hands. He was hit several times in the hand, leg, and head. He heard the plane crash and explode. Howell landed in the woods, and “borrowed a couple of the fox’s ideas” from his hunting experience in North Carolina. He evaded several Germans in the woods and even slept behind a sentry at one point. Howell was eventually taken in by a couple whose son had been a soldier in the French army in 1939. The son got Howell “pretty high” on cognac and then “pulled a lot of metal” from the wounded soldier. Howell spent the rest of his stay disguised as a boy scout and sleeping in a pup tent, listening to the wild boar snuffling around at night. His escape was arranged, and during the journey Howell was treated by a doctor and anesthetized to have metal removed from his head. He continued onward and managed to cross through the Pyrenees on his third attempt. Once in Spain, he notes he ate a banana and concluded that “Once I got warm things did not seem bad at all.” The story of Howell’s pilot, 1st Lt. Olof Ballinger, is also included in the files. He details the fates of the rest of Howell’s crew.
Sgt. Elton Kevil, a waist gunner in the 365th squadron, was on a bombing run to Bremen. They were looking for their escort of P-47s when they were joined by two planes with USAAF insignia on the sign. Kevil thought that the planes seemed to be the awaited escort—but he noticed they did not “tip up” their wings. Less than a minute later, these German decoys shot past the plane and attacked it, and the crew had to crash land the damaged plane. The crew survived the landing, and after the navigator burned their documents, split up into pairs. Kevil and his partner spent three days hiding and watching a bridge before they were able to evade the guards and cross. Eventually they were able to get assistance from a Dutchman, and later crossed the Pyrenees and escaped.
2nd Lt. Eugene Squier was on his way to bomb a railroad bridge at Nantes when his plane was attacked. He parachuted to safety. Squier was taken in by an old farming couple, who hid him in a chicken coop for six days before passing him to another man, who had recently assisted and sent on Squier’s other six crew members. Squier was forced to remain behind for the next three weeks. Meanwhile, the Americans took the nearby town of Rennes. Afterward, as the American vehicles rolled through Squier’s host town, he tried to make contact, but he was unsuccessful, since the vehicles were going too fast and he was wearing civilian clothes. But the next day, 11 Germans were looking for an officer to surrender to, and Squier found himself persuading them that he was in fact an American officer. The next day, Squier contacted an American colonel, who lent Squier a reconnaissance car. Squier drove back to the original farmer who had sheltered him and retrieved his uniform. Then he drove back to the village where had been staying, where he was received by the mayor and celebrated with the townspeople.
Almost all his crew successfully evaded captured: pilot Lt. Col George Stalnaker, Capt. Edgar Williams, flight navigator 1st Lt. Jim Clark, bombadier 1st Lt. Francis Murphy, radio gunner T/Sgt. Richard Smith, and gunner S/Sgt. Stanley Miller.