This story appears elsewhere on the web but I wanted to repeat it here as a reminder of the risks taken,
the hardships endured, and the price sometimes paid by evaders in their attempts to escape to freedom.
in the Pyrenees - The High Cost of Freedom
Warren B Carrah
|This is the story
of seven American aviators who were shot down over occupied France
in 1943. After being supported by numerous helpers throughout France,
the aviators from several different units found themselves together
on the platform of a railway station on the south side of Paris.
They were to complete their dangerous journey home by crossing the
Pyrenees into Spain. Here is their story:
|For many evaders,
the final and most formidable obstacle to their escape from occupied
Europe is scaling the Pyrenean mountains that separate France from
neutral Spain. The hazards are numerous, and in winter the mountain
range can be deadly for the unprepared.
|On 1 Sep 1943, after
months of inactivity and marginal food, Lt Olof M Ballinger and
S/Sgt Francis "Bud" Owens left the countryside of the
Department of Orne, for Paris, and prepared to cross the Pyrenees.
On 21 October 1943, Ballinger and Owens joined five other allied
airmen and seven Frenchmen at a train station in Paris for the trip
south to Toulouse and then St Girons. The other Americans included
Major William T Boren (387BG), 1/Lt Keith W Murray (95BG), 2/Lt
Harold Bailey (379BG), 2/Lt Charles H Hoover (381BG), and T/Sgt
William B Plasket (306BG). Each airman has his own guide for the
train journey; all were female members of the Resistance. The Frenchmen
in the group, all military officers, were risking the trip so they
could join Free French forces in North Africa.
|The climb up the
mountains began on 22 October 1943, the route chosen transiting
the small principality of Andorra before turning southeast towards
their ultimate destination of Barcelona. However, trouble haunted
the expedition from the very beginning. Lt Ballinger found that
his legs would not do what he wanted them to do and he experienced
severe cramping. The group was barely into the foothills of the
Pyrenees at Suc, southeast of St Girons, and Ballinger could go
|Ballinger was instructed
to hide and wait for the guide's return in eight to ten days. Ballinger
spent the next week and a half at a farm near Suc, waiting for the
guide's return. On 29 Oct he was warned that the Gestapo were in
the area and that he had to move. On 30 October, Ballinger decided
to try crossing the mountain range alone without a guide. He had
no compass and so was forced to navigate by the sun and stars. He
eventually reached Spain through Andorra, but he was in poor condition.
He was briefly taken into custody by Spanish authorities and spent
several weeks in Manresa and Barcelona recuperating from his ordeal
before moving on to Gibralter and returning to England on 3 December
|For the remaining
climbers, the going was even more difficult because German sentries
seemed to be everywhere. Climbing for 30 hours, progress was very
slow as the group avoided enemy soldiers which forced them to take
difficult passages through the mountains. As they reached the summit,
a fierce storm struck, bringing bitter cold and deep snow. One of
the Americans could no longer walk and he collapsed in the snow.
He was carried by the others, but the effort was exhausting.
|Shortly after beginning
the descent on the Andorran side of the mountains, two more Americans
fell to the snow-covered ground, utterly drained by their ordeal.
The lack of food and exercise plus the severe cold had drained away
all of their energy. Their feet were frozen due to the disintegration
of their French "ersatz" paper shoes which were hardly
suitable for the wet climb through several feet of snow and sharp
|The guides were
furious at the delays and they went to great lengths to get their
American charges to stand up and move on. At one point a guide pointed
his weapon at one of the airmen and ordered him to get up. The airman
seemed not to hear and the guide fired his pistol next to the head
of the dazed evader. It had no effect. The group had to move on
and they reluctantly left the fallen men and proceeded down the
mountain. Thus no one witnessed the final hours of Lt Bailey, T/Sgt
Plasket or S/Sgt Owens, which probably came on 25 October 1943,
at Port del Rat, Andorra.
|In the spring of
1944, the bodies of the three airmen were discovered by local mountaineers
and buried at Arinsal, Andorra. The remains were exhumed by the
U.S. Army in 1950 and positively identified in June 1951. The family
of S/Sgt Owens elected to have his remains interred at the Ardennes
American Military Cemetery in Belgium, while they simultaneously
celebrated the requiem high mass at their parish church in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania on 1 October 1951. Earlier during the war, the Owens
family was presented with the Soldiers Medal that their son Francis
has earned saving the life of a fellow airman during the bomb loading
accident of 23 June 1943 at Ridgewell Field.
|In the spring of
2006, the Owens family were presented with Bud Owens' dog tag which
had been held by the McConnell family over the years while they
searched for his survivors. Francis Owens left the dog tag with
the Duval family of La Coulonche [Normandy] when he departed for
Paris in September 1943. In 1983, former navigator Paul McConnell
was visiting La Coulonche with his wife Marie and given the dog
tag by the elderly Duval family in the hopes that Francis Owens'
next of kin could be located in America. Despite a concerted effort,
Mr McConnell passed away before he could locate the Owens family.
Warren Carah, son of 42-29928's co-pilot, John M Carah, finally
located the Owens family in the Pittsburgh area in early 2006 and
arranged for the transfer of the artifact. And so, a part of Francis
"Bud" Owens finally returned home some 63 years after
he left to fight for his country in the skies over Europe.
Timeline and Route
from Paris to Barcelona
- November, 1943
|21 Oct 1943: Group,
including the Americans and six French Army and Naval officers, leaves
Paris for Toulouse aboard a train. At Toulouse they are turned over
to a former French Army Captain and are housed in a hardware warehouse.
Bedding consists of a straw over a wooden floor.
|22 Oct 1943: Group
leaves early in the morning, traveling by train to Montsaunès,
Haute-Garonne near St Martory. At Montsaunès the group boards
a bus for St Girons, Ariège where they spend the night at a
|23 Oct 1943: In the
morning, the group takes a bus southeast towards Massat, Ariège.
At Massat, the group leaves the bus and travels on foot to Suc, where
they spend the night in a farmer's barn.
|24 Oct 1943: Upon
waking at the farm in Suc, Lt Olof Ballinger finds his legs will not
function and he is forced to drop out of the escape group. The remainder
of the evadees continue south towards Andorra and climb for 30 hours
to the France-Andorra border at Port del Rat, a pass in the mountains.
The group is forced to pass up a rest cabin in the mountains about
halfway between Suc and the Andorran border when it is discovered
it is already occupied by another group of escapees. The group experiences
very foul weather as they approach the border and Lt Bailey has to
be carried and/or dragged for some eight hours by Sergeants Owens
and Plasket. The group arrives at Port del Rat in the evening near
dark and in a fog. Several evadees collapse from exhaustion including
Lt Bailey, T/Sgt Plasket and S/Sgt Owens. All efforts to stimulate
the men to continue traveling are futile; Bailey and Plasket are unconscious
and Owens cannot control his limbs. The incapacitated men are left
in the snow and the group continues on down the slope. One guide leaves
the group at this point and returns to France. The remaining guide,
Emile Delpy, stays with the evaders until they reach a hotel in El
Serrat, Andorra. M Delpy is an employee of British Intelligence and
not a member of the usual French Resistance networks that work in
|25 Oct 1943: After
traveling several hours down the mountain from Port del Rat, the remaining
members of the group locate a sheepherder's stone shack and are able
to start a fire and warm themselves and get a few hours of sleep.
The French officers with the group, who are in excellent condition,
and guide Emile Delpy, go out to search for food and see if they can
find the fallen Americans at Port del Rat and return them to the shelter.
It appears their efforts were not successful and the French officers
stay at another cabin further down the slope for the remainder of
the night. Later in the day the groups rejoin and they walk to the
village of El Serrat, Andorra. At this village they stay at a hotel
for the night and are provided taxi transport to Andorra City the
|26-27 Oct 1943: At
Andorra City the group catches a bus to the Spanish frontier and then
takes a series of cars and busses to the southeast towards Barcelona.
The escape group is supported by British SOE agents.
|28 Oct 1943: Main
escape group arrives in Barcelona. Americans are hosted at the British
Consulate. The French members are processed through the French Red
|30 October 1943: Lt
Ballinger leaves Suc, Ariège, turns south, and starts climb
over Pyrenees alone after the guide fails to return. He has no compass
or map and relies on sun and stars for navigation.
|31 Oct 1943: Lt Ballinger
passes through Andorra City and reaches St Julia de Leria where he
spends two days to rest.
|2 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger
leaves St Julia de Leria with two Spanish guides.
|3 Nov 1943: Main group
of evadees who arrive at Barcelona on the 28 October are returned
to England from Gibralter.
|6 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger
arrives in Gironelli, just south of Berga, Catalonia.
|8 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger
arrives in Manresa and is jailed by local police. Later in the day
he is driven to Barcelona; He is exhausted and requires medical care.
He is released to the custody of the British Consulate.
|9 Nov to 26 Nov 1943:
Lt Ballinger rests in Barcelona and Alamer (location unknown).
|27 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger
drives to Madrid with a Major Clark and boards a train for Gibralter.
|28 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger
departs from Gibralter for England via British aircraft.
Army Air Forces Participants - Biographical Sketches
William T Boren, Pilot - 559 Bomb Squadron, 387 Bomb Group.
Major Boren was the commanding officer of the 559 Bomb Squadron,
a medium bomber unit equipped with Martin B-26 Marauder aircraft
based at Chipping-Ongar, England. On 21 September 1943, Major Boren,
flying aircraft 41-31721 "Cactus Jack", flew a mission
against the Beauvais/Tille airfield in Normandy. His aircraft was
shot down by heavy flak. He and one other crewman evaded; all of
the rest were captured. During his evasion he stayed in the town
of Clermont before moving to Paris to join the escape group. After
his repatriation to the U.S. in November, 1943, he was promoted
to Lt/Colonel and assigned to the Headquarters Squadron of the 29
Bomb Group based at Pratt Field, Kansas. While on a training exercise
in preparation to a move to a forward bombing base in Guam, Lt/Col
Boren's B-29 aircraft went missing off the coast of Florida on 8
January 1945. No wreckage or crew remains were ever recovered. Colonel
Boren was born on 12 March 1917 in Snyder, Scurry County, Texas.
He had two brothers who also served in combat during WW-II.
Olof M Ballinger, Pilot - 533 Bomb Squadron, 381 Bomb Group. Lt
Ballinger was an original member of the 381 Bomb Group based at Ridgewell
Field, Essex, England. On 4 July 1943 his B-17 42-29928 was shot down
by enemy fighters at La Coulonche, Orne, Normandy in conjunction with
a raid on the Gnome-Rhone aero engine factory at Le Mans. Lt Ballinger
successfully evaded and spent most of his time with fellow crew member
S/Sgt Francis E Owens in and around St Opportune and Domfront, Orne.
Lt Ballinger left Orne for Paris on 1 Sep 1943. Lt Ballinger was born
in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1919 and grew up in Newton Falls, Ohio.
After repatriation to the U.S. in December 1943, Lt Ballinger was
assigned as a pilot instructor on B-24 bomber aircraft and also trained
on radar bombing and gunnery in B-29 aircraft. He was promoted to
captain in 1944 and was posted to California where he met his future
wife, Marie Bateman. After the war Mr Ballinger worked in the retail
automobile industry and started to develop a children's amusement
park in the San Francisco Bay area. He was killed in an auto accident
in 1955 and is interred at Golden Gate National Cemetery.
Keith W Murray, Bombardier - 335 Bomb Squadron, 95 Bomb Group.
Lt Murray was participating on a mission to bomb Stuttgart when his
aircraft was shot down on 6 September 1943 near Paris. Lt Murray was
one of the first three combat officers assigned to the 95 Bomb Group
in 1942. Lt Murray was seriously injured when he bailed out of his
aircraft and had a very difficult time moving for any distance. After
several days of avoiding numerous German patrols, Lt Murray met up
with the Resistance who took him to Paris where he stayed in the home
of a cabaret owner who was also sheltering 2/Lt Charles H Hoover.
Lt Murray joined the others for the escape to Spain on the 21 October
1943. After returning to England in November 1943, he visited his
old unit at Horam and then returned to the U.S. where he performed
training duties for the remainder of the war. Mr Murray, age 87, is
living in retirement near Dallas, Texas.
Charles H Hoover, Pilot - 535 Bomb Squadron, 381 Bomb Group. Lt
Hoover was a part of the Benjamin Zum crew that arrived at Ridgewell
Field in August 1943 as a replacement bomber crew. On his 4th mission
to Romilly, France, on 3 September 1943, Lt Hoover's aircraft "Big
Time Operator", was shot down. He bailed out and landed in Belgium.
He made his way to Paris where he was joined by Lt Keith Murray. Lt
Hoover was born on 14 February 1916 and was from Reno, Nevada. He
enlisted in the Army Air Force on 14 Jul 1941 and commissioned in
June 1943. Mr Hoover returned to Reno after the war and died there
in January 1987.
Harold B Bailey, Navigator - 526 Bomb Squadron, 379 Bomb Group.
Lt Bailey was participating in a mission to bomb the Le Bourget Air
Field near Paris on 16 August 1943, when his aircraft was severely
damaged by flak. The aircraft, 42-5827 (LF-Y) "Lakanuki",
was thought to be going down when Lt Bailey bailed out over Paris.
However the pilot of the aircraft, 1/Lt Sam P Satariano, managed to
regain control and the battered plane successfully returned to England,
albeit without Bailey. Born on 14 May 1921 at Lancaster Co., South
Carolina, Bailey was one of the three evaders who perished in the
Pyrenees on or about 25 October 1943. 2/Lt Harold B Bailey is interred
at Lancaster Memorial Park.
William B Plasket, Radio Operator - 368 Bomb Squadron, 306 Bomb
Group. Sgt Plasket, a native of Salem, New Jersey, was participating
in the Stuttgart raid of 6 September 1943 when his B-17 aircraft,
42-30163, ran out of fuel over Normandy, just short of the English
Channel. The aircraft crash landed near Rouen. Shortly after he bailed
out, Sgt Plasket was conveyed to Paris by the Underground. Sgt Plasket
graduated from Salem (NJ) High School in 1937 and was a college student
at the Univeristy of Alabama when the war broke out. He enlisted on
12 Dec 1941. He received his radio operator training at Scott Field,
Illinois and also attended bombing and gunnery schools. He shipped
overseas to his station in Thurleigh, England in August 1942. T/Sgt
William B Plasket perished in the Pyrenees on or about 25 October
Francis E Owens, Waist Gunner - 533 Bomb Squadron, 381 Bomb
Group. Sgt Owens was in the same aircraft as Lt Ballinger when they
were shot down on 4 July 1943. Prior to this mission, Owens had
been cited for saving the life of a ground crewman during a bomb
loading accident at Ridgewell Field on 23 June 1943. He was awarded
the Soldiers Medal for that effort. Sgt Owens spent most of his
evasion time with his commander Lt Olof Ballinger in and around
Orne, Normandy. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, S/Sgt
Francis E Owens lost his life at Port del Rat, Andorra on or about
25 Oct 1943.
2008 by Warren B. Carah
assembled from Escape & Evasion Reports, IDPF reports, and personal
interviews with escape participants and survivors of the deceased
|Warren is the son
of 2/Lt John M Carah, Co-pilot of Olof Ballinger's B-17, who also
evaded successfully, first to Switzerland in August and then across
the Pyrenees to Figueras and Barcelona in March 1944. I should like
to add these comments received from Warren during our email exchanges
prior to this posting.
|S/Sgt Francis Owens
was one of the bravest men I have ever researched. Earlier in the
war he was decorated for saving the life of a fellow airmen when he
dashed out and dragged a wounded man away from a bomb loading accident
scene with explosions going off everywhere. Later during the bomb
run on Le Mans that saw his plane being shot to pieces, Owens went
forward to the radio room and dragged out an unconscious fellow crewman
and then dragged him the length of the plane to the rear door, pulled
the parachute release, and pushed him out to insure he would not go
down with the plane. It was only then that Owens put on his own parachute
and left the plane. Owens was never officially recognized for that
effort, but his family now knows, as does the family of the radioman
|There is only one
person still living that was a part of the original escape group that
went over the Pyrenees in October 1943. He still harbors a feeling
of guilt for not being able to save the three airmen who died of exposure.
I believe my research, showing that there was little that could have
been be done, has helped him with his feelings, but I can tell this
was a defining moment in his life which he can never forget.