Originally written only for his family, I have posted Ken Williams' story in full, apart from a few paragraphs near the end, because it is just so full of fascinating detail ...
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on 7 December 1941, I was a second year engineering student at Purdue University. The following mid-January, when registering for the second semester, I spotted an Army Air Corp recruiting table near the entrance of the registration building. It had been one month since war had been declared and the entire nation was caught up in a patriotic fever. I had a private pilots license since I was sixteen years old so felt that I should volunteer. I was nineteen years old and the draft at the time was for twenty-one year olds. Also, engineering students with a 3.0 average or better were draft exempt. So, I was certainly not joining the Army Air Corps to avoid the draft but did it because I was outraged. I was not alone in this, most all other Americans felt the same. I went to the recruiting table and volunteered. I passed the physical and written exams so tore up my class registration cards. I was then was told to go home and wait until I was called. There were not enough training facilities available to accommodate all the new volunteers. I worked as a junior draftsman in Cleveland until I was sworn in as an Aviation Cadet on 30 March 1942 and sent to Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas. Much to our chagrin, instead of starting our flight training, we were placed in a labor force to clear land, dig ditches and to build the new Army Air Corp Reception Center. We were not even issued uniforms, just two flight suits and a cap. My flight suits were at least a size 48, the crotch reaching almost to my knees. Initially, we were not even issued shoes or boots, I wore my civilian "Saddle Shoes" while digging ditches. We lived in tents and spent the next three months on the working end of a shovel under a blazing Texas sun. We were a very disillusioned bunch. The only consolation was, that as Aviation Cadets, we were paid seventy-five dollars a month vs. the twenty-one dollars a month paid to other recruits. Finally, on 4 July 1942, I was sent to Primary Flying School at Ballinger, Texas. From there to Basic Flying School at Waco, Texas and then on to Advanced Flying School at Eagle Pass, Texas.
I graduated from flying school, Class 43-B, at Eagle Pass, Texas on 15 February 1943. From a class of 120, I was one of the eight happy Second Lieutenants assigned to fighter training, reporting immediately to Richmond, Virginia. There we flew our first fighters, P-40s [Curtiss P-40 Warhawk] and the then new P-47-Cs. On 29 March 1943, I was assigned to the 354th Fighter Squadron, 355th Fighter Group at Philadelphia flying P-47-Cs, affectionately known as "The Jug" due to its shape. There we flew interception patrols and did air-to-air gunnery training off the coast of Atlantic City. On 29 June 1943, we sailed on the Queen Elizabeth for England. We arrived at Steeple Morten, England in early July 1943. We flew P-47-D Thunderbolts until January 1944 when we switched to old P-51-B Mustangs. Up until this time, we had done a few dive bombing missions but we had primarily flown bomber escort missions. However, if we had enough fuel after escorting the bombers and had no enemy air opposition, we could go down on the deck and look for targets of opportunity on our way home.
The Luftwaffe, in the hope of conserving its fighter strength to help repel the coming invasion of Europe, were refusing to give battle except under the most favorable of circumstances. Yet, the alarming numbers of Luftwaffe fighters had to be destroyed before D-Day which had been set for early June 1944. So, if they were not to be found in the air, then they would have to be sought out and destroyed on the ground. Colonel Glenn Duncan, Commanding Officer of the 353rd Fighter Group, suggested to Major General William Kepner, Commanding General of the 8th Fighter Command, that sixteen volunteer pilots be given special intensive training in the art of ground strafing. The concept was approved. Under Col. Duncan, the unit was irreverently called "Bills Buzz Boys", Bill being General William Kepner. The new squadron was to be comprised of volunteers from four different fighter groups. I decided to volunteer because the P-51-Bs that we had received were old aircraft with many problems and they only had four guns vs eight in the P-47s. Also, I had just lost my buddy because the wings of his P-51 had folded as he was pulling out of a dive following a Me-109. Naturally, as soon as I volunteered, we were issued new model P-51-Ds that were great and had six guns. In February 1944, I was one of the sixteen volunteers selected to fly with Col. Duncan. The goal was to destroy as many German aircraft as possible. We flew specially equipped P-47s. Instead of the original Curtis Electric propeller, we had Hamilton Standard paddle-blade propellers to provide greater speed and rate of climb, electric bomb releases vs. manual lanyards for better bombing accuracy and API (Armor Piercing Incendiary) ammunition for better fire power. We were attached to the 353rd Fighter Group located near Metfield. The 353rd was also commanded by Col. Duncan but we flew as an independent squadron. Col. Duncan would take us out in flights of four to practice navigation while flying on the deck. If we pulled up over trees when we could have cocked a wing and gone between the trees, you would be sure to hear from him. As we flew around the British countryside learning to navigate at near zero altitude, we must have upset many cows, horses, and probably their owners. The missions that we were being trained for was to fly a horseshoe shaped pattern deep into Europe. The route would include as many known German airfields as possible. We were to fly at about 12,000 feet so as to be able to see any airfield activity and still be above the range of small arms fire. If we spotted any activity on an airfield, we would continue on for about twenty miles until out of visual range. Col. Duncan would then dispatch a flight of four back to attack the target. At that point, the squadron would be flying away from the target. The attacking flight would then roll over on its back and do a split "S" back to the target. We would pull out just above the ground at full throttle, hug the ground, and in excess of 400 mph, navigate back on the deck to attack the target. The idea was to gain an element of surprise. In addition, the hope was that flying close to the ground, we would give the enemy gunners less time to identify, aim and shoot at us. Also, flying close to the ground while crossing the center of a German airfield, the airdrome perimeter defenders might hit each other when shooting at us. If we lost the element of surprise and came under fire prior to reaching the target, we were to break off the attack, split into pairs and fly around the airfield to attack another day. In the month of March 1944, in eight missions, Bill's Buzz Boys lost two pilots, plus myself missing in action, 3 P-47s, and 13 P-47s damaged. For these losses, the squadron claimed 14 enemy aircraft destroyed, 6 probably destroyed, 14 damaged on the ground, 17 locomotives, 1 boat, 1 hanger and strafed nine flak towers. We successfully changed the Luftwaffe's policy of conserving planes. No longer could they keep them on the ground and use them only when it was to their advantage. From then on, the Luftwaffe would either have to come up and fight in the air, where it could be mastered, or be destroyed on the ground by roving Allied fighters.
On Sunday, 26 March 1944, I was a First Lieutenant and had just been recommended for promotion to Captain. This was to be my 64th mission. Our mission that day was to fly deep into south-central France. We were to find and shoot up as many German airfields as we could find. As this was a maximum range mission, we would carry a 108 gallon drop tank to extend our range. We departed our base at the first crack of dawn to fly to a Spitfire base in southern England to top off our fuel tanks. This was necessary in order to provide the maximum range required for this mission. The belly drop tanks had only about a 3" ground clearance and the main wheels of the P-47 are wide apart. The Spitfire base was a grass field and not perfectly level. Guess what! Straddling small knolls while landing, the drop tanks on four of the sixteen of our aircraft bumped the ground. They were jostled just enough on the racks to break the glass feed tube. The feed tube was glass so that when you dropped the tank in flight, the tank would break cleanly away from the airplane. A broken feed tube would prevent the fuel in the drop tank from being utilized. Naturally, the Spitfire base did not have replacement feeder tubes for our P-47s. My aircraft and the aircraft of the number four man in my flight had broken tubes. As flight leader, I took my wingman's undamaged aircraft and sent him back to our base in my P-47, "Hell's Angels II". He went back with the other three disabled birds. The element leader in my original flight now became my wing man. As a flight leader, I now was leading a flight of two planes instead of four.
It was about eight am when we finally departed the British base for our mission into France. We were flying at 12,000 feet and about 125 miles south of Paris, between Tours and La Chartre. There we spotted the German airfield called Chateaudun. We could see aircraft and activity on the ground. After we had flown on out of sight of the airfield, Col. Duncan ordered Red Flight (mine) down to attack. So Al (Stud) Star, my wingman, and I rolled over and down we went at full throttle hugging the ground back to Chateaudun. As we approached the airfield I could see the ground around us being kicked up by enemy fire. The rule was that if we did not have the element of surprise, we would break off the attack and fly around the target. As we obviously lacked surprise, I called "No Joy, Break Left". I started to roll away and saw that my wingman was continuing on. He was known for not listening to his radio. The theory was, that when attacking an airfield with four aircraft, each aircraft would absorb 25% of the defensive fire power thus increasing the individual survivability odds. So with that concept in mind, to help Stud, I rolled back onto the target to help absorb some of the defensive fire power. As I approached the near edge of the field, I saw a He 111 (a twin engine bomber) being serviced by a refueling truck. One quick burst of API ammo and they both blew up in my face. It was like flying into a brick wall. As I came out of the other side of the explosion, my engine had stopped and the canopy was covered with oil. Instinctively, I pulled straight up. That was a wrong move. I was going straight up right in the center of the airdrome. This let every perimeter defense gun shoot at me. With no engine noise, I could hear and feel my plane being hit. One shell came over my shoulder through the canopy and shattered the instrument panel. Shrapnel hit my knees and hand. I kicked the plane over to get out of the heavy fire that I was receiving and back to hugging the ground. I could only see through the lower left corner of the canopy due to the oil covering it. With the engine out, I was just coasting from the speed of my dive. At this point, I was probably a couple of miles beyond the airfield and hugging the ground. I hit the mike button and said "Red Leader here, I have had it and going in". I later learned that the squadron had heard my call and the one that I had earlier made to Stud. At about this time my left wing was blown off, probably by an 88mm in a flak tower. With the loss of the left wing, the right wing, due to its lift, rolled the aircraft 270 degrees. The right wing then hit the ground breaking it off. The plane flipped on its nose tearing the engine off. Just the fuselage, with me in it, bounced across a field ending up on its side. I survived only because I had crashed in a soft recently plowed field in a P-47, the most rugged aircraft of its time. By instinct, I reached to simultaneously push the two red buttons to blow up the IFF (Identification-Friend-or-Foe) radio to prevent its use by the Germans. There was no noise of a detonation. The impact of the crash had probably already detonated it. Next, I reached for the thermal bomb to burn the airplane. It was about the size of a spray can of paint and in a clip on the side of the cockpit. I removed the cover, struck the ignitor and threw it down in the cockpit. Why I was taking time to try to burn this wreckage I'll never know. I was just reacting by instinct to the things that I had been trained or told to do. All of this took place in a split second. I unbuckled my harness and parachute and crawled out. Taking a quick look around, I started running across the plowed field away from the German air base. When I couldn't run any more, I threw myself down into a recently plowed furrow to get my breath. It was then that I realized that I was still wearing my bright yellow "Mae West" life vest. What a target! I quickly buried it in the soft dirt and took off again running toward some woods. As I approached the wooded area I saw that it was on the other side of a small stream. Half swimming, half wading, I crossed the stream into the woods. Wet and exhausted, I threw myself on the ground. About this time I heard aircraft and looking up saw that it was my squadron circling back to see what had happened. I later learned that they had spotted the wreckage of my plane and concluded that there was little chance of my survival. Based on their report, the letter sent to my parents by the chaplain was not an encouraging one. However, I was officially listed as "Missing in Action". By now, it was about nine o'clock Sunday morning. As my buddies flew away and eventually back to England, I suddenly felt so terribly alone. What now?
I did not have to wait long. I soon heard German search parties so I started moving away from the airfield, staying along the stream and in the woods. I heard some shooting and assumed they were trying to scare me out of hiding. It scared me all right, but only to make me continue to move on as fast as I could. This went on until mid-afternoon and I was running out of energy. I stopped to explore the contents of my escape kit. The escape kit was in a pocket that had been sewn inside my leather flight jacket. Among the items in the kit were silk maps, a tiny compass (that I still have), malt energy tablets, pep pills, French money, four passport pictures, and a French phrase card. I ate a malt energy tablet and pushed on. By late afternoon I finally ran out of adrenaline and had to stop I found a hiding place and decided that a pep pill might help. Soon after taking the pill, I passed out. I found out later that the pep pills knocked out about 10% of people using them. For me, it definitely did not work as an upper. Luckily, the Germans did not find me. I woke up very early the next morning to find myself cold and miserable. A wet snow had fallen over night and I was still damp from crossing the stream the day before. I was so stiff and sore that I could hardly move. For the first time I realized that I had been hurt. My back and shoulders hurt, probably from the shoulder harness restraining me during the crash. My forehead had a big lump and bleeding from bouncing off the gun sight. My hand and legs hurt from shrapnel wounds. All in all I felt miserable and scared. I had no idea what to do next. I even thought about trying to find my way back to the airfield and steal an airplane. As desperate as I was, I had to admit to myself what a long shot that would be. I just stayed where I was for some time trying to get warm. Pretty soon I heard the German search parties. Time to move on.
A sidelight here. I was injured in an auto accident in 1999. While in the hospital, to determine the full extent of my injuries, they did a complete body Cat Scan. Interestingly enough, the Cat Scan showed two old injuries, one on each side of my neck. These injuries had to have come from the shoulder straps restraining me during the crash in France. No wonder that I was hurting so.
So all that second day the game of Hide-Go-Seek continued. At the end of this second day, just before dark, tired, hungry, cold, and hurting, I found myself in a marsh. I found a path that was like a ridge running above the marsh area. I decided to follow it and almost immediately heard voices. I left the path and hid in the bushes. Soon, I saw three women walking along a path in the woods. Two were older ladies and the third was a young lady in her twenties. We had been taught in Escape-Evasion classes to only approach a single person for help. The reasoning was that when approaching two or more people, though they each might individually be willing to help, each might be reluctant to do so for fear that one of the others might turn them in. I was too desperate to worry about that possibility and had no fear of being overpowered by them. I stepped out onto the path and frightened them half to death. Having had only two years of high school French, I used the French phrase card from the escape kit to ask for help. The younger woman, looking at the card, immediately started to scold me in perfect English. She had read the statement "Do Not Display In Public" printed across the bottom of the card. I was embarrassed but relieved to find someone who could speak English. I asked her for help. She turned to the two elderly ladies and began to speak to them in French. It was obvious that they were frightened. Finally she turned to me and explained the circumstances. The two older ladies were her aunts. One of the aunts had just lost her husband. The young niece, I later learned, was named Suzanne Mathieu and was there from Paris for her uncle's funeral. She finally convinced her two frightened aunts to allow me to go to their home but they appeared very apprehensive. The Germans had already searched their village twice looking for me. Suzanne told me to follow them at a discreet distance. If anyone was to appear, I was to get off the path and hide. So off we started on the short walk to the village of Tre Marboue. It was dusk and soon to be dark. As we approached the village, here came a woman pushing a baby carriage. I left the path to hide and wait while they all had a conversation. It seemed like forever. Finally the woman with the carriage moved on. I was worried that I had lost my new friends so hurried the best I could to catch them. I soon found them moving slowly on. They then entered their house and motioned me to come in.
Once safely in their house, the two aunts became very solicitous of me. Neither one of them could speak English. They helped me out of some of my damp and dirty clothes. I was wearing my leather A-2 flight jacket and had a flight suit over my Forest Green wool shirt and Officer Pink pants. I also was wearing British escape boots. The boots were European style oxford shoes with attached sheepskin lined uppers. The upper portion could be removed by cutting the stitches. That night, with a borrowed knife, I cut the stitches. Now with the tops removed, I had ordinary European styled street shoes. After I removed the boots, jacket and flight suit, they could see my bloody pant legs. The ladies became concerned and asked me to remove my trousers to look at my wounds. The wounds looked worse than they really were. But one of the ladies left and returned with a doctor. They cleaned up my legs and hand and washed the dried blood from the lump on my head. Since the Germans were still searching for me, Suzanne said that we must leave by train for Paris early the next morning. I needed civilian clothes so the aunts altered some clothes for me that had belonged to the deceased uncle. I was to wear a beret and an old suit over my own pants and shirt. Why I wanted to keep my uniform on, I don't know. Perhaps I was thinking that I would need warm clothing to wear while crossing the Pyrenees mountains. We had been briefed in Escape-Evasion classes that this was the usual escape route for allied airmen from occupied France into Spain. I left my flight suit and leather jacket for the women to dispose of. I took off my flying school class ring and crash bracelet and with a pin that they gave me, fastened the ring and bracelet to my underwear. While all of this was going on, I was given some food. It was a short night. When they woke me it was still dark. After getting dressed and having something to eat, Suzanne and I were ready to leave for the train station. I tried to thank the two ladies and offered them some Francs from the escape kit. They would not accept the money, I think that they just wanted me out of there.
Suzanne and I walked to the Marboue train station arriving just as it was showing first light. She bought two third class tickets and gave me one. She had told me not to act like we were travelling together, to keep a distance but in sight. Of course the train was late. Allied aircraft were disrupting rail traffic more and more. As we waited, it began to get daylight and other people were arriving at the station. I kept moving around the platform avoiding people. I did not want anyone to try to start a conversation with me. Each minute seemed like an hour before the train finally arrived. We boarded the third class coach and sat on long wooden benches. It was about 125 miles to Paris.
I have to deviate here. Remember my escape boots, now oxfords? Back at our base we had them half-soled so they would be rugged enough for the long hike out over the Pyrenees Mountains, the usual escape route from France. The half -soles were a rubber composition just like those on GI boots. Across the edge of the half-sole toward the heel was molded the words "US Army". Now back to the story.
Besides Suzanne, there were only a few other passengers in the coach. My legs were hurting so I put my legs up on the bench. Soon I noticed a woman trying to get my attention. She was indicating to me to put my feet down. I was a little puzzled why my feet weren't allowed on a wooden bench. I looked at them and then realized she was alerting me to the "US Army" on the soles of my shoes. Needless to say, my feet were firmly planted on the floor for the balance of the trip. We finally arrived in Paris at around noon.
Suzanne had briefed me before we had left Marboue on what to expect and how to act upon reaching Paris. Since I had no identification papers, I should try to enter the passenger area of the station mixed in with as large a group as possible. The Germans were not checking everyone but I was to try to be as inconspicuous as possible. She was to go ahead to buy Metro tickets, walk back and give me a ticket. I was to follow her at a distance, sit near her on the Metro, get off when she did and follow her to her apartment. Following this plan, I joined in with a group of people and successfully entered the station. It was huge, like Grand Central Station in New York City. It was packed with both civilians and German troops. I could not find Suzanne in the crowd. My knees became weak from fright. I felt that if I could not sit down, I would fall down. The benches were all full and there was no place to sit down. I was terrified. What do I do? Where should I go? After what seemed an eternity and fighting panic, I finally spotted her. I don't know what I would have done or what would have happened had I not found her. She came up and slipped me a ticket (I still have the ticket stub). We got on the Metro and I took a seat a couple of rows behind her. Before we left the station, a stout German female soldier took the aisle seat beside me. Near panic again, especially when I had to crawl over her to get off. We arrived at the apartment without incident. I was surprised at the apartment building. It was at least upper middle class. I later found out that some German staff officers and their families were living in the building. Suzanne's apartment was small and on the third floor. She had brought some food with her from Marboue. We had something to eat and then she left to shop for food and I later learned to make some phone calls. I was exhausted and immediately fell asleep.
We soon fell into a routine. Suzanne would go out each morning to shop for food while I would try to exercise and flex my legs. Food was severely rationed and the two of us shared what food Suzanne could find with her single ration card. She always insisted on giving me the largest portions. She was able to get me a wooden handled tooth brush, an aluminium container of tooth paste, a safety razor and a packet of Gillette Blue Blade razor blades (I still have them all). My 22nd birthday occurred a couple of days after our arrival in Paris. Suzanne made me a cake. It was made from unbleached flour, no baking soda, no icing. It was about the size of a pancake and not much thicker and it had a match for a candle. I will never forget it. We would listen to BBC on the radio for the war news. We kept it very low as it was forbidden to listen to BBC and German families lived in the building. I learned more about Suzanne. She seemed to come from an upper middle class family. She had a chateau north of Paris and this apartment. She did not work. Her brother had graduated from the French military academy equivalent to our West Point. He was a regular officer in the French Army when France fell. When France fell, some of the French military fled from France to Africa and England to fight as the Free French. Others stayed in France and organized an underground resistance force. Suzanne's brother was in the latter group. I had lucked out again, Suzanne had the contacts and was working to get me into the underground system. Personally, I grew very comfortable. April in Paris with a young woman and having little or no responsibility for anything. What a great way to wait out the war! However, I was still a prisoner as I could not go out of the apartment. After a couple of weeks, the bubble finally burst. She told me that a friend was coming. He was her brother's classmate at the military academy and he too was in the resistance force. She would find a place for me until he could get me into the underground system. I never met or saw him to my knowledge.
So on to my next residence in Paris, not too far from the apartment. Suzanne and I walked to the house of Madame Nahon. Madame Nahon was a widow and had a son, Guy, living with her. Guy had been in the French Army in the medical corps when the French Army was defeated. He was now working as a pharmacist. They were both very good to me and Madame Nahon really mothered me. After a couple of days, Suzanne came to tell me that she had gotten me into the Underground. I said my good-byes to the Nahon's. Guy gave me a tin of Nestle's condensed milk. It had a sweet creamy vanilla taste and tasted so good. Madam Nahon gave me two small handkerchiefs. One had the day that I had arrived at her home, "Wednesday", embroidered on it for my mother and the other for me (I still have the handkerchiefs). It was there that I also said my last good-bye to Suzanne. There was no way that I could thank her enough. She had done so much for me and at such great personal risk to her own life. I then followed Suzanne to the park, "Place de la Nation". There she passed me on, with a nod of her head, to a lady sitting on a bench. I followed the new lady to her place. Odette Ernest was an older lady, spoke perfect English and was very much in charge. She was an active member of the Underground. I found out after the war that she had helped a number of other Allied air crew members to escape. After the war she was honored and presented with the M B E "Member of the Order of the British Empire" and the title "Dame" the female equivalent of "Knighthood". I was surprised to learn that she was a British subject. She also received the Croix de Guerre from the French Government. Really quite a lady! The next day, she led me to a park were we both sat on different benches and waited. Finally, a man came by and with a nod of her head, she indicated that I was to follow him.
It was shortly after noon when this contact was made. He led me all over Paris for several hours. My legs began bothering me. Just when I was beginning to wonder how much farther I could walk, he turned into an alley. He stopped, unlocked a door, waved me in, closed and locked the door behind me. There I was all alone again. It was late afternoon. I could see that I was in a boarded up restaurant. Shades were drawn over the windows and some chairs were stacked on the tables but little else. There was dead silence but periodically I could hear the rumble of a subway below. I waited and waited, all alone. It became completely dark and I was beginning to worry again. Finally I heard the back door opening. In came two men, one had been my guide earlier that day. Neither could speak any English. Shortly, another man and a woman entered and someone lit some candles. This man could speak English and was obviously in charge. He asked if I was injured in any way. When I told him my knees bothered me a little, he wanted to see them. I tried to pull up my pant legs and he saw that I had on two pair of pants. He became very upset when he saw that I was wearing my uniform under the suit. He told me to take off all my clothes. When I got down to my shorts, he saw my injured legs and got all upset again. Apparently, he was planning to send me out over the Pyrenees to Spain. He sent one of the men to get a doctor. He also became upset when he saw my class ring and crash bracelet pinned to my shorts. He wanted me to remove them. I argued that if the Germans got me down to my shorts that they had me anyway. Besides, I would be wearing my "dog tags" so didn't feel that these additional items would make any difference. I also insisted on removing the wings from my uniform and fastening them to my shorts. He finally agreed (I still have all these items). In retrospect, it was stupid to make an issue about the ring, crash bracelet and the wings. The tradition at the time was that as long as you were on flying status you would not take off your flying school ring. After returning to England, I never took the ring off again until I retired from the Air Force many years later. The other superstition was that when flying, you wore only your original wings presented at graduation, not the wings you purchased to wear on your regular uniforms. I wanted to keep these original wings. He did insist that I remove my government issued pilots wrist watch. I wanted to keep it in my pocket but he took the watch anyway. He was more happy when he found that my escape kit had passport pictures. He took the pictures and the silk maps from the kit. I argued that I wanted the maps but he said no. I guess that for security reasons, he did not want me to be able to follow my escape route using the maps. He did give me the money and compass from the kit (I still have the compass and some of the money). The leader began to interrogate me about how and where I went down and how I had gotten to Paris. I did not know how much to say in order to protect those that had already helped me. I soon decided that he already knew the facts and was just testing me. The man who had been sent out earlier returned with a doctor. The doctor did a quick check of my legs. He said that I should not go out over the Pyrenees. That caused a lot of conversation among the group. Of course I could not follow all the conversation but I kept insisting that I was okay. After a lot of talk between them, the leader offered a solution. I could go out with a British Intelligence Officer by boat if I would be willing to help the officer if necessary. The leader would not elaborate or provide any kind of information as to when or where I would be going. I was in a quandary. As a downed pilot, if captured, I would end up in a German prison camp. Not a pleasant thought but probably not life threatening. However, if caught with a British Intelligence Officer, I could be considered a spy and very well lose my protection provided under the Geneva Convention Rules of War. If I did not take this offer, I did not know what the underground could or would do for me. Finally, I said that I would accept the offer. With that, two of the men and the doctor took my passport pictures and left. There I was, only in my under shorts, with the leader and the woman. They spoke among themselves while I felt quite alone and uncertain of what was ahead. In retrospect, I often wondered if this man was the French Officer friend of Suzanne's.
After awhile, one man came back with some clothes ... not a suit like I had been wearing, but some very rural appearing clothing and a beret (I still have some of this clothing). Some time later, the second man returned with a younger woman. She was maybe eighteen or nineteen. He also had a false birth certificate for me and an identification paper with my passport picture attached (I still have both documents). I was now a seventeen year old farmer from Brittany. My name was Jean Tanguy. It turned out that I was going to Brittany. In Brittany, a different dialect is spoken. This might help cover the fact that I could not speak or understand much French. If questioned by German guards I was told that the German troops would probably not be fluent in French either. After putting on my new old clothes, I looked like a poor farm boy. They told me that the young woman and I would leave late that night by train for the Brest Peninsula. There I would, in time, meet up with the British Intelligence Officer. They briefed me on how to act on the trip and to let the girl do any talking that might be necessary. She could not speak any English but we were to travel as a couple. She too was dressed like a poor farm girl. They also gave us train tickets, third class. By then it was late in the evening and someone gave me something to eat. The first since that morning. It must have been about midnight when the young girl (they were known as conductresses) and I reached the same train station that I had arrived at with Suzanne. This time the station was not as crowded with people but I did not have to show my identification papers, much to my relief. We soon boarded the train but we had to wait awhile before it departed. While waiting, two German soldiers came to our compartment. I think that they had been drinking. They made some remarks to the girl that I could not understand. I thought, "oh boy, what now". I don't know what she answered but they moved on. We settled down for the train ride to Brittany. (During a recent visit to Paris, we found that the train station is now an art museum.)
Shortly after dawn, we arrived at what I think was the town of Rennes. There we had to change trains. We did not have to wait long, maybe an hour for the next train to Morlaix (I still have this ticket). Boarding this train, I had to show my papers for the first time. The coastal zone that we were entering was considered a restricted area by the Germans. The trick was to keep my hand from shaking while holding out the false papers to be checked. Much to my relief, I was passed right through. This train stopped at every village and town on the way out the Brest Peninsula. It must have been about noon when we arrived at Morlaix. We got off the train and walked quite a distance. Stopping on a small dirt road in the countryside, the young conductress pointed to the side of the road and indicated that I was to stay there. With that she walked on down the road. This was the last time I saw her. I was not too happy to see her leave and to be left alone again. I decided to get off the road and get out of sight. I found a hiding place where I could still watch the road. It must have been an hour or more later when I saw a man coming down the road. He seemed perplexed and checking both sides of the road, obviously looking for something. I decided that he must be looking for me so I stepped out. He must have been told of my appearance and clothes. He immediately indicated that I was to follow him back the way he had come. We entered a village of stone houses. He led me through a gate into a courtyard containing what looked like a small saw mill. The man took me into a shed and sent me up a ladder to a loft above the shed. This man could speak some English. He told me to remain quiet until he returned. The small bare loft looking down onto the courtyard had a blanket and a slop jar. It was then about mid-afternoon. I waited and watched the man as he worked in his lumberyard. It was late afternoon when two German soldiers came into the courtyard. Panic time again! To my amazement, they all began to try to converse and were laughing. The Germans finally left with a couple of pieces of lumber. At dark the man came up the ladder with some bread and some kind of soup. I was starved having not eaten since the night before. He told me to remain where I was. As tired as I was, I found it difficult to sleep that night probably because of the uncertainty of what might lay ahead. Early the next morning he led me into the attached house. There was a woman making breakfast and a teenage boy. What was to pass as coffee had string-like things in it similar to coconut shreds but did not taste like coconut. After breakfast, a young woman, my new conductress, showed up with two bicycles. She too could not speak any English.
It was a beautiful day and off we went. After awhile a tire on her bike began to go soft. When she stopped to pump it up with her bicycle pump, I tried to help her and she got angry. I later learned that in this rural area men did not help women in such a situation. That was why she was upset, she had felt that it might be noticed if I helped her. We pedaled on for a couple of hours until my knees started to give out. I slowed down and she kept going. Finally I rang the bell on the bike and sat down on the side of the road. She came back very angry. I pulled up my pant legs and when she saw my injuries, she calmed down. We had some bread that she had in her basket and then pedaled on. This time she let me set the pace. Early that afternoon we came across German troops on a Field Exercise. They were charging across a field, hitting the ground, setting up machine guns, etc. When we rode through their exercise, they raised up from the ground, probably to watch the girl. More panic time! Later we came to another village of stone houses. We rode right into the center of the village to a building on the town square. It was a house that had a general store attached to it. We parked our bikes in front of the store and went in. The conductress said a few words to an older woman there. The woman opened an inside door and motioned me in. That was the last time I saw that young conductress.
I found myself in a fairly large combination kitchen-eating area. Soon the woman came in and led me to a bedroom. Here, I met the British Intelligence Officers; yes, two Brits. It turns out that one of the officers having entered and left Occupied Europe several times, was suffering from a nervous breakdown. The second officer had been sent there to help get him out, or if necessary, to destroy him to keep him out of enemy hands. The sick officer appeared heavily drugged and always appeared to be so. The other officer and I spent a lot of time together but I cannot remember his name. Whatever he told me probably was not his real name anyway. He told of some of his previous experiences of being dropped into Occupied Europe, including of one into Germany. These great stories all ended with the message that you must never relax or forget for a moment where you were. When I asked him why did the family at the house that I had just left risk so much by taking me in. The Brit said that they wanted their son to go to England to become a Spitfire pilot. They had been promised that he would soon be taken to England for training. I remarked that the boy did not seem a likely candidate for flight school so why such a promise. He answered that this was war and sometimes it was necessary to do and say many things. It also indicated to me that he knew who this family was even though he had not been there when I was.
We were in a household of a mother and three daughters. The mother ran an autocratic household, when she said jump, they all jumped. She really was not a very pleasant person. The Brit said that they were Bolshevics. For the German troops garrisoned in the town, the building across the street from the house and store was the German field kitchen. The troops would line up outside on the sidewalk and the cooks would fill their mess kits through an open window. The troops would then sit on the curb along the street to eat. Occasionally a German would enter the store. We spent our days quietly in a back bedroom. For meals and in the evening, we sat in the kitchen at a big table. One noon the door from the store to the kitchen opened and a German soldier walked in. He didn't say any thing, he just checked the radio to see if it was on the forbidden BBC frequency. It wasn't, so he walked out barely glancing at us. Another brief panic! We did listen to BBC for war news but always made sure it was not left to the BBC frequency when turned off. I think the Brit Officer also listened to BBC for any hidden messages in the broadcasts. In a few days it became boring. I watched through a window as the youngest daughter chopped wood. The way her muscles rippled when she used the ax quickly squashed any ideas that I had been entertaining.
Finally, a man came and took the drugged Brit away in a small truck. Then within an hour, a conductress came and left with my Brit friend. Shortly thereafter, another young conductress came for me. There was little or no good-bye's or thank you's from the departing Brits to the hostess family. I did not know how to act when I left but did try to thank them. They did not speak any English. Later, when I asked, the Brit assured me that the family had been well taken care of. I didn't ask any more questions. The young conductress and I started walking. She had a small basket with some bread and cheese that we later shared sitting along side of a dirt road. Eventually we came to a farm with a walled courtyard yard. As we went into the courtyard, a man came out and in English told me to go inside. My two Brit friends were already there. This "farmer" could speak perfect English. I also noticed how well he interacted with the Brits. He soon made me earn my keep by making me learn French. Before he would let me eat, he made me learn to correctly identify and pronounce, in French, everything in the room. I was lucky that I didn't starve to death.
One day there was more activity than normal and BBC was being closely monitored by the Brit and our host. That afternoon my Brit friend said that we might be going home that night. I figured that even with all my moving around, I was still somewhere in the vicinity of the town of Morlaix, the train station where I had arrived. Still, I had no idea where the ocean was. Just before sundown, the same man with the small truck came and with the English speaking host, left with the drugged Brit. It was almost dark when two conductresses arrived. One was the same young lady who had brought me there. The Brit and the other conductress left. My young friend and I soon followed. The Germans had established a curfew at sundown and it was now dark. The two of us were very quiet as we walked along. Eventually we came to an abandoned, partially collapsed house. We went around back and down steps into what might have been an old fruit cellar. There we were, the two Frenchmen, the two Brits, the two conductresses and myself. If this was a scene from a movie, you would have said it was overdone. A gunny sack over the entrance, a dirt floor, a partially collapsed ceiling above, cobwebs, and just one candle for light. We all sat quietly for an hour or so. Suddenly, two big Frenchmen and a young man arrived. With a very limited command of English, the newly arrived Frenchmen said that they did not believe that the young man that they had with them was a gunner from a B-17 as he claimed to be. He had not known the answers to any of the stock questions the Frenchmen had been clued to ask. Example, "Describe the unique uniform of US Army MPs in London". They felt that he could be a German plant trying to penetrate the underground system. They were ready to dispose of him rather than to take a chance. The young guy was terror stricken and almost incoherent. He had been seriously threatened of his life. The Brit agent asked me to interrogate him.
In response to my request for him to describe his military training, base locations, and a little about the towns near those bases, his story went like this. He had a widowed mother and younger sister who were struggling financially. He had sent home almost all of his military pay in order to help them. As a result, he did not have money to go into the towns near the military bases so he knew nothing about them. His stories about the training bases held water. Immediately after completing his training as an aerial gunner, he had been sent to Mitchell Field on Long Island, New York. There he had briefly waited, along with other new gunners, to be assigned as crew to new B-17s on their way to England. He was soon assigned to a new B-17 passing through on its way to war. Twenty-four hours later he was at a base in England. He remembered the name of the base but did not know its location. He could not remember the names of most of this crew because of their brief time together. Twenty-four hours after arriving at his bomber base, he was off on his first mission. His original B-17 was not ready yet for combat so he had been assigned to fill in on another crew that needed a gunner. Soon after crossing into France, this B-17 was hit by heavy flack and blew up. He bailed out and did not know if any of the others got out or not. He did not know any names of this crew as he had just joined them the morning of the mission. He had landed nearby in Brittany and luckily was immediately picked up by the Resistance Forces. He had not satisfactorily answered any of the stock questions that they had asked him concerning his military status. Here he was a day later, convinced that he was going to be killed. His story was almost unbelievable. It was just a few days earlier that he had been in the US. No wonder he was so bewildered. As incredible as his story was, I believed him. I was convinced that he was an American airman not a German agent. I told the British Agent so. The Brit had been listening to us and he agreed. We had a new companion.
Just after midnight, the two Frenchmen who had brought in the young Sergeant, departed They came back after awhile and apparently said it was clear to go and they departed. I did not see them again. The remaining two Frenchmen, the two conductresses, the two Brits, and the Sergeant and I went out into the pitch black night. Led by the Frenchmen, we soon approached a bluff looking down over water. The Frenchmen took us to a path, steep at times, down the bluff to the beach. We were to be on the beach not later than one a.m. and to wait there until three a.m. for a boat. We arrived on the beach prior to one a.m. We were warned not to move around the area as it might be mined. We all quietly huddled together sitting on large rocks. Time began to drag. The cool damp sea air chilled us to the bone. The two Frenchmen and the two conductresses who waited with us were also getting anxious. If the boat failed to arrive by three a.m., they would have to lead us back from the beach and take us to safe houses. It was almost three a.m. and we were about to leave. Suddenly, two black rubber life rafts slipped up onto the beach. The two Brits got in one raft and the Sergeant and I were directed to the other. The French men and women were left on the beach to hopefully return safely to their own homes. No good-bye's or thank-you's were said. In fact, there had been little conversation after we had left the old house above the bluff. This was also the last time I ever saw the two British Officers.
Our rubber raft was manned by two British sailors in black garb. They quietly rowed the Sergeant and I out to a boat similar to an American PT boat. Surprise! We saw that there were two British patrol boats [MGB 502 (Lt Peter Williams RNVR) and MTB 718 (Lt Rodney Seddon RNVR)]. The British Intelligence Officers boarded one boat and we boarded the other boat. Once aboard, the boats began a slow quiet departure. We were idling out of a rather long narrow bay that I believe was near Morlaix. As we approached the mouth of the bay, we received a "light" challenge from shore. With that, the two British boats went to full power. As we cleared the bay, German "E" boats came out in pursuit. I don't know how many there were but later someone said that there were six. As we started to run for it, the boat that I was on lost power on one of its engines. A running gun battle started with the Germans. Our crippled boat was just barely faster than the Germans. The other British boat throttled back to help us in the gun fight. Our boat [MGB 502] took its first hit, on the bow just above the water line. As soon as this happened, in spite of our objections, the skipper ordered the Sergeant and I below. We could hear the gun battle going on but had no idea of what was happening. Shortly, a British sailor appeared and asked who was qualified to man machine guns. Our boat had a 20mm gun (it may have been a 37mm gun) and a mounted pair of machine guns. The British gunner on the 20mm gun had been hit and killed. The gunner from the machine gun turret had taken over the 20mm gun. Now someone was needed to man the machine gun turret. The Sergeant and I both volunteered but the sailor took, over my objections, the trained Sergeant gunner. I was furious being made to stay below during the running gun fight. But at this point, rank had no privileges. As we slowly out distanced the "E" boats, the firing slowed and finally stopped. We had finally gotten out of gunfire range so the Germans turned back. At dawn, Spitfires arrived to give us cover and the Germans were gone. Our boat had lost the one sailor who had been instantly killed by a direct hit. I never learned what casualties, if any, that may have occurred on the other boat. Before reaching the port of Plymouth [sic - Dartmouth] England, we were told to take off the clothes that we were wearing and put on the British sailor uniforms that they provided. The idea was that anyone observing us debark would consider us crew members returning from another night of patrol. As we pulled into the port at Plymouth, the reality set in. Safe again! No more uncertainty about each day and what it would bring. Though only about 100 miles away across the water, Brittany had been an entirely different world. After we docked, the Sergeant and I were split up and I did not see him again in England. We had only known each other for about ten or twelve hours but those hours had been rather intense.
As an interesting sidelight, in 1947, a package arrived for me at my parents house in Cleveland, my permanent military address. Unbelievably, the package contained all the clothes, false ID papers, and personal effects that I had acquired in France. After I had put on the British sailor uniform before arriving in England, I had been forced to leave all these things on the boat. I was amazed that these things had been collected and stored since 1944 and in 1947 packaged up and sent to me! There was nothing of any monetary value, but they did bring back a lot of memories.
Also, after France was liberated, I began to hear from my French benefactors who had done so much for me. I could not record their names and addresses when in France for fear, that if I were caught by the Germans, it would be the end for my friends. Instead, I had given them my parents address to contact me after the war. I have attached a few of their letters to this story. My parents sent them packages of food, coffee and other small items. Interesting enough, Suzanne, of more than moderate means, became a Communist supporter. Many in France did for several years after the war. I regret not to have gone back to France earlier to see and thank them again. In recent visits to France, the addresses that I have were no longer valid.
Another sidelight, in 1988 in Rochester, NY, the phone rang. I was asked if I had been a fighter pilot in England and had entered the service from Cleveland, Ohio. I answered yes to both questions and the caller introduced himself as Richard Faulkner, the Sergeant that I had met in France. He lived in Skaneateles, about 40 miles from Rochester. I invited him to come to visit and within that week he and his wife did. He introduced me to his wife as the man who had saved his life. We all spent the afternoon reliving our adventure together. He kept turning to his wife saying, "See, I told you so". Having been out of the country for less than two weeks, his family and friends had trouble believing that he had even been gone, much less believing his combat story. I found that he had no idea where we had been in France or where we had left from. He recalled how angry I had been when ordered to stay below while he went to man the machine guns. He said that he always wanted to thank me for that night in France. He had researched the records of Allied airmen escaping the continent prior to the invasion. The list was by sequence of return. He found his name and figured that by being an officer, I would be the name before his. Then from military records he had then been able to find me. Recently, his wife died and he has since moved to Auburn, NY.
Now back to the story. After we docked in Plymouth, I was taken directly to a nearby British military hospital and put in a private room. There I was given food and medical attention. I wanted to immediately notify my parents that I was safe. I also wanted to notify my squadron of my return. Neither request was honored. Although the British were doing everything they possibly could to make me comfortable, they would not let me make contact with anyone. Not until I could positively be identified as the person that I claimed to be could I contact the outside world. The escape route that I had been lucky enough to have been allowed to use was an important part of the British intelligence system. It was a top secret operation and they had to be positive that I was not a plant that could compromise the system. Late that afternoon, I was moved to a bed in a ward with several other men. I was told that I could not talk to anyone. Shortly, an American Officer appeared. It was Nick, the 355th Fighter Group Intelligence Officer. He was asked if he knew anyone in the room. Looking me right in the eye, he said that he did not know anyone in the room and turned to leave. I about went ballistic and hollered at him. He thought it was a great joke but at the time I didn't think it was so funny. Now, being properly identified, I was allowed to send a brief telegram to my parents through the Intelligence Communication Network. I was issued an American Army enlisted uniform with added officer insignia and rank and taken to Allied Headquarters in Grovenor Square in London. I was quartered in a very nice room near the American Embassy. The invasion was soon to take place so I was continuously interrogated over a two-day period by a number of Army Brass. As I had been travelling in and had just left the coastal area of France, they were interested in what I had seen of German activities. They wanted to know about the numbers and types of troops, vehicles, defense positions, etc. I was also queried about the Escape Kit: what I had found useful, needed, didn't need, etc. From my experience with the Pep Pills, a recommendation was made that, under controlled conditions, all air crews should be tested for reaction to the pills. I was provided plenty of good food but not allowed, except for interrogations, to leave the suite where I had a room of my own. At night I had a suite mate. He claimed to have just escaped from France, crossing over the Pyrenees into Spain. We had been provided Scotch in our suite and he encouraged me to share the Scotch. Very little encouragement was necessary. He would talk a little about his experiences but then would probe me about my experience. I finally determined that this was another form of interrogation. With plenty of Scotch, in a relaxed atmosphere and talking with an alleged fellow escapee, information might come out that would not occur in a formal interrogation with top ranking officers. The formal interrogations went on for two days. I was then told that I could not tell the true story about how I returned to England. I was coached on how to tell a story of an escape over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. This story was to be told to my squadron when I returned.
Still dressed in a GI uniform with officers insignia, I was finally allowed to return to Steeple Morten and my squadron. On my way to the train station in London, American Army MPs stopped me because of my non-regulation uniform. They took me to their Headquarters until the situation could be straightened out. Welcome home! It was great to get back to Steeple Morten and my buddies. I told the required story about going over the Pyrenees at an Escape and Evasion session. I was presented with the Purple Heart for my wounds and found that my promotion to Captain had been approved. After being declared missing in action, my uniforms and personal belongings had been packed into a foot locker and sent to Liverpool for eventual shipment home. In a few days, my belongings were returned from Liverpool. Now I could go home to the USA.
An interesting role reversal had occurred between my parents when they received word that I was missing in action. My mother was rather high strung by nature and worried a lot about my flying. My dad never visibly showed any shake, rattle or roll about anything. He was in Washington DC on business when a telegraph arrived at home in the afternoon saying that I was "Missing in Action". My mother called his office and they were able to contact him. He could not arrive back in Cleveland until the next day. He had to come by train as there was little or no commercial air transportation available during the war. Their many friends came to provide support and could not believe what they found. My mother was the composed, strong one and my dad had become totally unglued. He would not go to the office or do anything. He just sat around, unshaven, in his pajamas and robe. Not until they received word that I was safe, did my mother collapse. Their friends talked about it for years afterward.
I have written this to provide my children and grandchildren a written record of my part of World War Two. The history of this war is truly history now but it will never be forgotten by those who lived it. Nor should the lives of almost five hundred thousand Americans who perished winning that war be forgotten by anyone. Ever! Nor should we ever forget the personal courage and sacrifices of our friends and allies who helped made that victory possible.
Ken Williams - June 2000
Although he knew the date he got back to England was 16 April 1944, Ken didn't realise until recently that he and Sgt Faulkner were brought out from the beach at Beg-an-Fry on the SOE Var Line Operation Scarf.
Sgt Richard J Faulkner was ball-turret gunner, and only survivor, of the B-17 42-39830 'Berlin Playboy' (100BG/330BS) lost over Normandy 18 March 1944. When their mission to Munich was scrubbed, and as the formation turned around, they collided with B-17 42-37913. There were only two survivors (including evader 2/Lt Thomas L Lemond) from the other aircraft. My thanks to Richard Faulkner and Tom Theiss for this update.