Crossing from Pierrefitte-Nestalas
On the evening of 12 June 1944, three USAAF airmen set off from Pierrefitte-Nestalas (Haute-Pyrenees) to cross the mountains to Sallent de Gallego (Aragon).
This page first posted 12 Feb 2021
2/Lt Walter Breedon Mabe (#843) from Ingleside, Texas was the 24-year-old co-pilot, T/Sgt Samuel Deutch (# 844) from Akron, Ohio the top-turret gunner, and S/Sgt Robert William Bechtel (#845) from Pottstown, Pennsylvania the 21-year-old ball-turret gunner of 384BG/545BS B-17 42-37816 Big Stupe V (Heffley) which was on the way to Schweinfurt on 13 April 1944 when they were attacked by fighters. They lost two engines, and had to jettison their bombs as they fell out of formation and turned for home. They were hit by flak over Luxembourg and jettisoned the ball-turret, and then as they crossed the marshalling yards at Metz, were hit by railway flak which shot out the controls and both remaining engines, and at just gone four o'clock in the afternoon, they crash-landed – Mabe says 200 yards north-east of Rambucourt (Meuse) while bombardier 2/Lt John Betolatti (#709) says close to Cornviélle, near Commercy.
Mabe reports seeing Betolatti taking care of the wounded navigator, 2/Lt Louis P Carini, while he set off with Bechtel towards a wood on a hill, where they were soon found by a farmer who was leading Deutsch and waist-gunner Sgt George W Allen. The slight, 55-year-old, moustachioed farmer took the four Americans to a young man from Rambucourt called Jimmy Saryak, who hid them in a cabin on the northern shore of the Etang Neuf de Mandres. Jimmy later returned with a man called Charles (a cousin of Claude Durif in Toul – see later), 24 years old, about six feet tall, who lived with his sister and father (Auguste Viton – query), a wealthy farmer in Mandres-aux-Quatre-Tours, and later Charles brought more friends, including Jean, a local football player, and a Yugoslav who had been born in Washington DC. All three young men were members of the resistance, and that evening they took the Americans to the home of the Chef de Foret, on the edge of the forest, at Sanzey. The man had three children; two teenage daughters, and a 19-year-old son who had fought with the maquis in Haute-Savoie, and was officially listed as killed by the Germans. The Americans stayed with the family for eight days, being visited there on the second day by a Doctor Schwartz from Sanzey, who treated Deutsch and Allen.
On the third day, a German patrol drove past the house, and the evaders scattered to hide in the woods, and when the forester called them back again later, they were unable to find Sgt Allen.
On the sixth day, a M. Marie came from Toul (about 5 ft 2 ins tall, stocky build, formerly with the French navy and then chief caretaker of the canal locks at Toul), along with a butcher from Foug (Georges Durand of rue de l'Eglise – query) and a man who kept an inn on the western edge of Toul (assume Pierre Mathy of 33 avenue (sic) de Paris, Ecrouves), to interrogate the Americans, and take their escape photos. On the eighth day, the butcher and the innkeeper returned with identity cards, and took Mabe, Deutch and Bechtel by lorry to Foug, and the home of Toul gendarme Harry Antoine. He had been a prisoner of the Japanese but repatriated, and lived with his wife, infant daughter, his parents and a brother named Jean. Mabe and Bechtel stayed with the family for three days before being moved to the home of a tobacconist in Toul named Baron, while Deutsh, who was suffering from a delayed reaction to the anti-tetanus injection he had received at Sanzey, stayed on with Harry Antoine for a further three days before being taken (on 26 April) to join Mabe and Bechtel at the Baron home.
On 29 April, the three Americans were taken to stay with the innkeeper on the outskirts of Toul, and they understood that he had previously sheltered another American (in October 1943) who had later been taken to Switzerland, and that the bombardier from his aircraft, 2/Lt Frank J Francis (B-17 42-3338 Lonesome Polecat II), had been machine-gunned whilst parachuting, and was buried in Toul.
That night, two other American airmen were brought in, F/O John A Chalot (pilot of P-51 43-6554, shot down 11 March), who had crash-landed in Belgium, and a sergeant named Jack from Brooklyn, who had been shot down over Holland, and walked to Liege. He had been picked up by the same organisation that was helping Chalot but the two had then left, and walked to Commercy where the local resistance group had found them.
Next day, Doctor Schwartz came to dress Deutch's wounds, and the following afternoon, they were introduced to an American from Brooklyn named Maurice Friedman, who had had married a Frenchwoman after the last war, and owned a dairy. They also met Friedman's daughter Elizabeth and her fiancé, Claude Durif. That night, Mabe, Deutch and Bechtel were taken to stay with Claude's family at Cours Raymond Poincaré, where they met his father, Raymond Durif, a civil engineer in charge of the local railways, Claude's mother and brother Guy – both Claude and Guy spoke English. They understood that Mme Durif's father, Mons A Biere, owned the Hotel Pyrenees at Pierrefitte-Nestalas (Haute-Pyrenees) and she told them that if they needed help, they should go to him.
Mabe, Deutch and Bechtel stayed with the Durif family, being visited there by everyone who had helped them, for ten days until M. Marie took them to stay overnight with an electrical engineer in Toul, and next day to the home of a railway guard and his family who lived two blocks from the Durif home. They stayed with the railway guard for a week, all the time being told that arrangements would be made to get them to Switzerland but when Jimmy Saryak, Charles and Guy Durif came one day, the Americans told them that if they weren't moved on soon, they would strike out on their own. Jimmy said he would at least get them a ride to Epernay, and the following afternoon, took them to Mandres, where they had dinner with a man called Charles, and then to his own home in Rambucourt. Next day, Bernard Gorin arrived in a truck - he was the resistance chief in Epernay, and on the city council – he spoke English, and was a scout-master – and he took them back to his house at 28 rue de Berban in Epernay.
Two days later, Bernard took the three Americans by train to Paris, and the office of his brother, Robert Gorin, who was in the fur business, and owned a large garage. Robert gave his brother 2,000 francs to cover the costs of helping the evaders, and then took them all to his apartment on the Champs-Elysees, two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe.
At the Gorin apartment, they met the Parisian chief of the “Groupe de Resistance”, a tall, blond handsome man named Bernard who worked as a broker, and had been in the same army unit as Robert Gorin, and a PW with him. Unfortunately, the one escape organisation that Bernard had trusted had been broken up, and so on 23 May, Bernard took the three Americans by train to Toulouse, and a hotel run by an elderly Jewish couple named Mainscher, whose red-haired daughter owned a dress-shop next door.
Mabe, Deutch and Bechtel spent the night in a store room in the hotel, and next day, two young men took them to a house in the southern suburbs of Toulouse, where the Mainscher daughter brought a man in a car who took them to a road outside the city to meet a resistance chief they refer to as “Frank”. Frank had been a tank captain in the French army, and evacuated to England after Dunkirk before being returned to France by parachute. He was 33 years old, about 5 ft 9 ins tall, with dark hair, and he spoke English. Frank gave them pistols, and told them that his car was full of organisation records and dynamite which he was having to move because the Gestapo was on his trail, and Frank took the three Americans to a farm near Saint-Martin (2 kms SW of Mirande, Gers).
The farm belonged to a wealthy man who lived there with his wife, two sons, a daughter, a daughter-in-law and her baby, his own parents, his wife's mother, and his nephew, Gerald Christophe, who was a medical student in Toulouse. On 5 June, Frank brought one of his aides, another Gerald, the son of a wealthy family living outside Paris. Gerald, who spoke fluent English and Spanish, had been in the intelligence service with the French army, and now did the same thing with the resistance group, making frequent trips to Madrid.
On 6 June, with Gerald and a driver in one car, and Frank and the three Americans in another, the airmen armed with Sten guns, they drove to Lourdes, and a house on the western edge of the town, where they had dinner. During the meal, Gerald received a telephone call from the Lourdes chief of police warning him there would be controls on all the roads from 1500 hrs, and so Frank, Gerald and the Americans left at once, walking to Gerald's headquarters, a farm which was fully equipped with materials for forging official documents. As well as the farmer, his wife and daughter, there was also a Belgian named Henri (whose brother-in-law had published “La Libre Belgique”) living there, with his wife and young son.
After six days at the farm, Henri took the three Americans SSW of Lourdes to a point near Agos-Vidalos (Haute-Pyrenees) where he turned them over to a man who was apparently related to the farmer, and this man took them to the outskirts of Pierrefitte-Nestalas, where he turned them over to the local resistance chief. The chief and another man then took the Amerians to the Red Star Café, where they had supper, and were told that Mons Biere (owner of the Hotel Pyrenees, who had been recommended to them by his daughter at Commercy) was thought to be a collaborator.
At ten o'clock that night (12 June) they set off for the hills, walking until one in the morning when they stopped to sleep in a “grange” until four when they carried on to the Cave de Cauterets. They were turned over to a guide who took them to another barn north of Cauterets, where they spent the night. At 0500 hrs they set off once more, walking until midnight when they stopped somewhere near the Pic d'Araillous (2,695m). Early next morning, their guide pointed out the way to the border and left them.
At this point the clouds came in and obscured the view, and the Americans lost their way, sleeping out that night, and then used their compasses to head south until they reached a mining camp below Gran Facha (3,005m), where they found they were in fact in Spain. They carried on walking down to Sallent de Gallego, where they were arrested by the Guardia Civil, and two days later, sent to Jaca.
The Americans had already seen one German captain at Sallent, along with his armed orderly but the Spanish had locked them in a courtyard until the Germans left. At Jaca, a Spanish secret service officer tried to interrogate them about their helpers and the route they had taken, and got very upset when they refused to answer but they were eventually sent to a hotel. After two nights at the hotel, they were sent by train to Zaragoza (Saragossa), where the Spanish air force took over, and they were given clothes, cigarettes and money by the British vice-consul before being taken to an airfield south-west of the city. Twelve days later, they were moved to Tudela (Navara) for three days before transfer to the spa town of Alhama de Aragon on 4 July. On 27 July, Colonel Spillman arrived to drive them via Grenada, to Gibraltar. Deutsch and Bechtel left Gibraltar on 30 July by overnight flight to Bristol while Mabe was flown from Rabat in Morocco on an overnight flight to RAF St Mawgan (Newquay) in Cornwall.