By William C. Howe
Word Count: 8524
Summary: An Army Sergeant recounts his time in World War Two as he survived as a worker on a French vineyard
On the morning of March 4th, 1943, I was a twenty-four-year-old sergeant in the United States Army Air Force, serving as a Crew Chief on a B-17. Her name was The Lucky Gal and my name is John Banner. By that afternoon, it was hard to say what I was.
We were told that we needed to complete twenty-five missions to finish a tour and escape combat. For superstitious reasons, we worried ourselves silly about the thirteenth mission, which actually, looking back, turned out to be a cakewalk. It was on the fourteenth that everything blew up, starting with the number two engine.
Scottie, our aircraft commander, struggled valiantly to keep her going. With only three engines and a severely damaged left wing, we quickly fell out of formation and were on our own. Scottie tried to remain on course for the target, but ferocious attacks by ME-109s made it impossible. Our tail gunner, Alan McCullough, was killed on the first pass, which blew the tail section to bits and put The Lucky Gal into an uncontrollable nose dive that rolled into a spin. When the order came to bail out, we all headed for the hatches, but quick!
Dizzy and disoriented as I scrambled out of the hatch, I smashed my left shoulder against the doorway when the slipstream hit me and almost fainted from the pain. Remembering to wait ten seconds, forever while falling out of the sky for the first time, I pulled the ripcord. We had been briefed to let ourselves fall a little bit so that we could get to oxygen rich altitudes before pulling the chute. The counter argument was to pull immediately before passing out. I just wanted to get away from the wreckage we called The Lucky Gal.
Man, that parachute ride down took forever. I was so scared and excited that I completely forgot to look around for my crewmates, who should be floating down nearby. By pulling on some of the lines, I was able to drift away from the village that was becoming more defined by the second. Fortunately, I came down in a grassy pasture satisfyingly close to some woods and not so near that village. There were a few cars and trucks on the roads, some heading in my general direction, and I wondered if they were Germans coming for me. Though I hit the ground surprisingly hard, I managed to not hurt my ankles. The shock of the landing made me so clumsy that it took a ridiculous amount of time to shed the chute harness and run into the woods. I never looked back, but just kept running deeper into the dense foliage.
When I finally stopped to rest, the loneliest feeling I have ever experienced washed over me. I wanted to cry, and just curl up and cry like a baby. Admonishing myself to be a man, I resolved to execute the evasion strategy we had all been given in those endless briefings and training sessions. Now that it came to it, I wished I had paid closer attention. We were told to make our way towards Spain if possible, to remain out of sight, travel by night and forage for food. In my jumpsuit pockets I had a flashlight, French money, some matches and cigarettes along with a standard issue .45 pistol, though I wasn’t at all sure I actually wanted to use it. I was used to fighting this war with twin Browning .50 caliber machine guns, and this little pistol seemed terribly inadequate by comparison.
That first afternoon and night I just sat and waited. I wanted things, like the Germans and my wits, to settle down before trying to move.. I woke up in the early morning shivering with cold. I was thankful for the wool bomber jacket and pants, but as they were so bulky and cumbersome I would probably have to dump them once I started walking. I would stand out like a sore thumb in my army uniform, but being caught in civilian clothes could mean being shot as a spy.
The brutal reality was that capture was inevitable; it was simply a matter of how long one could evade. Still, we had been told it was possible to cross the Spanish frontier to safety. That lonely feeling came again, but this time it was not so debilitating. I guess I was becoming accustomed to my lousy situation.
As the sun came up and the shadows faded away, I suddenly realized how hungry I was. Yet again, I wished I had paid attention to the survival and evasion lectures, particularly the ones about edible French plants. Everything I saw looked like trees and didn’t have much appeal. We had been warned that making contact with the French people would be high risk. While the vast majority would be sympathetic to our cause, they would also be afraid. The Germans would severely punish anyone caught helping us, and a statistical few would be active collaborators who would immediately turn us over. As much as I hated the idea, stealing their food was my only real option.
It was the hunger that got me moving. The little toy compass we had been given indicated my direction south and west towards Spain. These were not big woods, and I quickly came upon a paved road. The road ran westerly, and beyond it was open pasture. I stuck to the woods on the northern side of the road and followed its direction, staying a few yards within the trees.
After a couple of hours of walking and stooping around low hanging branches, I got a little careless. I wasn’t trying to be quiet, I was trying to make good distance. So it was quite an unnerving shock when suddenly I heard a sharp and loud whisper.
I fell to my knees and fumbled for my pistol, my heart racing. A man’s head rose up from behind a fallen tree revealing the face of my best wartime friend, Tom Walker. Corporal Walker had been working the left waist gun of The Lucky Gal when the bailout order came. Alongside him was Lieutenant Mike Wrenzenski, our navigator. I was overjoyed to see friendly faces! It was all I could do not to shout their names.
Quickly talking, almost all at once, we all described our last twenty hours. They had fallen directly into these woods very near each other. Tom was almost completely unhurt, having only suffered a few bruises in the jump. Mike had a swollen ankle, which he had injured as he fell through the trees. We judged it not to be broken and that if we kept it wrapped tightly, it would heal in time. They razzed on me a little for my crashing through the woods. They heard me coming at some distance and were more relieved by the fact that I wasn’t German than my being a known crewmate.
We soon realized that our finding each other wasn’t as much of a coincidence as one might imagine. They had been following the northwestern edge of the woods, slowly due to Mike’s ankle, and I had been following the southern edge as the woods pinched out at the point of a triangle. We had been funneled together by our attempting to remain concealed, but now we were at the end of cover.
It occurred to me that the Germans might know about this funneling effect and would come here in search of us. There was farmland to our right and the road to our left. Tom noticed grapevines 200 yards away that would give concealment, but the possibilities of what might be at the other end of the vineyard was worrisome, as was that 200 yard dash in the open. I hated the idea of waiting at the point of the woods and voted to help Mike across the way and into the vines.
We counted the trucks as they drove by in either direction and made the wild assumption that there would be about four minutes between them. We all knew that it was pure speculation, but it was comforting to at least act like there were some parameters over which we had some control. My nervousness must have been contagious because Mike, who at first really wanted to wait for nightfall right there, suddenly agreed that we needed to go for it. We waited for the next truck, a disconcerting wait of over ten minutes, and stepped out into the terrifying open air toward the grapevines.
Mike let out a sharp gasp with his first step, and with him leaning on my right shoulder and Tom supporting him on the other side, we shuffled across with more awkwardness than stealth before ducking into blessed cover again. It was here that I really came to grips with the absolute conviction that we would never see Spain and that our scrambling from cover to cover was certain to fail at some near point.
As it happened, this was that point. We heard a low and menacing voice give us a command. I didn’t understand it, but it sounded more French than German. I looked up and saw an old man standing a few feet away, holding a pitchfork at the ready. His clothes were poor, and he looked like he had lived a hard life. The look on his face was deadly, and I completely forgot my pistol. I had a funny feeling of relief at being caught and was ready to comply with the old man’s orders. Maybe prison camp wouldn’t be so bad after all. The man motioned for us to stand up and to walk ahead of him.
Helping Mike, we went as the old man directed. He led us to a one room farm shed. It was dark inside, as there were no windows, and I knew the gig was up when he latched the door on the outside.
“What do we do now?” asked Tom.
I reluctantly offered the fact of my pistol.
“He’s a Frenchman, not a German,” was Mike’s curt reply to that idea.
After briefly considering the possibility of breaking down the door, we simply sank to the dirt floor and waited. I was too tired to give a damn. The shed was actually comforting, warm and dark, and I was falling asleep. From the sound of my two buddies’ breathing, I figured the shock of this last day was getting to them, too.
It was about mid-afternoon when the door opened again. We were pleasantly surprised to not see German soldiers but instead a French woman, who by her looks was about thirty and not bad at all.
“You are American flyers?” she whispered with the slightest hint of a questioning inflection.
Though her French accent was very heavy, we could understand her. We confirmed her assumption and began to bombard her with questions about the old man and what they were going to do with us. She held up her hand for silence and sharply told us to keep our voices low.
“Americans are always so loud,” she hissed. “That was my father who found you and brought you here. We are not holding you as prisoners, but are trying to keep you out of sight. You must be completely quiet, because it is very dangerous to us to hide you here. I will bring you some food, and you will rest. Tonight, after dark, you must leave!”
While she was whispering all of this, her manner became agitated and her voice rose a bit as she got to the part about leaving. She quickly stepped out of the shed before we could ask any more questions.
It was the old man who brought food. He came into the shed with a candle in his hand and a duffel bag over his shoulder from which he produced some bread and a bottle of wine. The crust of the bread was hard as a rock, and he smiled a little as he watched us struggle with chewing. He showed Tom how to soften the bread with a little olive oil from a small vial. He spoke no English but did not seem so frightening as he had at our earlier meeting.
He studied us, watching our every move as we ate and whispered to each other. His skin was very brown and wrinkled from many hours in the sun.;is hair thin and snow white. I suspected that he was bald underneath that dirty, brown beret he wore. He smelled like stale sweat, a smell which painfully reminded me of my high school gym and home. There was an awkward period of about an hour after our small meal when we were simply subjected to his intense gaze. I felt like he was looking us over as he would farm animals at a market, trying to assess our value. He noticed Mike’s injured ankle and even found my sore shoulder as he slapped each of us on the back. He never said a word to us, but just mumbled to himself as he contemplated his thoughts deeply. Mike tried to talk to him but was rebuffed with a small wave of the old man’s hand. It was obvious that he didn’t want to be friendly, and suddenly he just left us.
We fell asleep again in the darkness of the shed, but snapped awake when the door opened again. It was the girl this time. She looked upset, as if she had just come from a heated argument. I glanced at my watch and was surprised to see it was past eight o’clock. I thought that they would have pushed us out earlier than this. I was embarrassed about sleeping so deeply and was admonishing myself to be more military. She had brought more food, sausage soup and bread and the ever present wine. The soup was wonderful, but I was especially determined not to ask for more as I suspected that these people probably had little enough for themselves.
“My father and I have been talking about you,” she whispered. A tear slipped down her cheek as she started to speak. “My father has an idea which I cannot talk him out of. He is seventy-four years old and has worked his little farm every day since he was twelve. He has survived crop disasters, weather disasters, governments, revolutions, money crashes, and even severe injuries. To him, this war and the German occupation is just another obstacle to work and live through. He hates the Germans, but he is sure that they will not be here forever, as none of his troubles are here forever. He says that he knows how to get you out of France.”
At that bit my heart skipped a beat, and we all moved in closer.
“He is not in the Underground,” she insisted, “and knows very little about them. All he knows is farming, and this war has been nothing but trouble. He grows vegetables and a few pigs, but his main produce is grapes.”
“For wine?” I suggested.
“No, for raisins,” she replied. “For years he has been trading with the Spanish. He sends them the proper grapes and they use them to make raisins. There is a Spanish merchant to whom he has traded with and is asking for more grapes. Here is his offer to you, which I am much against.”
The three of us looked at each other with the same questioning look and waited for what would be next.
“Mon Père has lost his field laborers,” she told us. “Some have left to join the Underground. Others have been taken by the Germans. His two sons, my older brothers, are in Spain. They were in danger of being taken, and Mon Père sent them to work for his Spanish friends. They are safe there until this war is over.”
Mike anticipated the proposition. “Does your father want us to work for him?”
“He does,” she said, becoming very quiet. “Mon Père cannot produce his grapes this year without help. He has searched the village for workers but has found the whole countryside under the boot of the German. He was at his lowest spirit I have ever seen him last night. When he found you today, I saw an old spark in his eyes again. He has been running around his farm, planning and working all day with a new energy and it terrifies me. It is too dangerous!” she hissed.
Again, it was Mike, the officer in our little group, who was thinking ahead. “How long would this take? Does ‘Mon Père’ wish us to work for the duration of the war?”
“No, he says that you must work through the fall, to bring in the harvest and that it will be you who delivers the grapes to Spain around the middle of October.”
We were all silent, each of us grappling with our thoughts about this remarkable plan. By the look on Mike’s face, I judged him the most interested. Tom looked doubtful, probably like me, disappointed in the long delay of almost seven months for freedom. The girl seemed to feel only sadness. I knew she thought the plan had very little chance of success, and expected it to be a disaster for her and her father. It occurred to me that we didn’t even know her name, so I asked her.
“You will never know our names!” she snapped with startling vehemence. “It is things like that the Germans use to kill us. Call me Suzanne, and know that it is not my real name. My father you will call Père. How can I get you to understand how hopeless your wish of escaping these Germans is?” She recovered herself after a moment and laid out the deal. “Tonight, you will rest and think. Tomorrow morning you can tell us if you agree to raise the grapes and work our farm. There are two absolute conditions! You must obey Mon Père in every little instruction he gives you, and you must not ever plan your escape. You will be caught and we will die.”
Without another word, she took the kerosene lantern, which was the only source of light, and left us in the dark.
We talked about it for a long time. Tom and I deferred to Mike, the ranking officer, and told him it was his decision. Mike made certain that we agreed to abide by Suzanne’s conditions if he decided to stay. I believe that he was feeling his responsibility to these helpful civilians in this unfortunate military situation. I felt that he was torn between his desire to try Mon Père’s plan and Suzanne’s fear of failure. He got touchy with us as we kept asking him what he wanted to do.
“I’ll decide in the morning!” he insisted, the last thing any of us uttered before we all fell asleep once again.
Mon Père came for us very early. He motioned for us to get up, and we followed him through the nippy early morning darkness to a dilapidated outhouse, where we each took our turns at relief, Mike first, then me, and finally Tom, in the habitual military hierarchy. It was my first of countless occasions to use a French outhouse. American outhouses seemed luxurious by comparison, as the French seemed to make do without so much as a seat, just a hole in the wooden floor.
Mon Père then took us to another small farm building, this one with two windows, each obscured by drapes. Upon entering it became obvious that this was where the farm laborers lived. It was a simple one room shed like the first but with the great improvement of a wooden floor and beds. Beyond that, it wasn’t much. Four beds were situated along the walls along with two in the middle of the room. This left just enough space for a person to shuffle between the beds as he would enter or leave the room by the one door. I couldn’t discern any source of heat other than the thin woolen blankets.
My initial thought was that the old goat could have at least let us sleep here last night instead of in the floorless shed.
Suzanne came in and coldly asked us whether we had decided to accept Mon Père’s offer. Mon Père was watching us with barely concealed anticipation, and Suzanne remained stoic as Mike told her that we had decided to stay. Mon Père sensed our affirmative reply and immediately began rattling instructions to Suzanne in his low and rumbling French.
“Mon Père says that you are all to strip, right now. Everything you are wearing, down to your skin is to be handed over. You must not keep anything personal, not your watches, not pictures of your girls, nothing!” Suzanne unnerved me by the way she could shout at the volume of a whisper.
When we balked at removing our pants in her presence, she told us not to be ridiculous and ordered us to continue. They didn’t bat an eye when Mike and I laid our pistols on the bed. In a funny way, due to the seriousness of this business of avoiding Germans, our being completely naked in front of this French woman wasn’t an embarrassment. It was like seeing the doctor.
They took everything we had, including our regulation underwear. They left abruptly, and it was then that we all felt pretty silly. Tom worried aloud if we had just been conned like three rubes at the carnival. Mon Père soon returned, however, his arms full of clothes. They were certainly French clothes, and they smelled like they had been worked in and not laundered. We all knew that a different sort of boot camp had just begun.
Once we were dressed, Suzanne came in with more rules. We were not to speak another word of English so long as we were there, not even in private, not even to each other. She patiently explained the workings of a French farm. People would come and go at all times, by prior agreement and for many reasons. There would be many people around us who must never know that we were American airmen. In fact, she stressed heavily that we were no longer Americans but French peasants. She insisted that if we couldn’t say what we wished to say in the local French dialect, then we were to remain quiet and act stupid.
I thought wryly that if I could act as stupid as I was beginning to feel, I would have no problem filling that bill. I began to see what Suzanne was afraid of. We desperately needed to learn to be what we definitely were not. I could see the doubt in Tom’s eyes as well, but true to instructions, he just stood there looking stupid.
Suzanne pointed at Mike and said, “Alban.” To me she said, “Jean-Luc,” and to Tom she said, “Raoul.” Well, we weren’t so stupid that we failed to understand that even our names had been taken away. It didn’t stop there. Tom was subjected to dental work in town, specifically to deal with a conspicuous silver filling on one of his lower molars. They just yanked the whole tooth and explained that a missing tooth was much more appropriate for a peasant of his class. They took me aside and rubbed what smelled a little like shoe polish into my hair. I wasn’t blond, but they wanted my hair to be a shade darker than it was. Furnished with new identities and appropriately disguised, we were finally ready for our new lives.
Mon Père wasted no time in putting us to work. That first day of farming was a blur of hoeing, picking, raking and carrying. Poor Raoul was put to it the moment he returned from the dentist. By the way he kept rubbing his jaw and spitting residual blood, I knew he was hurting. By the end of the day my sore shoulder was on fire, Alban was limping around doing his best with that bad ankle, and we all had bleeding blisters on our hands. We were allowed back to the “bunkhouse” around eight o’clock that night. I wasn’t exactly sure of the time now that my watch was gone, but I came to recognize the routine.
The next day was essentially the same, though Raoul was given a special job. That night he briefly broke the ban on English conversation to tell us that he had been instructed to dig a round hole about one meter across and two meters deep. When it was finished, Mon Père came out with a heavy, tightly wrapped linen bundle and dropped it to the bottom. As Raoul was refilling the hole, he knew he was burying, once and for all, our former lives. It was a good thing that he had. The danger Suzanne had foretold was very real and was quickly manifested.
About two weeks after we started working, a squad of German soldiers drove up to Mon Père’s house in a truck and began rounding us together. I thought the gig was up, but we had been trained well, and we each remembered to act stupid. Mon Père haggled doggedly with the junior German officer. I caught the gist of the bargain. The Germans were rounding up men to work at forced labor. Mon Père was trying to bribe him into leaving us with him. The longest part of the negotiations involved the officer’s bottom line of taking at least one of us. I was actually shaking in fear at the thought of that. I didn’t dare move to see how Alban and Raoul were holding up. I decided that I would go quietly if I were chosen to be the sacrificial lamb, hoping my friends would be spared. In the end, Mon Père pulled it off by bribing the officer with six bottles of wine and the promise of 50 kilos of grapes at harvest. When that truck rounded the bend, leaving all three of us, I literally sank to the ground in relief. Mon Père didn’t pause a moment before ordering us back to work. That man must have had ice flowing through his veins.
After this frightening start, things quickly settled into a routine. We were always up before the sun and back down after it set. While the sun was up, we were out in it. March faded to April which wore on into May. Each day the sun got higher and each day it got hotter.
We noticed that Mon Père would shed his shirt in the afternoon heat, and we copied him. In fact, most of what we learned, we learned by watching him. He gradually became more talkative. He would point at things and say their French words, grunting in agreement when we correctly named them. He would give us verbal instructions along with hand gestures, and it wasn’t long before we no longer needed the gestures. Sometimes one of us would ask him a question which angered him, but nonetheless our ability to ask it made him happy.
When it came to grapes, Mon Père was a master. His impatience with us would disappear as he showed us how to care for his precious vines and how to harvest the fruit. We talked about him often. While he drove us like Simon Legree, he seemed to delight in our progress. If ever we slipped up and did anything “American,” he would snap at us like a pit bull, the anger in his eyes plain enough to everyone. Tough as he was, he wasn’t afraid to pray. In fact, everyday morning, noon and evening, he would stop everything and pray the Angelus, a prayer which we soon knew by heart.
One morning in the middle of May, we heard a large fleet of airplanes flying over. Each of us naturally looked up and let out a shout of patriotic excitement at the formation of B-17s headed east, like kids cheering their high school football team. Mon Père was on us immediately. He hit me on the head with the back of a rake, which knocked me silly for a bit. He went after Alban next, who fell to the ground with his hands over his head, acting as meekly as a French peasant should in the face of his master’s wrath. Regardless, he was dealt a couple of sharp blows. Raoul was already down on his knees in supplication and was spared any physical contact, but caught a verbal lashing. After that, we would only mutter silent prayers for those crews as we surreptitiously glanced up at them.
We could not help wondering about the past life of that exacting old French farmer. Had he ever known love? Suzanne told us that her mother had died before the war began, and that was the only additional detail we ever learned of the family.
Suzanne was nice enough as long as we were French. She would talk to us in the evening about the region and teach us the names of prominent persons of the village. She would ask us questions about our day and the plans for tomorrow. It didn’t take long for us to realize that this was French school. She wasn’t being sociable, but was perfecting our general knowledge and honing our language skills. Still, we could sense that it wasn’t all toil for her, and she seemed to enjoy our sessions each evening. It was only natural that each one of us would take his turn at falling in love with her, but she kept us all firmly at arm’s length.
It was on the last day of May that our serenity was disrupted once again. Mon Père caught another American pilot, and this one had rank! We were just drifting off to sleep when Mon Père came in, told us to dress and to meet him at the old shed. When we filed in we met Major Thornton Haverson, U.S. Army Air Forces, recently the Air Executive Officer of the 921st Bomb Group. Alban introduced us to the Major, and I was initially surprised by how awkward his English had become. This French immersion had really taken hold. I was even thinking in French and was searching for the English equivalent of what I wished to say.
Major Haverson told us of being forced to bail out of his crippled bomber while returning from a raid on Germany. We were very interested to hear that we were finally bombing Germany. When we were shot down, we were still working targets in France.
The Major was surprised to hear that we had been down since last March. He demanded to know why we had made so little progress towards Spain in all of that time. Our explanation of Mon Père’s plan did not impress him. He began formulating a plan of escape, and gave us firm orders to go with him. It was Suzanne who brought things back under control. She came in while the Major was reviewing his plan and put a stop to it at once. The surprise on the Major’s face was almost comical as she hissed at him like an angry goose and gave the ultimatum: either he would stay and cooperate with Mon Père or they would summarily drop him off at police headquarters. Well, the usual after-action fatigue hit the Major right about then, and we left him locked up, sleeping like a baby on the dirt floor of that shed. Seeing the Major in his bomber clothes gave me a strong sense of how far we had come in our transformation to French farmers. It was surreal, but also strangely satisfying.
We were rudely awakened well before dawn as our bunkhouse door crashed open and German soldiers rushed inside with their rifles low and ready. They were shouting at us in bad English to get up and dress. Our stupid act worked perfectly as none of us moved, but rather stared in stunned silence at the rifle barrels. Serendipitously, that same bribe-taking junior officer came in with a flashlight and looked us over. I think he recognized us from the first time he had tried to requisition farm labor, because he told us in French to dress and come out.
We dressed with fumbling fingers and stepped out of our broken bunkhouse door into a scene of pandemonium. Germans were running all over that farm, kicking in all the doors. I stole a furtive glance at the floorless shed and saw that its door was already smashed in. Once again we were gathered together. A few additional officers who outranked our bribe-taking friend were referring to paper records in a leather folder. They were focused on their documents and always spoke in German, but I got the feeling that the issue was a lack of documentation on Mon Père’s three French farmworkers. I noted with satisfaction that they had no suspicion of us being American, but I also realized that the reason for this raid was Major Haverson. They were looking for him, but it was obvious that they had not found him yet.
We stood there for almost two hours, watching them destroy property and rough up Mon Père. The characteristic arrogance of the Germans worked in our favor. They did not bother to speak to us, as we were merely French farmhands, so my spotty French language skills, thankfully, escaped examination at that time.
The sun came up, and we were actually getting bored by the time the Germans left. Mon Père fed us a late breakfast and sent us out to the vines almost without a comment. We had extra chores through the next few days, fixing broken doors and latches. It was exactly a week later that Mon Père brought Major Haverson into the bunkhouse after dinner. It took me a couple of glances to recognize him as his own transformation was now complete. Like us, his uniform had been exchanged for worn peasant clothes, his hair had been badly cut, and he looked thinner.
In whispered English, the Major told us that Mon Père woke him in the middle of that first night and took him to the main house. They put him in a root cellar in which lay a small cave they had carved into the stone foundation. The Major had to squirm through the entrance hole, barely large enough for him, and allow Mon Père to replace the stones and bury him alive for a time. He said that he had sat in the darkness for less than an hour when he heard the Germans ransacking the cellar. Mon Père must have replaced the stones shrewdly, because he wasn’t found. He had spent the week in the root cellar. Suzanne had changed his relief pot twice a day and brought him food. She had talked with him, and he had agreed to stay with us and try for Spain in the fall. His name was now Philippe.
June and July slipped by without much fuss, and I was relishing the farm life. Despite the obvious dangers of hiding in plain sight, I was feeling safer than I ever had riding in that top turret of The Lucky Gal, banging away with those .50 caliber machine guns and dreading the next flak burst. We all admitted to feeling twinges of guilt as we thought of the group still fighting the war. But that feeling always faded a bit when we remembered that our only alternative was capture and imprisonment.
The only persistent source of discord in our arrangement was the Major. He wouldn’t work. It quickly became apparent that he was determined to sit, eat and wait. He insisted on speaking English and did as little as possible, other than pretending to work whenever Germans came around. Raoul figured that he was pushing back at Mon Père and Suzanne for failing to defer to his rank. Mon Père, however, did not reward his petulance with a confrontation. He just worked the three of us harder and ignored the Major. The one thing I always saw in Mon Père’s eyes was his resolute intention to have a bountiful harvest of grapes. It was amazing how he never lost sight of that goal while our war raged all around him.
Before being shot down, I didn’t know beans about grapes. Now I could tell you volumes. Mon Père couldn’t read and could only scrawl his name, but he was a master of vineyards. We learned from Suzanne that his normal seasonal crew had been ten men. Mon Père was working hard enough for three, and we were each working at least twice as much as normal men, though the Major was more a liability than an asset. Yet, even with this labor shortage, Mon Père was on track to produce a good harvest. I remember when Alban let out an excited whoop and called us over to see a small grape cluster, our first that was starting to grow. Mon Père didn’t discipline us; we were chattering away in French, and I think he was gratified by our boyish enthusiasm for the grapes.
The next two months are an exhausted blur in my memory. It was little more than work and sleep separated by small meals. There were a few times when Mon Père sent Alban into town on an errand. He even sent me in alone a couple of times. He told us to watch the Frenchmen as they were forced to interact with the Germans. I was nervous at first, but soon learned the manner.
By late September, the grapes were in. Suzanne congratulated us herself as we harvested a crop which was nearly as good as Mon Père’s best harvest back in 1936. She admitted to being very impressed by our achievement. We all knew that the credit really belonged to that tired old French farmer, Mon Père.
Our anxiety began to build as we contemplated our imminent escape. We talked late into the night for several nights in a row about strategies and dangers. It was all pointless, really, because we had no idea what to expect. Mon Père would simply stop us with a short wave of his hand whenever we tried to discuss it with him. He kept us busy with the grapes, showing us the proper way to handle them and load them for the trip to Spain. He had three large wagons pulled by horses upon which we would be riding two men each. He handed us citizenship papers which bore our French names and photographs. I became concerned as we examined them, because they looked like very poor forgeries. We noticed several inconsistencies in the printing and stamps. I suspected that Mon Père had purchased them from a sleazy black market dealer and had been cheated. We tried to think of plausible stories to explain these bad papers, but came up with no satisfying excuses. There was one other serious problem. Of the two actual Frenchmen who were traveling down with us on the delivery, one was a collaborator. Mon Père knew this by knowing his father and family for many years, owners of the neighboring farm. He warned us to not talk to him and to always respond to his questions with surly gestures and monosyllabic answers. The Major questioned why he would be with us if his loyalty was suspect, and Mon Père replied that it was routine for him to go, and excluding him would cause suspicion and investigation. The only instructions Mon Père gave us involved scheduling. Alban and Raoul would leave in the first wagon, followed six hours later by me and our trusted Frenchman. The Major and our collaborator would set out the next morning. The route was quite simply the main road to Spain.
I sometimes wish that I had exciting stories to tell of our daring escape from occupied France, but I have none. We drove down that road like we were driving down Route 66 to Los Angeles. We passed through nine checkpoints including the main one at the border. Each time, the German guards would ask for our papers. They always looked at them suspiciously, asking several questions in French about where we got the grapes and who we worked for. Mon Père had instructed us to tell the truth about his farm and the grapes. The guards watched us carefully as we answered and then always let us pass.
After four days of traveling and sleeping with the wagons, we arrived at the farm of Señor De la Garza near La Concha, Spain. I was greatly relieved to see the first wagon sitting empty beside a large barn. Mike and Tom came running out to greet me along with several other men who stood by smiling as we chattered away in French about our amazing escape.
Once we calmed somewhat, Mike introduced me to two of the men whose names actually were Jean-Luc and Alban, Mon Père’s two sons. Mike said that they had spent most of the evening talking about Mon Père and Suzanne. These men were very homesick, but gladdened by the unexpected crop of grapes and news of their irascible father. Though we were now safely in Spain, these careful brothers still kept all other information about their family from us. They feared that we could possibly be shot down again and interrogated by the Germans. Until the war was over, they would never let down their guard.
We waited and worried three days for the Major. Mike quickly resumed his officer’s demeanor and made arrangements for us to turn ourselves over to the governing authority of Spain as escaped combatants. The Spanish authorities were friendly and professional. We were given a physical checkup, which we each passed with flying colors. Indeed, the Spanish had trouble at first believing us to be American, but our credentials were confirmed through the diplomatic channels. We eventually boarded a Spanish freighter and arrived back in England on the 12th of December, 1943.
We were given a hero’s welcome, for we three were the first of our group to escape occupied France. Sadly, we learned that of the ten men on The Lucky Gal only two were reported to be in German prison camps. Three were known to be dead and two more were listed as missing in action as we had been. It was a bittersweet reunion. I missed many faces and felt like a stranger in my own group. By all accounts, there would still be heavy casualties in the days ahead, but I was not destined to be one of them. In consideration of our ordeal in France, the army sent us back to the United States, ending my combat experience. Alban and Jean-Luc needn’t have worried, because the Allied command had anticipated their fears; it was a standing rule that returning crews were not sent back into combat in order to protect the good French people who helped them.
I spent the remainder of the war training new gunners in marksmanship, aircraft maintenance and, of all things, escape and evasion. I lay awake many nights in the following war years wondering about Mon Père and worrying about his crops during each harvest season. It bothered me that I still did not know their names. I knew that God knew for whom I prayed when I prayed for Mon Père, Suzanne, Alban and Jean-Luc, four very brave French people to whom I owed so very much.
I went back there. It was March 15th, 1948, almost five years to the day after my bail-out, when I got off the train in Limoges, France. I had cashed in all of my savings for this trip, and nothing could have kept me away. For years I had been hounding the military records personnel, trying to learn the fates of my missing crewmates. The two POWs were ultimately returned home, and the missing ones were never found. Mike, Tom, and I, naturally, stayed very close. I learned that Major Haverson had been picked up as he traveled towards Spain. As we had been warned, being found in civilian clothes proved to be a bad thing, and he spent a while in severe interrogation. Weakened by the experience, he succumbed to dysentery while in a prison camp in early 1945.
I was surprised at the changes I saw in the little village. The American influence was obvious as there were many cars and once dirt roads were now paved. After a couple of wrong turns, I found the farm.
Through watery eyes I saw Jean-Luc driving a tractor in the near field. I was reminded of how often I had wished Mon Père had one of those. Jean-Luc was cautious at first, but as I explained myself in rusty French, he lit up and scooped me into a bear hug. We were immediately surrounded by many people, among whom was Suzanne. We were all laughing and crying asI talked about how they had saved us, while they insisted that the young American flyers had saved them.
I stayed for two weeks on that timeless farm, and even put in my share of the work. Mon Père had passed away two years prior in 1946. Yvette, as Suzanne was rightly called, told me how he had sent away the crop that year, went to bed, and never got up again. She said that the Germans never gave them trouble after we left, for which I credit Major Haverson. Despite the aggressive interrogation, he had kept Mon Père’s secrets. Things did not go so well for the collaborator’s farm. Being caught with the Major caused the Germans to shut them down, which eased Mon Père’s war considerably and provided a few reliable workers.
I marveled at how easily we had traveled to Spain, especially considering our shoddy papers. Yvette just laughed.
“Forged papers were very common in the middle war years,” she explained. “If your papers had been good, you would have been made suspicious. Rather, what the Germans looked for was pale skin, tender hands, and poor knowledge of French and the area. Your months of working for Mon Père were your real papers.”
It was clear now why the poor Major didn’t make it, though when I accused Mon Père of setting him up, Yvette waved me down. If the Major had put in the same effort Mike, Tom and I had, she said, Mon Père would have found a way. I believed her. She told me that every night after we left, as he would finish his evening prayers, his voice would sound like a little boy’s as he would retell his story about how God answered his prayers with a miracle, by dropping three good laborers for the vineyard out of the very sky. As for love, Yvette said she saw him cry only twice in her life, once when his wife died and again as he watched my wagon disappear around the bend.
It has been so many years since that terrible war. In the times since, I have known the joys of marriage, children, friendships, peace and most of all, faith. Though I am now as old as he was then and have known his Christian name since my return visit, in my daily prayers for him, I still call him Mon Père – my French father, who showed a young American army sergeant so much about grapes and how to be a man.