This day 67 years ago: Tales of evasion, apprehension and escape from the 362nd FG

On June 17, 1944, despite a low ceiling between 1500 and 3000 feet, the 362nd Fighter Group flew a series of armed reconnaissance missions from Cherbourg to Laval, landing at the advance field A-6 after the first mission and flying three further squadron-sized missions. The 378th attacked a causeway at Buoneville, destroying docks, warehouses, trucks and horse-drawn carts loaded with ammunition. The 379th flew three missions, including a 12-plane mission that destroyed five trucks during their patrol; Bob McKee caught a truck full of troops and splintered it with a strafing attack. A second mission led by Lt. Bill Flavin destroyed three more trucks. Four planes pilots were lost during the day. Lt. Richard Gordon in P-47D-22 42-26117 ran low on fuel, possibly after a hit to his fuel system, and was conferring with Lt. Frank Lee in P-47D-22 42-26117 when the two pulled into some clouds and collided. Both men bailed out, and Lee’s P-47D-20-RE 42-25304 was seen to plummet to earth and impact in a cloud of dust. The two 379th FS pilots were spotted by a French woman, who also noted some German troops in the area; she distracted them and Lee and Gordon reached the ground about a mile apart without being spotted by the enemy. Lee hid out in the countryside, while Gordon was hidden by some townspeople in a barn for the evening. A few French civilians brought Gordon food in the afternoon, which he gratefully accepted and then tried to communicate his thanks despite the language barrier. All the while, the Germans were searching for both men, although their efforts were disorganized and hinted at the panic sweeping the Wehrmacht following the D-Day landings. Just the same, several people in the village were arrested and jailed by the Germans after being suspected of helping the two airmen.

Soon, Lee and Gordon were brought together and put in the custody of Commander Gilles (the code name of Rene Billaud), the leader of the local Maquis forces. They were moved to a safe house owner by a farmer, but the Germans were still on the lookout. Gordon and Lee stayed for two days, feasting on the farmer’s jam, until Commander Gilles arranged for their transportation aboard a motorcycle to the mansion of Mdme. Pean Ponfilly in Breffeillac Pommeret on the northern coast. A resistence member named Jaquemin made two trips to shuttle the men north, changing routes and ducking enemy patrols the entire time. The manor was host to some 80 men fleeing the Germans: Polish and Russian laborers, Italians, German deserters and a Czech RAF warrant officer, Robert Ossendorf. A radio message soon came to deliver Lee, Gordon and Ossendorf to the allies. The men traveled first to Pont D’Jour, then to allied lines on the night of 12-13 July 1944. Lee and Gordon traveled back to England about the British boat MGB 503. Their escape experience was such that they were transferred out of theatre.

A third 379th pilot, Lt. William R. Fredenberg, went down in P-47D-11 42-75593. His aircraft came skidding down in a field, sending troops from the 15th Fallschrimjager Regiment of Hitler Youth who were training there scattering, and he was quickly apprehended. Fredenberg was captured, interrogated and sent to first the manor at Lambeth, then to Frontstalag 133, a provisional camp near Rennes. On July 5, the 600 men at the camp were notified that they would soon leave this camp for another in Germany. The presence of trains attracted air attack; at one point in the day, some stray 20mm flak shells hit the camp and killed an American pilot. That night, the men were loaded onto “40 and 8” rail cars, with the guards in a separate passenger car, and they set out toward at about midnight, traveling to Redon on the west coast of France.

The next night, the train headed for Nantes. The food rations consisted of a loaf of bread per man every three days, plus a pair of large pitchers of water for each car every day. The train remained near Nantes until July 9, when it set out again along the Loire, arriving next in Angers, where the rail yard was a “scene of total destruction, with locomotives and cars thrown end over end as the result of Allied bombing,” wrote one of the prisoners later. The train paused only briefly before heading for Tours; when they arrived an air raid was in progress. The train stopped outside of town and on July 10, the locomotive was removed and sent to pull a cargo considered more important by the Germans.

The prisoners remained imprisoned in the 40 and 8 cars for 10 days, watching air raids near them but thankfully never becoming a target. On July 21, a locomotive was hooked to the train and started pulling the prisoners east, but that night an Allied plane strafed the locomotive. The guards fled to the surrounding fields, leaving the prisoners to their fates. A replacement locomotive had to be brought up, and at about 1 a.m., the train began to roll again. Lt. Fredenberg brought with him a small hammer, so he and a group of men decided to knock a hole in the already-damaged end of a car and make an escape. After an hour, they broke through and pushed aside the metal plates on the outside of the car. In groups of two and three, the prisoners squeezed through the hole and onto the tracks.

Fredenberg was in the third group; he and another man watched the train roll into the distance, then used a compass Fredenberg had also squirreled away and headed for the River Char. They hid at the river’s edge until the following day, when they saw French farmers working in the fields. With some difficulty, they asked one of them for food; when he was convinced they weren’t Germans, he sent his son running to fetch food and water. While waiting, they saw a long train come under attack by two P-38 Lightnings; the first pass stopped the locomotive, and the next saw bombs strike the cars, which were loaded with ammunition. Within minutes, the entire train was ablaze and Germans were fleeing in every direction. Fredenberg and his companion decided to hit the road to avoid this ruckus, but the farmer’s son arrived just then with a basket of food, and they paused to eat for the first time in 36 hours.

Their next action was to search the riverside for a boat. The effort was fruitless and at 2 a.m. the pair decided to catch some shuteye. Fredenberg was soon awakened by German voices; he clamped his hand over his sleeping buddy’s mouth as they marched within 20 feet of their hiding place, searching for the men. When an aircraft flew over, they took advantage of the noised to remove heir boots and blacken their faces with river mud. They crawled on their bellies away from the river into a cabbage field, which at its far end had a German soldier every few rows. Somehow, by crawling quietly and slowly, the two men eluded their pursuers. Abandoning the river as a means of escape, they doubled back to the rail line.

The next morning they headed through a thick wood, encountering two French civilians, who helped them orient themselves and tipped them off to the many Germans in the area. They promised to bring help, and that evening they were led to a Maquis camp and given civilian clothes. They were taken to Amboise, where on July 24 they were treated to a hearty meal, then taken by car to a Maquis camp, crossing a bridge that was guarded by two flak guns. To their relief, the German guards made no effort to stop them. Soon, they reached a Maquis camp in the Brouard Forest, commanded by Georges le Coz. They were met by two other men from the train. The Americans were folded into this group, going on forays into the country for food and hunting for collaborators and German patrols. After three days of this, the camp was moved, and the men learned of seven more Allied troops hiding nearby, all escapees of the same train.

After a few days, the Maquis realized the Germans were closing in on them. They abandoned their vehicles and much of the equipment and tried to melt through the German dragnet; they reassembled on a farm near Cusson. They continued their operations, adding more allied personnel to their ranks and adding them to their partisan army. In August, the Allies captured the area where Fredenberg and his fellow partisans had been hiding, and he returned to England.

The 378th was not immune to losses, either. Blue Flight was on an armed reconnaissance mission and had just broken below the overcast south of Rouen on the Seine when German gunners “laid an accurate barrage,” reported Lt. Howard Kelgard. “Blue Leader took us to the left of the town (Mantes-Gassicourt). Blue Three and Four were ahead of Blue Leader because of the flak. Through the overcast came a flight of 16 fighters, heading out. I called them in at two o’clock, then they started to break in on our rear. I told Blue Leader we’d better break into them. Blue Three (Lt. Frank Glover) was in the lead; he broke and I latched onto his wing. The Jerries’ flight had strung out considerably in an arc, for as we turned into one or two, they were in a position to shoot us from the rear. On the second Lufbery turn, I saw a P-47 heading for the deck in a 70-degree dive. The wings were level, but it never pulled out. It exploded when it hit. There was no chute seen.”

This was Glover’s plane, P-47D-22 42-26548; German fire ignited the fragmentation bombs on his right pylon. Glover was burned but he jumped just before the P-47 exploded in mid-air. On the way down, German infantrymen fired at him with their rifles, but missed; Glover used his compass and the maps provided for just such an occasion to head for friendly lines. Some French farmers provided hiding places and food; others were not so eager to aid the American pilot. Eventually, Glover ran into some American troops who greeted him by leveling their carbines and Thompson submachineguns at him. These wary troops were from the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, and their S-2 officer made sure Glover was on a C-47 back to Headcorn the next day.

At the day’s end, Lt. Robert Day damaged P-47D 42-75042 in a landing accident at Headcorn.

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