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 ©2014, Aaron Elson



Escape in Normandy

Marcel Bollag, 82nd Airborne Division

Page 2

© copyright Marcel Bollag, 2000, 2009


    June 10, Saturday: The first thing which woke me up that morning were some American P-47 planes which were looking for targets around our area. At about 10 a.m. the Germans allowed us to go to the latrine, then locked us in the barracks. The planes were constantly overhead but did not spot the Germans. Then suddenly in the afternoon the door was opened and we were told to leave. They lined us up again, except for the officers, and gave each one of us a half a loaf of bread and a piece of "German blood sausage" with the remark that this had to last three days. What a feeling I had. There I was starving already and I did start eating some bread. We had a long march ahead of us so I figured it would be better to have something in the stomach. We then lined up outside, with the bread in one hand. It must have been about 4 p.m. The Germans warned us that we had to march at least 70 kilometers before we would hit another camp. OK, we wanted to get started. We marched rather fast, always south on the west side of the peninsula. Passed some villages and many blown-up German trucks. In other words, the American Air Force had been busy over here.

    We stopped at a crossing. My feet were hurting terrifically. My flea bites had opened up and the whole foot was very much swollen. For a minute I thought I could not continue anymore but, of course, as I had to I got along and after a while forgot the pain. Three Germans bleeding on hands and arms were standing next to their crippled truck which had been hit by our fighters. I had to smile when I saw that. I did not know then that very soon we were to experience something similar or much worse.

    About 8 p.m. we marched throught Benesville. We had just passed the village and were about 200 yards outside on the main road when suddenly, like lightning, a plane dove down on us. We had seen about three planes circling above us all the time. They were American P-47s. Well, this plane meant business, and I just remember the noise of about eight machine guns blasting away on us in a street.

    I jumped for the ditch on the right side of the road. So did everybody else. The .50-caliber bullets hit on all sides of me. I just kept praying. As soon as the plane had gone I made a break over the hedgerow into an orchard and looked for some better cover. I had hardly ducked down when the second plane dove down and strafed again. This position was much better for me. I ran again further away and found myself a pretty good spot. I saw the third plane come toward us. One of our boys was standing in the orchard waving a yellow flag, but the pilot could not see it. I stayed another 15 minutes under the bush and then started looking for John. I found him soon. We looked at each other and both had the same idea. Should we try for a break? We both could not decide on it. We looked around and saw the entire road covered with dead and wounded paratroopers. We did not have the heart to leave them there and decided to stay with them. It was a terrible, bloody mess. Everybody in the ditch was killed. Many of the boys in the orchard were completely shot up and dying right there. We took them to the next farmhouse and, of course, tried to help them as much as possible, but we had little or better than none at all medical equipment. How I ever got out of this alive I do not know yet today.

    In my right pocket of the jump pants I carried a canteen of water. A .50-caliber bullet had hit right through there, knocked out the canteen, but never touched me. I did not know what to think. Two German guards had also been killed, a very small percentage to the number of Americans.

    I got permission to go to the village and get some woolen blankets from the French people. They were all very willing to give all they had. I took them back to the farm and we then went back to the road to pick up the rest of the boys. One German sergeant said, "Let them lay in the ditches so the civilian people can see how dumb the Americans are to kill their own boys." But this was not even well-received by the German guards. The French farmer gave the wounded some Cognac. Out of 200 paratroopers, about 20 were killed immediately, another 15 died during the night on account of losing too much blood, and many more were severely wounded.

    We slept in the barn that night. However, I could never close my eyes for a minute. It was a dream for me to be alive right then.

    June 11th, Sunday: At about 9 a.m. a farmer came into the barn and brought some milk and butter for us. I was really hungry for I had lost all my bread in yesterday’s strafing and had not eaten in 24 hours. I spoke French to the farmer and split up the milk and butter. I then asked him how the chances were to hide out here and he said that he was not the boss but just a plain worker and would go ask the owner of the farm. He came back very soon and told me the boss was afraid of hiding me out and would not take such a risk. I found out that we were 20 miles away from our original drop zone, which now should be in American hands. All this time I did not hear any rifle or artillery fire at all and figured out the Americans must be further away. I spoke to John and we both figured out that there was not much of a chance to get back to our lines at this moment, so we stuck with the other boys.

    I went into the back yard in the afternoon and pulled out some carrots and onions. I was really starved. We buried the boys in the afternoon under German guard. We all refused to march in the daytime. We did not want to go through a similar experience and the German in charge finally agreed to march at night rather fast and rest in the daytime. We had 60 kilometers to make that night without stopping, so we started out around 6 p.m. at a very quick pace. The troopers really went fast. We passed through La Haye du Puits (completely bombed out; only the church was standing), passed through Lessay (which looked the same), and then cut to the left. At 10 p.m. the German guards were so tired that we took an hour’s break behind some farmhouse. By now we knew we were way past our lines and no more chance to be recaptured. My feet were hurting. Still we kept on moving after 11 p.m. and marched ahead.

    June 12, Monday: When we took off after our rest period, I decided to march at the very rear of the column. This cost me a little labor for I had to carry a bread case for the Germans. After half an hour I was released and started speaking to this German guard. He was rather friendly. I told him that I knew some German and tried to speak to him. He said I was getting along fine and spoke some English to me. He was a 19-year-old blond fellow, a paratrooper too but had never jumped out of a plane yet. He told me that I was going to have it good in Germany and how many Red Cross packages I would get a month. However, he was certain that Germany was going to win the war. He had no idea what was going on near Cherbourg. Anyhow, we became more or less friends. He said the war was over for me and he did not think that any of us would try to get away. So we walked along, still going quickly, and some of the German youngsters complained of pains. So at 2 a.m. the Heinies decided to stop at a farm and rest. They were dead tired. So were the troopers, only we did not show it too much. We went to sleep in the straw. There were some chickens below me and some noise, but I was too tired to worry about it. Planes were overhead all night but did not pick on anything.

    Next morning I woke up, looked around, and walked out through the door. The German guards were sitting outside eating breakfast. I was very hungry indeed and had nothing left to eat. I went to see my young blond friend and asked him whether or not I could go to the farmhouse and try to get some bread. He said "yes" and also asked me to get some cider for him. So I went inside the house, saw some old Frenchwoman who gave me a piece of good bread with butter and she put it in my pocket so the Germans would not take it away from me. I also got some cider for the "Nazi" and then looked around the house. There was a real Frenchman standing nearby. I went up to him and asked him what the chances were for me to hide out in that district.

    "Well," he said, "of course, I shall bring you something to eat if you can get away. You will not have to worry about that."

    I told him I would let him know by 3 p.m. and he said he would be there at that time. Back I went with the cider, gave it to the German, and then I went to see John.

    "What do you think of it?" I asked him. "At least if we get away we shall have something to eat."

    He agreed to take a chance, and I told him to rest a little and try to sleep; we might not get any more sleep for a long while. Exactly at 3 p.m. I looked through the door and saw the Frenchman walk up near the farm. I went nearby and he asked me whether I could read French, to which I said, "Mais oui." So he dropped a little piece of paper which I picked up and then went away. I went back to John, opened it up, and read it. The following sentence was written on it: "I meet you at midnight behind the farmhouse in the orchard." His first name was Albert. Now we studied how we could get away. The actual escape cannot be written down until after the war. It was quite an experience. We had told nobody about it.

    It was 4 p.m. We were both sitting in the bushes near a small river, well-camouflaged. I don’t think any of us made any move or noise. We were too scared. I watched the rear and John the front. Every time a bird would settle down in the tree next to us I was sure a German would be next to us. Those hours were really terrible. It seemed like a week.

    At 8 p.m. it got rather chilly but we did not worry about it. It seemed a long time until it got dark. Many times I thought I heard Germans and footsteps. I don’t know today yet whether it was my imagination or the real thing. Slowly and carefully we got up at 11 p.m., climbed up the embankment and looked around, waiting any second to be stopped or shot at. We went through bushes and fields. Once I heard a funny noise. I dropped down in the high grass. The noise came again. I was scared, but only a horse across the hedgerow had taken a step. So we got back to the farm.

    I moved along the hedgerow. I sent John into the barn to find out whether all had left and I went around the farmhouse to check there. We both met after a few minutes and were happy that all the Heinies and GIs had left. Then we went behind the farmhouse and sat down in the orchard. Would he come and could we trust him? I felt that he was a real good Frenchman. At midnight I heard my name called. I answered with "Oui." Nothing happened. No Frenchman showed up. I did not want to call anymore and unnecessarily attract Germans. We waited until 1 a.m.

    June 13th, Thursday: I decided now to get some rest. John was excited and said, "Your damn Frenchman surely did not show up."

    "Just wait," I said. "Don’t worry. We’ll be OK."

    I found an unoccupied bed in the stable and decided we might as well be comfortable. So we went to bed, shoes on, of course, just in case, and slept a little. I woke up at 6 a.m., got out of bed, and looked through a little hole. Some Frenchwoman was yelling outside. I waited and waited. Finally at 7:30 a.m. I saw a man coming up the road. My heart almost stood still. It was Albert. I opened the door and winked him over. He was the happiest man to see us. First of all he opened his sack and out came a half a loaf of bread, butter, and a bottle of milk. My eyes almost popped out. Milk – I had not seen any fresh milk since I left the States. We really got this breakfast down like wolves. We then talked to each other. Albert told me that the Germans left this farm at 11 p.m. last night. They counted all the prisoners and found us missing but did not look around much. Of course, they could easily figure us among the dead in the strafing two days before. Albert then took us through the fields and showed us a hideout, left us there, and said he would be back at about 2 p.m.

    We were sitting in the bushes but did not like our camouflage and decided to move about 200 yards away. We were always whispering and figuring out how much of a chance we had to hide until the Americans would roll by. However, at that time the Americans did not roll at all. The war moved very slowly.

    At about 2 p.m. I heard my name called by a woman. I had been constantly looking at our first hideout because my stomach was talking to me. I was very, very hungry. I took my white handkerchief and waved the woman over. She saw me immediately and came together with a young boy. She told me she was Albert’s wife and that he was busy. She gave each of us a container, a bottle of cider and a big piece of bread and butter. Then she left and said Albert would be back at night. I opened the container. "Hot meat, potatoes, beans, and gravy," I whispered to John. Boy, was I excited. We ate every bit of it and I believe the biggest steak in the States could not have tasted any better. I felt wonderful except for being very dirty, tired, and, of course, rather uncertain.

    The afternoon went by slowly – much too slowly for comfort. We observed in all directions, but no Germans showed up. Towards 9 p.m. Albert came back. His face was like a mirror when I told him how wonderful this meal was. He was happy to help us. He said he had found a house for us where we could spend the night. Nobody lived in it. After it got dark we walked back to the house, about 200 yards away from Albert’s house, and went in there. There was plenty of straw and Albert brought three blankets to make us comfortable. He said he would be back soon. He came back in half an hour with two bottles of hot milk, plenty of bread and butter, and pulled four hot boiled eggs out of his pocket. Knives and everything were also there. He wished us "good night" and said he would be back in the morning. I asked him about the "Jerries" and he told me there were not many around this neighborhood. We slept good that night, always hoping and hoping. I did not know then that I would be stuck for weeks to come.

    June 14th, Wednesday: Albert came about 8 a.m. He must have known already that we liked to sleep a lot. He brought milk and plenty of bread and butter again. He sat down next to us and told me that overnight many Germans had passed right nearby and were in this neighborhood. I looked at him a bit worried and immediately said to him, "I guess we must put on civilian clothes." John, my friend, was strictly against it but I made clear to him that the only chance was civilian clothes and I was going to do it. He finally agreed, and I told Albert my plans. He was happy to hear about them for he said it was much less risk for him and he had wanted to tell me the same thing.

    "Wait a while; I will see what I can do for you." He was gone. In 15 minutes he came back with a big bucket full of hot water, a Gillette safety razor, Gillette blue blades, some soap, and two towels. I wondered where he had picked all these up, but they were there. We washed, shaved, and, believe me, we had quite something to shave. It was the best feeling in a long while except for the first food we got. Then Albert came back again with a big sack over his shoulder. He got out two pairs of farmer pants (they really looked old and worn out), a regular shirt, socks, hunting jacket, French cap and, of course, those famous wooden shoes. All my G.I. clothes, including ring, watches, wings, and boots went into this sack. I looked in the mirror. I was a civilian again – the first time in two and a half years. We laughed at each other, but of course, did not feel too safe. We then went to his home. He is a blacksmith in a small village, the name of which I do not want to disclose at this moment. His wife, of course, I had already met. Then I met Simone, a girl 15 years old, very charming indeed; two boys, Fernand and Louis, 6 and 7 years old; and the youngest of the family, Claude, the cutest baby I have ever seen, blond, and two years of age. He was the happiest little boy I ever knew. Besides the family, two boys stayed at the house, Jean and Albert – two husky boys who worked at the shop. In France, workers in the country stay with the boss, eat and live there.

    The first thing we did when we arrived was to dig a hole in their garden and put our G.I. clothes in it. We did this in a hurry, covered it up, and planted beans on top of it. Then I heard a lot of noise: "A al soupe," which means, "Let’s go and eat dinner."

    Everybody settled down at a big table and there was really plenty to eat. I felt right at home right away and was hungry enough for this wonderful meal. We had soup, beef with potatoes, salad, bread and butter, cider (glass after glass) and then coffee with French Calvados. This is the champagne of Normandy – 65 percent alcohol, like Kirsch, only much stronger. It was a lovely meal. I told them our story; the kids were just as interested as the grownups. I believe we sat at the table at least two hours.

    Albert then told me that the entire family slept in a big trench because of the bombers and said they were going to dig a trench for us. So in the afternoon we got busy making a trench, covering it up, and putting plenty of straw and blankets in it. It was very comfortable. We had dinner at night, talked until dark, and then went to bed. Jean, one of the young workers, slept with us. Just in case the Germans came around, we at least would have a real Frenchman with us.

    June 15, Thursday: I woke up at 8 a.m. Simone, the young girl, came to our trench and told us breakfast was ready. She was the most wonderful young girl. She worked at home now since the war had started in France and she would do anything for us. These people were really happy and proud having us. We went for breakfast. What a meal!! Not even in the good old States can you eat like that. First, soup with plenty of bread in it. Then 2-3 eggs, potatoes, bread, butter milk, some meat, cider and, of course, calvados. It was like a hotel.

    After chow we cleaned up and studied the map. We had not had any news since we landed and had no idea what was going on. We figured the Americans should be moving into our area in at least three days. How wrong we were.

    The morning was spent playing with the kids, playing cards, and watching the women make dinner. Boy, she really could cook. Simone got all the vegetables in the garden and we helped prepare them. John went into the trench and slept. He slept most of the time since he could not speak French and was bored. We had dinner at 1 p.m. (A very wonderful meal) and spent about two hours at it.

    Well, Albert came in and had some news. First of all, the Germans were moving into this village which was rather inconvenient and, second, he told me that the Americans were not coming our way. Bad news! But he said, "Don’t let it get you down; they will come soon." Albert then told me that the Maire of the village would like to meet us this afternoon. I was afraid all the time the kids would talk, but found out now that the entire village knew we were there. They were proud to help us. One farmer came four kilometers every day to bring two pounds of butter. The woman next door brought milk every morning. The butcher supplied us with the best of meat. The baker gave us all the bread and made cookies for the first time in four years. In other words, everybody gave away whatever he had. One old woman came in to see us and brought the most wonderful jam she had saved up for years. Albert never had so much to eat before we came. Now the people brought in everything.

    This afternoon we met the Maire, a fine, very pleasant man. He sat down in the garden with us and pulled out a bottle of wonderful white wine. We met lots of people; all were very nice to us. The day passed away much faster. Out of 24 hours, we slept at least 10, ate 7, and the rest of the time we were busy talking to people or working a little in the garden.

    Our fighter planes were overhead all the time, bombed all around us, and many times we lay in the trenches. This night I went to bed with a full stomach, happy in a way, and with much hope.

    June 16, Friday: The usual breakfast. I was looking forward to this meal all the time. We ate about four times a day. This morning I played with the kids. We had a lot of fun. Since we came to the house the two workers did not believe in working any more but were always with us, just like a protection. This morning all the people came to say hello, and then we saw some Germans passing outside the house, some on bicycles, on horses, and on foot. When we had dinner one Unteroffizier came in and asked for some eggs, but Madame said they were not farmers and, therefore, had no eggs. The German left. This was our first test with Heinies again, and plenty more were to come.

    Albert very seldom ate dinner with us. He was busy getting supplies from different people, and believe me, he knew just where to get them and how. His business was dead anyway since the war came and nobody bothered him much. He came back at 3 p.m., ate some soup, of course, and told us that he had found out two more paratroopers lived 1 kilometer away with one of his friends. They also dressed in civilian clothes. This, of course, was grand news for us. We wanted to see them badly.

    This afternoon we sat in the garden and took a sunbath. Suddenly I heard a noise in the hedgerow and saw a French policeman climbing over it. He had a pistol. It was too late to run. Boy, was I scared. He came nearer and asked me whether we were the two fellows staying with Albert.

    "Yes," I said. So he opened his blouse and pulled out a big bottle of champagne.

    "Pour vous," he said, and we drank together. He was a swell guy. He told us how glad he was that we had gotten away from the Jerries and told me when we tried to go back to our lines he would give me a pistol. It was a wonderful afternoon. He promised us he would come again the next day and would bring along another friend. He took off, and we still did not believe what had happened. This little village seemed to be OK – everybody willing to help us. I felt a lot safer and thought I could trust these people.

    Albert told us of many Germans moving in so we had to be careful. This afternoon Julien, a new character, showed up. He seemed to be rather well informed about the news. He told me of a P-47 pilot living next to him also in civilian clothes. He promised me he would bring him over. At this time the pilot was still hurt from a crash but he was supposed to be OK within a few days. So this Friday was a rather pleasant day. At night a few people from the neighborhood came over and we spent a pleasant evening.

    Then came Saturday.

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