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World War II ‘evaders’ congregate at memorial

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott Elliott
  • Air Force Print News
Their shoulders may be stooped, and their pace a little slow. Hearing aids are a common “fashion statement,” and their hair, what’s left of it, is a tad gray. But one look into their eyes is enough to know the old spirit of adventure is still there.

About 80 members of the Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society visited the national World War II Memorial on May 3 as part of their annual reunion. The society comprises both U.S. Airmen who successfully evaded capture after bailing out of their aircraft over Europe in World War II and a number of the European civilians who helped them.

“We had downed Airmen and a number of people (from) the underground who helped get folks back to friendly lines,” said Lt. Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, who sponsored the group.

The group came to General McNabb’s attention three years ago when he was invited to address a reunion in Tampa, Fla.

“My father was a World War II pilot in Europe and, but for the grace of God, could have been one of those downed Airmen,” General McNabb said.

One of those downed Airman was retired Col. (then-2nd Lt.) Robert Grimes, a B-17 pilot whose escape exploits are the subject of the recently-released book “The Freedom Line,” by Peter Eisner.

Colonel Grimes was shot down on a mission over Belgium in October 1943. Although hobbled by a bullet in the leg, he managed to make his way through the countryside until he found a friendly doctor in Brussels who treated his wound.

After his leg healed, Colonel Grimes worked his way to Paris, through the Pyrenees Mountains, to Gibraltar and, eventually, back to England.

Another downed Airman was then-2nd Lt. Ralph Patton. Mr. Patton, current society chairman, was part of a group of 25 Airmen who managed to contact the British Royal Navy by radio.

After paddling more than a mile into the English Channel off the coast of Brittany, they were picked up by a British motor gunboat. But Mr. Patton’s 72-day evasion ordeal was not over. The gunboat crew had to make their way through a squadron of six German “E-Boats” that suddenly appeared between them and the English coast.

While each former Airman has his own unique story to tell, they are similar in many ways, primarily because of the aid local civilian “helpers” gave them.

Marguerite Brouard-Fraser, whose mother, Alice, was presented the Medal of Freedom by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Silver Laurel award from England’s King George VI, helped 17 Airmen to safety.

“We were contacted by some friends in Paris, who asked if we would hide American Airmen until they were ready to be sent back to England through the Pyrenees Mountains,” she said.

“It was a very tense and frightening time because once we had two spies in our apartment,” Mrs. Brouard-Fraser said. “We thought they were American Airmen, but they were Germans pretending to be Americans, so that was a close encounter.”

Helping downed Airmen was a dangerous enterprise. Toward the end of the German occupation of France, some members of Mrs. Brouard-Fraser’s group were captured, tortured and executed, she said.

Mrs. Brouard-Fraser said she and countless other civilians in Western Europe put themselves and their families at risk for one simple reason.

“We wanted to be free,” she said. “Who wants to see the enemy occupy (his or her) country? That was the main reason, because we wanted to get rid of them.”

Remembering that effort and sacrifice is what it is all about, Mr. Patton said.

“Our whole objective is to pay our respects the men and women who risked their lives to save our necks,” he said.

“This is about the people who put their lives on the line to free Europe from the Nazis; (it is about) the people who helped (our Airmen) get back so they could fight again,” General McNabb said. “The love affair they have for each other is something that is awesome to behold.”