1st /Lt John Balcunas USAAF 22nd Fighter Squadron was flying his P-47 Thunderbolt on a strafing mission over France on 21 May 1944 when he was shot down by flak from the last coach of a train he was attacking. Leading a group of four aircraft he had run into dense fog over eastern France and became separated from the others.
'Two AA guns on the last carriage hit me. My fuel pressure wavered and my oil was leaking when I left the train and started for home. I ran into flak in several more places and when my gas was practically gone I climbed to 7000 feet, rolled the ship over twice and dropped out on the second roll. The fog was so dense that I hadn’t the slightest notion whether I was over land or water.’
Balcunas baled out, landing near Saint-Germain-de-Coulamer (Mayenne) south-west of Alencon:
‘I hid the chute in a ravine and found my way to a road. I spoke to two children who did not answer, then approached an old man rather high with drink, who when I showed him my phrase card led me to a house.
The people there gave me food and civilian clothes and then indicated that I should be on my way. I went down the road a bit, stopped to examine my escape kit from which I kept only the map, compass and money, and then took up my walk again.’
‘A young man directed me toward Spain, but after a long walk I found myself back at the point where I had started. Through the haze I saw two figures approaching me. They appeared to be wearing boots and carrying sticks or rifles. I therefore ran into a lane which led off of the road and then waited ten minutes to give the figures ample time to pass.
Just as I started toward the road again two Germans turned off and walked towards me. Since they had already seen me, I knew that my only chance was to continue on past them as calmly as possible. They looked inquisitively at me as I passed, but I tried to act as if I had not noticed them, and they neither spoke to me nor followed me.’
The first two figures were probably also soldiers. As Balcunas had already removed a compass from his escape kit, it is unlikely that he was using it properly at this point.
‘I walked the rest of the day and slept in a haystack outside of a village that night. Early the next morning I entered the village and declared myself to a woman who gave me some food but could help me no further. On the outskirts of the next village, I saw a postman who was by himself. When I showed him my phrase- card he took me to his house, fed me and put me to bed. I slept there the rest of the day and in the evening the postman gave me food and better clothes and sent me on my way again. I walked all of that night and in the morning found myself in the city of Le Mans.
|Le Mans St Juliens Cathedral - Jerry Pinkowski|
The reference Balcunas makes to danger is not an understatement. The evasion report often suggests a lack of awareness as to how much danger he was really in. Every time he made himself known by showing his phrase card could have been the last, but the more relaxed behaviour patterns may have indirectly helped him to blend in when outside in public.
The postman and timely air raid plus the woman in the house were straightforward good fortune. As for the bigger picture; organised escape lines avoided parts of this area and only travelled through with good documents. They also left the train before the risky destinations, to tackle the Pyrenees on foot. The man’s advice to Balcunas around his route to Irun was accurate, but ignored all of the dangers.
‘My friend told me that there would be a train half an hour after midnight. At 22.30 hours I went to the station and bought a ticket to Bordeaux, but the train did not come in that night and I waited in the station until morning.
When the train for Bordeaux did come in it was so crowded that I could not get on. I got a train for Angers instead, changed there for Nantes and after spending the night in the station at Nantes, finally got a train for Bordeaux. In Bordeaux I bought a ticket for Irun (Spain) without any difficulty. I had to wait all afternoon and evening for the train, but at 22.00 it pulled in and I boarded it. I always took care to sit near the window and in the middle of the car. In this way I could see what other passengers did when an official asked them for something and so could do the proper thing myself without understanding anything that was said. Fortunately I was never asked for an identity card.’
‘After my train passed through Bayonne, I began to worry about getting across the border. There was in my compartment at this time a young couple and I decided to take them into my confidence. They turned out to be Spanish and since I know a little Spanish, I understood most of their excited explanation that the Gestapo control goes through the trains at Hendaye and I should certainly be caught there. They urged me to leave the train and walk across the border and when the train stopped just before entering St Jean de Luz they helped me out of the window.’
Another lucky break, but fortune favours the brave. Documents were often checked on the trains before Hendaye.
‘I hid in the bushes until it was dark then struck out eastwards as the Spanish couple had directed and walked all night. In the morning I met a farmer who fed me and led me to another farmer who could speak a little English. This man let me sleep in his house that day and in the evening put me on a path which he told me to follow. I walked until the moon set. At that time I had reached the crest of a mountain. There I remained until 22.00 when I took up my hike once more.’
His luck was still holding and the best was about to present itself.
‘At midnight I came upon a group of Spanish cattle rustlers who were driving into Spain. When I told them who I was, they said that they had stolen cattle from the Germans and that I could come with them. I was given a stick with which to drive the cow at the end of the column, but later a while I became so exhausted that I clutched the cow’s tail with both hands and let her drag me up mountains, down valleys and over the border into Spain. Without the aid of that cow I should never have got over.’
|Cows in the Pyrenees|
‘When we had got some distance into Spain, the party split up. I followed the chief of the rustlers who had four cows as his share. Presently he pointed out to me the lights of a village in the valley (Echalar) , showed me the path which led to the village and told me to go there. It was now 28th May - one week after I had landed in France. When I reached the village, I found the bakery open, my knee was swollen, the baker allowed me to sleep in his shop for the rest of the night, and in the morning on his advice I went to the Police station. The police put me up at an inn and the next day. 29 May took me to the military commandant in Irun. I spent the night of 29 May in jail and on 30 May was taken to a hotel in Irun where I met a representative of the American Embassy (Brandon).
Balcunas had successfully evaded without any ID or false papers. The war might have shifted against Germany and D Day was imminent, but life in that part of occupied France was continuing much as it had since the Germans reoccupied the zone. The dangers remained undiminished.
Whilst this journey did not have the same distance and craft as Ft Lt Julian Sale’s evasion (see recent posts) there is no doubting initiative and opportunism, even if it involved on occasions just producing an American Serviceman’s phrase card to the natives. There is no doubting that a huge amount of luck contributed to Balcunas initially reaching Spain and then presenting himself to the right people there. The Superior’s overview on his escape report is a fitting summary:
‘Proper briefing would have taught this evader to avoid the most dangerous of all routes to Spain, the defence zone along the west coast. Timely advice and good luck saved him – to which should be added the cow.’
Grateful thanks to Keith Janes for the story and summary
US Archives - Escape & Evasion Report