Friday, 31 May 2013

Evasion and the Animals Part Three

P-47 Thunderbolts

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.’

He had begun an evasion which on occasions stretched the boundaries of luck and coincidence to the limit.
‘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
I had got almost through Le Mans when an air raid began. Since everyone on the street was going into the nearest house. I followed an old man into one. The mistress of the house and the old man soon struck up a conversation, but I stood in silence and they said nothing to me. When the all clear sounded and the old man left, I showed the woman my phrase card. She became very enthusiastic. Got me some food at once, then put me to bed. When her husband came home, he gave me a French-English dictionary, and advised me not to walk to Tours as I had intended to, but to take the train to Nantes, Bordeaux and Irun, where he said there was an American Consul. I had no notion at the time how dangerous this plan was, but perhaps my very ignorance of the danger helped to carry me through.’
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.’

Bordeaux Station
Fugitives were often picked up at railway stations. It is possible that Balcunas got away without being asked for his papers because of the busy crowds, numbers of foreign labourers in that part of France, his behaviour patterns and simple luck.
‘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
This is the only evasion over the Pyrenees with the aid of a cow – unless anyone knows differently?
‘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).

I was in Irun two and a half weeks, then the Spanish Air Force took me and about 10 others to Alhama, was there about 10 days. Left 25 June. Went to Madrid and took train to Gib – arrived 26th, left Gib 27th and arrived in Bristol UK on 28th.’ 
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

©Keith Morley


  1. I can't get the image out of my head of the evader hanging onto the cows tail...and being led up the mountain.


    1. Thanks for your comment Maria. It is a story that sometimes borders on the ridiculous. A good number of evaders in Western Europe by this time were being routed into the Marathon Camps (Resistance camps in the hills and forests.)They stayed under cover, and moved about with the Resistance to avoid detection and helped. Many sat it out until liberation came. As Balcunas evaded without help from any organisation he would not have known about this.

  2. That cow's tail is immortalised in history now forever! Luck and good fortune were certainly on his side.

    1. Thanks Sally. Something always seemed to turn up just at the right time. Balcunas seemed oblivious of just what danger he was in. Only once did he mention that he was beginning to get worried.

  3. Another fascinating post by Keith, I have found another story in the same vein.
    A cow turned out to be the lucky token by which one Northborough resident and two other men hinged an escape from a German prisoner camp during WWII.
    He's a farmer in real life, but in Germany, 1945, Kachadore "Kachie" Berberian pretended to be one to escape prison and slip out of enemy territory.
    "On Dec. 16 of 1944, the Bulge started," said Berberian, "and in my division, within three days we lost half the division. That's how bad it was. My regiment was surrrendered, what was left of it, to the Germans. I had only spent 16 days on the line, and three in actual battle."
    They were all shipped to Dresden.
    Up at 5 a.m., Berberian walked with the others four miles to a furniture factory to work by 7 a.m. In the dead of winter, it was below—far below—freezing, so no one dreamed of dashing off from the one old guard with the rifle.
    Word that the Russians were coming sent the commando and lots of others to be moved to another town, up a mountain that was about 1,000 feet above sea level. Around April, when the "Russians are coming" was more imminent, everyone was thrown to the streets. Not knowing where they were going, they were marched by guards through roads loaded with other POWs, civilians and military.
    "About a half a day went by and guys are falling down weak, including myself," said Berberian. "We were having a hard time just going to the bathroom. That's how weak a lot of guys got. They were marching us and we had very few guards doing this. We came along this truck that had been bombed and it was loaded with vodka, and everybody got crazy grabbing bottles."
    With two bottles of vodka cradled under his armpits, Berberian was confronted by a German soldier, who demanded the booze. The soldier was drunk, and Berberian wouldn't let go.
    "I said to him, 'flesh! flesh! flesh!" said Berberian. "Now flesh is meat in German. And he lets go of the tug of war and off he goes. And 20 minutes goes by and the next thing you know he comes out with a live cow. I give him the booze, he gives me the cow. I thought, the 60 of us are going to be able to eat meat for the first time.
    "Now I've got this cow, and it's about three in the afternoon and I've had it. I don't have the energy to hang on to this cow anymore. It's in the gutter, it's here, it's there, it's everywhere. So I said to these two other guys, 'Look, you grab his tail and the other his ear and we'll walk off with this cow as a group. We're going to drop dead anyway, so let's take our chances.' We walked and walked and no one said nothing to us. They must have thought we were a couple of farmers that were just going.”
    With the cow between them, the three ran into a German farmer, who gave them something to eat. He and his wife were packing to flee, too. Walking toward freedom was becoming easier, and hanging on to the cow was not; he handed the cow over to the farmer. The three kept going, to Czechoslovakia.
    "We were free, really, from the day we got that cow," said Berberian. "But we stayed in Prague for three weeks, and slept in a vacant building in the hallway. After three weeks, we were awoken in the morning by an American captain and I said, 'How the hell did you find us?' The Russians had told him."
    “Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a Swiss farm, and live entirely surrounded by cows - and china.”
    Charles Dickens.