Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives in College Park, MD
Noted aviator Charles E. (Chuck) Yeager died on December 7. He is best remembered for piloting the Bell X-1 rocket plane in 1947 when it became the first human-controlled aircraft to break the sound barrier. That event was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff and the subsequent movie of the same name
During World War II, Yeager was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces, eventually shooting down enough enemy airplanes to qualify as an ace. In early 1944, he was part of the 363rd Fighter Squadron, 357th Fighter Group. During the successful Allied effort to win air superiority over Europe before the eventual invasion in Normandy on June 6, 1944, Yeager was shot down. On March 5, Flight Officer Yeager took off from Leiston Field at about 10:15 in the morning for a mission to Bordeaux. Over France, his flight was jumped by three German FW 190 fighter planes and shot down when 20mm cannon fire cut his elevator cables and wounded him slightly in the right hand. He bailed out at 18,000 feet and made a successful landing. Yeager reported that his airplane exploded upon hitting the ground. His comment about the wreckage was “No parts left. Just a smoking hole.”
With the assistance of French resistance helpers, Yeager evaded capture by the Germans. He moved across the French countryside for almost two weeks and arrived in Spain on March 28. From there, he made his way to the British base on Gibraltar, arriving on May 15. While there, he signed a security certificate acknowledging his responsibility to protect all information about his escape and evasion.
Yeager left Gibraltar on May 20 and was flown to England, arriving in Bristol on May 21. He signed another security form on May 22.
Also on arrival in England, to avoid German attempts to sneak a ringer in among the returnees, Yeager’s identity had to be verified. A fellow airman signed a certificate stating that he had “known and been associated with” Yeager before he was shot down.
After arrival in England, Yeager was debriefed. His account of his experiences was written up by someone else in a multi-part Escape and Evasion (E&E) report. First came a general description of his experiences:
Three FW 190s came in from the rear and cut my elevator cables. I snap-rolled with the rudder and jumped at 18,000 feet. I took off my dinghy-pack, oxygen mask, and helmet in the air, and then, as I was whirling on my back and began to feel dizzy, I pulled the ripcord at 8,000 feet. An FW 190 dove at me, but when he was about 2,000 yards from me a P51 came in on his tail and blew him to pieces.
I landed [in] a forest-clearing in which there was a solitary sapling about twenty feet tall. I grabbed the top of the sapling as I passed it and swung gently to the ground. My chute was hung up in the tree, however.
I hid my Mae West and started off to the south-east, for I thought that I was in the forbidden zone. Before I had gone 200 feet half a dozen Frenchmen ran up to me. Some of them got my chute down, and one of the men took me by the arm and led me to a house some 200 yards away. There I was given food and civilian clothes. A gendarme was seen approaching the house at this moment, and so I was quickly hidden in the barn. When the gendarme left I was brought back into the house where one of the men who had left the group now returned and gave me a note in English telling me to trust the people in whose hands I was. I was then taken to another house about a kilometer away, and from there my journey was arranged.
Appendix B of an E&E report consisted of the military information learned by the evader. Yeager provide the following details:
a) An SS company moved into NERAC on 21 March 1944 and was withdrawn three gdays later. (Observation)
b) The Germans were equipping a hospital to accommodate 700 wounded in NERAC. (Hearsay March 1944)
c) The Maquis near NERAC is well organized and well equipped with grenades, machine-guns, and explosives, and even has some 37mm/AT guns.
d) The B/B/C/ broadcasts come over with perfect clarity at NERAC.
Appendix C of the report contained much more information and described his journey:
F/O Yeager came down on 5 March 1944 near GRIGNOLS (GIRONDE). He was immediately found by a number of Frenchmen who took him to a farmhouse in the neighborhood. Here there were a young man and his two sisters (23 and 18 years old) who fed Yeager and gave him civilian clothes. Yeager was then taken to a hotel which stands about one km NW of GRIGNOLS where an English-speaking French woman, 60 years old (has a daughter of 30 years and a grand-daughter with her), explained to him how he would be helped. Then the man who had brought him to the hotel took him by bicycle to CASTELJALOUX where he stayed over night in the house of a fleshy, white-haired man of forty who is married and has a son of nineteen years and a daughter of seventeen. The next morning the same guide returned and took him by bicycle to a young couple of 35 years with a son, JEAN, five years old who live in a farm house off RN 133 near the lake at FONT GUILLEM AU PUJO between POMPOGNE and HOUEILLES. Here Yeager lived for seven days. Then a farmer from HOUEILLES took him to a house half a km from NERAC. This is the house of the regional Maquis chief, GABRIEL (wife: MARIE ROSE; wife’s brother: LEON; GABRIEL’s mother); and here DR. HENRI -, the doctor of all the Maquis in this part of the country, lives when he is in the vicinity. After Yeager had been here a few days, DR. HENRI arrived in the FRANBEL lorry and sent after Nall and the six sergeants with him whom he then brought to the Maquis near NERAC. He then went back to CASTELJALOUX and from there brought Seidel to the Maquis.
On 25 March the FRANBEL lorry brought Nall, Seidel, and the six sergeants from the Maquis, picked up Yeager, DR. HENRI and a Belgian lieutenant and drove to a farm house 4 kms S of Nerac. From this point Yeager’s journey was the same as that of Seidel and Nall.
[See below for extracts from the Nall/Seidel E&E report.]
The FRANBEL PENCIL CO. is located at XAINTRAILLES, and the man who drove the lorry is the head of this company. He is 5’6” tall, weighs about 130 lbs, and has sparse, dark hair.
A photographer in NERAC, ROBERT OSSO, who is in the Maquis organization, lived in New York City for fifteen years. He wishes his father, ADOLPHE OSSO, 112 Central Park South, N.Y.C. to be notified that Robert is well and fit.
The file also includes an alternative description of Yeager’s experiences. Evidence indicates that this is a rough draft from which the previously-quoted report was developed. These notes are full of detail at the beginning but turn into fragments at the end.
Flying #4 on mission to Bordeaux. 3 FW190s came in from rear. Seared elevator cables. Snap-rolled with rudder & popped canopy & tried to get out I got out at 18,000 ft. I took off dinghy pack, oxygen mask & helmet in air. I was whirling on back so I pulled cord at 8000 ft. An FW 190 above me started towards me. As he was about 2000 yards from me a 51 came in on his tail & blew him up. I floated over Grignols & landed in clearing in oak woods. There was one pine sapling about 20 ft tall. I grabbed sapling & swung down. Chute hung up walked SE after hiding nw. About 200 feet ½ a dozen Fren[ch] ran up to me. They ran over & pulled chute down & came back to me. One of them took me by my arm. (I took off A2 jacket & flying suit – was in OD trousers & shirt) and took me to house 200 yards away & gave me civilian clothes. Fed me here. A gendarme came up road, so they hid me in barn. When gend. left. Meanwhile one of the other men came back with note from Eng-speaking French woman telling me to trust my helpers.
They took me by bicycle to hotel about 1 km away outside of Grignols to this Eng. sp. French woman (60 yrs old) who has daughter (30) and granddaughter.
The man who brought me to the hotel took me by bike to CASTELJALOUX to a house of fleshy, white haired man (40), [wife, son (19), daughter (17)]. Stayed overnight. Next morning the same man came back & took me to a farm house off N 133 near the lake at Fout Guillem au Pujo bet. Pompogne & Houeilles on left side of road going south. Stayed 7 days. A farmer from Houeilles on 12th took me to Nerac. There I was put in house ½ km from Nerac, house of regional chief (Gabriel – wife, Marie Rose wife’s brother, Leon, an old lady (Gabriel’s mother. This is house where Dr. Henri stays when he is in the neighborhood. After a few days Dr. Henri came in Franbel truck & went to the Maquis and got Nall & six sergeants & took them to the Maquis near Nerac. Then went back to Casteljaloux & picked up Seidel.
On 25 we all went to a house 4 kms S of Nerac.
(The FRANBEL Pencil Co. is in Xaintrailles, & the man who drove truck is the (small man – 5’6”, 130 lbs, sparse, dark hair) head of this company.
Robert Osso – lived in N.Y for 15 yrs – is photographer in NERAC is in with Dr. Henri’s organization.
Gabriel is chief of organ. & Dr. Henri is Doctor.
An SS co. moved into NERAC – 21 March – stayed three days.
BBC perfectly clear at Nerac.
Dr. Henri said that the Germans were putting up hospital for 700 wounded in Nerac.
(curfew in NERAC is 11 PM)
Lt. Patterson was out on his feet & the others were in bad shape so Yeager carried him over mts.
Saw plane near Casteljaloux, nothing left but piece of rudder skin.
A short note summarizes Yeager’s successful escape and evasion: “Prompt application of good briefing, good luck, and a hand to the efficient helpers who took over at once.”
The following extracts from the joint comments of Lts. Carl T. Nall and Herman I. Seidel in their E&E report complete Yeager’s saga.
. . .
At the end of a week DOCTOR HENRI – , chief of the resistance organization in the whole district (about 30 years old, almost bald, residence in NERAC) came in a delivery truck in which he had F.O. Yeager and took all the Americans to another Maquis near NERAC. (This delivery truck belonged to the firm of FRANBEL PENCIL CO. and was driven by an agent of FRANBEL’s.) That evening DR. HENRI brought Lt. Seidel to join the others at this Maquis.
. . .
On 13 March M. Louis returned and took Seidel by bicycle through STE. BAZEILLE where two other Frenchmen on bicycles joined them and guided them to the farm of M. JEAN DUBROCA just SW of GUIGNOLS on G.C. 10. . . . Seidel lived with DUBROCA until 16 March, and then DR. HENRI – came with F.O. Yeager in the FRANBEL truck and took him to a farmhouse which was a base of the Maquis near NERAC. There two of the maquisards called for Seidel and took him to join Nall and the other American at the Maquis.
On 25 March the FRANBEL truck took Nall, Seidel and the six sergeants from the Maquis where they met DR. HENRI – with Yeager and a Belgian, Lt. VANDERSTOCK (now in Spain). They transferred to a larger truck in which there was a SGT. OF GENDARMES from NERAC with official papers saying that the evaders were Portuguese workers for the O.T. going to work on German fortifications.
The truck carried them to ST. BERTRAND DE COMMINGES (6 kms S of MONTREJEAU) where the[y] stopped at a shop. The sergeant of gendarmes from NERAC here left them; and after nightfall two boys from this shop led the party down the road where they met another party consisting of Lts. Witt, Krengle, Patterson, Beck, Sgts. Leach and Fernandez, F.O. John Waddington (RCAF), eleven Dutchmen, and two Frenchmen. One of the boys from the shop collected what money the men in his party had, supplemented it, and gave the whole sum to the guides of the new party. This boy also gave Seidel and Nall a note to give to the guide when they had crossed into Spain; this note the guide was to return to the boy in order to prove that the party had been safely delivered across the frontier.
The whole party then walked until 0300 hrs, rested for the night in a barn, and at 1100 hrs the next morning walked on to the outskirts of MARIGNAC where they waited until after dark. They then circled MARIGNAC and at 0300 hrs reached a barn in a forestry camp. There they rested until 2000 hrs. They crossed the border at 0600 hrs, coming out just below BOSOST. The guides then left, and the party split up. Seidel, Nall, Sgt. Ross, and the Belgian Lieutenant kept together. They rested until the afternoon and then walked to VIELLA where they were arrested by the Civil Guards. They were put into a hotel in VIELLA for two days. There were armed German soldiers in VIELLA while they were there; and a Polish girl, who spoke English and who, the evaders were later told, is a German agent, tried to get military information from the evaders. The party then was taken to SORT, where they spent one night; and from there they were taken by bus to LERIDA where they remained from 1 to 22 April. The Spanish Air Force then took them to ALHAMA where they stayed until 14 May. Col. Clark then called for them and took them to MADRID whence after a few hours they went to GIBRALTAR. After staying one day in GIBRALTAR they left for U.K. by air on 16 May.
Source: Unless otherwise noted, all documents shown and quoted come from: Escape and Evasion Report #660 (NAID 5555300), Entry UD-134: Escape and Evasion Reports, 1942–1945, RG 498: Records of the European Theater of Operations, National Archives. The full file is digitized in the catalog, please note the pages are out of order.
 All of the following quoted paragraphs are in the handwriting of an unknown individual.
 References to Nall, Seidel, and the six sergeants are to other B-17 aircrew that were shot down on March 5, 1944, near La Reole, France, and rescued by the local Maquis.
 As with the previous documents, this is in the handwriting of an unknown individual.
 A note in the margin at this point reads: “Young man & two sisters (about 23 & 18)”
 A note in the margin at this point read: “35-man & wife & small boy (JEAN) – 5 yrs old”
 A note in the margin at this point reads: “Here unpacked grenades & machine guns which RAF dropped by chute. Had 37 mm AT guns here”
 Escape and Evasion Report #644 (NAID 5555304), Entry UD-134: Escape and Evasion Reports, 1942–1945, RG 498: Records of the European Theater of Operations, National Archives.
 This is a reference to Organization Todt. That was an organization that built engineering projects in Germany and the occupied territories during the Nazi regime. It was notorious for its use of forced labor from the concentration camps.