Escape and Evasion Reports, World War II

Today’s post was written by Bob Nowatski, archivist in the Basic Processing and Textual Accessioning unit at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

When we think of United States airmen in the European theater during World War II, we may picture rugged veterans who flew numerous missions, or soldiers who were killed in combat or captured. But what about the airmen who were forced to jump from their planes, survived the fall, and managed to evade their enemies? The stories about these airmen are told in the Escape and Evasion Reports (NAID: 305270), in Record Group 498, and are held at the National Archives at College Park. The records in this series are housed in 58 containers, and there are 2,951 file units digitized in NARA’s Catalog. I learned about these records indirectly by reading about them in the book The Blister Club: The Extraordinary Story of the Downed American Airmen Who Escaped to Safety in World War II by Michael Lee Lanning, which I reviewed for American Archivist.

These reports demonstrate how these airmen endured considerable discomfort and were compelled to walk hundreds of miles to safety—sometimes wearing insulated flight boots that were not designed for such an arduous ordeal—in many cases while coping with the injuries that many of them had sustained upon landing. They adopted the “winged boot” insignia of the Late Arrivals Club of the Royal Air Force to symbolize their experiences of flying over and walking through enemy territory.

RAF Late Arrivals Club Silver Winged Boot Badge (Courtesy Alex Bateman Collection)

These reports tell dramatic stories of army airmen serving in the European theater who parachuted out of their planes (or in some cases were forced to crash-land) in German-occupied territory, evaded German soldiers or hostile civilians, found help among members of the local population, and made their way to the United Kingdom or other European nations unoccupied by Axis forces.  These airmen made their way to safety via three major escape routes: the Pat O’Leary Line (which runs through central and eastern France to Spain), the Comet Line (which runs through western France to Spain), and the Shelburne Line (which runs westward through northern France and across the English Channel).

United States Air Force – National Museum of the United States Air Force

Each Evasion and Escape (E&E) report begins with American and British classification status, report number and date, and the serviceman’s name, rank, unit, home address, target, number of missions flown, MIA date, country of escape of evasion, and arrival date in the United Kingdom. The reports then include the names, roles, and ranks of all personnel in the aircraft before the narrative section of the report begins. Most reports include responses to a questionnaire regarding the use of escape and evasion equipment, an outline of subjects mentioned in the narrative, verification of the identity and truthfulness of the escapee/evader, and a certificate protecting prisoner-of-war and escape/evasion information. Here is an example of an escaped airman’s narrative:

Penly, Robert H. (T/SGT); E&E 67 (NAID 5554707)

While many of the airmen whose stories are told through the E&E reports are not household names, this series does include the report of war hero Brigadier General Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager (1923-2020), who was shot down in France in March 1944 before making his way to Spain (with the help of French Resistance “Maquis”) and later to the United Kingdom. You can read more about Chuch Yeager’s experience in the blog: “Chuck Yeager, Evader, March 1944.”

E & E 660: Yeager, Charles [Chuck] E. (F/0) (NAID 305271)

The E&E Reports offer some of the most vivid accounts of U.S. airmen in World War II, and will be of interest to military history buffs, but even more so for relatives and friends of these airmen.

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