In observance of Veteran’s Day, we are featuring Victor J. Ferrari’s extraordinary adventure during World War II. In the predawn hours of November 13, 1943, Allied bombers attacked Germany’s Focke Wulf factory and other targets in Bremen. Anti-aircraft fire and Messerschmitts inflicted a heavy toll on the mission, shooting down twenty-six airplanes, including a B-24 bearing the name Big Dog.
Remarkably, all ten members of Big Dog’s crew survived. Six men parachuted from the damaged plane; the four that remained onboard escaped death when the bomber crashed in a canal near the town of Zwartsluis in the Netherlands. Occupying German troops immediately captured the survivors in the plane and three of the airmen who had bailed out. Local Dutch civilians in the resistance managed to reach Victor Ferrari and two other crewmen before the Germans found them. Ferrari’s vivid narrative of the mission and the six harrowing months that followed was recounted in an oral history interview with me in 1991. The interview is now available through the archives at the LBJ Library and Museum.
During the course of the war in Europe, approximately forty-seven thousand men of the 8th Army Air Force were shot down. Twenty-five thousand of these airmen were killed; eighteen thousand were captured and imprisoned. Because civilians in occupied countries risked their lives to hide downed airmen and guide them to safety, 2,150 escaped. One young Dutch woman, Joke Folmer, aided the escape of 120 Allied airmen, including Victor Ferrari. President Truman awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 1946.
The arc of Victor Ferrari’s life is almost as remarkable as his World War II experience. He was one of eight children born to Italian immigrant parents of modest means in Kulpmont, Pennsylvania. His father, a coal miner, died from black lung disease when Victor was only five, leaving the family in difficult straits. With his mother’s encouragement, however, Victor pursued an education, graduating from Bloomsburg State Teachers College.
After the outbreak of World War II, he began a twenty-nine year military career, joining the Aviation Cadets and serving as a navigator and bombardier. Upon his arrival in England, he was assigned to the 8th Air Force’s 578th Squadron of the 392nd Bomber Group. The November 13 raid was his first bombing mission.
After Ferrari returned from Europe, he trained navigators in Louisiana, Texas, and Pennsylvania. While in the Air Force, he earned his MA from the University of Southern California and, after teaching at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a doctorate in psychology from Denver University. Col. Robert F. McDermott, the Academy’s dean of faculty, recruited Victor to serve as assistant dean, a post he held for six years before becoming deputy commander of cadets. After three final assignments at Mather AFB, Notre Dame, and Dayton, Ohio, Ferrari retired from the Air Force to join McDermott in San Antonio as an executive with the United States Automobile Association.
As a civilian, Ferrari became an active member of the San Antonio community. He held a variety of senior positions at USAA and launched the corporation’s successful mentoring program for at-risk students. President George H. W. Bush recognized him with a national “Point of Light” award in 1992. Victor also volunteered his time and talent to San Antonio’s adult literacy program; in appreciation of his contributions, the city dedicated a literacy center in his honor in 2005. He died in San Antonio on May 5, 2007.
The following interview between Col. Victor J. Ferrari and Michael L. Gillette took place on May 28, 1991, in Colonel Ferrari’s office in San Antonio. This inteview appears courtesy of the LBJ Library.
Michael L. Gillette: Colonel Ferrari, why don't we begin with a brief discussion of your background? You've indicated that you're from Pennsylvania.
Victor J. Ferrari: I was born in Kulpmont, Pennsylvania, a small community. My parents were both Italian. They came from the northern part of Italy and settled in that community. My father passed away when I was about five years of age from what they call the black lung at the present time. We used to call it, back then, miner's asthma. My mother had eight children to raise during the Depression, and that was quite a challenge. Now as I reflect over some of the things in my early childhood, understanding some of the difficulties that she had in trying to keep the brood together and also educate them and so forth, it was really a feat and something I always respected [about] my mother.
Then I went to grade school, to a Catholic school, from first grade through eighth grade: St. Mary's School in Kulpmont, Pennsylvania. Then I went on to—because there was no Catholic school at the time—a public school known as Kulpmont High School, and there I played football and basketball. It was a very small organization. I was the captain of both football and basketball. I graduated in 1934, and because I recognized the poverty in the family—my mother wanted me to go off to college immediately but I told her I needed to stay home and make some financial contribution to the family. I went to work at a gas station, working seven days a week for twelve dollars a week. I was only there a short period of time when I began to realize I was in a dead-end position and I saw myself in the future as not having too much opportunity, both for myself and for my family.
About October or November I went to my mother, knowing that she was still pressing me to go off to college, and told her I had made up my mind that I'd like to go to school. She wanted me to start the second semester—and this is a woman who could hardly speak English and could not read any English. But to these people, coming in from the European countries at that time, education was very important and they always stressed the fact that, "You don't want to be like your daddy, going into the coal mines and dying from all that coal dust. You must receive an education to improve yourself." So I told her I would like to go to college, and she said, "Now you can start the second semester." I didn't know where she was going to get the money to pay the tuition for college. So I told her, "No, I'll work the entire year to accumulate some money for tuition and also to buy some clothing." She bought that.
I started college in 1935 and graduated during June 1939. I became very interested in the military because at that time they were advertising for young men to join the air force to become pilots. What they required was two years of college. When I completed two years of college I made [an] application to become an aviation cadet to enter pilot training. I guess I was so anxious to get into that program it affected my blood pressure. Each time they gave me the blood pressure test it would register 140, and that was too high. They called it the Schneider test. Because my blood pressure went up to 140 I wasn't accepted. I repeated that test on several occasions, without success. That was in my junior year. I reapplied during my senior year and again failed. The doctors would examine me at home and my blood pressure would register 115 to 120. But while undergoing the tests at the air base, I could feel myself becoming very nervous. It was the apprehension and wanting to succeed that caused tension.
Shortly after I completed college, war was declared and drafting began. I was going to join the navy because the navy offered me an opportunity to become an officer, but I decided to try once more to determine if the air force would accept me. I was living in Philadelphia at the time. I was examined at the recruiting station; lo and behold, they passed me. You know, once I was in the air force I didn't experience trouble with blood pressure–passed [the test] on every subsequent occasion. I joined the service on January 12 at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
Gillette: What year was this?
Ferrari: January 1942. I became an aviation cadet at Maxwell Air Force Base. The authorities were so overwhelmed with cadets at that time they were compelled to house us in tents for a long period of time. The summer was extremely hot. But by the same token, the motivation at that time was so strong to enter a flying program that no discomfort was unacceptable. They selected me to be a bombardier. I entered bombardier training during October of 1942. I graduated from the bombardier school at Big Spring, Texas, on January 7, 1943.
Immediately thereafter they entered me in the navigation school at Hondo, Texas. The purpose for this dual training was to become a crew member on B-29s. As a B-29 bombardier/navigator it was intended for you to direct the airplane to the target, then drop the bombs by use of the Norden bombsight. The dual rating saved one crew member. I graduated from the Hondo navigation school during May 1943.
Immediately we were sent off to Boise, Idaho, to begin our combat training. Because the B-29 was so slow in development, they decided to use the officers who were dually trained as navigators. For me, my assignment was as a B-24 navigator. Our initial combat training began at Boise, Idaho. This phase included officer crew members only, that is, the pilot, the copilot, the bombardier and the navigator. This phase stressed pilot training in the B-24 and navigation experience. Jimmy Stewart, at that time, was one of the instructors training newly graduated pilots to fly the B-24.
Upon completing that phase of training, we were assigned to Pocatello Air Base, Idaho. There we were assigned the remainder of our crew members. Our crew members at the time were Isaac [Sackman] Marx, who was the pilot; Jim Chenet, who was the copilot; I was the navigator, Vic Ferrari; Omar Roberts was the bombardier; Harold Pose was the engineer; Nicholas Mandell was the radio man; Jack Stewart was the side gunner; William Fletcher was the top gunner; Mario Sanna was the belly gunner; and Richard Wright was the side gunner. We had ten people on the crew. Quickly, there developed a tremendous, fine personal relationship amongst these people.
At Pocatello, practicing dropping bombs, the noncommissioned officers were training on the use of the .50 caliber machine guns. We continued this training for about forty-five days. When we completed all our training requirements, we transferred to Topeka, Kansas. Here we picked up the B-24 airplane and started on our way overseas. We accepted that B-24 as a group of raw recruits—not too much experience but full of enthusiasm, preparing for our flight to England. We were assigned to the 392nd Bomb Group stationed in England. Our first leg was to Syracuse, New York, followed by stops at Goose Bay, Labrador, and then into Iceland. You notice how short those legs were. Because of our inexperience we were assigned very short legs.
On our flight to Iceland, we experienced a peculiar condition. They gave us certain winds at Goose Bay that we would encounter en route to Iceland. There were many white caps caused by heavy surface waves. I decided to practice calculating winds off these white caps. It became apparent the winds were 180 [degrees] in reverse of those given at Goose Bay. We had a tremendously strong head wind. I notified the pilot, stating, "We're not going to arrive at the time designated. We are going to be delayed quite a bit because the head winds are very strong." About three fourths of the way to Iceland, I saw a B-26 cross in front of us. We conjectured the pilot in the B-26 didn't realize that he had head winds. Using wind information provided at Goose Bay he probably began to worry because his ETA was up. That would cause him to pursue the square search. We were unable to contact him via radio to notify him of the wind change.
We inquired when we arrived at Iceland whether there were any reports of a B-26 sounding an emergency. People said, "No." So he probably made it safely. Navigation accuracy was important because the Germans used surfaced submarines to send out deceptive radio signals to aircraft using only radio homing devices to reach destination. Maybe that B-26 thought that was happening to him.
While in Iceland our radio man, Nick Mandell, became ill. We were not permitted to fly into England without a radio man. So we remained in Iceland for about two weeks until he was released from the hospital and sufficiently healthy to join the crew. During that period, we traveled throughout Iceland visiting the different defense bases. We interacted with some of the natives, especially the young people, who were cordial. They detailed some of the history of Iceland. It was an education and a pleasant experience.
When we arrived in England we turned over our airplane and never saw it again. For two weeks thereafter we started training in techniques used by Eighth Air Force crews in combat. This was an orientation into the combat zone and also the use of special equipment for navigation that the British had mastered at that time. We received information on targets, and escape and evasion procedures if shot down. Subsequent to this training, we were assigned to the 392nd Bomb Group and the 578th Squadron. This was a new bomb group that had recently arrived in England. The crews were inexperienced and not doing too well. We had lots of training.
We would take off early in the morning and make feints at enemy territory as though we were heading for targets. This served to keep enemy aircraft in defensive positions away from friendly aircraft making penetrations on that day. We would fly to a shoreline then turn around and come home.
Around the Officers Club, we heard a great deal about specific targets that were going to be very, very difficult. And Bremen always came up in the discussions, because in the past when they bombed Bremen, they took an awful beating. The milk run targets were considered those in France, other occupied countries, and short penetrations into Germany. All missions were hazardous because there was extremely limited fighter escort at the time. The bombers were on their own once over enemy territory.
One morning we were awakened at 3:00 a.m., had a quick breakfast, and off we were to a briefing. When they pulled back the screen showing Bremen as the target there were moans throughout the room. I remember the reaction of our copilot; he was a Catholic, as was I. The priest was always at the briefings to hear confessions. Chenet [the copilot] would say, "Oh, this is no problem." And when he saw Bremen he said to me, "Where's the priest? Where's the priest? I want to go to confession." For whatever reason, the priest didn't show up that day. Jim Chenet was all excited.
Going in on that mission we lost an engine while still in formation, but we had been told that there was no more turning back. Even if you have some kind of an accident in the airplane where one man may die, you will go in and drop your bombs. The pressure was getting great and [the fighters'] aggressiveness was dominant. When an aircraft dropped out of the formation, the enemy aircraft attacked because there was no friendly fighter support at that time. Well, our pilot followed orders and proceeded to the target on three engines.
The flak was intense over the target. There was a heavy undercast. We could not visually see the city of Bremen. This was the first mission that we were on that you could not see the target. We were bombing by radar. This was a completely new technique. And all they told us was, "Whenever you see the flare dropped, go up to that point and just pull on the lever and let the bombs go." So you knew we were splattering the area. I don't know where our bombs hit that day because there were strong winds up there affecting the location of the flare.
We were at about 22,000 feet. The temperature was at minus sixty and the indicator was at the stop position. That was a peculiar flight. Coming close to the target I needed a bowel movement and, God, it was painful, suffering through that urge. You couldn't take off any clothing; it would cause a freeze because the only thing that kept you warm was the clothing that was made for electrical warming. I was thinking, "How am I going to get through this predicament?"
When we departed the target we lost another engine. So we were now flying on two engines. Then we started drifting back from the formation; we were all by ourselves. Now the enemy aircraft were powdering us from the side and rear. It was open season. Defense from the firing of the fighter plane is difficult without the support of formation aircraft. We paid the price.
It didn't happen right away. We were on our way to England and the pilot said, "I'm going to try to make it home even on two. I may have to go down to the deck but I'll make those decisions later." The enemy fighters were continuous and persistent. I just forgot completely about my need for a bowel movement and everything else because conditions were critical. I counted at one time that we were being circled by fifteen airplanes playing follow the leader as they penetrated. Just about the time they'd come in close to our aircraft, they would belly up and head downward. The reason they do this is that the German fighters had heavy armament underneath and if you even hit them with a .50 caliber machine gun it probably would protect the pilot. So, when they came close enough to you, they would throw their .50 calibers at us and then drop and go down. You didn't get aircraft coming in from the front because the rate of closure was too fast. So they'd come in from the side and they'd come in from the rear. Our people were firing but I didn't see any go down.
But as I was watching, one of the formations went by us, and evidently, the airplanes must have hit them also because I saw one of the airplanes just going down in a spin. That was really frightening, to see a big airplane going down out of control. We were so slow that the formations were now beginning to pass us. This was not our group; these were additional groups. As they were coming by us, I was looking out the window watching these airplanes coming in and, gosh, I saw another B-24 just drop. Then I didn't want to watch that scene anymore. You play ostrich. So I moved over to the other side of the nose to see whether airplanes were coming in on that side.
And there we had a P-38 under our left wing. Now that frightened me a bit, and I’ve often wondered why was that P-38 under our wing; because he knew we only had two engines and we weren't a very good protection for him. He didn't appear to be damaged but when I got back to the base, many months later, I told the story to one of the officers. He felt it may have been a German pilot in an American fighter. The Germans captured some of our airplanes that went down and they rebuilt some of them. In so-called friendly aircraft, they would go up and get the altitude that you were flying. That made it more accurate for these people to hit you with anti-aircraft. But really, and basically at that time, we had departed the target, so we weren't getting too much anti-aircraft. Now it was all fighter planes.
Evidently, they weren't very accurate. With all those airplanes coming in, I didn't know that we were hit once. At least I saw no indication and I heard nothing from the pilot, heard nothing from the people in the rear. All I could hear was the NCO's calling off the airplanes coming in at three o'clock, nine o'clock, five o'clock, and six o'clock and so forth. And me, up in the front, I could not see those airplanes coming in from the rear. Those aircraft at two, three, four o'clock—I could see those through the window and I would call those off.
The pilot still continued to say, "I'm probably going to hit the deck." And that was the last message I heard. A little time after, we started going down. But I began to think we were going down too steeply, so I looked up almost to say, "God, what are you doing, Sack? You're going down pretty—" without finishing the sentence, I saw there were no feet. No feet up there. I thought to myself, "God, they're gone." So I called up to the pilot. No message. So I knew they were gone.
But let me go back. Before that happened, in all fairness to the pilot and copilot, the people in the back—the rear NCO—said, "They are lobbing rockets at us." These were German airplanes, two-engine airplanes—they would trail you and they would lob these rockets at our aircraft in an effort to make a hit with them. You don't hear flak when you're in an airplane. You might hear it splintering across the airplane shell but really, and basically, you don't hear a noise. But boy, when that rocket hit, I heard it. It was just like the bang of a gun. It was as though somebody had come up to your ear and hit you with a shotgun or a handgun. That must have created the problem, causing them to bail out. There must have been some damage done to the airplane. We just felt a lurch but didn't understand the extent of the damage.
They had bailed out and we were up in the front of the airplane. In the B-24 the bombardier sits up in the nose with the .50 caliber machine gun emplacement. I told him, "Ed, you had better get out of that seat." He was shooting at the fighters coming from the left and right. I said, "You better straighten out, because if he hits us and your electric system goes out, you're stuck. You're dead." The only way the bombardier could exit the front position, holding the .50 caliber machine guns, was to aim the guns directly forward. So he did, and I pulled him out.
We were now prepared to exit the aircraft. I couldn't get the nose well door open. It was the exit door for the bombardier and navigator. Evidently the door was frozen. I kicked it once more, [but] it wouldn't open. In retrospect, it is safe to assume there was some damage caused by the rockets delivered by the German aircraft.
We crawled through the passageway to reach the bomb bay area. The doors were open. They were used by the pilot, copilot, and the radio man to escape the crippled plane by parachuting. Normally, going through the passageway, I would take off my chest pack and just struggle my way over the ammunition boxes. Just to show you what fear does and the strength that comes with panic, when I went through the passageway I had my chest pack on, and I made it without any trouble. It was brute strength generated by the frantic will to live.
The bombardier followed me. It was very quiet; we were going down. The bomb bays were open. All the crew members attached to the pilot’s compartment were gone. We had no choice but to bail out.
The thought came to my mind, "I wonder if the boys in the back got the message to bail out?" It wasn't possible to check because we were now close to the ground. I said, Ed, do you think they got the message?" He said, "I don't know. No way to tell." Then very politely I said to him, "Do you want to go first?" He said, "No, you can go first." We had no practical experience with bailing out, only that verbal training given back in the States. I did some procedures very foolishly. Today, I wonder why I didn't get killed. Instead of getting down on my knees like they taught us, I just threw myself out the bomb bay. That was dangerous because in a B-24 the bomb bay has a strut at the halfway point. How my body did not come in contact with that strut was my first good fortune of the day. I was fortunate I did go first, because I made it to the ground safely without any trouble.
Soon as I departed the plane, I remembered it was time to pull the parachute lever, so I pulled on it. It didn't open. I pulled again with no success. I said, "Hey, I've got to do something here." So I grabbed the chute with both hands, pulling the handle and chute in opposite directions. Then I saw this white flowing past me. Suddenly, it is as though I hit a brick wall. I must have lost all the air in my body. I'm telling you, it takes all the steam from the lungs.
Gillette: Knocked the wind out of you?
Ferrari: It just takes everything out of you. It's really an experience. Initially your body in space is moving at the same speed of the aircraft from which you just departed. With the opening of the chute you are stopped instantaneously in space. The body experiences a trauma.
Gillette: When you bailed out, did you have any idea where you were geographically?
Ferrari: We knew we were over Holland, but specifically, no. Had no idea at all where we were, because we were distracted by the continuing fighting battles. I wasn't keeping up with the navigation. I had placed on my navigation log a position for every five minutes. This was procedure to adjust to these combat events. Occasionally, I could come back to my log to determine an approximate location. But we were being devastated. There was no going back every five minutes. Now it was time to defend against the enemy. Luckily we did, because we never really were hit until that German pilot threw the rockets at us.
When you bail out, you never in your life have ever experienced anything so quiet. The thing that hits you is, God, it is quiet, no noise. Nothing, just absolute silence. Then when I hit the ground, I felt as though my legs pierced my shoulders. Again, I lost all the air out of my lungs. The date was Friday, November 13, 1943. It was snowing at the time.
I landed on good hard land and then I saw Eddie land across the way but I saw no movement out of him.
There was a strong wind blowing. It reopened the chute, dragging me along. I remember stating to myself, the next time I come around with my heels I'm going to dig in and upright myself and run to collapse the chute. I saw this in training films. It worked.
Now I was paying attention to Eddie who had not moved from his landing location. There was water between him and me. I attempted to hide my chute as we were instructed to do. This action was performed to deny the Germans a clue of our location. The area was wide-open land with no place to cover the parachute.
To reach Eddie I walked through the narrow creek of water. It was cold. On reaching Eddie I learned he had a possible broken shoulder. He was not aware of how it happened, but it was obvious from his clothing that his shoulder made solid contact with the ground. I told him, "Ed, I'd like to make an effort to evade capture, if you feel capable. Do you think you want to stay here and be picked up by the Germans and taken to the hospital, or do you want to evade?" He said, "I want to evade."
About that time the people started gathering. Amongst them was a young boy by the name of Hendrik Eichelbaum. He was, I imagine, maybe seventeen or eighteen years of age at that time. But he looked to me like a very mature boy. He could speak a little English. He told us, while pointing towards the village, that German soldiers would soon arrive. He suggested we take bicycles and move out of the area. "You must make haste to get away. The Germans are coming. They're looking for you." I tried to get on the bicycle but I had difficulty reaching the pedals. Eddie wasn't much more successful with a broken shoulder. We traveled a short distance and I said, "Ed, we can't make it. It's impossible." So we threw both bicycles into the water. We could now see the Germans coming from a long distance away. They were walking. So we jumped in the creek. You can imagine how cold it was during November, and snowing. There were bushes and tall grass growing on the shoulder of the waterway. We used these tall weeds to hide.
We were shot down about one o'clock in the afternoon. Holland is pretty far north, and in November it turns dark early. I would imagine about four o'clock it was beginning to darken. About six o'clock when I looked at my watch—we were shivering and (stuttering) so much so we couldn't talk to each other. I said, "Ed, we’re going to die here. We’d better do something. Do you see that light over there? That's a house." Because he was suffering with his broken shoulder, I said, "We’re going to go there and if they are people that'll help us, fine. If they aren't cooperative, we’ll just give up. We are not going to make it otherwise." I was all wet; he was all wet. Just as soon as we climbed up to the surface from the position where we were hiding, we were approached by the young boy named Eichelbaum. All he said was, "Make haste. Make haste." Those were his guiding words. He put us in a lock-step position behind him. Why he did that, I don't know, but it was obvious that he wanted us to appear as though we were just one.
He evidently had already planned our meeting with a family. We went to a house where they had some hot milk prepared for us. We learned the lady of the house was a widow who had lost her husband two weeks prior. We changed into parts of his clothing. That was a big sacrifice on her part because it's a custom in Holland to retain the clothing of the deceased in remembrance. But she said, "Since you people are saving us and doing so much to save Holland, I will give you his clothing." They did tell us we could not linger, for the Germans were searching all over the community. It was important we leave in a hurry. They took us to a little farm nearby and introduced us to a typical Dutch hayrick. At that period in time they were transferring young Dutch people to Germany to forced labor camps. To avoid this fate, the farmers would hide their offspring in these hayricks whenever the Germans arrived to pick up the young men. The space in the hayrick was for a maximum of two. Now there were three of us. The Germans were also looking for Hendrik because they knew he was responsible for our escape.
The environment was terrible. It was cold, an abundance of fleas, no light, no food, and too little space. Eddie was suffering with the painful shoulder; I was attempting to lean over to him with an effort to do anything possible to make him comfortable. At first, we placed him on his back for shoulder support and to relieve the stress. But regardless of what we did, no matter how we did it, it was an uncomfortable situation. The bugs added to the frustration.
This all occurred on Friday the thirteenth. They indicated we would remain in the hayrick until at least Sunday. There were young children in the family that did not need to know of this activity. At that age it was possible they would divulge this information to the wrong people. The head of the household promised to search out underground people who could assist with our escape.
On occasion they would bring us bread to eat. It was very dark in color, but good. Basically, you weren’t feeling too hungry. We were so tense and so anxious due to the fear of the unknown; food became the least of our worries. They would bring us drinking water. Eddie continued in a lot of pain. Sunday morning they said, "We’re going to permit you out for an hour because we’re going to church." They would take all the kids to church with them, affording us time to walk and relax in the area. That was a memorable day, exercising sore muscles, enjoying sunlight, and speaking freely for an hour. At that time, they told us they had made contact with the underground and the members would meet with us Monday evening.
Monday evening after the children were in bed, Peter Van Den Hurk and his girlfriend arrived. Peter, from what we learned, was a person who could speak English. Mimi, his girlfriend, could not speak English. Peter learned his English in England. [He told us,] "I’ve forgotten a lot of English." So far as we were concerned he fit the bill completely. He opened his conversation with, "Do you want to take a piss?" That was a shocker to me, in front of women, only to learn that was custom. I said, "Yes, Peter, I would." Upon return from the outhouse, Peter told us, "I’m going to give you people a test. You know the Germans come over here and parachute people out of their airplanes. We pick them up, we believe them to be Americans because they speak beautiful English. They travel with us all the way down to the Pyrenees, learn all of our hiding locations and members of the underground; shortly afterwards the Gestapo arrives to clean house. We’ve had this happen to us a couple of times. To avoid this trap, live got to give you some tests." He said, "Most of my information is about England." I said, "Peter, now you’re talking very serious. Our lives here are at stake. Can't you ask questions about the United States? Our experience in England is very limited. We know something of London because we spent our leaves in that city. We have some knowledge of the King’s Lynn area because it is near our base of operation, otherwise, our specific knowledge of England is limited."
"Well," he says, "let me talk to you about London." After a period of time describing sections of London and the activities we experienced while in the city, finally Peter said, "Okay. I'll accept you." He began giving orders. "I'm going to take Eddie because I don't think he's going to be able to ride this bicycle without assistance. Victor, you ride next to Mimi." He requested, "Let's practice a bit on how to say ja." We practiced that for a period of time to achieve the deep sound. He instructed me as follows, "The only time that you talk is when Mimi stops talking, and then you just say ja. Get down to the guttural sound. We are going to go to a home in Meppel. We will be on a road all the way." En route, Mimi never did stop talking because there was nobody present. Then all of a sudden we came into a community, and a lot of people [were] out walking. There was a complete blackout. In that crowd were many German soldiers in uniform. My curiosity was aroused, but I attempted to act normal as possible. Mimi was great and brave. She kept holding on to me just like she was my girlfriend.
Gillette: Now, are you walking or are you—?
Ferrari: No, we're on a bicycle.
Gillette: You're on the bicycle.
Ferrari: We were right next to each other.
While we were moving through this town, it became apparent there was a heavy concentration of German soldiers located in the community. I looked over to Mimi to observe whether she was becoming disturbed. Not to worry, she was normal and self-contained. She was an experienced trooper. When we stopped in front of a house, I looked across the street to see German soldiers guarding the entry to a building. I didn't say anything but my thoughts were, "What the hell is going on here?"
On entering the house Peter said, "Okay. We're going right up to the attic." We walked up the stairs, and he said, "You will sleep here tonight and we'll see you in the morning."
You can imagine how cold it was without heat. There was no heavy sleeping. Too much to think about. Then, early in the morning, we heard these male voices. They were singing this song—I've asked a lot of people if they knew it and even asked Germans—da da, dada, da dada dada. I remember that very well. Getting up from the bed I moved toward the window. That could have been a mistake. I scratched the ice off the window and looked up and down the street below. As far as I could see there were German soldiers in formation. They seemed to be taking morning roll in preparation for breakfast. I thought to myself, "Here we are in this house, and all these German soldiers are lined up out there. Something is amiss." I went down to the next floor. There I was met by an elderly lady. I said, "What's going on here? What are we doing here with all these German soldiers outside?" She indicated to me she can't speak English, but she motioned me to follow her. We met her husband. I said to him, "Did you know Peter brought us here last night and took us up to the attic? This morning I hear all this singing by all these German soldiers. What is this?" He asked my name then responded, "Victor—I am a man of God. I am a preacher. I am the pastor of a church here in town. Across the street is where they billet these young soldiers. They are taking training for the first time. They live there and train in an area outside the community. After a certain number of weeks they ship them off to assignments. Some go to Russia; some stay in the west. New trainees come in when others leave."
But he said, "Nobody could keep coming into any house without creating suspicion, followed by a visit by German authorities consisting of the Gestapo or the German officers. Any house that is visited frequently comes under the scrutiny of the Germans, but because I am a minister and have my flock to attend to they do not consider it unusual for many people to come to me for counseling and some religious considerations. Nobody would ever believe we would be so bold as to hide Americans across the street where there are hundreds of soldiers billeted. Now just calm down; don't worry. We're going to be safe here—we've done this before. We'll take care of things."
Given that encouragement, I proceeded to meet with Eddie and explain the situation to him. We met the family in a sitting room. They introduced us to the three children. One was a boy and the other two were girls. The oldest girl was about fourteen years of age. The boy was the middle; I think he was about ten. And the last one was a girl; she was about six because she was in first grade in school. The routine to be followed was explained. We would stay in the sitting room all day; then Peter would bring the food for us. And because Peter came so often along with other underground people we were kept abreast of news. Peter brought a doctor to examine Eddie. He told Eddie to help him it would require hospitalization. To accomplish this Eddie would need to turn himself in to the Germans. The answer was, "No way." I doubt if the underground would have permitted him to turn himself in. They might have forced Eddie to tell where he was staying since November 13. That would have been a big risk. Fortunately, this possibility did not occur. The discomfort and pain in Eddie's shoulder had now subsided, but he had very little use of his left arm. He learned to roll cigarettes with one hand. Getting tobacco was the big challenge. It wasn't readily available. The muscle around the shoulders was beginning to disappear. This was a worry to Eddie, but he always felt confident an operation would repair this development.
We stayed at the Van Nooten home for a month. We could have moved much earlier if the Dutch-Paris underground had been working, but it was in disarray. Some of their people were picked up. When the line is broken it takes time to develop a new path. Peter told us, "Unfortunately, you’re going to be here quite a while. I’m going to have to find a new source to get you people moving. I have no answers right now." We told him what we learned back at the base, that they used submarines. He said, "Forget that. That whole area is just loaded with German soldiers." We told him, "How about going north and getting on some of those fishing ships to escape." He said, "Well, we can try but that has been broken too. We used to send people in that direction. But I will check again." He said, "Going south, that's where our people were caught and that will take some time to recover."
Peter would come see us maybe every other day and convey the same news: he hadn't made any progress. One night he said, "On that northern route I made a contact with a person up to Groningen, and he's going to visit me. Now Vic, I don't know this man. I’ve never had any involvement with him, no interaction whatsoever. But just as soon as I get him in this room I’m going to search him, to see if he has a gun or some instrument on him. I want to check his identification to make certain he isn't a Gestapo agent. You’re going to hide behind that curtain with this gun. When I say, 'Vic, come and get him, I want you to come out and shoot this man." I said, "Peter, I've never shot a man in my life. We drop bombs; I’m certain we killed people, but I’ve never shot a man." He said, "Well, now we’ve got to do it. You see these three children here and the two parents. If this ever gets out, that they're helping American airmen, they’ll all be killed. They will take them to prison, but they will be killed, kids and parents." I said, "Peter, I’ll try."
That night when the man arrived, I heard Peter searching the man with quick pats to determine if he had a gun. The guy started talking in Dutch, which I didn't understand. Shortly Peter said, "Okay, Victor, come out." What a relief to me not having to shoot the individual. I’m glad I wasn't tested. The man was startled when I came from behind the curtain with the gun. The tension was broken when Peter and he continued to talk in Dutch. Evidently, it was amusing because they both began to laugh. However, his news was not good. The fishing ship route was blocked with little hope of it ever being used again. He expressed his sorrow and departed. That kind of news was always depressing. Eddie and I were anxious to start moving. There was also concern staying in one place too long could possibly end up in a capture, for many reasons.
We were becoming conditioned for the long haul. Eddie and I played cards, told stories, and surmised what we could do after the war. I read all the writings of Shakespeare, plus other books. The oldest girl of the family would play the piano for entertainment. We would help the first grade student with her English lessons. We had a map of the Russian front. We kept the fronts updated as we received fresh news.
Our food was simple. We had bread and tea each day. For the evening meal, we had some vegetables—potatoes, carrots, and bread were the most available. Everything was scarce. Nothing was thrown away. Even used match sticks were thrown on the wood pile. Clothing and shoes were especially scarce. We never had meat during our month stay. The mother of the family was a very strong personality who worked hard to provide for the family needs. The husband was a pleasant, religious person, but it was the mother who possessed the strength. There was a high state of discipline in the family. All knowing and fulfilling their roles. The children were all very mature for their ages. They all hated the Germans, and that included the first-grade child. She would stand back from the window and stick her tongue out at the German officers across the street.
On one visit by the doctor, we got into a discussion on politics after the war. He was a strong Dutch nationalist but very intelligent on worldly affairs. The Dutch were defeated by the Germans in three days. That was embarrassing to all the Dutch, and especially to those who served in the military. The Dutch were being badly treated because the German who was in charge of the Holland area was a tyrant. All the Dutch people agreed this man must receive his just due after the war. We questioned the doctor as to what changes he expected in Europe after the war. His was a surprise answer, "Get away and leave us alone again." I said, "Aren't the Europeans going to try to combine France and Holland and Belgium in a effort to be a stronger country to fight people like the Germans?" He said, "No. All we want is to be alone." That was an unexpected remark on his part. I thought that they would begin to think differently and begin to want some unity like the United States. It was unity that gave us strength and power. But, "No," he said, "all I want you to do is defeat the Germans then let us alone."
Now that Eddie said, "No, I want to stay here," the doctor never came back again. Peter kept us informed on the progress of the war and the work of the underground. Peter would bring pictures of before and after beatings received by captured members of the underground. The underground people had a way of receiving these pictures that were held to indict the guilty after the war.
Regardless of these activities, the days were long and the anxiety was high, never knowing when our presence could become known by German authorities. After viewing the beaten faces of the captured, you come to realize the extent and cruelty Germans would use to gain information. Since we were in civilian clothing and nothing to identify ourselves as military officers, there was no telling what treatment we would receive if picked up. There were many people who knew of our existence. If they were arrested, could they maintain silence, considering the torture they would endure? These considerations were always a part of our thought process.
Although Peter gave us his name, beyond that they never gave us names or locations of where we were. The only place I knew where we were was in Meppel and Maastricht.
They also sensed the danger of being exposed. The first day in the house they took us to the cellar to introduce us to an escape tunnel. They told us, "If you hear anything during the night, or if you hear any knock on the door, go to the cellar, pull this rug away, jump down in that hole, and then head for the back yard. But I have to tell you, the Germans aren't stupid. They're going to surround the house if they are planning to make an investigation. Whether you're going to get out safely is doubtful. But you must try. If you are successful, go to the train station. Some of our people will aid you at that point." They showed us a picture of where the railroad station was located. Fortunately, we didn't need to test the system.
Then came their Christmas. Their Christmas is early in December; Black Pete, they call their Santa Claus. We were in the room there that evening, and all of a sudden Mimi comes in, and she's dressed up as Black Pete. She threw a few nuts into the room before she made her entry. Then she gave us two little presents. It was a pleasant evening. It was one of the rare times that we saw Mimi. Food was scarce; everything was scarce. I remember one time looking at Mrs. Van Nooten. You couldn't converse with her because she could speak no English. She was a hardened lady. She was anti-German. On this occasion she was looking at the kids' shoes. They had holes in the soles. All she did was look at the soles and look at the soles and look at the soles. I thought to myself, "What's going on in the mind of that woman?" The hatred. Here are her kids who she loves without good shoes, and she sees all these holes in the soles of the shoes. What was she pondering? Those were the kind of feelings you lived with, and of course, in no position to help this kind and wonderful family. What would happen to this family if we were caught in their home? I often asked myself, would I endanger my family under similar circumstances? I’d rather not take the test.
There was one very tense period during our stay in Meppel. Word spread around the community something was up. There was unusual German activity throughout the town. Special guards were placed on bridges and certain connecting roads. This caused the first real concern, and I saw it in the Van Nooten family and with Peter himself. They just couldn't surmise the reason for these actions. One tense conjecture was there would be a widespread raid and search of the city. It caused an uneasiness that filled the air with caution and preparation for any event. The gloom disappeared when it was learned General Rommel passed through during early hours on his way to the western front. Everything returned to normal.
The day finally came when they told us we were going to leave. There would be a lady coming to Meppel to escort us to Maastricht. Maastricht is on the German border in southeastern Holland. It is also on the Belgium border. This was a convenience for getting across the border to Belgium. Eddie and I were very excited, awaiting the arrival of our escort. She was young and quite heavyset. Before departing she trained us how to follow her. Don't follow her too closely, but keep her within sight. She would purchase the tickets at the station. "Once you get on the train, fall asleep. You will see German soldiers and they'll ask you questions; do not respond to them. They are accustomed to this treatment and they understand that the people here in the occupied countries hate them and will not respond to their inquiries. They accept it; they are told by their officers to practice restraint." I said, "What about the Gestapo?" She said, "They're a different breed." She showed us how they dressed. She said, "There are not that many of them around. But these young German soldiers, they accept your silence, and they will walk away." The fact is I did have the occasion when a German soldier requested a light for his cigarette. I followed the rule by not talking to him. He walked away without another word.
I did not know the name of our escort at the time she guided us to Maastricht. I did meet her forty years later at a reunion. Her name is Joke Folmer. She is now quite thin and personable. She was very quiet and reserved as a guide.
But on the trains, [the advice was] pretend to sleep immediately and nobody will bother you. German soldiers were on the train but none asked questions. We changed trains at one location. Our next stop was Maastricht. They took us to a home where the husband was an engineer in the community and his wife was a beautiful piano player. She played the piano with skill. I learned later on that her father was the head of the symphony in Rotterdam and, of course, she had tremendous love and capability for music. He had been a soldier, a first lieutenant, in the army when they were defeated in three days. That burned his stomach. It was too much to explain why they went down to defeat in three days. Now he was an engineer in the community of Maastricht. As a result he knew what was going on. He had a very good concept of what was occurring in the city. He would tell us where the Germans were located, what the Germans were doing, what the situation was on the Russian front, and where the battle lines were stalled out for long periods of time. He kept us fully informed.
We were quite comfortable in this home. Because of his position in the city, we were eating more food than we received in Meppel. He even had some heat in the house. Being an engineer, I suppose, he was given special privileges. He was a very, very vivacious person. He was always walking around and emoting while trying to make humor. His wife was just the opposite, a very stately person, very reserved and quiet, but a talented musician.
One day I heard him screaming at the door, which was not usual. The shouting and screaming was in Dutch, therefore I didn't know what was going on. The wife was not there at the time; she was out shopping. Eddie said to me, "What for God's sake is going on? Let's get out of here," because we were in a big room. He was screaming at somebody; he's trying to keep somebody out of the house. We attempted to hide in the next room. He came to us crying. We said, "What's the matter?" He said, "My parents, they live in Belgium. Today the Germans allowed those people to come across the border to visit their kin. It was unexpected; I didn't know they were coming; there is no way to notify us, and I had to tell them to get out, I don't want them in my house."
He cried like a baby. I said, "Why didn't you let them come in?" He said, "We can't take that chance. We can't take that chance. They're old. They'll start talking to somebody when they go back; somebody else will talk. They'll come and clean us out." He said, trying to console himself, "After the war I will tell them what happened; ask for their forgiveness. I know they'll understand."
We were there for two weeks with those people. He told us, "We are waiting for an opportune time to get you over the border. We will know how it's going to be done from the underground."
About a day before departing, they evidently got the message. They said, "We're going to give you and Eddie bicycles." And he drew it all out on paper, showing the locations for the operation. He said, "There will be a ditch at this point. You go down into that ditch. It'll be dark when you get there, so don't worry about being seen." He said, "You're getting close to the border at that location. They don't allow people in that proximity to the border." He said, "You won't have anybody looking at you. Leave the bicycles in the ditch, we will pick them up the next day. When you see a red light up in the tower," and he drew the tower, "you walk to the gate; you are now behind the tower. There's going to be a barrier. You go over the barrier and on the other side, you're in Belgium. And there will be some people waiting to pick you up."
I said, "But you say there's German soldiers on guard duty." "Yes, they're the ones guarding the exit from Belgium into Holland. You'll see, the gates are down. They always keep them down unless they let somebody through." "We're going to go right up to the gates?" "Yes. You must believe these underground people. They know what they're doing." I said, "How high is that board that separates Belgium [from Holland]?" He said, "I don't know. Evidently the underground believes you can get over it." I said, "Okay."
We followed orders. We rode the bicycles to the ditch and waited. Sometime during the night, we saw the red light. Eddie and I ran and came right up to the tower where these German soldiers were billeted. We went through the gate and boy, that fence was very high. Eddie couldn't go over that obstacle with one useless arm, so I shoved him over the fence. Here I am, a short guy. So I go back and I hit that wood once with my foot and tried to climb up but missed it. Can you imagine the noise we were making? I'm thinking, "Oh, these guys are going to come down and shoot us. They're not going to ask any questions, they're just going to start shooting." So I go back and hit it again—I tell you, when you have fear, the strength you develop is amazing. I just pulled myself up over that damn fence and landed on the other side; Eddie was there waiting for me with the men.
There were three of them. They said, "Okay. Now as we go over the bridge—" it [was] a small walking bridge— "it will go up and down as we walk on it." He said, "There will be German soldiers down below. They are guarding the border. Now you just follow us. We will sing and sound like we're drunk. It's not unusual for people during the evening to visit some of these saloons to drink and then go home." The bridge was, I would say, twenty to thirty feet high; the German soldiers were sitting below around a fire. Our walk across the bridge went very well. They sang and gave the appearance of being inebriated. Out of the side of my vision I saw the German soldiers looking up at us but not seeming suspicious. It probably seemed normal to them. By the light given off by the fire I could see their faces very clearly. My impression was they were young men holding rifles in their hands while observing us more with curiosity than with purpose. We gave them no reason to question our actions.
We learned the next day that this area of Belgium was a hotbed of underground activity. The organization was known as a radical underground group, a lot of killings and subversive actions. They said they must move us out in a hurry because the Germans on duty were very aggressive, with frequent checks. They put us on a train the next morning and, with a guide, took us to Brussels. Now in Brussels, life was different compared to Holland. Everyone knew that Seyss-Inquart, who ruled Holland, was a tyrant. Everyone agreed they would hang him after the war. That was not an idle threat. Inquart did pay with his life. But for Belgium they had a kinder individual; they received more food and heat. There is a natural gas field in that area, and the Belgians were enjoying the comfort of natural gas.
We were there for two days while they prepared us to cross the French border. We were going to ride the Berlin/Paris express. Our guide was a person with a deformed left arm. He was young but capable. We were going to be workers that were home on leave from an air base in Paris. We were now returning to our jobs. Because we were Flemish residents, and nobody understands that language, we were permitted a guide to help us communicate with the Germans and the French. Evidently the Flemish language is unique. The northern part of Belgium speaks Dutch; the southern part speaks French. Then there is the western section of Belgium that is Flemish. Fortunately, they had a unique language that provided us with the opportunity to subvert the German security system once more. They took photos for use on our identification cards. All of the proceedings were much less tense than we experienced in Holland. There was a spirit of relaxation and confidence we hadn't experienced in the past.
There was continuous training for our trip to Paris. Much had to be prepared in a short period of time. We were being drilled over and over on procedures to follow in going through the French customs. We would get off the Berlin/Paris express at the French border with our guide. The Germans being so rigid in this processing, it was possible to predict what they would do and what they would ask. There were a series of questions that would be asked in French. We memorized the key words that would identify the action to take. For instance, "Show me your wallet and how much money you have"—which will be little. "Take off your shoes"—to indicate whether some money is hidden. The last question was a showing of identification cards and working papers. We were assured our guide was experienced and all would go well. This process had been successful many, many times. It was almost perfunctory.
With all the preparation completed and confidence instilled, we were told the Berlin/Paris express would arrive in Brussels at 8:00 p.m. and to expect large numbers of German military people on board, plus many German civilians. Normal procedures: ignore any questions by other passengers. Pretend to sleep as much as possible on the journey.
On the evening of travel we arrived at the station well before 8:00 p.m. Not everything was going according to plan. The train was late. Here we were, eight, nine, ten o'clock. I could see the clock in the middle of the waiting room. Our guide became nervous and would not stay with us anymore. He said, "I cannot stay with you anymore. Something is wrong. I have to find out why the train is not coming." He said, "You see those people over there—" of course, we knew they were Gestapo because they told us in Holland how they dressed, with the long coat, the black hat. So he said, "They're going to come around and ask questions. Now the best thing to do is to pretend you're sleeping and they may not bother you. If you see they're coming around checking the papers and so forth, go to the men's room and stay there for a period of time. By that time he'll go on." Every time the Gestapo would come around and start checking papers, that's what we would do, for the entire evening. We did not leave out of there until about midnight. Our guide did find out what happened. He told us, "There has been an air raid in town. The train was ordered to stop at a certain location to prevent attack."
At about midnight we mounted the train, with German uniforms very visible. It was blackout time, therefore lighting was low and many passengers were sleeping. The trip to the French border was uneventful; everybody was quiet. At the border we got off the train, went in to customs and followed the procedures we learned in training. Fortunately, not an incident; all went well. The last step was to show the German officer seated there our identification and papers. He appeared as a haughty, bored person. I came up to him, saluted and handed him the information. I was thinking all the time, if you only knew who I really am. He reviewed the papers with indifference then motioned me to proceed. I wanted to shout a victory cry, but by this time I had learned how to perform normally without giving any body language that would create suspicion by another individual. That was important in that environment.
We remounted the train and headed for Paris. As day broke, there was increased activity throughout the train. There was much conversation in German and French. It was an uneasy period because many things could have happened with everyone moving around. It was a relief to stop in Paris without incident. Our guide was greeted by men he obviously knew. By the expression on his face I knew he was disappointed and concerned. Approaching Eddie and me, he told the story. The hotel that was to accept us was raided last night. They have no place to locate us. We are on our own. It was obvious from his expression this was a serious setback. His quick plan was to place us in the streets of Paris while he searched for a new connection, and that possibility would be difficult.
He indicated that he had no contacts whatsoever in Paris. He said, "I'm totally unfamiliar with the underground here. I was instructed to turn you over to these people. I will do all possible to make a new contact. Walk these streets alone, but come back to this point every half hour. I will give you any new information at that time." We followed his instructions. The one identifying feature I saw in the area I walked was a big, white church on the top of the hill. I learned later on it was the Church of the Sacred Heart.
We returned to our spot every half hour only to receive negative news. We could see our guide was distressed. The next time we returned, our guide informed us [that] he took the courage to ask some businessmen to take us to lunch, and they agreed. We ate in a small restaurant. It was a detached social climate. I imagine the businessmen were as concerned as we were about what might happen. They did not sit at our table, but they did pay for our meal. It was the first time I ate snails. Any meal would have been appropriate under the circumstances.
After lunch we continued to walk the streets. I took as many alternate routes as possible to avoid detection by anyone in that area. We walked all afternoon. At our 6:00 p.m. meeting, our guide was straightforward. He said, "I have not been able to make contact. And by eight o'clock if you are on the streets, you are going to be picked up by the police, and you will be turned over to the Germans. I don't want to be turned in with you. They will kill me; they will probably take you prisoner. Eight o'clock is curfew time in Paris. Without proper permits, which we do not have, we will end up in the hands of authorities. However, keep walking."
The next time around, about 6:30 p.m., he greeted us in the company of a young girl. She was petite, about five feet tall and very thin. He said, "You're going out to a farm outside the city. This girl is going to take you. Goodbye. I'm so happy that I made this contact." That was the last time we saw him. He did his job well under adverse circumstances.
She led us to the subway. We traveled a good distance. Lots of kissing going on with young Parisians. We changed to a train to leave Paris. It was nightfall when we arrived at the farm. She placed us in a little house all by ourselves. We never saw her again. In the morning, we were visited by an old lady who spoke no English, but she had food. She appeared to be ninety years of age. She was our prime visitor, always with food. She talked continuously in French, but it was a one-way flow of information. We thought her senile, but she was evidently following directions very well.
That's just about the way it went for two weeks. It wasn't a bad life on the farm. We were free to walk around, exercise, and relax. We did not see any signs of life except for the old lady. A person did show up one day to tell us, "You are going back to Paris again. We must get you back with the underground. We do not have that type of organization in this location. All we are doing is hiding you for a while. You will go to Paris by train. At the station exit gate you will see a priest—" he showed us a picture of him— "and he will be standing by this sign. Now, you know how to follow. Don't follow one after the other. Victor, you stay on this side of the street; Eddie, you go over on the other side of the street and follow him."
Sure enough, we arrived at the exit gate and the priest was obvious. The sign was there, the priest was there, just as he appeared on his picture. We made a brief contact, and we were on our way. He started walking, and we followed as prescribed. We walked and we walked and we walked; luckily we had a little bit of time during those two weeks to exercise, otherwise I don't know if we could have kept up with this person. We came to what looked like a school. Inside he took off his robe, and that priest was carrying two hams strapped to his shoulders. He gave them to the lady, "Here's the food for these people." I couldn't believe he could walk so fast and steady carrying that weight. The lady in charge explained the arrangements. We would live in a room below the building. There were other fliers already there awaiting movement by the underground. She explained the discomforts but hoped the time would be short. She took us down the ladder leading to the darkened room. It was now evening. Until the eyes adjusted to the darkness, you were not aware of the surroundings. The first information we learned was there would be sleeping on the floor.
With that first night behind us, the morning gave us an opportunity to become acquainted with the total picture. There were approximately eight people in the group. Lighting was by lanterns; there were no toilet facilities; they used bed pans and pots. Overall, it was a most undesirable environment. It was dingy, poor ventilation; the urine pots would run over when the attendants permitted too much time to pass. There were no facilities for washing.
The recreation was playing cards, reading, and telling stories. We were there for two weeks. Because we were not washing our bodies and underclothes, I developed a bad skin rash and infection all through my crotch area. I had the same pair of drawers without washing for weeks. They were filthy from just being exposed to the infection. When the girl came down to see us one day, she said, "Tomorrow we are going to move. Now, I want to tell you something. The last group that we moved was caught, and we lost some of our best people. The reason we lost these guides was because one of the group didn't tell us he could not walk for thirty-five hours. Now, I am telling you that if any of you feel that you cannot walk for thirty-five hours under very difficult circumstances, let me know; otherwise, this time we are going to leave you behind on your own. Our group will move on without you. We cannot afford to lose our good people."
Nobody said a word. They were looking at me but not turning me in. I looked around waiting for somebody to expose my condition. But not a word. She came back again. "Once more. That boy had flak in his leg and he hid it. That was unfortunate." At this intercession I spoke up, "Ma'am, I might have some trouble." She said, "What is the matter?"
I said, "I need to see a male attendant." She said, "I'll be down tomorrow morning at five o'clock to pick you up and take you upstairs. I'll have a doctor there." Sure enough, she came down at five o' clock to pick me up. At the top level there was a doctor and a lady that I judged to be fifty or fifty-five years of age. The young girl said, "What's the matter, Victor?" I said, "In front of you women?" She said, "Don't worry about those things." I said, "Okay."
What could I do? The doctor could not speak English; the older woman could not speak English. So I pulled my drawers down and the doctor just shook his head with a negative frown. I quickly retorted, "No, I can make it. Get some oil or some salve so I can rub it on my body, and I will make it. I want to go." The doctor and the women were speaking in French. The doctor was saying, "Non, non, non." The girl said, "Victor, you are not going to go. Now look, I know you've had a rough life. You are in bad shape. You are going back to an apartment with this lady. We suspected that maybe this might happen; that is why we brought her along. You are going back to her apartment, and I will personally escort you down to Toulouse in the south of France as soon as you are prepared and ready to go. You will enjoy the apartment. You can bathe; there is a gramophone for music; you will have good care. This lady is a practical nurse."
One fact you learn early, when the leaders of the underground spoke, they meant business and their word was final. I know there was no arguing my case, especially when they had a bad experience with a previous group. I agreed, with a request to return to the group to say goodbye and wish them successful travel. Her answer was, "No, we can't do it, we must leave immediately."
The lady took me to her apartment. It was early morning, with German soldiers and officers coming out of these apartments, no doubt leaving for work. There was no conversation as she did not speak or understand English. We went directly to her apartment. The Germans did not seem to be attracted by me. I was looking old, and I had this old clothing that made me pass as a Frenchman.
In the apartment, we had problems conversing. She had a little book that we used for translations. It took time but we made progress. I learned [that] her husband was killed by the Germans. She used body language to demonstrate her hate for Germans. It was a slow day getting to know each other through a translation book. I was depressed knowing Eddie and the boys were on their way to freedom. She sensed my disappointment. Her message to me was there were Germans in apartments all around She was stressing that information. Then she came around to another point. The translation was difficult. She asked me if I talk in my sleep. I said, "I don't know." What must have concerned her was that if I spoke English, the Germans were going to hear it, and they would immediately check the apartment. Accepting my "I don't know" answer, that point was dropped. Since she did not say a word the next morning I evidently did not talk in my sleep.
When I came out of my bedroom, she was waiting for me with a bottle in her hand. She pointed for me to go into her bedroom. And it was obvious that she wanted me to lie down. I gave her the motion, "No, let me do it." I could tell she was going to use the contents of that bottle. I could not argue with the woman, so down went my pants again, and I lay down as she directed. She wet the rag with the fluid in the bottle and applied it to my crotch. I was on fire. I jumped off the bed, got down on my knees in pain. I tell you, you never had a burn in your life to equal this. I knew I shouldn't shout because of the German neighbors but there was no question to both of us that I was on fire. The poor lady, she was identifying with my pain; she was down on her knees with me but not saying a word. She kept rubbing my back in pity. I turned all kinds of colors. She arranged for the doctor to see me the next day, the same doctor. He looked at me, and in French he asked of the lady, "What happened? I gave you instructions to dilute the alcohol. You have used raw alcohol; it should have been diluted with water." Through the translator, he said, "You are really in bad shape now. Worse than you were before." Of course they were laughing about it, and I went along with the humor of it all.
I was there for two weeks with a little improvement showing each day. It was pleasant there. She had a gramophone; I never heard any music up until that point except by the girl playing the piano in Maastricht. I was able to wash every day; they brought me clean clothing, and the food was good except for one evening when I had my first meat since being shot down. Whatever happened, I became very ill during the night. I wanted to vomit very badly, but I felt it would be an embarrassment to waste good food. I refused to submit to the urge to bring up the food and suffered the consequences all night. I never told the lady of my plight. In retrospect that was foolish, but unless you lived in that environment where everything is scarce, especially food, you will never understand why I acted in the manner I did. It was a delicacy to have been fed meat and no doubt a sacrifice by someone, and I wasn't about to waste it at that time.
Two days after arriving at the apartment, my mind was still on the lucky guys who were on their way to freedom. They were probably in southern France and ready to climb over the Pyrenees. Here, I was stuck. On the second day, we were visited by the girl who came down to pick me up at five o'clock in the morning. She was very, very solemn. Very solemn. She came into the apartment. She was talking in French to the lady. I could tell something was wrong; their faces showed it. I asked, "Is something wrong?" She said, "Yes, Victor, I have some bad news for you. Your boys were picked up last night—" one night after they started walking. "They could not make it. They were supposed to be on the top of a mountain where there is a lot of snow and safety while waiting for the next night to start walking again. They were behind schedule and stayed at a farm in the valley. They were hiding in a barn, but they were detected by German police dogs and German soldiers." I asked if they were all captured. She said, "The best we know, they were all picked up, and we don't know what is going to happen to them." The thought hit me. Here I am, so damn lucky, pitying myself. Here I am; I'm alive, and who knows what has happened to those people?
Gillette: This included your friend Eddie?
Ferrari: Yes. All of them. The whole bunch. In that group was Eddie and Nick Mandell, our radio man on the crew. He was with that group in the cellar when Eddie and I arrived. We did not know what happened to Nick until that meeting in the cellar. That meant two of our crew members were captured.
The boys in the back of our airplane went down with the plane. How they lived through that crash, nobody will ever know. It was written up in the military papers as a horror story. They called it a miracle. That airplane landed in a creek, with its tail straight up. The nose and half of the bomb bay was in water. Mario Sanno almost died from that crash. He went through the bomb bay door when they hit the water. The airplane was going down; as a precaution, they braced themselves against the rear bomb bay wall and door. Mario went right through the door and into the water. He was drowning and consumed a lot of water in his lungs. The other NCOs pulled him out. The Germans took him prisoner and saved his life. The other people experienced no damage whatsoever, but they were all taken prisoner. But can you imagine going down with that airplane and not getting killed? If Eddie and I would have stayed with the airplane, we would have been killed since the nose of the aircraft was deep in the ditch and water.
Gillette: Do you remember the name of the plane?
Ferrari: No, I don't, because I told you, we did not have our airplane. The only thing I can tell was a drawing of a big bird on the side. You took any airplane that was available for the day.
After two weeks in the apartment and receiving good treatment, I was ready to travel. As promised, the girl would take me to Toulouse. It was an all-night train trip. We arrived in Toulouse in the morning.
There were other downed airmen on that train, some too boisterous for their own safety. We were all placed in a house, sleeping three to a bed. I did not know these airmen; they came from a different underground group. We had a group of about fifteen people. These were less disciplined airmen. They made lots of noise and were free with the mouth. The girl warned me to be careful. She didn't like the behavior of these individuals. She took this as serious business. It was obvious she dreaded leaving me with this group, but there was no alternative.
We were being supported by college students. They brought food, clothing, and necessary papers. We were being held in Toulouse until the snow in the Pyrenees was at a level to permit travel. I had a feeling of uneasiness living in this house. There were too many students who knew of our location. The French were more loose in their talk and actions compared to the Dutch and Belgians.
It was welcome news when we were told to prepare for a trip to the base of the Pyrenees. The hike there at night was a test of endurance. We walked; we struggled through water. In a completely wet condition after an all-night walk, we ended up on top of a mountain and stayed there all day to hide from German guards. It was cold and snow-covered. It was a freezing temperature in wet clothing. This was one time I expected sickness. It was ridiculous exposing ourselves to these conditions. We were in need of sleep, yet we could not sleep for fear of freezing. We were told to keep moving to prevent frostbite. That was the longest day of my life. We could not wait to start moving. Standing there in the open was miserable. I fell asleep several times on my feet only to awaken as my body was about to fall into the snow.
When darkness came, we started down the mountain and continued our walk to the base of the Pyrenees. Our destination, as we learned, was an area up in the Pyrenees that the shepherds used to graze their sheep during the summer period. This being winter, we would use their bunks. All the bunks were empty and evidently approved for our use. Cold, gosh it was cold. We slept on wooden floors. We could not start any fires for the smoke would attract German guards. Food was extremely low in quantity; it was almost nil.
The walls of the huts were built of stone. It was cold sleeping next to these rock walls. We slept three to a hut. The men in the middle were the most comfortable. Therefore, we rotated positions; once every three nights you were in the middle.
Food was a serious problem. It was a source of constant friction. When you are hungry like we were, you trust no one. We descended the mountain every three days for meager portions of food. We would carry the food in sacks and make distribution to each hut the next day. Coming up the mountain, certain individuals were known to pretend they slipped in the snow to shake out a few beans from the bag and later come down and pick them up. We would separate so we would watch if anybody was trying to pull those kinds of tricks. Whenever a person fell, the location was checked for dumped food. To give an example of conserving food, one slice of bread was made to last at least three days. When it came to food, friendship did not mean a thing.
Survival was paramount. Satisfying hunger is really something. It turns you into a searching animal. Food stored in each hut was guarded like gold. One individual assigned to a hut was always present to prevent thievery of food. It was a precious commodity. The passion for food was always present.
We were impatient to start over the Pyrenees, but the deep snows prevented us from taking that adventure. All low passages over the Pyrenees were closely guarded by Germans. We were going over the highest peak in the Pyrenees. This was hardly expected or even seemed possible by the Germans. In our eagerness to get going, we seemed to ignore this danger.
We were at the base of the Pyrenees for about two weeks. Finally the guides said, "Okay. We are going to have to take a chance and go over. We are going over the top peak in the Pyrenees. The Germans would never suspect anybody would try it with this depth of snow. We are going to make the effort."
We had Americans, British, Dutch, and young men who were not in the military. They would not transport anybody out of the country unless the Germans were looking for them and they knew they were going to be killed. These boys had shot German soldiers or performed acts of sabotage. There were some Frenchmen. These Frenchmen and the Dutch troops were carrying big, big packages on their backs. It seemed senseless, but that is all they had. For we Americans, we expected to receive assistance from our embassy in Spain. Same for the British. But the French and Dutch had no such representation in Spain, therefore, they were counting on no one but themselves. That was the reason for the heavy baggage.
We made our start over the Pyrenees about 6:00 p.m. It was cold; it was dark, and we were hungry. The snow was deeper than we expected, causing travel to be most difficult. There were no paths to follow. It was straight up; our legs made fresh holes in the snow.
We were going for a few hours. It was a slow, gruesome struggle, with fatigue and frustration settling in. The Dutch and French began to scream and criticize our guides. They were shouting, "These are stupid people. They are not taking us to Spain. They are going to turn us back to the Germans. Can't you see, the North Star is not behind us; these guides are traitors. They will be paid by the Germans." I knew the direction was correct. They showed us on the map before departure where we would enter Spain. There is a part of the Pyrenees that goes north and south; therefore, we would travel west to east. That was the reason the North Star was off to our left. The majority accepted this and we continued in the journey.
Shortly thereafter, the same French and Dutch decided they couldn't go on. The weight of their luggage was getting the best of them. It was almost impossible to move ahead without luggage. They insisted they be left to die. Life no longer meant anything to them. They said, "Let me die." The leaders would take the wine that they had in a bag and just squirt it in their face. Others would shoot guns over their heads for a reaction. The guides kept urging. "Come on. Keep going." They would pick themselves up and continue the climb.
I began to wonder. Now I have been with these men for a long time. These are very courageous people. What is happening here?
Having had some psychology training, I began to realize we were continuously looking for the top of the mountain. It hasn't been in sight for the whole night. With all the darkness and the heavy woods, that vision was obstructed. I could tell it was becoming very depressing and hopeless. Our goal appeared out of reach, especially in that deep snow, the cold temperature, and weakness from hunger. I told myself, no more looking for the top of the mountain. Take short goals, the trunk of a tree, a spot in the snow, a tree limb in the snow, and struggle to that position, stop, rest, eat some snow, and select the next short goal, but no looking for the top of the mountain. That will come eventually. I continued this process for the remainder of the night.
In early morning when daylight became apparent, we suddenly could see the top of the mountain. You should have seen the change of behavior. Everybody was re-energized. They were screaming and shouting with joy. Then we broke through the timberline, with ice and snow to the top. It was a beautiful sight.
In the ice, we made it about two feet up and slipped back the same distance, but the screaming and hollering continued. We finally made the top. A photographer's dream, but this was not the time for these considerations. Spain was below, and here we came. We slid on our backsides down to the timberline on the Spanish side. Compared to the climb up, the descent was fast and exciting.
When we reached the bottom we saw a shepherd. Knowing some Spanish towns returned escaping fliers back to Germany, we decided on a plan. We would send a person who could speak Spanish to test the attitude of the shepherd. "He doesn't know we're here. You go in and ask if there is any town considered safe from German domination." Some Spaniards at that time were anti-American/anti-British because of the previous Spanish revolution. Only the Germans gave them assistance. Even now, the U.S. refused to sell them gasoline. The Spanish were very upset with us. We were briefed on these matters back at the base.
We hid while the approach was made to the shepherd. If he tried anything, we would all attack him at one time. We now had about twenty people. After a short discussion our man waved us on; we approached from all angles. That shepherd seemed aghast at the numbers approaching. We were given the message, "The town we want to go into is Bosost; that is the most friendly town here." He named the towns that would turn us in. He explained, "There are Germans in civilian clothing." They would turn you over to those Germans. It had happened in the past. We did go into Bosost, and he was correct. Each of us was given ten dollars in Spanish money while in France. On reaching Bosost, we spent it freely on food. Just as quickly, we started vomiting. After so many days without food, our stomachs could not handle the figs and sweets. What a disappointment; all this food and we were becoming ill because of it.
As we were gathered in the middle of Bosost, one boy came up to me and said, "I'm a communist. Don't trust these people. They're acting like they are friendly, but there are Germans here. You give me the names of your people, and I will take them to the American Embassy. Then the American Embassy will let the Spanish government know that they are aware of your presence in the country. The U.S. will look with disfavor if they turn you over to the Germans."
What else could I do? A communist, with me, was something undesirable, but I was lucky I did give the names. We later learned it was the embassy's action that kept us from being turned over to the Germans. There was some questioning by authorities, but we had already agreed to only name, rank, and serial number. There was no attempt at retribution because of our resistance to their questions.
The town of Bosost was snowbound. To reach another town, it meant walking in snow again. The roads were all blocked; the snow was very deep. They said, "You're going to have to walk for about a day to reach Viella. That is your next stop." That trip was not easy, especially since we exchanged our shoes for sandals in Bosost. It wasn't as steep as the Pyrenees, but it tested our strength and persistence.
We stayed in Viella for one night. The next day they put us on a bus. It was overcrowded. People and luggage were on the top of the bus, and many people were standing inside. My thoughts were, "Would the brakes ever hold?" I wondered how many accidents occurred because of this overloading; at least it didn't happen this time.
They drove us to a town by the name of Lerida. U.S. Embassy employees met us at the next bus stop. He called off the names that I gave to the communist. He said, "I've got a hotel room for each of you. We have registered you for a hotel room. We ask that you remain inside. Be very quiet. Don't get into any trouble here. These people are not very friendly to the Americans. We are going to make every effort to have you reach the Rock of Gibraltar as soon as possible."
But on Sunday I decided I would go to church and thank God for getting us this far. The Dutchman who was with us said, "I want to go too. I'm not Catholic, but I want to go and thank God in my own way." It seemed like a good idea. Off to church we went. During the service, I went through the whole ritual, but he didn't. He stood there, even through the solemn Eucharist part of the mass. As soon as the service was over, a man came behind both of us and pushed us forward. I asked what he was doing, but there was no answer, only more shoves and pushes. Remembering the words of the embassy employee, we did as the man told us. That led us to jail.
If you ever saw a crummy place, this was it. The only time that could see any light was when the sun was going over the building at noon. The attendant could speak English. He would come around to release us so we could go to the miserable toilet. I said, "Can't you do something? We don't know what's going on here." The man told me, "Well, they think you're communists. Your friend here did not do anything during the mass. You did but he didn't, and they think you are communists and communists are not welcome. We just finished the revolution with those people. You're in trouble. I will attempt to get you a hearing." We had to sleep on a cement floor. The food was brought to us by the hotel. This was the only decent action of the day.
The next morning he did take us into the office of a heavyset man who appeared as really impressed with himself. The attendant eventually told him our story in Spanish. It ended with him waving his hand as much to say, "Get these people out of my office and back to their cell." I was becoming desperate. "I'm going to make a break from this cell somehow," [I thought].
But on the fifth day, this young man from the American Embassy came in and said, "You're now released. You can get out." God have mercy on any individual who has a long-term sentence in one of those jails. When we returned to the hotel, I pledged to just stay there; I never went outside for one moment. I wasn't about to encounter that jail again.
From Lerida we were transported to a summer resort. They kept us there for two weeks. It was comfortable living, isolated but safe and relaxing. We were taking hot mineral springs water baths. We were then transported to Madrid for a few hours' stay at the American Embassy. We then caught a train to Gibraltar. Freedom at last.
While in Gibraltar, they took us to the top of the rock where they had the big guns. It was an impressive sight from that position. It is easy to understand the strategic importance of Gibraltar. Then, the next day, we were on a C-47; we were going back to London. The flight was at night with a dogleg far out to miss the Bay of Biscay. They had German night fighters that would go out and attempt to pick off these airplanes.
We were on the leg for at least four hours. Just as we turned north for London, the left engine began to make sputtering noises. It was a two-engine plane filled with American pilots, British pilots, and Canadian pilots, who were transporting airplanes for their countries. The pilot called back, "Well, we're having some trouble with one engine. But it's keeping on going, and as long as it keeps going I can hold it, but if that engine conks out, we'll have to go ditch. You know how difficult it's going to be to ditch in water at night." I thought to myself, "What a way to die." I was praying Hail Marys continuously. We were trying to operate our Mae Wests. It was a British Mae West. I couldn't get mine to work. Everybody else blew their vests up, but mine wouldn't work. What had happened was the person who had had it before me had sufficient strength to turn that knob beyond the screw stop. I could not reset it properly.
I was in trouble if we ditched. There was no way I could repair the instrument. The Canadian next to me said, "You're in trouble. But I'll tell you what to do. If we have to land in the water and we survive, you hold on to me." That was very little consolation knowing what would happen if we ditched. Why did everything happen to me? All night that engine sputtered, and I prayed.
Instead of going into London, we landed at Land's End, the first piece of land we reached in England. We learned that a loose lead in the engine caused the sputtering. Safe now, but it caused a horrendous night.
While in Gibraltar, I picked up a dozen lemons. Knowing they didn't have any in England, I wanted to share these with farmers that used to sell us eggs. Those farmers were near our base; I knew they would really enjoy this gift. Outside the airport I asked a man going to work, "How can I get to London?"
He was very patient. He sat down and drew a map with all the details to follow. In gratitude, I went into the bag and picked out a lemon and handed it to him. He was flabbergasted. "Oh, my. I can't take a whole lemon. Just give me a part." I said, "I've got eleven more; I'm going to take them back to some people. You take this one." "Are we going to have a time tonight. My wife will never believe this."
So to close it off, I reached London, went through interrogation, and visited my old base. I received a promotion to first lieutenant, and I received the Air Medal. They flew us back to the States. According to the statement approved at the Geneva Convention, I was considered a spy coming out of occupied country. Because of this policy, all evadees from enemy territory were removed from combat duty.
Peter and Mimi were about to be shot; they picked both of them up as helpers. When I saw him here in town I said, "Peter, what did you think when you knew you were going to be shot?" He said, "I always told you that one day they were going to catch me; I knew we weren't going to get away with this all the time. But I knew one thing, if Mimi and I were picked up and if there was any way that the underground could help us, they would save us. Mimi and I were in jail together. She was in one cell, and I was in the other. We were to be shot at two o'clock in the morning. About one o'clock in the morning I heard [makes sound like a machine gun]. Those old German soldiers were going down like flies. I could hear the keys. They used the keys and got us out." They put him and Mimi under a big manure pile. He said, "lt was a stinky place but I can tell you it was warm."
The Germans were looking all over the area for them. He said they were looking for the underground people who pulled the raid. "We stayed here for about ten days underneath that manure pile. Then the underground moved us from place to place until the English forces came through." When they took over that territory, Peter and Mimi were freed.
Joke Folmer was also caught. But a strange good fortune happened: the Germans would not kill anybody unless they had papers directing this action. Her death papers were signed but they were lost. She was in a concentration camp waiting to be shot. But those papers never appeared.
The Dutch found those papers after the invasion. At a special ceremony they presented the paper to her for a keepsake. It saved her life. She was a brave person.