In today’s blog post, Bill Yenne, author of The Ones Who Got Away: Mighty Eighth Airmen on the Run in Occupied Europe, gives a brief overview of the story, and of the story behind the story.


There is a vivid and often-recalled image that graphically illustrates the deadly perils of being a USAAF Eighth Air Force airman during World War II. This is the sight of a barracks filled with empty bunks after an especially difficult mission – ten empty bunks for every bomber lost that day. On some days, hundreds lay empty. Each vacant bunk was that of a man who arose that morning to do his job in the skies, but who would never return. During World War II, the USAAF Eighth Air Force lost 50,000 airmen shot down. Most of them were killed or captured.

Most, but not all!

Around one in 16 of the men who were shot down escaped and evaded. In this book, I’ll tell you stories of the ones who got away.

I came about telling these stories after having sifted through many of the after-action reports that were completed by those airmen who did evade capture. Some of these nearly 3,000 reports, now residing in the US National Archives, are perfunctory, merely forms filled out with dates and names of fellow crewmen. Many, however, go into more detail in their descriptions of what had happened while a man was on the run in occupied Europe. Typed or handwritten, many of these run to two dozen pages or more. Some of these accounts have more than a hundred pages. One man, having successfully escaped to neutral Spain, bought a spiral notebook at a stationary shop and filled it. This became part of his official file.

All these yellowing pages consist of words set down when memories were still vivid. Often written in each man’s own hand, they were completed within days of a man returning to the safety of an Allied base. Now brittle with age, and figuratively dripping with sweat and tears, they almost crackle with sparks of adrenalin from that extraordinary time so long ago.

These stories highlight men who came from all corners of the United States, and from all walks of life. There are city boys and farm boys. Among them are college students, accountants, factory workers, and a former semi-pro ball player. There is one man who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force before the United States entered the war, and another who was the highest-scoring American fighter ace in the European Theater before he was shot down.

Another was a novelist and screenwriter who’d had one of his scripts turned into a prewar Hollywood film. After the war, Beirne Lay co-wrote the best-selling novel Twelve O’Clock High. He then co-wrote the screenplay for a film of the same name that has become a classic.

Some of these tales seem themselves to be cut from Hollywood thrillers, as we listen breathlessly to men shivering in fear while Gestapo officers scrutinize their forged identity papers on a train, or as they hide in the brush only inches from German troops.

We meet one pair of men taking cover during a Gestapo raid and crouching beneath the floorboards of a farmhouse. It brings to mind that scene from the Tarantino movie – but these two were accompanied in their cramped hiding place by a platoon of Russian soldiers who had earlier deserted from the Soviet army, and who had now just deserted from the German army!

We find another pair of evaders jumping from a moving train to avoid a German checkpoint – only to board a different train and be cornered in their compartment by Gestapo officers.

There is the story of two men who bailed out over Germany and had to evade capture in the heart of the Third Reich, where troops zealously protected the Fatherland, and where civilians were known to murder a downed airman, considering him a Terrorflieger, literally a “flying terrorist.” After 100 anxious miles, they slipped out of the Reich, but still had 700 miles to go before they could taste freedom!

Some of the stories are poignant. One airman did the improbable and rode halfway across France on a bicycle. Riding through Poitiers, he passed the concentration camp where Romani people were interned. He recalled that as he passed, “a small child about four years old looking though the fence waved to me.” The fate of the poor child had been sealed.

Some stories border on the tragi-comic. While most of the downed airmen made contact with underground organizations, one man fell in with a band of Maquis, the disrupters and saboteurs who operated in the south of France. While with them, he was captured by the paramilitary, pro-German Milice française (French Militia). Imprisoned in a French jail, he decided to fake appendicitis because it was easier to escape from a hospital than a jail. The plan went sideways, and he woke up without an appendix – and convalescing in a German military hospital, being cared for by conscripted Georgian medical staff!

One man was on the verge of being arrested by the Spanish police as a smuggler on a snowswept mountain trail in the Pyrenees because he had no ID to prove he was an American. Luckily, he thought to show them his pocket comb with “US Army” stamped on it. This worked. He was allowed to face a horrible blizzard alone, but without fear of prison.

Some downed airmen wound up fighting the Germans with the underground. One volunteered to take over the operation of a clandestine radio station for an underground group in Basècles, Belgium, and he soon became a trusted advisor to a Résistance leader. Another man found himself as the getaway driver for a band of Maquis who attacked and looted the châteaux of French collaborators and robbed banks to finance their activities. They needed him because nobody else in the gang knew how to drive!

These are the stories of how each and every one of these men, through cleverness, ingenuity, and luck, managed to beat the odds.


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Bill Yenne is the award-winning author of more than three dozen non‑fiction books, mainly on military, aviation and historical topics, as well a dozen novels. His various works have been translated into six languages. He is a member of the American Aviation Historical Society, and has contributed to encyclopedias of both world wars.