The internment of T/Sgt George W. Michel
Story provided courtesy of www.b24.net:
We ran into trouble on our 10th mission on 11 July 1944 to Munich, Germany. On the way to the target we had a mechanical problem with #4 engine. The pitch of the prop could only be controlled for a short time and it wouldn't stay feathered. As a result, the propeller was windmilling and vibrating the entire plane. Our Pilot was able to keep up with the formation of over 1,000 B-24's and B-17's by pulling more power from the other three engines but we were using gas like crazy. FLAK was intense over the target and #2 engine was hit, started losing oil and over heating. It had to be shut down as well and we could not keep up with the formation with only two engines in operation.
Engine #4 then began to really give us fits and the pilot gave us the option of bailing out or sticking with the plane. In spite of the fact that the cloud cover had been 10/10, by using PFF (Path Finder Force...a rudimentary radar) each plane had dropped 6 or 8 1,000 pound bombs on the target area. Who in their right mind would bail out into a situation like that? Sig Robertson was a great pilot, we all felt that way, so the decision was unanimous to stick with the pilot and the plane, which was still flying, after a fashion.
We were losing altitude as well as falling behind the formation, with not enough power to keep up. We watched the rest of the planes in the formation pulling away from us and suddenly had that big, blue, wonderful sky above the clouds all to ourselves. It gave me a sinking/helpless feeling. We were just what the German fighters would be looking for - a lame duck. Sig got on the voice radio and called for fighter cover and, miracle of miracles, we soon had 4 P-51's hovering around us. I read the gas gauges to determine how much fuel was left in the tanks and the reading wasn't enough to bring cheer to anyone. There was not nearly enough to get us back to England and, as the invasion hadn't opened up enough territory on the continent by 11 July 1944 to provide a German-free place for us to come down , it was decision time...big time.
A glance at a map of the part of Germany where we were at theat moment showed how close we were to neutral Switzerland. It was approximately 150 kilometers from Munich to the eastern extremity of Switzerland on the Boden Zee. During the briefing that morning, we were told that if we got into trouble but managed to get away from the target, Switzerland was an option that could be considered. We knew that we were in that general area as we could see snow covered mountain peaks sticking up through the clouds. They sure didn't look like landing strips. The navigator gave the pilot a heading that should take us to Switzerland and the lead P-51 pilot agreed with the direction that we had taken. Shortly thereafter, the P-51's told us that they had to turn away as we were coming close to Swiss air space and their orders were to not violate that space. As the leader of the "pack" turned away, I saw that the nose art on his plane read, "Hurry Home Honey". [A few years ago, I found out information about that plane and its pilot. The Pilot was Richard "Pete" Peterson, a WWII Ace many times over, who lives today (2003) in Minneapolis, MN. I have met him and found him to be as lively as he must have been back then. He was a part of the Yuxford Boys that included the likes of Chuck Yeager. I know that until a few years ago he was still flying a restored P-51 and did just that at one of the EAA conventions in Oshkosh, WI. "Hurry Home Honey" was the way that his sweetheart and wife-to-be would sign her letters to him.]
Just about the time the P-51's pulled away, we saw the first opening in the clouds that we had seen since taking off into the "soup" when we left England. We descended through that opening and anti-aircraft batteries of Freidrickshaven gave us a very warm reception as we flew over them and headed out over the Boden Zee toward Switzerland. A recognized signal, that we were not trying to bomb anyone but were in trouble and wanted a place to land, was to lower the landing gear. The co-pilot did this, but forgot to advise the crew in the nose of the plane that it was going to happen, so that they would have time to stand clear of the nose wheel and opening of the nose wheel doors. As the nose wheel dropped into position, the navigator, John Gates, dropped partially out of the compartment as well. He caught himself on his elbows on the edge of the nose wheel opening and began a frantic struggle to get back into the plane. During all of his gyrations and flailing about, the plane was probably still going 150 MPH and he had trouble trying to keep from being sucked out into a free fall. One of his hands caught on the "D ring" of his parachute and pulled it. The chute did exactly what it was designed to do and opened. In no time, the nose of the plane was filled with parachute silk and the wind coming in the open nose wheel door blew the navigator's maps all over the place. In spite of all these conditions, Gates managed to get himself back into the nose compartment of the plane. When Gates got his ear phones back on, he heard the pilot yelling for a heading to the emergency field which had been mentioned in the morning's briefing and also that the crew was to prepare to bail out. A few choice words were exchanged between pilot and navigator to explain what had just happened. Gates pointed out that his maps had been blown "who knows where" by the sudden influx of Swiss air. He made it very clear that he had no idea of where that map was but that he sure as H _ _ _ was looking for it.
It was obvious that we had nine men who were being ordered to prepare to bail out and that we only had eight parachutes that could be used. Our only solution was to hope we could find the map, identify the landing field or some flat place that we could try to use, and trust to the skill of Sig to get us back on the ground in some resemblance of a landing. We never considered eight men jumping, leaving Gates to "ride" the plane to the ground.
And then something new started. Even though our wheels were down and I was sending out SOS signals, the Swiss sent some very accurate anti-aircraft fire coming our way. The FLAK was bursting at our altitude and right out in front of us. It didn't look the least bit neutral to us. Meanwhile, the navigator found the map that he needed and identified what he thought was the field suggested during the briefing of that morning. For verification, he gave the map to the pilot and, as it turned out, they had both picked the same spot.
At that point, our lack of altitude, quickly failing air speed, with the Boden Zee beneath us, and the Alps on our right, dictated that we had only one slim chance to make it to the grass covered glider field at Altenrhein. This landing strip had at its eastern edge the Rhine river, just a stream at this point. On the far side of the Rhine lay Germany (Austria). On that eastern bank we could see wrecked B-24 and B-17 aircraft and soldiers frantically waving Swiss flags. The navigator insisted that he was right and that we were to try and make the grass strip on the west bank of the river, the side away from the soldiers waving the Swiss flags. The pilot ordered the navigator, bombardier, engineer, and me to get to the rear of the plane to take weight off of the nose wheel as we headed for a "landing" on the grass glider field. We moved as fast as we could, but we were too late. The four of us got about half way through the bomb bay when we hit the ground. No bounce. Power had been cut from the two remaining engines, both pilot and co-pilot were standing on the brake pedals, the nose wheel collapsed and the nose of the aircraft buried itself in the soft dirt, scooping dirt into the nose compartment and up toward the flight deck. The plane stopped and, as we looked out, we saw armed soldiers in forest green uniforms, with dimpled helmets, surrounding the plane. They were shouting in English that had a very strong German accent, "For you the war is over."
Had we made a mistake and landed on the wrong side of the Rhine? Frank Kintana, one of the waist gunners, heard the shouting and saw what he thought were German soldiers. He was not about to be taken without a fight, so he jumped to his gun, charged it , and was ready to fire at the soldiers. The cooler head of Joe Burdette, the other waist gunner, convinced Frank that, with the plane up on its nose, he couldn't get off a good shot and besides we were out-numbered. The gunners in the rear of the plane then jumped out of the camera hatch, very much surprised to find that it was a 10 foot drop to the ground instead of the normal couple of feet.
Back inside the plane on the flight deck, the navigator returned to the nose and fired a couple of 0.45 rounds into the bombsight to destroy it to prevent the Swiss/Germans from stealing the design. I hit the button that detonated the IFF radio that was located over the bomb bay. It scared the devil out of the gunners as they were leaving the plane. The next thing that I had to do as radio operator was to destroy my sheets of radio codes. Printed on rice paper, they were to be chewed up and swallowed. I discovered that was easier said than done. I soon had a mouth full of "fiber" that just wouldn't go down and I had pages and pages yet to go. I tried to get the pilot to help me but he had things to do as well. So I started a fire to burn the remainder. Sig, the pilot, screamed at me to put out the D _ _ _ fire. His big boot came over my shoulder and immediately stomped it out. Then he told me to look past the bomb bay bulkhead that was about two feet behind me. There, to my surprise, was high octane aviation gas running out of leaks that had started in the fuel system as a result of our less than conventional landing. If fumes had gotten to my flight deck fire, we'd all have been blown to who knows where.
By this time the soldiers were getting very insistent that we get out of the plane.and we did. I managed to take the knob off of the Morse Key from my radio equipment and I still have that souvenir today. We were marched away from the plane, surrounded by armed soldiers who had convinced us by this time that they were Swiss and NOT German. They took us to a small building at the edge of the field. All flight clothing and escape kits were taken from us. Then the interrogation began. We followed the instructions that had been given to us during our training and gave only our name, rank, and serial number.
From the tail markings on our plane, the Swiss already knew that we were from the 392nd Bomb Group. They showed us escape pictures taken from the escape kits of other U.S. airmen who had come down in Switzerland. These airmen were wearing the same civilian clothes (suit coats, jackets, shirts, ties, etc) as we wore when our escape pictures were taken. The Swiss told us that they knew the other airmen were from the 392nd BG and here was proof that we were from the same group as we were wearing the identical civilian clothes when our pictures (that were to be used to falsify escape documents) were taken. John Gates, our navigator, was the son of a German couple who had left Germany in the 1930's to escape the persecution of Jews. He understood every question that the Swiss were formulating in German before asking us the same in English and he passed the questions on to our pilot who was our spokesman. They were looking for any 392nd BG crews that had been on the mission during which 8th Air Force 2nd Air Division bombers had accidentally bombed Schaffhausen and Grafenhausen, Switzerland on 1 April 1944. They soon realized that we were not going to give any information except our name, rank, and serial number. We didn't even offer them the information that we had flown our first mission on 11 June 1944.
At this point the Swiss gave us telegram forms (provided by the Red Cross) and allowed us to write a telegram to next of kin saying simply that we were in Switzerland and that we were OK. I know my parents really appreciated that telegram. Fortunately it arrived a few days before the one from the War Department telling them that "they regretted to inform them that their son, George W. Michel ASN 36583547 had been reported as Missing In Action".
We were then taken by bus to a hotel in the city of Rorschach on the edge of the Boden Zee.. What a change to see a brightly lighted city functioning normally. I learned my first words of German that evening."Vas ist das?" and with that question, the name of anything that I would point to. I was already thinking about trying to escape. How it would happen, I didn't know, but I knew that American "English" wouldn't cut it.
The next day it was on to Dubendorf and more interrogation. Again we only stated our name, rank and serial number. Later that day we were taken to Adelboden and assigned to a room in one of the hotels that was not being used. (The tourist business was not exactly booming.) We were issued G.I. clothing and told to wear it at all times as a means of identification. Food was scarce even for the Swiss civilians (Traditionally Switzerland had imported more than 50% of its food requirements.) and our rations were meager. Our 1,100 to 1,200 calorie diet was all that was officially available. Once we began to receive our monthly pay, we were sometimes able to buy food in the village to supplement our limited rations.
We were soon moved to a new camp at the village of Wengen, near Interlaken and in the area of the Jungfrau Mountain (made famous in the book, Heidi). Wengen was a good place to keep internees(this is the term for POW's in a neutral country) as the only practical way in or out of the village was by cog railway.
During our stay in Wengen, it became clear to some of us that, if any plans to escape were to be successful, they would have to be simple and they would likely include the need to speak French. To provide something for internees to occupy their time, the Red Cross arranged for instructors in various subjects including economics, history, German, and French. I took economics and French and found them to my liking. Our professor, M. Luigi de Simone, Italian by birth, was a great help in keeping boredom at bay. We learned much under his instruction. He even went so far as to publish a booklet that included some writings of the Italian and American internees.
We heard tales of friends who had tried to escape and had been caught. In most cases the internee was turned over to the Swiss police or army representative by a crooked "helper" who had taken the internee's money and promised to deliver him to safety. Once caught, the internee was put into the Swiss penal system. The Swiss "punishment prisons" were as bad or worse than the Nazi Stalg Luft airmen prison camps in Germany. It became obvious to those of us who wanted to escape that our plan, in addition to being simple, needed the help of people we could trust.
The only sure way for an American Internee to get out of Wengen was via the cog railway that had brought us there in the first place. In order to leave, we had to have "proof" that our trip had originated in some other city and we were travelling back to it after a visit to Wengen. We needed a pass authorizing our movement within Switzerland. In an escape attempt, we would have to move swiftly as our whereabouts in Wengen were tracked via a "nose count" every four to six hours.
First we worked on forging our passes. Somehow, we secured the blank pass forms. We knew what the pass had to say, so we filled them out describing our supposed journey from Bern to Wengen (date and day) and then our "return" (date and day) to Bern. Someone "borrowed" the Swiss commandant's stamp, stamped the passes and then forged the commandant's signature. A friend, (someone from the U.S. embassy), brought to Wengen, round trip tickets - Bern / Wengen / Bern - for each of us. These little paste board tickets measured 1 3/16 x 2 1/4 inches. We had to make them look as though they had already been used to get us from Bern to Wengen. We borrowed the friend's ticket and filed nails to make punches to match the holes punched in his ticket by the conductor at each stop along the way from Bern to Wengen. With the aid of a hammer and the newly made punches, the extra tickets soon looked just like they had all come form Bern to Wengen. We had what we needed to get out of Wengen, a pass and a ticket, and on the night of22 January 1945, we left Wengen on the cog railway and headed for Bern.
As soon as our train left Wengen, a call was made to Bern by an internee in Wengen who had access to a phone, to alert the American Embassy that we were coming. As soon as the embassy personnel received that call from Wengen, they immediately made two other calls.
One call was to a Capt. Wortmann who was only known to us as "the big man in the leather coat". We were to look for him upon arriving in Lausanne. Capt. Wortmann would be given our train number and arrival time. (I didn't learn until 46 years later that "the big man in the leather coat" was Capt. Wortmann who was assigned to the Carpet Baggers, a U.S. Air Force special operations group with headquarters in Sevrier, France, where he was stationed.)
The second call was made to a man in St. Gingolph, Switzerland giving him the same information about our scheduled arrival in Lausanne. St. Gingolph is a village that is half in Switzerland and half in France. A beautiful cataract runs down the mountain side in that spot on the eastern end of Lake Geneva, effectively dividing the village into two section - one Swiss, the other French. It was likely that the Swiss were monitoring any calls between Switzerland and France. To avoid detection, the man in St. Gingolph, Switzerland, after receiving his call, walked across the bridge at the border to the French part of the village. There he made another call to an operative of the FFI in the village of Tourrande telling him that some Americans would be attempting to escape that night.
Each night another FFI member, M. SERVOZ Raymond would ride his bike from Lugrin (a small fishing village on the southern, or French, edge of Lake Geneva) to Tourrande, one of the few places in the area that had a phone, to learn if there were any men trying to escape. He would then ride back to Lugrin and, if escapees were coming, he and his brother, Jean-Louis would set out in their boats at an appropriate time to meet up with the escapees on the shore of Lake Geneva near Lausanne.
Meanwhile, we were now on our way from Wengen to Bern, via Lauterbrunnen and Interlaken. We were met at the train station in Bern and led to the U.S. Embassy. Once inside, we were taken to a room, given something to eat, and then told to pick out civilian clothes and shoes, that would fit properly, from clothes that were on a couple of tables and exchange them for our GI clothes. At this point, we went out on the street as "civilians". Of course we all still had our dog tags hanging around our necks and G.I. underwear next to our skins. If we had been discovered by the Swiss at this point, we could have been arrested as spies and subjected to any discipline that the Swiss felt appropriate. Escapees who were caught found out the hard way just how rotten Wauwilermoos Prison could be. (In fact, the commandant of this prison was stripped of his Swiss citzenshop after WWII and given a prison sentence.)
We were returned to the Bern train station and were put on the train for Lausanne with the admonition to stay spread out in different cars of the train, not bunch up in one car, and we were to keep our mouths shut. About half way to Lausanne while moving through the cars, each of us looking for a place to sit and not attract attention, we all met up, right by a conductor, in the middle of one car. It was all we could do to keep from bursting out laughing, but luckily we managed to suppress the laughter. After the conductor had punched our tickets, we moved on, still "looking" for a seat. Anyway, we arrived in Lausanne and were met by "the big man in the leather coat". I accidentally became separated from the others and didn't know which way to turn. There was a tap on my shoulder and "the big man in the leather coat" had me follow him, until, like a lost sheep, I was back in the fold. Without a word being said, he led us to the funicular that took us down to the shore of Lake Geneva and guided us to the area named Pully.
We waited, standing on the shore in the below freezing cold. The fog was as thick as anything we had ever seen, even in jolly old England. Then a rowboat appeared out of the fog and silently slid up to the shore. We were motioned to get in and the "big man" pushed us out into the lake. The boatman rowed without making a sound and we soon pulled up alongside another boat. This boat was about 22 feet long and had two U.S. made outboard motors strapped on the stern. We transferred to the larger boat, the rowboat was tied on behind, and the motors were started. They were soon turned up to top speed and we headed south across Lake Geneva. Still, no one said a word. We hoped the Swiss lake border patrol would not discover us. Soon, with the spray coming over the bow, we were coated with ice.
Today, I know that we landed at a cove in the Lugrin area but that night we didn't have any idea where we were. We didn't know who the people were who were helping us. (In any underground operation, names are never exchanged, because what you don't know you can't be forced to tell.)We managed to crawl out of the boat, shivering and shaking. We tried to keep up with the boatmen as they led us up a bank to a small road that climbed higher still. In that darkness we wondered where we were going. Before long we saw a little light coming through shuttered windows and then a door opened and we were motioned inside. Over in one corner, a cast iron stove provided wamth for the room - boy, did it feel good! As the warmth started melting the ice on our clothes, it was apparent that we were soaked to the skin. Our new friends motioned to us to take off all our clothes and crawl into a wide, makeshift bed that accommodated all of us (4 or 5, I don't remember.) We were each given a mug of hot, red wine and in no time we all sleeping like babies. As far as we could tell, we were FREE once more.
We got our clothes back in the morning (I still have, as a souvenir of that night, the pair of my G.I. underwear shorts that was dried too close to the stove and had a couple of holes burned in them). We had a great breakfast of cheese, bread, and black coffee. It tasted so good. Then we heard a commotion outside the door. Our helpers of the night before motioned us to come and see what it was all about. A bunch of little French boys and girls wanted to see what these crazy Americans looked like. Using what little French I had learned, I understood that this one little girl wanted me to go sledding with her. I agreed to give it a try! We walked up the cobblestone road that ran in front of the house where we had spent the night, around a curve, and up some more. Then she said "ca suffit" and we got on the luge sled and down we came over the snow covered cobblestones. It was great fun - and soon all the kids wanted a turn. But just then, a U.S. Army truck appeared and, after thanking our friends as best we could, we got in the truck for a very slippery trip down to Sevrier, France just south of Annecy.
At Sevrier we were processed back into the Army Air Corps while staying in the Beau Rivage Hotel. On 25 January 1945 we were taken to the airport of Lyon, France, put on a C-47, and flown to England. Then we were trucked to Stone, England and there we went through a series of debriefings and interrogations. Eventually we were flown back to the States via Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Boston.
I don't remember much but endless army red tape for the next couple of weeks. But one thing I know for sure, is that I finally got home to Saginaw, Michigan on 23 February 1945. What a day that was!
After some R & R in Florida, I was assigned to Selfridge Field, MI where I helped train French radio operators that were part of French crews training there on B-26 bombers.(The French I had learned in Switzerland paid off again.) I remained at Selfridge Field until November 1945 when I was discharged.
46 Years Later
In May of 1991, I finally decided to do something about finding out what really happened that night I left Switzerland. Although 46 years had gone by, I had try. I wrote letters, in English, to the mayors of four cities on the southern shore of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman in French) telling them what had happened and asking for help in trying to find the people who had given me back my FREEDOM. There are lots of details about what happened but suffice it to say that one mayor had my letter translated into French. He then gave it to the man, Jean Diot , who was the leader of the French Resistance cell (FFI) in that area. M. Diot immediately identified the man that I was looking for as M. SERVOZ Raymond of Lugrin. M. Servoz wrote a letter to me in his best French and in it confirmed the things that I had mentioned in my letter and agreed that I must have been the one who went sledding with the little girl that morning so long ago. Raymmond's letter, as well as M. Jean Diot's identification, made me certain that I had found the man that I was looking for.
It is a thrill for me every time that I think about finding Raymond after all of those years. We corresponded like crazy and it was agreed that my wife and I would come to Lugrin to meet Raymond and his wife, Jeanine. The details of that meeting would fill many pages. Raymond said that of 118 aviators that he and his brother and other cell members had helped to escape, I was the only one who had managed to find him after the war and come back to see him.
I was honored not so much for myself, nor even as Raymond's friend, but more as a representative of all the American men and women who had helped the French during WWII. I received a telegram from the French government, was interviewed on French TV, honored in a speech by the mayor of Thonon-Les-Bains, and again in a speech by the mayor of Lugrin, given medals, and permitted, accompanied by French Resistance survivors, to lay a wreath on the Lugrin War Memorial in the village square. I even met the little girl (of course now a grown woman) whose sled I shared on that cold, icy morning back in January 1945.
I thank you for your time and interest and would be happy to talk with you about my experiences if you find them worthy of your very fine program. I enjoyed watching Wisconsin World War II Stories on Monday night.
George W. Michel, Radio Operator / Gunner
392nd Bomb Group 576th Bomb Squadron
Wendling, Norfolk England