Tragedy in the Pyrenees – The High Cost of Freedom
By Warren B Carrah
This article is reproduced by kind permission of Warren B. Carah Brighton, MI USA firstname.lastname@example.org. Information assembled from Escape & Evasion Reports, IDPF reports, and personal interviews with escape participants and survivors of the deceased airmen.7 Jan 2008
This is the story of seven American aviators who were shot down over occupied France in 1943. After being supported by numerous helpers throughout France, the aviators from several different units found themselves together on the platform of a railway station on the south side of Paris. They were to complete their dangerous journey home by crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. Here is their story: For many evaders, the final and most formidable obstacle to their escape from occupied Europe was scaling the Pyrenean mountains that separate France from neutral Spain. The hazards are numerous, and in winter the mountain range can be deadly for the unprepared. On 1 Sep 1943, after months of inactivity and marginal food, Lt Olof M Ballinger and S/Sgt Francis “Bud” Owens left the countryside of the Department of Orne, for Paris, and prepared to cross the Pyrenees. On 21 October 1943, Ballinger and Owens joined five other allied airmen and seven Frenchmen at a train station in Paris for the trip south to Toulouse and then St Girons. The other Americans included Major William T Boren (387BG), 1/Lt Keith W Murray (95BG), 2/Lt Harold Bailey (379BG), 2/Lt Charles H Hoover (381BG), and T/Sgt William B Plasket (306BG). Each airman has his own guide for the train journey; all were female members of the Resistance. The Frenchmen in the group, all military officers, were risking the trip so they could join Free French forces in North Africa. The climb up the mountains began on 22 October 1943, the route chosen transiting the small principality of Andorra before turning southeast towards their ultimate destination of Barcelona. However, trouble haunted the expedition from the very beginning. Lt Ballinger found that his legs would not do what he wanted them to do and he experienced severe cramping. The group was barely into the foothills of the Pyrenees at Suc, southeast of St Girons, and Ballinger could go no further. Ballinger was instructed to hide and wait for the guide’s return in eight to ten days. Ballinger spent the next week and a half at a farm near Suc, waiting for the guide’s return. On 29 Oct he was warned that the Gestapo were in the area and that he had to move. On 30 October, Ballinger decided to try crossing the mountain range alone without a guide. He had no compass and so was forced to navigate by the sun and stars. He eventually reached Spain through Andorra, but he was in poor condition. He was briefly taken into custody by Spanish authorities and spent several weeks in Manresa and Barcelona recuperating from his ordeal before moving on to Gibralter and returning to England on 3 December 1943. For the remaining climbers, the going was even more difficult because German sentries seemed to be everywhere. Climbing for 30 hours, progress was very slow as the group avoided enemy soldiers which forced them to take difficult passages through the mountains. As they reached the summit, a fierce storm struck, bringing bitter cold and deep snow. One of the Americans could no longer walk and he collapsed in the snow. He was carried by the others, but the effort was exhausting. Shortly after beginning the descent on the Andorran side of the mountains, two more Americans fell to the snow-covered ground, utterly drained by their ordeal. The lack of food and exercise plus the severe cold had drained away all of their energy. Their feet were frozen due to the disintegration of their French “ersatz” paper shoes which were hardly suitable for the wet climb through several feet of snow and sharp rock. The guides were furious at the delays and they went to great lengths to get their American charges to stand up and move on. At one point a guide pointed his weapon at one of the airmen and ordered him to get up. The airman seemed not to hear and the guide fired his pistol next to the head of the dazed evader. It had no effect. The group had to move on and they reluctantly left the fallen men and proceeded down the mountain. Thus no one witnessed the final hours of Lt Bailey, T/Sgt Plasket or S/Sgt Owens, which probably came on 25 October 1943, at Port del Rat, Andorra. In the spring of 1944, the bodies of the three airmen were discovered by local mountaineers and buried at Arinsal, Andorra. The remains were exhumed by the U.S. Army in 1950 and positively identified in June 1951. The family of S/Sgt Owens elected to have his remains interred at the Ardennes American Military Cemetery in Belgium, while they simultaneously celebrated the requiem high mass at their parish church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 1 October 1951. Earlier during the war, the Owens family was presented with the Soldiers Medal that their son Francis has earned saving the life of a fellow airman during the bomb loading accident of 23 June 1943 at Ridgewell Field. In the spring of 2006, the Owens family were presented with Bud Owens’ dog tag which had been held by the McConnell family over the years while they searched for his survivors. Francis Owens left the dog tag with the Duval family of La Coulonche [Normandy] when he departed for Paris in September 1943. In 1983, former navigator Paul McConnell was visiting La Coulonche with his wife Marie and given the dog tag by the elderly Duval family in the hopes that Francis Owens’ next of kin could be located in America. Despite a concerted effort, Mr McConnell passed away before he could locate the Owens family. Warren Carah, son of 42-29928’s co-pilot, John M Carah, finally located the Owens family in the Pittsburgh area in early 2006 and arranged for the transfer of the artifact. And so, a part of Francis “Bud” Owens finally returned home some 63 years after he left to fight for his country in the skies over Europe. Allied Escape Group Projected Timeline and Route Escape from Paris to Barcelona October – November, 1943
21 Oct 1943: Group, including the Americans and six French Army and Naval officers, leaves Paris for Toulouse aboard a train. At Toulouse they are turned over to a former French Army Captain and are housed in a hardware warehouse. Bedding consists of a straw over a wooden floor. 22 Oct 1943: Group leaves early in the morning, traveling by train to Montsaunès, Haute-Garonne near St Martory. At Montsaunès the group boards a bus for St Girons, Ariège where they spend the night at a hotel. 23 Oct 1943: In the morning, the group takes a bus southeast towards Massat, Ariège. At Massat, the group leaves the bus and travels on foot to Suc, where they spend the night in a farmer’s barn. 24 Oct 1943: Upon waking at the farm in Suc, Lt Olof Ballinger finds his legs will not function and he is forced to drop out of the escape group. The remainder of the evadees continue south towards Andorra and climb for 30 hours to the France-Andorra border at Port del Rat, a pass in the mountains. The group is forced to pass up a rest cabin in the mountains about halfway between Suc and the Andorran border when it is discovered it is already occupied by another group of escapees. The group experiences very foul weather as they approach the border and Lt Bailey has to be carried and/or dragged for some eight hours by Sergeants Owens and Plasket. The group arrives at Port del Rat in the evening near dark and in a fog. Several evadees collapse from exhaustion including Lt Bailey, T/Sgt Plasket and S/Sgt Owens. All efforts to stimulate the men to continue traveling are futile; Bailey and Plasket are unconscious and Owens cannot control his limbs. The incapacitated men are left in the snow and the group continues on down the slope. One guide leaves the group at this point and returns to France. The remaining guide, Emile Delpy, stays with the evaders until they reach a hotel in El Serrat, Andorra. M Delpy is an employee of British Intelligence and not a member of the usual French Resistance networks that work in the area. 25 Oct 1943: After traveling several hours down the mountain from Port del Rat, the remaining members of the group locate a sheepherder’s stone shack and are able to start a fire and warm themselves and get a few hours of sleep. The French officers with the group, who are in excellent condition, and guide Emile Delpy, go out to search for food and see if they can find the fallen Americans at Port del Rat and return them to the shelter. It appears their efforts were not successful and the French officers stay at another cabin further down the slope for the remainder of the night. Later in the day the groups rejoin and they walk to the village of El Serrat, Andorra. At this village they stay at a hotel for the night and are provided taxi transport to Andorra City the next day. 26-27 Oct 1943: At Andorra City the group catches a bus to the Spanish frontier and then takes a series of cars and busses to the southeast towards Barcelona. The escape group is supported by British SOE agents. 28 Oct 1943: Main escape group arrives in Barcelona. Americans are hosted at the British Consulate. The French members are processed through the French Red Cross. 30 October 1943: Lt Ballinger leaves Suc, Ariège, turns south, and starts climb over Pyrenees alone after the guide fails to return. He has no compass or map and relies on sun and stars for navigation. 31 Oct 1943: Lt Ballinger passes through Andorra City and reaches St Julia de Leria where he spends two days to rest. 2 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger leaves St Julia de Leria with two Spanish guides. 3 Nov 1943: Main group of evadees who arrive at Barcelona on the 28 October are returned to England from Gibralter. 6 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger arrives in Gironelli, just south of Berga, Catalonia. 8 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger arrives in Manresa and is jailed by local police. Later in the day he is driven to Barcelona; He is exhausted and requires medical care. He is released to the custody of the British Consulate. 9 Nov to 26 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger rests in Barcelona and Alamer (location unknown). 27 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger drives to Madrid with a Major Clark and boards a train for Gibralter. 28 Nov 1943: Lt Ballinger departs from Gibralter for England via British aircraft.
Allied Escape Group U.S. Army Air Forces Participants – Biographical Sketches
Major William T Boren, Pilot – 559 Bomb Squadron, 387 Bomb Group. Major Boren was the commanding officer of the 559 Bomb Squadron, a medium bomber unit equipped with Martin B-26 Marauder aircraft based at Chipping-Ongar, England. On 21 September 1943, Major Boren, flying aircraft 41-31721 “Cactus Jack”, flew a mission against the Beauvais/Tille airfield in Normandy. His aircraft was shot down by heavy flak. He and one other crewman evaded; all of the rest were captured. During his evasion he stayed in the town of Clermont before moving to Paris to join the escape group. After his repatriation to the U.S. in November, 1943, he was promoted to Lt/Colonel and assigned to the Headquarters Squadron of the 29 Bomb Group based at Pratt Field, Kansas. While on a training exercise in preparation to a move to a forward bombing base in Guam, Lt/Col Boren’s B-29 aircraft went missing off the coast of Florida on 8 January 1945. No wreckage or crew remains were ever recovered. Colonel Boren was born on 12 March 1917 in Snyder, Scurry County, Texas. He had two brothers who also served in combat during WW-II. 1/Lt Olof M Ballinger, Pilot – 533 Bomb Squadron, 381 Bomb Group. Lt Ballinger was an original member of the 381 Bomb Group based at Ridgewell Field, Essex, England. On 4 July 1943 his B-17 42-29928 was shot down by enemy fighters at La Coulonche, Orne, Normandy in conjunction with a raid on the Gnome-Rhone aero engine factory at Le Mans. Lt Ballinger successfully evaded and spent most of his time with fellow crew member S/Sgt Francis E Owens in and around St Opportune and Domfront, Orne. Lt Ballinger left Orne for Paris on 1 Sep 1943. Lt Ballinger was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1919 and grew up in Newton Falls, Ohio. After repatriation to the U.S. in December 1943, Lt Ballinger was assigned as a pilot instructor on B-24 bomber aircraft and also trained on radar bombing and gunnery in B-29 aircraft. He was promoted to captain in 1944 and was posted to California where he met his future wife, Marie Bateman. After the war Mr Ballinger worked in the retail automobile industry and started to develop a children’s amusement park in the San Francisco Bay area. He was killed in an auto accident in 1955 and is interred at Golden Gate National Cemetery. 1/Lt Keith W Murray, Bombardier – 335 Bomb Squadron, 95 Bomb Group. Lt Murray was participating on a mission to bomb Stuttgart when his aircraft was shot down on 6 September 1943 near Paris. Lt Murray was one of the first three combat officers assigned to the 95 Bomb Group in 1942. Lt Murray was seriously injured when he bailed out of his aircraft and had a very difficult time moving for any distance. After several days of avoiding numerous German patrols, Lt Murray met up with the Resistance who took him to Paris where he stayed in the home of a cabaret owner who was also sheltering 2/Lt Charles H Hoover. Lt Murray joined the others for the escape to Spain on the 21 October 1943. After returning to England in November 1943, he visited his old unit at Horam and then returned to the U.S. where he performed training duties for the remainder of the war. Mr Murray, age 87, is living in retirement near Dallas, Texas. 2/Lt Charles H Hoover, Pilot – 535 Bomb Squadron, 381 Bomb Group. Lt Hoover was a part of the Benjamin Zum crew that arrived at Ridgewell Field in August 1943 as a replacement bomber crew. On his 4th mission to Romilly, France, on 3 September 1943, Lt Hoover’s aircraft “Big Time Operator”, was shot down. He bailed out and landed in Belgium. He made his way to Paris where he was joined by Lt Keith Murray. Lt Hoover was born on 14 February 1916 and was from Reno, Nevada. He enlisted in the Army Air Force on 14 Jul 1941 and commissioned in June 1943. Mr Hoover returned to Reno after the war and died there in January 1987. 2/Lt Harold B Bailey, Navigator – 526 Bomb Squadron, 379 Bomb Group. Lt Bailey was participating in a mission to bomb the Le Bourget Air Field near Paris on 16 August 1943, when his aircraft was severely damaged by flak. The aircraft, 42-5827 (LF-Y) “Lakanuki”, was thought to be going down when Lt Bailey bailed out over Paris. However the pilot of the aircraft, 1/Lt Sam P Satariano, managed to regain control and the battered plane successfully returned to England, albeit without Bailey. Born on 14 May 1921 at Lancaster Co., South Carolina, Bailey was one of the three evaders who perished in the Pyrenees on or about 25 October 1943. 2/Lt Harold B Bailey is interred at Lancaster Memorial Park. T/Sgt William B Plasket, Radio Operator – 368 Bomb Squadron, 306 Bomb Group. Sgt Plasket, a native of Salem, New Jersey, was participating in the Stuttgart raid of 6 September 1943 when his B-17 aircraft, 42-30163, ran out of fuel over Normandy, just short of the English Channel. The aircraft crash landed near Rouen. Shortly after he bailed out, Sgt Plasket was conveyed to Paris by the Underground. Sgt Plasket graduated from Salem (NJ) High School in 1937 and was a college student at the Univeristy of Alabama when the war broke out. He enlisted on 12 Dec 1941. He received his radio operator training at Scott Field, Illinois and also attended bombing and gunnery schools. He shipped overseas to his station in Thurleigh, England in August 1942. T/Sgt William B Plasket perished in the Pyrenees on or about 25 October 1943. S/Sgt Francis E Owens, Waist Gunner – 533 Bomb Squadron, 381 Bomb Group. Sgt Owens was in the same aircraft as Lt Ballinger when they were shot down on 4 July 1943. Prior to this mission, Owens had been cited for saving the life of a ground crewman during a bomb loading accident at Ridgewell Field on 23 June 1943. He was awarded the Soldiers Medal for that effort. Sgt Owens spent most of his evasion time with his commander Lt Olof Ballinger in and around Orne, Normandy. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, S/Sgt Francis E Owens lost his life at Port del Rat, Andorra on or about 25 Oct 1943.
Warren is the son of 2/Lt John M Carah, Co-pilot of Olof Ballinger’s B-17, who also evaded successfully, first to Switzerland in August and then across the Pyrenees to Figueras and Barcelona in March 1944. I should like to add these comments received from Warren during our email exchanges prior to this posting. “S/Sgt Francis Owens was one of the bravest men I have ever researched. Earlier in the war he was decorated for saving the life of a fellow airmen when he dashed out and dragged a wounded man away from a bomb loading accident scene with explosions going off everywhere. Later during the bomb run on Le Mans that saw his plane being shot to pieces, Owens went forward to the radio room and dragged out an unconscious fellow crewman and then dragged him the length of the plane to the rear door, pulled the parachute release, and pushed him out to insure he would not go down with the plane. It was only then that Owens put on his own parachute and left the plane. Owens was never officially recognized for that effort, but his family now knows, as does the family of the radioman he saved.” “There is only one person still living that was a part of the original escape group that went over the Pyrenees in October 1943. He still harbors a feeling of guilt for not being able to save the three airmen who died of exposure. I believe my research, showing that there was little that could have been be done, has helped him with his feelings, but I can tell this was a defining moment in his life which he can never forget.” On 9 April 2011, I was contacted by S/Sgt James Epperson, a Military Training Leader with 381 TRG at Vandenburg AFB, who was looking for someone from the 381BG to dedicate a new student learning building to. I gave him what information I had on Francis Owens and copied the email to Warren Carah. On 9 March 2012, a new Student Center building was opened at Vandenburg Air Force Base, California in honor of S/Sgt Francis Edward “Bud” Owens.