Book: Hell's Angels

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“I LIKE TO THINK SHE WAS PRETTY”

SEBASTIAN VOGEL, THE RADIO OPERATOR aboard the wreck that had been Susfu on January 23, hit the ground long before Reber’s crew was shot down or any of the remaining 303rd aircraft reached the English Channel. “When I hit, I flexed my knees to reduce the impact as much as possible,” he said. It wasn’t enough, and he broke his left ankle when he struck the ground. “I landed in a small plowed field with a thick hedge around it on all sides. No one was near me in this field but I could see a crowd heading for the field across the hedge.”

He also spotted another parachute being collapsed and gathered. It belonged to Francis Sulkofski, Susfu’s engineer—or, crew chief—and top turret gunner. “He landed just a few minutes before me,” Vogel said. “The ladies were all taking turns hugging and kissing him as he was pulling in his chute. He was pale as a ghost and airsick; the swinging in the chute when it popped open after he pulled the ripcord got to him. He looked at me and asked, ‘Where are we? In Ireland?’ I have no idea why he thought we were in Ireland.”

Immediately three Frenchmen helped Vogel out of his flying gear and dressed him in civilian clothing. “This was done to make it easier for them to help hide me if the Krauts happened to show up on the scene,” he said. His rescuers didn’t match his preconceived notions of how the French people should have looked: “Many of the young ladies were blonde and I thought pretty. They all wore wooden shoes.

“After leaving the area where we came down we walked about a half mile then stopped at a place along the road. It was a house and barn building which was owned by an elderly couple. The old woman was a very pleasant person. She had tears in her eyes as she hugged me and seemed to be happy for me making it to the ground in one piece. Apparently she had seen the action up in the sky and saw us get hit. Now I just began to realize that I was on the ground and still alive. It seemed like a moment of great joy that I had made it this far. I guess I even wept a little inside.”

Vogel and Sulkofski were unsure of their location. “We didn’t know what part of the country we were in; we were pretty busy in the ship after leaving the target plus getting out of the ship after it was hit. I opened up my escape kit which all airmen carried on raids and took out the cloth map of France. I laid it on the ground and tried to get one of the French guys to indicate on the map where we were.” The men were in a sparsely populated part of the countryside approximately twenty miles east of Brest.

Worried that the near-festive atmosphere might attract the Germans, one of the Frenchmen shooed off the others and escorted Vogel and Sulkofski to another farmstead about a mile away; Vogel was not able to go any farther on his broken ankle. Injured, tired and still somewhat in shock, the two Americans bedded down in a pile of straw. Vogel awoke that night to find that the French had brought in Mark McDermott, his copilot. “His leg was in bad shape and he could not walk,” Vogel said. A short time later the crew’s ball turret gunner, Wilbur Hummel, arrived on horseback.

“A little later a Frenchman came back to the barn,” said Vogel, “and indicated to us that they had found one of our fellows and that they had laid him out on a slab in the small funeral parlor near the local church. He conveyed the idea that he wanted one of us to come over there and see him and identify him.” Sulkofski and Hummel trailed the Frenchman to the town of Pleyben and discovered that the dead man was their pilot, Harry Robey. A bullet had entered his temple and exited his neck. Vogel recollected how Robey was killed: “When I was coming down in my parachute the skipper [Robey] was not very far away from me when the Kraut fighter came by me, then fired a few rounds at the skipper.” The French people gave Robey a funeral mass the following day and buried him near the church. That both Sulkofski and Hummel attended the funeral is an indicator that the Germans were not omnipresent in the area.

The four men stayed put for a couple more days after Robey’s body was interred. The French tended their injuries, hid them and fed them. Vogel was especially impressed by the local bread. “Real homemade wheat bread. They didn’t slice it, they just broke off chunks and put some butter on it and dipped it into the coffee.”

Despite the kindness of their helpers, it became apparent that the men couldn’t stay long. “On the third day a man came and told us that two strangers were seen in the little village asking the youngsters if they had seen any American soldiers around there. This fellow could manage some English and sort of conveyed the idea that it might not be too safe to hang around there too long.”

The French agreed to try to get McDermott more care for his leg while Vogel, Hummel and Sulkofski prepared to leave. The three of them settled on a plan to walk ten or so miles west to Châteaulin and from there get a boat, follow the Aulne River to the sea and sail for England. However, Vogel’s ankle became too painful almost immediately after they started. “The guys tried to help me walk and insisted that I go along with them,” he said. “But I decided it was no use. My leg couldn’t take it even with their help.” It was only after much back-and-forth arguing that Hummel and Sulkofski agreed to continue without Vogel.

“Now I was alone and began to feel it,” Vogel said. “It was very cold and getting dark, but I managed to head back to the barn on my own, taking it very slow.” As he approached the barn where he had spent the previous few days, Vogel spotted flashlights and lanterns. “I thought they might be Krauts so I headed for the hedgerow. The hedges seemed to be hundreds of years old and spread out quite wide. I had not gone too far until my leg gave out so I crawled under the hedge hoping that if the Krauts were looking for me they might not find me because I was pretty well covered up. My heart was pounding so hard I figured that if they were Krauts and anywhere near they could hear it.”

Vogel shivered in the dark and cold. “Then I heard a noise which seemed to be someone crawling along the hedgerow behind me. It was getting close and I was sure it must be a Kraut.” Vogel heard a voice call out “Mon chéri,” and then a young woman squirmed through the hedge to him with a container of heated wine. “She gave me a couple of cups of it which I drank. This hot wine took the shivers away; boy how I needed that!” The girl kissed him on both cheeks before she left. “It was so dark I really never saw her face very clearly,” Vogel said. “I know she was quite young and I like to think she was pretty.”

Vogel was reunited with McDermott at the same barn on the following day. There they remained another night. At daylight, a Frenchman stopped at the barn and put the two Americans on a pair of horses and led them away. “We came to the town of Pleyben, in Finistère,” Vogel said. “I have no idea how far we rode those horses, but we were on them for more than an hour. We stopped at a small house with a slate roof owned by Madame and Monsieur Bernard Gilberte. They were an elderly couple. The man was slim with a moustache and his wife was very pleasant looking and rather heavy. She spoke some English words along with her French. It was almost dark again when we sat by their fireplace and talked. The lady tried to tell me about when she was a young girl during World War I when she met an American officer. I don’t really know what she was telling me, but Bernard was shooting some pretty heavy glances at her while she was telling me about it.”

Vogel and McDermott stayed in the Gilbertes’ attic. “There were no windows up there, but there was a piece of glass laid in with the slate shingles so light came in and we could see down on the street. They had stored some potatoes up there and quite a lot of hedge clippings which they used for fire wood in the fireplace.” Had the two men been caught by the Germans, it is likely that the elderly couple would have been executed. Nevertheless, the Gilbertes not only sheltered them at great risk to themselves, but also shared their food. “They had a fairly large chicken tied up by one foot in their entrance shed,” said Vogel. “Whenever the chicken laid an egg they cooked it and brought it up to us.”

Still, the men grew bored quickly. “During the day,” said Vogel, “I spent a lot of time looking out through the glass onto the street below. Once in a while I would see the Krauts moving troops and equipment along the road.” Restless as the men were, they welcomed any diversion, so long as it wasn’t German soldiers. “A young lady from the town came up to see us on the third day. She was a nice looking blonde lady who lived in Pleyben. Her husband had been taken by the Krauts and put in a labor camp. Marie came to visit us several times. She had an English-to-French dictionary, which we communicated with. We spent an hour or so talking in this manner with her when she came to visit us. It was always good to see her as she helped pass the time.”

After several days it became known about town that the Gilbertes were keeping Vogel and McDermott. Staying was too dangerous for everyone and a plan was made to move them. “This was a sad time,” said Vogel. “I had grown to like Bernard and his wife and really appreciated what a chance they took looking after us. They were such nice people.”

Marie and a handful of other townspeople came to help the two Americans move on. After dodging German trucks loaded with men and equipment, the small party headed for the edge of town. “A little farther down the road,” said Vogel, “we met a small truck that looked very much like a Model A Ford. It was pulling a small trailer-type charcoal generator. The charcoal gas that the trailer unit produced was used to run the truck engine. We got in the truck after the usual goodbye routine with both the men and the women and left Pleyben.”

The driver took the men to the town of Le Cloître. They were moved into a three-story apartment building, the basement of which housed a bakery. “The baker was working with several ovens; he had a long pole with a large flat end which he used to reach way back into these large ovens and bring the loaves out. The place brought back memories of home when we came into the house on a cold winter’s day after we had been in the woods most of the day—cutting logs or some other cold job—and smelled the fresh bread my Mother baked.”

The building was large, with many tenants, and Vogel and McDermott had to guard against being discovered. “We had to move very quietly through the narrow halls especially when we passed the room where one elderly woman was sleeping,” said Vogel. “She was a Kraut who had been married to a Frenchman. The room they took me and Mac to had a large double bed with a very large feather pillow laying on it. The linens smelled fresh like they had been washed in some kind of cologne water.”

As before, the two Americans were restricted in their movements, and Vogel had little to do other than observe the daily rhythms of the town’s life; they still continued despite the war. “The next morning I was awakened by what sounded like ten head of cattle running down the street. The noise was made by fifteen or twenty kids heading for school. The people in this part of France wore wooden shoes. That same day, in the afternoon, the kids returned home and they sang some French song that was slightly familiar.”

It was just a few days later that Vogel and McDermott were moved again. “The old lady who was supposed to be an ex-Kraut was already getting suspicious,” said Vogel. “About ten o’clock one night the people came into the room and told us we were going to have to get out of this town because two strangers were asking the kids if they had seen any Americans. Before we left they took us into a room where there was a bedridden elderly woman who was probably the grandmother of many of the women that were in the house. She spoke very good English and had a rosary in her hand—she said she was praying for our safe journey. She had tears in her eyes when she said goodbye to me which moved me a lot.”

The two Americans were hidden under straw in a horse-drawn cart and taken out of town, where they met a truck loaded with oyster baskets. “They had these baskets stacked across the rear of the truck bed so that they completely filled the back,” Vogel said. “From the rear it looked like the truck was completely loaded with the baskets.” Vogel and McDermott were hidden under stacks of the baskets, and the truck rattled north toward the coastal port of Carantec.

It went only a short distance before it was stopped at a German checkpoint. “My heart was hammering so loud I’m surprised the Kraut didn’t hear it,” Vogel said. “Apparently the driver knew what to tell the Kraut because we took off after a few minutes. Every few miles after that we were stopped and had to go through the same routine. Each time I thought that we’d had it. One time the Kraut walked around the truck and lifted up the canvas and shined his light but all he saw was oyster baskets.

“We finally arrived at Carantec very cold and very scared,” Vogel said. He and McDermott were ushered into a house close to the water. Soon they were joined by a Frenchman, George Coste, who welcomed them with a meal of fresh shrimp. “Mac and I started to eat the shrimp but I had a tough time getting them down. Mac did alright with them.

“After George gave us the shrimp he left the house by the back door,” remembered Vogel. “There was a bed on the second floor so Mac and I finished the shrimp and went up there and were about to hit the sack when George came back with two bottles of champagne. He talked with us a little, then left. We opened the champagne, it was really good stuff. No off flavors, just plain good and smooth. We ended up drinking the two quarts before we hit the sack. I slept very good that night but the next morning I got up and wanted very much a drink of water. Boy, I was thirsty and the French did not drink very much water; in fact I don’t think I ever saw anyone over there take a drink of water.”

George Coste returned the following morning with his girlfriend—a striking blonde woman in her mid-thirties. “She could speak English very well,” said Vogel. “She made a comment when she came into the room about me being just a boy. After some conversation we all went down to the kitchen and made some coffee and had some of their terrific bread which she had brought.

“We saw a great deal of George and his girlfriend while we were there,” Vogel recalled. “We talked of many things—about how the Krauts had taken most of the food, about how they used up much of their cattle, and about how hard it was to find such things as cigarettes and tobacco. She told how they saved their cigarette butts and took them to a tobacconist to have them rerolled into cigarettes and repackaged. She gave me one of these cigarettes, I lighted it and one drag on it just about put me under.”

Vogel and McDermott were with Coste only a few days when they were told to get ready to sail for England. “The girl asked if she might get something for us to take back as a souvenir,” said Vogel. “I gave her all of the French money that was left in my escape kit—I have no idea how much it was. She left and when she came back she had purchased a ceramic doll. I accepted the gift even though a ceramic doll was about the last thing I needed at that time.”

Vogel and McDermott were moved to a building next to the docks. “There was a lot of seagoing gear and oyster baskets and other equipment in the back yard,” said Vogel. “Inside the house several men sat around a table drinking wine. A lady came in from the kitchen with a big platter loaded with oysters in the shell from which some seaweed was still hanging. I was very hungry, so when we were invited to sit down with them I thought I would try to eat some of the raw oysters. But I could not get these to go down, so I took a big gulp of wine and got rid of one of them.”

The tide rose enough to float their escape craft at dusk, and Vogel and McDermott were taken to a dock. The vessel was a fishing boat just more than twenty feet in length, with a mainsail and a jib. “There was a small four-cylinder gasoline engine hooked to a car transmission which was connected to the propeller,” said Vogel.

Vogel’s bad ankle still bothered him and he had trouble getting into the boat. “Then a big six-foot-three-inch French guy with a crew cut picked me up and sat me down in the boat with Mac.” Vogel and McDermott were not the only evaders the French were sending to England. There was an RAF radio operator—Jerry Smith—as well as two French soldiers and a French officer. “They had served on the Maginot Line,” said Vogel, “but managed to escape when the Krauts took over. I have no idea why they were trying to get to England.” The rest of the passengers included two wealthy Frenchmen, a French submarine sailor and someone named “Rodger.”

The boat was loaded with loaves of bread and bottles of wine and cognac. Finally an elderly fisherman climbed aboard. “The ex-soldiers spoke fairly good English so they were able to explain that the old fisherman was going to sail us out of the harbor,” said Vogel. “Then he would return by the small rowboat that he had tied behind the sailboat.

“After a lot of goodbyes we took off with the jib and the main sail [sic] for power,” Vogel said. “There were many huge rocks sticking out of the water in the harbor so the old fisherman had to pick our way through them. This is why we left just a little before dark. The wind was beginning to pick up and the surf was rolling in. When we got past the rocks after about an hour of sailing the old fisherman got in the small boat and headed back through the rocks.”

George Coste took over as captain and had Vogel start the boat’s engine. The wind picked up, and the tiny boat was tossed by increasingly rough waves. “The Krauts must have found out that we were out there because they started to shoot up star shells that lit up the sky,” recalled Vogel. “It had started to rain fairly heavily so I expect this offered some help to hide us from the shore. We pulled the jib down right after the first shell burst; this was done to give us a lower profile on the water. After the second burst we shut down the engine on account of the noise which George thought they might pick up on the shore. It was raining a lot and the wind was blowing pretty hard, which is probably why the Krauts did not send a patrol boat out to find us.”

The weather grew worse. “The waves hit the bow of the boat so hard that I thought it was going to be split in half,” remembered Vogel. The water also doused the engine at frequent intervals, and Vogel took responsibility for restarting it until he could no more. “Another big wave hit the bow sending a large amount of water back over the engine which shut her down again. I took the distributor off and started to wipe it dry but the center contact point in the distributor cap jumped out and fell into the engine cooling pit. The contact point was a small round piece of carbon about a half-inch long mounted so that it was spring loaded. I spent a long time feeling around the water in the cooling pit but I could not find the thing and I knew the engine would not run without it.”

The men huddled against the wind and rain and sailed the tiny boat as nearly north as possible. “It was a long night,” Vogel recalled, “but daylight finally came and we had a look at the sea we were riding on. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The waves were so high and the troughs were so deep it was unreal. We kept busy bailing water out of the boat and watching for anything that might be out there on this big sea aside from us.”

Vogel, who had survived attacks by enemy fighters as well as a desperate parachute jump—not to mention time spent hiding from German troops and spies—feared his end might come in the icy waters between France and England. “The day was very cloudy and cold and often raining. Time seemed to stand still. It seemed like we had been on the boat forever. George was hanging on to the tiller; it seemed to be most difficult to keep the bow into the waves and keep the compass on due north. The sea water was creating a large black ulcer on his hand.” Vogel checked his own hands and noted they were no better.

“The second night was just as long as the first,” remembered Vogel, “with the endless sea banging away at the bow of the sailboat. None of us felt like eating anything and it was good we didn’t because the bread was soaked up with sea water. The salt pork looked alright but no one ate any of it. During the night George and one of the ex-soldiers were talking. First one would say a few words which I did not understand then the other would utter a verse or two then repeat the cycle over again. I was sure something had gone wrong until I figured out they were saying the rosary in French. Then I really got worried. I was frightened enough so I joined in.”

The third day dawned calmer and clearer, but the men aboard the small boat worried about their whereabouts. Powered only by sail and with nothing more than a compass for navigation, they might easily have been blown well off course. Too, despite the breaking weather, the cold and wet and physical punishment of the waves took a toll. “I think the worst thing about being cold and wet was that there was no place to go to get warm and no prospect of ever reaching a warm place again,” said Vogel. “I got terrible chills that I couldn’t shake. I shivered a lot then seemed to have needles going through my mouth.”

On the fourth day, February 8, 1943, Coste skippered the little boat to the mouth of an estuary. The men still had no sure idea where they were. They watched a patrol boat nose through the waves at them. “When the launch approached our boat,” Vogel recalled, “there were three sailors aboard and one of them had a Lewis gun [machine gun] pointed at us. The other two had rifles. We identified ourselves, hoping they were Englishmen and not Krauts. As the boat pulled up alongside, their stern swung around so that I could see the British flag. As soon as their bow was next to our boat I jumped, bum leg and all, into their boat. As I hit the deck one of the British sailors said, ‘You can’t get on here.’ I was already on so I asked, has one of you guys got a cigarette?”

Vogel and McDermott and the other men were safe. They were taken to a naval station at Salcombe on the Kingsbridge Estuary in southwest England. Coste’s navigation had been good as Salcombe was just more than a hundred miles due north of Carantec. The men were initially kept under guard as a precaution against them being spies, but were given a chance to get warm and clean. “The Commander told us that he would have someone bring us some dry clothes as soon as possible,” said Vogel. “We were standing by the fireplace in the raw feeling much relieved from the itching, when the door opened and in walked a Wren [a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service—WRNS]. She was carrying a tray with a teapot and some chocolate bars on it. The four of us were standing next to the gas fireplace trying very hard to be less exposed. She never batted an eye, just came and said, ‘I have some tea and chocolate for you; this will warm you up.’ She turned around and left the room as nonchalantly as she came in.”

Although it had seemed to him like ages since he had been shot down on January 23, Sebastian Vogel was back in England just more than two weeks later. He was the first USAAF enlisted airman to evade back to England after being shot down. As such he was somewhat of a curiosity, and he found himself dressed in a borrowed Class A uniform at Eaker’s headquarters a couple of days after returning.

Vogel was to be decorated with the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. Before the small ceremony he was invited to visit with Eaker. “General Eaker was a very personable guy—not at all like I expected a general to be. He shook hands after returning my salute and told me to make myself at ease and asked me if there was anything he could get me. I said, No sir nothing, I am just fine.” Eaker encouraged the young airman to relax, and Vogel reconsidered. “Well, it has been a long time since I had a good scotch and soda.” Eaker sent his aide after a bottle of Scotch, and the three men enjoyed a drink together.

Following the short awards ceremony Vogel spent a few supervised days in London before being returned to the 303rd. “The General and his staff made it clear that they wanted me to go back to the squadron as soon as possible,” said Vogel. “It seems that of all the guys that went down over occupied territory, I was the first non-commissioned officer to get back.” Eaker and his staff believed that it would be good for morale if Vogel was seen safe, and relatively sound. Vogel, in person, validated the notion that it was possible to be shot down and still return to England.

His comrades at the 427th Bomb Squadron were happy—and almost unbelieving—to see him. “The guys back at the combat barracks were all very helpful getting my bunk and clothes back. The second morning that I was back they called a raid so I got up and went to the briefing with the crews and went out to the ships with them and watched them take off. I was glad that I didn’t have to go with them. I stayed at the squadron for about a week then I got orders to go to the States.”

Sebastian Vogel returned to the United States in March 1943. At that point, most of the airmen who eventually served with the 303rd hadn’t even finished their training. Vogel was a pioneer of sorts as he was among the first of seventy-three men from the 303rd who evaded capture and returned to Allied hands.

*   *   *

ONE OF THE HOLLYWOOD luminaries who spent time with the 303rd was Clark Gable. He was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group, but because that unit hadn’t yet started operations he flew his very first mission with the 303rd, aboard The 8-Ball Mk II on the mission to Antwerp on May 4, 1943. “He was a gunnery officer and spent quite a bit of time with us,” said John Ford. “At the officer’s club one evening he was teased quite a bit and fed a bunch of Irish whiskey.”

Gable stumbled out of the club and into the dark sometime later that evening. “I was walking along the road,” said Ford, “when I heard some moaning and then a small voice said, ‘Won’t someone help me back to my quarters, please?’ I checked the ditch and there was someone all in a heap. I helped him out and was surprised to see it was Clark Gable.” Ford escorted the movie star back to his hut and made certain he came to no harm.

“The next day,” Ford said, “I took a shortcut to the mess hall and stumbled right into the set where Gable was filming the movie Combat America. The colonel in charge really chewed me out—I had ruined whatever scene they were shooting. It was then that Gable walked up. I snapped to attention and gave him a smart salute. He recognized me right away and returned my salute with a big wink.”

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Next: “We Checked Our Parachutes”