World War 2

World War 2 is probably the best documented event in world history. There are countless stories of individuals, communities, and countries around the world that experienced those times.  It is the intent of this website to tell the personal, the lesser known, and the sometimes untold stories of that war.
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Freedom Wall WWII Memorial
Washington, DC

Escape Over the Pyrenees Mountains: And the Story of WWII B-17 Gunner “Bud” Owens

 

Francis “Bud” Owens during B-17 Flying Fortress training with the 381st Bombardment Group at Pyote Army Air Base, Texas, spring 1943.  Photograph WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society.

 

Francis Edward “Bud” Owens was born December 26, 1923, in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania.  He was one of 10 children.  

Bud enlisted in the United States (US) Army after the December 7, 1941, Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii.  He became a member of the newly formed United States Army Air Force 381st Bombardment Group (BG) flying the B-17 Flying Fortress and trained in Pyote, Texas, and Pueblo, Colorado.  The 381st BG arrived at Ridgewell, Station 167, County Essex, England, in May and June 1943.  Staff Sergeant (S/Sgt.) Owens was assigned as a B-17 gunner in the 533rd Bombardment Squadron (BS).

June 23, 1943.  In the early morning darkness the 533rd BS Ordance crew was loading bombs (with the fuses in place*) on B-17 tail number 42-30024 for a mission that day.  One of the bombs exploded and caused a series of explosions as other bombs and ammunition aboard and near the plane also blew up.  S/Sgt. Owens was in a nearby aircraft cleaning the guns when he saw a man who was still alive lying on the ground in the explosion area.  He ran over and pulled Private First Class Glen W. Burkland to safety.  For his bravery S/Sgt. Owens was awarded the Soldier’s Medal which is awarded for “distinguishing oneself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”  Twenty-three men of the 381st BG and one civilian died that day.

July 4, 1943.  Wartime industrial installations in Le Mans, France, were the Allied targets for the US Eighth Air Force that day.  Ninety-five B-17s were deployed for the mission.  Four B-17s were lost.  

One of the aircraft lost that day was 381st BG B-17 42-29928.  Flying to the target it was attacked by Messerschmitt 109 (ME 109) German fighter planes.  After the number 4 engine and the rudder were hit and with the oxygen line to the rear of the aircraft compromised, Pilot First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Olof M. Ballinger made the decision to drop out of formation and attempt to return to England.  German fighters continued to attack and anti-aircraft artillery flak was in the air.  B-17 Navigator Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt.) Paul H. McConnell shot down an ME 109 with machine gun fire.  Ballinger gave the crew the order to bailout.  

Left Waist Gunner Owens, realizing no one had heard from the radio operator, opened the door of the radio room discovering a seriously wounded Radio Operator Technical Sergeant (T/Sgt.) John K. Lane.  Flak had most likely hit the aircraft under the radio room, and there was a fire.  Seeing Lane’s condition and noticing his parachute was on fire, Bud pulled him from the room over to the B-17 waist hatch, put his own parachute on Lane, and pushed him out of the plane while pulling the D ring on the parachute.  He then found the spare parachute in the plane, put it on, and jumped.  [T/Sgt. Lane would be found by the Germans, treated for his injuries, and became a prisoner of war (POW).]

Bombardier 2nd Lt. George C. Williams’ parachute accidentally deployed inside of the B-17.  He was last seen moving toward the back of the plane to locate the spare parachute.  2nd Lt. Williams, Ball Turret Gunner S/Sgt. Albert G. Wackermann, and Right Waist Gunner S/Sgt. Harry W. Bauscher were killed in action that day.

The B-17 crashed and exploded in a farm field just south of the village of La Coulonche in the Normandy region of France.  

Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner T/Sgt. Byron J. Gronstal  became a POW.  Pilot 1st Lt. Olof M. Ballinger, Co-Pilot 2nd Lt. John M. Carah, Navigator 2nd Lt. Paul H. McConnell, Tail Gunner S/Sgt. William C. Howell, and S/Sgt. Francis E. Owens escaped capture by the Germans and were found by members of the French Resistance.

[Resistance groups in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Denmark formed escape and evasion lines to rescue British and American airmen shot down over occupied Europe and to help in their return to England.  

 

Map of WWII Pat, Comet, and Shelburne Escape Lines.  Map WWII Netherlands Escape Lines.

 

The Pat Line (also known as the Pat O’Leary Line), the Comet Line, and the Shelburne Line are noted in the illustration above.  There were other escape lines also, and routes could vary depending on German presence or activity in an area.  Resistance members and Helpers (those people sheltering airmen, providing food and clothing, accompanying them between safe houses and other locations), if caught by the Germans, could be arrested, sent to concentration camps, or executed.  

It is estimated that about 5,000 Allied airmen were helped to evade capture by the Germans in WWII.]

1st Lt. Ballinger and S/Sgt. Owens were found by local Frenchmen on July 4 after parachuting from the B-17 and were reunited while hiding in the area.  

September 1, 1943. Ballinger and Owens were moved from the Normandy countryside to Paris.

October 21, 1943. They left Paris by train for southern France with other evaders to begin the journey over the Pyrenees Mountains. 

 

The Pyrenees Mountains divide France from Spain and stretch about 270 miles (435 kilometers) from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea.  Photograph World Atlas.

 

The plan for the escape group was to climb from France over the Pyrenees to Andorra and then into Spain.  Map World Atlas.

 

The  Allied escape group consisted of seven Americans and seven French military officers.  [Not much historically is known about the Frenchmen in the group.]  The American evaders:

 

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and Boren family.

Major William T. Boren, Pilot, B-26 Marauder, 387th BG.  Aircraft crashed in France September 21, 1943.  

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and daughters Debra and Patricia Ballinger.

1st Lt. Olof M. Ballinger, Pilot, 381st BG.  B-17 shot down over France on July 4, 1943.

 

 

 

 

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and Keith Murray.

1st Lt. Keith W. Murray, Bombardier, 95th BG.  B-17 shot down near Paris, France, on September 6, 1943.

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and grandson Aaron Leary.

2nd Lt. Charles H. Hoover, Pilot, 381st BG.  B-17 shot down over Belgium on September 3, 1943.

 

 

 

 

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and cousin K. Ellis.

2nd Lt. Harold B. Bailey, Navigator, 379th BG.  Bailed out of B-17 August 16, 1943 near Paris, France.

Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and brother Oscar Plasket.

T/Sgt. William B. Plasket, Jr., Radio Operator, 306th BG.  B-17 crashed near Rouen, France, on September 6, 1943.

 

 

 

Photograph WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society.

 

 

S/Sgt. Francis E. Owens, Waist Gunner, 381st BG.  B-17 shot down July 4, 1943, over France.

 

 

 

October 22, 1943.  The journey over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain started in the foothills of the mountains near Suc, France, with local guide Emile Delpy and another unidentified guide.   

French guide Emile Delpy. Photograph courtesy of Warren Carah and Claude Benet (Andorra, Spain, historian).

The Americans who had been in hiding for months were weak from inactivity and lack of food.  The French provided the evaders with what food they could, but the German seizure of French provisions left the French with inadequate food supplies.  

To disguise the evaders the French Resistance and Helpers provided them with French clothing and footwear.  But the clothing and footwear were inadequate for the climb and the unforeseen weather.  An early snowstorm blanketed the Pyrenees with about three feet of snow.  

1st Lt. Ballinger due to weakness and leg cramping dropped out of the group and hid from the Germans in the area.  [Ballinger would later cross the Pyrenees on his own, with good weather, navigating by the stars and sun.  He eventually reached Gibralter, a British Overseas Territory, in southern Spain and returned to England on December 3, 1943.]

During the climb up the Pyrenees 2nd Lt. Bailey collapsed and could no longer walk.  According to interviews with surviving evaders, Sergeants Plasket and Owens dragged and carried Bailey about eight hours of the journey as the group ascended up the mountains.  The group had crossed into Spain and started their descent when Owens and Plasket collapsed from exhaustion.  Bailey and Plasket were unconscious.  Owens was semi-conscious but couldn’t move.  The guides tried to revive the three men without success.  After several attempts the guides made the difficult decision to continue on with the remaining ten evaders.  The three American airmen were left behind in the snow.  

On or about October 25, 1943.  Believed to be the date of death of the three American airmen in the Pyrenees Mountains.

Spring 1944.  Three bodies without identification were discovered in the mountains by Andorran shepherds.  They were buried in a cemetery near Arinsal, Andorra.  

1951.  An American Graves Registration unit disinterred the bodies in 1950 and positively identified them in 1951.

Harold Brunson Bailey was buried at the Lancaster Memorial Park in Lancaster, South Carolina.

William Beebe Plasket, Jr., was buried at the East View Cemetery in Salem, New Jersey.

October 1, 1951.  Francis Edward “Bud” Owens was buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.  While he was being laid to rest, Bud’s family members, at that moment, were attending a Requiem Mass in his memory at Saint Mary Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

2006.  In September 1943 before being moved to Paris by the French Underground, Bud gave his military identification “dog tags” to the Duval family who had hidden him in the Normandy countryside.  In the 1980s, former Ballinger crew member Paul McConnell visited La Coulonche.  He was given the dog tags and asked to return them to the Owens family next of kin if he could find them.  Paul McConnell passed away without finding the family, and the responsibility was given to Warren Carah, son of the crew Co-Pilot John M. Carah.  In 2006 Warren presented Bud’s dog tags to the Owens family in Pittsburgh.

 

 

 

Co-Pilot 2nd Lt. John M. Carah, Navigator 2nd Lt. Paul H. McConnell, Tail Gunner S/Sgt. William C. Howell were helped by other French Resistance groups after they parachuted from their B-17 on July 4, 1943.  They crossed the Pyrenees, were helped by British diplomats once in Spain, and returned to England in February 1944.

Lieutenant Colonel John M. Carah, US Air Force (Retired), would later write a book Achtung! Achtung! Die Flugfestungen Kommen! (Attention! Attention! The Flying Fortresses Are Coming!), Memoirs of WW-II  with his son Warren Carah who edited the book.  It provides in-depth information about the Ballinger crew and the experiences of other downed American airmen in WWII Europe.  Thank you to Warren Carah for his support in the research for this story.  He can be contacted at wcarah@livingonline.com.

*In a 2013 documentary From Pyote to Fortress Europe about the WWII 381st BG, 533rd BS Ordnance Chief S/Sgt. Joe H. Willis, on the taxi strip at the time of the June 23, 1943, explosion, said in a 2003 interview with WWII Historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams that procedures after that incident were changed when loading bombs into aircraft.  Fuses were placed in the bombs after they were loaded, not before, and fewer people were allowed in the area around a plane during the loading.

A 2016 documentary filmed in France, Spain, and Belgium Preserving a Legacy: In the Footsteps of Bud Owens Belgian battlefield guide Geert Van den Bogaert leads a group from the Normandy countryside, hiking over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, with the film concluding at the grave of Bud Owens in the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.  Bud’s niece, Colleen Brennan, and his great-niece, Hayley Hulbert, represented Bud on the journey.  Thank you to the Owens family for providing information used in the writing of this story.

Early in WWII escape lines were mainly financed by individuals in German-occupied countries.  Later on monetary support was given by the British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9 (MI-9) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).  Support included agents parachuting into occupied countries to help the Resistance and bringing maps, money, and false documents with them to help downed Allied airmen.  Pyrenees guide Emile Delpy worked with MI-9.

The WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society identifies and describes many of the escape lines used in WW2 Europe.  Search this website for additional stories about Bud Owens.

Thank you to WWII Historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, WWII Historian and Researcher Sue Moyer, 306th BG Historical Association Historian Clifford Deets, and Editor of the 8th Air Force News Magazine Debra Kujawa.