Robert (Bob) Starzynski from Chicago, Illinois, enlisted in the Army on January 16, 1943. He was 18 years old. By June of that year he was in England assigned to the 4th Station Complement Squadron of the 306th Bombardment Group (BG) located at Thurleigh, England. After numerous requests to be reassigned to a combat unit, he was trained as a B-17 Flying Fortress gunner and attached to the 306th BG, 367th Bomb Squadron. His first mission was a bomber raid over Berlin, Germany, on March 6, 1944. After flying several missions as a crew replacement, he was assigned to the Virgil W. Dingman crew as a tail gunner after their tail gunner was killed in action.
June 17, 1944, Saturday. After a mission delay due to weather conditions and cloud cover over the primary target, a secondary “visual target of opportunity” was selected. The target was the bridge at Noyen, France. Takeoff was 0945 (military time). Anti-aircraft fire over the French Coast hit the number three engine of the Dingman B-17, and a fire broke out. Flames from the engine went into the slipstream of the aircraft, and fire was threatening the tail of the plane. Pilot First Lieutenant Dingman ordered the crew to bail out.
According to B-17 bail out procedure, the first person to bail out is the tail gunner. Staff Sergeant (S/Sgt) Starzynski’s parachute had slipped into the rear landing wheel compartment of the aircraft. To retrieve the parachute he had to take off his oxygen mask. After finding the parachute, putting it on, adjusting one of the parachute hooks, and having some difficulty opening the escape hatch, he jumped out of the plane.
According to an eye witness account from another B-17 in the formation that day, the Dingman aircraft was last seen at 1113 southeast of Dieppe, France, with the right wing on fire. Five parachutes were observed. [All nine crew members did survive. Five became Prisoners of War, and four were Evadees.]
After he jumped S/Sgt Starzynski found himself alone surrounded by clouds. With the lack of oxygen while preparing for bail out he felt groggy, but the snap of the parachute opening brought him back to consciousness. As he floated down between some clouds, an American P-51 Mustang fighter plane appeared and saw him. The P-51 flew around him a couple of times, S/Sgt Starzynski waved at the pilot, and the plane dipped its wings before departing. He hoped the pilot would report his position.
S/Sgt Starzynski’s descent became faster, and he could see trees, hedgerows, and a farmhouse on the ground. He crashed through some trees and landed on his back in a field with no serious injuries. Bob had landed in enemy occupied France. The time was about 1115.
Bob hid his parachute and inspected his escape kit. After deciding to stay in hiding until dark, he checked his mini compass (an item in the escape kit) and began walking about 2330. Still in his flight jacket, flight suit, and flight boots he approached a farmhouse and knocked on the door. After identifying himself as an “Aviateur Americane” and after intense scrutiny by the occupants of the farmhouse, Bob was allowed inside. Using a French/English translation card (another item in his escape kit) he was able to communicate with them although in a limited way. The Helpers (those who provided aid to downed Allied airmen) provided him with some food, civilian clothes, and a pair of too small shoes. He was told they could not hide him or contact the French Resistance because there were too many Germans in the area. They suggested he head west to LeHavre, France, where they thought he would be able to find a place to hide. Bob offered them French francs for helping him (an item in the escape kit), but they refused. Checking his map (also in the escape kit) Bob knew he was in the Normandy region and was about 43 miles from LeHavre. After midnight he left the farmhouse and started walking in the direction of Buchy, France.
June 18,1944, Sunday. Bob had a few close calls with Germans on the road to Buchy. His feet hurt in the ill-fitting shoes, but he kept walking. He arrived in Buchy after midnight.
June 19, 1944, Monday. In Buchy Bob found a place to hide in a bomb damaged farmhouse with a courtyard and other surrounding buildings. He discovered later that it was the location of a makeshift German barracks. He decided then to walk by day instead of by night. At dawn he started walking towards Rouen, France. By dusk that day he arrived in Barentin, France, and spent the night sleeping in a field. His feet by then were swollen and bloody.
June 20, 1944, Tuesday. When an older German soldier on a bicycle stopped Bob on that day and asked him for his papers, Bob pointed to a sign to Bolbec, France, and only said the name of the town a couple of times. By that time Bob said he was looking like a tramp and that was probably why the German let him go. By day’s end he determined he was halfway to LeHavre.
June 21, 1944, Wednesday. His fifth day of evading the Germans and looking like a tramp Bob decided to take a risk and chose to stop and get a haircut and shave at a barber shop near Bolbec. He hoped he would better blend in with the local population. While getting his shave a German soldier came in and asked the barber if he could get a haircut before Bob. After the German exited for a short time he returned to find Bob getting his haircut. The soldier sat impatiently next to Bob’s jacket not knowing there were maps and other papers in it which would have identified him as an American. Bob got his haircut and made a quick exit.
Walking and limping down the road to LeHavre in those very tight shoes Bob stopped at a farmhouse and again using the French translation card from his escape kit he asked for help. They provided him with food, bathed his feet, and then gave him the bad news. The Germans had a roadblock into LeHavre. They let him spend the night. Knowing his escape plan wouldn’t work, Bob started walking back to Bolbec the next day.
June 22, 1944, Thursday. At Bolbec Bob then headed south to Lillebonne, France. At one point he was refused sanctuary and kept walking. That day he met a ragged Brazilian junk peddler who had been stranded in France when the war started. The peddler knew a few words of English so was able to tell Bob that the Germans controlled the ferry boat across the Seine River. He took Bob to a Frenchman (who Bob later discovered was a member of the French Resistance), and the Frenchman rowed him across the river. He was now in Quillebeuf, France.
Sometime after his arrival in Quillebeuf he dove to the ground as two American P-38 Lightning fighters were on a strafing and bombing run in the vicinity of the ferry boats.
Later in an old farmhouse and seeking a place to “rest his feet” Bob encountered a German soldier who was more interested in getting a ladder from the farmhouse than in him. He guessed the German soldier wanted to repair some communication lines after the “visit” by the P-38s.
On that day in Quillebeuf Bob met a Frenchman named Charles Lamour who spoke English and contacted the French Resistance. He learned that his crossing of the Seine River was well-timed as the Gestapo had been inquiring about someone who matched his description. After six days on his own Bob found some new friends in the French Resistance.
Ten weeks in Quillebeuf. During his stay in the area he was hidden in various locations and got a new pair of shoes. They actually fit his feet but had wooden soles. [Leather during the war was in short supply.]
On a few occasions Bob helped the French Resistance in cutting German communication lines and stealing a couple of cows and beans from a field for food.
The Allied Canadian Army liberates Quillebeuf. Bob was able to come out of hiding. An Allied unit picked him up, and he was transported to Cherbourg, France. He flew to London, England, on an American C-47 Skytrain transport plane, was interrogated at Allied Headquarters, and returned to his base at Thurleigh in September 1944. It was at Thurleigh that he met his co-pilot Second Lieutenant Wilbur Pensinger. He had been picked up in France almost immediately by the French Underground after the crew bailed out.
Back in the United States (US). As was the policy at the time, military personnel who had escaped or evaded the enemy in occupied countries were not allowed to rejoin air crews flying missions over Europe. If they were captured, they may have been able to identify those foreign nationals who had helped them.
Bob returned to the US in September 1944. On March 17 (Saint Patrick’s Day), 1945, he celebrated his 21st birthday. Was it Irish luck or Polish luck that helped save Bob’s life?
As people reflect on their life there is often a memento they wish they would have kept as a remembrance. Bob once told me he wished he would have kept those French shoes with the wooden soles.
To my Polish friend Bob Starzynski: “Dziekuje Ci za służbę wojskową dla Stanów Zjednoczonych Ameryki Północnej w czasie Drugiej Wojny Światowej.” [Translation: “Thank you for your service to the United States in WWII.”]
After WWII Bob joined the Chicago Police Department and retired after 39 years. In 1982 he travelled to France and was able to thank some of the people who had helped him evade the Germans in 1944.
In 2011 Bob and his wife Louise attended the graduation of their great-granddaughter Jessica Kirstein from the US Air Force Basic Military Training Course at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. After graduation Airman Kirstein received advanced training and was assigned to an in-flight refueling unit. Another generation serving our country in the air.
An article about Bob Starzynski’s experiences in German occupied France (with additional stories) was published in the July 1990 issue of the 306th BG newspaper the Echoes. The link is http://306bg.us/Echoes%20files/90jul153.pdf.
This story and photographs are posted with the permission of the Starzynski family.
Thank you to Jerzy Michalec for the English to Polish translation.
Thank you to WWII 306th BG veteran William Houlihan, Cliff Deets (306th BG Historical Association Historian), Nancy Huebotter (Editor of the Echoes), Barbara Neal (Secretary, 306th BG Historical Association), and Dr. Vernon Williams for their assistance in my research for this story.