“Tom got to freedom, the hard way”

The article, “Tom got to freedom, the hard way,” by Bruce Bolinger, AFEES Friend Member, appeared in AFEES’ Communications, Summer 2007, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 20-22.

“The Wild Hare,” a B-17 returning from a bombing mission over Münster, is shot down 11 November 1943 west of the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, known locally as Den Bosch.  Although all members of the crew bail out successfully, one man is killed and seven others are captured within a day.

Tom Applewhite, the bombardier, a stocky 22-year-old from Memphis, Tenn., heeds the advice given them back in England—wait until the last possible minute before pulling your ripcord.  At the cost of a burst eardrum, he is one of the first to reach the ground, in a field just west of the village of Hedikhuizen, on the south side of the River Maas.

Residents of the village and nearby farms immediately rush to his aid.  Knocked out by the force of his landing, Tom recovers consciousness as two farm workers carry him off the field.  A farm family feeds him a sandwich and milk while disposing of his parachute and flight suit.

A doctor, who happens on the scene, checks his flak wounds, pronounces them minor, and advises him to get away as quickly as possible because German troops will be searching the area.

Jan van Bommel, a teenager who speaks English, directs Tom to a temporary shelter, a barn in a field east of the village.  Tom sets off at a run, with some of the villagers cheerfully dogging his heels.

Peter de Noo, a farmer from the village of Well on the other side of the Maas, attracted by the aerial battle, finds Tom in the barn.  Van Bommel then arrives and tells Tom that de Noo is someone he can trust.

At dusk, Van Bommel and de Noo row Tom across the Maas to the north bank.  Peter and Tom then stealthily make their way through Well to the thatched-roof de Noo farmhouse on the village’s outskirts.  De Noo and his eight-months-pregnant wife will shelter Tom there for two nights.

It is imperative that Tom be evacuated as soon as possible because of the danger to the de Noo family–German troops are conducting a house-to-house search.  Fortunately, Peter de Noo’s brother, Adriaan, has contacts in Den Bosch who alert the Raaijmaakers brothers, Fons and Jacques.

Fons is the local contact for an escape line headed by Karst Smit, a marechaussee, or member of the Dutch Royal Military Police, stationed in Baarle-Nassau on the Dutch-Belgian border.

By the end of the second day of Tom’s evasion, all the arrangements have been made to move him to Brussels.  The next day, 13 November, Adriaan de Noo and Tom rendezvous with the Raaijmaakers brothers in a field west of Den Bosch.

Equipped with bicycles, the brothers guide Tom south to a deserted tavern in a forest between the villages of Oisterwijk and Moergestel, where Jan Naaijkens, a schoolteacher from the village of Hilvarenbeek, takes over.

The evening is drizzly, dark, and cold.  By now it is well after curfew.  Naaijkens, who is helping an airman for the first time, knows what the consequences will be for him if they are caught by the Germans.

Shortly after setting out on the deserted road for Hilvarenbeek, mishaps disable both their bicycles, forcing them to finish their journey on foot.  Arriving at the home of J.C. van der Heijden on the east edge of Hilvarenbeek, Tom is served a hot meal by Mrs. van der Heijden before another marechaussee, Albert Wisman, arrives to guide him to a shelter near the Belgian border, a large chicken coop insulated with bales of compressed hay and occupied by five Dutch students from the University of Wageningen, who are in hiding to avoid being sent to Germany as forced labor.

Next morning, 14 November, Eugene van der Heijden, one of the van der Heijden sons, who is a school teacher friend of Jan Naaijkens and close associate of Karst Smit, arrives at the chicken coop to guide Tom to Brussels by way of Weelde, Turnhout, and Antwerp.

The reception point for airmen arriving in Brussels is the apartment of two Dutch ladies, Charlotte Ambach and her mother Elise Chabot.  Ambach’s fiancé, Ernest Van Moorleghem, an assistant police commissioner of the suburb of Ixelles, takes over, delivering Tom to the processing center for arriving evaders, the fish market of Prosper Spilliaert in Schaerbeek, another suburb.

Tom is now in the hands of Service EVA, a Belgian evasion group which handles interrogations of arriving airmen (to make sure they are not German agents); preparation of false ID; supplying them with civilian clothing befitting their new “occupations;” and housing them until they can be passed on to the Comet Line, which will move them to Spain.  Tom is now “Ludwig Oskar Ronquet, clerc de notaire.”

On 15 November, while Tom is still at the fish market, Nello Malavasi, top turret gunner on “The Wild Hare” and the only other member of the crew still at large, and his guide Willem Schmidt are arrested by Germans in Turnhout.

Schmidt, forced to cooperate, leads the Germans to the North Station in Brussels where Charlotte Ambach awaits to take Malavasi to her apartment.  When she attempts to greet “Malavasi,” who is actually a Luftwaffe policeman, she is arrested

The arrests of her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and fiancé follow within hours.  The wave of arrests spreads.  Karst Smit and Eugene van der Heijden go into hiding.  On the 16th, Service EVA transfers Tom from the fish market to a never-before-used safe house, the Brussels home of Arthur Schrynemakers, a Dutch businessman, where Tom remains for over a month.

But then an unfriendly tenant at Schrynemakers’ home threatens to inform the Germans, and Service EVA immediately moves Tom to the home of Yvonne Bienfait, a nurse at the hospital in Schaerbeek.  Schrynemakers evicts the tenant, who is found dead a few days later, the result of an “accidental” fall down a flight of stairs.

But then Bienfait suspects Tom of being a German agent, because of his German-made razor (a gift from Schrynemakers) and his Swiss watch, and notifies Service EVA.  Two men arrive to subject him to a “physical,” which includes a dental check, supposedly to ensure that he can withstand the rigors of crossing the Pyrenees into Spain.  But their real purpose is to note the pattern of his dental fillings and radio it to London.

Fortunately for Tom, London confirms that he is who he claims to be.

On 23 December, Gaston Matthys, one of the inner circle of Service EVA, guides Tom and “Jockey” Wiggins, whom Tom met at Bienfait’s apartment, to the Brussels train station, where he turns them over to Jules Dricot, their Comet Line guide to the town of Blandain, the last train stop before the French border.

After a brief rest at the home of Dr. Henri Druart near the village of Hertain, under cover of darkness and falling snow that covers their tracks, Amanda Stassart, known to them only as “Diane,” guides Tom, “Jockey,” and two other men, probably Dwight Fry, American, and Gerald Lorne, RAF, across the border to the dairy of Andre Dewauvrin.  After a meal of delicious, freshly-made French fries, they spend the night in his cow barn.

The next day, with “Diane” leading the way, they set off for Paris where “Diane” deposits Tom at the apartment of her mother’s neighbor, an aristocratic older woman, Madame Elizabeth Buffet,  with whom Tom spends Christmas.

The day after Christmas, new guides take Tom, “Jockey”, and two others: Elton Kevil, American, and Stan Munns, RAF, to the Paris railway station serving southwest France.  Slipped aboard a train before other passengers arrive, they are told to pretend to be asleep.

An overnight journey, with a change of trains in Bordeaux, puts them in Bayonne on 27 December.  But instead of being picked up at the station by their next guides, Tom and the three others promptly are placed on another train and sent back north to the town of Dax.

This apparent change of plans may have been caused by the disastrous crossing of the Bidassoa River into Spain by the previous group the night of 23-24 December when two men drowned.

“Franco”, head of Comet, and another man, probably Max Roger, pick up the four airmen at the Dax train station, provide them with bicycles, and set off on a 70 km. ride to Marthe Mendiara’s restaurant, at Anglet near Bayonne.

Upon their arrival, Marthe provides them a good meal and they meet Pierre and Marie Elhorga, close associates of “Franco,“ who are involved in the transfer of airmen to Spain via the alternate Larressore route. Tom signs the evader registry, deliberately misspelling his name as “Appelwhite” so that one day he can determine where he is.

He also writes a thank you message in Pierre Elhorga’s notebook.  Marie Elhorga, a motherly type, tucks the four men in for the night, insisting that they get their rest.

Late on the 28th they set off on bikes with “Franco” for the village of Villefranque on the east side of the River Nive, where a rowboat is waiting to carry them across.  From the west side of the river, they now cycle to the town of Ustaritz, where they stop at a home with children and pick up four Basque guides, all friends of Pierre Elhorga.

With “Franco” accompanying them, they make their way on foot to a sheepherder’s barn outside of Larressore, where they are directed to replace their shoes with the traditional Basque zapatos, and provided with hiking staffs.

If they now proceed directly south to enter Spain, they risk coming too close to a German border patrol post at border marker 76.  Instead, their group gives the patrol post a wide berth by swinging west toward the official border crossing at Dancharia before turning south again and crossing into Spain near marker 74.

The Pyrenees crossing is a tremendous ordeal for the four airmen.  It has been snowing and raining.  Their zapatos and their clothes up to their waists are soaked from crossing streams and sliding in the snow.  Their feet are freezing and their toes bleeding.  “Jockey” Wiggins’ heel wound from flak, which had been on the mend in Brussels, opens up and at one point he collapses.

When Stan Munns nearly breaks his leg in a fall, making it impossible for him to continue by himself, Tom has Stan put his arm around Tom’s shoulders for support and they continue on.

When they reach the first Basque farmhouse where they are to rest, “Franco” leaves them to go on ahead to make arrangements for their arrival.  When they reach the Baztan Valley on 31 December a car is waiting for them.  Driven to a hotel in San Sebastian run by a British couple, they have a warm bath, a hot meal, and are given fresh clothes.

A British diplomatic car from the Bilbao consulate picks them up and delivers them to the British embassy in Madrid.

For six days they rest in the temporary barracks built in the embassy gardens as more men spill across the Pyrenees.  On 7 January 1944, with 18 evaders having arrived, the men learn it is time to continue on to Gibraltar.

Tom, “Jockey,” Stan, Elton, and a fifth man, John K. Hurst, are taken to the port of Seville, an inland port on the Guadalquivir River capable of handling seagoing merchant ships.

There, under the cover of a drunken party of British expatriates on a Norwegian ship in the port, the five men are slipped aboard past the Spanish guards, and hidden in the ship’s propeller shaft compartment.  The partygoers are dismissed, the ship weighs anchor, and Tom and the others arrive in Gibraltar 11 January, two months after Tom was shot down.

After the war Tom is reunited with five of his helpers.  In 1948, the organizers of the Freedom Train decide that their final ceremonies in New York should feature a beautiful young woman from the Resistance who helped evading airmen, along with some of the men she helped.

They ask the U.S. Army for its assistance and it produces “Diane” (Amanda Stassart), Tom Applewhite, and “Jockey” Wiggins.  After the ceremonies Tom invites “Diane” to be his guest in Memphis, his home town, where she is given a royal welcome.

Fifty years after the de Noo family hid Tom, they are reunited with him at the AFEES meeting in St. Louis in 1993.

And in 1995, a Dutch TV station flies Tom back to The Netherlands for an on-the-air reunion with Jan Naaijkens and Eugene van der Heijden.

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