This page originally appeared as an article, “Tom got to freedom, the hard way,” by Bruce Bolinger, AFEES Friend Member, in the Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society newsletter, Communications, Summer 2007, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 20-22. It is about the WWII experience of 2nd Lt. Tom Applewhite. There were no photos in the original version that appeared in the AFEES newsletter. It was revised extensively in December 2016-January 2017, adding numerous photos and text. Although most of his helpers appear below, for a more complete list of them, click here.
“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, probably while still dangling in his parachute, and seven others are captured within a day.
Crew of the B-17, “The Wild Hare”, August 10, 1943, Dalhart, Texas. Tom Applewhite, front row, far right; pilot John P. McGowan, front row, far left; Nello Malavasi, top turret gunner, engineer, standing, far left.
Tom Applewhite, the bombardier, (front row, far right, in the photo above), is a stocky 22-year-old from Memphis, Tenn. He heeds the advice given them back in England—wait until the last possible minute before pulling your ripcord.
1939 aerial photo of Hedikhuizen area showing what Tom Applewhite would have seen from his parachute. The river Maas is at the top. (Source: Published in Theo Verhoeven’s, book, Weerbaar en weerbarstig, Wandelen door duizend jaar Hedikhuizen, 1998. Aerial photo is labeled: Topografische Dienst, Afdeling Fototheek, Emmen, LXT 45W, Nr. 2439, 1939)
Same view but enlarged to show more detail of the village of Hedikhuizen, a canal to the east of it, and the river Maas at the top. The barn where Tom was first hidden was located in the fields shown in the center of the photo.
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 (see photo below), on the south side of the River Maas. Just east of where he lands is the Hedikhuizen church. The rest of the crew land farther west, scattered over the countryside.
Field where Tom Applewhite landed by parachute (photo by author)
Hedikhuizen church (photo by author). The church tower was destroyed by the Germans during WWII.
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, possibly the van Crugten family, feeds him milk and sandwiches of brown bread, sugar, and butter, while disposing of his parachute and flight suit. A son in the family, trying to be helpful, hides the flight suit by throwing it down a well, much to Tom’s dismay, because pockets on the legs contain his two escape kits. There is no time to retrieve them.
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, arrives on the scene and 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.
Jan van Bommel
Peter (“Peek”) de Noo, a farmer from the village of Well on the north side of the Maas, had rowed across to the south side to visit his in-laws. Attracted by the aerial battle, he goes in search of any airmen and finds Tom in the barn. Two farm workers also present debate whether to turn Tom over to the Germans. De Noo is adamant that nothing of the sort will happen. Van Bommel then arrives and tells Tom that de Noo is someone he can trust.
At dusk, Peek de Noo rows Tom across the Maas to the north bank, making their way along the bank to a landing near the village of Well.
Village of Well and landing point for the rowboat (photo by the author)
Leaving the boat at the landing, Peek and Tom then stealthily make their way through Well to the thatched-roof de Noo farmhouse on the village’s northern outskirts. De Noo and Nellie, his eight-months-pregnant wife, shelter Tom there for two nights. Peek hates the Nazis so much that he immediately shaves off Tom’s moustache because it reminds him of Hitler. (Peek earlier helped a German soldier desert, disposing of his uniform but keeping his rifle, which he would use to shoot at German planes flying overhead.) Members of Peek’s family, who soon learn about Tom, are so happy to have him there that they hold a potluck in his honor. Tom remembers the many vegetable dishes they bring, meat being in short supply during the war.
Painting of the De Noo farmhouse on the outskirts of the village of Well
Peek and Nellie De Noo with their two children
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 for the two airmen unaccounted for, Tom and Nello Malavasi. Fortunately, Peek’s brother, Adriaan, chauffeur to Dr. J.F. Nuboer, a surgeon in the nearby city of Den Bosch (also know as ‘s Hertogenbosch), tells Miss C.J. (Cunigunda Josephina) (“Koeni”) de Haes, the doctor’s secretary, about Tom. She, in turn, alerts Nol van Dijk, who works in his family’s bank in Den Bosch. Nol is friends with the Raaijmaakers brothers, Fons and Jacques, and is married to Josina Swane, a member of the Dutch-Paris Line, a separate escape line specializing in helping Jews as well as airmen.
Adriaan De Noo with Dr. Nuboer’s Car
Arnoldus (“Nol”) van Dijk, intermediary between Adriaan de Noo and the Raaijmaakers brothers
Fons Raaijmaakers 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.
Karst Smit served in the Regiment Jagers, IInd Bat. of Tilburg before and during the German invasion. (Photo courtesy of Janine Marseille-Smit.)
By the end of the second day of Tom’s evasion, all the arrangements have been made to move him to Brussels. On the third day, November 13, Adriaan warns Tom that they will be using a ferry to cross with their bicycles to the south side of the Maas and that he must pretend to be mute so that the ferryman doesn’t engage him in conversation. Once across the river, they cycle east along the path on the top of the dike to the village of Bokhoven.
View from the second floor window of the home of the de Noo parents. From the window Adriaan’s mother and fiancée watch with trepidation as he and Tom head east along the dike. They fear they may never see Adriaan again because he and Tom risk encountering German patrols. (Photo by author)
In a field beyond Bokhoven, Adriaan and Tom rendezvous with the Raaijmaakers brothers, Fons (lower left below) and Jacques (lower right below).
Most likely, Nol van Dijk is present at the meeting since he knows both Adriaan and the Raaijmakers brothers and would need to identify the brothers to Adriaan.
Tom bids Adriaan goodbye. Equipped with bicycles, the brothers guide Tom south through an industrial section of Den Bosch where a street urchin tries to knock Tom off his bicycle by ramming a stick through the spokes. “I just grinned like an idiot and pedaled faster,” Tom recalls later.
South of Den Bosch they pass through the town of Vught arriving at another rendezvous where two new men take over. The latter guide Tom to a deserted tavern, “The Young Duke” (“De Jonge Hertog”) in a forest between the villages of Oisterwijk and Moergestel. The lights are on but no one appears to be present. The tavern is owned by Carol Schade who is also active in the Resistance, sometimes hiding airmen in the basement of a house on his property. The manager of the tavern, Jan van Kasteren, may be in a back room of the tavern waiting until Tom has been delivered to his new guide and he can close up the tavern to comply with the curfew.
Without a word, the guides turn Tom over to Jan Naaijkens , a schoolteacher from the village of Hilvarenbeek who has brought a spare bicycle with him for Tom. Jan speaks English and tells Tom that they are to cycle a safe distance apart and if either sees any sign of danger, he is to whistle a tune that they both know. The only one familiar to both men is “Anchors Aweigh!”
De Jonge Hertog (The Young Duke) Inn showing the back of the building
Their route takes them past the house of tavern owner Carol Shade from which Schade may be watching to make sure that everything is proceeding as planned. The evening is drizzly, dark, and cold. By now it is well after the Nazi-imposed 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. He had spent the previous night pacing back and forth in his home in Hilvarenbeek unable to sleep. (For an article about Naaijkens on the occasion of his death, click here. For a video about his life and career, click here.)
Shortly after setting out on the deserted road for their destination, the village of Hilvarenbeek, Tom’s bike has a flat. Under the circumstances it is too dangerous to try to fix it, so he discards it and hops on the luggage rack of Jan’s bike, but their combined weight causes the rear wheel to collapse, forcing them to finish their journey on foot. Arriving at the home of J.C. van der Heijden on the east edge of Hilvarenbeek, they enter through an orchard behind the house. There are only scattered farmhouses nearby, so visitors are unlikely to be seen even during the day.
Van der Heijden home in Hilvarenbeek (photo by author)
Tom is served a hot meal by Mrs. van der Heijden. From the kitchen he can watch the children practicing Christmas music in the living room. Through its windows (partially hidden by a tree in the photo above) there is a view of the farmers’ fields. A marechaussee (member of the royal mounted police), probably Albert Wisman, arrives to guide him to a shelter in the Landgoed de Utrecht forest near the Belgian border. It is a large chicken coop insulated with bales of compressed hay. The coop is near the farmhouse of Adrianus de Bruijn, who turns a blind eye on how it is being used. It is occupied regularly by three Dutch students from the University of Wageningen, who are in hiding to avoid being sent to Germany as forced labor. There is a stream of fugitives from the Nazis–Jews, Allied airmen, young Dutch men avoiding the German labor draft–who take shelter in it before crossing into Belgium. (Two of the students, Dick Los (left) and Jan van Dongen (right) are shown below having breakfast in the chicken coop. Other Dutch students who make use of the coop are Jan Wolterson, Johannes Oudemans, and Jan de Koning.)
The “Chicken Coop” hideout for the Dutch students
The following map shows the relative locations, in the eastern half, of Hilvarenbeek, Esbeek, and the forest known as the Landgoed de Utrecht; and Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog in the western half. Baarle-Nassau is a Dutch town while Baarle-Hertog is a Belgian town surrounded by Dutch territory. The zigzagging Dutch-Belgian border appears as a yellow line. The Belgian towns of Poppel and Weelde appear near the centerfold and near the bottom center of the map, respectively. Border marker numbers, 206-215, are circled. Applewhite and Eugene van der Heijden would have crossed the border a little south of marker 206 on their way to Weelde, emerging from the forest as they crossed into Belgium. The chicken coop where Tom spent the night with the students was located at “De Bockenreider” (barely visible) just south of “Dun” east of the word “Landgoed”. “Five Points” shown below the words “De Utrecht” was an intersection of roads through which many people passed en route to Belgium. (Use your computer’s enlarging feature to better view the map.)
The next morning, November 14, as Tom finishes breakfast with the students, Eugene van der Heijden arrives. He is one of the van der Heijden sons, a school teacher friend of Jan Naaijkens, and a close associate of Karst Smit, the head of the escape line. He will be Tom’s guide to Brussels by way of the Belgian towns of Weelde, Turnhout, and Antwerp. Eugene provides Tom with a briefcase stuffed full of newspapers–Tom is to pretend to be Eugene’s clerk. They set off on bicycles, heading through the forest and across the border into Belgium. Once they are on the Belgian side of the border, there are just open fields and a distinct risk that they could be spotted by German patrols.
Page from the identity card of Eugene van der Heijden
Border between Belgium (left) and The Netherlands (right) near crossing point into Belgium (photo by author)
In the small Belgian town of Weelde, Tom and Eugene stop at the Segers Cafe of proprietor Maria Segers-Ooms. Her husband operates a butcher shop located to the left of the cafe. Behind the cafe are pens for livestock awaiting slaughter. Tom and Eugene stash their bicycles in one of the pens. In the front of the cafe they wait with other customers for the arrival of the bus for Turnhout. Maria helps airmen and other fugitives from the Nazis with what Belgian money she can spare.
Maria Segers-Ooms (arms folded) in front of the Segers Cafe
At the bus stop in front of the cafe, Tom and Eugene board the bus for Turnhout. They are careful to sit apart in case either is questioned by Nazi police and arrested. A severe gasoline shortage during the war has resulted in innovative ways to power vehicles.
The type of charcoal gas-powered bus used between Weelde and Turnhout (called the “Toonerville Trolley” by Applewhite)
Train station in Turnhout (Collection Keutgens, Antwerp, Belgium)
In Turnhout they catch the high speed electric tram #41 for Antwerp where they will transfer to a train for Brussels. They are fortunate that the GFP (Geheime Feldpolizei) do not check the passengers for their IDs on this trip. Tom did not yet have a false ID and would not have been able to pass himself off as Dutch or Belgian if questioned even if he had one. The escape line is relying on speed rather than creating a false identity for Tom to move him safely to Brussels. At the Antwerp train station, Tom sees the damage to the roof caused by Allied bombing. Antwerp is particularly dangerous because the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) operates a false escape line there, known as the KLM Line, which sweeps up Allied airmen from unwitting guides.
High-speed tram #41 used between Turnhout and Antwerp (Collection Keutgens, Antwerp, Belgium)
The reception center for airmen arriving in Brussels is the apartment of Charlotte Ambach and her mother Elise Chabot. Madame Chabot, from a well-to-do Dutch family, had married a German national working in The Netherlands between the wars. Charlotte was born in The Netherlands but grew up in Germany and spoke fluent German. When the Nazis took over, Chabot, who was fiercely anti-Nazi, and her husband, managing director of a major German newspaper, separated amicably and she took their two daughters to Belgium.
Ambach’s fiancé, Ernest Van Moorleghem, an assistant police commissioner for the suburb of Ixelles, now takes over, delivering Tom to the processing center for arriving airmen, the fish market of Prosper Spilliaert in Schaerbeek, another Brussels suburb. They are welcomed by Spilliaert, his wife Yvonne DeRudder, and Spilliaert’s stepson René Warny. While there, Applewhite helps René organize his collection of pictures of fighting aircraft. René shows Tom the room where two German agents posing as Americans were shot. Tom is photographed for his false ID by Albert Duchesne, a man whose face is horribly disfigured by the war or an accident, and provided a beret and a suit with a vest and detachable collar and cuffs, clothing appropriate to his new identity as “Ludovic Oscar Ronquet, clerc de notaire.” An upper floor of the building is full of clothing intended for arriving airmen. It is here that Tom is finally able to discard the wooden clogs given him by Peek de Noo in favor of comfortable shoes. Before leaving the fish market, Tom joins the family in listening to a radio broadcast of a prize fight in the U.S.
The Fishmarket in Schaerbeek with Prosper Spilliaert (far left), Yvonne De Rudder, and Spilliaert’s stepson, René Warny (far right), are shown with an airman and friends.
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.
The map of Schaerbeek, shown above, shows the location of the Fishmarket (“S”) on the map. Yvonne de Meulenaere (“Mickey”) the nurse who will later tend Tom’s wounds, is at “D”, and Yvonne Bienfait, who will later hide Tom, is at “B”. Both live close to the hospital where they work. The city park where Tom hears the firing of German anti-aircraft guns when he is at Bienfait’s apartment, is less than a block away. Several months later, the Gare du Nord, a major railway yard and train station, in the lower left of the map, will be the target of an American bombing. An errant bomb destroys the Fishmarket. Spilliaert takes refuge in the cellar when the air raid alarms go off and is pulled out of the rubble by the Civil Defense unhurt. All the others, fortunately, are elsewhere.
On 15 November, while Tom is still at the fish market in Brussels, Nello Malavasi, top turret gunner on “The Wild Hare,” who is the only other member of the crew still at large, and his guide Willem Schmidt are arrested by German police in Turnhout. Accounts differ as to how it happened. One version is that while waiting for the tram to Antwerp, a heavy rain storm drove them into a nearby cafe full of German soldiers and that Malavasi’s appearance and behavior gave him away.
Schmidt (in glasses at right), under duress and 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 or Geheime Feldpolizei policeman, she is arrested.
The arrests of her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and fiancé, Ernest van Moorleghem, follow within hours. The wave of arrests spreads. Karst Smit, head of the Dutch escape line, barely avoids arrest at the marechaussee barracks in Baarle-Nassau. He and his partner in the escape line, Eugene van der Heijden, go into hiding. On November 16, probably fearing that the arrests would lead to a raid of the fishmarket, Service EVA transfers Tom to a never-before-used safe house, the Brussels home of Arthur Schrynemakers, a Dutch businessman who has a business selling soda fountain equipment. Tom enjoys Schrynemakers’ hospitality for over a month, from November 16 to December 19, 1943.
Arthur Schrynemakers (Source: Helper file for Schrynemakers, National Archives II, College Park, MD.)
While at Schrynemakers’ home, Tom become friends with Inge Neukircher, daughter of a Jewish family that is also hiding there. Tom and Inge’s father have long conversations about how the war is progressing. Inge is shown below holding her beloved dog. To while away the hours, she teaches Tom ballroom dancing. She also ventures out to buy a pipe and pipe tobacco for him. (In 1945 the Neukircher family is arrested by the Gestapo but they are liberated before being sent to the death camps. The Gestapo also seize the dog but it escapes from Gestapo HQs and trots across Brussels back to the house where it was born! Inge and Tom remain in contact after the war and he offers to assist her in emigrating to the U.S.)
While at Schrynemakers’ home, Yvonne de Meulenaere, known as “Mickey”, a nurse at the Centre Médico-Chirurgical, the surgical hospital of the canton of Schaerbeek, comes at least twice to change the dressings on Tom’s leg wounds.
Yvonne de Meulenaere, known as “Mickey”
But then an unfriendly tenant at Schrynemakers’ home threatens to inform the Germans of Tom’s presence. Service EVA immediately moves Tom to another safe house, the apartment of Yvonne Bienfait, also a nurse at the hospital in Schaerbeek, and friend of “Mickey.” Schrynemakers evicts the tenant who made the threat. A few days later her body is found in her new residence, the result of an “accidental” fall down a flight of stairs. It is likely that Service EVA notified the armed Resistance which took responsibility for eliminating her. Too many lives were at stake to allow her to inform on them.
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. (Later Tom says of the two men, “They were going to kill me [if I hadn’t passed the dental check]!”)
Bienfait, “Mickey”, and a third nurse deliver stink bombs, probably made from chemicals at the hospital, to the home of Yvonne Pelerin and Maurice Olders for distribution to others who will throw them into the offices and cars of the German occupiers.
While at Bienfait’s apartment, Tom meets “Jockey” Wiggins, another American airman in hiding. He was wounded in the heel when bailing out of his B-17 and is recovering under the care of nurse Bienfait. Tom and Jockey will travel together for the rest of Tom’s escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. The two nurses, hold a Christmas-and-going-away party for Applewhite and Wiggins. “Mickey” gives Applewhite a handmade cardboard puppet as a gift. It means so much to Tom that he carries it with him across the Pyrenees and keeps it for the rest of his life.
False ID photo of Jockey Wiggins
On December 23, Gaston Matthys, one of the inner circle of Service EVA, guides Tom and “Jockey” Wiggins 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.
Jules Dricot (known as “Jean Deltour”) and his wife.
At the Blandain train station, Tom and Jockey are picked up by Bertha Druart, daughter of Dr. Henri Druart, and possibly by Gaston Mathon, mayor of the village of Hertain. They bicycle to the doctor’s home between Hertain and the French border. The doctor, his two daughters, Berthe and Bertha, and Allied soldiers are shown below in front of his home after the Liberation. Note the Red Cross symbol on the front of the building.
Dr. Druart, his Daughters, Berthe and Bertha, with friends!
At a meal for Tom, Jockey and their next guides, Dr. Druart sings “We’re Gonna Hang Out Our Washing on the Siegried Line!” (Click here for a sample of the song.) One of the doctor’s daughters has made a cake for their guests, decorated with the flags of the Allies. It is there that Tom and Jockey meet Amanda Stassart, whom they will only know as “Diane.” After a brief rest at Dr. Druart’s home, there is a whistle from Maurice Desson, a French customs officer, signaling that there are no German patrols and it is safe to cross the border into France.
Memorial to Maurice Desson (photo by the author)
Under cover of darkness and falling snow that covers their tracks, Amanda Stassart, guides Tom, “Jockey,” and two other men, probably Dwight Fry, American, and Gerald Lorne, RAF, through the fields and across the border into France. Another guide, Henriette Hanotte, known as “Monique,” may be with them.
Amanda Stassart, code named “Diane”, 1942
Their destination is the dairy farm of Andre Dewauvrin, mayor of the French village of Camphin-en-Pevele . The airmen and their guide are starved and are invited into the farmhouse for a meal of delicious, freshly-made French fries, cooked in a huge kettle in the fireplace. For the rest of his life, Tom remembers those fries as the best he ever had. They spend the night sleeping on the hay in Dewauvrin’s cow barn. The moisture from the breath of the airmen and the cows condenses on the under side of the barn’s tin roof and drips down on the sleepers.
Dewauvrin Farmhouse (photo by the author)
Andre Dewauvrin, Mayor of the French village of Camphin-en-Pevele
The next day, with “Diane” leading the way, they set off by tram for the French city of Lille. En route a young woman passenger on the tram asks the two airmen for a light, which they ignore, not speaking French. This is a dangerous situation, for two young men to ignore the young woman’s request. There could be collaborators or Nazi police on the tram. “Diane,” realizing she must create a distraction, screams at the young woman, calling her a “whore” for trying to pick up her “brother” and her “fiancee.” The young woman hurries off the tram at the next stop. From Lille they travel by train to Paris where “Diane” deposits Tom and Jockey at the apartment of her mother, Louise Stassart.
Louise Stassart (photo by author taken in the apartment of Amanda Stassart)
Either “Diane” or another guide, Germaine Bajpai, take the two airmen through the inter-connected apartment complexes to the other side of the block to the apartment of an aristocratic older woman, Madame Elizabeth Buffet, with whom Tom spends Christmas. [For more on this part of Tom’s experiences, see the online article, “Angels of the Resistance (and a Serial Killer) in Nazi-Occupied Paris” in The Daily Beast, Dec. 11, 2016 at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/12/11/angels-of-the-resistance-and-a-serial-killer-in-nazi-occupied-paris.html]. There is a memorable Christmas feast, after which Madame Buffet’s son, Joel, takes Tom to the movies at a theatre across the street.
Madame Elizabeth Buffet
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. (Tom and “Jockey”, however, do not meet the new men until they arrive at their destination.) With the cooperation of French railway workers, they are slipped aboard the train before other passengers arrive. Their new guides are probably Rosine (“Rolande”) Witton and Marcelle (“Marie Louise”) Douard. The airmen have been told to pretend to be asleep, the best way to avoid inquisitive passengers trying to engage them in conversation. When not sleeping, pretending to read a German propaganda magazine, Signal, helps. After the war, Tom remembers a photo from the issue showing a German officer pretending to look through a transit.
Signal magazine (courtesy Alexander Zwoller)
Sgt. Stanley Munns, RAF, tail gunner
Elton Kevil, waist gunner on a B-17
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 as quickly as possible 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 (Comte Antoine d’Ursel and Lt. James F. Burch). A German patrol finds the bodies downstream. As a warning to anyone who might want to help persons crossing into Spain, the Germans dump the bodies in the town square. Townspeople honor the two men by covering their bodies with flowers. As a result of these events, German police have become all the more alert to evaders trying to pass through Bayonne on their way to the Spanish border..
One of the helpers in this part of the escape route keeps a scrapbook of the false ID photos of airmen helped:
Jean-Francois Nothomb, known by his nom de guerre as “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, the Cafe Larre, at the little town of Anglet near Bayonne.
Jean-François Nothomb, know as “Franco”, head of the Comet Line (source: Tom Applewhite). The photo was provided to Tom by “Franco”, probably at the British Embassy in Madrid.
Upon their arrival, they are taken to the second floor bedrooms. 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. The Cafe Larre is a popular with German soldiers. Other Allied airmen hidden on the second floor at various times remember having difficulty sleeping because of the drunken Germans carousing on the floor below.
Pierre Elhorga asks each airman to write something in his notebook.
Late on the 28th of December they set off on bikes with “Franco” for the village of Villefranque on the east side of the River Nive where a rowboat will be waiting to carry them across. Because of a bend in the river, to go south toward Spain, they have to cross from east to west. Crossing after dark, on the far side of the river they pick up another set of bikes that have been provided, very likely by Henri Claverie, owner of a bicycle sales and repair shop in Bayonne, assisted by Martin Garat, the village baker in Larressore. Garat would deliver and pick up bikes for Claverie . Franco and the airmen cycle to the town of Ustaritz, where they stop at a home where there are children and pick up four Basque guides, all friends of Pierre Elhorga, who will be dropped off, one-by-one, as the little party progresses toward the Spanish border. Most likely the guides are four of the following: Pierre Etchegoyen, Jean-Baptiste Aguerre, Pierre Aguerre, Joseph Aguerre, or Jean Elizondo.
Crossing point of the River Nive near Villefranque. Bicycles await them on the near bank. A railway line follows the north (far) side of the river. Applewhite remembers running across the tracks in the dark before descending to the river. This helps confirm that their crossing point was not the better-known crossing point farther west where evaders first cross the Bidassoa River and then railway tracks. (Photo by the author)
With “Franco” accompanying them, they make their way on foot to a sheepherder’s barn outside of Larressore, probably owned by Martin Dolhagaray and Marie Hastoy, where they are directed to replace their shoes with the traditional Basque rope-soled zapatos (espadrilles), and are provided with hiking staffs. The zapatos will deaden the sounds made by their feet that might otherwise be heard by German border patrols. And the staffs serve to help them haul each other up the rocks, with a man ahead steadying a staff while the next in line pulls on it to lift himself up. They are in danger not only from German patrols but also from Spain’s Guardia Civil. If captured by the latter they risk being turned over to the Germans or imprisoned in the Spanish concentration camp, Miranda del Ebro.
Three armed members of Spain’s Guardia Civil (from Romance de la guardia civil, Brigetoun)
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.
Border Marker 74, French-Spanish Border
The Pyrenees crossing is a tremendous ordeal for the four airmen. It is now December 28 and 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 in the snow. They get him back up on his feet.
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.
They spend two nights resting in the loft of the a barn of the Ignabideko Borda, a Basque farmhouse (see below), owned by the Teillerie family. They are warned to stay away from the windows of the loft because German patrols venturing into Spain to get supplies at the farm might spot them. There is no glass in the windows of the loft and the cold wind blows right through it. There is a small fireplace but only straw to burn, which does not give off enough heat. Tom directs the men to tear out every other step in the ladder to the loft to use as fuel. The Basque farmer is not happy with this. Stan Munns has only a light jacket so Tom shares his overcoat, a gift from Arthur Schrynemakers. It covers them like a blanket while they sleep side by side on the hay. During the day two daughters of the Basque family bring them meals.
Ignabideko Borda Shown Abandoned Years After the War
After they reach the Ignabideko Borda farmhouse, “Franco” leaves them to go on ahead to make arrangements for their arrival in Spain. A twelve-year-old Basque boy guides them much, if not all, of the rest of the way. Passing the lights of a village in a valley below, one of the men wants to give himself up to the Spanish police. Their guide is terrified. The Guardia Civil, he says, will use dogs to follow the man’s tracks back to the rest of them and they are liable to be turned over to the Germans. As the only officer in the group, Tom uses his authority, and a threat of violence, if necessary, to keep the man together with the rest of the party.
A portion of the western Pyrenees in winter.
Michael Creswell, officially an attache at the British Embassy in Madrid, but actually a member of MI9, is responsible for the escape routes over the Pyrenees. He is aided by Eduardo Martínez Alonso, a medical doctor for the British and American embassies. Martinez Alonso received his high school and university training in Scotland and England and is very supportive of Britain and the U.S. Also helping the reception of escaping and evading airmen are Capuchin friars in Spain. Brother Francisco de Echalar (Francisco Zubieta Irisarri) is a Capuchin friar who may have been “Franco’s” contact at the Capuchin friary in Lecaroz, in the province of Navarre, who assists Tom and the other airmen after they cross the Pyrenees. He supervises farm workers in the fields and is easily accessible by arriving airmen and their guides. Creswell is noteworthy because before the war he was a British diplomat formerly stationed in Berlin who warned Churchill of Nazi rearmament, violating Foreign Office rules against sharing information with someone not then part of the government. Doing this could have destroyed his career. Because of the pro-Nazi fascist government of Spain, escape and evasion operations have to be conducted with secrecy. Samuel Hoare, British Ambassador to Spain, has been directed by Churchill that his primary responsibility is to keep Spain from entering the war on the side of Nazi Germany. There is, inevitably, some tension between Hoare’s duties and those of Michael Creswell. But reports by Hoare at Cambridge University Library show Hoare’s admiration for Creswell. Creswell and his wife personally pick up many airmen and deliver them to Madrid.
Dr. Eduardo Martinez Alonso
Michael Creswell of MI9 (wearing beret) with his wife and three Capuchin friars
When Tom and the other airmen reach the Baztan Valley in Spain on 31 December a car is waiting for them, possibly driven by Federico Armendariz, a taxi driver from San Sebastian. They are delivered to the Martutene pub in San Sebastian, operated by a British couple, where each has a warm bath, a hot meal, and is given fresh clothes. Some airmen arriving there are so starved that the rich food makes them ill.
A car with diplomatic plates from the British consulate in Bilbao picks up Tom and the others and delivers them to the British embassy in Madrid. The airmen are so exhausted that they sleep most of the way. On their arrival, Tom notes the scaffolding covering the entrance to the embassy. He is told that its purpose is to prevent German agents in the building across the street from making note of who is coming and going.
For six days they rest in the temporary barracks built in the embassy gardens as more men spill across the Pyrenees into Spain. While there Tom enjoys listening to the stories of other escapees, including those of two soldiers of the British Indian Army captured by the Germans either in North Africa or Italy who escape forced labor at a German farm and, posing as Moroccan rug merchants, manage to cross France into Spain. Tom is severely reprimanded by the embassy military attache for “fraternizing” with enlisted men.
Tom and Stan Munns spend an evening on the town in Madrid. At a bar they use a Photomat to take pictures. Tom jots a note on the back of his photo and gives it to Stan.
Photo of Tom Applewhite taken in a Spanish bar. (Photo courtesy of Stan Munns.)
Note to Stan Munns on the back of the photo taken in a Spanish bar (“Just a bunch of Southern boys coming over the cold hills.”) (Photo courtesy of Stan Munns)
On 7 January 1944, with 18 evaders having arrived, the men are notified that it is time to continue on to Gibraltar. Many are taken directly to Gibraltar by rail with the Spanish guards at the border crossing point probably just looking the other way.
But Tom, “Jockey” Wiggins, Stan Munns, Elton Kevil, and a fifth man, John K. Hurst, who has arrived by way of Barcelona, are transported by a very different means. This is probably to avoid the risk of the Spanish government becoming too aware of how many Allied airmen are passing through its territory. Instead of going directly to Gibraltar, they go to the port of Seville, which is well to the west. In addition, they travel by different means, one in an ambulance, another in a diplomatic car, and Tom on a flat-bed truck carrying several drunken sailors who urge him to join them in song. As the truck careens through the streets, Tom is too busy just trying to hang on to do any singing. As described by Wikipedia, “After the discovery of the Americas, Seville became the economic centre of the Spanish Empire as its port monopolised the trans-oceanic trade.”
Seville is an inland port on the Guadalquivir River capable of handling seagoing merchant ships. Now the problem is getting past the Spanish guards at the port.
View of ship loading or unloading at Seville harbor. (Source: Seville Port Authority Achives.)
An active escape operation exists in Seville. The organizers are Eustace Formby, vice-consul for the British consulate in Seville; Fredrik Nergard, Norwegian consul in Seville; and Robert and May Evans. Robert manages the Seville office of the MacAndrews Company, which charters ships and handles arrangements with port authorities for reprovisioning the ships and paying port fees. May Evans works with him to stage parties on ships in port, the parties serving as cover for smuggling airmen aboard. Assuming that their phones are tapped by the Spanish police, Robert and May conduct all their conversations with the Embassy in Madrid in Welsh.
Bob Evans (in light overcoat) with British Ambassador to Spain, Sir Samuel Hoare. May Evans at right. (Source: Daily Post of Wales, Feb. 16, 2005, p. 18)
Einar Apeland, captain of the Norwegian merchant ship, “Lisbeth”. Photo courtesy of Alf Einar Apeland of Avaldsnes, Norway.
It is January 7, 1944, the day after the birthday of Einar Apeland, captain of the Norwegian ship “Lisbeth.” A cargo of bitter oranges, destined for Liverpool to be made into marmalade, has just been loaded. The occasion serves as a good excuse to celebrate his birthday with a drunken party of British expatriates living in Seville who have been invited by May Evans. The Spanish guard posted at the top of the gangplank is given a bottle of wine to keep him occupied. The five airmen board the ship bringing more liquor and pretending to be just more guests. As soon as all five have arrived (Tom is the last to board the ship), the other guests are told the party is over and dismissed and Tom and his men are taken down and placed in a compartment next to one of the boilers not yet fired up. But it is quickly fired up for departure, the compartment becomes too hot, and the airmen have to be moved again, this time down to the coal bunker and put through a hatch into the ship’s propeller shaft compartment. They are given sandwiches, water, and a bucket for waste. There is a platform at one end lit by a dim bulb where they settle down. Coal is shoveled over the hatch cover to hide it from any Spanish officials who might search the ship. Years later Tom would complain that he never did get a drink at the party.
Captain Apeland’s daughter was born during the war. Because of the German occupation of Norway, he met his daughter for the first time after the war. (Photo courtesy of Alf Einar Apeland, Avaldsnes, Norway)
Ship’s plans for the “Lisbeth” showing location of propeller shaft compartment where the airmen were hidden (see “tunnel”).
Captain Apeland, of Haugesund, Norway, gives the order to weigh anchor and the ship leaves Seville at 1500 hrs., sails south to the mouth of the Guadalquivir River arriving at 2000 hrs. where it drops anchor at Bonanza, one of the towns near the mouth of the river, and the river pilot disembarks. For three days the ship remains there at anchor. Tom and the others have no idea what is going on. Bill Bettinson, the ship’s radio operator, interviewed after the war, said that it was likely that the British Admiralty in Gibraltar, preparing for the next convoy to England, sent word that it did not want ships converging on Gibraltar prematurely. Sabotage by enemy frogmen was always a risk. Hence the delay.
The “Lisbeth” shown before the German invasion of Norway. Neutral markings appear on the side of the ship.
The “Lisbeth” hugs the coast en route to Gibraltar without an escort. Some Allied merchant ships are sabotaged with a bilge-keel bomb attached to the ship, designed so that as soon as the ship begins to move, the timing device goes into action, detonating the bomb after so many revolutions of the vanes. That system ensures that the ship blows up after reaching open ocean so that the Spanish government won’t protest violation of its territorial waters. Fortunately, the “Lisbeth” has not been sabotaged in this manner. Even so, the “Lisbeth” is extremely vulnerable to being torpedoed by a German submarine or encountering a mine. Fortunately, it is degaussed, i.e., demagnetized, to protect it from magnetic mines, but not impact or acoustic mines.
The armament of the “Lisbeth” consists of (1) a 4-in. gun in the stern, very likely a BL 4 inch MkVII low angle gun of WWI vintage, intended for defense against subs, (2) two 20-mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, one on each end of the flying bridge, and (3) two Hotchkiss machine-guns stored on deck and placed on mounts at the stern when in use. The Oerlikon AA-guns can be lowered to fire at submarines as well as aircraft and are manned around the clock by DEMs (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship) military personnel. In light of all this armament, being torpedoed may have been the greatest risk to the “Lisbeth.”
Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun in action. (Source: Jon Rustung Hegland, Nortraships Flate, Bind 1, Krigsseilasen under den allierte defensiv 1940-1941, Oslo: Dreyers Forlag, 1976, p. 217.)
Hotchkiss machine gun sample photo (Source: Encyclopedia of Weapons, Machine Gun Veterans.)
Tom Applewhite also recalls seeing a rocket-shaped balloon at the end of a cable attached to the Lisbeth, probably used to deter attack by fighter planes.
Because of the risk of being spotted by a German submarine while at sea at night, there are no ship’s lights at all and lighting a cigarette, especially on deck, was “dissuaded.” Lights in the cabins were bed lights, portholes had metal covers on the inside to keep light from going out or water coming in, and passageways had two curtains near each other, each with a gap for passage but at opposite edges.
On the way to Gibraltar, at night Tom is able to see the lights of Cadiz. En route the “Lisbeth” is stopped and boarded by a British warship, probably to confirm that it is, indeed, a Norwegian ship and not a German ship, probably from Brest, trying to make its way into the Mediterranean. Radio signals in the log the next morning reveal the torpedoing of a ship ahead of them, probably by the U380.
At the harbor at Gibraltar there are 20-30 ships with their backs broken by limpet mines that enemy scuba divers have placed on their keels. The British use anti-personnel depth charges dropped into the sea from boats every 10 minutes to stop enemy divers. The bang is heard repeatedly, especially at night.
Tom and the others arrive in Gibraltar 11 January 1944, two months after Tom was shot down. Captain Apeland gives them a little speech and Tom, on behalf of all the airmen, thanks the captain for his assistance. They have six days for sightseeing (except for Stan Munns, who is assigned to guard duty at the airfield) during which they are debriefed by Donald Darling of MI9.
The “Lisbeth” Shown After the War (Source: Leif M. Bjorkelund and E.H. Kongshavn, Vare Gamle Skip, Lokalhistorisk stiftelse, 1996, p. 157.
Searchlights pierce the night sky during an air-raid practice on Gibraltar (20 No. 1942 GM 1852, Imperial War Museum). (Source: Gibraltar Archives.)
Spitfires at Gibraltar. (Source: Gibraltar Archive)
Between their arrival on 11 January and 17 January 1944, when not being debriefed, Tom has the opportunity to do some sight-seeing in Gibraltar. He remembers visiting one street in particular famous for its pubs.
Street scene in Gibraltar during the war. (Source: Gibraltar Archives)
On Jan. 17, 1944 Tom and the other airmen are flown back to England, their plane using a route that takes it way out into the Atlantic to avoid the risk of attack by German fighters based near the French coast.
Hudson Search Plane Taking Off from Gibraltar (Gibraltar Archives)
After finishing his military service, Tom completes his college education at Memphis State College (later the University of Memphis), becoming editor of the Memphis State College Yearbook, The De Soto.
Tom Applewhite, editor, The De Soto, 1946 Memphis State College yearbook. (Source: Mississippi Valley Collection, The University of Memphis.)
After the war Tom works for the U.S. Rubber Company, during which he is manager of their Conveyor Division, then for Manhattan Coffee Company, and Star Coffee as sales manager.
Tom passes away in Jan. 17, 2007. For his obituary, click here.
After the war Tom was reunited with five of his helpers. Following are links to more on each reunion elsewhere on this website:
- Peek and Nellie de Noo in 1993: https://wwii-netherlands-escape-lines.com/evasion-of-tom-applewhite/postwar-reunions-with-helpers/peter-and-nellie-de-noo/
- Amanda Stassart (“Diane”) in 1948: https://wwii-netherlands-escape-lines.com/evasion-of-tom-applewhite/postwar-reunions-with-helpers/amanda-stassart/
- Jan Naaijkens and Eugene van der Heijden in 1995: https://wwii-netherlands-escape-lines.com/evasion-of-tom-applewhite/postwar-reunions-with-helpers/jan-naaijkens/
A Zoom talk by Bruce Bolinger about Tom Applewhite’s evasion of capture during WWII to the Sun City Lincoln Hills Genealogy Club on Sept. 20, 2021 is available on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/610360413.