In Escape from Paris, New York Times best-selling author Stephen Harding tells the true story of a small group of U.S. aviators whose four B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were shot down over German-occupied France on a single, fateful day—July 14, 1943, Bastille Day. Rescued by brave French civilians and taken to Paris, the flyers met a courageous French family living and working on the grounds of the Hôtel des Invalides, site of Napoléon’s Tomb. Hidden there, under the very noses of the Gestapo, the downed flyers and their resistance hosts planned the aviators’ escape to England. For Sgt. Joe Cornwall—a gunner on the B-17 named Salty’s Naturals—the time spent in the French capital would become more than an unintended stay in the City of Light—it would lead to a romance he would remember for the rest of his life.
As takeoff time neared, pilot Ed Purdy and co-pilot Carroll Harris brought Salty’s Naturals to life, her four Wright Cyclone engines awakening one after the other, each coughing a cloud of acrid, blue-white exhaust smoke that drifted across the field to mingle with the fog created by 76 other thundering power plants. The noise rose to an even more deafening crescendo as one by one the 94th Bomb Group’s 20 heavily laden B-17s moved slowly off their hardstands in the aircraft dispersal areas and joined the queue of bombers rolling ponderously along the perimeter track encircling Rougham Airfield’s three intersecting runways.
Group commander Colonel Frederick Castle led the parade of Fortresses, rolling onto the active runway less than a minute ahead of the scheduled takeoff time. At exactly 6 a.m. a green flare shot into the air from the roof of Rougham’s control tower, and Castle smoothly advanced the B-17’s four throttles and accelerated down the long strip of concrete. Even before his aircraft lifted off, the next machine in line had begun its own takeoff roll. Within 20 minutes all 19 bombers that constituted the 94th Bomb Group’s contribution to the raid—one aircraft aborted due to a mechanical problem—were in the air and assembling into the stepped, three-squadron formation.
Over the next 45 minutes the 94th joined up with the three other groups bound for the German airfield at Le Bourget, outside Paris, and by the time the 84 B-17s passed over the Isle of Wight and turned east over the Channel they had formed into two combat wings of two groups each, with the wings in the usual staggered box formation. The high squadron of the high group of the high wing was at 25,575 feet, while Salty’s Naturals and the other two Fortresses in the second element of 331st Bomb Squadron commander Major Ralph “Salty” Saltsman’s low-low squadron were cruising at just over 21,000 feet. As soon as the formation crossed the English coast Joe Cornwall and the other gunners sought and received permission to test-fire their guns, and streams of tracer rounds briefly arced across the sunlight sky in all directions. Minutes later, dozens of RAF Spitfire fighters dropped into escort position above and around the 84 Fortresses. The arrival of the “Little Friends” was always a welcome event, for though the bomber crewmen knew their formation was formidable, they also realized all too well that it was far from invulnerable. They also knew that fuel limitations meant the Spits would not be around for long. And as soon as they left, the predators would arrive in force.
Even before the RAF fighters had joined the American bombers, German air-defense controllers had been tracking the course of the incoming raiders and alerting interceptor squadrons across central France.
Among the first Luftwaffe units dispatched against the Fortress formations was Major Egon Mayer’s Jagdgeschwader 2. The fighter wing’s pilots had been sitting in their fueled and fully armed aircraft since just before 7 a.m., and at 7:26 were ordered to launch. Within minutes some 90 Fw 190 and Bf 109 fighters were lifting off from the fields at Beaumont-le-Roger and Évreux, with Mayer leading 12 Fw 190s of his headquarters flight. The majority of the interceptors were vectored toward what the fighter controller called “a very large formation” of incoming bombers that had crossed the French coast at Fécamp and was headed southwest, in the direction of Évreux. Mayer estimated that he and his men would be in position to hit the raiders just after they crossed the River Seine about halfway between Le Havre and Rouen and hoped that the formations were being escorted by Spitfires, rather than the longer-legged American P-47 Thunderbolts.
Mayer was in luck, for the RAF fighters began hitting their fuel limits minutes after the American formation crossed the Seine near Villequier. As the Spits began turning back toward the Channel, German controllers vectored interceptors from other units after them, hoping to both bag a few of the nimble British fighters and to prevent them from interfering in any way with the assault Mayer and his men were about to launch. In preparation for that attack, the JG 2 airmen had climbed to 28,000 feet and maneuvered into a position that would allow them to hit the bombers head-on at a point about 15 miles northwest of Évreux. The bright July sun would be behind and off to the right of the incoming German fighters, and the glare would give them a few extra precious moments of cover before they were sighted and engaged by the Fortress gunners.
The first inkling the men of the 94th Bomb Group had of the impending attack was at 7:40 a.m. when Castle, in the lead Fortress, called out a sighting of unidentified fighters crossing ahead of the bomber stream from southwest to northeast at a slightly higher altitude and about three miles distant. He cautioned that they might be “friendlies” that had been escorting some other Allied formation and were now heading back to England and ordered the group’s gunners not to engage them until they had been positively identified as hostile. That confirmation came all too quickly, for no sooner had Castle ended his brief message than the JG 2 aircraft—mostly Fw 190s—turned directly toward the bomber stream and bored in. Some of the fighters engaged the high and lead groups, while others concentrated on the 94th. The first gaggle of attackers scythed through the low group’s formation from twelve o’clock high—directly in front of and above the bombers—in tight, three-aircraft “ketten,” each pilot aiming at the cockpit and nose area of his chosen victim in a three-to-four-second firing run before turning sharply to one side or rolling inverted and passing beneath his target. Once clear of the formation’s return fire, the German fighter pilots reversed course, pulled parallel to the bombers and raced ahead for two or three miles, then turned back for another run.
Aboard Salty’s Naturals the first to call out the incoming fighters was Charlie Lichtenberger. The navigator’s shouted warning of “Here they come!” was immediately followed by bursts of fire from the Fortress’s nose and top turret guns, and as the German fighters flashed past off the bomber’s left side left waist gunner Joe Cornwall and tail gunner Larry Templeton both scored hits. There was no time to savor the moment however, for Rick Marquardt in the top turret called out that a second trio of Fw 190s was boring in toward Saltsman’s lead aircraft; all aboard Salty’s Naturals knew instinctively that their bomber—almost directly behind and slightly below Saltsman’s Good Time Cholly II—would be squarely in the enemy’s gunsights as the fighters screamed through the 331st’s formation.
At the moment, however, the Fw 190s were Cholly’s problem. Several men aboard the squadron lead aircraft had called out the incoming fighters, and as the first attacker closed in, Joe Cornwall’s friend Dick Davitt engaged the German machine with his twin .50-caliber top turret guns. The two streams of thumb-sized rounds converged on the fighter with immediate and spectacular effect: the Fw exploded while still one hundred yards ahead of the formation, and pilot Willis Frank had to quickly raise Cholly’s left wing to avoid the three large chunks of tumbling, burning debris that were all that remained of the fighter. Frank’s quick thinking saved his aircraft—for the moment—but it also doomed Salty’s Naturals.
Everyone in that Fortress’s front end—Purdy and Harris in the cockpit, Marquardt in the top turret, and bombardier Ed Jones, navigator Charlie Lichtenberger, and photographer Jeff Dickson in the nose—almost certainly saw the German fighter disintegrate and likely knew they were helpless to prevent the disaster that was about to engulf them. But all Chuck Sprague in the radio room and the gunners in the rear of the B-17 heard was a strangled shout of “Oh my God!” over the intercom just seconds before the Fw’s blazing fuselage slammed into the Fortress’s left wing. The wreckage and the bomber collided at a closing speed of some 450 miles an hour, and the impact sheared off 25 feet of the B-17’s wing beyond the No. 1 (outboard) engine.
Two equally catastrophic events occurred within one or two seconds after the collision. The first was the instantaneous detonation of the 100-octane aviation gasoline spewing from the severed lines that moments before had connected the Fortress’s main tanks with the nine smaller tanks in the now-vanished outboard wing section. The searing heat immediately and fatally compromised what was left of the wing’s internal structure, and a long, roiling tongue of flame and dark black smoke arced back toward the bomber’s tail. The second and nearly simultaneous event was the almost total loss of lift on the B-17’s left side, which caused Salty’s Naturals to snap roll violently to the left, enter a spin, and immediately shed several hundred feet of altitude.
While Ed Purdy must have known that his aircraft was doomed, the young officer apparently did all he could to pull Salty’s Naturals out of its death spiral. In flight school, Purdy had learned that under normal circumstances a pilot attempting to recover from a spin should reduce engine power to idle to prevent the airflow of the propellers from striking the aircraft’s horizontal stabilizer and thereby forcing the nose upward, prolonging the spin. But the loss of the B-17’s outboard wing section and resulting radically asymmetrical lift meant that Purdy’s only chance to recover from the spin was to add full power for as long as possible on the two left engines, shove the right aileron down hard, and put the bomber’s rudder as far to the right as it would go. He appears to have successfully performed each action, for after falling about 4,500 feet Salty’s Naturals leveled out just long enough for two men to jump from the bomber before it once more snap-rolled, and with flames trailing from its mangled wing, headed for the ground.
One of the jumpers was Joe Cornwall.
Joe was looking directly out his waist window—tracking a twin-engine Bf 110 that was pacing the 94th formation, just out of range—when the Fw 190 collided with Salty’s Naturals. The impact threw Joe and right-waist gunner Frank Santangelo to the fuselage floor and away from their guns, the sudden movement disconnecting their interphone cords and oxygen hoses. Neither man had time to move before the bomber’s snap-roll lifted them and hurled them against the ceiling, where the intense centrifugal force caused by the aircraft’s gyrations kept them momentarily pinned in place.
Seconds later, as Ed Purdy’s efforts in the cockpit began to have an effect, the gunners again crashed to the hard floor, with Frank landing atop Joe’s legs. Though to that point the experience was much like what had happened to the gunners weeks earlier on the Kiel raid, both men intuitively understood that Salty’s Naturals would not be returning to Rougham this time. Not waiting for the bailout bell, the airmen struggled to reach the parachute packs stowed in small metal racks just aft of their respective waist windows. The short journey was complicated by the bomber’s continuing convolutions, by the hundreds of expended .50-caliber machine-gun cartridges flying around the fuselage interior like a swarm of very angry brass bees, and by the first stages of anoxia resulting from oxygen deprivation.
Upon finally reaching the stowage rack, each gunner snapped the two large metal hooks on the back of the chest-pack parachute into the D-rings on the front of his harness. After a quick check to ensure that the chutes were firmly attached and not damaged, Joe and Frank crawled to the crew entry door on the right side of the rear fuselage. Frank pulled the emergency release lever that sent the door spinning away, then dived head-first after it. Joe paused for a moment and, assuming that everyone who was capable of leaving the ship had, hurled himself into space.
When Joe abandoned Salty’s Naturals he encountered an entirely new range of sensations. The first was the panic-inducing feeling of tumbling uncontrollably through the air, thousands of feet above the ground, green earth and blue sky changing places every few seconds.
As disorienting and frightening as the roughly 160-feet-per-second free fall was, however, Joe judged that he was still above 10,000 feet and delayed opening his chute for a few moments so that he could more quickly get down into breathable air. Some 30 seconds after leaving the bomber he brought his elbows tightly into his sides, forced his knees and ankles together to bring his feet directly below him and, once upright, used his right hand to pull the bright aluminum ripcord handle protruding from the chute pack. That action brought on yet another new sensation: the deployment of the pack’s small drogue chute was followed immediately by the opening of the main canopy, jerking Joe to a virtual standstill. The sudden deceleration wrenched his back, sending sharp jolts of searing pain through both shoulders, and the lower straps of the harness bit painfully into his groin. The g-forces and the agony in his upper body momentarily made it difficult for him to raise his arms to grasp the suspension lines. Once he had control of the chute he looked beneath him, where he saw Santangelo’s fully deployed canopy. Off to one side and a few thousand feet below, he saw Salty’s Naturals slowing spinning toward the ground, a long plume of greasy black and gray smoke marking its final passage through the morning sky. Suddenly, a parachute blossomed from the dying bomber’s tail section, and with a surge of relief Joe realized that Larry Templeton had made it out.
For reasons that will remain forever unknown, seven of the eight men in the forward section of Salty’s Naturals never made it out of the doomed bomber. It’s entirely possible that the three in the B-17’s nose—Jones, Lichtenberger, and Dickson—and top turret gunner Rick Marquardt were either seriously injured or killed outright by debris from the demolished German fighter or were prevented by centrifugal force from reaching their designated escape hatches. Purdy and Harris would have had their hands full trying to hold the B-17 steady so that others could bail out and may themselves have been unable to move from their seats once Salty’s Naturals reentered a spin. For ball turret gunner John Smith, just getting out of his cramped fighting position and up into the aircraft’s fuselage would have been a Herculean task. If there were still electrical power to operate the turret, Smith would have rotated the ball so that its guns pointed straight down and the entry hatch was inside the aircraft. But if the B-17’s electrical systems had failed—a more than likely possibility given the extensive damage Salty’s Naturals had suffered—the gunner would have had to hand-crank the turret into the proper position in order to escape. Smith’s efforts may have been greatly hampered, of course, by injuries, disorientation, or anoxia. In the end, all we know for certain is that he never took to his parachute.
And in one of those cruel ironies that are so widespread in wartime, the one man in the B-17’s forward fuselage who did manage to escape fell victim to an all-too-common hazard. While it is unclear how radio operator Chuck Sprague actually exited the Fortress—his normal route was through the bomb bay, but the doors were never opened—it is certain that he pulled his ripcord before he was fully clear of the aircraft. When the spring-loaded drogue chute popped out it briefly hung up on something—a gun mount perhaps, or a jagged piece of damaged fuselage—that hampered the proper deployment of the suspension lines. They, in turn, wrapped around the canopy, fouling it and preventing its inflation.
With no secondary parachute to save him, Sprague fell thousands of feet to his death, the useless folds of silk flapping above him.
Though glad to have escaped Salty’s Naturals and heartened by the sudden appearance of Larry Templeton’s parachute from the tail of the doomed bomber, Joe Cornwall knew that his own continued survival was by no means assured. The sun-dappled fields, woodlands, and small villages spread out in all directions beneath him looked both idyllic and benign, but Joe knew that German troops were already organizing sweeps across the countryside in search of American aviators who may have survived the downing of their aircraft. He understood full well that capture by the enemy would at best result in spending years in a prisoner-of-war camp, and at worst could mean a bullet to the back of the head and burial in an unmarked grave.
While the escape and evasion briefings Joe and his colleagues had received emphasized extreme caution when dealing with civilians in German-occupied Europe, the aviators were also assured that there were well-organized escape lines operating across the continent. The organizations might consist of several dozen people, they were told, but were built around loosely affiliated cells of six or eight individuals who knew and trusted each other.
Making contact with an escape line’s members—called “helpers” by the Allies—was more likely if the downed aviator headed east, away from the fortified and heavily patrolled coast, intelligence officials said. If shot down over northern or central France, aircrews were told, they should try to make their way toward one of the major cities—especially Paris—both because they would blend in far better than they might in a small town, and because the escape lines were more active in the larger metropolitan areas.
Members of Eighth Air Force combat crews were also provided with a variety of items meant to improve the odds of making a successful “home run” should their aircraft go down in enemy territory. In addition to a standard personal first aid kit, these included several passport-sized photos of the aviator in civilian clothes—intended for use in forged identity papers provided by the escape line—an easily concealable map of northern France printed on silk, a small compass, matches, Benzedrine tablets to combat exhaustion, and one or two bars of chocolate. Also included was a small zippered purse containing French currency—in Joe’s case, 2,000 francs—to be used for bribes or to purchase necessary items.
All of the advice about how to become a successful “evader” was swirling in Joe’s head as he floated ever closer to the soil of German-occupied France, but he knew that his most immediate concern was getting on the ground without breaking a leg. After a quick scan of the surrounding sky—neither Santangelo’s chute nor Templeton’s was still visible—he focused his attention on the fast-approaching earth, pulled his heels and knees together, and slightly bent his knees. Seconds later he slammed down in the middle of a grain field, about a half mile southeast from where the scattered wreckage of Salty’s Naturals burned furiously. White-hot needles of pain shot up Joe’s spine and across his shoulders, but he stood up immediately, and after gathering his chute in his arms he ran toward a nearby wood line. Once under cover of the trees he knelt and buried his harness, life jacket, and parachute in a shallow hole he scraped out with his hands, and he was just standing up when the bombs in the hulk of the blazing Fortress began “cooking off.” The explosions could be heard for miles in every direction, and Joe knew he had to get moving before the detonations attracted German troops.
Thinking the enemy would likely scour the woods and villages in the vicinity of the crash site, Joe decided to put the small river he’d seen from the air between him and the final resting place of Salty’s Naturals—and of the men he was fairly certain had gone down with it. A quick glance at his wristwatch told him it was just a few minutes after eight, and he was momentarily surprised. His Bastille Day had begun six hours earlier and 250 miles to the northwest in the relative safety of rural Sussex, and had already been filled with myriad sights, sensations, and emotions with which he hadn’t even begun to grapple. There would be time later to deal with all that, he told himself, because the most important thing now was to move, as fast and as far as possible.
After taking a quick look at his escape map, Joe decided on a northeast bearing toward the Iton River. He had just started walking when a middle-aged French woman appeared ahead, obviously as surprised to see him as he was to see her. The woman peered at Joe for a moment, taking in the fleece-lined pants and jacket he was still wearing, then cautiously motioned him forward. She spoke for a moment in quick French, the only word of which Joe understood was “Americain.” He nodded his head enthusiastically, repeating the word while at the same time pulling from his jacket pocket the small box of escape aids and the zippered purse. The woman seemed to take these as proof of his nationality, and as she turned to walk back the way she’d come she gestured for Joe to follow her.
A few minutes’ walk brought the pair to what was apparently the woman’s home, set back in a clearing, and after standing quietly for a moment to ensure that no one was nearby, she gestured for Joe to follow her inside. She pantomimed eating, and when Joe smiled and nodded the woman set a large slice of rough dark bread and a mug of milk on the long table that dominated the room. After finishing the impromptu meal, the airman gestured his thanks and, when it became clear the woman could offer no further help, he walked to the door. Pointing to a small barn on the other side of the yard, Joe rested his head on his hands as if sleeping. The woman nodded her assent, and within a few moments Joe was stretched out on the barn’s hay-covered floor. He hadn’t really intended to sleep, only while away the time until dark, but the morning’s exertions ensured that drowsiness soon overtook him. As he drifted off, he could hear the sound of German fighters circling the funeral pyre of Salty’s Naturals.
Over the following weeks Joe Cornwall would be helped by the French resistance and hunted by the Gestapo. His story, and that of the woman who came to love him—and who would face her own harrowing ordeal in a Nazi concentration camp—is told in Stephen Harding’s Escape from Paris. For more, visit stephenhardingbooks.com.
Excerpted from the book Escape From Paris: A True Story of Love and Resistance in Wartime France by Stephen Harding, published by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2019 Stephen Harding