P-51 pilot Osce R. Jones poses beside his aircraft. (Photo provided by Carol Ann Jones Lizana)
By George Morris
Many veterans returned from World War II with stories to tell, and most relied only on their memory.
P-51 fighter pilot Osce R. Jones, had something more tangible — a diary.
Forced down over occupied France by antiaircraft fire the day after the D-Day invasion, Jones, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, spent a week trying to evade capture and work his way back to England. He got caught, but while the events were fresh on his mind in a POW camp, he wrote about his experiences in a tiny notebook. His wife, Thelma, kept the notebook after he died in 1994.
“He had to write real small, because they didn’t have much paper,” she said.
The small print told a big story.
“This is it, boys.”
These words, coming from his colonel, confirmed what Jones suspected earlier that day. One of Jones’ fellow pilots had spotted a large German convoy in France, and after attacking with a small force had wanted to bring all 48 planes to finish the job. But all of the airplanes were grounded.
This was odd, so Jones went to the hangars to investigate. His airplane, and all the others, were being painted with alternating black and white stripes on the wings, tail and fuselage.
“I then realized that something was definitely coming off,” Jones wrote.
This was confirmed at an 11 p.m. meeting. With their aircraft bearing these invasion markings, they would take off at 3:30 a.m. and patrol an assigned sector over France.
“The takeoff was uneventful, but the beauty of it struck me. The sky was lit up by flares that the bombers were to form on, and the red, green and white lights of the fighters. Everywhere you looked moving lights could be seen. It was now that I realized the tremendous effort being put forth to protect the landing parties, and protected they were. … In the middle of the channel I could plainly see the flashes of the big naval guns, but all else was covered and concealed by clouds.”
The clouds contributed to a dull day. Allied air superiority was such that few German planes rose to meet them, and he found little on the ground to strafe or bomb in his sector. That would change the next day.
Jones was assigned to fly in the afternoon rather than the morning. All the planes would carry 1,000 pounds of bombs and fly to the middle of the Brittany, which was southwest of the big invasion. There, attacked trains and rail stations to keep the Germans from rushing men and machinery to the defense.
Clouds were too low to permit dive bombing, so they had to strike flying parallel to the ground, exposing themselves to ground fire. Jones was part of three planes that attacked a rail station, while the rest of the squadron was ordered to stay clear of the antiaircraft fire.
“Directly in front of us rose an umbrella of 20-mm flak that was thick as the devil … I’ll have to admit that when the colonel started on his bomb run I was scared, and plenty, but there (Dean) Hill and I stuck, right on his wing.”
Approaching at 350 mph, Jones felt something strike the nose of his fighter, and coolant streamed from the engine. He dropped his bombs and prepared to bail out, but the Germans had flooded the surrounding area, which would make it impossible to hide and escape. So he kept flying, hoping he might make it back to England, with another fighter staying with him as an escort.
Ten miles south of the French coast, his engine began to steam. Jones wasn’t high enough to bail out, so he looked for an emergency landing spot. He found one and headed for it, but realized he was too low and too slow.
“Throwing the throttle wide open and by the grace of God, I cleared the trees, or almost cleared the trees, at the edge of the field and settled down wheels up, in the middle of the field,” Jones wrote. “The trees that I clipped had lost their uppermost branches to my prop and wings. I don’t know what kept me from nosing over when I hit them, but I came out unscathed.”
Once Jones was clear of the plane, his escort destroyed it with his guns. Now, the 23-year-old pilot was on his own.
After discarding his parachute and inflatable raft, Jones began looking for a place to hide in case Germans had seen him go down. He found an orchard covered with weeds 2 feet tall. Using a hunting knife, he dug a small foxhole in the field and lay down. He could see American planes flying overhead.
When night fell, Jones looked for water, approaching the outskirts of the coastal city St. Malo. He found none, and as he returned, he crossed a road. There he received “one of the worst scares of my life.”
“I had almost reached the far side when I heard, as it seemed, a terrific snore. Looking to my left, I saw that the roads had been blockaded and that a Jerry guard was sleeping right in the middle of the obstruction. As quietly as possible I began making my way back and then broke into a run and really covered some territory.”
Unnerved by that experience, Jones began his journey well before dawn. His goals were to first reach Vichy France — the puppet regime run by Germany but with fewer German troops — and then Spain. Using the maps and compass in his escape kit, Jones hoped to make it in eight weeks.
About 4 a.m., he found a water pump in the middle of a pasture and quenched his thirst, then continued traveling southeast. He avoided roads and paths, walking instead through fields of waist-high barley. French farmers who saw his U.S. uniform gazed curiously.
Jones sat down next to a wheat field and leaned against a levee to rest. He thought no one would see him there, but he had barely closed his eyes when a French woman walked by. Reading from a card in his escape kit, he told her he was an American pilot and was hungry. She took him home and had him sit in front of a roaring fire so his clothes, wet from the dew, could dry.
“She had three children to whom I gave a stick of gum each. They’d never seen gum before and didn’t know what to do with it. I showed them, but I guess they wanted to save it, or were afraid of it. I don’t know. I ate four eggs and a big bowl of meat and potatoes, pulled off my shoes and went to sleep in the chair in front of the fire. She woke me up and took me upstairs and offered me a big feather bed, which I accepted immediately.”
She woke Jones at 9 p.m. and fed him again. It was raining. She warned that the nearby town, St. James, was full of Germans. Jones asked for civilian clothes, but she refused. Jones left and, after going about two miles, tried to sleep again under a tree.
Wet and cold again, Jones resumed the journey. He got a little bolder, traveling along back roads. He detoured around the town of Fougeres and slept in a field near a farm house.
“I covered about ten miles that day, but figured if I could get civilian clothes I could cover twice that much.
Heading toward Ernee, he found a boy and told him he was American. The boy took him home, where his parents not only fed him and provided more bread for the journey, but gave him blue coveralls, a vest, coat and cap. Jones put the coveralls over his uniform and gave them his fur-lined jacket, hunting knife and 100 francs.
Now, Jones decided he could walk along the roads.
“As I approached the crest of a hill, I became aware that I had walked into the center of a German bivouac area, and there were Jerries all up and down the road. I had just past (sic) a side road when an officer stalked out and started walking opposite me on the other side of the road. We must have walked half a mile like this, but no sign was given that he suspected anything.”
Jones walked about 26 miles this day. Just south of Laval, he stopped a boy on a bicycle, who took him home, where they gave him milk and bread. One young man, about 20, spoke a little English.
“I told him I planned to be in Spain in eight weeks. He answered that ‘the Americans will be here in eight weeks,’ and surprisingly, he was right, almost to the day. He urged me to come in and listen to the BBC, but after learning that the Jerries searched every house at 10:30 p.m., I thought it best to leave.”
Jones started before daybreak, heading east instead of southeast to avoid a troop concentration the young man had warned him about. He passed a small house that turned out to be full of soldiers, but they either didn’t see him or suspected nothing. He took the main highway toward La Fleche, passing through an almost deserted town.
“As I was leaving I saw two Germans seated on a small stone bridge that I had to cross, but the only thing I could do was to keep on walking. As I came abreast of them, one of them spoke to me in German, I think, and I answered with ‘Nix, nix’ (‘nichts, nichts’ or ‘nothing, nothing’), being the only German I knew, and kept on walking. It must have been the right answer seeing that they didn’t stop me or ask anything else.”
He covered 20 miles that day and slept in a vacant house.
“I think that I was as tired that night as I’ve ever been in my life, but this didn’t keep me from imagining creeping Germans about the place all night.”
Jones had stopped four miles short of La Fleche. He entered the town and, when someone led him to a cafe, convinced the waitress to feed him. Two men gave him directions to the next town, Childess. On a footpath three miles out of town, a 14-year-old boy rode up on a bicycle.
“He stopped in front of me, and I told him I was American. ‘Oui, oui,’ he said, as if he was expecting me and later I found that he was. We smoked a cigarette, and had a piece of gum, and I showed him my dog tags, maps, etc. Now here was my big chance; he held out an envelope with a woman’s name and address on it. Contrary to all the instructions I had received, I reached out for it, and he in turn withdrew it. I had muffed my chance. I should have just read the thing and committed it to memory, but I was so excited at having contacted the underground, I was thoughtless.
“We talked a little longer and he showed me his identity papers, and his address was the same as the one on the envelope, but here again I failed. Not using my head I didn’t memorize the thing. About this time a wagon load of women came down the road, so to keep from getting the boy involved, I told him I did not understand, and continued on my journey.”
He went into town but was unable to find anyone else from the French Underground.
Jones ate strawberries he found behind the garage where he’d spent the night. He remained in town until noon, then continued toward Tours, where he hoped to cross into unoccupied France.
“Now I realized that I should have stayed a week, if necessary, but at the time I was pretty impatient, and anxious to get on my way.”
He slept the night in another field.
Walking down the highway toward Tours, Jones saw German troops moving toward the battlefront.
“As I left a small town, a tramp proceeded to join me and started talking French. I was reluctant to answer, but after a few ‘ouis’ and ‘nons’ I told him I was American, and he immediately dropped back behind me. This troubled me a bit, but I watched him as I passed a few German officers on the road, and he kept my identity secret. Finally, I figured that he was alright so I pulled off into a field and slept about an hour.”
About a mile ahead, two German soldiers who saw him called out in French. Jones tried to keep walking, but they called again, and a third time. When Jones turned around, guns were pointed at him.
“At this moment I noticed the French tramp leaving the house, and I knew then who had given me away. I found out after that the French are paid well to deliver an airman to the Jerries.”
Jones learned that he was 125 miles from where he started, and his actual route had taken him much farther.
“I don’t know how far I actually walked, but at the rate I was going the first week, I would have been in Spain by the end of four more weeks.”
Instead, he would be in German hands for almost another year.