Military history

Chapter XVII — THE TRAIN TRAVELER

Six heavy bombers of the 384th Group went down before the attacks of German fighters on Mission 115. Sixty men that night were missing from the mess halls and the barracks at Grafton Underwood. One of those men was Staff Sergeant Peter Seniawsky.

Early in December, six weeks after the mission, a “ghost” with a grin splitting his face from ear to ear walked into the operations room of the 384th. It was Pete Seniawsky, who had been shot down on the raid—and then crossed part of Germany, all of France, and into Spain on an extraordinary journey on foot, by truck, and by train.

Seniawsky, a waist gunner, related that his Fortress was virtually riddled with cannon shells and bullets. “We were hit everywhere and she started to burn,” he said. “The pilot told us to get out, and as fast as we could, we jumped. I delayed my jump intentionally from 20,000 feet down to 5,000 feet, and while falling I watched the ground carefully, waiting until the layout of farm lands was clearly visible. Then I pulled the ring. After my chute opened I saw the B-17, burning heavily, disappear in level flight. I counted only three chutes...

That was the beginning of Sergeant Seniawsky’s amazing tale of working his way from Germany back to Grafton Under-wood. For several hours after he hit the ground he concealed himself in thick bushes, as German farmers armed with shotguns scoured the countryside where they had seen his para-chute descending-

Until sundown Seniawsky remained frozen where he was, aware that any movement would earn him either a shotgun blast or immediate capture. Under cover of dark he crept from his hideout, but all Germany, it seemed, was searching for the hundreds of airmen who had gone down during the day. No sooner had he walked into nearby woods when he scrambled into the midst of a military search party—which didn’t ask any questions in the dark but opened up with a withering barrage of fire from rifles and machine guns.

Flat on his belly and hugging the ground as the bullets ripped through branches over his head, Seniawsky crawled on his knees and elbows until away from the immediate fire. Safe for the moment, he ran as fast and hard as he could through the dense underbrush. Gasping for air, he threw himself down beneath thick bushes and waited, his lungs heaving, as the cursing Germans fanned out for the kill. Staying on his belly now, Seniawsky crawled away from the search party, and managed to cover several hundred yards. His escape was successful. The German troops moved off in one direction, and the sergeant happily took off in the other.

He walked all night, making sure to remain under concealment of the trees and heavy brush. After midnight he swallowed anti-fatigue pills from his escape kit to stay fully alert and awake. Once again—by now he thought the Germans were living in the woods—he ran into the enemy. Almost facing a German officer, Seniawsky slipped noiselessly to the ground and rolled under some bushes as the man passed only several feet away.

Luck fell when the sergeant neared a large town. A thick ground fog rolled in, to the grateful relief of Seniawsky, weary of half-crouching and crawling at every sudden sound. He walked rapidly to the south, making excellent time as the fog blanketed his movements. When the first streaks of dawn brushed the sky, Seniawsky searched for a hiding place where he would be concealed from the Germans and where he could also sleep. A large haystack seemed as good a place as any, and the tired sergeant crawled in. “It was a lousy spot. The hay was wet and cold, and it was impossible to sleep. At sunup I sneaked a look through the hay—and almost fainted.”

Barely 200 yards away were nearly fifty German soldiers and a large gun emplacement. The horrified Seniawsky did not dare to move, and he passed the day shivering from the dampness and the cold—to say nothing of his reactions to the German troops at the gun site and a constant stream of heavy military traffic on a nearby road.

Late that night he crawled out of the hay and made his way on his belly to the edge of the field. He moved rapidly through the woods, anxious to get away from the unnerving company of the German soldiers. That night, still moving steadily to the south, he sneaked up to a farmhouse and quickly filled his canteen from a pump in the yard.

Suddenly a large dog barked loudly, and came skidding around the house, making “enough noise to wake the dead.” The dog howled lustily as Seniawsky ran as fast as possible into the outskirts of a nearby town and dashed down a side street. The dog lost interest and trotted off, and the exhausted gunner barely had time to fling himself behind a fence as a car moved down the street. The game of hide-and-seek was getting rough.

At dawn Seniawsky climbed into the largest and thickest tree in sight and clambered high into the thick foliage. He wrapped himself around a tree branch, wedged in tightly, and spent the day sleeping. That night he moved out again, this time to the west, navigating with his hand compass. Occasionally dogs barked and howled as he passed isolated houses, but none joined in the chase. Before dawn he climbed gratefully into a hayloft, pausing only to snatch some apple peelings he found on the ground. His rations were exhausted, and to the weary gunner the prospects of continued flight were anything but cheery.

Late in the afternoon he slipped from the hayloft and moved into a nearby woods, anxious to keep moving. It was a mistake; travel in daylight in Germany was simply too dangerous. As a farmer spotted him moving beneath the trees, Seniawsky froze into position. It was a wasted effort. Less than thirty minutes later four men moved purposefully across the field adjoining the woods—directly for him.

Fate smiled benevolently on the Fortress gunner; the men were French! After Seniawsky identified himself—not too difficult a task because of his clothing—the Frenchmen used sign language to indicate they would help him as best they could. One man in broken English told Seniawsky that he was then 65 kilometers (about forty miles) east of Metz. Nearby railroad tracks, the Frenchmen indicated, led directly to the city, but the way between was thick with Germans. The French-men—conscripted farm workers with no love for the enemy— gave Seniawsky food and whisky. Then he was on his way again.

For the next several days he dodged both soldiers and civilians alike, moving furtively, hiding like a rat in a comer at the slightest sound. Whenever it was possible, he stole food and refilled his canteen with water. Near the French border, at the edge of a field, he stumbled into a man and a girl. The three stared at one another, and cautiously Seniawsky identified him-self as an American airman. The girl was French, the man a Serb—again a conscripted worker. They warned the gunner to hide carefully until dark, saying they would return to sneak him across the border into France.

At sundown Seniawsky spotted the man running frantically across the field to his hiding place; the Germans were scouring the area, he warned. The Serb shoved a package of bread, butter, and sardines into his hands, and bade him leave at once. Seniawsky shook the Serb’s hand gratefully, and took off at a run. For the rest of the night he followed the railroad to the south, taking every step with precaution.

Before dawn he sneaked into a barn to hide. This time he was convinced the jig was up, for it was obvious the Germans were looking for him. Several minutes after he sneaked into the barn, a heavily-armed German patrol moved purposefully toward the same building, bayonets fixed and ready. Desperately, Seniawsky dropped into a hole in the floor, and pulled hay after him to cover his head and shoulders. For what seemed like an eternity two soldiers stood within inches of his head, slowly turning as they scanned the barn. Seniawsky was weak with tension as they moved away. Again he was safe!

For several days Seniawsky worked his way closer to France, He lived like an animal, drinking from streams, sleeping in the open fields, in abandoned shacks, and whenever possible in barns. German troops were everywhere, and the gunner was fast becoming a nervous wreck, starting fitfully at every sudden sound. Then luck befriended him again. A conscripted Polish worker spotted him at the edge of a field, kept silent, and joined him under cover of the brush. Seniawsky spoke Polish fairly well. That night the friendly Pole hid him in a barn, brought him food, and set him off in the proper direction to cross the border.

The prospects of reaching France were grim. Between Seniawsky and the occupied land lay several consecutive high fences of barbed wire, armed sentries, and many vicious dogs which were trained to kill any man or woman they encountered. Seniawsky slipped through the first fence on his back, eased over to his stomach, and noiselessly crawled a hundred yards in the dark on his hands and knees. At the second fence he rolled over again, and on his back eased beneath the barbed-wire strands. He could hear the German soldiers walking patrol nearby.

The next 200 yards Seniawsky covered on his stomach, freezing instantly to the spot whenever he heard any sounds. He had just cleared the last fence when thick clouds slid in front of the moon to bring almost total darkness. Gratefully Seniawsky clambered to his feet and ran.

The next morning he abandoned his furtive movements and decided to brazen it out. He walked openly through the streets of several towns, looking for all the world like a man weary from hard work. The French were wonderful; the moment his identification was positive, all suspicions vanished. They fed him as best they could, burned his flying suit, and gave him working clothes. For the first time since he had bailed out of the flaming Fortress, Seniawsky was able to bathe and to shave the thick stubble from his face. In most towns the people never even looked twice at him as he walked through the streets; if anyone noticed anything unusual about the gunner, they did not give him away by staring.

A Frenchman moving south joined him in his travel, and the two men walked along a country road. Waving their hands, they stopped a truck, and persuaded the driver to give them a lift to Nancy. They walked again for a while, and were joined by a Polish worker traveling to a nearby small town. The Pole studied Seniawsky carefully, learned his name, and grinned. That afternoon he took the two men to a restaurant where the Pole excitedly introduced them to a group made up of Poles, Russians, and Serbs—all conscripted laborers. The restaurant owner piled food in front of them, and Seniawsky ate with gusto.

In the midst of the meal a French detective walked in and eyed the group suspiciously. Immediately the American gunner, his mouth full of food, started talking boisterously in Polish to the rest of the men. The detective looked hard at him, then turned and left. Seniawsky slumped in his seat with relief; the policeman had not asked for identification papers. It was a narrow escape.

That night a young French boy hid Seniawsky in his room. He spent the following day walking the side streets, brushing by German soldiers constantly, standing shoulder to shoulder with them at street corners. Early in the afternoon he bought cake in a bakery, stuffed it into his pockets, and joined a line waiting for a movie to open. He slept for several hours in the theater.

That evening capture again loomed close. In a bar Seniawsky pointed to a glass of beer and dug in his pockets for money. A German soldier stared curiously as the gunner fumbled with the French currency. Seniawsky waved his glass in a toast to the German, downed the beer, and walked out.

He walked slowly into the railroad station and studied the timetables on the wall. Carefully, trying not to arouse any interest, he watched the people buying tickets, especially what kind of people went to certain windows. Then he walked casually to a third-class seat window, mumbled incoherently in his meager French, but said “Dijon” clearly. The agent pushed the ticket at him and took his money.

He bought coffee in the station bar, then walked in the streets until darkness fell. In the gloomy station he stretched out on a bench and slept. Boarding the train presented no problems, and Seniawsky counted his blessings as the miles flashed by beneath his feet.

At Dijon, however, when the train pulled in at noon, he faced the bleak prospect of the French police checking the papers of all passengers leaving the station. He slipped into the restaurant and slowly sipped coffee. One hour later his patience was rewarded: the police left.

Seniawsky then bought a ticket to Lyons, boarded the train as it arrived, and stood the entire journey in the vestibule, happily out of sight of most of the passengers. At Lyons he ran to a ticket window, purchased a ticket to Marseilles, and sank wearily into a third-class seat. Despite his determination to stay awake, in minutes he was fast asleep.

Again at Marseilles a large force of police met all debarking passengers, and Seniawsky took pains to avoid these inquisitive gendarmes. The moment he stepped off the train he walked in the direction opposite from the police check, unobtrusively joined a group of workmen walking through the yards, and slipped away when he reached a side street.

In minutes he was back at the railroad station and marched nonchalantly right past the police. To get out of Marseilles he bought a ticket back northward to Avignon, but the earliest train would not leave until the following morning. Seniawsky didn’t dare be seen loitering at the station; this alone would be enough to arouse the suspicions of the police in an occupied country. He sneaked beneath a train platform and there slept soundly until sunup. Brushing off his clothes, he walked through the yards again, left by the same side street, and bought grapes from a street vendor for his breakfast. At 7:30 A.M. he was safely aboard the train bound for Avignon.

He was incredibly lucky. So far, by dodging the police and managing to look like any tired, dirty worker, he had avoided being asked for his papers. Once that happened, he knew the game was up. But so long as things moved so smoothly, he intended to pull off every trick he knew to work his way south. At Avignon the streets seemed to crawl with German soldiers, and in their midst Seniawsky put to its severest test his ability to melt into the crowds. Trying not to watch for anyone who might be noticing him—acting the part of any worker—he moved from bakery stall to stall, spending 200 francs to buy twelve small cakes, which he stuffed into his pockets.

By now he felt like an experienced train traveler, and with his new experiences behind him, felt no qualms about returning to the ticket windows. He bought a ticket to Sete. This time he broke precedent and started a conversation with an elderly woman, who spoke French fluently—Seniawsky didn’t —and some Polish. Between the two languages and a timetable he learned that he must change trains en route in order to reach Sète.

As the trains bore him to the southwest, he lost his direction in trying to reach Perpignan, and ran the risk of drawing attention to himself by dashing madly through the station to catch the right train at Narbonne. Here his luck began to thin. A conductor was openly curious as to his mad dash and not a little hostile. Before the man could press him for his identification papers, Seniawsky grasped his hand and shook it enthusiastically, as though meeting an old friend. The conductor glanced down at the 100-franc note which had appeared in his palm, and immediately lost all interest in the scruffy workman before him.

One narrow escape followed another. Seniawsky sat at one end of the railroad car, as two German soldiers entered the car at the opposite end, demanding papers from all passengers. As they studied the passengers’ credentials, Seniawsky scurried from the car, ready to jump from the speeding train. But his luck held. He swung to the side of the train, clutched a hand-hold, and held grimly to the side of the swaying train for thirty minutes. By some miracle no one who watched this performance from the side of the tracks reported the unusual sight. When Seniawsky clambered back into the car, the Germans were gone. The French passengers favored him by not so much as a glance.

At Perpignan he slept from midnight until dawn in the waiting room, and then slipped out a side door as the police took up their positions at the main exits. Within another hour he was outside the town; using his compass and reading the road signs, he began a walk toward Céret. Outside this town, hungry and weary, he stopped at a small café to buy soup. The woman who owned the shop seemed friendly; Seniawsky took a chance and when the woman spoke to him in French, he replied that he was an American.

To his astonishment, the woman showed no surprise, as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world for escaping Americans to drink soup in her café. As Seniawsky finished his meal, she sat down at the table beside him and warned him to avoid Céret; under no circumstances must he enter the town. The dreaded word Gestapo was more than reason enough. The woman bade him wait at the table while she stood at the door, looking around for Germans. She signaled him to follow quickly, and led him to an isolated mountain road that led due south. Seniawsky thanked her and left.

Long hours later, exhausted and suffering from the bitter cold, he reached the ridge of the mountains. Ahead of him was a small shack, and he stumbled through the door, desperate for rest. Panic welled up in him: the shack was occupied! In the dim light Seniawsky saw an old man, and with relief sat down beside him. Once the Frenchman accepted Seniawsky as an escaping airman, he thrust a bottle of wine and a bag of chestnuts—all the food he had—into his hands. Gratefully, the gunner ate and drank.

As dusk fell, he renewed his journey, his hopes raised higher and higher. For in the distance, nestled in a deep valley, was a town showing its lights without caution, Spain!

All night long Seniawsky crawled down the mountainside. This stretch—the final leg of his amazing trip—was the most dangerous. German patrols clumped through the woods, many of them with dogs. At the slightest sound Seniawsky froze to the spot, and then resumed his journey.

Just before dawn, with several miles behind him, he walked directly into the hands of two soldiers. Spanish!

The soldiers hustled the jubilant Seniawsky off to prison where they questioned him closely for several hours. Later that day they transferred him to another prison, in Figueras. A week later Seniawsky joyfully greeted the American consul, who obtained his release and took him to Gerona. Two weeks later, after traveling through Barcelona, Saragossa, Ahlama, and Madrid, he stepped onto British soil at Gibraltar.

On December 1—six weeks after he had bailed out four miles above Germany—Peter Seniawsky walked back into the operations room of the 384th Group.

It had been quite a trip.

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