Sixty-nine years ago, on 5 November 1943, an American B-17 bomber crashed in the Netherlands not far from the North Sea. The plane had gone down so quickly that the crew didn’t have time to bail out. A couple were killed on impact; others seriously injured. Dutch civilians including a doctor arrived at the scene a few minutes before eight Germans pedaled up to take the Americans prisoner.

The Dutch police arrived about the same time and began a long argument with the Germans to the effect that because the Americans had crashed on Dutch soil they should be prisoners of the Dutch police. The Germans won that argument; shot over the heads of the crowd to disburse it, and marched the aviators to the village.  The doctor took the two seriously injured airmen to hospital under guard.

The Germans tried to interrogate their prisoners but got only name, rank and serial number in reply. So they put them in a third floor room without food or washing facilities and kept a close eye on them. One of the crew, the bombardier, who had been an enlisted man before the war, took charge of planning their escape. Fortunately for all of them, very few of the Germans they encountered spoke English.

The Luftwaffe arrived the next day, gave the Americans cigarettes that the pilot claimed were drugged, and drove them several hours away to an airfield. There they were put into a large building with a sort of prison made of wire inside it that was guarded by Germans as young as 14. The Americans were grateful for the hot potatoes and brussels sprouts they got there. There was another man in the prison, claiming to be a B-24 gunner, but the others suspected him of being a stool-pigeon.

The next day a detachment of Germans took the Americans by train to Rotterdam. They were kept in the ticket office until their next train arrived because whenever the Dutch saw the aviators, they clapped and gave the them the V for Victory sign. The bombardier decided that they should escape from the train after dark but before they got to Germany. They told each other the plan in cheerful voices which the Germans guarding them apparently took for innocuous American greetings.

Night fell soon after their second train pulled out of Rotterdam, and the pilot gave the signal by singing the old jingle “one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four to go.” The Americans jumped up to knock out their guards, taking the Germans completely by surprise. Once the guards were lying on the floor unconscious, the Americans ran to the door, by lucky chance picking the right side of the train. At first they couldn’t get the door open but one of the crew who had paid attention to how it worked when they got on wrestled it open. They were moving fast, about 50 miles per hour, past a line of posts.

The first man off rolled into a canal and started swimming. He heard two other men splashing in the water behind him but kept moving. As he started running across the fields, he could hear loud shouts in German. The country around there is mostly long strips of farmland divided by canals. Some canals he swam; some he crossed by using his hands to paddle small skiffs tied up along the shore. Finally, hours later, he knocked at an isolated farmhouse. Without any explanations, a young woman pulled him inside and provided a hot bath, civilian clothes and a warm meal.

The next morning his hostess brought him his breakfast in bed and said not to worry because they’d arranged a hiding place for him. A few minutes later a boy on a bike announced that the Germans were half a mile away. They left the farmhouse immediately to hide the American on an island in the canal. The Germans ignored the island as they searched along the canal. They told the farmer and his family that all the other aviators had been captured (not true) and that there was no point in helping the one missing man.

Rumors ran wild. Some Dutch people in the neighborhood said that the Americans had killed the German guards on the train rather than just knocking them out as they’d planned. Some said that the German officer in charge had vanished from the train; others that he was in hospital or that he had run away from the hospital in civilian clothes. The Germans even told some Dutchmen that the German officer in the train had engineered the whole escape and was on his way to England.

Not all of the crew got away, but three of them found their way onto Dutch-Paris. One of them made it back to his base in England at the end of May 1944, just in time for the Normandy landings.