Robert B. Wilcox
Rank: 1st./Lt.......................................Serial No:0679428.....................................Combat Crew Bombardier
510th B.S...............................................351st B.G............................................................8th U.S.A.A.F.
Station 110:Polebrook, Northants.
Awards: ......................Air Medal................................E.T.O. Campaign Medal.....................Victory Medal
6.) Cognac (Shot down 31.12.43)
The following story is a republication of Robert "Peck" Wilcox's own words as published in the Pieces of the Eight...The Offical Journal of the Eigth Air Force Research Group Wales. None of the words have been altered or embelished in any way- there is no need. The reader can feel the long drawn out fear that must have been with "Peck" for those nine long months in hiding. Peck's love for Mama and Papa Nadeau is very sincere, as indeed it is for all the French people who helped him out.
The Eighth Air Force Research Group is proud to present:-
"The Milk Run"
THE SCENE: Polebrook Air Base. Home of the 351st Bomb Group. December 31st, 1943.
In a barracks room shareed by Lts. Al Behrend, Bombardier; Harold Freeman, Navigator; and Robert "Peck" Wilcox, Bombardier.
The narrator, "Peck" Wilcox picks up the story.
I sat bolt upright in my bunk, the sergeant with his G.I. flashlight was awakening crews. He says, "Lt. Wilcox, Lt. Freeman, breakfast is being served, briefing at 1230 hours". I shook my head trying to clear the cobwebs and get awake. My gosh, I hadn't been in the "sack" very long. Just got back from Peterborough about midnight and had been on a mission over Germany the day before. Hadn't hardly figured on another mission today but oh well, get these missions over with and get back to the States. Only twenty to go as I had qualified for my Air Medal the previous day. We met Bender and Gruppp, our pilot and co-pilot, at the mess hall and had our bacon and eggs with plenty of coffee and not much talk. About everyone figured we would "sit down" on this last day of the year and almost everyone was planning on a New Year's Eve Party. I know Andy, our engineer, Harold Long, assistant engineer, and I were looking forward to going back to Peterborough for a gala New Year's Eve.
In the briefing room was another surprise. A lot of high brass was there in their flying clothes and the briefing officer told us "we're going on a milk run". We're going to bomb the docks at Bordeaux, France. We'll be flying over water most of the way down at 12,000; you won't have to wear oxygen masks all the time and won't have the heavy flak suits until we get ready to go in over the target area. If the target should be socked in by clouds we'll come back and hit the secondary target, the airport at Cognac, France. Major Blaylock of the 510th Squadron will lead the mission. Colonel Hatcher, the group C.O., will be in the lead plane. We were to fly No. 2 position right off the wing of Major Blaylock. After briefing we caught our truck out to out plane, stopping enroute to get our 50 calibre machine guns. At the plane everything went well only Plunkett, our ball turret gunner wasn't with us. He had been grounded by medics because of a bad cold. his replacement was Collins, who had several missions under his belt and both Andy and Long says he's O.K.
The trip went well. It was good to do without flak so heavy you could get out and walk on it. We made our turn and went in over France and sure enough the Bordeaux area was covered with a thick cloud cover and we headed for Cognac. It wouldn't take too long to get there because Cognac is only about 75 or 80 miles from Bordeaux. The formation was in good shape and was pulled in close. There was some scattered clouds but no flak and no fighters. Up ahead I saw our target. Already the lead bombardier was sighting in on it and on we flew. I wondered why we weren't doing any evasive action. We were closing fast and all of a sudden all Hell broke loose. The lead plane was a victim of a direct hit. Our plane was hit, the air was turbulent, a big hole had been blasted in the nose. I had dropped our bombs but no one had a chance to look down. Planes seemed to be going down all over. The formation was shot to pieces I would say. We had an engine on fire and I remember asking Collins about the damage and about the fire. We made a circle all by ourselves and we were all alone. I mean "ALL" alone. What was left of the formation had headed for England but we all were of the same opinion that we had lost several B-17's over the target area from some intense anti-aircraft fire.
Then it was Bender over the intercom. He said we will be unable to make it back to England. We are too far from Switzerland to go there and the plane may explode at any time so he gives orders to bale out. No one questioned it. I went out the bomb bays after Freeman and Andy. I almost pulled the handle too quick. My chute opened and almost caught on the tail but it cleared and I swung back and forth. I was sick at my stomach. Finally I quit swinging and I counted the nine other parachutes in the sky. I figured Bender's crew all made it out.
Looking down I could see grasslands, a small village and ditches filled with water. I thought I was going to land in a creek, I spilled some air from my chute, hit the ground sort of hard, butt first. I had seen people running toward my line of decent. I slipped out of my parachute and started running as fast as I could into a field of swamp grass. The grass was probably three feet tall and it was my salvation. I ran for a long way and fell flat and laid there for several hours. People came through this field but never found me. I don't know if they were friend or foe, meaning French or German. I only know I was scared. I was a long way from home and I wasn't going to be in Peterborough for any New Year's Eve party.
I lay flat in the talll grass all afternoon. I figured it was 1330 hours when we were shot down. I didn't raise up until darkness has settled. I had the most lonesome feeling. Where was the rest of the crew? I wished for Long or Andy. I knew our squadrom losses were heavy and I wondered how may more were in the same situation I was in. I opened up my escape kit. it contained a map I couldn't read, pictures for a passport, a lot of French money, and some pills to purify water. I headed south across fields and ditches. Walking in fleece lined flying boots with electric lined boots on the inside wasn't easy. When I came to roads I crossed them rather than walk down them because I heard cars or trucks and I figured they were German patrols hunting downed American flyers. Sometime in the night I came close to a house and I heard people talking loud. I think they were celebrating New Year's Eve and that they were French but i dared not to go up to the door.
An hour or so later I found a large haystack. Cow or horses had eaten some holes part way into it. I crawled in, dug way back in where I would be hidden and warm. I slept fitfully but I stayed there all the nextday. When dusk came I left the haystack and started out again. All I had to eat or chew on was Double Mint Gum and I still had a few sticks left. This night I was a little braver, I walked down roads but if I heard anybody coming I would jump off the road and hide. I passed through a couple of small villages with no trouble. A few dogs barked at me. They just seemed to be mongrels or curs. What, I thought, no French poodles? I seemed to be coming to a bigger town. I could see the outline against the sky even if it was all blacked out. The houses all had shutters over the windows and if there was a light at all it barely showed through the cracks. I saw the sign Saujon and don't remember the population but remember distinctly what happened next. I was walking down a street and I heard a foot patrol coming. I was scared to death but I ducked in a doorway. They passed only a few feet from me. When they passed I left in the opposite direction and got out of town as quickly as possible. I skirted the town, crossing fields and gardens. In one garden I found some turnips and pulled a few, wiping them as clean as possible on grass and my overalls. I ate them. I was starved. I drank from ditches and walked some more and came upon an old barn out in a field by itself. I crawled up in the mow, pulled straw around me, and slept for a few hours. When I awoke it was morning and not too far off I saw a house. I knew I was going to have to ask for help. I headed for the house and saw this man splitting wood out by a huge woodpile. I came out of the woods, walked up to him and said "American". He was scared. He gasped for his breath and motioned for me to wait by the woodpile. He ran to the house and brought back his wife. He then ran off again coming back with a tarpaulin, laying it on the ground they motioned for me to lay on it. I trusted them, I was not scared. They wrapped me in it and carried me to a building not too far distant. Years later I found out why they did this. There was a German lookout post within sight and they were afraid the Germans would see me.
This place I had picked to stop was a small distillery. Besides making wine they distilled it further and made cognac. Upon hearing this in later years some of my old Infantry buddies said, "Trust "Peck" to pick a place like that to hole up".
The lady brought me food, a hot soup, and it made me feel much better. We could not converse, even in sign language. Finally, the man went away and later came back with a woman who could speak English. She was a school teacher. I told her I needed civilian clothes, a passport, and a map that I could read that would lead me to Spain. She told me they would get me clothes and a map but it would be impossible to get me a passport, even if I did have my pictures with me. She also said I would have to leave very soon because of so many Germans in the area. She said I must go in to the interior of France, that I was too close to the coast, and she said it would be very difficult for me to get to Spain. She said they had no contact with the underground to pass me on, but would do all they could for me. They brought a few more people to see me but none could speak English. My French language lessons began here though. They taught me cochon was hog, chien was dog, boches was Germans who they hated intensely. They asked where I was from. First I said Illinois. This did not register. Then I said Chicago and they said Al Capone and made a sound like a machine gun. We all laughed. I couldn't tell them I was a small town boy from 200 miles south of Chicago and had only been there once in my life for a short visit to the World's Fair back in 1934.
Later in the afternoon they brought me civilian clothes. I changed my flying clothes for French civilian attire complete with a beret. The man who was splitting wood gave me his French pointed slippers. They were a little tight and my feet were already sore. This was a heck of a gift though. Remember these people had been at war about four years already and I'm sure this was the only pair of shoes he had besides a pair of wooden shoes he clomped about in.
When darkness arrived the man and woman took me to a road and headed me in the directoin of the interior of France. We shook hands. They hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks and I was off. They had fixed me a knapsack full of sandwiches and a bottle of wine. They had sewn my dog tags into the lining of the coat I was wearing.
I walked but my spirits were low. If I heard any cars I hid. If I heard any bicycyclists I hid. Late that night a young man on a bicycle came up behind me so quickly that I was unable to jump off the road and hide. He got off his bicycle and started talking to me. I did not understand. He asked "American"? I answered "oui". He gave me a squeeze and motioned for me to come along. We walked a couple of miles at least and came to a small village. He went up to a door and knocked and spoke softly, "Papa". Quickly Papa came to the door and words were quickly exchanged and we went inside. His mother dressed and came out into the kitchen. Papa, Mama and their son talked of parachutes and Americans. These were the only words I could understand. Mama went to a cupboard and brought out a roast chicken, loaf of bread and Papa fetched a bottle of wine. I knew I was in good hands. After eating they showed me a bedroom with two huge beds in it. One was their son's and they motioned for me to sleep in the other.
It had been a long time since I had been in a bed and I slept like a baby. The next moring when I awoke the son was already up and dressed. The brought me water to wash on a wash stand in the bedroom and after a good morning greeting from all three Mama brought me my breakfast-hot milk toast.
I wondered what the future held in store for me. We couldn't carry on a conversation except by sign language but they got the message across to me that I must stay and rest for a few days because my feet were a mass of blisters from the flying boots and then from a pair of too tight French shoes. Mama gave me a pair of cloth house slippers to wear and motioned that I should stay in the bedroom. They would visit me frequently though with smiles and friendly gestures. I was never scared or mistrusted them one iota. In a day or so Frederic, the son, went to town and came back with a razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a little French-American dictionary. Now my education really began. In the evenings after they had done all their chores, which included milking the cows, feeding the chickens and turkeys, slopping the hog, gathering wood for the fireplace in the kitchen, we would sit in front of the fireplace and talk. This would be after supper. I ate all my meals in Frederic's and my bedroom with a door shut in between so if any vistors came they would only see the three table settings at the kitchen table. They didn't want to take a chance on anybody knowing they were hiding an American aviator. There were Germans around and sometimes they went down the street or road past Mama and Papa's house. There was on Collaborator family in the village. Oh, how they hated this "Collaborateur" as they called them. They hated the Germans (Boches) too. I learned Papa had been in th French Navy in World War I and then in the early part of World War II he had volunteered and had been taken prisoner by the Germans when they overran France. This was up in northern France. He, along with hundreds of others, had been kept prisioner in a barbed wire prison camp with many guards around it and had only bread and water to eat. No wonder he hated the Boches with a passion.
With much laughing and fun we used the dictionary and learned to count in French and many other words. I finally made them understand that I wanted to go to Spain or that I would like to be passed on to the underground and to be helped out of France. They told me they didn't know of any connections to pass me on and they would say it was too far and too cold for me to go to Spain. Tears would come into Mama's eyes and they would talk of the American Invasion to come. One day Papa came back to the house from cutting wood, Mama had taken the cow to pasture. Papa told me they wanted me to wait for the invasion. This was January. How long would I have to wait?
The days got longer. Time passed very slowly. I studied my dictionary and learned to read French newspapers and magazines which were German propaganda. They had a radio and in the daytime when they would all leave they would lock me in the house but tell me I could listen to the radio but to keep it turned very low so no one would hear it on the outside. They didn't have to warn me. I would sit with my ear practically in the radio. I listened to the B.B.C. (British Broadcasting Comany). I would hear the English version, then listen to it in French and once in a while I would listen to axis Sally from Berlin. One day I remember she played "White Christmas" and said "You American G.I.'s will never make it home".
The days passed into weeks, the weeks into months. Winter passed, Spring came and my French family was so busy farming I wished I would help them. Papa had a yoke of oxen as did all the others in the village. One family had a big fine horse. The house and barn was all one unit. The cows were kept in the back part, right behind my bedroom, and I could hear them hitting the stone walls as they ate hay from their hay bunks at night. This was where I always went to the toliet back in the cattle barn. I could see out from my bedroom windows. There was a lace curtain over them but I could see very good and I knew everybody on sight in the village but no one knew me.
One of my worries was hair cuts. My G.I. hair cut got long and Mama cut my hair. It wasn't short enough to suit me but it was very short by today's standards.
The food was good. Mama could take and onion and a little broth and make the most delicious soups. They were great gardeners and in early summer we had all kinds of fresh vegetables.
On the sixth of June I had the radio on that morning and heard of the Allied Invasion. Papa and Frederic were out in the vineyards cultivating and Mama had taken the cows out to pasture as she did twice daily. When she came back I told her of the invasion and she was so happy as was Papa and Frederic when they came in for dinner. They said now before long "Bob" (as they always called me) will be free. This was not to be. For a long time our troops were locked in a bitter struggle in the Pas de Calais area, when they broke out they went east and when the Seventh Army invaded in the Marseilles area they went north and here I was down in south-western France and no way to join either outfit. I had arrived in the winter. Spring had come and gone and Summer was waning. Already it was September.
On the morning of September 9th, 1944, Frederic said he was going to Gemozac on his bicycle. He had heard of some F.F.I. (French Forces of Interior) down there who had been fighting the Gemans. We knew there was still quite a concentration of German troops over at Royan, France, on the coast. Anyway Frederic went to Gemozac and shortly a big car pulled up out in front of Mama and Papa's house. It was Frederic and a man from the F.F.I. and from that moment on I was a free man. The villagers came running and Mama was introducing me to all of them as her Amercian son "Bob" and I was calling them all by name which they could not understand how I knew their names. Then Frederic, the F.F.I. officer and I loaded into the car and went to Gemozac and word had got out about the American coming to the town and it seemed like a hundred people or more were out to get a sight of the American. They took me to a barber shop and got a fine hair cut and some good smelling French hair tonic. We had dinner with the city fathers. There was much toasting and vive la France and vive la America. Then after dinner we marched to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Soldat Inconnue) and I laid a wreath of flowers at the tomb.
We went back to Mama and Papa's then and their little village of Benigousse was still celebrating and all the neighbors were around sampling wine and wondering how they could keep an American hid for almost nine months.
The next morning, 10 September, 1944, I said goodbye to Mama and Papa with many tears being shed. The F.F.I. officer, Frederic and I left in a big car for Bordeauz. There was burned out German trucks at several places on the route and there were check points at several places all manned by F.F.I. members.
We drove right into Bordeauz and to the Splendide Hotel that had been taken over as quarters for the F.F.I. It had been a fancy hotel but now was in a rundown condition. Here I met my first American soldier. Capt. Austin (that was his last name) and Sgt. Jack Berlin They had been parachuted into France behind the lines to work with the F.F.I, and had many exciting stories to tell. They had lots of money and Sgt. Berlin gave me a big wad of 100 franc French notes.
I stayed around Bordeauz for a few days. Frederic and I had the same hotel room. He had great hopes that he could return to the United States with me but Capt. Austin told him it would be impossible. So one morning Frederic and I said our goodbyes and I left with Capt. Austin and a Captain of the Free French Army. We headed across southern France to meet the U.S. Seventh Army. We were driving a big French car with an American flag on one side of it and the French Tri color flag on the other side.
We stopped in Toulouse France and went to a French Army Depot and I was outfitted with a French Army uniform to replace my civilian clothes. It was complete from cap to hob nail shoes. I still have most of this outfit. A few moth holes but otherwise in good shape.
On September 20th we met army units belonging to the Seventh Army and they directed us to the 12th Tactical Air Command and I reported for duty or orders. The next morning I was on a plane heading for Naples, Italy. After a couple of days there I picked up orders to start my way back to England. I was routed through North Africa staying all night in a barracks they said used to belong to the French Foreign Legion and the next morning caught a plane out of Casablanca to Southern England. I remember seeing the Rock of Gibraltar from the air. We did not fly over Spain but skirted it because Spain was neutral.
After landing at an air base in southern England I was put on a train to London with a sleeper compartment. The English trains were great. Smooth, not like the lurching of our U.S. trains.
I reported to a place all evadees or escapees were required to report at. My story was checked. I was given a new uniform and drew my back pay. I had almost 10 months pay coming, but wisely sent most of it home.
Then I went back to Polebrook to visit old buddies of the 351st. I got off the train in Petersborough and walked down to the Bull Hotel. When I walked in who was the first American I should see but Captain Al Behrends, my old roomie. He was a second lieutenant when I was shot down nine months before. When I got to Polebrook I met Capt. Sterling Mc Cluskey who was now Operations Officer for the 510th Squadron. "Mac" was a 2nd looey when I had left.
While at Polebrook I found out about the remainder of my crew. They said F.E. "Andy" Anderson, my Engineer, had walked out through Spain in one month and Harold Freeman, our Navigator, had followed him out in three months, but that all the other members were prisioners of war. I was very thankful after hearing all of this. It made me appreciate Mama and Papa all the more! What patriots they were. What chances they and their son took in hiding me all that time. If they had been caught they would have been shot.
In about a month I returned to the States. Although I remained in the Air Force I did not have to return to combat duty but took more training.
In 1945 when the War was over I wrote to Mama and Papa in France and had news from them promptly in return. We have kept in touch through all the years. After I married and we had children they have watched our children grow up through pictures we sent them and now they are seeing our grand-children grow up. They never miss a birthday, a Christmas, or a New Year, without sending a card. In 1967, twenty-three years after my experience, I flew back to visit them and had a wonderful visit. Then in 1977 my wife and I came to England on the 8th Air Force Reunion Tour and the second week we went to France to visit Mama, Papa, Frederic and family. If I live to be one hundred I will never forget them and will always be grateful for the kindness shown me.
Epilogue. (as written in The Offical Journal of the Eight Air Force Research Group Wales (1979)
Peck Wilcox is now "flying" a United States Mail van in his hometown of Blue Mound, Illinois. He is married to a "cool broad" named June (much nicer than Monique) and had two married children. Peck and June will be coming to Wales in May 1980, with the 351st B.G. Re-Union Tour. They are lovely people, and in fact they are the perfect American envoys.
See you in May "P" and "J"
Epilogue (written by Kari Wilcox Foster (Pecks granddaughter) June 15th, 2000
My Grandfather Peck...known to me and all his grandchildren as "Gongie" (our nickname for him since we were able to first talk although) passed away October 1, 1999 after a lengthy battle of illness that had him in and out of the hospital since March 1999. This website (which I will be continuing to work on to improve...as this is my first project doing something like this) is my gift to him for Father's Day tomorrow. He passed away just 18 days shy of my 30th birthday and I thank God for the almost 30 years he blessed me with this remarkable man.
Peck retired from the Illinois Post Office as rural mail carrier on July 30, 1982 with 14 years, 4 months, and 22 days of Postal Service. One outstanding duty, in which he voluntarily did during his 14 1/2 years with the Postal Service was honoring his country by running up the American Flag at the Blue Mound Post Office each morning before reporting to duty. He also proudly flew the American flag at his home everyday. I once told my neighbor and my husband who are both veterans that it only takes seeing a American Flag draped across a coffin of a veteran just once to make someone like myself honor it all the more. My Grandfather never boisted about his story, but if asked he would gladly share it with the some like Mrs. Penny Edward's 4th grade classes at Blue Mound Grade School over the years. He received many cards from her students honoring him on Veteran's Day...which he enjoyed reading and sharing with his family.
Peck lived in the same house he was born in until his death. He raised Hereford cattle, goats, chickens, horses, ponies, and had many cats and dogs over the years. He was a devoted father to his two children Roberta and Trent. He coached little league in the community for many years, and was an avid sports fan. He played a very special role in the life of his four grandchildren, Lynn, Kari, Mindy, and Chad; as well as his four great-granddaughters Kayla, Paige, Taylor, and Kaitlyn. His smile would run from ear to ear when he would come to the door and watch these little girls run up the sidewalk to his house.
This epilogue could not be complete with out mentioning that he and my Grandmother June shared over 53 years of marriage. He told me not long before his passing that she was the best wife and nurse a man could ever have. She generously opened her home to many of his old war buddies and their families. Which might I add that she prepared for these visits weeks in advance with all her cooking and other preparations. She was by far everything to him, and for that I thank her for all her love and devotion she unconditionally gave him.
I truly hope that you enjoyed his story as much as I did. Typing this all in word for word made me think of how much time and effort he put forth to writing this out by hand before it's original publication. He had a love for writing, as he wrote many letters a week to his old war buddies, friends, and family over the years. His passing was truly our loss and Heavens gain.