The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II

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9780060096649: The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II

Compared to Casablanca by the Washington Post, this a page–turning story of a group of resistance workers who secreted downed Allied fighter pilots through France and into safety in Spain during World War II.

As war raged against Hitler's Germany, an increasing number of Allied fliers were shot down on missions against Nazi targets in occupied Europe. Many fliers parachuted safely behind enemy lines only to find themselves stranded and hunted down by the Gestapo. The Freedom Line traces the thrilling and true story of Robert Grimes, a 20–year–old American B–17 pilot whose plane was shot down over Belgium on Oct. 20, 1943. Wounded, disoriented, and scared, he was rescued by operatives of the Comet Line, a group of tenacious young women and men from Belgium, France, and Spain who joined forces to rescue the Allied aircrews and take them to safety. And on Christmas Eve 1943, he and a group of fellow Americans faced unexpected sudden danger and tragedy on the border between France and Spain.

The road to safety was a treacherous journey by train, by bicycle, and on foot that stretched hundreds of miles across occupied France to the Pyrenees Mountains at the Spanish border. Armed with guile and spirit, the selfless civilian fighters of the Comet Line had risked their lives to create this underground railroad, and by this time in the war, they had saved hundreds of Americans, British, Australians, and other Allied airmen.

Based on interviews with the survivors and in–depth archival research, The Freedom Line is the story of a group of friends who chose to act on their own out of a deep respect for liberty and human dignity. Theirs was a courage that presumed to take on a fearfully powerful foe with few defences.

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About the Author:

Peter Eisner has been an editor and reporter at the Washington Post, Newsday, and the Associated Press. His books include the award-winning The Freedom Line and The Italian Letter, which he wrote with Knut Royce. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

From The Washington Post:

Like the cinema classic "Casablanca," this is a gripping saga of undercover resistance, dangerous intrigue and inspiring courage in Nazi-occupied territory in World War II. Instead of in French Morocco, however, the story unfolds in German-held Belgium and France and legally neutral Spain. Instead of Humphrey Bogart's Rick and Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa, the main characters in this escape include a pert young Belgian nurse; a handsome, 20-year-old American B-17 pilot; and a beret-wearing Basque smuggler, a giant of a man who led groups of downed Allied airmen to safety across the rugged Pyrenees Mountains. But the most important difference between the 1942 Hollywood screenplay and Peter Eisner's book is that the story he tells is true.

During the war, some 2,000 airmen downed in Belgium, Holland or France evaded capture and were successfully returned to their bases in England. This greatly aided the massive Allied bombing campaign, because with a total of 100,000 airmen killed and 30,000 held prisoner in Germany, experienced fliers were in short supply, and the return of supposedly "lost" comrades bolstered morale in the continuing air war. Amid the anti-Nazi populations of occupied Western Europe, predominantly young civilians, generally separate from the local resistance groups, established several independently operated escape routes for downed Allied fliers. Accounts of these daring escape lines have appeared earlier in Europe but are only just beginning to be published here, as evidenced by recent books by Sherri Greene Ottis, Thomas Childers and now Eisner.

At its core, The Freedom Line is a rescue story, an account of courageous acts by otherwise ordinary civilians risking their lives to save Allied airmen against the efforts of the Gestapo and their collaborators. It was not a task for the faint-hearted. For capture could mean torture and death for the rescuers and sometimes for the airmen, too. Hundreds of rescuers were executed and hundreds more sent to concentration camps in Germany. The Nazis used local informers, double agents and even English-speaking Germans as fake Allied airmen to identify and liquidate the rescue organizations. There were instances when the rescuers knocked at the door of a safe house only to find the Gestapo inside awaiting them.

Eisner focuses on the perils involved in the most elaborate and ingenious of the routes, a largely Belgian- and Basque-run operation code-named the Comet Line. Using shifting safe houses, trains and sometimes bicycles, and ultimately resorting to a death-defying, nighttime hike over the Pyrenees, its helpers escorted rescued airmen more than 600 miles from Brussels through France to legally neutral but initially pro-Axis Spain. Then Allied diplomats helped get them to British Gibraltar and back to England. More than 800 airmen, the majority Americans, were rescued via this route.

A prize-winning investigative journalist who is currently deputy foreign editor of The Washington Post, Eisner has produced an exciting and highly readable account of the perils of the Comet Line. He writes with an eye for characterization and vivid detail and a sense of immediacy and moral commitment. In his research, he consulted archives in several countries and interviewed a number of the survivors -- former airmen as well as former rescuers. He also participated in a re-enactment of the rigorous hike across the Pyrenees on the old smugglers' trail with members of the section of the Comet Line run by Basques, an ethnic group living on both sides of the French-Spanish border. Aided by his wife's Basque relatives, Eisner has written what is by far the best account of the Basques' role in the rescue operations.

At the center of Eisner's account is the rescue of one of the American B-17 pilots, Lt. Robert Grimes, a 20-year-old Virginian. Grimes's four-engine bomber was shot down over rural Belgium on Oct. 20, 1943, and he was hit in the leg by a German bullet. A farm family, confronted with the wounded stranger suddenly appearing at their door, bravely took him in for the night, then passed him on to Brussels, where he came under the protection of the Comet Line.

Among the main participants was Micheline ("Lily") Dumont, 22, a trained nurse who became a key part of the Comet Line after its founder, Andree de Jongh, a 25-year-old commercial artist, was seized by the Nazis. As Grimes's leg healed, Lily Dumont moved him around the city, helped teach him French, and tried to make him look and act less like an American. Grimes's guide through France was Jean-Francois de Nothcomb, 23, a deeply religious young man, modest and self-effacing though a descendant of Belgian nobility.

Normally, the last leg of the journey was led by the experienced Basque smuggler, Florentino Goikoetxea, but he was down with the flu, and the perilous crossing under a less able guide on the night of Dec. 23-24, 1943, proved disastrous. Meanwhile, back in France, a collaborator had infiltrated the organization and begun betraying its members to the Gestapo.

Readers of Eisner's compelling if complex account may sometimes become a bit confused by the numerous characters, often with nicknames and code names. A list of individuals and their multiple names would have helped. Perhaps because of the book's narrative focus, readers do not learn about the other established escape routes -- the O'Leary Route and the Shelburne Route. These are minor criticisms, however.

The Freedom Line seeks not to be a comprehensive historical study but rather a true and dramatic adventure story. In this it succeeds completely. Eisner has given us an exhilarating account of harrowing danger, betrayal and heroism, one with a hint of romance and with the ultimate triumph of freedom and justice. It is a fine book, and it could be a great movie.

Reviewed by John Whiteclay Chambers II


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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