I love reading books about WWII. The Shelburne Escape Line is a true tale of members of the French Underground's heroic efforts to rescue Allied airmen shot down over enemy territory. Author Réanne Hemingway-Douglas interviewed several pilots who gave their thrilling account of escape, evasion, and rescue. Here's Ken Sorgenfrei's story.
First Lieutenant Ken
“Sorgy” Sorgenfrei unpinned his military wings and gave them to a farmer’s wife
before escaping into the mountains near Grenoble, France. It was World War II
and USAAF pilot Sorgenfrei had just completed what was supposed to have been
his last bombing mission before returning home. After successfully releasing
the bombs over the Munich railyards, Sorgenfrei’s plane was struck by German
anti-aircraft fire, blowing out the nose turret, two of the plane’s four
engines, and the electrical circuits, cutting off the oxygen supply.
and his crew of nine were a tightly-knit squadron who had trained together as
USAAF pilots and were considered one of the best crews to fly the new B-24
bombers. Determined to fly out of enemy territory and into Switzerland, Sorgenfrei
told his crew to lighten the plane’s load. They released the remainder of the
bombs and dumped the machine guns, ammunition and any equipment they could
spare. An hour later, one of the two functioning engines died and Sorgenfrei
ordered his crew to bail out. He was the last to parachute and landed
unconscious in a valley near Grenoble. He and his entire crew were rescued by
the local villagers. The farmer’s wife to whom Sorgenfrei would eventually give
his military wings was the one who found him and brought him to her home.
the Germans searching the area for survivors, local Resistance members took
Sorgenfrei, suffering from a badly sprained ankle and a concussion, and his
crew to higher points in the mountains. They traveled up into the Alps and were
eventually turned over to members of the Resistance de l’Oisans, then taken to
an abandoned ski resort where the crew began working in an Allied field-hospital
for the wounded.
weeks later, the Germans learned of the hospital’s location. The airmen
evacuated everyone and moved higher into the mountains. When the Germans began
to close in, the airmen hid the severely wounded in a rock cliff.
August 22, a month after Sorgenfrei and his crew crash-landed, Allied forces
liberated Grenoble. When the airmen returned from the mountain a week later,
the villagers of Grenoble welcomed them as heroes. The hidden wounded were
rescued. The entire hospital staff: two doctors, half-dozen severely wounded
patients, one of the doctor’s wives, the fiancée of one of the wounded, and Sorgenfrei
and crew had survived the ordeal.
1985, Sorgenfrei and some of the
airmen returned to Grenoble to retrace their escape route from the crash site
in the valley up into the mountains. At the end of their journey, the villagers
who rescued them in 1944 gave them another hero’s welcome. An elderly woman
walked up to Sorgenfrei. He was shocked to see her wearing his military wings.
It was the farmer’s wife who had saved him on that fateful day.
read more stories about heroic pilots who survived after being shot down over
German-occupied France in WWII and about the French Resistance who rescued
them, read Réanne Hemingway-Douglass’s The
Shelburne Escape Line.