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George T. Hebbel’s heroic survival

George Hebbel

George Hebbel

By Giovanni Maiorano

As evening came on, George heard in a soft voice with a French accent, “American pilot. American pilot.” He peaked out his lair and saw a woman walking around calling.

“Well, at least she does not have a rifle. Why not?” he thought as he stood up and started toward the woman. She was maybe in her late 40s, perhaps younger, and wore a patched, brown sweater that she held tight around herself. In her hand was a small book. She spoke no English and he no French. She motioned that he should quietly follow her.

After walking for about 10 minutes, she pointed through a break in the woods at the German patrol in the distance still looking for George. They could see his downed plane and the Germans standing around it. “I guess to be sure that no one would fly my plane again, they torched it … probably with the fuel from the belly tank. Damn!” George said to his guide. She just smiled and motioned to continue.

George and his French rescuer walked toward the town of Montreux-Château and to her house. There he met her
husband and learned their names. They were Madam and Emil Schuffenecker and daughter, Paulette a beautiful, 21-year-old, who, unfortunately for George, spoke no English. He never learned Madam Schuffenecker’s first name,  it was just “Madam” and that worked for the both of them.

The Schuffeneckers had a neighbor, a Madam Koentz. She was from Germany living in France for 10 years. She spoke English as she lived in California for a few years. That evening Madam Koentz was invited to visit and translate. He was still a little nervous and not sure of his situation. He spoke to Madam Koentz, “My grandparents were from Germany and my grandfather actually fought in the American Civil War. You are from Germany and  they have German names … ”

“Yes, Monsieur Hebbel,” Madam Koentz interrupted, “this region was between Germany and France for many years. Germans moved here when it was part of Germany and stayed when it was again France. I … I came here when  I was not happy with Herr Hitler.” She paused and continued, “He had my husband murdered for helping Jewish friends.”

“I’m very sorry, Madam,” replied George softly.

For the first time George had peach brandy. He was able to relax and have a home- cooked meal that was hot. He was never sure if his euphoria stemmed from his surviving the crash landing, escaping the German patrol or the schnapps. Whatever the reason, he was happy to be safe and not in a German POW camp or worse. Later that evening, he was shown his small room with a real bed. “This is a lot better than the Quonset hut,” George chuckled to his host.

Giovanni Maiorano

Giovanni Maiorano

For three weeks George’s activities were routine. Except for Sundays, he would have breakfast with the family and they would leave the house for work, some shopping or school. George would sit at the front window to see if any Germans were coming while sipping the strong French coffee. Late afternoon and evening he would be with  the family and, frequently, Madam Koentz enjoying the German Pfirsichschnaps.

By the end of his first week in Montreux-Château, George was provided with clothes more fitting for a French young man. Only his size 10 shoes were still GI issue and he scuffed and tried to make them look old and worn. For three weeks during the day he would sit at the window looking out to see if the Germans were returning. At dark, Emil and he would go into the town to visit friends of the Schuffeneckers and develop contacts with the French underground.

One afternoon while George sat at the window, he spotted a small group of German soldiers coming down the lane. His heart stopped. “Great,” he thought, “one of the neighbors is a damn German sympathizer. I wonder how much I’m worth.” Again hearing his heart in his ears, George closed the window, pulled the gossamer curtains and made a hasty assent to his upstairs bedroom.

Once in the room, he quietly closed the creaking door and opened the front of the old armoire. Sliding the movable back section revealed an opening leading to a small chamber. George was able to squeeze himself through the opening, close the door of the armoire, slide the false backing into place, and remain squatting and still. The dead quiet and the darkness of the chamber made the beating of his heart ring even more loudly in his ears. Two short stories he read in high school by Edgar Allan Poe came to mind, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” “Neither one of them ended good,” mumbled George surrounded by the stuffy darkness.

George remained in the chamber straining his ears to hear if anyone was entering the house. He heard some loud sounds and shrunk even more within himself. The sounds stopped and he could breathe the stall air more easily. After a long hour, George ventured out of hiding and returned to his perch at the window. The coffee was cold in the cup  he left on the window sill.

That evening, Madam Koentz told him that what he saw was what was left of a German platoon. They were making their way back to their lines. She used the word “ragtag” to George’s surprise for two reasons. He was amazed that she knew the expression and, secondly, he had not heard anyone describe German troops as shabby.

Three weeks after his arrival, Madam Koentz arrived and told him to pack. “What the hell do I have to pack?” George asked himself scratching his head. “Well, I have a night to think about it.”

The following morning a Monsieur Henri Joye, a former English teacher, arrived and lead George silently through the bushes to his house in Delle. Henri and his wife had three children who, when George arrived, were attending the school where Henri once taught before being fired. Monsieur Joye made the passive-aggressive protest of dressing his children in red, white and blue, a color scheme not appreciated by the ranking German officials. “At least they didn’t shoot you, Monsieur,” quipped George.

George was shown to a small room with a bed that was about twice the size of his Army cot. He was to stay in the room as long as the children were awake. They were never to see him nor know that he was in the house. Monsieur Joye, drawing on his years of teaching, felt that children have a difficult time keeping secrets. George recalled his “loose lips sink ship” training in flight school. “I’m not a ship,” thought George, “but I could sure as hell be sunk.”

Late one evening, George and Henri went into the center of Delle. Here George learned that Delle was the last French town on the railway line from Belfort to Bern, Switzerland, and directly on the Swiss border. By this time, George could say a few French words along the lines of pleasantries such as excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît, bonjour, merci beaucoup. If he accidentally bumped into a stranger, at least he could respond  without, as he thought, raising a suspicious eyebrow. 

Giovanni Maiorano is president of the Giuseppe Verdi Lodge, Sons of Italy No. 2457, Wilmington, Del.

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