The Changeling

Ted Olson was at the end of the tunnel, heart pounding. Twelve feet up was the tunnel exit, he stood on the ladder, waiting for Hilts to give him the 'all clear' signal by tugging on the rope. The tunnel was supposed to reach into the woods, but it was twenty feet short. Cavendish the surveyor had blown it. Now, the tunnel exit was in an open field. Though it was past midnight, the hole was in clear sight of the guards. Hilts had waited until the guards were at the far ends of the prison compound before making a dash for the woods. He used a rope to set up a signal, two tugs meant all clear. The rope signal was working, at least 70 guys had already made it out, and into the woods. Bartlett and MacDonald, the escape leaders had already gone, so the instructions were passed from man to man as they left. Now it was Olson's turn, "come on...come on," why wasn't Hilts giving the signal?

Hanes was right behind him, waiting. They were both dressed in German Wehrmacht uniforms. Bartlett had thought of everything. They had forged identity cards, travel passes, and train tickets. Blythe was an expert forger. Then finally, he felt two tugs on the rope. "Let's go!" He scrambled up the ladder and poked his head out of the hole. He could see the edge of the woods, and behind him was the barbed wire fence of the POW camp, Stalag Luft III. The guards were at the far ends of the compound, so he quickly lifted himself out of the hole and made a dash for the woods, staying low. Hanes was still right behind him. They both ducked behind trees where Hilts was hiding. "Thanks Hilts, good luck!"

"Right."

They both ran deeper into the woods, and stopped to catch their breath. Hanes took out his compass, and struck a match so they could see it. "Bartlett said to keep heading east for two miles, then we'll see the road."

"How far to the station?"

"About twelve miles...if we keep moving, we can make the 7:30 train."

"Bartlett thought of everything."

Then they heard a shot, coming from the direction of the compound. Then more shots, and the sound of men shouting. "Let's get out of here!" They both ran, sometimes nearly tripping in the dark, but they kept moving.

. . . . . .

Sergeant Saunders and his men finally got out of the truck. They had ridden for hours along a highway near the Rhine in the dead of night. After crossing into Germany, they knew the end of the war was probably near. Battalion headquarters was in an old courthouse in a small town. The main German army had crossed over the Rhine and was currently holding the bridge at Remagen, about sixty miles to the north.

"Hey Sarge, when are we gonna get some chow?"

"Hang on..."

Lieutenant Hanley was there to meet them. "Saunders! long time no see...glad you men made it." They saluted. "There's a bridge about a mile from here, it crosses the Rhine. We learned the Germans are trying to secure all the bridges south of Remagen. Since we got here first, we need to hold this one."

"Lieutenant, you think the men could get some rest, and chow first?"

"Of course, of course...Be ready to move at 0700."

. . . . .

Olson and Hanes had made it to the road, they started walking north. "Olson, all those shots...you don't think they got Hilts, do ya?"

"I don't know, but knowing Hilts, he got away. Those were a hell of a lot of shots."

"Yeah, they'll be looking for us now...should we be on this road?"

"Well if we see any headlights, we'll duck into the woods."

Even though they wore German uniforms and carried papers, it was best to avoid any contact. Hanes spoke fluent German, but Olson only knew a few phrases. If they did encounter anyone, Hanes would do all the talking. He had coached Olson on the proper diction, so that he would sound authentic, not as if was speaking with an accent. But they were only a few rudimentary phrases. If someone spoke to him in German, he wouldn't know what the hell they were saying.

It was nearly 7 AM when they entered the town, they were weary from walking all night, but they had to remain alert. There were a few guard posts along the road, but they were manned by teams of two or three soldiers, mostly looking bored and stretching, drinking coffee out of tin cups in that early hour. Some of them noticed Olson and Hanes, and would watch them curiously. Hanes whispered, "act bored...and speak German...only German!"

As they walked past one post, across the street, a guard shouted to them – in German - "Hey! You two! Come here!"

Hanes nodded as in a greeting as they walked over. The soldier was not an officer, which was a relief, but he was curious, and he seemed a bit suspicious. He was older, perhaps one of those later recruits who were still gung ho about their 'cause', even this late in the war. Two others looked on with interest, but they had not raised their weapons. Olson and Hanes were unarmed, also without helmets, just caps, which made them both nervous as hell, but they tried hard to act nonchalant. Surely these soldiers hadn't heard of the escape yet. The Nazis were good with their communication channels, but not that good. Hanes spoke first, "Hello!"

"Who are you guys? I've never seen you before."

Hanes had to think fast, he gambled on the fact that the soldiers didn't know about the escape. In his best German, he spoke,

"I am Corporal Meine, this is Corporal Krieger, we are guards at Stalag Luft III, we're headed for the train station...we're on leave."

The soldier raised his eyebrows in surprise. "You walked all the way from the Stalag?"

"We wanted to catch the early train. The bastards wouldn't let us have a ride."

The soldiers chuckled. "I wish I were on leave..."

Hanes smiled and waved and they started to walk away, "HEY!" They froze, oh no, now what?

"You got any cigarettes?"

"Uh...no, sorry." The soldiers shrugged, and Olson and Hanes kept walking.

"Oh man, that was close...I didn't understand a word you were sayin'."

"It's okay, just keep acting bored and look dumb."

They finally came to the train station, where they were astonished to see many of their fellow escapees on the platform. "Oh my God, there's Bartlett and MacDonald! And over there, Ashley-Pitt."

"Yeah! And I see Hendley and Blythe over there!"

All the other men were wearing civilian clothes, dyed and re-fitted from their old uniforms. Blythe was nearly blind by now, all that close-up camera work and forging documents killed his already deteriorating eyesight. Hendley was basically his 'eyes'...Bartlett knew it was a risk, but Blythe had earned his place in the escape tunnel. Olsen and Hanes were wearing German uniforms that were actually authentic, scrounged by Hendley from the quartermaster at the POW camp. Though their uniforms were legitimate, upon closer inspection, they had no rankings or insignia on them, thankfully the soldiers hadn't spotted that.

All of the escapees were ignoring each other, as it was important they not call attention to themselves by acknowledging each other's presence.

"What do we do now?"

"We wait for the train."

The soldiers they had encountered at the edge of town were still pondering. "Karl, did you notice something odd about those two?"

"Like what?"

"Well, their uniforms for one thing...they were brand new."

"So? They were probably issued new ones."

"Yes, but they had no insignia, and they were not armed!"

"Well, they're on leave."

"Yes, but what good soldier of the Reich would travel without his rifle? And the other one, who never spoke, did you see how he kept looking over at his buddy? They seemed odd."

"Hmm..."

Just then their field telephone rang. "Corporal Wentz here...yes Colonel." The soldier listened and then he looked shocked. "Yes Colonel! I think we have!...yes Colonel, at once!" He slammed down the phone. "Those two men! They have escaped from Stalag Luft III! Come on!" They grabbed their rifles and ran to the train station.

The train pulled in to the station. Olson and Hanes climbed aboard, as they noticed the others getting on as well. The coach was mostly empty, so they easily found seats in the middle of the car. Ashley-Pitt entered the same car, and found a seat facing them. He glanced at them once, but didn't acknowledge them. Other German civilians boarded, along with a few Nazi officers of minor rank, but they seemed unaware of any prison break, otherwise they would be eyeing every passenger on the train.

Olson looked out the window. A chill came over him as he saw three cars speed on to the platform...Gestapo. "Oh no..."

Four men from the cars boarded the train just as it started to pull out from the station. As it gained speed, he noticed in the distance a squad of soldiers on foot and on motorcycles converge on the train platform. It was definite now, word had gotten out about the escape, and Gestapo agents were on board the train.

"They know." Olson whispered.

"It's alright...we have papers, we're covered...remember, speak only German!"

. . . . .

By 7 AM, Saunders and his men were en route to the bridge. Their mission was to scout for any German patrols, seize, and hold the bridge until Battalion arrived.

Littlejohn said, "Sarge, why this bridge? The big one is at Remagen."

"This bridge leads to Koblentz. It's a choke point...the Germans will wanna blow it up, along with the one at Karlsruhe. Every bridge we can hold in place means that more tanks can get across the Rhine."

. . . . .

Olson and Hanes sat quietly as the train chugged along, headed for Oden, the next stop. The next stops along the way were Koblentz and Karlsruhe. No sign of the Gestapo...yet. Surely they were making their way through the train cars, inspecting everyone's identification. The door opened at the far end of the car. It was Hendley and Blythe! Hendley appeared to be looking out of the train window as he leaned over to Ashley-Pitt and whispered something. Ashley-Pitt reached into his pocket and pulled out reading glasses and put them on, then he took out a German newspaper and started reading it.

As they made their way down the aisle towards them, Hendley leaned over again, as if to look out the window and whispered, "tally ho"...Tally ho...the hunt is on...Gestapo.

Hendley and Blythe exited the car by the door at the other end.

A few seconds later, three armed men came through the door at the far end. They scanned all the people seated in the train car...Gestapo...Olson was shaking with fear. The main Gestapo agent looked at Ashley-Pitt, and asked for his identification. He calmly conversed with them in fluent German, and his papers seemed to be in order. They moved on...whew! Blythe WAS good with those forgeries...

The Gestapo agents moved along the aisle, looking for anyone suspicious, any possible prisoner of war escapees. As they approached, Olson was torn...should he make casual eye contact? Or should he keep his head down? He was wearing the uniform after all.

He glanced up casually as the agent and his men walked by and exited to the next train car...the uniform was good enough after all! Both he and Hanes breathed a huge sigh of relief...as did Ashley-Pitt at the other end of the car. They glanced at each other long enough to exchange a grin and a shake of the head...

About five minutes later Olson saw something out of the window, "Oh Jesus!"

Hanes grabbed his arm and whispered loudly, "Olson! Alles duechtes! Verschtehensie!"

"look out there."

They gasped as they saw Hendley and Blythe tumbling down an embankment and scrambling behind a haystack. They had jumped off the train.