The Harrowing Tale Of A WWII Vet Lost Behind Enemy Lines - And How To Write Your Own Family's Story

Nov 4, 2019

The Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center is staging an oral history event in Portland on Monday, Nov. 4 focused on veterans. It included an open training on how to capture and record veterans’ stories and get them preserved by what’s called the Veteran’s History Project.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District also presented five service medals posthumously to the family of a World War II airman. She says the presentation of these medals, even years later, can be a meaningful moment for the families.

The medals belonged to airman Anthony Ornatek, who was shot down over Nazi-occupied France and survived for months behind enemy lines. The story of Ornatek’s harrowing journey and his ultimate escape into Switzerland has since been documented by his family.

In late December, 1943, Staff Sergeant Anthony A. Ornatek and the rest of the crew of a B-17 bomber known as "the Raunchy Wolfe" were flying back to Britain after a successful bombing run targeting a ball-bearing plant in France.

A 23-year-old waist-gunner, Ornatek was on his second airborne mission when the bomber encountered a squadron of German Messerschmitt fighter planes over Calais.

"And they lost three of the four engines, and the plane was going down slowly, and he and most of the crew bailed, at 1,500 feet," says Ornatek's son, known as "Little Tony" in the family.

He says most of the 10-person crew made it safely to earth, and were taken in by the French resistance. At first, they had no way to contact Allied forces, and back home in North Chicago, Ornatek's mother, Stella, received a telegram from the U.S. Adjutant General, James Ulio.

"It says 'The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Staff Sergeant Anthony A. Ornatek has been reported missing in action since 30 December over Germany. If further details or other information is received you will be promptly notified. U-l-i-o - the Adjutant General,'" Ornatek reads.

It would be four months before she heard anything more. Meanwhile, her son and his crewmates were on a perilous adventure in the farmlands of German-occupied France in January of 1944.

"He and his crew members met up with a farmer in a barn, who exchanged clothes with them, and gave them bicycles, and he escorted them and guided them to the next village, where they stayed for a month or so," Ornatek says.

They stayed mostly indoors during daylight hours, moving from village to village. He lived with a painter, a beet-sugar contractor, a farmer and other members of the "refractaire" - the resistors.

During a longer-term stay with one French family, Ornatek did venture outdoors, his son said. "I think my father worked with them in the fields and around the barnyard, cutting wood doing whatever chores. Don't forget there weren't that many Frenchmen around so having a Frenchman around was suspect, so my dad did his best to fit in."

The winter wore on. And there were close calls. "One evening the farmer's daughter brought him down to the village, to the local bistro. And she introduced my father to the innkeeper, the bartender, as this American GI. And the bartender started laughing horrendously, because the bistro was full of German officers."

A quick exit ensued. In March he and other soldiers - including Frenchmen - started a trek towards the border with neutral Switzerland. They traveled on foot, by bus and train, but mostly by truck - at one point colliding with, then escaping from, a German vehicle.

Many of Ornatek's companions were caught along the way. On May 5, they started a final push toward a cottage near the border, where they were to meet a guide help them make their crossing. Along the way, they met a young French woman who told them to go back.

"Because the Germans had surrounded the cottage, had killed the guide and they were in great danger. My dad and another guy decided to go on by themselves in the woods. And through strictly dead-reckoning using a compass and a map and occasionally speaking with a few French people, they made their way to Switzerland. My dad did, excuse me...the other guy didn't make it. And my dad said he did hear the machine-gun fire in the woods that night. But he did make it through the woods that night safely."
 

To Boncourt, Switzerland. A week later the Red Cross sent a telegram to his mother, saying that her boy was safe.

He spent several months in Switzerland - learning to play chess, to speak more French- and making a few purchases.

"I have the wristwatch he bought when he was in Switzerland, to replace the one he lost when he parachuted in. And it still works."

Anthony A. Ornatek served the rest of his tour back in Illinois, where he eventually married and raised a family, including "Little Tony," now a retired accountant living in Cape Elizabeth.  He pieced together this story of his father's service from past conversations, family documents, and a report that airman Ornatek wrote soon after making it across the Swiss border in 1944.