August 15, 1944 was a scorching hot afternoon at the Pantin freight yard, near Paris’s Gare L’Est station, as the Gestapo forced a massive group of Allied airmen into cattle cars. The heat surprised no one. After all, it was late summer and the humidity of that day only compounded the misery of the 168 men who had been marched two to three hours from the Fresnes prison to the waiting train.
Believing their final destination was a prisoner of war camp maintained by the Luftwaffe, the flyers were packed into the cattle cars, each built to carry 40 people or eight cattle (40/8). The Gestapo, confirming all the cruelty and indifference of their reputation, crammed 95 men into one car. United States Army Air Forces First Lieutenant Joseph Frank “Joe” Moser remembered:
“The only ventilation was provided by openings about one foot high and three feet wide near the top and at each end of the car. Barbed wire was stretched across these small openings to discourage anyone from thinking they might fit through. Two five-gallon buckets had been pushed into the car with us. One had water and it was to be our water supply. The other was empty, and it would be our toilet.”
Each of the 168 (82 from the US, 48 from the UK, 26 from Canada, 9 from Australia, two from New Zealand, and one from Jamaica) had endured a twisted path to this moment, to Fresnes, and then to the train. Moser had bailed out of his P-38 Lightning on his 44th mission only two days before. His stay at Fresnes had been brief, yet terrifying enough. For others like Canadian-born Harold Denis Bastable, the navigator on a Royal Air Force Halifax III bomber brought down during a June 8 raid on rail lines in Paris, the time in German hands had been longer and more exacting. In the case of First Lieutenant Levitt C. Beck Jr. (1920-1944), the main subject of this article, he had arrived at the freight yard following an extraordinary and tragic journey.
Early in the morning of June 29, 1944, Beck, a member of the 514th Fighter Squadron, 406th Fighter Group, had supplied cover on a bombing mission. One target was a bridge on the Seine River, southwest of Paris. According to later testimony, four German Focke-Wulf 190s dove out of the clouds and attacked American planes at 13,500 feet. Beck went to their aid. During a head-on confrontation, he broke left, but his aircraft, raked by German fire, sustained engine damage. Second Lieutenant Bryant Cramer, part of Beck’s squadron, later stated that he heard Beck’s message—“my airplane is hit. I think I’ll have to bail out.” He claimed, mistakenly, to have witnessed a parachute dropping about a mile south of Dreux.
It seems miraculous Beck survived. Indeed, he called himself “the luckiest guy in the whole air force,” having conducted a “belly landing” during a gigantic attack on enemy gun emplacements and troop positions in Cherbourg only six days earlier. As his plane descended on the 29th, he spied “the longest clear stretch of land I think I ever saw in France.” Deciding not to parachute out due to Flak, he guided his Thunderbolt down onto a field.
Although the fighter began to burn, he got clear of it. Seeing some trees, which meant cover, he headed for them right away. German machine-gun fire greeted him. Once among the trees, thankfully, a 19 year old Frenchman named Roland Larson waved to him and rescued the “Américain.” A handshake and exchange of thumbs-up gestures conveyed all that needed to be said until Beck received civilian clothes and subsequently found refuge in the little town of Anet in France’s picturesque Loire Valley.
Several days after the crash, Independence Day, July 4, 1944, must have been incredibly bizarre for Beck. Sitting in a small room over Café de la Mairie in Anet, he composed a letter to his parents, Levitt C. Beck Sr., and Verne E. Beck. Wartime writing by combatants often takes one of three forms. The first stems from lulls in the fighting or opportunities provided by time behind the lines, the quick missive to a loved one or entry in the journal. Perhaps, as with J.D. Salinger, more ambitious projects fill the respite. In the second case, there is a sense of obligation to record terrible events: deaths of comrades or witnessing horrors like the Nazi camps. A third form also exists—when the servicemember feels the compulsion, as did Beck, to grab paper and pen “just in case my luck has run out.”
He hoped this would result in a book, to be called Fighter Pilot, which would show Americans the experience of being part of the Army Air Forces. The manuscript, containing what Beck wrote to his mother and father and several subsequent journal entries, along with letters written to his parents after the war, is truly invaluable and reveals how he faced a terrible unknown in the summer of 1944.
So far, good fortune had not abandoned Beck. Sheltered by a French resistance group, his modest lodging in the café kept him out of sight of locals. Not from worry of informers, but out of concern that one of Anet’s inhabitants might, through a slip of the tongue, give it away to the Germans that an American had been hidden in their midst. Evidently, members of the resistance group—Beck’s personnel file describes them as the Sorel-Moussel Resistance Group—assured him they were doing everything they could to return him to England.
How they intended to do that is revealed slowly as one works through Beck’s writings, probably because actual plans were in flux in late June and early July. He understood all too well what capture by the Germans might entail. “I may be taken prisoner,” Beck wrote, “and if so, I have no idea what they will do to me. I shall be wearing my French clothing over my officer’s clothes and I suppose they could shoot me for that. If I have to stand in front of the firing squad I shall not be afraid or sorry. I shall grin at the stupid Germans and know that soon they will all be dead too.”
The letter then flashed back to his childhood. Beck brought up what July 4 was like on Bellaire Boulevard in Houston, Texas. And pained memories of his deceased brother Floyd Meredith. He reconnected as well to the family’s move to Huntington Park, California and to celebrating July 4 with his great friend Bob. Overwhelming homesickness yielded to intense patriotism in the text.
The letter divulges Beck’s own anxiety that he was neither patriotic nor strong enough for the tasks at hand but also presents vigorous declarations. “I shall be very proud to die for my country,” he told his mother. To his father he professed, “Your guts were born in me and I’m very proud that they were. You can think of me only as your son, or you can think of me as a ‘Son of the United States.’ If I were afraid to die I would never want to face you or any other American again, as long as I might live.” Hearing “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy” over the radio a few nights before moved him immeasurably.
Beck mentioned watching an Allied air raid—and how much he wanted to be up there battling the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. During one day in July, he observed more than 100 German fighters en route to Normandy. He saw, too, puffs of smoke in the sky from enemy 88s as Allied planes passed over. Once a ME 109 flew so close to the café, Beck glimpsed the pilot’s head. On another occasion, a convoy of 50-75 vehicles streamed past. In one of the most arresting moments of the book, Beck described looking down on three German soldiers in a half-track as they ate their lunch. Only 20 feet or so away, he observed their youthfulness. “Those three Germans will probably put up a gallant fight,” he mused, “but what can three kids do against just one American man!”
Rightly, Beck worried about how his parents would take the news that he was missing. But the care and concern he received in Anet comforted him. Fighter Pilot exhibits deep affection and appreciation for his French hosts. Roland Larson, who claimed to have killed five Germans, and Paulette Mesnard, the owner of Café de la Mairie, won his trust and friendship. Paulette’s cooking (he referred to her in the book as “Madame Paulette”) dazzled him and the 10 cigarettes handed over every two days were plenty (later he had to slow the pace of his smoking).
Every other night he could listen to the radio in his room and hear American music, which caused wrenching homesickness. Beck respected the courage and sacrifice of the population. He came to sympathize, too, with how profoundly conflicted many French were who had suffered immensely from Allied air raids. One day, he would return to Anet after Nazi Germany had been defeated. First, he had to escape.
For several days, Roland insisted that Beck remain in Anet until the Allies arrived. Beck insisted on breaking out, however. The scheme revealed to Beck by the resistance group had him and a companion walk after nightfall to the small town of Sorel-Moussel (perhaps that is the reason why this resistance group bears that name in Beck’s file). There he would wait for a few days. A plane would then land, which would be his ticket back to England. Full of confidence, Beck expected to rejoin his outfit by July 21! He ran through all the intelligence he could supply to his superiors about the German presence in the area.
A farewell dinner was prepared for Beck on July 16. He did all the things one does when preparing for a journey. He showered, shaved, and trimmed his nails. Writing several final letters to family and friends, Beck penned a special letter to his girlfriend, Faye, declaring, “our love will never die. It shall be part of your life and mine, that will live on, no matter what may happen to either of us.” He relinquished his manuscript to Paulette. After victory, he would reclaim it. If he did not return, she was to mail it to his parents in Huntington Park, California. It must have been a sad, yet exciting moment. Like many Allied flyers shot down by the Germans, Beck owed so much to the French Resistance. To repay his debt of gratitude, he promised to take Roland up for a ride in his Thunderbolt. If only this story concluded with a successful trip to the site and flight back to English soil.
The course of First Lieutenant Levitt C. Beck Jr.’s life takes a much darker turn here.
An informer—one of the most dreadful words that could be uttered in the sheltering of Allied airmen—made sure Beck never boarded any aircraft. Several days after his departure on the night of July 17-18, 1944, following nearly three weeks in hiding with the Resistance, he was betrayed by a man who went by the name “Jean-Jacques.” Not to the German military but ultimately to the Gestapo. After making it to a farmhouse near Dreux, south of Anet, where he met several other airmen who had been hidden, a red-haired woman drove them to Paris, to the Piccadilly Hotel. Told that a change of plans had occurred and they were to return to England via Spain, they were packed in the back of a truck and transported directly to Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Foch.
The treachery of this “Jean-Jacques” explain why Beck was one of the 168 Allied airmen filing, apprehensively, into the 40/8s at the Pantin freight yard after they were removed from Fresnes on August 15. Paris would be liberated just ten days later. Beck joined Moser, Bastable, and all the others on the long, nightmarish rail journey. Imprisoned members of the French Resistance were put on the train as well. What transpired aboard and beyond is covered so powerfully in the 2011 documentary Lost Airmen of Buchenwald.
The final destination was no Stalag Luft camp. It was Buchenwald, the dreaded, SS-run concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, where so many of Nazism’s political opponents had been confined. During the five-day trip, Beck evidently wore a black scarf made by the mother of a member of his squadron. Upon arrival, SS men welcomed the flyers by shaving their heads, applying disinfectant, and pointing to the chimneys in the camp, saying with glee that they were the sole way out. Once in the confines of Buchenwald, one of the other airmen remembers Beck’s love of playing jazz (he helped form a band) and his sense of humor. His encounters seemed to always end in good impressions and memories.
Beck did not live, though, to reclaim his book and tell his own story. In October 1944, he contracted pneumonia. According to Joe Chopp, a Belgian inmate, Beck likely became ill due to being compelled to stand out in the rain and sleep in wet clothing. Chopp contended Beck died in the Buchenwald infirmary during the night of October 29-30, 1944. German officials gave October 31 as his date of death. His last thoughts were of his parents. Cremated by the SS, Beck became one of Buchenwald’s 56,000 victims. Most of the other flyers were transferred to Stalag Luft III after being discovered by a group of Luftwaffe officials. This came too late for First Lieutenant Levitt C. Beck Jr.
American investigators learned of Beck’s fate right after Buchenwald’s liberation in April 1945. Due to the efforts of Pauline Mesnard, Beck’s manuscript reached his grieving parents in Huntington Park in early January 1946. They saw to it that it was published as a book. Because of Mesnard and those who journeyed with Beck to Buchenwald, we can read Fighter Pilot and learn the story of this airman just 24 years old. Beck’s name is among the more than 72,000 Americans from World War II listed as unaccounted for by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.