Son of American WWII pilot retraces father’s escape across France

An event on Sunday will explore the story of Paul Miller and showcase the journey he took to evade capture after crash landing in the French countryside

The valleys of the Pyrénées, where Paul Miller made his escape from German forces
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The son of an American WWII pilot – who fled to Spain after crash-landing in south-west France in 1944 – will follow his father’s footsteps and trace his incredible escape.

John Miller, son of US pilot Paul Miller, will visit Escos (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) – situated between Pau and Bayonne – on Sunday March 5, where his father’s plane crash-landed exactly 79 years ago.

He will then follow part of the journey his father made, and meet the young boy who discovered his father’s plane, as well as relatives of the individuals who helped his father on the 80km journey across the Pyrénées.

The event has been arranged by Aérocherche, an aviation archaeology association based in Toulouse, who helped piece together the tale and bring it to life for the family of the pilot.

An extraordinary journey

It is the president of Aérocherce, Gilles Collaveri, who is responsible for organising the event, bringing together the family of Mr Miller and the French citizens – or their relatives – who helped him escape.

After hearing a story about a plane that crashed in Escos during the war, Mr Collaveri reached out to the mayor of the village, who put him into contact with Léon, the boy who discovered the wreckage of the plane.

Further research led him to the pilot’s escape log in the American archives, as well as a first-hand account from someone who helped the American escape.

It was only the pilot’s third mission in Europe, after conducting over 90 in the Pacific theatre over the course of the war.

After the tank of his bomber plane was punctured by German fighter planes, Mr Miller realised he did not have enough fuel to make it back to England, and so changed his course in an attempt to reach Spain, which claimed it was neutral in WWII, despite its closeness to Nazi Germany under Francisco Franco.

He ran out of fuel before he could make it, forcing him into an emergency landing in a field in Escos, 80km from the border. The pilot failed to set his plane on fire as he escaped, which was then discovered by Léon, who was only four years old at the time.

Attempting to evade the Germans – who had issued a reward for his capture – the pilot hid in various farms as he made his way south, until he reached the village of Estérenguibel, 50km from Escos.

It was in this village that by chance he met a man who had lived in the US for ten years, who tasked his son, Martin Gaztanaga, with helping Mr Miller across the border and to freedom.

The American successfully completed the journey, returning to England to continue flying for the remainder of the war. He continued to serve in the Air Force after the end of WWII, seeing action in Korea.

Read also: Last survivor of French war massacre village Oradour-sur-Glane dies

Retracing his father’s footsteps

Using online forums filled with fellow aviation fanatics, Mr Collaveri was able to find the details of Mr Miller’s family and reach out to them.

Initially, his family were unaware of the tale of their father’s escape.

Mr Miller’s children from his second marriage are now aware of the story, and son John will visit Escos for the first time this weekend.

The event will start with Mr Miller Jr meeting the mayor of the village, as well as Léon, who is now 81, with Mr Collaveri joining the group.

Léon, incidentally, became a pilot in the French Air Force when he grew up, perhaps first inspired when he found Mr Miller’s plane.

After spending some time in Escos, they will see some of the locations Paul Miller hid during his journey, before meeting the 82-year old daughter of Martin, the man who helped Paul Miller escape.

Paul Miller took five days to complete his journey, and whilst his son will not spend as much time traversing the mountain paths, it is sure to be an emotional journey as he retraces his father’s footsteps and meets those who helped him along the way.

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