[av_heading heading=’Donald Kenyon Willis – US Air Force’ tag=’h3′ style=” subheading_active=” show_icon=” icon=’ue800′ font=” size=” av-medium-font-size-title=” av-small-font-size-title=” av-mini-font-size-title=” subheading_size=” av-medium-font-size=” av-small-font-size=” av-mini-font-size=” icon_size=” av-medium-font-size-1=” av-small-font-size-1=” av-mini-font-size-1=” color=” custom_font=” icon_color=” margin=” margin_sync=’true’ padding=’10’ icon_padding=’10’ link=” link_target=” id=” custom_class=” av_uid=’av-kwhoaxcj’ admin_preview_bg=”][/av_heading]
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‘JOURNEY TO THE HORIZON’ tells the story of three fighter pilots and two Lancaster crews who were shot down by the Germans. It follows them on the run, hiding, in captivity and in some cases in death. They were Britons, Canadians, New Zealanders and Americans. Five of them met in Paris while being guided by members of the Comete Escape line, others evaded in different ways. Some endured the harsh life in a POW-camp, while in one case an airman even ended up in Buchenwald concentration camp. Those who died now rest at various cemeteries in France.
The main character is Donald Kenyon Willis, an American pilot who fought with the Fins against the Russians in 1940, then joined the Norwegian Naval Air Arm against the Germans, escaped to the Shetlands, joined the RAF as one of the first Eagle Squadron pilots, until he joined the USAAF. After the war and a spell as a base commander in Austria and Germany he became a test pilot in JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) experiments from Wright-Patterson Air Base in Ohio.
Donald Kenyon Willis was an American furniture maker and a whiskey smuggler, who decided that he should volunteer to help the Finnish people in their fight against the communist Soviet Union. He sold his car, booked a birth on a freighter to Tornioon in Finland and offered his services as a pilot in the Finnish Air Force. After a brief training he flew Bristol Bulldog biplanes in a reconnaissance role over the frontline near the Lake Ladoga area. When the Finns surrendered, he fled the country at the end of March and arrived in Kirkenes a few days after the German invasion of 9 April 1940 had taken place. Having received documents from the Norwegian embassy in Finland he reported to the Norwegian army and was quickly accepted as a crewmember on a Heinkel He115 floatplane of the Norwegian naval Air Services. When things went wrong, Willis followed his pilot Hans-Andreas Bugge and flew to the Shetland Islands to save the aircraft from German requisition. For w while the Norwegian He115s were used by SOU for covert missions from Malta. Willis followed his Norwegian friends to Canada. He returned the Britain and became a Spitfire pilot in one of the American Eagle squadrons and stayed until the Americans entered the war. Willis then joined the 4th Fighter Group. In April 1944 he participated in a P38 raid against Gutersloh airfield. After his aircraft was hit, he force-landed at Oud-Gastel in Holland behind a football pitch where a match was being played. Some of the supporters took him to the pitch, gave him a raincoat and a cap and when the Germans arrived, chasing all the supporters from the field, he too left in a hurry. After staying with a Dutch family, he wandered across the Dutch border until he reached Antwerp and was spotted by someone who was connected to the Comete Evasion and Escape line. After a long journey Willis and his four allied companions crossed the Pyrenees during the night before D-Day, thus becoming one of the last five airmen to evade capture. After D-Day all Allied aircrew were told to stay hidden until their allied friend has arrived. Interestingly all the aircraft Willis flew while with the RAF and USAAF were called Ridge Runner, which is the name for an alcohol smuggler. His fellow evaders were two Americans Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas H. Hubbard and 2nd Lieutenant Jack Cornett and Britons Pilot Officer Len Barnes and Sergeant Ron Emeny.
In the book Onderwater and Lissette also write about the sometimes dreadful experiences of the fellow crew members of Barnes and Emeny, after their two Lancasters crashed in France. In the course of the research Hans Onderwater followed the same evasion route, meeting the helpers who risked their lives, crossed the Pyrenees on foot with the Basque guide of 1944 until he too reached Gibraltar. He visited Stalag Luft 1 Barth on the Baltic coast and Stalag Luft 3 Sagan in Poland, Buchenwald near Weimar and Ravensbrück near Berlin. He visited the five airmen or their families and corresponded with other people who dealt with the evaders. During the last forty years he interviewed over 100 people who were in some major or minor way connected to the airmen and their experiences.
Brian Lissette, being a police officer in New Zealand, got in touch with Hans in 2017 and managed to find relatives of all airmen involved in the story of the two Lancaster bombers. Himself being a relative of the pilot of one of the Lancasters, he followed an amazing trail, which ended at the grave of his uncle Warrant Officer Leslie Lissette, who stayed behind the controls of his burning Lancaster until the living members of his crew had successfully jumped. When it was his turn, the aircraft was too low for him to be able to take to his parachute and Skipper Lissette died in the aircraft.
The book is a rare example of intense research by two determined men, who visited each other and became friends. The book is the result of mutual interest, friendship and a quest for the truth and an attempt to give credit to the airmen as well as to those who helped them. The book must be read to be able to understand the experiences of the often very young airmen, the resistance members who played a deadly game with the Germans and their collaborators, and the families waiting for many months to know the fate of their loved ones.
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