By Sherry Lucas
Historical fiction grabbed her imagination growing up, but historical fact is what ignited Sherri Ottis’ interest in history as an adult — an interest that turned into a passion that took her to the National Archives and several times to Europe, retracing routes once followed by downed airmen in World War II France and researching the people who helped them escape.
Ottis, who just completed her twenty-fifth year teaching at Clinton High School, was a graduate student when she started the project that she calls, with a fond laugh, “my third child” — her book, Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground.
She went back to school at Mississippi College when her youngest entered kindergarten, soon switching her studies from elementary education to history. In search of a thesis topic, her MC history professor Kirk Ford shared the memoir of his uncle, Roland Barlow, who’d been shot down over France during World War II, and escaped.
“It was fascinating – and I took it and ran,” Ottis says. Collecting books to research, she found a dearth of current writing on the topic, so she tapped Ford’s help, “to see if I could have it not so dissertation-ish, and see if I could get it published afterward.”
World War II, the resistance and intelligence work had piqued her interest, but the human story at its root really propelled her study.
“It’s such a story of humans who put themselves at risk to help others.…They all loved humanity.”
The effort involved men, women, teenagers, children, people from every religious background and different political groups.
“That was interesting to me,” said Ottis, “that there was something that united them in the midst of all that division.”
Her master’s thesis focused on the airmen shot down over France during World War II and how the people created underground escape lines to help them evade capture. She plunged into reading and research, including taking a trip with fellow grad students to the National Archives, where she saw the handwritten documents and signatures of people she’d read about in the out-of-print and hard-to-find books she’d tracked down.
The Air Forces Escape & Evasion Society, a group of airmen who had been shot down or who had escaped or evaded during World War II, met yearly for a reunion, so Ottis went to one in Washington, D.C., and spent time talking with the airmen.
“When I started getting addresses and writing to a lot of the different men to get their stories, some of them were in contact with … the people in France who helped them escape during the war.”
Via this still-strong network, it wasn’t long before Ottis was getting mail from people in Belgium and France who had been helpers during the war, offering assistance and information.
Escape lines were set up as a hierarchy, Ottis says. For instance, Pat O’Leary established an escape line, with main agents working different regions of France. In each, they established groups of people who had safe houses, who would collect food to help feed the airmen, and who would be responsible for transporting them on trains from one place to another.
“Nobody was supposed to help anyone, except the person before them or after them. That way, if they were captured, they could only give up two people if they were tortured,” Ottis says.
Alex Wattebled, one of the regional agents, had been arrested, beaten, tortured and sent to a concentration camp when the line was betrayed.
“I had read all of his story and all of the events associated with it, and one day I went out to the mail and there was an envelope – the return address said ‘Alex Wattebled,’” Ottis recounts. “I just looked at the envelope for about an hour before I opened it, because it was just like holding that little piece of history in my hands — it was the most amazing thing!”
Wattebled had gotten her name and offered to help.
“He was a beautiful person,” Ottis says. “I did get to meet him when I went to France.”
Ottis audited two semesters of French at MC, to learn the language from a reading/writing point of view, to help her with French documents and correspondence.
“It wasn’t perfect, but they understood what I was saying,” in shorter letters. She could also call on her mother, a native French speaker originally from the Seychelles islands, for help translating longer stories.
In 1999, after she’d finished her master’s degree, she joined an international group in France to retrace the Pat O’Leary Line from World War II, a four-day hike through the Pyrenees Mountains. She was among Americans whose fathers had been evaders and French and Dutch people whose relatives had been helpers.
“I did not make it,” she says of the entire route. “I walked for the first two days.…I wanted to see what it felt like to be an evader, and I found out.” She got weak and dehydrated. “I had blisters within blisters within blisters,” she says, including a raw, ugly wound on her heel. She lost toenails.
Still, “It was a fantastic experience, just to see what they were up against. It wasn’t a big deal for me to quit….but for them to quit meant they weren’t getting to Spain.”
In 2000, she spent several weeks in Belgium, researching archives.
In another trip to France that year, she retraced the Comet escape line, a two-day hike that was more coastal route, yet “still fairly grueling.” She’d finished her master’s degree by this time, and had already sent a few chapters of her manuscript to publishers, but still had more to add.
In France, she gathered additional information and stories from helpers she’d corresponded with.
“This time, I got to talk to them in person.” They shared pictures, too, and she took photos of her own. Most spoke English, and she’d taken her mother along, who translated when needed. Her contacts shared artifacts, also, including an escape map made of silk so it could withstand water and sweat, and a deportation pin from a concentration camp survivor.
“They were very generous people, very giving. … That’s the kind of people they were. They loved humanity, and that’s why they risked it all to do it. And they loved their country, too, and this was their way of fighting back. It was a way that people who couldn’t be soldiers could fight back.”
Her book was published in 2001, by University of Kentucky Press. In addition to the light it brings to these heroes, Ottis says she is proud of the avenues it provided that helped people find out more about their family history.
“There were a lot of men who didn’t talk about the events,” and families didn’t know their stories, which were often traumatic. She recalls a letter from a daughter who credited Ottis’ book with giving her the information to ask her father questions for the first time, and finally learn about his experiences in the war.
“Their families have something they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Ottis says. “They’ve all got something of this person and their contribution to this country, and, if I hadn’t done this, they would have never written it down, and their families would never have known, and that means a lot.”