In every period of American aviation history there is one pilot who stands above the rest–Rickenbacker, Lindbergh, Doolittle. In our time, no doubt the pilot best known throughout the world is retired Brig. Gen. Charles E. Yeager. Everyone with an interest in aviation knows that Chuck Yeager was the first to break the sound barrier, flying with two broken ribs that he concealed from the brass. The story of that historic flight and of an Air Force career lived near the edge is told in his autobiography, Yeager.
For first exceeding the speed of sound, Captain Yeager was awarded the MacKay and Collier Trophies and a special Congressional Medal of Honor. The “Valor” series couldn’t be complete without a story on this extraordinary blue-suit test pilot who always will be the epitome of the gung ho fighter jock.
Not so many know or remember that Chuck Yeager earned a place in this series as a 21-year-old flight officer. On March 5, 1944, while Yeager was flying his eighth mission with one victory already confirmed, an FW-190 nailed his P-51, Glamorous Glennis. (All his planes, including the X-1, were named for his wife, who, he says, would have made “one hell of a pilot.”) Bits and pieces flying around the cockpit left their mark; nevertheless, he bailed out and hid in the woods near Bordeaux in southwestern France until he made contact with the French underground. For nearly a week the underground hid him in a hayloft, where he narrowly escaped discovery by a German patrol.
After a two-night bicycle ride with a French doctor, Yeager was turned over to the Maquis, the armed French resistance, to wait for the snows in the 10,000-foot Pyrenees mountains to melt enough for an escape into Spain. Yeager worked with the Maquis as an explosives expert until he and other evaders were taken at night to a departure point near Lourdes. They were warned about heavy German patrols along the Spanish border and left to find their way through snow, rain, and often freezing temperatures that blanketed the mountain passes.
Chuck Yeager and a navigator named Patterson soon were far ahead of the others. After four days of climbing, battered by gale-force winds, they found an abandoned logger’s cabin and collapsed in exhaustion. During the night a German patrol, suspecting escapees might be in the cabin, opened fire on it. Yeager went out a rear window, dragging the wounded Patterson, and slid down an icy flume into a creek. There he discovered that the unconscious navigator’s lower leg was hanging by a tendon. Yeager cut the tendon with a pocket knife and bandaged the stump of Patterson’s leg with a shirt.
The situation wasn’t encouraging: Yeager was wet, cold, an unknown distance from the border, facing German patrols in between, and encumbered by an unconscious 180-pound companion who probably couldn’t survive. Nevertheless, he wasn’t about to abandon the wounded man. In pitch dark he started back up the mountain, dragging Patterson foot by foot through the snow, often slipping back down, then struggling on toward the top, gasping for breath in the thin air.
How long he fought the mountain Chuck Yeager doesn’t know. After periods of exhausted semiconsciousness, he saw the sky turn red in the east. They were at the summit. He could see a road far below–Spain at last.
Yeager left the still-unconscious Patterson at the side of the road where he was sure to be picked up, then pushed himself another 20 miles to the nearest village, where he was interned. Patterson was rescued by the police and taken to a hospital where he recovered. In mid-May, Yeager arrived at Leiston, 60 miles north of London, where the 357th Fighter Group was based.
Regulations prohibited an evadee from flying combat missions again for fear of his revealing, under torture, information on the French resistance if shot down again. Chuck Yeager, a very junior flight officer, fought that regulation all the way up to a meeting with General Eisenhower. Ike was so impressed with the young man that he got permission from Washington to send Yeager back to the wars. That was one of the General’s best decisions. Chuck Yeager ended his tour in the 357th as a captain officially credited with 11 and a half victories, including five on one mission and one Me-262 jet. His stubborn determination to finish what he started as an evadee and combat pilot never weakened during his distinguished career as test pilot, commander, and–always–fighter pilot.
Published February 1991. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.