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Reflections on the Film

An essay by Associate Producer Walter Verstraeten, Antwerp, Belgium

An essay by Associate Producer Walter Verstraeten, Antwerp, Belgium

Marcel Harnie and Bill Grosvenor

Belgian Resistant Marcel Harnie and former P-47 pilot Bill Grosvenor - reunited in Brussels after nearly 60 years.

On November 30, 1943, when 1st Lt. William D. "Bill" Grosvenor parachuted down less than a hundred yards from his furiously burning P-47D Thunderbolt fighter plane, skies were dreary. So were Bill's prospects. His chances of evading German hands were slim. But there was a saying in Belgium during the War that held true for Bill: "If you need help in Belgium, just knock on any door." During Bill's first hours on the ground, he met people who did exactly what he had hoped: they helped. But none so much as Elza Raes, his first helper in Belgium. A simple woman on a bicycle who took him in tow, brought him to a local farm, and left him in the good care of Vic Vermeiren and Marc Harnie. By night-fall, Bill was in hiding with the lifelines in Brussels.

Both Vic and Elza and hundreds of men and women after them would tend to Bill as they had done to thousands of Allied aviators before and afterward. They were people who came from all levels of society. They were housewives like Elza, often having many children to feed in times when food was rationed and hunger was their daily companion. Or they were police officers, longshoremen, judges, students, young children even. They ranged from professors to street sweepers. You wouldn't recognize them. They didn't have the look of Hollywood heroes. But their actions made them heroes, though they would be the last to admit it. They helped Allied aviators stranded in Belgium get back to England, back to the air war against the hated Third Reich.

The stranded aviators were not aware that they were being hidden, fed, and clothed by people who were part of a well-organized escape line system. Two of the escape lines that helped Bill and many of his colleagues were the EVA (short for "evasion") and the Comète lines. EVA provided the safe-houses, food, and clothing as well as fake ID cards for the aviators. Comète helped them out of Belgium and across France into Spain and Portugal. The names of the escape lines were often unknown by anyone outside of MI9 in London (MI9 was the small branch of the British intelligence service that coordinated and helped fund escape and evasion efforts on the continent.). One person in the lifeline wouldn't know about the next person in line. They just went about their duty in the strong belief that they could help restore freedom to their country, knowing that they were putting their lives and the lives of their families at risk.

Harboring and repatriating an aviator was as much a secret operation as was the whole of the lifelines system to the German Abwehr, Hitler's most dreaded counter-espionage service. Though the top men in the Abwehr were Germans, their operators in the field were collaborators. They were nearly all native Belgian and French men and women who hailed Nazism and betrayed their own people for personal profit. Many of the collaborators spoke fluent English and managed to infiltrate the lines posing as British agents. Bit by bit, they learned how the escape line system worked, often better than the lifeline people themselves. And one after another the helpers found themselves and their family arrested, brutally questioned, and tortured in ways beyond words. In the end, many were dragged away to the scaffolds or to the dark insides of the concentration camps where they perished in anonymity. Over 700 helpers in the Comète line would not live to see the liberation of their country. But they managed to get close to 800 Allied aviators back to England. And Comète was merely one of many lines that equally deserve to be honored for heroism. Reading through the thousands of names in the escape lines files, one cannot but bow ones head in deep and humble respect.

Blanche Escrenier-Page

Eva operative Blanche Escrinier-Page and P-47 pilot Bill Grosvenor

When we first embarked on this documentary journey, we planned to relate Bill Grosvenor's Belgian adventure. There was enough there to make for a good old-fashioned war documentary. And then as we began probing the subject, we met the helpers. We met the men and women that helped Allied aviators during the war. They told us of their fears at the time, of seeing their families arrested. They relayed, often in subdued terms, their inhuman and unspeakable sufferings in concentration camps. And bit by bit, we realized that the film was not just about Bill's Belgian adventure. It was the story of these now old and fragile men and women sitting across from us. They made us kin to the tragedy and drama of their lives as they were trying to do what they believed to be the only thing to do: help people in distress, despite the danger and risks involved. Their stories humbled us, but at the same time lighted the fire in us that would lead to the documentary that we now can show the world. Many of these former helpers seeing the film in its early stages would embrace us in thankful words and tears. We have become their friends as much as they have become ours.

The working title of this film was "Rendezvous with Freedom." But as we talked with airmen, and read their debriefing files from the U.S. National Archives, a new title emerged. The people in the escape lines were, indeed, the last best hope for airmen who found themselves stranded in a foreign land, at the mercy of complete strangers. We hope that this film will perpetuate and honor the legacy of these courageous people. Their role in the war effort cannot be overstated.


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When to Watch

Last Best Hope premieres October 30, 2006, 10 p.m. Eastern
Check your local listings.