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The one who got away

A Canadian pilot's remarkable tale of survival behind enemy lines

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Apeldoorn, Netherlands — There is a riddle at the core of Anatole Côté's military career.

The 87-year-old former Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant from Quebec City is sitting in a café, toying with a ham and cheese sandwich, when he is asked whether he has ever been to Apeldoorn before.

"I was born here but I've never been here before," he says, and smiles as eyebrows raise in puzzlement.

There's an explanation, of course, but getting to it involves hearing a fascinating account of one man's war and the wit, skill and luck needed to survive.

It begins on the night of Jan. 14, 1945: Mr. Côté was flying a Typhoon fighter-bomber over German positions in southern Netherlands when a burst of flak hit the plane's cooling system.

With coolant leaking badly, the temperature of the engine began to rise. In training, pilots were told that the engine would burst into flames at 275 degrees Fahrenheit.

So, when the gauge was nudging that mark, Mr. Côté decided he was flying too low to bail out and headed for the ground.

With the plane's wheels up, he crash-landed safely enough near Dalfsen, a town about 50 kilometres northeast of Apeldoorn. He clipped a tree, knocking off a huge branch, but slid to a stop in the deep snow of that wretchedly cold winter.

It was Mr. Côté's 57th, and last, mission.

Four months earlier, he had bailed out over Luxembourg when he ran out of fuel, but was lucky enough to land behind Allied lines. There was no such luck this time.

Within minutes, a Dutch farmer warned him to flee into some nearby woods because the Germans tracked downed planes and went looking for them. So Mr. Côté took off for the forest, slumped under a tree and fell asleep.

He awoke to the sound of two men whistling It's a Long Way to Tipperary, a signal the Dutch underground used to reassure downed pilots they were there to help.

Thus began a remarkable 81-day journey in which Mr. Côté lived among German soldiers and, by adopting the persona of a Dutch worker, survived to greet his British liberators.

He recounts this in astonishing detail as he picks at his sandwich, calling forth names and places -- even of restaurants -- from six decades ago.

At first he stayed with farmers, sleeping in haystacks, learning how to roll a cigar and churn butter while he read a biography of William of Orange -- the only English-language book he could find.

He stayed with a policeman who showed him how to flee to the attic when enemy soldiers neared. Subsequently, he shared a house with nine German soldiers billeted there. He learned to say "Morgen" to his enemy with a perfect guttural accent to avoid exposing his identity.

Mr. Côté deepened his cover by persuading someone in the city of Zwolle to forge papers showing he was Johannes Smit, a contractor born in Apeldoorn, the "birthplace" he laid eyes on yesterday for the first time.

He once got his sleigh caught up in the door of a German officer's car and feared for his safety as he looked at his shiny black boots.

He considered swimming across the Rhine to find U.S. Army troops marching into Germany, but was told he would freeze to death if he tried. He survived German artillery attacks that came too close to the house where he was staying and he lived through Allied strafing as well.

At one point, staying with a Jewish lawyer masquerading as a chicken farmer, he wrote a long letter to his family. The lawyer/farmer buried it in a bottle in his yard with instructions to send it back to Quebec if he heard that Mr. Côté had died or been captured.

But his anxieties disappeared the day in early April that he heard a German soldier yelling "Raus, raus, die Tommies zind hier." Soon after, British soldiers appeared at his house.

This week, Mr. Côté has been revisiting the region where he spent the most nerve-racking weeks of his life. He discovered the big tree branch he shore off all those decades ago is still there on the ground and that the descendants of the strangers who showed him kindness remember him still.

This week, he paid a last-minute visit to Dirk Keiser, one of the many Dutch who sheltered him, and discovered that he had invited nieces, nephews, neighbours and friends -- all of whom showered him with friendship and gratitude for Canada's role in liberating the Netherlands.

He has been accompanied by his daughter, Susan, one of his six children, and her husband, Alan Freeman, a Globe and Mail correspondent based in Washington.

Mr. Côté said he has enjoyed his role in the delegation commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, but he gets more of a kick out of these visits.

"It's interesting but the sentimental part has faded with the years," he said. "But I'm always glad to see fellows like Dirk."

Yesterday, he called on Fritz Warmink, whom he met as a 16-year-old boy in his last few days of evading captivity. There was a Canadian flag flying from the Warmink home in honour of their guest.

Over tea, the two men looked at a new local history book with a picture of Mr. Côté as a young, dark-haired flyboy. They reminisced about the old days and talked, too, of the Second World War British bomber that was discovered buried nearby a month ago, and whose bombs are to be detonated today.

It was a reminder of a war that never seems to go away.

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