Many families in America share a common experience; they have loved ones who served their country, came home, and never spoke a word about their story. The horror of what they went through was too much to speak of, so their memories were lost when they died. It wasn’t until 1983—nearly 40 years after the end of World War II—that Barbara Wojcik of White Bear Lake learned the amazing survival story of her Uncle Bud.
Second Lt. James “Bud” Wilschke had been shot down over France during World War II, but made it home safely thanks to many French citizen “helpers.”
“I only found out about Bud’s story because my dad mentioned it during one of our weekly calls. He said his sister, Rosemary, and her husband, Bud, had traveled to France to meet the people who helped him during the war,” Wojcik said.
At the time she learned about her Uncle Bud’s story, Wojcik was busy raising her family, but she tucked the information away. Twenty years later, in 2013, she started exploring it.
“I attended a book club meeting where we were discussing ‘The Nightingale’ by Kristin Hannah, about the struggle of two French sisters to survive and resist the German occupation during World War II. In that story, the sisters helped American airmen escape over the Pyrenees, like my uncle did. That part of the story was met with disbelief, but I knew it had happened in real life. I decided right then and there it was time to research my own family story,” recalled Wojcik.
Getting started wasn’t easy. Wojcik’s family and Bud’s had fallen out of touch. “As I was growing up in Chicago, other than significant holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, I didn’t see much of that side of the family, even though Bud and his family lived nearby,” said Wojcik, who decided the time had come to reach back out.
She called Bud’s son, her cousin Jim, who eagerly handed over a box filled with war memorabilia. “His dad had told him very little about his war experiences, but the puzzle pieces were there,” said Wojcik, who dug through the box. Inside, she found a treasure trove. Photographs, newspaper clippings, letters and war memorabilia yielded the information she needed to build a timeline of what had happened and start work on the manuscript that would eventually be titled, “Bud’s Jacket: An American Flyer Evades the Nazis in Occupied France.” The book was published by 4 Square Books of Stillwater in November 2020.
The story begins with an air battle on May 17, 1943, in the skies over the Bay of Biscay off the western coast of France. As bullets and flak tore his B17 plane apart, the bombardier jumped out an escape hatch, his first and only jump. Hurtling toward the sea, Bud pulled his parachute ripcord and hoped for the best as he drifted toward land. He crash-landed onto a wooden fence in the commune of Ploemel in the Brittany region of France, and was knocked out. When he came to, he began his six-month effort to find his way home.
Using the materials in her cousin’s collection, extensive research she did on the incident and in-person interviews, Wojcik reconstructed Bud’s odyssey in “Bud’s Jacket,” which includes the story of another airman who survived the crash and became Bud’s fellow traveler, radio operator Bob Neil.
It turns out Bob was better than Bud at keeping notes about what had happened in France. His daughter, Linda, scanned all the materials he had left behind in a box of his own and shared them with Wojcik. She then used the information to track down the families of many of the helpers who had aided Bob and Bud after their crash and helped them find their way home.
“The most surprising thing I discovered while working on the book was the incredible danger Uncle Bud and Bob Neil were in the whole time they were trying to escape capture. During our 2017 trip to France, I also gained a better understanding of how revered America is in that part of the world, even more than 70 years after the war. Hundreds of people turned out for receptions for us to express their gratitude for what our family members had done for them,” added Wojcik, who is glad she traveled to France when she did. On returning to the U.S. from that tour of Bud’s route, she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
“Barbara’s vision and research have always been the driving force of it all, but the writing process became a joint effort,” explained Jim Wojcik, Barbara’s husband of more than 40 years. “Her energy and focus were changed by her illness, and I jumped in as a writing partner to help finish the book,” said her husband, whose name is also on the cover.
The book isn’t Barbara’s only contribution to the historical record. She posted a lot of the information she found about the others involved in the crash and rescue on Ancestry.com, Findagrave.com and on the Facebook page for the book: Facebook.com/budsjacket. She also sent information to the local newspapers in each of the towns where the airmen in Bud’s B-17 had grown up.
“In each generation, somebody is going to get curious and have a genealogy bug, and they are going to click on the links and find the information posted there,” Barbara said. “We’re doing this so the stories don’t get lost.”
For more information about “Bud’s Jacket: An American Flyer Evades the Nazis in Occupied France,” go to Budsjacket.com. Books are available for purchase online through Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. They can also be purchased at Lake Country Booksellers, located at 4766 Washington Square in White Bear Lake.
Barbara and Jim Wojcik have a signing event scheduled at the store 10 to 11:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 6. The date is also the 76th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 that led to the end of the war.