Obituary: John D. Lewis

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The Independent Culture
JOHN D. LEWIS'S daring attempts to escape from Stalag Luft III prison camp in Silesia became the inspiration for Steve McQueen's portrayal of "Cooler King" Hilts in the 1963 film The Great Escape.

Among the film's most memorable incidents are McQueen's attempt to escape by motorcycle, and his pounding of a ball with a baseball glove as he contemplates his next escape. Of course in reality there was no motorcycle or baseball glove. The film-makers had "Hollywooded it up" as Lewis was to say when he got round to seeing the film. But he had a sneaking admiration for McQueen's portrayal of himself as the defiant outsider. McQueen captured something of the essence of Lewis: a born hunter who raged against any form of incarceration.

John Dortch Lewis was born in North Carolina in 1914 and attended the University of North Carolina. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1940, a year before the United States entered the war. A man of conviction, he felt "someone had to stop Adolf Hitler". After training he was based in England where he flew a Hawker Hurricane on sorties over France, including the raid on Dieppe in August 1942.

On one strafing run to harass German planes on their way back from bombing the south coast he was badly shot up, barely making it back across the Channel before crash-landing. He was grounded by the RCAF. However, while recovering in hospital he heard on the radio that the US Air Corps were recruiting pilots. Eager to get back into the fray, he transferred, and was soon flying with them over North Africa.

When his P-39 Bell Air Cobra was shot down, he spent two weeks disguised as an Arab, having darkened his face and hands with clay. One day he was pleased to see an American jeep coming towards him before realising it was driven by Germans. As he turned away his robes opened to reveal two extremely white legs.

Lewis was transported to Stalag Luft III. Whereas most of the rest of the camp were decked in their well-worn uniforms Lewis arrived, as did McQueen in the film, in a smart new leather bomber jacket which had recently arrived from his home-town clothing store. Arriving at night he spotted a place which the searchlights missed in the fence and he knew that would be his route out.

He made his first escape attempt with a Czech. They squirmed slowly under the wire for over eight hours, pausing for the searchlight beams. Although he made it to the woods, he returned for his friend, who was caught up in the wire and was recaptured. In his second attempt he got caught up in the wire himself and was brought back and put into solitary confinement.

This time alone this gave him the opportunity to consider his next escape. He worked on the camp's main tunnel, but unlike in the film no Americans were involved in the actual escape. Of the 76 men who got out only three made it to freedom. Fifty others were rounded up, murdered on Hitler's orders, and their bodies returned as ashes to disguise their fate.

More determined than ever to get away Lewis escaped from a freight train but three weeks later was picked up and told that the next time he would be shot. Then one of his friends managed to make an impression of the camp keys while talking to an elderly guard. Disguised as a French worker, Lewis escaped during an air raid. At one point he fell ill and was nursed by a German family whose son was in the home guard. He made it towards the advancing allies and was picked up by an American tank convoy. A general, having listened to his story, offered him anything he wanted "Just give me some chocolate, cigarettes and whisky" he laconically replied.

With the war over he returned to his home in Goldsbro, North Carolina and married his sweetheart. He worked in insurance with his brother-in- law and seldom spoke of his war-time experiences. At his request he was buried without military honours.

John Dortch Lewis, air force officer and insurance agent: born Nash County, North Carolina 13 November 1914; married 1946 Carolyn Stenhouse (one son, two daughters); died Goldsbro, North Carolina 8 August 1999.