When Memorial Day rolls around each year in May, I can't help thinking about my dad's experience as a World War II POW at Stalagluft III. (Yes, that was the site of the famous "Great Escape" and it occurred while he was there, but he didn't participate in it directly.) We didn't talk much about those two years, but he never let us forget that five crew members on his B-17 bomber (Slightly Dangerous) didn't live to become POWs. In that sense, he felt he was one of the "lucky" ones.
I embarked on a mission, a few years ago, to assemble into albums the correspondence my grandmother saved from those days after her 22-year old son was shot down about 40 miles south-east of Paris. It was a fascinating lesson in history and heroism on the home-front in both America and in France.
The cigar-box full of yellowed and brittle paper included several hand-written letters from mothers of those missing crew members, as well as my dad's letters and postcards to his mother after he was captured by the Germans. As a mother myself, I could barely read those letters through my tears as I realized that none of these other moms had any idea of their sons' fate for months after the plane went down. As weeks and months passed, you could feel their fear, pain and desperation growing with each new letter. I noted they received no official word of their sons fate for nearly eight months...
"Just a few lines to tell you we got a telegram Sunday at ten to six that my boy S/Sgt. Ray Schwabenbauer was killed Sept. 6 over France. Mr. Morrison of Altoona got a telegram Sunday at 2 o'clock saying his son was killed on Sept. 6. So far we have not heard about the Lawrence boy or the Lincoln boy... No one will ever know how broken-hearted I am over my boy's death..." (May 1, 1944)
As I went through these letters, it did seem that my grandmother was indeed a "lucky" mom because she at least knew that her son was alive - even though the circumstances were not ideal.
Additionally, the box contained letters from a woman in France, the matriarch of a family who initially rescued and hid my dad from the Germans after his plane was shot down. Unfortunately, he was injured and could not escape eventual capture by the enemy, but the family who helped him was very active in the French underground. The woman's letters speak of amazing courage on the part of French villagers who risked their own lives to help Americans shot down over France.
In fact, her 8-year old son was able to accompany American aviators from one hiding place to another while pretending to be the son (or brother, depending on the age of the American) of a deaf and mute farmer going to purchase supplies. When German soldiers stopped them, the boy (often riding on the shoulders of the American) would explain that his papa or brother couldn't hear or speak. With help from the French villagers and others along the way, two members of my dad's crew were able to reach England and safety. Two others were captured and imprisoned by the Germans.
When my grandmother learned about the bravery of this family and their neighbors, she tasked her older son - another member of the Army Air Corp - with helping to deliver supplies to the French in Champigny for the remainder of the war - many of these items were sent to Europe by her for this purpose at a time when rationing was in place for Americans. She had to rely on the generosity of her own friends and family to give up their limited supply of staples to help the French and, of course, she included candy treats and toys for children in Champigny.
The two women became great friends, united in their common desire to help the American servicemen avoid capture and imprisonment or firing squad, and they worked together again after the war to do something quite incredible:
They each convinced their own government to find the remains of the five members of my dad's crew who didn't survive and to move them to the French village where the plane had gone down. In order to accomplish this, my grandmother had to obtain permission from the boys' survivors and the French woman had to persuade local people to donate grave sites and markers. With these tasks accomplished, they pressed both governments to co-operate, and the burial of these American boys in their permanent place of rest at Champigny sur Yonne took place in 1948 on the 5th anniversary of their deaths.
Two of my children and I attended the memorial ceremonies held there on the 50th anniversary, in 1993. We discovered that the people of Champigny honor the sacrifice of these five young men each year on September 6 and pay tribute to all the Americans who gave their lives to liberate France from Hitler.
The pilot of that plane attended with his wife, as well as my mother and father, and both couples laid wreathes at a monument in the church yard honoring the French Resistance, at the grave sites of the five crew members, and at a sculpture placed at the side of the hill where the plane hit the ground (photo on the right). My daughter sang the National Anthem at the close of the Mass that preceded the all-day event, and villagers traveled in a caravan with local dignitaries to each of these locations, ending in a courtyard at the Town Hall where the Mayor and others spoke.
The speeches were in French, so we listened politely without understanding, and I noticed that the man standing next to me held tightly in his hand a very old photograph of a young man. He tried to ask me a question, also speaking in French, so I took him to meet the family who had helped my dad. We watched as they spoke in French, embraced in tears and began laughing.
They excitedly explained to me that this man had come every year to the ceremonies, hoping to see a face in the crowd that resembled the man in this photo - an American he had hidden from the Germans five decades earlier. He never knew if the American boy had made it to safety until this day, when he learned from our French friends that the little boy described earlier in this story (now a man in his seventies) had, in fact, helped this scared young man escape to England and freedom.
While we honor our nation's fallen heroes on Memorial Day, think of their families and the many unsung heroes like my grandmother and these courageous French villagers. Think of the Americans whose final resting place may be a little cemetery in a far away country. Say a little word of prayer and thanks for them, too.
I'm sure that many of you have stories in your family that come to mind during this Memorial Day weekend. If you write a post on the topic, please put the link in your comment on this thread. In the coming weeks, I'll try to assemble the posts into a collection and publish them all in one place.
Revised September 15, 2013, after attending the 70th Anniversary ceremonies, to correct a few I details in the original post that were more folklore than fact.
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