Our incredible driver handed us off to the people of Villers Saint Paul just after 11AM on the 8th of May, just in time for the Liberation Day ceremony. (read the story of the journey here)
A few weeks before leaving for France, I filled out a form on the Villers Saint Paul web site letting them know we were coming. Some other crew members from my grandpa’s bomber had visited previously, as have some of my relatives. Any time they know that any Americans are coming, they show an incredible amount of hospitality. I corresponded via email with the Mayor’s chief-of-staff, who told me that they would like us to be included in the day’s ceremonies.
|The mayor and I
As we hopped out of the car and race toward the crowd, I spotted the mayor right away. Gerard Weyn has been mayor for quite a few years and his distictive hair and beard are easy to spot. He made his way to us, accompanied by the lovely (and fluent in English) Isabelle Rose Massein, who was our gracious host for the rest of our time in Villers Saint Paul.
Isabelle welcomed us and the ceremonies began. Outside of the town hall in every town in France is a monument dedicated to those that have died protecting the country. It honors not only the French that have given their lives, but also the people from all over the world that have fought and died alongside the French. There were quite a few people in uniform present. Isabelle later told us that some were firemen, paramedics, and police, who attend every ceremony.
A few speeches were made, reminders to all of the incredible sacrifice that was made during the previous wars. Every year they honor the American soldiers. They realize and acknowledge that the Americans were here by choice. We were not defending our homeland, we were fighting for a principle alongside our fellow man. Freedom. Liberty. And we chose to fight.
Flowers were laid on the monument. Being the grandson of the pilot who was shot down and crashed in Villers Saint Paul, they allowed me to walk up with the mayor and place the first set of flowers on the memorial. I can’t express how humbling it is to be honored by this town because of what my grandpa did.
I have re-read my grandpa’s story a few times leading up to today. As I read it, I get the sense that life changed for him as he was floating to the earth under his enormous silk parachute. The war suddenly went from 20,000 feet to ground level. Being a bomber pilot was a dangerous job, just like any combat job in the second world war. But there were a lot of airmen that didn’t survive as prisoners of war. The conditions were harsh and seemed hopeless. Like Viktor Frankl theorized in his incredible book “Man’s Search For Meaning,” it is nearly impossible to survive hardship if you have no hope. Hope gives us something to live for, and something to live for is more important than food.
When my grandpa made his unscheduled stop in Villers Saint Paul, the first people he met tried to help him evade capture. Guns, however, are incredible persuasive devices that can be more powerful than good intentions. Once captured, he was held in an older couple’s home. This couple generously gave him what was probably their ration of wine for at least a month. He had been through so much that he didn’t even realize it was wine until he had downed it all. He gave them his aviator’s helmet in return.
At his next point of detainment (in Creil), he was helped by a young French woman named Janine. Her bravery and attempts to help him escape in spite of the fact that the cost would likely be her own life left a big enough impression that both my grandpa and his co-pilot (Cunningham) named their daughters Janine. Then name has passed on in my family for three additional generations so far.
The courageous and bold actions of the people of Villers Saint Paul in the face of the danger and threats of the occupying enemy was uplifting. I believe my grandpa saw the best of humanity just before he was plunged into experiencing some of the worst parts of humanity. I can’t help but wonder…without the heroes of the French Resistance, what would my grandpa’s state of mind been when entering prison camp? Having these examples fresh in his mind must have been reassuring. Personally, I believe the impression made was so strong that it has passed on to new generations. That is part of the reason that we Bouchards have a strong sense of justice and an aspiration toward seeking out the best parts of human nature. We love freedom, liberty, and independence. We rebel against oppression, wherever we see it. Can that thread be traced back, at least in part, to the second of June, 1944 in Villers Saint Paul?
|The mayor and my son placing flowers
After the ceremony at the town center, everyone piled into cars for a quick journey to the crash site. The people of Villers Saint Paul have name the street “Rue du Liberator” after the plane that crashed there (my grandpa’s B-24 Liberator). There is also a memorial plaque there honoring John McGeachie, who was killed by flak on-board the plane during the bombing run. At the crash site, they had a French flag and an American flag flying on between the street sign and the plaque. They played both the American and French anthem, then the mayor took my oldest son and together they put flowers under the plaque. We were informed that they have this ceremony every year to honor the Americans. They realize it is important to never forget.
As I walked down that street to the car, my mind drifted back to my grandpa. He walked this street once, almost 70 years ago. When he did it, he had guns pointed at his back. He was about to be interrogated by Germans. He must have seen the huge church tower that dominates the town. Did he see sympathetic villagers peering through the windows? What must they have thought of him, too?
After the ceremony at the crash site concluded, we were escorted back to the town center for a reception. They had champagne, soft drinks, juice, and finger foods. Isabelle showed us a photo book that had pictures of the time John Cunningham (the co-pilot) visited Villers Saint Paul in the early 90s. That year they had a parade with vintage vehicles. That was the year they renamed the street and put the plaque in place in honor of Mac. At this ceremony, the mayor presented me with a medallion from the town. It beautiful and bronze, with the name of the town on it and a large image of the large, old church that is at the center of town. I’m sure it will be a treasured keepsake in our family for a long, long time.
Once that ceremony concluded, we posed for some pictures with the mayor and with Isabella. Then we walked back to the crash site on our own again, taking in the sites. Wondering which fence he tried to climb to get away from his captors. Which house was he held in before being transported to Creil? What else happened in this ancient town of only 6,000?
The cathedral/church in the middle of town. I’m certain my grandpa saw this clock on his way through town.
“Rue du Liberator” The Stubby Gal II‘s final landing spot was at the end of this short street. Her bombs hit some major transportation lines for the Germans (4 days before D-Day) but she managed to land in a field, not on any houses.
My sons and I on Rue du Liberator. Passing the torch to the next generation. These are important stories to remember. They help us remember what man is capable of, both the best and worst parts. Remember helps to appreciate what we have, aspire to be more, and fight against the darkness that can be found at the depths of humanity.
The green area at the end of the street. The plane must have gone down right around here, but I am not certain of the exact location.
When our time at Villers Saint Paul wrapped up, Isabella met us again and treated us to coffee and tea, with her lovely daughter joining us. Then she drove us to the train station in Creil, helped us get tickets, and stayed with us until we were on the train headed back to Paris.
Although I’ve already written a lot, I can’t seem to put into words the emotions that surround this day and this time. So many random things aligned for us to be in Villers Saint Paul today. The trip to France was scheduled knowing we’d go to the crash site, but without regards to the day. I found out much later that we could possibly be at the crash site on “Liberation Day.” Then to hear that they wanted to include us in the ceremonies was almost unbelievable. Of course, the journey from 8AM to 11:07 was nothing short of a miracle, facilitated by the most chivalrous gentleman in France. The stories, the people, the places, sights, and sounds. It’s mind boggling.
It’s 2AM, the day after Liberation day. This story started for me in June of 1982. It started for my grandpa in June of 1944. My two sons have now been written into the story as well. The chapter is now over, but this story must never end.