Since I wrote that tribute, two things happened. My great-uncle's daughter (which makes her either my first cousin once removed or my second cousin; I was half-asleep that day in Wills class so I don't remember which) contacted me to tell me a little bit more about her dad. Turns out my dad's memories were a little rusty and he'd gotten some of the details about my great-uncle Francis's story wrong. The second thing, which happened rather recently, was that I came across a very detailed account of what happened to my great-uncle after he parachuted out of that B-17 sixty years ago. The story is every bit as dramatic and emotional as any novel or movie written about the war, so I'm going to share it with you.
My great-uncle was a Tech Sergeant in the Army Air Corps (the forerunner to the Air Force) on a B-17 bomber called Susfu. (Another thing I found out recently was that "SUSFU" is a military acronym for "Situation Unchanged: Still Fucked Up," the dark humor of which I appreciate.) One thing my dad did remember clearly was that the plane had Bugs Bunny on the fuselage:
The 427th Bomb Squadron; my great-uncle is in the front row, all the way on the left, and Bugs Bunny is visible on the plane above them.
Their missions involved flying over France and Germany, dropping bombs on various Nazi targets. Mission No. 11 took place on January 23, 1943. Twenty-one flight crews were sent to bomb U-boat pens and the German ports in the northwestern part of France (Brest and Lorien). Two flight crews aborted the mission and returned to the base because of equipment malfunctions. Nineteen crews continued on, and ran into Luftwaffe planes -- forty-nine German fighters were reportedly seen. Fourteen of the remaining 19 planes made it to their targets; five planes were shot down. The Mission Combat report says that the losses were in part caused by the chaos caused when another bombing squad flew over my great-uncle's, breaking up the lower formation.
My great-uncle's plane, the SUSFU, was shot by a German FW-190 plane something like this one:
The pilot, 1st Lt. Harry A. Robey, was killed by machine gun fire as he parachuted toward the ground; another crewmate, 2nd Lt. Roy Moser, was also killed. The remaining seven crewmembers parachuted to the ground, landing around Le Cloitre-Pleyben in Brittany.
Three of my great-uncle's crewmembers -- Charles Grice, Edward Levering and Val Hannon -- were found by some local farmers and sheltered. They were subsequently taken to the town of Quemeneven by a local butter merchant. Two days later, my great-uncle and his crewmate Wilbur Hummel, had found shelter with a family named Hascouet at their farm, which was called "Ty-Glaz." Two days later, the five crewmembers were reunited at the Chateau du Trefry, home of the de Poulpiquet family.
Apparently my great-uncle and his crewmates had stumbled across some French citizens who were connected to the so-called "Pat Line," an escape route founded by a Belgian resistance member to get downed Allied pilots back to England. The five SUSFU crewmembers were eventually taken on trains to Paris and taken to a safe house by a resistance member named Jean de la Olla, to await transport to Tours. They made it to the Tours station, but after they left the larger train from Paris to get on a smaller local train, they heard a voice with a German accent tell them, "Les mains en l'air, vous etes faits!" ("Put your hands up - you are taken"). A double agent named Roger Le Neveu had infiltrated the Pat Line and in addition to my great-uncle and his four crewmates, various French citizens were arrested by the Germans.
The crewmen and the French resistance members who accompanied them were held at Tours for two weeks and then transferred to Paris for interrogation. On March 16, the interrogations began. One of the Americans, Charles Grice, later recalled that neither he nor any of his fellow Americans revealed anything about who had helped them. The crewmen were ultimately taken to German POW camps; my great-uncle spent over two years at Stalag Luft 17B (the POW camp which inspired the movie "Stalag 17"):
Conditions at Stalag 17B were terrible: not enough food, overcrowding, poor hygiene, limited running water, a single indoor latrine (that could only be used after dark), all sorts of horrors that got worse as the end of the war grew closer. My great-uncle was liberated in mid-1945 and eventually returned to the United States. My dad, young as he was, realized that the war had taken a profound toll on his uncle, saying "he was never the same after that."
My great-uncle's story is a compelling one. But when considered on Memorial Day, it takes on extra depth and meaning as it illustrates the kinds of challenges and sacrifices we demand from our armed forces.
Imagine being a young man who grew up in an insular Pennsylvania valley, whose dad was a coal miner and who didn't get much in the way of education or material comforts. Imagine finding yourself stationed on a base in Britain, far away from everyone and everything you know. Imagine that your job is to climb into an oversized tin can and fly out into the blackness of night, knowing that squadrons of German fighters are waiting to try to shoot you down. Imagine being out on one of those bombing missions, scared out of your wits while the adrenaline pumps through your veins. Imagine the terror you feel when you realize you're in the middle of a dogfight with German planes. Imagine the leap of faith it must take to jump out into the night over a foreign country occupied by your enemies, motivated only by the animal instinct to save your own life. Imagine landing on the ground and feeling your training take over, cutting the lines to your parachute, checking to see what you've got in your pack, trying to decide where and how to take cover. Imagine the fear of knowing that your enemy is looking for you, and then imagine the relief when you are found by friendly French farmers who risk their lives to hide you. Imagine how your relief and hope turns to terror when you realize that someone has betrayed you and you're handed over to the Nazis. Imagine being interrogated by them, and then being shipped off to a hellhole of a prison camp. Imagine spending over two years in Stalag 17B, waiting for the war to be over, trying to survive without losing your mind or getting shot by a pissed-off guard. Imagine the joy of finally being liberated in 1945, then shipping home and finding yourself in a world that seems unchanged while everything about you inside is different.
We ask so much of our military, and we're still asking so much of them. It doesn't matter whether you head out into the night in a B-17 or a stealth bomber with the latest computer technology, whether you face Luftwaffe rifle fire or IEDs by a roadside, whether you see your friends die in an airplane or an exploding humvee or a rice paddy, whether you're taken prisoner by Nazis or the Taliban or nameless psycho extremists, whether your flashbacks are of Viet Nam or Korea or the Middle East or of Nazi-occupied France.
So please take a moment today to think about the men and women who have served and are serving our country in the military, and the families who love them and miss them. We honor them today, and we thank them for their sacrifices.
Tonight I'll light a candle in memory of my great-uncle. I didn't know him, but I'm proud of him.