June 15 2012

Do you believe some people are heaven-sent? After meeting three French angels in the last week, I'm a believer.

First, Dominique. I told you about a little about him in my last email.  We went to several "helpers", young women (at the time) in Brittany who sheltered airmen in their houses at the great risk of torture and execution. Dominique interviewed them in French. I filmed. My French is
so bad that there is no way that I could have interviewed these tremendously brave women without him. These ladies already knew and
trusted him as well, and so shared secrets and details that they would not have with anyone else.

Giving up his chance to vote in the French parliamentary elections, Dominique and I drove our two cars on Sunday to Paris (5 hours), where we interviewed a man who had taken airmen on the train from Paris out to Brittany. After reviewing his documents and mine, we believe he took
Robert Sweatt and five others on the train in March, 1944.

After our interview I followed Dominique to his home near Creil where I met his wife and 20-something son. Coincidentally, Creil just happens to
be where the JG2 (the Richthofen squadron) was stationed when they went up in the air to shoot Robert and the others down. Now it's a French military air base.

As we sat and talked, I realized I had some photos from a JG2 pilot (now deceased) from Creil, and I showed them to him. This was a real treat for us both, since we could cross-reference some of his sources. Dominique is fascinated by aviation history, and has a lot of local work to do identifying crash-sites, remaining planes and unidentified deceased aviators from both sides who found their end in the area around Creil.  JG2 was a very, very busy unit. I hadn't thought about it before, but of course the area is littered with planes they shot down which were never recovered.

I slept in his daughter's room, and after barely being able to pull myself out of bed on Monday morning at 10 am, it was no time at all before we were hurriedly exchanging more information. Dominique actually had the
account of one of the aviators with Bob on the train to Brittany. It was so detailed, and was such a boon, I felt like the clouds had parted and harps began to play as he handed it to me.

At noon, I had to go. Three hours later I arrived at Arnaud's house in Bouville (south of Paris), the place where Robert and Trouble, his plane,
landed. Arnaud and his college-aged son drove me to the crash site, then and now a wheat field. We then drove to where Robert had landed, where the local farmers had found him, and retraced his route while trying to escape the German cordon set up to ensnare him. It was quite a feat to walk back and forth several kilometers with a sprained ankle and shrapnel wounds, and I gained a far better insight into the real miracle that allowed him to endure until he was spirited to a local farm.

We visited that farm where Robert stayed his first five days, and then went on to the house where he stayed for three weeks, about 100 yards from a German tank unit's garrison. Arnaud told me who helped Robert get to Paris, and then I told Arnaud how grateful I was not only for his time that day, but for laying the flowers on the graves in Normandy. It was those flowers that I found in 2010, with pictures attached, that had started me on this whole adventure in the first place. Without them, I would not have found Robert, nor had the burning desire to honor him by
writing this story. When I told him how grateful I was to him, he told me how much he and the local people are to the Americans who gave their lives to liberate them. Tears welled up for us both.

But there was no time to be too sentimental. I had to go on to Trainou, where the local people were waiting for me.

When I had emailed the local museum a few weeks back, the local historian, Christian called me and invited me to his home. I was a little hesitant at first, but there was absolutely no need. When I arrived at 9:15 pm, he, his wife and his cousin welcomed me like royalty. His cousin, who had worked for the Americans after the war for 44 years, translated.

Christian had been on the phone for days (really, 5 whole days), arranging everything for my visit. We had dinner at 10 pm, and he could barely site down he was so excited to see me, showing me his research, giving me books he had written on the other planes that had crashed in his area on January 7. His wife had made almost all the food we ate by hand, including a certain type of lemonade drink with grapes and other fruit, and had gone to a neighbor's garden to pick fresh strawberries for dessert.

He and his wife gave me a room upstairs, complete with hot water bottle in between the sheets. Did I mention it's been about 50 degrees and raining the whole time I've been here? That hot water bottle was a real treat. I put it under my back and when I woke up in the morning, I and the bottle hadn't moved an inch all night.

Quickly we got ready and ate breakfast. I put a skirt on, as Christian had arranged a "little" ceremony at the memorial for one of the planes.  When we pulled about, about 20 cars were parked on the side of the road, with more pouring in all the time. Two journalists started interviewing me. They kept telling me I was the star, but I was simply overwhelmed.  I'm just a researcher I said, not a family member. To them it didn't matter. I was American, and they would do anything to make sure I understood how grateful they are to the airmen who helped liberate them and their village.

The rain held off as some of the eyewitnesses to the crash explained what happened and how gruesomely some of the aviators had died. Then I and the head of the local French-American association placed a beautiful bouquet of flowers on the memorial as ten flag holders stood at attention behind the memorial in a semi-circle. I met the mayors of some of the nearby villages, and after they spoke, I was asked to say a few words.

In my schoolgirl French I thanked the 50-70 people present from the bottom of my heart for remembering our boys, and for honoring them in this way. But how can words really convey how touching, how utterly moving such an effort by the local people was?

Afterwards, we tromped deep into the soaking woods to see where the B-24 had crashed here. Then we went on to where some of those with parachutes had landed. More memorials, more eyewitness accounts, a speach from the mayor, pictures for the journalists, and then onto the next little town, where yet another B-24 had crashed January 7 (JG2 shot down 5 in this area). There we ventured even deeper into the woods, down country lanes and over rough ground to find the crash site. Finally, at noon, about twenty of us ended up miles deep in the Orleans forest, over hunting trails on private land, at a memorial to a band of Maquis who had been encircled and wiped out by the Germans. At the bottom of the plaque was the name of one aviator; an aviator lucky enough to bail out with a parachute, but unlucky enough to be caught in some trees and not found until 18 days later, dead.

It was heartbreaking to hear his story. He couldn't have been more than
22 years old.

Back at Christian's house, his wife laid an incredible spread on the table. As we feasted, they begged me to stay longer. I could not. I had to go on to Germany to interview a JG2 pilot. I promised, however, over and over, that I would come back. And I mean it.

I don't at all deserve all the hospitality of these wonderful French people, and to be the recipient of their gratitude towards the Americans.

To all my American WW2 veterans and friends who truly earned this honor and respect, my eternal gratitude.



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