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,
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
where the local people were waiting for me.
When I had emailed the local museum a few weeks back, the local
Christian called me and invited me to his home. I was a little
at first, but there was absolutely no need. When I arrived at 9:15
he, his wife and his cousin welcomed me like royalty. His cousin,
worked for the Americans after the war for 44 years, translated.
Christian had been on the phone for days (really, 5 whole days),
everything for my visit. We had dinner at 10 pm, and he could barely
down he was so excited to see me, showing me his research, giving me
he had written on the other planes that had crashed in his area on
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
to a neighbor's garden to pick fresh strawberries for dessert.
He and his wife gave me a room upstairs, complete with hot water
between the sheets. Did I mention it's been about 50 degrees and
the whole time I've been here? That hot water bottle was a real
put it under my back and when I woke up in the morning, I and the
hadn't moved an inch all night.
Quickly we got ready and ate breakfast. I put a skirt on, as
had arranged a "little" ceremony at the memorial for one of the
When we pulled about, about 20 cars were parked on the side of the
with more pouring in all the time. Two journalists started
me. They kept telling me I was the star, but I was simply
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
and their village.
The rain held off as some of the eyewitnesses to the crash explained
happened and how gruesomely some of the aviators had died. Then I
head of the local French-American association placed a beautiful
of flowers on the memorial as ten flag holders stood at attention
the memorial in a semi-circle. I met the mayors of some of the
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
of my heart for remembering our boys, and for honoring them in this
But how can words really convey how touching, how utterly moving
effort by the local people was?
Afterwards, we tromped deep into the soaking woods to see where the
had crashed here. Then we went on to where some of those with
had landed. More memorials, more eyewitness accounts, a speach from
mayor, pictures for the journalists, and then onto the next little
where yet another B-24 had crashed January 7 (JG2 shot down 5 in
area). There we ventured even deeper into the woods, down country
and over rough ground to find the crash site. Finally, at noon,
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
encircled and wiped out by the Germans. At the bottom of the plaque
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
until 18 days later, dead.
It was heartbreaking to hear his story. He couldn't have been more
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
to go on to Germany to interview a JG2 pilot. I promised, however,
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
To all my American WW2 veterans and friends who truly earned this
and respect, my eternal gratitude.