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Memorial Day Tribute to Unsung Heroes

FlagWhen Memorial Day rolls around each year, 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 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 Scwabenbauer 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.


WWII LetterAdditionally, 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 travel with one American soldier at a time, 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 Germans stopped them, the boy (often riding on the shoulders of the American) would explain that his papa couldn’t hear or speak.  The boy would accompany an American from Paris to England by hitch-hiking or walking the entire way and then travel back to France alone to begin the dangerous journey again with another American – a scared young man hidden in the attic of a villager’s home to await safe transport.  One of those he helped in this way was a member of my dad’s flight crew.  Another member of the crew was picked up by a nearby motorist and driven straight to England.

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 Underground 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 Resistance.

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:


WWII MemorialThey 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 September 6 is a local holiday when schools and businesses are closed, a delegation of American military officers stationed in Europe joins the locals, and the entire village celebrates their own very personal Memorial Day to honor the sacrifice of these five young men and all the other 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 carved into the side of the hill where the plane hit the ground (photo on the left).  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 the 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 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, traveled with that young American 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 members of the French underground.  Think of the Americans whose final resting place may be a little village in a far away country.

Say a little word of prayer and thanks for them, too.


First published by Margaret Woda at

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