Editorial Note: With the Memorial Day public holiday in the US, the following memoir is taken from the archives. Written in 2000, it recalls the visit of a Second World War veteran to a small town in France, where your Bill Bonner was living at the time.
‘It looks just the same as it did 56 years ago,’ said Colonel Flamm Dee Harper, USAF (Ret.). ‘France is a beautiful country…as beautiful now as I remember it. Except you don’t have to worry about running into a German patrol around every bend in the road.’
Col. Harper, a small, handsome man of 80 years, stood on the hillside speaking into a microphone to a crowd of about 200 people. The sky was blue. The grass was green. At his right was a young lieutenant, the USAF attache from Paris who served as his interpreter. Further down the hill, a group of about a dozen French officers were formed up into a square, starched and grave…with enough gold braid to back a currency.
On his left were two flags, hoisted on recently implanted poles — the Stars and Stripes and the French drapeau — and a marching band of about 40 pieces, resplendent in dark blue suits with white insignia. They were the municipal band of the little town of Montmorillon, the sous-prefecture about 10 minutes away from my house.
Montmorillon was celebrating the return of a war hero, Col. Harper, an American pilot who crash-landed in this field in 1944. In front of me, a blonde woman had tears in her eyes. She looked as though she was about 55 years old. I did the math twice to make sure — she had to be at least 70.
‘I want to thank Jacqueline Thomas, who saved my life,’ said Col. Harper, looking in her direction.
For more than half a century, Jacqueline Thomas, who stood before me, had wondered whatever happened to the handsome young flyer she found in her grandfather’s vineyard in 1944. It was the vineyard, as much as Jacqueline, who saved him.
Born in Albion, Idaho, Harper was 21 years old when America entered the Second World War. Like so many pilots, he was fascinated by machines and speed. And when a group of P-38s flew over Utah in 1943, Harper saw them and knew what he wanted to do. He enlisted in the air force and was sent to flight school. A few months later, he was already flying his 29th mission over France. His target was the German ammunition depot at Sillars, about 20 miles from here.
But something went wrong. A time-delay bomb went off and ignited the powder magazine just as he was passing overhead — at an altitude of only a hundred feet. The debris hit the aircraft, putting one engine out of action and damaging the other. Worse, Harper had been struck in the head by flying glass. So much blood streamed down his face that he could no longer see. Smoke filled the cockpit.
Harper undid his harness and started to bail out. Then he realised that the ground was only about 50 feet below. So he sat back down in his seat and prepared to crash.
Seeing the field again, for the first time since the event, Harper turned to me, ‘I don’t know how I survived. A P-38 can’t glide at less than, say, 130 miles per hour. I should have been killed.’
But the young flier was saved by wine. The wires that held up the grapevines slowed the plane. Harper jumped out of the cockpit with no further injury. At first, Jacqueline Thomas, a girl of 15 at the time, thought he must be a German. She started to run away. Then, by some instinct, she decided to go to his aid. His face was covered with blood.
She led him to her grandfather’s house. No one was home.
She tended his head wound in the only manner she knew — dousing it with ‘eau de vie,’ strong spirits that hurt so much that Col. Harper recalls the pain to this day.
Not long after, Jacqueline’s father arrived. He had seen the plane go down and was concerned for his daughter. Taking command of the situation, he had Harper take off his clothes and dressed him as local farmer. The Germans must have seen the plane go down too; they could arrive at any minute.
The two grabbed fishing poles and went down to the river where, pretending to fish, they made their way to a cave where Harper was hidden.
Eventually, Resistance leaders were contacted. Harper was driven to a farm where another woman took charge of him — Denise LaBrousse. She was there yesterday, too. Nothing seemed to have changed. Harper was vigorous — with a sense of humour and a friendly smile. Jacqueline still seemed like the teenage girl who found him in the field. And Madame LaBrousse looked like she’s probably always looked. She looked like she could make a good omelet — which is just what she did for Harper.
As the story was told, each of these people made their way up to take their places alongside Col. Harper…Denise LaBrousse walking with difficulty with the aid of a cane. And there they stood. The mayor of Montmorillon had invited me to the ceremony as a representative of the local American community (‘I not only represent it,’ I explained to Col. Harper, ‘I am it. Apart from my family, there are no other Americans in the area.’) and as an interpreter. He now presented Col. Harper with a medal from the town. A representative of the French Air Force gave him another medal — a set of wings. The band struck up the Star Spangled Banner…and then the Marseillaise.
Tears welled up in many eyes. Many of those present had fought in the war. Others had vivid memories of it. My friend, Gilbert Mining, was there. He had made his way to North Africa to join the Free French Forces of de Gaulle. He’d made friends with an American soldier…whom he has never seen again.
Another old soldier sat next to me at the dinner following the ceremonies in the field. He had been with the French army at the Maginot Line. They were driven back by the Germans and finally pinned against the Loire River and forced to surrender.
‘I asked my commander for permission to desert,’ said the retired schoolteacher. ‘He told me to go ahead. So I swam across the river. Then I fought in North Africa…and then back to France.’
Harper, meanwhile, went on to glory. He joined the local SAS forces, Britain’s underground operation that coordinated resistance activity throughout the war. John Fielding, an Englishman who was part of the local unit, was also at yesterday’s ceremony.
Together with the local French resistance, they blew up train lines to keep the Germans from moving troops from the south of France to the front in Normandy.
But Harper did not remain on the ground for long. Scarcely three weeks after the local paper in Utah reported him ‘missing in action,’ he was back in England and back in the cockpit on various missions.
Later, in Korea, he was shot down again. His ribs were broken, but he managed to kill two North Korean soldiers with a handgun and was rescued by helicopter. He became the only pilot to get shot down in two wars and keep on flying. But the most remarkable phase of his career was probably during the period following his rescue in North Korea.
While he was recovering from his injuries, Harper directed the activities of his unit of flyers. One of his pilots reported a massive build-up of supply trains in the sector.
Harper was unable to get permission for an attack but ordered it anyway. The pilots went to work. They discovered that the boxcars were loaded with ammunition. The whole sky lit up, brightened by the explosions. Encouraged, they just kept hitting the train, which just kept blowing up.
Some military historians believe this attack was the key to ending the war. The ammunitions train was meant to supply a massive million-man Chinese army. Without supplies, the offensive was called off, and the North Koreans decided to resort to the bargaining table.
But world politics were a long way away from the thoughts of those assembled here in Montmorillon this weekend.
Col. Harper saluted the two flags. He turned and exchanged salutes with the French officers honouring him. Then, he gave Jacqueline an awkward hug. She took his face in her hands and kissed him on both cheeks.
‘I’m just glad to be alive,’ said Harper.
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