2013-07-26 By Donald Marvin Bohler
In the summer of 2012, the head of the Noirmoutier Sister Cities International committee asked me if I could find the family members of the American B-17 crew who had crash-landed their 8th Air Force B-17, the “Battling Bastards”, on the beach at La Guériniere on the French Atlantic coastal island of Noirmoutier, 4 July 1943.
The Sister Cities International committee, in cooperation with the Ancient Vehicles of Noirmoutier organization, was planning a memorial program in June 2013 to mark the 70th anniversary of the event. It was foreseen that the family members, for whom no contacts existed, and members of the Crestview, Florida, Sister Cities International organization which was twinned to Norimoutier-en-l’île, would form the majority of the American participation in the program. I readily agreed to help.
I had developed an interest in WWII-related memorial activities when, in 2007, I stopped at a French memorial near our vacation home in Montpellier.
The memorial on the Larzac plateau, La Pezade, advertised its existence to the traveling public of Autoroute 75 by a small road-side sign, with the word “Remember” and a small French and American flag.
Further scrutiny of the site revealed that the memorial was dedicated to the memory of 23 French resistance fighters, maquisards, and one American fighter pilot, 2nd Lt Richard Francis Hoy III, for their joint combat against German forces on 22 August 1944 – although, as I was to find later, neither the maquisards nor the American pilot had knowledge of the other’s actions at the time.
While the maquisards were all killed as a result of their attack on a German column, Lt Hoy, flying a recon P‑51 in a two-ship formation from Corsica, had been shot down by German ground fire while strafing the same column.
My investigation of this highly unlikely mix of allied comrades-in-arms and their inadvertent common purpose, and the moving annual tribute paid to them by the French communities surrounding La Pezade, ultimately led me to the next-of-kin of the American pilot.
I recounted to them of the annual tribute paid by the French community in appreciation of their relative’s ultimate sacrifice. They had not known.
With encouragement from the French senator of the La Pezade area, I searched for the other pilot, the flight leader, on that day in 1943.
Much to my surprise, I found 86 year-old Roy D. Simmons, Jr in Nashville, Tennessee, living the life of a retired USAF officer and college dean. I contacted him by telephone and found him unaware of the annual homage paid to the heroic actions of Simmons and his fallen wing man by the French.
Some months thereafter, the French government invited Lieutenant Colonel Roy Simmons, USAF (Ret) to France as its honored guest. He accepted.
On 22 August 2010 at the La Pezade memorial, Simmons, in the presence of 5 family members and several hundred French citizens, was awarded the Legion of Honor.
During the approximately 2 years of my La Pezade investigation, I repeatedly experienced the profound gratitude which the French have for the American sacrifices of WWI and WWII.
And with an awareness that our nascent, struggling American nation could not have triumphed in the Revolutionary War without French provisioning of guns, uniforms and money, I realized every day during my journey to 22 August 2010 the special bond that exists between France and the United States of America.
It was, I felt, my duty to remind my fellow Americans of that special relationship.
With this motivation, I began the search for the family members of the 10 B-17 crew members.
I began with each crew member’s name; that the crew had been captured alive by German occupation forces on Noirmoutier; that they have been held as POW’s; and some extraneous information regarding family contacts. Thanks to some very agile American Web-based databases and the assistance of generous people who I met via the Internet during my search, I had found and contacted the family members of all of the crew members within 4 weeks.
All of the crew members survived the war and returned to the United States where they settled down all across the country. All but one married. All are now deceased, the last survivor having died in 2006. The brother of the co-pilot was living in Idaho.
There were many sons and daughters, some of whom were surprised to learn the details of their father’s capture and imprisonment, but all were stunned to learn of the outpouring of gratitude from this French island town of Noirmoutier: that a permanent memorial was being created in memory of the Americans who crashed their B-17 on the island 70 years ago.
Seven family members eventually made the journey to Noirmoutier, to join with the 30+ Americans of the Crestview group. French citizens on the island hosted the American family members. They were treated as honored guests with a sense of gratitude, pervasive and enduring.
On Sunday, 30 June, in tribute accorded the attending Americans, the memory and sacrifice of the B-17 crew and all Americans who fought for the liberation of France, the French and American flags were raised on the beach of La Guériniere. Thousands of French joined their American guests in solidarity and solemn tribute.
Following this, the family members of the B-17 crewmembers removed the American flag covering the memorial, revealing the story of the “Battling Bastards” and the names of its crewmembers – their fathers and brother.
Shortly afterwards, to the cheers of the throngs below, the B-17 “Sally B”, the only airworthy B‑17 remaining in Europe, soared over the beach of La Guériniere – and over the remains of its sister, the “Battling Bastards,” still visible in the low tide below after 70 years.
This is a remarkable story of gratitude. The outpouring of appreciation at the personal level is unprecedented. But in my personal history, it is not unique: it is the norm. My experience with Noirmoutier and La Pezade proves it. My knowledge of numerous memorials – all over France – maintained and commemorated with fervor by the French convinces me. And the numerous contacts made to me by individual French citizens aware of my investigations persuade me with certainty of their appreciation.
It is a story that needs to be told – and retold.
Don Bohler is a retired Colonel from the USAF and splits his time between the United States and France.
And for a continuing tribute to the “Greatest Generation,” let us make sure we learn from the past and prepare for the future!