Excerpts from Return to Joigny
(9-19-02) We headed out after breakfast to our next destination – Villeneuve sur Yonne – near Joigny in northern Burgundy. It was rainy and miserable for the first time in our trip, but the weather cleared by the time we stopped for lunch along the Cote d’Or south of Dijon – a pleasant little town called Vouges between Nuits St. George and Gevry-Chambertin. Lunch at the pleasant family-run “Hotel de Charme Le Clos de la Vouge” was delicious – soups, terrines (country pate), fresh baked bread, and, of course, wonderful local Burgundy wines.
We then continued our journey north through beautiful vineyards and rolling hills – past grazing fields of the famous white Burgundian Charlerois cattle – to the Yonne River and our special hotel getaway “Auberge La Lucarne aux Chouettes” (Owl’s Nest) – four 17th century rooms and suites owned and restored by Leslie Caron – with an excellent restaurant on site. The rooms were quite impressive – “antique heaven”, with huge wooden beams, steep winding stairs, hand-painted tiles in the bathrooms (but standard European tub with hand-held shower) – and REAL beds (!) – so Dad slept well at last. We didn’t arrive until almost 5:00, took a long walk along the river, then had to freshen up to meet Pierre at 6:00.
Pierre Colson, a 79-year-old farmer who lives ~ 50 km from Joigny, is one of the searchers who was involved in researching the crashes of four US planes in this area. Because Stephane could not leave his teaching duties, Pierre was tapped to be our “host”. Stef told us that he was “very nervous” because he doesn’t speak English, but “very excited” to meet a B-17 crewman.
Pierre arrived with a translator – Marie France – who was married to a US serviceman and is extremely active in a Franco-American veterans’ association. We had a pleasant meeting and exchange of documents and stories with Marie’s assistance – and it was wonderful to see Pierre relax at last. They told us a little about the “surprise celebration” to be held the next day in the village of Chamvres – less than 1 km from the crash site and ~ 4 km from Joigny. Our invitation to treat them to dinner was politely declined, and the arrangements were for Pierre and his wife to meet us at the hotel at 2:00 on Friday. We had a pleasant dinner in the hotel restaurant – pricey at 55 Euros, but delicious (beef, lamb, snails, wonderful vegetables, and, of course, wine!).
(9-20) Everyone slept well at last, and we met for breakfast in the sunny hotel breakfast room. For 9.5 Euros we had excellent coffee, fresh-squeezed OJ, and baskets of fresh, warm rolls, croissants & pastries – that’s all! (no eggs and sausage for the boys here!..) Since we had the morning free, we headed to Joigny to check out the Hotel de la Poste, where Dad and his crew were “hidden” by the French underground after the crash. He remembered it as being “a dump” 58 years ago – and it still is! Unfortunately it was closed (for “vacance” per the folks in the shop next door). We wandered the streets and strolled along the Yonne river which apparently had changed very little after all those years.
Since it was only 10:30 we decided to drive ~ 30 km north to the town of Sens (where Dad and his men were taken after Joigny) to check out the market and have lunch. The market, open 3 days/week, was filled with wonderful meats, produce and cheeses – but the outdoor stalls had just clothes (new and used) and household odds and ends. The boys, however, found the “Bar of 100 Beers”, so they were happy. We enjoyed a nice lunch there – salads and quiches – then headed back to change for the festivities to come.
Pierre and his wife arrived promptly at 2:00 and after picture-taking we headed south for Chamvres – a small village of 700 people. We were directed to park at the school, where a contingent of veterans and locals had gathered. Dad was almost mobbed by those who had witnessed the crash – all with stories, pictures, and requests for autographs. Two little women excitedly told Dad (with the husband of one translating) that they were fourteen years old, picking grass for their rabbits in the field when the crippled plane circled low overhead before belly landing in the field in front of them. (The plane had been taxiing, then hit a raised cart path, went up and crashed on the nose – with two 500 pound bombs still on board! Scary!) Another gentleman remembered Dad being the first out of the rear of the plane asking two questions: “Where are the Deutsch (Germans)?” and “Is there a doctor?”…(Dad, as navigator and chief “medical officer” was tending to the severely wounded gunner and huddled with the others in the radio room when they crashed. He was the first out of the plane and did ask those questions. Amazing! The pilots crawled out through the windows.) We also met an American couple from Vermont on a 4-month sister-city exchange who came because they read about the celebration in the local (Joigny) newspaper!
After the informal gathering we were directed to return to our van, then joined a long caravan to travel to the crash site ~ 50 meters off the road by a corn field (It was a beet field on 9-11-44). A touching plaque was posted there with a picture of the crashed plane (Ombre Ago), the dates 9-11-1944 and 9-20-2002, and the bold words WE HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN – flanked by French and American flags. Dad fielded questions from the locals (~200 attended), with the assistance of a sweet young local woman acting as translator – then we returned to the village for formal ceremony with ~ 12 flag bearers, speeches (The Mayor and Pierre – Dad has the texts), wreath laying at the WWI statue, and the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and the Marseilles. In the blistering heat I was really afraid that some of the old-timers might pass out from the sun and emotions – including Dad. But no one succumbed, and after marching through the flag honor guard, we returned to the school grounds for lots more sharing of stories, presentation of gifts (including parts of his plane that were kept as souvenirs all these years in peoples’ homes!.. We quietly arranged for them to be donated to the museums in Kovarska and Sens), wine, snacks, and many hugs and kisses.
We found out yesterday (though we’d heard it before) that the French have these celebrations “all the time” for American veterans because they are so grateful for the sacrifice so they could be free. This little village, like so many others across France, experienced the horror of German occupation. They were sincerely thrilled and excited to meet one of the men who literally crashed into their back yard – a young US navigator then, who was willing to fight so they, too, would be free. It was very emotional and extremely touching to be a part of this special day – for Dad and this little village.
However, it was quite exhausting and Dad was visibly drained. At last the locals headed home and we joined a much smaller caravan to the mayor’s home for an appertif (We had Kir Royale with delicious cassis from Nuits St. George). Then the caravan drove to the top of the hill overlooking Joigny – a beautiful panorama of the town – with the crash site visible in the distance, but sadly it was almost dark (no decent photos). From there we drove to Hotel Moderne in Joigny for dinner (for 14!). We chose our own appetizers (I had escargot and Paul had pate – both delicious), but the beef entrée and chocolate mousse were chosen for the group. The burgundy wine was delicious (I didn’t get a close look at the bottle, unfortunately), but the beef was tough and the locals were horrified – and, I think, complained en masse after the meal!… Everyone was very relaxed after the big day, with the locals chattering with us in rapid-fire French and Pierre breaking into song – beautiful voice! Dad was ready to crash, and we were finally successful in getting Pierre back to the car to return to Villeneuve sur Yonne at 11:30! Many hugs and kisses later, they headed for home and we all fell into bed… Whew!