Joigny2 (conclusion)


(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 Marseillais (?sp).  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!

            (9-21) Today dawned bright, but we were determined to keep a more relaxed pace.  After showering and packing, we bid goodbye to Leslie Caron’s “Owl’s Nest” and headed out ~ 10:00, driving north on the N-6 to Fountainbleu before tackling the challenge of Paris.  This town of 18,000 is known for its beautiful palace and gardens (per Candy’s guidebook – the palace is as beautiful as Versailles, but not as huge or as crowded).  After coffee we enjoyed a leisurely tour of the grounds (free) – spectacular!  (Time didn’t permit an indoor tour of the 1900 rooms, much to the guys’ relief!)  Lunch at the café across the street from the chateau was surprisingly good and affordable for a tourist area.  We enjoyed the house wines with complimentary tiny quiches and puff pastry – then meals including tender wild boar (the guys), a casserole of escargot and mushrooms in a dreamy cream sauce (me), and salade chevre chaud (Candy).  Complimentary sweets followed – then we shared the heavenly dessert special – pear and raspberry “crumble” --- Yum!

            The next adventure was driving in Paris and finding our hotel!  We missed a turn, but we found it eventually, circled again because there was no parking on the narrow street – then on the second pass just dumped the suitcases on the sidewalk and Stan and Paul headed to the airport to return the van.   Since it was 2:00 we were able to check in, and Dad, Candy and I got the luggage to our rooms.  Hotel Europe St. Severin is right in the middle of the Latin Quarter – surrounded by cafes & bistros of every nationality (and very noisy with the windows open!).  But the rooms are nice, though small, with “real” beds and a stall shower… Hooray!  The location is perfect for exploring Paris on foot and via Metro, so Candy and Stan should enjoy their extra days here.

            Dad opted for a nap, so Candy and I unpacked, then took a walking tour from 3 to 4 – past Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, St. Michel, the Palais of Justice – along the right bank in the Marais district – then across Pont Neuf to Rive Gauche and a tour around the St. Severin neighborhood.  We then sat in our bedroom window watching for Paul and Stan’s taxi and drinking Chablis – but the guys arrived on foot from the corner at 5:30.  We met Dad outside and headed out.  Paul was eager to have his favorite Paris meal, so we all joined him – moules et frites with a glass of white wine for just 8 Euros!  The mussels were small, but tasty.

            We then returned to Notre Dame – this time walking indoors around the periphery (a mass was in session) – then outdoors.  It’s as beautiful as I remembered from our trip here in 1996.  From there we went to connecting Ile de St. Louis for a stroll, then returned to the hotel.  Dad and Paul wanted to call it a night (at 8:30!) – so I had a chance to finally catch up on this journal and write some very late postcards.  It’s hard to believe that we head home the day after tomorrow.  This trip has been such a whirlwind we’ve had no time for shopping, wine-tasting or serious sight-seeing – but the special moments and special people honoring Dad have made it very unique and memorable…

            (9-22) Our last and only full day in Paris  :=(  We spent a leisurely early morning, then headed out ~ 10:00 to give Dad, Candy and Stan a taste of Paris via Metro.  After we finally got a handle on the metro map, it was a breeze with a full day ticket.  First stop:  Sacre Coeur – a lovely church on the top of Montmartre Butte – the highest point in Paris.  Dad and I took the funicular, while the rest tackled the stairs – but their plan to climb to the top of the church was foiled because a mass was in session. (It was overcast anyway, so Candy and Stan can return later this week and enjoy the spectacular view under clear skies.)  The artist colony in the square behind the church was more crowded and touristy than we remembered – but perhaps it’s worse on a Sunday.  We relaxed with a coffee (4.50 Euros each!) – then went to the café on the square where Paul and I had our first meal in Paris 6 ½ years ago.  Paul and Stan had moules et frites (better than last night, but not as good as our first time there), Candy and I had crepes (ham & cheese), and Dad had onion soup and a sandwich.

            Stuffed, we proceeded toward the subway – a long downhill hike.  On the subway to Sacre Coeur Paul was almost robbed by a team of guys (2 on guard, 1 holding the subway door open, and the would-be thief went for his socks (?distraction or to find hidden money?) – then his pockets.  There was a tussle and Paul pushed him down hard – then he exited the train right as we departed.  Soooo we were on guard, we thought, during the calmer ride to the Arc du Triomphe – but as we walked through the underground Paul discovered that his wallet was missing (credit cards, driver’s license, etc.!) as well as his cash.  What a shock!  Whoever did it was extremely slick, and he really regretted not wearing the money belt – lesson learned!  (Our plane tickets, other cash and passports were in the hotel safe, thank goodness.)  We were able to contact the credit card companies immediately and had the accounts closed – we just wished that we could witness the thief trying to use them!

            We entered the Arc du Triomphe, were handed a ticket, and headed up the stairs expecting to find the option to buy a ticket for the elevator to the top – but it never appeared.  Apparently the elevator was out of order, so we climbed many flights of killer spiral stairs to reach the top.  Dad was NOT happy!  The view from the top, at Charles de Gaulle Etoile is really interesting, with all the main roads converging like a star at the base.  You can see the Sacre Coeur, Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Arc de Defense, Champs Elysee, etc. and get a real feel for the city.

            Next stop – The Louvre (Dad’s request).  It was a thrill to see this famous place – huge and overwhelming.  The buildings of the old palace seem to go on forever – but the glass pyramid by Pei (the new entrance) seems out of place to me – though quite impressive.  The security entrance at the pyramid had a long line, so we entered through the underground shopping mall (a la Rick Steves) and had no problem.  We let Dad choose our mini-tour and spent most of the time admiring old masters on the 2nd floor of the “new” Richilieu wing – then a stroll through the sculpture garden.  In about 2 hours we only had time to explore one part of one floor of one wing of this huge complex.  I’d love to return someday after doing some homework!

            All day we had been lugging wine and snacks in our backpacks, so we decided to walk back to the hotel along the Seine and look for some green space to have a “happy hour” picnic (the hotel discourages food in the room aside from their minibar).  We finally found a little park in the Marais district and munched on cheeses, olives and pistachios while drinking white wine out of the bottle!  (There were no plastic cups to be found anywhere.)

            On the way back to the hotel Stan and Candy agreed to join me in my desire to see the nearby Sainte Chapelle Cathedral, which is supposed to have spectacular stained glass windows, ornate ceiling, etc… but after walking the entire block of the Palais du Justice (Supreme Court Building), we discovered that Sainte Chapelle was “closed for security reasons Sept. 21 & 22”… Bummer (curious about the reasons).  Now it’s time to relax before heading out to dinner at 8:30. 

            Our last in Europe – was great.  We enjoyed a late dinner at a Belgian Restaurant in St. Germain du Pres, about 8 blocks from the hotel.  Not surprising, there was a line – but worth the wait.  “Leon’s Bruxelle” specializes in Belgian beer and mussels prepared every way you can imagine.  Three of us had them “a la crème”, but Candy picked the winner – “a la Provencale” with a rich, heady sauce (our cream sauce was tasty, but thin).  The mussels were the best yet – plump and perfectly cooked – served in heavy Creuset pots – wow.  So – stuffed with moules (except Dad, who had Salade Leon) we walked back to the hotel for a nightcap and welcome sleep after a long, but enjoyable day…

            (9-23) We slept soundly, packed easily, hugged Stan and Candy goodbye (they’re staying until Thursday, making the most of their first time in Paris), and had a smooth 30-minute taxi ride to the airport.  Charles de Gaulle can be a very confusing place – but thankfully we had used miles to upgrade to business class, so the wait was shorter.  Finding United’s Red Carpet Lounge was another story – but after circling what seemed like one whole terminal, including satellites – we ended back at our starting point and finally got simple, understandable directions.

After a snack, yours truly hit the Duty Free shops with little success.  This certainly has not been the trip for buying presents – but that was never the focus in the first place.  Staying in seven different places during an 11-day trip was positively exhausting…. But we’d do it again in a heartbeat!

            Being able to accompany Dad on this journey was really special.  I STILL haven’t been successful in getting him to put some thoughts on paper – but hopefully he’ll relent someday so that I can add his reflections to this journal…

In the meantime, I’ll try to provide a brief synopsis of the story.  Dad never talked much about the war… and now it’s easier to understand why.  I think that finally this trip has brought some closure to the painful loss of so many friends 58 years ago.  His squadron was called “The Lost Squadron” because only seven men of the original 108 returned to the barracks in England after that mission.  Of his crew, the radioman bailed out and was captured and the wounded gunner was eventually sent back to the States.  And now, just two are still alive.  It was good to have the story told, and to follow the path of that historic day with Dad.  We now have a video account from him recorded before the trip, the many special moments of the trip, and his reflections two weeks after returning home.

It is mind-boggling to think of Dad as a 22-year-old going through such an ordeal – but I guess he actually was one of the lucky ones.   Just imagining the ferocity of that air battle over Kovarska, the helpless feeling watching your squadron go down, and the courage it took to take turns hand-cranking down bombs while someone held onto your belt as you’re limping back toward France brings chills.  Then after crashing only the nose and keeping the unreachable bombs intact, they were met by armed “Free French” (who Dad said were actually Spanish rebels) who turned them over to the French underground.  These men hid them out in both Joigny and Sens, then took them at night to meet up with US troops (an engineering division, I think) – but not until they had killed a German guard and barreled through the gate.  Paris had been liberated (they didn’t have enough fuel to fly there) – but the countryside still had German occupation that was apparently rather disorganized.  The US troops got them to Paris… and then they eventually were returned to England.   A new squadron had to be trained, but it wasn’t long before they were flying again!

Dad seemed to find a sense of peace in returning to the site of the battle, and was extremely touched and overwhelmed by the interest and caring shown by the special people we met during this trip.  He kept saying what he did was “no big deal” – but to us, of course, it was!  He understands now, on a more personal level, the reason for the gratitude of the Czech and French people.  Both had lived through German occupation and realize that were it not for the sacrifices made by the British and Americans, their lives could be quite different now.