Thursday, March 21, 2024

August 1944: Downed American airmen join the Maquis (variations on a theme)

"After the bombing of August 18, 1944"
You will need to step through the photos - it's the 36th photo.

Here's another pair of matching stories about the same event from Dr. Michel Planas and my grandfather regarding some American B-17 crewmen who joined their FFI unit.

In 1955, Dr. Planas (who served in 4th Company with my grandfather) wrote:

    On August 7, we took in three American airmen who had escaped from their plane shot down near Chabeuil, by the flak of the aviation camp during the US Air Force's attack on the Valence bridge at Granges les Valence and the town's outlying installations. This action had been carried out using the catastrophic "carpet bombing" method responsible for needless destruction and death. Once comforted, our airmen had to do two mule patrols to make them reflect on their inappropriate methods.

In 1974, my grandfather wrote:

     The same day the unexpected news came that Germans are hurriedly leaving our mountains. The reason why was a mystery to me, but later I understood that at that time the Allied fleet left southern Italy, or North Africa and Germans undoubtedly knew that a new landing somewhere in the south is impending.

Soon later a news came that all the bridges on the Rhone river have been bombed. In the evening one of our patrols brought to the camp two American Air Force soldiers and I became an interpreter. They were crew members of a flying fortress which has bombed the bridge in Valence-sur-Rhone. The plane has been hit by flak and one man killed. All the others bailed out. One more died before reaching the ground. Three others, who were wounded, could do anything else as stay and undoubtedly became German prisoners. All the others fled in groups of two East toward the mountains and one of these groups has been picked up by our patrol. One of the two Americans was Larry Gault, first lieutenant, plane’s commander. He lived in Oregon, where he owned forests and sawmills. The other’s name was Edward Mettler, the plane’s gunner. He was before the war an art student in Chicago.  

    Soon after the liberation, some ill feelings developed between French and American soldiers. Such feelings always develop between allied soldiers. French were consciously or unconsciously jealous of the wealth of American guys. In most cases this wealth was only apparent, due to a new and clean uniform, to plenty of cigarettes and jeeps, but in any event it used to result in great success when dealing with French girls. Such ill feelings, however, never started between us and the Americans who lived with us in the maquis. They were courageous, fine people. They used to volunteer for all missions. Once, when warned about a great danger of a mission, Larry Gault answered “Flying is dangerous too, you know.” They spent about ten days with us and left with the first American Intelligence officer who reached us. Edward Mettler cried then like a child. He fell in love with one of our intelligence girls, who traveled between the German occupied Rhone Valley and our mountains. The separation seemed cruel on him indeed.

The German withdrawal from the Vercors massif (August 13, 1944) was due to Operation Dragoon, the secondary landing of the Allies in southern France on August 15, 1944.

This one left has left me with some Questions, with a capital Q.  

  1. What was the date? Dr. Planas said August 7th, 1944.  My grandfather's writing suggests the Americans were shot down right around August 15, 1944.  
  2. How many Americans did they take in? Dr. Planas say three, Grandpa says two.

When I evaluate a source, I consider several things:
  • Which details match between the different accounts?  The truth most likely lies where the stories intersect.
  • Was the source actually present or a key player during the event? If so, I tend to trust their account over one that wasn't. 
  • Do the accounts give other clues that I can use in my research? 
  • Can I connect the event to a verified historical milestone? If so, I will use the date and location from the historical milestone.
  • Do I have good reason to believe the primary source is mistaken? How soon after the event did the person write their account? (I'm more likely to trust details that were written down in the days or months after the occurrence over ones written decades later.) Were they repeating second-hand information or their own eyewitness testimony?

Matching details: A US plane bombed a bridge over the Rhône River in Valence in August of 1944. The plane was shot down by flak, some of the American airmen escaped the plane and a small number of them joined the unit.

Key player: it's unclear if Dr. Planas was present or a key player or not, but I loved his delightfully snarky comment, "Once comforted, our airmen had to do two mule patrols to make them reflect on their inappropriate methods." On the other hand, Grandpa was clearly a key player because he acted as interpreter and became friends with the Americans, and his friendship was strong enough that he still remembered their names thirty years later, despite only knowing them for 10 days or so.

Other clues:  "Valence bridge at Granges-les-Valence" from Dr. Planas and "Bridge in Valence-sur-Rhone" from Grandpa. I'm still researching this one.  I did find this in wiki, though: 
"The stone bridge, dating from 1905, destroyed 19 June 1940 by French engineers to slow the advance of the German troops. In August 1940, Rhone is again passable by boat and then a ferry to traille. A temporary Pigeaud bridge was then installed by the engineers. This bridge was again damaged on 18 August 1944 during a bombing by the Allied forces.
And my historian friend in France sent me this link which was even better. It's in French, so English-speakers will need to use their browser's translation features to read it. But it says that on August 15, 1944:
    For seven minutes, twenty American bombers flying at an altitude of 4,000 m in the east-west direction, and not on the north-south axis of the river, dropped around a hundred 250 kg bombs, in principle on the crossing road bridge. the Rhône between Valence and Granges-lès-Valence, bridge ... The Americans' objective was to destroy this bridge to delay the German retreat towards the north.  
    The planes came under fire from the Flak (German DCA) installed at the Polygone in Valence and protecting the Valence-Chabeuil-la Trésorerie aerodrome, particularly that of the Billard plateau. Flak from the Polygone district kills several, one falls in Alixan, another in Upie, one in Ardèche. For the first two, the crews, except for an injured person taken prisoner in Alixan, were recovered by the "Pierre" company with the help of people from the locality... 
    The start of the bombardment was so rapid that the block leaders did not all have time to open the shelters: the corpses of the prefecture concierge and other people from the neighborhood were found in front of the door of the shelter opening onto the Sylvante coast.
When the inhabitants can finally go out, it is to see, through the suffocating dust, a hellish spectacle: the prefecture, hit by three bombs, is burning, papers are flying everywhere, tons of files, documents, archives disappear. From the prefecture hotel, to the current location of Saint-Ruff Park, only the entrance gate will be saved. The prefect's mother was killed, prefect Leclercq and his sister were injured. 
    The banks of the Rhône are devastated. The hospital, although marked with two gigantic red crosses on the roof, is partially destroyed, the four floors of the southern part have collapsed as a whole, they contained the women's surgery department and the maternity ward. Completely ravaged, this wing is nothing more than a gaping hole from which it will be difficult to remove the bodies of 130 people, women undergoing treatment, babies, nurses.
It goes on to say that the bombing failed to destroy the bridge and that several days later, the British RAF came back and successfully destroyed it.  So that definitively ties the arrival of the Americans to the August 15th bombing.  But this description also explains Dr. Planas's anger toward the American airmen. He was a young medical student at the time, and while he would have hated the civilian casualties, I think he would have been particularly infuriated at the destruction of the hospital.

Historical milestones: My grandfather's account seems to connect it to Operation Dragoon, which landed in France on August 15, 1944, while Dr. Planas's account describes it as more of an isolated incident. There was a lot of bombing in Valence associated with Dragoon, so the historical context fits.

Conclusions: I believe that my grandfather's account is more accurate in this case, that there were two Americans instead of three. It was most likely associated with Operation Dragoon, and from Wiki, I believe the Americans joined their FFI unit on August 15th, 1944.

I should also mention that sometimes Dr. Planas's stories were shown to be the more accurate, and sometimes Dr. Planas's and my grandfather's stories match exactly (I love it when that happens!), and sometimes (as in the date of Madame Auvergne's murder) both men were wrong.

As a general rule, I tend to favor my grandfather's version, though, because ultimately the book is from his point of view.

"After the bombing of August 18, 1944"
You will need to step through the photos - it's the 35th photo.

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