2008 Brittany, France
The day before yesterday, I was standing over my father's grave in the Brittany American Cemetery in the French village of Saint James. I never knew where he was buried until a writer friend, realizing how rootless I felt, unearthed his whereabouts in an Internet search, doing what I never thought possible.
At the time of his death, he and my mother were estranged, possibly divorced, and I was only four years old. I was encouraged to forget him. But I had a hollow in me that I spent a lifetime filling with "what if’s." Once I knew where he had lain all these years, I began immediately making plans for a pilgrimage to France. Single-minded, excited, perhaps a little crazed, I researched the Internet and networked with all kinds of people who would help me once I arrived. One clue led to another. One contact led to the next. I cashed in a chunk of the small inheritance my mother left me, caring not that it was my retirement fund, and booked a flight.
A staff member at the cemetery, an American named Alan and a docent of a sort, told me that all of the American dead, sailors and soldiers buried all over Brittany, had been transferred to Saint James after the war. Acres of lush green hillsides are dotted with white marble crosses, row upon row, manicured and tended, not unlike Arlington's acres of headstones. It flattened my heart to see that vista of white markers. Alan picked up a protocol bucket of sand gathered from Omaha Beach and led me through the maze of paths to find my dad. I had brought a bouquet, but someone had already put little American flags and fresh flowers on his grave. Alan said it was a welcoming gesture done by a member of Brest 44, a national French society dedicated to keeping alive the memories of World War II liberators. As the gray sand was rubbed into the 3-line engraving on the cross-marker, the lettering became legible. "Now you can see it's your father," Alan said gently.
Andrew L. Jackson
Sgt. 341 Bomb Sq 97th Bomb Gp (H)
October 21, 1942
Then he left me to be alone. Taps chiming from chapel bells floated on the morning air over acres of graves. Sun in a cloudless sky threw shadows behind every cross, cloning them skinny and flat across the lawns.
Everything clean and serene, I stood at my father's grave and waited. I stood there, fearful of an emotional avalanche. But nothing came. There was no one there for me to talk to, only an empty stage after the many battles of a terrible war. Thousands of young dead boys—not only in this cemetery but so many others in France—Normandy, Ardennes, and Chapelle.
My father's bones were interred beneath my feet, but his spirit was not there.
I drove my little rented Fiat to the last place on my itinerary: Saint-Vougay, a village three hours west of Saint James, where in 1942 the Nazis had originally buried my dad in a churchyard. I had coordinated this visit in advance with the Amicale, a group of Saint-Vougay farmers who had formed their own local memorial society, similar to the national Brest 44, since World War II had bestowed an historical trophy on them, which I badly wanted to see.
Iffig Palud, the president of the Amicale, and his wife, Martine, are my hosts. I'm welcomed by their mayor, Madame Marie-Claire Henaff, at a reception worthy of visiting royalty: champagne, my own translator, and later, in the passenger seat of an authentic World War II jeep, a drive to a spectacular banquet. The ride, courtesy of Brest 44, was with young Frenchmen dressed in American G.I. uniforms who beeped the horn all the way to the restaurant where I was toasted and presented gifts, including an original 1942 Life magazine with photos of my father and his crew.
The next morning, two more Amicale members took me sightseeing. The churchyard where the Germans buried their enemies is ancient and charming, with roses growing on walls surrounding the graves. My French friends showed me the section the Nazis used for Canadian and American war dead. Those barrows are long empty; remains moved to Saint James. My father's spirit wasn't present here either.
But on this day, they have brought me to a dilapidated shed they insist I must see. Its weathered walls are pale gray metal, constructed from their prize—the wing of an American B-17 bomber.
A somber little group of nine, we congregate on a muddy levee, once a cow path alongside an irrigation ditch. Direct access to the farm by auto is impossible because the muck is too deep. We have parked the cars off the isolated farm road, to visit the Wing Shed. It is an old-fashioned lean-to, long abandoned—really just two walls on poles stuck in the soil. After decades of hard winters, the metal structure cants perilously, sinking in tall weeds.
Huddled under umbrellas, awaiting the spring rain of Brittany to let up, we will have to cross an irrigation ravine to get to the shed, which after sixty-five years is bonded to its surroundings. Grass sprouts from the crevasses of its seams. Under this flat gray sky, I feel like a melancholy child in my old body, a woman close to seventy. A father could not recognize his child in this gauzy light. Drizzle greens the checkered farmlands all the way down to the sea. Tongues of smoke waft above the distant chimneys of squat stone houses. Brittany is gripping in its stark beauty, but this is not a place where I would want to die.
Our Amicale host, Hervé Simon, owns this farm and addresses us in French. I can understand every third or fourth word, and am grateful that Iffig, their president, who speaks fluent English, translates for me.
"Hervé is telling you the farm has been empty since his father, Jean-Yves, died. It's now for sale, but as you can see, it needs a lot of work." Iffig gestures to a small yellow farmhouse and rickety barn sitting beyond the shed. "We plan to escape this rain and share a bottle of wine indoors afterwards."
"The English Channel is there?" I ask, pointing north. On the Internet, I found many details I'd never known. When the United States joined the war against the Nazis, the first American strategic bombing command was based with the RAF in England near Ixworth in Suffolk. That's where my father was assigned duty. The bombers crossed the Channel on every mission to France.
Iffig nods and gazes out over the vista of farmlands. Under the umbrella, his face is shaded, his eyes pensive behind rimless glasses. "Life was hard during the war," he said, "and the Germans were despised. When they blew up this American bomber, people ran into their fields to try to save victims and to hide anything that might aid the Nazis, like maps or weapons. It was said that a machine gun was thrown into a brook near my home, but it was never found. The farmers needed any materials they could salvage, for supplies of just about anything were scarce. Mothers made shirts and clothes, even wedding gowns, out of parachute material."
“Terrible,” I say, vaguely remembering my mother complaining about war shortages. No gasoline, no nylon stockings. But she hadn't lived in an occupied country. And she hadn't flown in a bomber under attack.
Iffig continues. "Jean-Yves, Hervé's father, took his horse and cart into another farmer's field searching for what he saw drop." He stops to point to the left of us. All I see in the distance is a stretch of gentle farmland.
"Jean-Yves knew he had to rush, for soon the soldiers would arrive looking for survivors and to collect the spoils. Metal was a treasure during the war, so he was making a dangerous risk. He got the wing tipped onto his cart and tied, then dragged it back to his farm to hide in his barn under hay and manure. It stayed there until the Nazi occupation was over. Fortunately, the Germans never searched Simon's farm because it was so far from where the, uh, what do you call…fuselage?"
"Fuselage." I smile.
"Feh, it's the same! Anyway the wing fell far away from there. Farms nearer the major wreckage were searched and searched again for airmen in hiding."
"It's hard to believe, that kind of courage!” I say. “And then he built this shed." My mind tries to imagine the fear they lived with daily.
"Iffig, did I tell you I was able to find original Day Raid reports of the men returning from their missions? I had no idea such things were on the Internet. I didn't even know that the records of Saint James were available to the public."
"No, I have never seen such reports."
I tell him about the report for October 21. About how ninety planes from four different Groups took off to bomb the submarine pens in Lorient, France. But here's the thing. Seventy-five of them returned because of bad weather, mechanical failure, or enemy action. So only fifteen B-17s, all from the 97th, my dad's Group, made it across the Channel. They also hit bad weather, but twelve of them managed to reach Lorient and unloaded 60,000 pounds on their target.
"I knew there was a big mission,” he says, “but had no idea only fifteen got through the weather. I want to read that. The storms and cloud cover here can be very bad. Here we are now, waiting for the rain to stop!"
I tell him it’s amazing to read history when it's so personal to your own life. “But wait!” I say. “Do you have any idea how many Focke Wulfe 190 Luftwaffe fighters struck those last three planes that never made it back to base?"
"How many?" Iffig guesses, and holds up five fingers on his free hand with a question mark in his expression.
I shake my head. "Based on what the surviving crews said, there were an estimated thirty-six German planes that attacked them!"
Iffig excitedly translates my story for the rest of our party. Mouths fall open. This is a new, exciting detail for them.
I tell them more. I tell them how there were three RAF Spitfire squadrons who were supposed to defend the rear of the 97th's formation. But in the stormy weather, I explain to Iffig for translation, they couldn't see any bombers or enemy aircraft and thought all planes had abandoned the mission. Iffig's face registers my own sadness. The RAF could have changed the history of my life if they had been able to fight that day.
A B-17 loaded with bombs was an elephant in the sky, easy prey for the Luftwaffe. The Big Bitch was the last airship in the formation, and totally unprotected from direct attack. My father, Lex Jackson, was the tail gunner. His gunner’s compartment at the rear of the plane was the tightest, next to the ball turret. He had to sit on a modified bicycle-type seat in a kneeling position for the majority of the mission. The tail was reportedly drafty and the gunner had to constantly battle frostbite and clear the windows of frost at high altitudes.
Iffig stands with his hands folded together, looking down respectfully, as if he can read my thoughts. I try to picture the view from the tail gunner's window: storm clouds, enemy craft, bullets hailing on the glass. A horror, and no help to fight them off.
In a later report written by the pilot, I learned that the Luftwaffte made their first hit on the Big Bitch at about the 15,000 foot mark. After three attacks, a fire broke out in the bomb bay and flight deck and one engine blew out; its controls were shot away. With the radio out, there was no communication between positions, but the co-pilot and navigator seemed to have the fire under control. Since they were flying level, they thought they might make it on the engines to the Channel, if not to England. These are realities that I was ignorant of, growing up. To know the truth late in my life was a gift, and a heartache.
The Amicale members chat among themselves, dutifully standing in the rain for my benefit.
I turn again to Iffig. "I read that the plane tried to turn back to England, but it made a jolt and headed straight down after some kind of explosion."
"Possibly the bombs loosened and tore a hole," he says.
Only two crew members were wearing back-type chutes and fell out of the airship. The rest had unattached seat chutes or emergency chutes they likely never got a chance to hook on, except for the tail, ball turret, and nose gunners, who didn't have room for chutes at all in their spaces.
"There are still witnesses alive who were children standing at the window of the school room here in Saint-Vougay when that plane burst into flames and fell from the sky."
"Did you yourself see it?" I envision the silver ship spiraling downward, explosive flames igniting the heavy cloud cover. I wonder where the tail landed.
Iffig laughs. "No, I was not here in 1942. You think I'm so old, eh?" His eyes twinkle. Indeed, he has to be twenty or thirty years younger than I am. My father had just turned thirty before he died. Younger than Iffig.
The citizens of the tiny village of Saint-Vougay formed their Amicale to build a granite memorial to the crew of the Big Bitch. For decades it has been their personal symbol of liberation from the Nazis, and they welcome all interested visitors with grateful enthusiasm to share it. But as an immediate relative of one of the crew, I am honored and feted with the best of what they can give. They act as if I'm family, as if they want to fill my loss with their love. I learn such societies thrive all over France, honoring American,
Canadian, and British dead warriors.
"If it was not for these heroes," Iffig says, "we would be speaking German today."
Firsthand accounts from those old-timers, who as children looked out the window of the one-room school, say that when my father’s plane exploded in the air, only two parachutes dropped from the sky. Pieces of airplane and bodies fell, widely scattered over nearby farm fields. But precisely who and where is lost to history.
The pilot and the navigator in parachutes were the only two of a ten-man crew to get out alive. The pilot, John Bennett, managed to escape for a week, fleeing on his knees with two broken ankles, passing out from pain, hiding in bushes, starving, until finally discovered by a startled farm woman. She helped him inside her barn and fed him, but called the French police since she was alone and frightened. The police collected Bennett and turned him over to the Nazis that same day.
The other survivor, the navigator, wounded and unconscious, was captured immediately and taken to surgery in a German infirmary. Both men were ultimately sent to Stalag Luft III POW camp (subject of the film “The Great Escape") for the duration of the war. They both returned home in 1945, lived into their eighties, and related all they knew. The other eight crew members died that October day.
Tired of waiting for the rain to let up, I break from the group and scramble down the ravine. The mud fills my shoes and soils the hem of my jeans. The rain seems like a torrent now that I'm not under Iffig's umbrella.
"Be careful," Iffig cries out. "Wait, I'll come with you." I turn and see Hervé and Jean-Claud follow Iffig, large men wading comically across the ditch, umbrellas tilting on their up stretched arms, with Jean-Paul sloshing right behind. These members of the Amicale are visibly pleased to have me see their treasure. Muddy and soaked, the rain runs down our faces and we break into laughter at the sight of each other.
The metallic shed is dull and marred by decades of Brittany storms. It is pierced with holes of various sizes, corroded at their edges, some smooth, others ragged and rough-edged. It would be hard to count the number of bullet holes that pepper the wing. I tentatively touch them with my fingers, some so large I can put three fingers through the holes. The metal feels hot beneath my fingers or icy cold. I can't tell which. The thought of being airborne, high off the earth in the crosshairs of thirty-six Nazi fighter planes is hard to hold. The movie versions bear little resemblance to the emotional reality of seeing these raw wounds in metal. The noise, the smoke, the courage, and fear are all bitter tastes in the back of my throat.
Iffig sends me to the end of the shed where the metal shows a faint outline of one of the points of the large American star that once emblazoned the wing. At first it is hard to see on the stained and streaked surface, but looking closer, the shape, a triangle, one arm of a large star in a slightly lighter color becomes apparent, like an abstract ghost of itself—a weathered memory of the other ghosts who died here. It is like seeing the American flag or hearing the national anthem in this faraway, alien land where the man I never really knew was lost to me forever. I am glad for the rain. Iffig circles my shoulders with his arm and says, "Let's have that cup of wine."
The Simon farmhouse is tiny, a series of dollhouse rooms crowded with mildewed, overstuffed furniture. Our Wing Shed group mills in the old-fashioned kitchen, sipping wine, eating Brittany shortbread from decorator tins. The Amicale members whisper among themselves and file in and out of a back room. Iffig engages me in light conversation, his eyes darting back and forth, and I'm aware of secrecy and excitement.
Finally, a package is placed in front of me, wrapped in brown paper, tied with packing string. It is flat, oblong, and heavy. Glasses rise in a toast. Faces beam around me as I untie the string to reveal a hunk of gray metal, corrugated on one side and smooth on the other. Handwritten by a felt pen is a brief history written in French of the crash of the Big Bitch with my father, Andrew Lexington Jackson, named in particular. And beneath those words are the autographs of the members of the Amicale. It is a piece of the actual Wing Shed that has been cut away for me to take home. For me to keep.
My thoughts tumble. I am a skeptic, not one to quickly trust. I am a loose fish who no longer has expectations of people or of life. I am the daughter of a dead American hero. I am loved. And without a doubt, in that uncanny mystery of a force beyond reason, I know that my father, Lex Jackson, or whatever part of him that's left on this earth still alive, sits right here in my hands.
Beverly A. Jackson is a writer, poet, painter, and stock option trader living in Naples,
Florida. Her house is on a lake with a resident alligator who keeps her two dogs and
cat on alert on the lanai. Her work is widely published in literary journals and ezines,
including Smokelong, Eclectica, Tattoo Highway, Opium, Shimmer, and Night Train.
Q: How did you approach the research aspect of this piece?
A: I’ve pored over Internet records, personal letters from my grandparents’ files, and
lengthy correspondence and conversation with the Bretons. It has all been very
moving and rewarding.
Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?
A: That I started at the Wing Shed, and not with the beginning of my pilgrimage to
France to find my father. I was surprised that this is where the story started, but
didn’t end for me.
Q: Do you find writing inspiration from other genres? From any particular writers?
A: I’ve been reading memoir, but haven’t found a “model” yet for what I want to do myself. So I’m sort of (ahem) winging it.
Q: Tell us about your home library…how are your books organized? Or not? Categories? Alphabetically? Tall to small? Other?
A: Just moved and gave away skadzillion books in North Carolina. What’s left is piled onto three bookshelves, as yet untended. Like bad children sent to their rooms without supper. I shall tend them soon, poor babies.