NOIRMOUTIER, FRANCE — Visitors from the Crestview Area Sister City Program observed Memorial Day in France at a somber ceremony held at the memorial to an American bomber crew who crash-landed off the island of Noirmoutier during World War II.
On the 4th of July 1943, a B-17 returning from a bombing run on German-occupied Aéroport Château Bougon outside St. Nazaire was struck by anti-aircraft fire, possibly shot from a German naval battery at the northern tip of Noirmoutier, which today is the home of Crestview’s Sister City.
The pilot, 1st Lt. John J. Campbell, was able to crash-land his stricken bomber in the shallow waters off Cantine Beach at La Guérinière, a village midway along the island’s west coast. Though the entire crew survived the crash, the landing occurred within sight of one of the several German batteries that still ring Noirmoutier’s perimeter, and the American aviators were captured before partisans could spirit them away.
Despite being a hazard to navigation, the wreckage of the plane remains today as a visible reminder to generations of Noirmoutrins of the sacrifices young Americans made to liberate their homeland. The wreck can be seen at low tide from the dunes on which the memorial stands.
Helping raise the Stars and Stripes at the beginning of the May 29 ceremony was Matisse Voillet, who just a few weeks before had visited Crestview with a delegation of students from the island.
“It was very special to me to help raise the American flag, because it made me think of my friends back in Crestview,” Matisse said. “Everyone there was so kind to me, so I was very happy to raise their flag.”
Following the ceremony, the crowd moved to the nearby Tirpitz Battery from which the B-17’s crash was observed. Today one of its several blockhouses serves as the headquarters and museum of Atlantic Wall Memory, an organization of World War II reenactors and historians. Their museum includes salvaged components of the B-17.
During pre-lunch presentations, Brian Hughes, president of Crestview’s Sister City program, presented a collection of documents from the ill-fated Cunard White Star liner RMS “Lancastria” to AWM President Marie-Thérèse Duranteau and historian Anthony Brochard. The ship holds a special place in Noirmoutrins’ hearts.
The “Lancastria” was departing St. Nazaire on June 17, 1940, packed with thousands of British military and civilian evacuees as German invaders barreled toward the west coast. The St. Nazaire evacuation was a continuation of those that began with the famous “miracle of Dunkerque” boat lift a few weeks earlier.
Harassed by Luftwaffe fighters, the ship was barely underway when a German bomb dropped down its funnel, exploding deep inside and sinking the liner within 20 minutes. No one knows how many thousands of lives were lost. Every cemetery on Noirmoutier contains graves of “Lancastria” victims, the bodies of whom continued to wash ashore for several months after the sinking.
“We see these tangible reminders of the horrors of war in cemeteries all over peaceful Noirmoutier, we hear on the news about similar horrors being perpetrated in the Ukraine, and so we give thanks for our friendship with Noirmoutier that lets us unite as friends against such horrors,” Mr. Hughes said.
The collection contained documents such as a passenger list, daily activities schedules, menus, a postcard depicting the ship, and onboard newsletters from a cruise held just a few months before war between Britain and Germany broke out in September 1939. Mme. Duranteau said the documents will find a place in AWM’s museum.
“We are grateful for the gift of this important collection for our museum,” she said.
The afternoon’s events concluded, as they often do in France, with a bountiful feast, this time held incongruently in an outdoor setting that 80 years before had swarmed with enemy occupiers.
But this time, it was the flags of the United States and France that proudly fluttered in the Atlantic breeze, and a German visitor among the small American delegation was now warmly welcomed as a good friend of his Noirmoutrin hosts.