Etobon Project Blog - Journal posts are listed below
The Etobon Project

Crash in the Village - The Search for Joe Atkinson

Thanks to the Atkinson family for these articles from L'Authevernois. This is a story that complements the Etobon project: it tells of the courage of the people living in the villages of France during the dark times of World War II.

Tuesday
Oct092012

Crash in the Village - A WWII Story from Western France

Joe Atkinson was an American pilot who was shot down over western France in 1944. The villagers of Authevernes rescued and sheltered him and sent him on his way. Over 40 years later, a journalist in Authevernes set out to find out what happened to the young flyer. This is my translation of the story, which appeared in the July-August-September and October-November-December 1991 editions of L'Authevernois.

The village of Authevernes

Part 1

At the end of August 1944, an American plane returning from a bombing run on the Gisors train station was hit by German flack (1). With its wing in flames, the plane’s pilot parachuted near Authevernes, while the P47 Thunderbolt (2) crashed near where the scrapyard is located today, on the other side of the national highway. Majo Perdereau, a teacher at Noyers, hearing the sound of an airplane in distress, said to himself, “You’re mine, son!” Majo Perdereau is a local hero. Often mentioned in the post-war press, including in this article, she belonged to the Resistance while teaching and serving as town hall secretary. The “Vengeance” network, to which she belonged, was under the command of Commandant Fromager. Perdereau’s missions included helping Allied pilots brought down in the area and providing intelligence on troop movements and activities of the Noyers feldpost. The pilot downed in Authevernes at about 11 o’clock that morning, was the 22nd and the last one she saved. That’s why she said, “You’re mine, son!”

The former Resistance member doesn’t remember the exact date of the crash but thinks it was a few days before the liberation of Authevernes (3). That detail, along with the pilot’s name, is still missing, and finding it would allow us to complete the story and get in contact with him if he is still living. L’Authevernois, the newspaper that never gives up hope, has been in contact for several months with the research department of Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, to attempt the impossible.

Having alerted her commander of the plane in trouble, Majo Perdereau was ordered to Authevernes by way of the plateau, to retrieve the American.

In the meantime, the farmer André Michel, said, “le Bon Dieu’s boy” (the son-in-law of the man called “le Bon Dieu”) ran to the parachutist with Marcel Bannier and Le Prévost, a friend who worked at the SNCF. Here’s what he told us:

“I remember perfectly the pilot jumping from his burning plane just overhead. He seemed completely out of it when he landed because he’d been wounded on his forehead when he jumped. I started whistling to let him know I was there, and then Marcel Bannier and I helped him and gave him a gardener’s apron as his first piece of civilian clothing. We had just hidden him in a wheat wagon when some Germans passed close by us on a motorcycle with a sidecar. Fortunately they didn’t notice anything. The same thing happened when the wagon got to the crossroads at the top of the Côte d’Authevernes. The pilot got nervous when the soldiers started sticking their bayonets in the wheat to make sure he wasn’t in there. I was really scared that the wheat dust would make him sneeze!”

Fortunately, it turned out all right because André Michel distracted the soldiers’ attention by telling them that the pilot had fled towards Vesly. André Michel took him to La Chartreuse, Mme. Watteau’s farm where he worked with Abel Marchand. According to Michel, the pilot stayed hidden for two days in the barn, but witnesses’ memories are conflicting on the length of his stay.

“Once my guy was in a safe place,” continues André Michel, I left him to bring in my horses but I worried about seeing Germans around the farm. And, the Fort’s watchtower had a clear view of the farm’s courtyard, where lots of people wanted to see the pilot. The news spread quickly. We hid our man in the barn, on top of the wheat. He had some trouble climbing that high, all the way to the rafters. People were questioning me, but I pretended not to know anything. I even told two Germans who stopped me in the street that my horses were frightened by the plane crash. Despite my best efforts, people still were able to get to the pilot. Abel Marchand gave him some civilian clothes (a wedding suit!) and in exchange he received the pilot’s flight suit, which was damaged, and I was given his watch as a souvenir (4).”

Pierre Porchon, a farmer at the Guérite farm in Authevernes, also remembers:

“We were in the middle of the wheat harvest and the weather had been stormy. I was on the Guerny farm track to bring in the wheat along with three or four other men when a DCA started firing on a group of American planes. One of them went over our heads in flames and crashed not far away, after having dropped its last bomb. It wasn’t long before the liberation of Authevernes because the rain that fell a bit later delayed the Allied tanks got stuck in the mud. At first the pilot hid in a wheat mill, called a “diziau” before getting into André Michel’s wagon, which took him to the La Chartreuse farm where he stayed for a day or two. Paulette Bannier served as interpreter. The whole village came out, because the presence of the pilot, as dangerous as it was in a village occupied by the Germans, was an important event after four years of occupation. The man, a big fellow of about 20 years old, seemed worried about having so many people around him, but he was very nice. He promised us, if he got back to his unit, to fly over the village and rev his engine so we would know it was he. But we never saw him again.”

Like Mme. Watteau, Majo Perdereau says that the American only stayed a half-day in Authevernes.

“I left Noyers and crossed the fields,” she remembers, “so as not to be spotted by the Germans and I was informed very quickly where my pilot was located. I got into contact with him around mid-afternoon, at the Authevernes school, where Mme. Pahin (a teacher) had hidden him in a room (5). I didn’t wait for nightfall to take him to a safe place in my house. Our walk across the fields was no fun for the big 19-year-old, who kept grumbling that he had failed in his mission, lost his plane and his leather jacket. I also understood that he would have preferred to travel by car or horse, like he would have in Texas, where he must be from. He chewed gum (that’s the first time I ever saw anyone chew on rubber). We finally arrived in Noyers, where I introduced him to two pilots that were still in my house (I had as many as 11 at one time). Five or six days later, when Gisors was liberated, I turned these last soldiers over to the Allies via my intermediary in the Resistance network.”

That’s all we know for now about our American pilot. He would be 66 years old now. Many of us would love to meet him, if our research is successful and if he is still alive, and if he is, if he’d like to see Noyers and Authevernes again …

                                                                                    Jac Remise

(1) It’s said that the plane was hit by a mounted battery on a truck in Gisors or by a German tank on the road to Vesly. Others think, however, that it was hit by the DCA at the Chateau de Dangu.

(2) The P47 Thunderbolt was a remarkable aircraft whose interior comforts for the pilots, who often flew long missions, were beyond comparison to its adversary, the Messerschmitt. For example, it had armrests! The P47 had a fuel tank large enough to fly from London to Berlin (round trip, of course) allowing pilots to get lost or take part in one or two battles. This fighter-bomber was used in the Pacific as much as in Europe. 12,602 of these planes were produced.

(3) Authevernes was liberated on August 25 by the 45th Scots Division. The “Scottish” arrived about 3 p.m. via the little road from Cahaignes, near the Champ Pourri.

(4) André Michel’s mother picked up the parachute and made a dress for the statue of the Virgin located near Gisancourt, on the Noyers road. This Virgin, called “Our Lady of the Oak,” and mounted in a tree, is said to heal pilgrims from their illnesses.

(5) Mme. Pahin remained a teacher at Authevernes for 15 years. 

At the last minute, we made contact with Paulette Bannier, the interpreter, whom we couldn’t find up until now because she had changed her name and address when she married. And a miracle happened! She gave us the pilot’s name! To be continued …

 L'Authevernois included this map of the action surrounding Atkinson's crash and escape

Part 2

Last June 9, when our seventh issue was already in process, we got in touch by telephone with Paulette Bannier, now Paulett Margo-Morizot by marriage, who was an interpreter in August 1944. She helped us take a big step forward by revealing the name of the long-sought-after pilot.

“Hello! Madame Margot-Morizot?”

“Yes”

“Were you formerly Paulette Bannier?”

“Yes”

“Do you remember a pilot who came down near Authevernes, in 1944?”

“Oh! Joseph Atkinson!”

“Was that the American who was hidden, in the month of August, in a barn in Authevernes?”

“Certainly. There’s no doubt on the subject because the first words this boy spoke were burned into my memory: “My name is Joseph Atkinson. I live near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”

During our phone conversation, Paulette Margot-Morizot couldn’t hide her emotion:

“I’m so happy to know that people are still thinking about him! When I went to Pennsylvania, two years ago with my daughter, I really regretted not having his address. I have good memories of that nice, smiling boy. I’d be so happy to see him again … When he was hidden in the barn at la Chartreuse, up above the millstone, I climbed up the ladder four or five times to talk with him. We brought him food and the farmer who worked there gave him clothes so he would look like a civilian. Probably the irritated way that Joseph acted with Majo Perdereau came from being uncomfortable in those clothes, because they weren’t his size, and he would have preferred to wear his flight suit, even at the risk of being captured by the Germans.”

Paulette Margot-Morizot was one of those who had contact with him after the first help given him by André Michel, Le Prévost and his brother Marcel.

“I went to the field with Charles Foucault. He took me by the hand because we had to help the harvesters to quickly hide the pilot in the wheat wagon and the parachute under haystacks. The Germans weren’t far away and I’m certain that they would have easily caught him if we hadn’t gotten there first. I think the crash happened around August 15, because the barn, where we took him, was still full of wheat to be milled."

Paulette confirms what Pierre Porchon told us, that is to say that the pilot promised, if he got out of there, to return in an airplane above Authevernes and make himself known by doing aerial acrobatics.

The Notebook Found

The day of my phone interview with Paulette Bannier, Majo Perdereau found, by the greatest coincidence, the secret notebook in which she wrote the names and addresses of these pilots. She confirmed that it was Joseph Atkinson. She emphasized that this boy’s difficult character came from his anxiety over seeing so many Germans in the area, especially at Noyers, where the “feldpost” soldiers were stationed.

“When he found shelter at my home, where other pilots where hidden, Joseph relaxed, became nicer and called me “mama!” My nephew, Maurice Sinoir, who was already hidden there to escape forced labor in Germany, watched over my “boys”, because sometimes I had trouble keeping order between the British and the Americans! But an extraordinary friendship was born during that time when we all lived together, just a few steps away from the Germans!”

That friendship lasted, because many of the Allied pilots kept in contact with Majo. Some of them even came to visit every year. In July and August, Franck Pierson, (crashed July 16 1944 between Danu and Authevernes), a radio operator in a British “Halifax”, and the daughter of the gunner, Bob Bryden, came to visit. Bryden’s daughter, along with her parents, kept very close contact with our heroine. And, Majo promises, if Joseph Atkinson were to return to France, he’d still have a room at her house, just like in the old days.

The Code of Friendship (interview of July 2)

Yvonne Favresse remembers a big moment the afternoon of the crash, when a bottle of cider was opened in honor of Joseph Atkinson, just before he left for Noyers.

“We were all together at Abel Marchand’s house (Claude’s uncle) with Paulette Bannier, Leon Grinsberg and M. Gallier (he hid Germans at Authevernes) We drank to friendship, to victory, and were just getting out the glasses when Joseph asked us to get a large bowl to pour the cider into. We drank from it, one after the other, according to his custom. Our pilot seemed glad to share this custom, “ the code of friendship,” with us. We were moved by it.”

Yvonne Favresse rejoiced when I told her that Joseph Atkinson had crossed the lines safe and sound.

“We were so sad and worried to see him leave and I always wondered if he got out alright. And now, 47 years afterwards, you tell me he got back to his unit. I remember his departure: night was falling – I’m sure of it ‘ because he had to cross the national road where the Germans often travelled. Joseph laughed at himself in Abel Marchand’s suit, because it was so short on him, but he seemed upset at having lost his shirt and his cards. I think it was M. Gallier who went with Abel Marchand to the school at Vesly – not the Authevernes school – where he was picked up by Mme. Perdereau. We were sorry to see him go. He said to us, at that moment, that if he didn’t get back to the Allied lines, he’d come back to us. But that didn’t happen. He didn’t speak a word of French, and the presence of my niece, Paulette Bannier, was a big help. Joseph gave me an English coin, with the head of George VI and Paulette shared the parachute with André Michel’s mother. I was more spoiled than the others because Paulette told him that my father was English! I had the coin made into a brooch, but I lost it later between Requiecourt and Authevernes …”

The day of the crash, Yvonne Favresse was at the Guerite farm, near the Porshon’s home, where she worked. A German truck was parked near there, guarded by two soldiers. One was Czech, the other Austrian.

“My brother, Pierre Therin, kept the soldiers from going to look for the pilot. I think that those two, having been forced into the German army, weren’t mean. I also saw, coming from Bordeaux-Saint Clair, a captain with two motorcycle outriders. They were going toward Mureaux, where Andre Michel was luckily just finished hiding the pilot in his wagon. There were also Germans in the courtyard of the Pollenne’s farm, and at the Maison Forte. As far as I know there were never sentries posted on the tower, because those that were going to la Chartreuse would have been spotted quickly.

The Inquiry Narrows

Last June, M. Leslie Atkinson (same name as the pilot) Director of the Escape and Evasion society, let us know that Joseph Atkinson had rejoined the English lines on August 30, 1944, and that he belonged to the 358th fighter group, as a lieutenant. Leslie Atkinson also gave us the official date of the crash: August 18, 1944. This was not far from the estimate of our witnesses.

This association is now engaged in research, parallel with investigations led by Maxwell Air Force Base and in San Francisco, by our friend George Gerhard, formerly of the U.S. Air Force. We can’t allow ourselves to dream too much, after 47 years, because we know that after the war in Europe, many fighter pilots were sent to Korea and then to Vietnam.

We still maintain the hope of seeing our heroes again very soon, if not when the grand reunion of Allied pilots who were downed in the region takes place, which is being organized by Adeline Lavandier, for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Allied Landing, that is to say, in 1994!

Notes:

We will recount, next July, the sad history of three men killed in the airplane that was on a mission above Nucourt, where the VI was being built, with a group of 200 bombers, July 16, 1944. Six men were on board, three of whom are buried at Courcelles-les-Gisors. The pilot was 19 years old. His son was born the day of his burial.

Bernard Bove let us know that the apron that Andre Michel talked about (see our previous issue) was given back to the pilot by his father, Rene Bove. It was also Rene Bove who would have been charged, by the French Resistance, with conducting Joseph Atkinson to the English lines, on the other side of the Seine. According to Bernard Bove, it seemed that Andre Michelle was confused, because it was M. Le Prevost who accompanied him, the day of the crash, with Marcel Bannier, the second husband of Madame Rene Bove.

The Denouement (July 29)

Big news arrived from San Francisco:  George Gerhard has established contact with the family of Joseph Atkinson, on vacation. Here’s what our investigator wrote in his letter of July 2(:  “Flash …Flash… 47 years mystery solved!” He just learned that the pilot had arrived safe and sound in the USA, that he had gotten married, had three daughters and one son and that he is now a grandfather of 10 grandchildren. 71 years old (!) he still works in the metallurgical industry, In a phone conversation with J. Atkinson, he learned that Atkinson remembers the events related in l’Authevernois. He confirmed that he piloted a P47 Thunderbolt and that the crash took place in a wheat field where the farmers appeared in front of him. As he jumped from the aircraft, he was trying to avoid hitting the tail. He also confirms that the farmer of la Chartreuse had offered him his wedding suit. He remembers spending a night at Authevernes, but not exactly where, before leaving for Majo Pendereau’s home, where he stayed four or five days. After his passage to the Allied lines, on the other side of the Seine, he was taken to a U.S. Air Force Base, near Mont St. Michel, he things, and then sent back to the USA in the following days. After that, the war was over for him.

At the same time, Leslie Atkinson, director of the Escape and Evasion Society, found the address of Joseph Atkinson and wrote to him in mid-July. That letter was followed by a message of friendship from Jack Ilfrey, war ace.

A Successful Investigation

We will follow up, in our 9th issue, on this investigation that has ended beyond our expectations. The pilot has been found, he’s still living and …

L’Authevernois thanks all those who have brought about this happy result.