Local view: From France to Minnesota: A tribute to pilot’s sacrifice
The peaceful community of Saint-Thierry lies 90 miles northeast of Paris. Nestled amongst vineyards and farmland in the historic province of Champagne, the village has been in the path of invasion three times since the Franco-Prussian War of the ...
The peaceful community of Saint-Thierry lies 90 miles northeast of Paris. Nestled amongst vineyards and farmland in the historic province of Champagne, the village has been in the path of invasion three times since the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s.
On a pleasant summer morning in 1944, Maj. Don Beerbower, a native of Hill City, Minn., led 16 P-51 Mustangs of the highly acclaimed 353rd Fighter Squadron, 354th Fighter Group, on a low-level attack against a nearby German-occupied, former French airdrome known as Base aerienne 112.
This was two months after the D-Day landings, and the Allies were on the verge of finally breaking free from the enemy’s skillful defense of the hedgerow country in Normandy. Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army, supported by units of the 9th Air Force, had smashed through the Axis lines near Avranches. On Aug. 7, as Patton turned east in a potential flanking movement, the German 7th Army struck the 1st U.S. Army at Mortain in an effort to split the American forces.
The outcome of the German counterattack was uncertain when Maj. Beerbower made the decision two days later to strafe 30 enemy aircraft found in the open at Base aerienne 112. And on the second pass, deadly fire from a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft crew brought down the 9th Air Force’s leading ace and “Bonnie B,” the Mustang Maj. Beerbower had named after his daughter. The 22-year-old squadron commander died about mid-morning local time in a farm field not far from Saint-Thierry’s 12th-century church. Landowner Mayor Marcel Lemaire and his workmen rushed to the crash scene.
As 14-year-old Guy Perron and his friend bicycled around Saint-Thierry that morning, the sound of an airplane engine caught their attention. When an explosion suddenly followed, the boys wheeled in the direction of the noise southeast of town. They peddled rapidly downhill from the village past Mayor Lemaire’s vineyard and then along a dusty road that ran beside the farmer’s wheat field. Near a wood line the youngsters saw the mangled remains of an American pilot and the smoldering wreckage of an olive drab P-51 Mustang. The name “Major Don M. Beerbower” and several rows of little swastikas signifying German aircraft shot down stood out painted on the side of the fighter plane just below the cockpit. Away to the east, clouds of black smoke drifted skyward from the enemy airdrome. Later, as the boys watched from a safe distance, German soldiers arrived to take away the body and the fighter plane.
On an August morning in 2014 Guy Perron opened his daily newspaper. In it he read an article about a ceremony planned in Saint-Thierry to honor Maj. Beerbower. Monsieur Perron felt compelled to return to his childhood village to attend the community’s remembrance of the American pilot whose death had left a lasting impression on him.
I met Monsieur Perron, a quiet, serious, 84-year-old, at that ceremony on Sept. 9. The commemoration was held beside the entrance to the ancient church of Saint-Thierry. Mayor Antione Lemaire, grandson of Marcel Lemaire, directed the program. Along with about 200 others from France, Britain, Canada and the United States, I felt privileged to be there to pay tribute to Maj. Beerbower. As an American and as Maj. Beerbower’s biographer, I was honored to say a few words about his life of courage and duty and about his wife and child left behind.
The ceremony held special meaning for flying officers from the French Armee de l’Air, and former military pilots and crew members from the Royal Air Force, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force who were present to salute the bravery of a fellow aviator. Anyone who has flown military aircraft realizes the debt he or she owes to those who have gone before them.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the remembrance plaque was uncovered. The playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” followed, and then
elementary-age schoolchildren, waving small American and French flags, burst into song with a heartwarming rendition of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Many of us shed tears as the boys and girls sang in French of “liberty, cherished liberty.”
At the reception that followed, Mayor Lemaire asked that I deliver the glass-encased American flag used during the program to Maj. Beerbower’s daughter, Bonnie, who lives in Cohasset. She was unable to be at Saint-Thierry because of health reasons. “The kindness of the gift,” Bonnie later wrote me, “coming all the way from France, makes me feel special.” The mayor’s gesture and the tribute given her father at the ceremony helps heal the loss Bonnie has borne all her life.
Toward evening, Jean-Pierre Calka, co-author of a book about the 100-year history of Base aerienne 112, hosted a group of us at the recently closed air facility east of Saint-Thierry. Standing in the middle of the runway not far from World War II-era hangers, Monsieur Calka pointed out the location of anti-aircraft emplacements in 1944. In our mind’s eye we could imagine the sound and fury of the attack 70 years earlier. Then, in a very personal moment, he told us how deeply the people of northern France feel about the sacrifice of so many lives for the peace they enjoy today. The reminders of what happened to them and for them are evidenced by the thousands upon thousands of German, French, British and American graves scattered in military cemeteries all over this part of France.
Saint-Thierry Deputy Mayor Regis Camus summed up the sentiment of the French people about their liberation by the Allies from “Nazi inhumanity” when he said the remembrance plaque “is to remind all the visitors (to Saint-Thierry) that here a man gave his life for the defense of freedom.”
The villagers of Saint-Thierry have rebounded from invasion and occupation. Their 900-year-old church stands renewed today after its steeple and roof were destroyed in World War I. The plaque near its entrance ties together the words “Remembrance,” for Maj. Beerbower’s sacrifice, and “Liberty,” for those once under the jackboot of an oppressor. The thoughtful expression of appreciation displayed by the French people at the ceremony in Saint-Thierry this past September was an example of the desire for freedom that lives within all of us.
When Mayor Antione Lemaire and I clasped hands after removing the American flag covering the remembrance plaque, I felt a tremendous wave of emotion knowing we were in the presence of something that normally doesn’t feel very tangible; we were experiencing the spirit of “liberty, cherished, liberty.”
Paul M. Sailer of Wadena, Minn., is the author of “The Oranges are Sweet,” which tells the story of Maj. Don M. Beerbower of Hill City, Minn., and the 353rd Fighter Squadron of November 1942 through August 1944.
About this column On Sept. 8, the News Tribune published a story about a remembrance ceremony at the time in Saint-Thierry, France, for Maj. Don Beerbower of Hill City, Minn. In this guest essay, Maj. Beerbower’s biographer shares more about the village of Saint-Thierry, its people, Maj. Beerbower and the significance of the ceremony.