Saturday, January 29, 2011
Monday, July 26, 2010
Remembering a liberator
American honored with French fighters
Traveling north on the Autoroute A-75 in the southern part of France just past the village of Le Caylar, you’ll have to look fast not to miss the sign on the right side of the highway that announces a curiously named place, “Memorial De La Pezade,” with the admonition “Remember.” Even more intriguing are the two small flags emblazoned on the sign: French and American.
If you decide to double back and exit into Le Caylar, you’ll find, after some searching, a small road that parallels the autoroute and arrives at a well-maintained area that, at first sight, appears to be a small French military cemetery: 24 simple white stone crosses and a French flag flying on a small hill behind a stone obelisk upon which is affixed the Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the Free French during WW II.
The white crosses are identical, with French flags chiseled into each – save one: it has an American flag under the French flag. Just behind the crosses there is a large stone with a plaque with the names of 23 French resistance fighters who died on 22 August 1944 in service to their country.
Surmounting this, there is a simple granite slab with this inscription in French: To the memory of Lt. Richard Francis Hoy, 111th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 12th U.S. A.A.F, shot down at Les Infruts on 22 August 1944.
A further search of the area reveals only one additional but telling clue, a small French sign at a short distance that states: Commemorative Memorial dedicated to the Resistance Fighters, 22 August 1944. This simple marker poses a complex question: what bond exists between these 23 French and this lone American, a bond so strong that he is considered one of their own?
It was Tuesday, 22 August 1944, and Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France had been underway for a week. At 1625 a two-ship formation of P-51-F6A reconnaissance fighters lifted from the airfield at Borgo, on the northeastern tip of Corsica, where the 111th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron was based. The flight was led by Lt. Roy Simmons; his wing man was Lt. Richard Hoy, 23 years of age and in Europe for only one month. Their mission was reconnaissance and interdiction of German forces fleeing the Allied advance.
The fighters flew WNW crossing the Provence and Marseille until reaching Saint-Gilles where they found and strafed German truck traffic. They next proceeded to attack targets in the area of Nimes and Arles, and then on to Peyeleau and Millau. It was south of Millau that they found a German column on the Larzac plateau fleeing from Rodez, a major German garrison town. The P-51’s attacked. It was late afternoon, 1850 local time.
During the strafing run, Lt Hoy's aircraft crashed and exploded. Upon returning to Borgo, Lt. Simmons reported the aircraft down at the village of Les Infruts and the pilot missing. In his later statement in the accident investigation report, Lt. Simmons stated that Lt. Hoy’s aircraft was hit by German antiaircraft fire during the strafing run while a French eyewitness later reported that the P-51 hit a telegraph pole as it fell.
Records show that the German forces recovered Lt. Hoy’s body and dug a crude grave for his remains and those of five Germans killed during the attack. Months later, a U.S. graves registration team made its way to the area to identify the aircraft and recover the pilot’s body.
The remains were subsequently removed to a temporary burial site at Draguignan Cemetery, Saint Raphael, where they remained for three years before being positively identified and returned to Detroit, Lt. Hoy’s hometown, for final burial. This might have ended this tragic story had it not been for one additional event that occurred on the same date, 22 August 1944, at La Pezade, a thousand yards farther southeast on the road from Les Infruts.
On the previous day, 21 August, the call had gone out to various French resistance groups, the maquisards, to sabotage the mountainous road that descended from the Larzac plateau to the south. The resistance group Maquis Paul Claie (Clé), only that day having occupied the town of Saint-Affrique, 40 kilometers WNW of La Pezade, responded and a special section of 23 men, some as young as 18 years old and led by 25 year old Edouard Pays, responded. They lacked training and experience and were poorly equipped but were passionately courageous. These sons of France took to the dangerous task
The sabotage was completed on 22 August in what must have been a full day’s effort. The group could have then returned to various safe maquisard camps but, in a heroic decision that would prove fatal, the men elected to head in the direction of the approaching Germans. Close to La Pezade they encountered two vanguard German trucks and attacked them.
Almost immediately the maquisards were at a disadvantage as the Germans were able to bring two mortars forward to engage their attackers. When the battle was over all of the maquisards were either dead or gravely wounded. As witnessed by a shepherd and later verified by German prisoners taken during the following days, the Germans shot and mutilated the wounded. None escaped.
The death of all of the maquisards, some in a most horrific manner, sent shock waves through the area. The impact was profound. To venerate these patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their homeland, the French government set aside a space for a permanent memorial at La Pezade, at which honors would be rendered each 22 August. But in the spirit of grateful appreciation, the French launched an effort to find the identity of the American pilot who was shot from the sky on this date and at this place while engaging what was doubtless the same German convoy. It was a long and difficult search.
Ultimately, however, they were successful in their efforts and on 22 August 1999, a plaque honoring 2nd Lt. Richard Francis Hoy was placed atop the stele honoring the 23 maquisards. The dedication of this plaque made Lt. Hoy forever an honorary maquisard, forever with his comrades who he never met but for whom he fought and died. The memorial now honors 24 maquisards.
If you are fortunate to find this place of La Pezade on 22 August, you’ll hear the strains of “The Marseillaise.” But after the music has died away into the wind that sweeps the Larzac plateau, you’ll hear the familiar refrain of the “Star Spangled Banner” and watch as the Stars and Stripes is raised to join the French tri-color.
With this, we are all comrades. We are as one. We remember.
Don Bohler is a retired Air Force colonel who lives in Niceville with his wife, Marie-Claude. They were recent participants in the Crestview sister city visit to Noirmoutier, France. The memorial mentioned in his article is close to the Bohlers’ vacation home in Montpellier, France, and has been the subject of Don’s research for the past two years.
Personal Records of 2nd Lt Richard Francis Hoy, obtained by the Freedom of Information Act, 2008
Le pilote inconnu du Larzac by Mr. Jean Robin, Sources and date unknown
Combattants de la Liberté by Mr. Philippe Rioux, La Dépêche en sud Aveyron – Spécial Libération,
USAAF Chronology, Mediterranean: 1944: Part 2
“In Search of the Maquis” by Harry Roderick Kedward, p 210
ArmyAirForces.com of World War II, Lt Hoy, 3 (sic) Tac Recon Sqn, 12 USAAF