On the bright, clear morning of Feb. 5, 1944, schoolchildren in Saint-Léonard-en-Beauce, a town in north central France, jumped in their seats and screamed when the blast of an explosion caused the classroom windows to open all by themselves, shattering most windows in the neighboring hamlet of Sigogne. An airplane was on fire in M. Huger’s field, a bomber. It was a Liberator B-24 named Star Valley, belonging to the 68th Squadron of the 44th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force flying in an air raid by 103 aircraft from Air Base Shipdham, England. The crew’s mission was to bomb Parçay-Meslay, Tours when a Luftwaffe FW-190 fighter shot down Star Valley, setting its rear on fire. Gérard Lepage saw the formation of American bombers, and spotted one of the planes in flames, beginning its final spin. As Star Valley lost altitude, the aircraft circled over the hamlet a few times, as if it was preparing to land. A wing and a propeller broke loose and fell to the earth, crashing through the barn roof. Within seconds, the plane hit the ground. A parachuting man dropped from the sky, filling Lepage with hope of at least one survivor.
Soon the Germans arrived from Boisseau and La Bosse, cheering and clapping as they surveyed from a safe distance, through binoculars, what was left of the plane in the middle of the crater. Locals who ran to the site were ordered back home and stay away from the wreck.
My grandfather, Harold “Win” Spink from Lincoln, Nebraska, was a U.S. Army Air Force bombardier in World War II. His plane, that B-24 Liberator called Star Valley, was the one that crashed in M. Huger’s field. He perished with eight of his crew, one man having parachuted out. The parachuter was promptly captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a detention camp. Letters written by his mother to my grandmother expressed the grief over hearing how he would approach other camp-imprisoned Americans with desperate pleas of concern for his fellow aircrew. This was the first mission the crew ever flew in that airplane. They had flown together in six other planes, but this one was new. They named it to honor a former member of their outfit who died during training.
The German troops forbade villagers from going near the wreckage and burying the bodies. After a week, the Germans sent trucks to collect the plane for recycling and dispose of their secrets by stacking the men’s remains in the caretaker’s shed. The Germans then transported the men to nearby town of Blois where they were buried in Wehrmacht-issued coffins at the local Catholic church. Upon hearing of the burial, the mayor of Blois arranged for a religious funeral for the men — an act of defiance that landed him in a German detention camp, where he died. A Blois factory-worker who took up a collection of money for flowers to throw on the men’s graves was arrested and jailed.
My mother was 11 months old when her father died. He was reputed to be charismatic, larger-than-life, zany, witty and charming as heck. My grandmother was entirely bereft over his loss, passionately in love with him to the day she died, 60 years after him. Even as a child, I always felt connected to him and his handsome smile and have slept with his photo and varsity letter next to my bed since I was a little girl. I always secretly attributed some of the zanier aspects of my own personality as an inheritance from him.
Last week, my mother, daughter and I joined 20 other descendants of the Star Valley crew in Saint-Léonard-en-Beauce for the 70th anniversary of France’s World War II Victory Day (la fête de la victoire, le jour de la liberation) during which they honor the sacrifices made for freedom in World War II. After a late-night Googling of Star Valley, my mother discovered this small village has been honoring her father and his crew every year and flew out to learn more. What she discovered took her breath away: an annual parade, ceremony and more. My mother was so moved by this village’s reverence to her father and crew for their sacrifice that she spent the next six months searching out the descendants of the airmen to let them know what this village does in honor of our family.