The final chapter in the story of the 'Polecat Crew'
Some time later, the original of the picture which hung in Granny Jessie's back bedroom was smuggled out of Occupied France, and circulated among the families; four graves piled lavishly with expensive chrysanthemums, the names of Menaul and Dodge clear, if mis-spelled, Butterfield partially visible on the far left, and “un-known American”— Buonarobo, whose body was not identified for certain until after the war. According to Army records, the German authorities brought the bodies to Toul after the crash, for burial in the military quarter of the cemetery. It was a bitter comfort to the families: one mother wrote to Granny Jessie, “At least it is good to know that our boys had a decent burial. I had often wondered. I have had three close friends lately hit by this wicked war— two killed and one missing. I think that our boys and maybe ourselves are better off than a lot of people, as we know that nothing can hurt our boys again, and we can have what peace we can and not worry any more, but I would give my soul to have my boy come walking in.”
The notations in the Army Mortuary records gave me a clue to the riddle of who had taken the picture of the grave: Granny Jessie had vaguely alluded to the Red Cross, but James Festa had told me it had been smuggled out of France through the Resistance, and that it had been shown to the internees, that it was the first they had heard of what happened to Lt. Dodge. The four crewmen buried in Toul were the only Americans recovered from there by mortuary affairs personnel after the war. Two of the survivors were hidden there. I thought it very likely that somewhere in a medium to small-sized town which had been a node on an escape line, there was someone who whom the crash of an American bomber nearby was a significant and memorable event. Since the picture was smuggled out through a Resistance escape line, and I knew such a line operated in Toul, it seemed a logical assumption that someone involved in the Resistance in Toul must therefore have taken the picture. In the spirit of someone throwing a bottle with a note in it into the sea, I wrote to the Mayor of Toul, enclosing a copy of the picture, and asking if the Mayor’s office knew anything about the burials in 1943.
Astonishingly enough, they sent me the address of a Pierre Mathy, the same Pierre Mathy who had hidden McClendon and Chandler fifty years before! “My name is Pierre Mathy,” he wrote to me, “and I’m the one who took the picture in Toul Cemetery to show that (we) took care of the American graves, against the will of the Germans…. I did not assist in the burial… German soldiers kept people apart while they gathered corpses. I was there at that moment and I started to look for survivors… I had established channel to Switzerland with Ms. Suzanne Kriek (called Regina, her Resistance name). She was murdered by the Germans the day before Liberation… she was a Resistance lieutenant; she owned false papers for the Red Cross so she was able to go everywhere…. She went to Switzerland about three times a month. An acquaintance of mine was in the Resistance, so I decided to join it… I rescued 19 aviators, amongst them 9 Americans, 4 Australians, 4 English and 2 Canadians…”
So there it was, out of a pile of old records and letters, a couple of amazing coincidences, the answer to some niggling little questions, and a window into the past, and some reassurance about the qualities of ordinary people in extraordinary times and circumstances. It is gratifying to know that against the odds, in war and occupation, someone would see to the graves of four young strangers, piled with flowers, and take a snapshot to reassure four unknown families, far away. It is reassuring also to discover the courage and fortitude of ordinary people— no headline heroes, no Hollywood spectacle, just people who did what they felt was right and their duty, unflinchingly in the face of odds: Jimmy-Junior and Louis Buonarobo refusing to leave their gun stations, Sherman Dodge and John Chandler staying to the last, conscientious Frank Francis scrounging another set of charts and seeing to the destruction of the classified “G” box, Pierre Mathy and his friends, feeding, hiding and guiding the survivors to safety, and those families at home, whose concern for each other helped them endure separation and grief. Ordinary people all, best remembered by the ordinary rest of us.
I did all this tracking down of survivors and witnesses nearly fifteen years ago, and wrote the original account shortly afterwards. I worked together sources as various as the collection of letters written by my uncle in 1943, the letters written to my grandmother by relatives of the other crewmen and friends, various official Army Air Corps reports on the loss of the aircraft, the set of questionnaires completed by Lt. Chandler on the circumstances under which he last saw each of the dead or missing crewmen, another set of files from Army Mortuary Affairs, a collection of rips from the Escape and Evasion Society, interviews with James Festa and James Becker, and picking the brains of such varied experts as Colonel (Ret.) Frank Halm of the 94th BG Memorial Association, and a USAF crash investigator who thoroughly briefed me on exactly how a damaged and abandoned B-17 would impact the ground.
Each set of facts, names, and actions fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, and quite often, a tentative supposition that I had made, would be later confirmed by a witness, or by the record. I was never able to contact any other relatives of the Lonesome Polecat crew; there were, for example, no telephone listings for Butterfield in the entire state of Idaho by 1993. Sgt. Thomas, SSgt. McClendon and Lt. Chandler all survived the war, but their Veterans’ Administration files went into inactive status by the late 1970ies. Chandler and his family made a return trip to Toul, and a reunion with Pierre Mathy sometime in the 1960ies. His return was noted by the local newspaper, and Pierre Mathy’s grandson sent me copies of clippings after Mathy himself died in 1995. I transferred to Korea in 1993, loosing touch with James Festa and James Becker at about that time. Neither of them were in good health, and have since dropped from the rolls of the 94th BG association.
My uncle, Lt. Dodge, Sgt. Buonarobo and Sgt. Butterfield are buried in the American cemetery at St. Avold. Lt. Francis’ family had him brought back after the war, and interred in the VA cemetery at Ft. Bliss, since the military wouldn’t let his remains stay in Flirey. Even the original letters and pictures are gone;Jimmy-junior’s woolen uniform jacket and the Purple Heart all burned in the fire four years ago, although I had meticulously transcribed all the letters and rephotographed the pictures.
…..And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters…. (Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald)