WINDOWS FOR REMY

WINDOWS FOR REMY

From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Windows for Remy

In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity; in peace, goodwill.

Winston Churchill

On the afternoon of August 2, 1944, eight P-51Mustangs of the U.S. 383rd Fighter Squadron were flying a sortie over France. As they approached the small, German-occupied town of Remy, northeast of Paris, they spotted a camouflaged train parked along a siding. The camouflage meant that the Germans considered the train important.

Four of the Mustangs zoomed to twelve thousand feet to provide high cover, while the rest peeled off in a trail formation and attacked the train with bursts of armor-piercing incendiary ammunition.

The train must have been carrying munitions, for during the last of five of these strafing runs, the train exploded. Smoke from the huge blast boiled up miles into the sky, and the shock wave from the explosion unroofed most of the houses in the village of sixteen hundred people. It also shattered the stained glass windows in the village’s ancient church and killed a teenager more than half a mile away. The train was obliterated, leaving only a crater hundreds of feet long, ten feet deep and forty feet wide.

One of the American pilots, twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Houston J. Braly Jr., was killed in the explosion when his Mustang was torn to pieces by flying debris.

Braly’s plane crashed on the outskirts of town, bouncing through a small copse of trees, smashing through a low brick wall at a crossroads and finally coming to rest against a farmhouse.

Two teenagers, Marie Thérèse and her brother, François, ran from the house and pulled Braly’s body from the burning wreckage within moments of the crash. Knowing the Germans would be searching for the body, they wrapped Braly in his parachute and hid him in the stable.

The Germans’ initial search for Braly’s body was unsuccessful. But soon afterward an anonymous collaborator informed them of the dead pilot’s whereabouts. When the Germans found his body, it was covered with flowers from the villagers’ personal gardens. This show of respect for Braly enraged the German commander.

The commandant initially refused to allow a funeral for Braly but relented on the condition that only four people could attend, including the parents of the teenager apprentice who had also been killed in the explosion. The commandant also decreed that villagers could place no more flowers on Braly’s grave.

The villagers held Braly’s funeral in the church—and flowers appeared on his grave. The German commandant ordered them removed. The next day, villagers placed four times as many flowers on the grave. The enraged commandant threatened to send Marie Thérèse and François to a slave labor camp, but he was eventually persuaded not to take action.

After the liberation, an unknown person who had scavenged a propeller blade from the wreckage of Braly’s Mustang polished it to a high gloss, painstakingly engraved it with all the information found on Braly’s dog tags— even down to the date of his last tetanus shot—and placed it at the grave. The blade served as his tombstone until after the war, when Braly’s body was exhumed and returned to his family in the United States. The propeller remained as a memorial.

In 1995, more than fifty years later, some of the Air Force veterans of that day in 1944—along with Braly’s surviving siblings—made a return trip to Remy.

There were many ceremonies honoring the veterans and Braly. Marie Thérèse and her brother, the two teenagers who pulled Braly’s body from the wreckage of his plane, attended these ceremonies. In their mid-sixties, both vividly recalled the events of that long-ago day.

The former airmen were so moved by the way the French villagers had honored their fallen comrade, they decided to embark on one final mission: to restore the beautiful stained-glass windows in the town’s thirteenth-century church. These windows, shattered in the blast, had been replaced with plain glass.

While the Windows for Remy project raised money from individual donors, the project’s sponsors also worked with the French government to find a designer and artist who could fabricate reproduction windows that met strict French demands for historical authenticity.

It took five years, but the project was successful. In July 2000, over 150 Americans and hundreds of French citizens gathered in Remy for a day of ceremonies and parades. The climax came when the seven new stained glass windows in the Church of St. Denis were dedicated. The day ended with a fireworks display, followed by the lighting of the church windows.

The church windows were not the only windows that shone with light in Remy that night. In the home of Marie Thérèse, a single candle was lit next to the photo of Braly the Frenchwoman still keeps. This simple memorial speaks volumes about the sacrifice of one American pilot and what it meant to an entire village.

Frank Perkins

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