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Jewish World Review May 1, 2002 / 19 Iyar, 5762

Bob Greene

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Just when you thought
the world was too cold | Just when you begin to fear that maybe there's no cause for hope in this sad and cruel old world of ours, news arrives to prove you wrong.

Many of you may recall the story that appeared here several years ago, about the blown-out windows in the old church in the village of Remy in France. The windows were blown out by American fighter pilots during World War II.

It wasn't a mistake -- it was a necessary act in trying to defeat the Nazis and win the war. Still, though, the church windows were gone.

The day was Aug. 2, 1944. Sixteen U.S. combat pilots from the 383rd Fighter Squadron were on a mission over Nazi-occupied France. As they flew above Remy -- a village northeast of Paris -- the pilots, at the controls of their P-51 Mustangs, saw a German munitions train under heavy camouflage.

The American pilots -- young men in their 20s -- made five strafing runs. They hit the 18-car train, which exploded with terrible force; the Nazi train had been carrying rocket components.

The village was severely damaged by the train's explosion. Most of the houses had their roofs blown off. And at the 700-year-old Church of St. Denis, the beautiful stained-glass windows were shattered.

In the attack on the Nazi train, an American pilot was killed. He was Lt. Houston L. Braly, 22, of Brady, Texas. The shock waves from the explosion knocked him out of the air. The wings and tail of his P-51 were gone; the burning wreckage of his plane came to rest against a house in Remy.

Some of the villagers pulled his body from the plane to hide it from the occupying German forces. The villagers wrapped Lt. Braly's body in his parachute, and tried to conceal it in a stable. They brought flowers from their gardens, and, as a show of gratitude and respect, covered Lt. Braly's body with the flowers.

This outraged the German command. The Nazis ordered the French villagers to bring no more flowers for the American combat pilot. The villagers defied the Nazis. At great risk to themselves and their families, they held a funeral for Lt. Braly at the Church of St. Denis. They piled the gravesite high with flowers, in memory of the young American who had come so far to give his life for them.

I first learned about this from one of the old fighter pilots: Gordon McCoy. He told me that the surviving members of the 383rd had found out that the stained glass in the Church of St. Denis had never been replaced. After the train explosion in 1944, plain plate glass had been installed. It was still there.

The men of the 383rd decided to try to replace the stained glass in the church. They had broken it -- in pursuit of the Nazis -- and they felt it was their responsibility to put it back.

"We just figured that if we didn't do it, no one else would," McCoy told me.

After I wrote about the church in Remy, many of you -- more than 1,200 readers -- sent money to the old fighter pilots to help them in their efforts. And in the summer of 2000, the surviving pilots of the 383rd and their wives traveled to France to dedicate the installation of the new stained-glass windows. There was a daylong celebration and commemoration. There was a parade, with American and French military vehicles. There was a memorial service for Lt. Braly, songs from the Remy children's chorus, and -- after nightfall -- the illumination of the new windows in the old church.

Which brings us to today.

There was a surplus of about $65,000 in the windows fund. The old American pilots asked the people of Remy if there was anything else they needed; the citizens of the village said the church would be grateful to have an organ. The pilots said they would buy it.

But there's not going to be an organ for the church -- because, as the pilots of the 383rd are informing contributors this month in a letter announcing the closing down of the fund. ...

Well, the reason there is not going to be a church organ is enough to bring tears to your eyes.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the pilots of the 383rd heard from the people of Remy. The villagers said they did not want the organ; they did not want the $65,000 to be spent that way.

"When I saw the first images [on Sept. 11] on television, my tears flowed," one of the villagers wrote to the pilots. "I relived, in my memory, the Second World War."

The people of Remy canceled their order for the organ -- and instead sent the money to the United States, to help the victims of Sept.11. They sent the money that was intended for them to the Twin Towers Fund. "While an organ would have given value to our church," they wrote, "we just cannot accept such generosity from a people who have been struck with such cruelty by blind fanaticism."

All these years later, the love and respect remains, on both sides of the ocean. Just when you begin to fear that hope is gone, you find out that you could not be more wrong.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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