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Jewish World Review July 25, 2000 / 22 Tamuz, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


'If we didn't do it, no one else would'


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN TERMS of getting news coverage -- which they richly deserve -- their timing is probably lousy. But, then, these guys were never much for seeking the spotlight, anyway.

Next Saturday is going to be their big moment. But next Saturday, all of the leading journalists -- the news anchors, the columnists, the bearers of the famous bylines -- will be in Philadelphia, getting ready for the beginning of the Republican National Convention. The airwaves and front pages will be jammed with political news.

And these guys -- these old men -- will be somewhere else. They will be across the Atlantic Ocean, as they were more than half a century ago. That's where their big moment will take place.

You -- those of you who read this column -- had a lot to do with getting them there. So next Saturday, you might want to be thinking about them.

On Aug. 2, 1944, 16 American pilots from the 383rd Fighter Squadron were flying a mission over Nazi-occupied France. Above the French village of Remy, the pilots, flying P-51 Mustangs, saw a German munitions train under heavy camouflage. The Americans -- pilots in their 20s -- made five strafing runs. They hit the 18-car train, which exploded with terrifying force -- there had been rocket components inside the train.

The village of Remy suffered severe damage because of the train explosion. Most of the houses had their roofs blown off. The 700-year-old Church of St. Denis had its lovely stained-glass windows shattered.

A young American pilot died. Lt. Houston L. Braly, 22, of Brady, Texas, was knocked out of the air by the shock waves from the explosion of the Nazi train. The wings and tail of his P-51 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 and hid it from the occupying German forces. They wrapped Lt. Braly's body in his parachute, and tried to conceal it in a stable. The villagers brought flowers from their gardens and covered Lt. Braly's body with the flowers as a show of thanks and of respect.

The German command was outraged; the Germans ordered the French villagers to bring no more flowers for the American combat pilot. The villagers defied the Nazis; they held a funeral for Lt. Braly at the Church of St. Denis. At great risk to themselves and their families, the people of Remy piled the gravesite high with flowers in memory of the American who had given his life for them.

If this story sounds familiar to you, it is because a year ago I told it here. It had been told to me by Gordon A. McCoy, now 78, who was a fighter pilot with the 383rd Squadron. "Lt. Braly personalized the war for those villagers," McCoy told me. "[He] had come all this way from the United States to give his life in an effort to free these people. So they were going to take care of his body."

What does this have to do with next Saturday?

Last year, Gordon McCoy told me about a remarkable thing that he and the surviving members of the 383rd were trying to do.

They had found out that the stained glass in the Church of St. Denis had never been replaced. After the train explosion in 1944, the beautiful, intricate stained glass had been replaced by plain plate glass, which had remained for all these years.

The old fighter pilots -- men in their 70s and 80s -- wanted to do something about that. Grateful for what the villagers of Remy had done for Lt. Braly, the men of the 383rd vowed that, more than 50 years later, they would attempt to replace the stained glass in that church.

"We just figured that if we didn't do it, no one else would," McCoy told me. They had blown up the train; now, nearing the ends of their lives, they wanted to replace the windows the explosion had shattered.

Their fund was well short of what was needed. But you helped -- you read the column, and from all over the U.S. you sent contributions, and soon enough there was enough money to commission the design and construction of new windows for that church in France.

Next Saturday, the windows of Remy will be dedicated.

The surviving pilots of the 383rd and their wives -- those who can still travel -- will be there. So will almost 100 of you who contributed.

Saturday will be a day-long celebration and commemoration. There will be a parade, with American and French military vehicles. There will be a memorial service for Lt. Braly. There will be a band concert, and the release of courier pigeons, and songs from the Remy children's chorus.

After a dinner in the town, after nightfall, the new windows in the old church will be illuminated.

"We are most grateful to everyone who helped us do this," Gordon McCoy said.

Grateful? The men of the 383rd are grateful?

We will never be able to thank them enough. For this, and for everything. For showing us what being an American can mean.



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

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