Jewish World Review July 25, 2000 / 22 Tamuz, 5760
'If we didn't do it, no
one else would'
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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