Friday, November 11, 2011

WW2 | Veteran Jean-Louis Cholet Says Thanks

Remembering Five of 14 Airmen Buried Together in France (listed in bold face): L to R: Nicola and Robin Sumner (nephew of Daniel Gilbert), Cpl Pamela Turney (great-niece of Fred Beales), Luke Shergold (son of Suzanne), Michael Hayes (Beryl's husband), Beryl Hayes (daughter of Edward Wicks), Martin Clegg (Suzanne's husband), Suzanne Clegg (Beryl's daughter), Ashley Shergold (Suzanne's son), John Tepper Marlin (nephew of Willem van Stockum), Silvia and John Ellyatt (son of John Elyatt).

This Veterans' Day, I would like to appreciate Jean-Louis Cholet, a French Army veteran who has made it his life's work to show gratitude for those who liberated France in 1944. He brought together 12 relatives, from four countries, of airmen from two bombers who gave their lives to liberate France in June 1944. The airmen were all shot down near Laval, France.

Willem van Stockum (front, center) with crew, training, 1944.  
We all came together to Laval, at a moving memorial on the 66th anniversary of VE-Day. I was the sole American; the other eleven were from Britain, Canada and Switzerland. We represented families of five of the 14 airmen, in two Halifax bombers, who were on a mission from the RAF 10th Squadron base in Yorkshire on June 10, 1944. This was the squadron's fifth mission over northern France in the first ten days of June to destroy Nazi supply lines to the Normandy Front.

The pilot of one of the bombers was my Dutch-born uncle, Willem van Stockum, a mathematics Ph.D. from Edinburgh University.

Willem van Stockum.
Portrait by his sister, c.1942.
Willem followed his sister (my mother) to the United States, taking a post at Einstein's Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and then at the University of Maryland. Willem is a well-known pioneer of time-travel theory. He was in the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship and is listed as a resident of Washington, DC in a Washington Post necrology of the war dead, on November 11, 1945. 

None of the five families of the downed airmen had met previously. Some of us had been to the gravesite before - my family visited in 1954. But until this year none of us knew much about the airmen we were not related to.

Cholet is a 32-year veteran of the French Army, son of a Resistance fighter who was shot by the Nazis. Cholet has been recognizing the crews of the two downed bombers every year on V-E Day since 1988, when he became head of the Laval unit of a group named "French Remembrance". Through an Internet query in 2010, Cholet connected with Canadian Pamela Turney, great-niece of airman Fred Beales, and she reached out to the rest of us. The other two airmen on my uncle's Halifax were Brits Gilbert Daniel and John Ellyatt, both from West Hartlepool, Co. Durham.

By the end of our stay in Laval, we had become good friends, charmed by Cholet's genuine gratitude for the sacrifices made by the Allies as part of the liberation of France from Hitler's occupation. He wrote a poem that sums up his feelings that my brother Randal has translated into English: 

I Have an American Friend
By Jean-Louis Cholet, Laval. © 2007; translated from the French by Randal Marlin, 2011. Reprinted by permission.

I have an American friend. 
I don’t know his name; 
He doesn’t know mine. 
But I have an American friend.
I do not know him; 
He does not know me. 
But he is my American friend.
What is the color of his eyes? 
Of his hair? 
Is his skin light or tanned?
In what State was he born? 
Of all that, nothing! 
Is he Southerner or Yankee,
Californian, Cherokee?
But I care about my American friend, 
Because I am indebted to him. 
I owe him springs, summers, 
The women I have loved,
The son, the daughter and the little last-born.
I owe decades, 
My past, my present and the future,
To my American friend.
The only thing I know about him, 
Is where to find him. 
In the big field of crosses and stars, 
The length of the Normandy coast,
A field where I go to pray and weep.
He rests there ever since his blood 
Reddened the sand. 
He fell there, my American friend. 
In his kit he had a present for me.
I have it always.
I have an American friend.

Jean-Louis Cholet, 2011.

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