—Merriam-Webster Dictionary“I haven’t been a saint my whole life, but I have done this one thing.”
As we crossed the Champs d’Élysées, I looked past Rogier’s blond curls and the rumbling beast of traffic to the triumphal arch beyond, which held hushed shadows and autumn sun inside its simple shape.
I saw Hitler cut a swath underneath.
I saw the photo of a boy, his shoulders hunched and hesitant, his dark hair parted neatly but straining to spring out, a wide nose, a shy smile tugging his lip a little up on one side with the soft shadow of a dimple. What shouts out of the image of this boy are his eyes, two pinpoints of light in sepia, as round as eyes can be, as bold as eyes can be.
Hitler had only been in Paris for a day, but his dark forces occupied this boy’s childhood.
“Will we recognize him, do you think?” Rogier asked as he loped along in a confident stride that day in October, 2011.
“I don’t know,” I said. But I knew I would. And I knew he would ask me about Ginette.
From the first time I went there in 2005, Paris exerted a pull on me. I didn’t know if it was the memory of a crackly slide of the Arc de Triomphe on the wall of my high school French classroom, or the pace of Parisian life that matched my pulse, or the stone philosophers whispering secrets to me, but I felt compelled to return, as if there were something essential I needed to find there.
I had been to Paris twice when I read Suite Française, a novel written by Irène Némirovsky, a writer of Jewish descent who fled Paris when the Nazis marched in. This book evoked Paris during the occupation so starkly that I began to travel there two or three times a year to do research on that time period. I spent hours in museums with my nose pressed up against glass cases, examining photos, handwritten letters, and mementos of Résistance members. I trailed after historians scribbling details of Göring at the Ritz, or a school in the Marais where Jewish children had been marched out, or an apartment where an Allied soldier had been hidden. I stolled the stalls along the Seine looking for old magazines and books, and read everything I could get my hands on.
At this time, I wrote freelance travel stories and essays about culture, art and politics. I did not know why I fed this growing obsession with World War II Paris. It seemed to have nothing to do with me.
As Rogier and I crunched through red and yellow leaves toward Hotel Argenton, we reviewed our schedule. We would spend the rest of this day with our man. Tomorrow we would film Edouard on location on Blvd. Malesherbes and interview him in my apartment on Île Saint Louis. I glanced over at a sidewalk vendor’s stand of vintage black and white postcards, and imagined the stark brutality of occupied Paris.
Edouard Duval was a business associate of my husband’s who owned a factory in Gennevilliers, on the northern outskirts of Paris. He and his wife had become friends, and we would see each other several times a year in Paris or Seattle, where I lived. Edouard was tall, distinguished, balding, and reserved with a gentle wit.
I remembered one evening in 2007 when Edouard said he had a story he’d like me to see, the account of Frank ‘Kirby’ Cowan from Arkansas, who his uncle had met during the war. Kirby was now a dear friend of Edouard’s who he would visit each time he went to the U.S.. Edouard thought I might want to write this story someday.
Kirby had been in a USAF B-17G flying over Paris in June, 1944. The plane had been hit, and Kirby had parachuted down to land in a garden near the Aubert-Duval factory, which was at that time being run by Edouard’s uncle, René Duval. Three teenage boys had shielded Kirby from the Germans as they rushed him over to the factory, where they hid him behind some barrels. Edouard’s Uncle René drove Kirby to his own elegant apartment near the Arc de Triomphe for a few days, gave him a change of clothes (a pinstriped suit and wing-tipped shoes), then took him by métro to an apartment near Hôtel de Ville, on Blvd. Sebastopol.
In Paris in June, 1944, anyone aiding an Allied airman would be tortured, then shot.
Inside this apartment lived Résistance members Georges Prevot (a policeman), his sister Ginette, and her husband Jean Rocher. They hid Kirby for a few weeks, along with downed Scottish airman James Stewart, who had been there for over a month. Kirby and James were both caught at a checkpoint on their way out of Paris, thrown into cells in Fresnes prison, and taken on the last train out of Paris to Buchenwald. Kirby was then moved to Germany where he was shuffled from one POW camp to the next. Finally, Patton himself marched in, just a few feet from Kirby, and liberated the camp.
Kirby arrived in a flotilla in the New York harbor, almost one year to the day after his plane had been hit, and returned to Arkansas to live a full life.
Because of all my research, I fit the story into its context. My first thought was, This is a film, as I could so easily see all the action. But I didn’t know any filmmakers, so I put the story aside, and continued to write about Winged Victory, baguettes, and Parisian fashion.
As the years went by and I continued to travel to Paris, I’d stretch in my airplane seat during descent, look out the window, and imagine Kirby dangling from his parachute, floating down: I can see the Seine River winding through Paris. The rooftops getting bigger . . .
The part that tweaked me most about the story was a scene in the apartment on Blvd. Sebastopol: We’d sit around the table drinking cognac and talking until late. Ginette, the woman of the house, would have been the one who prepared the dinner and cultivated the ambiance. Something about this woman piqued my interest and held it.
I envisioned Ginette serving the best dinner she could manage on meager wartime rations—perhaps potatoes, a few carrots, maybe turnips—to the four men seated at a table, with a small amount of wine reflecting ruby circles through glasses onto a white lace cloth. I heard Kirby’s halting French and George’s booming laugh. I sensed the warmth Ginette may have felt at being able to create this mood even in such strained circumstances.
I felt the fire of cognac sneaking its way into each body.
In 2010, Edouard began to take me to the places in Kirby’s story. He talked at length about Kirby, who had died the previous year. Edouard had gone to Arkansas to speak at his memorial service.
Edouard drove me out to the factory and showed me the area near the stairs where Kirby had been hidden by the three boys and rushed over to the factory where they had written “Unexploded Bomb” on some barrels to keep the Germans from checking there.
One cold day in January, he took me to 20 Blvd. Sebastopol. The pale green color of the door gave me the unexpected feeling that I’d found a rare ingredient. Above, the door was a plaque:
Patriotes arretés par la Gestapo
Le il aout pour faits de Résistance
Puis déportes dans les camps
d’extermination, ou ils sont morts.
Where, I wondered, was Ginette when this happened? Had she come home one day to find her brother and husband gone, along with whoever they had been hiding at the time? I imagined her turning the key in the lock and climbing five flights of stairs with the unsettling feeling she must have had every time she came home. Had she opened the door to find chairs upside down and curtains rustling in the breeze? Or had they taken her as well—some German soldier snatching her arm at the elbow and twisting it as he pulled her down the stairs?
I touched the pale green door and a chill slid down the back of my neck. Why was Ginette not mentioned on this plaque?
The next fall, at a small seminar in France, I met Rogier van Beeck Calkoen, a Dutch filmmaker who was interested in making short films of several of my stories.
The week after I returned from this seminar, I received an email from Joe Cowan, Kirby’s son. Edouard had told him about me years before. I phoned Kirby’s wife, Cloteen, who said he had not discussed his war experience much until his later years when he had been contacted by a Frenchman putting together a reunion at the factory in Gennevilliers.
The next time I was in Paris, Edouard told me about René Psarolis.
René had been seven years old in June, 1944. One evening, he was walking down his street, rue de la Chapelle, when he heard a deafening roar. He looked up and saw a ball of silver roar overhead and explode nearby. Flames shot into the air as he ran toward the scene. René saw a German, the first he had seen up close, moving three dead bodies into a truck.
This moment shattered René’s boyhood innocence.
All through the Liberation celebrations two months later, this boy ran after the trucks, cheering and waving at American soldiers who tossed out candies and gifts. He thought of the men on that plane. He imagined them alive.
René grew up and moved away, and gradually realized that all the men in that plane, even those who might have parachuted down, had probably been caught by Germans and shot. He returned to Paris for a visit in December, 1966, when he was in his twenties. He went out walking one dim and drizzly afternoon, and found himself in his old neighborhood. He continued walking as if pulled, and came to a stop in front of something. Through the gray mist, a plaque slowly came into focus.
pour que leur avion désemparé
ne tomb pas sur les habitations les cheminots des gares
de pajol et de la vilette
The bomber had veered to avoid the train station, thus many lives had been saved. Who were the three dead Americans he had seen? How many had been in the crew? Had there been others who had fallen out of the plane, or even parachuted down into Paris?
René heard a voice very distinctly say into his ear, “Don’t forget us.”
This moment caused a change inside René. He began to travel frequently to Paris from the U.K., where he now lived. His family trailed behind him as he perused bookstalls on the Seine looking for old magazines and newspapers containing any news of the crash. He frequented the national library in the Marais, charming the librarian into retrieving boxes of documents from back rooms.
René’s questions had transformed into a quest.
Gradually, René pieced it all together. The crew had consisted of ten men. The three he had seen were Lt Jay H. Horn, pilot, TSgt Henry G. Morris, and SSgt Anthony L. Moncaco. Bodies had landed all over Paris and the surrounding area: Bois Colombes, Saint Ouen, Clichy, Gennevilliers.
He contacted historian Claude Foucher, who told him there were two survivors