Honneur a nos Liberateurs

If every object has a story, then that told by a 24-foot banner, embroidered with the phrase that translates so simply as Honour to our Liberators, is an epic. In 1944, it soared above the village of Aubers in northern France to celebrate the defeat of the Nazi occupation. Now, it is a treasured artefact in the collection of the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich.  Its meaning and symbolism – the stories and lives woven into its fabric – are multitudinous; the past is a cross weave, and there are myriad ways to unpick and trace the threads. The story of an American airman who was saved from German capture by the French Resistance is just one thread in that banner of the liberation…

A B-24 "Liberator" flies over the rising smoke of a dropped bomb
A B-24 of the 389th Bomb Group flies over rising smoke from a bomb strike. MC 371/910, USF PH 3/3, Image 8.

 

Bombs rained and anti-aircraft fire rose at a Munich marshalling yard on 11 July 1944. An American B-24 ‘Liberator’ of the 389th Bomb Group was hit. Flak struck the left tank, and fuel bled into the air. The imperilled aircraft fled the action, its booster pumps and cross-feed valves racing gravity to transfer the leaking fuel to the right tank before the left tank drained.

The bomber retreated in the direction of its Norfolk base of Hethel, where returned airmen would drink hard liquor before debriefings and ride bicycles to the local pub in the evenings. Neither numbing comfort were to be enjoyed by the aircrew on that day. Over northern France, the wounded Liberator was finally starved of fuel and fell towards land that for just over four years had been staked with the swastika flags and banners of Nazi occupation.

Thirteen airmen jumped from the Liberator and ripped the cords of their parachutes at 2,000 feet where thick cloud might veil them from the prying eyes of German soldiers. Twelve parachutes opened; the one that did not belonged to the navigator, Second Lieutenant Andrew E. Felbinger, Jr. He was eventually buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium, close to where he fell but far from his home, Baltimore, where he was born in 1922.

Twelve airmen survived the jump. Five were then captured by the Germans and taken as prisoners of war. The first, by order of family name, was Edmund S. Boice, Jr. of Glynn County, Georgia. In seven months, he and 8,000 fellow prisoners of Camp Stalag IV would be ordered by the Nazis to march for 600 miles over 86 days from what is now north-western Poland to flee the approaching Soviet army.

Second was Edgar N. Clyde. In the following August, just three months after his liberation, he would be married.

Next, Carl M. Moss, whose fate proved bound to Boice; imprisoned together, they ‘buddied up’ for the march across Europe. Moss suffered from food poisoning the first five days of exodus – the Red Cross liver pate served to the prisoners was spoiled because the guards had pierced the tins weeks before, supposedly to check for smuggled weapons. For those days, he had to be dragged through the rain and the snow by friends too loyal to leave him, too strong to drop him, and with the morsel of fortune that they themselves did not need dragging.

Fourth was John V. Wargo, the tail gunner of the stricken Liberator. His captivity ended when he was rescued by Allied Forces.

Last to jump of all his crew was Ralph E. Woodard, who dangled helplessly when his parachute was ensnared by the branches of a tree – a far too easy prey made of the selfless pilot in command, captured just nine days short of his twenty-fourth birthday. Although raised in rural Jasper County, Illinois as a farmer to follow in his family’s footsteps, Woodard was to survive the war and shortly thereafter enrol at the University of Illinois. He graduated in 1950, placing him in one of the first cohorts to take advantage of the US government’s subsidy of college tuition for returning veterans.

1944 War Department Booklet, "If you Should be Captured these are your rights"
The treatment of the prisoners of Camp Stalag IV made a mockery of the rights of Prisoners of War guaranteed by the Geneva Convention and explained in this booklet provided to American soldiers by the War Department. MC 376/219, USF 12/5, Images 6, 8, and 9.

The seven remaining airmen who evaded immediate capture were the pilot, Captain Andrew Boreske, Jr., Staff Sergeants Donald C. Carter, Thomas H. Cox and Ronald Smith, Second Lieutenants Charles Pat Crawford, Donald V. Donovan, and Homer Henry Badgett, who was usually the co-pilot but on this doomed occasion was assigned the observational role of Formation Control Officer. He missed the yoke of the Liberator in his hands during the mission, though he never could have anticipated ending up as far from the controls of the cockpit as this: suspended in air, swaying in its currents, all the days he had yet to live hanging by “the beautiful white blossom of the opened parachute”.

Photograph of ten of the crew of the B-24
Ten of the crew of the B-24 before its fateful flight. Not pictured are Clyde, Donovan, and Boreske, who were added to this regular crew for the Munich mission. Top row, left to right: Woodard, Badgett, Felbinger, Crawford, and Carter. Bottom row, left to right: Wargo, Cox, Smith, Boice, and Moss. MC 371/362, USF 3/1, Image 9.

 

From Fields of War to Fields of Wheat

On a country road in northern France, a young boy cycled alongside a wheat field, half of it ploughed bare and the other boasting fully-grown stalks that surpassed him in height. Spotting something strange by the side of the road, the boy slowed his pedalling to take a closer look: a man with a limp, wearing a dark blue beret, jacket, and work pants, was hoeing the very edge of the field, far from where the crop was ready to be harvested.

The boy on the bicycle, as the incompetent farmer later reminisced, “looked at me like I was crazy”. Perhaps the expression of the child might have been a little different had he been able to guess that the farmer was a stranger not only to his labour but also to the land he so ineptly tried to work; just a couple of hours earlier, he was a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Force.

Though he may have been disappointed not to make a more convincing faux-farmer, 22-year-old Homer Badgett was more than relieved by his parachute jump, which, like his agrarian impersonation, was the first he had ever attempted – practised not even once until it was needed in the field. “Thank God, none of my bones were broken!”, Badgett would later remark of his landing; only his knee was injured, because of the speed of his impact with the ground.

Whatever scraps of time he may have then rationed himself to digest the perilous events just passed would be short lived. Badgett was certain he had spotted two German soldiers on patrol close to the field during his descent. “I knew I had to move fast [and] get under cover.” Thirty feet in front of him was the unharvested side of the field, dense in almost head-high wheat. He buried his parachute, leapt into the wheat, and crawled as fast as his throbbing knee allowed.

After going to what I thought was the middle of the field, I stopped to get my breath and ripped the tiny hidden compass out of the lining of my flight clothes. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to crawl in the general direction of England.

Eventually, Badgett reached the other end of the field, where the cover of the wheat ended and the path of trampled crop left in his wake threatened to betray his location. His chances of evading capture now seemed as barren as the open dirt road before him.

I cautiously raised my head and peeped over the top of the wheat. I really thought I might get my head blown off…

And then appeared perhaps the greatest asset for any soldier: allies.

…across the road was a farmhouse set about two hundred yards from the other side of the road. Two French farmers in front of the house started waving at me. […] Cautiously, I waved back and sat down to wait. This was it!

The farmers, a man and a woman, had spotted the airman crawling in the wheat. Having got his attention, they threw him the civilian garb and the hoe. As Badgett began hoeing the edge of the field, the couple moved swiftly out of the farm house. When they saw him limping, they ran towards him, lifted him up from under his arms, and turned his hobble into a sprint as all three headed towards the farmhouse.

Photograph of Homer Henry Badgett with reverse side showing name, service number, and address
Photograph of Homer H. Badgett, given by him to the French farmers, Mr and Mrs Joveneaux, who first helped him after his crash. The image on the right is the reverse side of the photograph, with Badgett’s name, service number, and address all written in his handwriting. From the American Air Museum in Britain.

 

Je suis Américain. Pouvez-vous me cacher?

After being gone for almost two hours, the man and the woman returned to the farmhouse where they had left Badgett anxiously waiting in a back room, all the curtains drawn, with only a glass of red wine for company. Then, they sat together, communicating with whatever French Badgett could remember from high school and by pointing at phrases on a military-issue language card, like the one pictured below.

Military translation card, showing list of phrases in English with accompanying French
Extract from a translation card, similar to the one Badgett would have used. They were contained in the Escape Kits issued to soldiers, which also included maps and other items vital for those who fell behind enemy lines. MC 376/534, USF 11/9, Image 42.

Badgett eventually understood that, while some of his crew were rescued by French patriots, others had fallen into enemy hands. When he asked his hosts whether they were in the French underground – the resistance to Nazi occupation – they said no, and described themselves only as “patriots”.

Being so close to where he landed, the farmhouse was not safe for Badgett to stay in any longer. His hosts found him a bicycle, and together they pedalled down the same dirt road that the French boy cycled along a few hours before.

After what Badgett estimated was ten kilometres, the cyclists approached a German army base to the left-hand side of the road, built on a ten-foot mound so it saw all and all saw it. Glancing into the base – one would expect by turning his eyes and not his head – Badgett saw:

There was a large Swastika flag flying above the courtyard. There were hundreds of German soldiers standing at attention while a band was playing some type of military music. […] no one seemed to be paying the slightest attention to us. I knew instantly that the French Patriots had planned to pass at exactly this time of day.

Cycling on, Badgett was led into another farmhouse, the back of which faced the army base. His new hosts gave him food and a mattress, and he was grateful for both, though hunger and fatigue had yet to catch up to him. As before, the farmers denied any association with the French underground and identified themselves simply as “patriots”.

The American woke the next morning to see four German soldiers marching past his window. When he could no longer see them, he listened for them – the gate to the farm house swings ajar, boots head up through the porch, the front door opens, footsteps close in…

But when his bedroom door opened, it was only his French hosts; the Germans had asked them outside the farmhouse whether they had seen an American airman in the area, and their “non” was convincing enough. It was too close a call, and Badgett stayed at the second farmhouse for only four more days.

 

Underground

On the fourth day at the farmhouse, Badgett was introduced to a Canadian woman. Ironically, her fluency in English and French did not make communication any easier. She claimed that Germans had been posing as fallen American airmen to infiltrate the French Resistance, and so scrutinised every nuance of Badgett’s behaviour, from his manners at breakfast to him saying “yeah” instead of “yes” – a poorly disguised German “ja” in her judgement.

She soon grew certain that Badgett was an imposter. No wonder Badgett’s impersonation of a farmer could not fool the boy on the bicycle if he was unable to be convincing even as an American! But the Canadian’s apprehension was entirely justified, for the consequences of being caught by the Germans helping their enemy were dire. After a discussion with the farmers, however, she accepted Badgett’s story.

She then turned her disdain to his implausible suggestions for plans of escape. Steal a plane from the German army base to fly back to England? “‘You are dreaming and probably have seen too many American movies’” (at least the fantastical idea seemed at last to remove any doubt in her mind as to his nationality). Sneak westward to Calais, then swim across the Channel? Perhaps an even worse idea in her judgement – far too many German forces to evade. Head south to the Pyrenees then cross into Spain, a neutral country? Another dismissal, though Badgett was more pleased with the plausibility of that last proposal.

The next day, three men came for Badgett, presumably sent by the Canadian woman. Two had machine guns hidden in bags full of clothes, and the other had a pistol. One of them greeted Badgett with a kiss on each cheek, and introduced himself and his companions as members of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). They told Badgett to act “deaf and dumb” and gave him a fake ID. It already his picture, one that could only have come from his crewmember on the Liberator, Pat Crawford.

They led Badgett out of the farmhouse, and journeyed to Lille in a convoy of bicycles: he and one of the patriots rode a tandem which was flanked 100 yards in front and to the rear by the two other Frenchmen, each concealing machine guns. Badgett was told that members of the FFI would be watching them throughout their journey. Indeed, he noticed farmers giving signals to the cyclists as they passed, most commonly the two-finger victory sign. After 20 kilometers and two German checkpoints, they arrived at the outskirts of the city.

Badgett was taken to a basement, tucked away at the back of a building down an alley. It was a resistance safehouse, and the American airman was given a warm reception by the patriots, many of whom had lost loved ones at the hands of German occupiers. “One by one they came, hugged me, kissed me on both cheeks, and wished me good luck”, Badgett remembers. For him, an affinity for these people formed quickly.

As I looked around, I could see the suffering in their eyes. I suddenly loved them for their courage. Inside, I felt deeply sorry for them, and I tried not to show the tears in my own eyes. […] What really mattered was how I could help these French people.

Badgett and the French Resistance each found hope in the other: he brought them news of the Allied invasion and they protected him from German capture. But as the spirits of Badgett in France lifted, so those of his family in the United States fell. Not long after his meeting with the resistance in Lille, a letter was on its way from the War Department in Washington, D. C. to Mount Vernon, Illinois. It was a Missing in Action notification, one of countless sent during the war which entrenched in the cultural memory of a new generation the unshakeable undertone of dread in the words your son.

Missing in Action Letter for Homer H. Badgett
Missing in Action letter for Homer H. Badgett, dated 25 July 1944. MC 371/362, USF 3/1, Image 8.

 

Hope – an intermittent companion

After the emotional and inspiring meeting with the French underground, Badgett and his companions from the resistance cycled back into the French country.

Badgett was taken to a barn where, sleeping in a haystack, there was none other than his bombardier from that fateful Liberator flight, Pat Crawford. Their reunion was jubilant, each having feared the other had been captured or worse, but was tainted by their sombre deduction that the airman whose parachute failed was Andrew Felbinger. The news was not to be passed on. A little over a month later, Crawford would sign this declaration, swearing not to tell the Felbinger family that their beloved Andrew would never be coming home:

Signed declaration of Pat Crawford swearing to keep secret the death of Andrew Felbinger
A signed statement of Charles “Pat” Crawford, one of the airmen on the doomed B-24, swearing to keep the death of his comrade a secret. From the American Air Museum in Britain.

When catching up had exhausted their voices, the reunited airmen were joined by the fifteen-year-old grandson of the owner of the barn, Francois, who bared tidings that lifted their spirits even higher. The RAF had been radioed the whereabouts of the stranded Americans by leaders of the French resistance, and a British Lancaster bomber would shortly attempt a rescue.

The excitement and joy brought by this news were too often absent in the short life of the boy who delivered it. A few months earlier, Francois, who was as loyal a fighter for the resistance as any of his adult compatriots, strayed too close to a German troop train which he was helping to blow up. The explosion engulfed its creator and shrapnel sunk deep into the boy’s left arm. He was treated in the basement of a safehouse with a sewing needle and string from a sack. Whereas the awful resulting wound ran the length of his arm, the killing of his father by the Germans and the earlier death of his mother were injuries that left no mark on his body.

Too dangerous for the two American airmen to linger together, Francois led Badgett – by bicycle, of course – to another barnyard about an hour away where the American was to wait for the Lancaster, which would attempt to land in a nearby field. Though they acquiesced in this plan, Badgett’s new hosts were petrified of being caught by the Germans and so avoided all interaction with him, fearing him as they did the enemy.

After four days of waiting in solitude, the hope delivered by Francois had waned in Badgett’s heart, and on the fifth, it was all but extinguished when the same messenger returned to tell the American that the rescue plan had been abandoned. By this time, despondency had driven Badgett to count on a calendar the days since his jump from the Liberator.

Badgett followed Francois once more and retraced their bicycle tracks from five days earlier. Pat Crawford had been moved to a new hideout, so Badgett took his place in the barnyard. There, the American helped and soon replaced Francois in the upkeep of the farm, the recurring infections in the boy’s arm keeping him from work. “I was rapidly becoming a French farmer”, Badgett remarked. If only that boy on the bicycle could see him now.

The room which the American shared with Francois was less a teenager’s bedroom and more an armoury, replete with rifles, pistols, machine guns, and other paraphernalia of war. One of the methods by which the myriad weapons were acquired became clear to Badgett when he noticed Francois, a pistol protruding from his back pocket, jump on a bicycle to follow a German soldier who had just ridden past the barnyard on a motorcycle. Shortly after, Badgett heard a gunshot. Then, Francois returned, carrying in triumph the arms of his fallen foe. “Here, catch this!”, said the boy as he tossed Badgett a German grenade, laughing like the victor of some playground game.

War was much too cruel to be content just to rob the boy of his childhood, preferring instead to disfigure it: a battle wound where there should only ever have been the bruises of carefree youthful play, guns and ammunition in lieu of games and toys, insatiable rage against the enemy where once lived the abundant love of his father – a “child-soldier” in all its clashing, tragic contradiction.

 

Becoming Henri Wicquart

Following the scent of their lost motorcyclist, the Germans were drawn to the barnyard. Francois’ grandmother answered when they knocked. Her toothless “non” and frail shake of her head persuaded the soldiers to search elsewhere, at least for now. But their enquiry had drained the blood from Francois’ face, and it was time for Badgett to take off once more.

Francois and Badgett mounted their bicycles and rode for five kilometres to yet another farmhouse, where the French teenager bade him farewell.

A man and woman walked out the farmhouse and took turns to kiss the American stranger on each cheek. The couple told him he would stay with them as another son, and so they became his Mama and Papa and he the brother of their children, Claude, Pierre, Georgette, and Marguerite. Claude, who was Badgett’s age, and Pierre, five years his junior, were both in the resistance. Homer Henry Badgett of Mount Vernon, Illinois thus became Henri Wicquart, a “deaf and dumb” airport worker, of the Ferme de Pietre near the village of Aubers in Northern France.

3 Aug. 1944 front page of The Evening Times, headine reads "More Successes Everywhere: Enemy's Whole Front Disintegrating"
Front page of The Evening Times from 3 August 1944, around the same time that Badgett moved in with the Wicquarts, reporting the progress of the Allied forces in driving the Germans out of France. MC 376/234, USF 14/4: Image 121.

At last, the roving American had become rooted. But as long as France still awaited the day of its liberation, “Henri” would always be a fugitive in this land. Mama and Papa gave him a room overlooking the road to the farmhouse so he could watch for any passing German cars. If one were to stop, he would run out the room, leap down the stairs, call to Papa, dive out the window, sprint across the field, and jump into a five-foot hole that would be covered with a metal plate. This he only had to do once, when a Special Service Nazi Officer drove to the farmhouse, but he was only there to ask for food to feed his hungry men.

Badgett was not the only one being sheltered by Papa and Mama from the Germans. Also at the farmhouse were two Polish refugees, Josephine and her five-month-old baby. Her husband, the baby’s father, was killed by the Nazis. Josephine was welcomed with love and became “a member of the family” like Henri, helping with housework and cooking whenever her baby did not need her.

Aside from the Germans themselves, all that threatened the sanctuary of the farmhouse was Mama’s mother, who Badgett described as “senile”. She was close to a local Catholic priest who was a known Nazi collaborator, and so Mama did not trust her with the truth about Henri, instead telling her that he was Belgian. But he does not look Belgic, he does not sound Belgic. At one point, Mama and Papa even discussed whether they should “do away with grandmother”. Her refusal to recognise the refugees as family might arouse suspicion or even prefigure her betrayal of them to the priest. Either endangered all.

Though Badgett tried to concentrate on helping his French family around the farm, the spectre of the war was inescapable. Food was limited. With Papa’s contraband radio, Badgett would listen attentively to updates on the Allied invasion from the BBC, which “was always inspirational to hear”. Every day, Allied aircraft would fly over the farmhouse, their bombs falling so close that their sound “beat on my chest”, according to Badgett. When they were both working in the field on an overcast day, Papa told Henri that he was nervous that the bombers would not be able to see, but the airman reassured him that the US Air Force would never drop their deadly loads over France if they could not identify their target. In the next moment, both men were on the ground, American bombs exploding on the edge of the field.

Aerial view of bomb strike shows the spread of bombs around the intended target
This image, donated to the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in memory of Lieutenant Sidney Westlund, a bombardier of the 389th Bomb Group, shows the spread of bombs around the intended target: most of the bombs have hit the buildings in the lower-centre portion of the image, but several plumes of smoke are also rising from the surrounding fields and river. In the fog, it is little wonder that the Allied bombs fell so close to the Wicquart farmhouse. MC 371/910, USF PH 3/3: Image 22.

Most of all, the farmhouse could not shield the airman from the emotional toils and burdens of war. Rather than guaranteeing his safety, the impending liberation of France only compounded his worries, for there was no telling where retreating Nazis would direct their defeat-fuelled wrath – the families they might slaughter and the villages they might destroy, just to deny the Allies a victory worth celebrating. All these worries erupted in his mind one Sunday morning, when fog sank low to the ground and a fine rain formed a mist before that fog:

I became very depressed about the war. […] I thought it would be such a wonderful thing if I could just return home for an instant, and tell everyone I had ever known, simply that I love them. […] My eyes filled with tears. I started to pray; I felt that God was with me and would continue to be with me forever, regardless of what happened here.

 

The Welcome Invasion

In the two days after Badgett’s birthday on 3 September, the Allied forces were nearing Aubers and the people’s cries of triumph edged from their hearts toward the tips of their tongues. In the secret corners of houses where villagers once sought shelter from their invaders, a banner of celebration was now being sewn from sacks of grain and seed, the same as those whose string was used to stitch closed the patriots’ wounds of war. The German troops, who had descended on the village as inexorably as an advancing shadow, fled in fragments, dealing whatever sporadic reprisal attacks they could as they scattered into the nearby woods. Their Swastika-clad flags quivered in the oncoming wind.

On 6 September, a column of British tanks descended on Aubers from the South. The entire village, including Badgett and the Wicquarts, had gathered on the streets, singing, cheering, and crying as the tanks rolled by. French women suspected of socialising with the German troops kneeled in humiliation amidst the crowds while the Resistance cut their hair. After five years of being stashed away, the tricolor flew at last over the land of the freed, but the largest fabric raised over Aubers that day was that banner, 24-feet long and stitched with the oilcloth words, “Honneur a nos Liberateurs”.

At the celebrations, Badgett and Pat Crawford found each other once more. When the jubilant crowd learned they were Americans, the two were carried on the shoulders of several villagers and followed by a cheering procession to the local church, where the anthems of the United States and France were proudly played on battered and war-weary instruments.

A magnificent dinner was held in honour of the airmen, though the survival of each was indebted to their hosts, the French Resistance, whose camaraderie was unbounded by their differences in nationality and language, and recognised only their common cause against the Nazi scourge. Badgett shared this spirit when he was handed “an enormous bouquet of red roses” which, instead of taking for himself, he placed on the tomb of an unknown soldier of France in the churchyard.

 

Au Revoir is hard to say

Escorted by the Wicquart sons, Claude and Pierre, and the fifteen-year-old Francois, all three of whom were armed in case of ambush by plain-clothed German soldiers, Badgett and Crawford bicycled to Lille immediately after the liberation celebrations. They hoped to join the line of British supply trucks in the city and get help to return to England.

The emotional farewell Badgett had earlier said to his Mama and Papa turned out to be in vain, for he returned to their farm that evening after a British commanding officer told him and Crawford to come back to Lille the next day when they might be assisted by Canadian intelligence.

Leaving Lille, they were shot at by a German sniper who was guarding a road to the city. Francois leapt out from the convoy to stand in the middle of the street and return fire with his machine gun, providing cover for his companions. All survived, and reconvened further on down the road, where, in adjacent fields, countless civilians and soldiers lay wounded on endless rows of blankets, their nationalities indeterminable, while Red Cross nurses swarmed amongst them. There, the human price of the liberation of France was being tallied.

On the morning of the next day,

I said goodbye again to Mama and Papa and somehow I knew this would be the last time I would see them for a long time. We were all very sad again. Mama cried, as I hugged her. After giving Papa a hug, Claude, Pierre, Francois, Pat, and I got [on] our bicycles and set out for Lille.

As they passed the church in Aubers, Badgett counted twelve coffins stacked on top of one another, each containing the body of a French person shot by the Germans the night before the liberation of the village.

They were beginning to smell, and I noticed streaks of lime on some of the boxes. […] someone had thrown lime on the bodies, after placing them in their coffins. How could the German soldiers be so cruel?

When Badgett and Crawford arrived in Lille, they were introduced to the Canadian officers who told the Americans that they would be taken to Paris, which had just been liberated, in the back of a convoy of German prisoners of war. From Paris, the pair would fly back to England.

The convoy would not be ready to leave for several hours. This gave Homer Badgett the opportunity to tell the Canadian officers of his odyssey in occupied France. His storytelling convinced the officers to help him and Crawford find out for certain what happened to their lost navigator, Andrew Felbinger, and so the pair were driven to the area where they had parachuted almost two months earlier. The owner of a local pub there told them that, around the time of their crash, the body of an American airman was found laying on the road  beside an unopened parachute. After temporarily burying him by the side of the road to protect the dignity of his body from German soldiers, the pub landlord and a few other locals transferred him to a cemetery in Lille.

Badgett and Crawford returned to Lille to visit the cemetery. The grave keeper rummaged in his maintenance room, and produced for them the military identification “dog tags” that were removed from one of the recently buried bodies. Engraved on them was the name Andrew Felbinger. Homer Badgett and Pat Crawford took note of the grave number, and paid their solemn respects to the lost friend they had found.

Before the convoy of German prisoners left Lille for Paris, Badgett had time to make one more journey, so he headed to the second farmhouse that gave him shelter after the parachute jump to thank the couple who lived there. Upon arriving, the ten-foot mound upon which the German army base had stood was now a crater of earth and rubble. But the landscape around it was also razed bare, and where once there had been a farmhouse was now just empty air.

About a month earlier, the Royal Air Force had dropped massive Blockbuster bombs on the army base during a night raid, destroying it but also the farmhouse. He never learned whether the French couple who saved his life lost their own in the bombing, nor would he even come to know their names.

It was time for Badgett and Crawford to return to England. The pair, whose paths for the past two months had weaved in and out, boarded the rear vehicle in a 50-truck convoy of German prisoners. They would soon be staying the night in at Parisian hotel, where, remarkably, they bumped into another crewmember from the fuel-starved Liberator, Ron Smith. All three would then fly back to England together. But for now, Badgett was staring into the truck in front of him as the French countryside rolled past:

the German prisoners were laughing, talking to each other and in very good spirits. Occasionally, they would wave back at us. The war was over for them. They had no intentions of giving anyone any more trouble. They were through fighting…

…and so too was Homer Henry Badgett, bringing to an end sixty-three days in hiding. He was to return to the United States and teach in a military flight school until the end of the war. He would fight no more.

 

*                      *                      *

 

It was October 1963, just a couple of months after the Beatles began to dial the tone of the decade with the release of their first big single, “She Loves You”. A 42-year-old project manager of Ryan Electronics, a Californian aeronautics company, and his wife left their home in San Diego to begin a long-awaited and much anticipated journey. They had a stopover in England to visit her family, and then arrived at their destination in northern France.

After nearly two decades of writing letters, saving money, and taking evening lessons in French, Homer Badgett and his wife, Ruth, fulfilled his promise to return to the family who took him in as their own and saved his life.

Two Photographs of Homer Badgett taken after the war
Photographs of Badgett after the war. Left: an image used in the newsletter of Ryan Electronics in an article on his visit to France, MC 371/362, USF 3/1: Image 7; Right: Image of Badgett in San Deigo, from the American Air Museum in Britain.

Even after graduating from Southern Illinois University with a Physics degree (he was enroled at the university in pre-med before the war) and getting a job as an electronic design engineer in the aerospace industry, Badgett had never forgotten his Mama and Papa. “It would be impossible to describe the depths of emotion felt by both parties at this reunion because of those few months during the occupation, when fear marked the existence of all”, reported The Voice of the North newspaper of Lille, which devoted almost its entire front page to the return of Homer Badgett:

Front page of the "Voice of the North" from 26 October 1963, including a photograph of Papa, Mama, Homer Badgett, Ruth Badgett, and the Wicquart grandchildren
Front page of La Voix Du Nord (The Voice of the North) from 26 October 1963, with the headline “When an American Aviator Sees Again ‘His Father and Mother from France’ After Twenty Years of Separation”. A translation of the article is available in the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library Digital Archive by viewing Images 4 and 5 in the following link. MC 371/362, USF 3/1: Image 3.

The article ends:

As it is supposed to be, at the return of an adopted son, there were champagne toasts, and, at the demand of Mama Wicquart, a deep stirring Flemish song of the Home was sung, to seal the profound friendship born during the dark days of the war.

The parties in the village never ceased during the American’s visit, except for when they moved from Aubers to the Wicquart’s old farmhouse. There, in the kitchen where Mama Wicquart and Josephine the Polish refugee used to struggle to fill the plates of their hungry family all those years ago, the Allied flags of Great Britain, France, the United States, and Russia were raised side-by-side. Displayed above them all was that banner, “Honneur a nos Liberateurs”.

Papa and Mama would never allow their “Henri” to leave with only these memories, sweet as they were. On the day of his departure, Badgett was presented with this parting gift:

Homer and Ruth Badgett holding the Liberation banner
Homer and Ruth Badgett show the Liberation banner that they received from former members of the French resistance. The image was printed in the 4 December 1963 issue of The Evening Tribune of San Diego. MC 371/362, USF 3/1: Image 6.

But Homer and Ruth Badgett did not want this memento to be an heirloom only for their generations, treasured though it was. So, nearly a quarter of a century after the first of several return visits to Aubers, Homer Badgett wrote a letter to the Memorial Library of the 2nd Air Division Association in Norwich, England, an abridged version of which is shown below:

Badgett's Letter to the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, offering to donate the Liberation Banner
A shortened version of Homer Badgett’s letter to the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library offering to donate the Liberation banner and other related materials to their archive. The full letter is available here: MC 371/362, USF 3/1, Images 1 and 2

Now in its third decade in the archive of the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, Honour to our Liberators retains its symbolic power as both a banner and a phrase. Yet the spirit of celebration and triumph woven into its fabric belongs not to us in the present but to those who lived that history. If people today revel retrospectively in such emotions, then they risk lauding without listening, drowning out the voices of the liberators and the liberated, as much as the intention might be to exalt their honour.

Rather, our place is for commemoration and recognition, to hold in our minds the jubilance expressed by the banner as well as all the suffering out of which it was created: those who lived through those times were obliged to experience both, but we who did not can be seduced into overlooking all the dark years of occupation in lieu of the few bright days of victory. The urgency of this duty to the past will only grow as the Second World War sets on the horizon of living memory.

Fittingly, it is Homer Badgett who bequeaths to us an avowal that brings the banner into sharper focus, a corrective lens for the sedative distance between 1944 and the present. He begins his memoir by explaining that: “I have written this true story as an historical record for my grandchildren, with hope that none of my family members will ever have to fight in another war”. His statement speaks not so much for himself and his own experiences – his meeting Mama and Papa and being the guest of honour at the liberation celebrations in Aubers – but instead:

for everything on the prisoners’ march that Carl Moss suffered, and the torment of capture that Pat Crawford the bombardier was spared;

for all that Francois the fifteen-year-old fighter lived, and all that Felbinger the fallen airman never would;

for Josephine the Polish refugee who would never again see her husband, and for her baby who may yet grow up to know peace in the world.

Homer Badgett does not allow his story to overshadow theirs and neither should we. The threads of all their experiences are encompassed in the 24-foot span of the liberation banner, and so we should be filled with joy and gratitude that it flew over Aubers in 1944, but lament and mourn that there was ever an occupation to mark the end of in the first place. These are the respects owed for the resilience of the liberated and the honour of the liberators.

"Honneur a nos Liberateurs"
“Honour to our Liberators.” MC 371/854, USF OVR/5.

 

To view the full materials that Homer Badgett donated to the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, see Catalogue Ref. MC 371/362, USF 3/1.

 

For photographs relating to the 389th Bomb Group, see Catalogue Ref. MC 371/910, USF PH 3/3, or explore the full range of the Digital Archive at www.2ndair.org.uk/digitalarchive

 

The complete memoir of Homer Badgett is publicly available on the website of the University of Missouri, St. Louis. The quotations of Badgett used in this article come from this memoir.

 

Further information on the experiences of Carl Moss and Edmund Boice during their imprisonment by the Germans is available in Marilyn Mayer Culpepper’s book, Never Will We Forget: Oral Histories of World War II, pp. 118-9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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