This is my third, and final, blog post from my diary written during my many visits to Grenoble, France after WWII. The war was still fresh on everyone’s minds. As the years passed, my French family began to reveal some of their most vivid memories from this horrific period in history. My experiences, the people I met, and the stories I heard gave me the idea to write The Shelburne Escape Line: Secret Rescues of Allied Aviators by the French Underground, the British Royal Navy, and London’s MI-9.
Years later, I often traveled back to my home in France to visit the Jouvents. The family had grown to every corner of the French hexagon, from Savoie, Haute Savoie, Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux, the Gers, to Alpes Maritimes. I often took my students to visit areas where their fathers and grandfathers had fought during the war: the beaches of Normandy; the American Cemetery; the Mémorial of Caen; the Plateau de Glières in the Alps. The gaping holes caused by German and Allied bombings that I’d seen in 1954—Tours, Brest, Lorient, Bordeaux had disappeared and the cities were reconstructed. French shops now held quantities of consumer goods; good coffee, meat, cheeses, cream, butter and citrus fruit filled the grocery shelves. Gone from WCs (toilets) were the square of cut newspaper and parchment-like toilet paper I’d had to use in my student days. Bakeries now sold plump loaves of bread or baguettes made with whole grains, unprocessed flour and seeds. Dark bread no longer meant the abhorrent pain noir of the Wars years.
My diaries were filled with experiences of my French family, their relatives, their neighbors, and friends I made sailing, bicycling, and hiking in France between 1970 and 2014. By the turn of the millennium, I heard more and more war stories that I had never seen in print. I was introduced to surviving members of the Resistance, as well as to Allied airmen rescued by the French.
It was in the small town of Plouha on Brittany’s northeastern coast that I first heard the story of the Shelburne Line. For many years whenever I visited my French brother Geo Jouvent and his wife Marité Le Meur we would walk the road where, on moonless lights, members of the Shelburne Escape Line led downed Allied aviators to the beach at Anse Cochat (Cochat Cove) to a British Gun Boat sitting ready to evacuate them to England. A half-kilometer from Marité and Geo’s cottage, stands a stone monument that commemorates the site where in 1944, members of the réseau (network) waited rescue in a small safe house, Maison d’Alphonse. The house belonged to Marité first cousins Jean and Mimi Gicquel.
In the late 1990s on one of my annual visits to France, I read the book Par les nuits les plus longues: Reseaux d’evasion d’aviateurs en Bretagne (Through the Longest Nights: Evasion Lines of Aviators in Brittany) by Roger Huguen. I couldn’t put the book down. Its details filled in missing spaces in my notes. As I spoke to my French family, the Jouvents, about the book, they said they knew many of the people Huguen had mentioned and asked if I wanted to meet them. Of course, I wanted to meet all of them. That’s when the seeds for my book sprouted.
I began interviewing members of the Resistance, and soon word spread and people involved in the rescue contacted me. I heard from surviving Allied Airmen and descendants of airmen rescued by the French. Then an odd thing happened. My French family began reliving experiences they’d kept hidden and their poignant tales brought forth tears.
The passion developed in my childhood, fueled by my student days in Grenoble, and fed by over fifty years of Franco-American friendships, compelled me to write the book.
As I looked down upon the lights of Grenoble in the 1950s little did I dream that one day I would write these untold stories about the most brutal period in the Western millennium. I offer these stories to honor the courage and sacrifices the French participants made for the WWII Allied Forces who landed on their occupied territory; to the descendants of those Allied Forces; and to my adopted French family who, in sharing their home and telling their stories, have enriched my life beyond measure.