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Grateful French Village Honors Its American Liberator After 46 Years : World War II: In 1944, tanks led by Robert Hamsley drove the Germans from Plelo. He has been recommended for the Legion of Honor.

May 20, 1990|IKE FLORES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ORLANDO, Fla. — In August, 1944, U.S. Army Lt. Robert Hamsley led a five-tank platoon into the French village of Plelo and wiped out a contingent of heavily armed Germans.

Two days later, German anti-tank guns knocked out four of the five tanks and damaged Hamsley's own M-4 before he and the three crew members recovered. They destroyed the attack guns, killed and routed about 100 Germans and rescued the wounded.

The second action earned Hamsley the Bronze Star and a promotion to captain. The successful attack at Plelo went practically unnoticed, and it was unreported in the official diaries of the 15th Cavalry Regiment of Gen. George Patton's Third Army.

But the people of Plelo never forgot.

Now, 46 years later, the mayor and the village council of Plelo have declared Hamsley a hero and the town's liberator. They have named him an honorary citizen and are recommending that he be awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Hamsley, now 71 and a winter resident of Orlando from his home in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., is overwhelmed by the attention. He and several family members will travel to Plelo in June for a celebration in his honor.

If it weren't for the five tanks and 20 men under Hamsley, many of the village residents would have been executed in the town square by the Germans. In addition, a small force of French Resistance fighters called the Maquis were in danger of being wiped out.

At the moment the American tanks rumbled into town, the German soldiers had lined up three people against a high wall--an elderly woman, her daughter and the village priest--to be shot as collaborators of the Maquis, according to one published account.

To the Germans' amazement, other residents had stepped up alongside the three condemned citizens. The enemy occupiers also were rounding up still more villagers.

But the Germans were routed during intense fire fights in the village square and at a nearby field where they were garrisoned. The American tank platoon, assisted by the Maquisards and some of the villagers, killed about 50 enemy soldiers and captured 60, according to the accounts.

Hamsley and his tank platoon quickly left Plelo, met up with their main column the next day and were soon engaged in the battle near Plouigneau that earned him the Bronze Star.

Hamsley says things were moving too fast for a debriefing of his platoon's activities at Plelo. By the time a sketchy report was made, it became a footnote to ensuing battles.

"We just did our job. We figured it was just another day's work," Hamsley says.

He never knew the full significance of the side trip to Plelo or that his platoon's cavalry charge would go down in village history--until last year.

Amateur French historians and a retired American colonel pinpointed Hamsley as the man on the spot and researched the details of the military encounter. They pieced together eyewitness accounts and consulted military records and village archives.

The ex-colonel, Robert Dwan of Tucson, spends much of his time "trying to get belated recognition for deserving members of the 15th Cavalry," in which he also served as a platoon leader in France.

Dwan contacted Yvon Herve, a history buff who lives in Brittany near Plelo, and Roger Gergaud, another resident of the area, to uncover details of the battle.

Herve sought out a number of the rural area's older residents, among them a former mayor of Plelo who was a boy of 15 and one of those scheduled for execution in the town square at the time of the German-American battle.

In a 1975 French history titled "The Battle of Brittany," author Jean Joseph Barsel writes that the Americans "saved the people of Plelo from death and destruction, as the Germans had put everything into place for the total destruction of the village."

Jean Querrou, a member of the French Resistance at that time, told a newspaper recently that "we old combatants recall with our heart" the American officer they had helped "to save the inhabitants of Plelo from a dramatic situation."

Plelo's current mayor, Yves Le Coqu, wrote Hamsley last August informing him of the council's action in naming him an honorary citizen of the village "in testimony of our gratitude for your courageous action of Aug. 6, 1944, which led to (the village's) liberation."

The mayor wrote again in November to thank Hamsley for accepting their invitation to visit in June. He was overjoyed, the mayor wrote, "at the idea of finally being able to welcome--46 years later--the man who was our liberator."

Hamsley will fly to Paris and then travel to Plelo on June 16 for a celebration in his honor.

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