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A Final Mission : Veterans Aim to Repair French Church Damaged in WWII

November 11, 1996|JOHN POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Richard Davis recalls vividly the explosion that sent an enormous cloud of dense black smoke shooting into the sky and swept the ground below like a broom.

It was August 1944, and Davis, a 22-year-old pilot in the 383rd Fighter Squadron, was flying over German-occupied territory in France when his group of eight planes spotted a camouflaged Nazi train in a remote rail yard in Remy, a small village north of Paris.

While Davis and three other pilots stayed at 10,000 feet to provide cover, four of the P-51 Mustangs dove to tree level, blasting at the train. They were unaware that the boxcars contained high-grade ammunition.

"It would have been just another mission, but that was an explosion like I'd never seen before or since," said Davis, now retired and living in Huntington Beach. "It's a miracle that more people weren't killed."

A villager, several German guards and a pilot in the close-knit squadron, Lt. Houston L. Braly, died in the blast. The explosion demolished the rail station, sheared roofs off houses and--to the great sorrow of the villagers--blew out most of the ancient stained-glass windows in Remy's 13th century church.

In an unusual move, some of the townspeople pulled Braly's body from his plane and buried him in the village cemetery, using a blade from his propeller as a grave marker. And, in defiance of the Nazis, they covered his grave with flowers.

As a symbol of gratitude to those villagers, Davis and some surviving members of his squadron--many of whom trained at what is now John Wayne Airport--are raising money to replace the stained-glass windows of the Remy church, called St. Denis.

Under the name Windows for Remy, the veterans group achieved nonprofit status in August and is working to raise $200,000 to replicate the windows and replace "temporary" ones of clear glass. The ex-pilots are calling the campaign "One Last Mission."

"The reason we're doing this is not just for the people in Remy--this type of thing was repeated all during the war by people in occupied countries," said Clyde Voss of Palos Verdes. A pilot on the mission, he was later shot down behind enemy lines in the Netherlands and smuggled to safety by a Dutch farm family.

"They risked their lives to help us, and to my knowledge haven't been properly thanked," Voss said. "It's all of them that we want to honor."

After the pilots returned to their base in England, Remy probably would have been forgotten, relegated to a short chapter in the squadron's history book, published a few years ago.

But in 1994, Stephen LeaVell, a United Airlines pilot and amateur military historian who lives in San Francisco told a neighbor about his plan to visit the Air Force archives in Alabama to conduct research.

The neighbor, former pilot Manuel "Cass" Casagrande, asked LeaVell if he could look up recently declassified information on his old squadron, the 383rd.

"I found over 300 pages of documents, with pictures," LeaVell said. "When I read the story and found out what these people had done for a soldier they didn't even know, I was crying."

By coincidence, LeaVell was flying a commercial airliner to Paris three days later. During a layover, he rented a bicycle and rode to Remy.

"I was kind of stumbling around the village, trying to find the propeller that had been used at the pilot's grave," LeaVell said.

"I ran into one of the ladies who had brought flowers to the grave, and she brought out a 50-year-old French newspaper with an account of the explosion, which turned out to be one of the major events of Remy's 2,000-year history."

With the woman's grandson acting as translator, LeaVell learned that Braly was considered a hero in the town of about 1,700. Although the pilot's body had since been moved to his home state of Texas, a commemorative plaque had been placed on a brick wall where his plane had crashed, and a street had been renamed in his honor.

At the same time, LeaVell learned that the stained-glass windows of St. Denis had never been replaced.

"I was really moved by the warmth and affection of these people," LeaVell said. "So when [Casagrande] offered to pay me for my research, I said: 'Why don't you try to get your buddies together and restore those windows?' "

Although he hadn't flown on the mission, Casagrande enlisted the support of his fellow squadron members. They have collected $20,000 so far toward their goal of $200,000 and hope that the recent nonprofit status will draw donations.

Money is trickling in, Casagrande said, mostly from veterans, their families and friends.

"It's gratifying to see the support for this," Casagrande said. "I just hope that we can get enough money to get it done.

"If not, we could always do 40 or 50% of the windows, and the symbolism would still be there. But this is one mission we'd like to complete."

For information, call (510) 824-2466. Send donations to: Windows for Remy, P.O. Box 644, Linden, CA 95236.

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