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Villagers Keep Pilot's Memory Alive

History: A son discovers his father's story overseas. French town had buried dead flier shortly after Normandy invasion in 1944.

July 22, 2001|CHARLES WOLFE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

OWENSBORO, Ky. — Jesse Mountjoy had a job at a finance company, musical talent, an attractive wife and a son. He also had a patriotic streak that spurred him to enlist in the Army Air Corps, which led to his death in Normandy.

Last month, the namesake son who had been too young to remember him stood near a cornfield where his father's P-47 Thunderbolt crashed in 1944.

Also present were French villagers, and descendants of villagers, who had hidden the dead pilot from Germans. They later added his name to their own war memorial and eventually tracked down the son in Kentucky.

"They have been the stewards of my father's memory for 57 years," Jesse T. Mountjoy Jr. said.

A sign of that stewardship is etched into a monument to war dead in La Haye-Pesnell (pronounced Lye Penn-NELL), a village of about 1,500. It commemorates "Lt. Jesse T. Mountjoy, American aviator, 9th U.S. Army Air Force, killed for the liberation of La Haye-Pesnell, July 31, 1944."

The younger Jesse Mountjoy, a lawyer in Owensboro, and his wife, Helen, were shown a piece of the Thunderbolt--the hinged lid of the magazine of the machine gun in the left wing.

Mountjoy said details of his father's death had never been clear.

"All that I ever knew was that my father had crashed in Normandy, somewhere near St. Lo, and I knew the date," he said in an interview.

He learned bits and pieces from his grandmother, who raised him in Hart County after his mother died in 1954. He learned a bit more over the years from some of his dad's squadron buddies and has since found his father's military file and letters. "But I did not know the name of the village or the site" of the crash, Mountjoy said.

Nor did he have any inkling that people in La Haye-Pesnell had kept alive his father's memory. "He was the only American flier who crashed close to their village. It's like they adopted him," Mountjoy said.

'We Didn't Let the Germans Have His Body'

It had been seven weeks since Allied forces had fought their way ashore on Normandy beaches to begin the invasion of Europe. Jesse Mountjoy was flying toward targets on the coast of Brittany when his P-47 was hit by German antiaircraft fire near La Haye-Pesnell.

Some teenagers heard the stricken aircraft sputter. The pilot was trying to land in a field. His left wing clipped a cherry tree, then his right wing struck a tall steel pole. The aircraft spun and crashed into an embankment.

Mountjoy was tossed from the cockpit. Villagers found the body and buried it. They told his son: "We didn't let the Germans have his body." The body was reinterred in Lexington, Ky., in 1948.

Corn grows at the crash site, located in a countryside reminiscent of central Kentucky. "My dad was from Woodford County," Mountjoy said. "If he had tried to set down someplace like home, this was the place. It was just eerie."

To find the pilot's relatives, the people of La Haye-Pesnell enlisted the help of Ken Dungey, a retired U. S. Air Force major who settled in France. He teamed up with Howard Swonger, who maintains a nostalgic Web site about the 2nd Armored Division. Both have helped to find a number of American veterans. Using the Internet, Swonger found Jesse and Helen Mountjoy in Owensboro.

Helen Mountjoy said the couple found in France "a resurgence of interest in putting up monuments" to the war and having American visitors when a monument is dedicated.

Charles Hinds, a historian and D-day veteran who once was director of the Kentucky Historical Society, said he believes that the interest is cynical. The Normans want to get on the right side of history, he said.

"They were not very friendly toward us, which is sort of understandable. . . . Americans came, and we bombed the heck out of them," said Hinds, of Frankfort.

Swonger, who was an 82nd Armored scout, said Hinds' experience was "far from the way I found it" in Normandy. Some young Frenchmen actually fought alongside Swonger, he said.

The villagers who found Mountjoy's body, and other French residents who lived through the war, "want to be sure their children know what happened," said Swonger, now retired in Dade City, Fla. "They're older now, and they want to see this recorded."

Mountjoy said his father might have been a musician if not for the war. He had been a music major at the University of Kentucky, where he met the woman he would marry--Runelle Palmore, a physical education major from Horse Cave.

Mountjoy was in the university men's quartet and the glee club. Afterward, he had occasional singing gigs but also worked during the day at Time Finance Co. in Lexington.

Based in France After Invasion

In 1942, at age 25, he enlisted and was selected for flight training. He was compact and wiry, supposedly the ideal build for the cramped cockpit of a P-47.

After flight school in Florida, he shipped out in January 1944 for England, where he flew missions from Christchurch. After the invasion, he was based in France.

Mountjoy said his father sometimes groused about combat in letters to his wife, saying he wanted to find someplace "quiet and peaceful."

"And he found it," his son said.

On the Net:

Howard Swonger Web site: http://http://www.2ndarmoredhellonwheels.com

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