World War II prisoner of war camp - Stalag Luft I


World War II - Prisoners of War - Stalag Luft I 

A collection of stories, photos, art and information on Stalag Luft I


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The Last Flight of the Black Swan

By Douglas W. Wells

As we all know, the French are not shy about expressing their opinion on things.  In the run-up to the war in Iraq, and during the combat phase of the operation, our embassy in Paris received hundreds of letters every week. Most were addressed simply to "The Ambassador" or "The U.S. Embassy." Without a clear addressee, our mailroom screening staff had no choice but to separate these items and hold them for later disposition.  With the heightened state of alert and the extra work brought by the conflict, no one showed much interest in each week's flotsam and jetsam of angry letters and hastily scrawled postcards.  After being screened, they piled up in a box in the mailroom.  Eventually we received the order to shred them.

     Feeling a little uncomfortable with my mailroom employees throwing handfuls of embassy correspondence into a shredder, I took the box myself.  I went through and destroyed hundreds of letters, anti-war petitions, schoolchildren's crayon drawings, and other items, some quite bizarre. While the bulk of these letters were simply rants and raves against the U.S., I uncovered a few real gems from people who felt a strong emotional connection with the United States because of WWII, or the Marshall Plan, or because of family ties.  It put into perspective the duration and depth of Franco-American relations and made the news items about "freedom fries" seem that much more ridiculous.  

    Then, as I was getting near the bottom of the box, one letter caught my eye. It was in English, neatly written and quite short.  The French author was obviously quite distressed about the current state of relations between the U.S. and his country.  At the bottom of the letter was a beautiful color drawing of a B-17 bomber from World War Two and the caption "The Black Swan will fly forever in our memories."  Intrigued, I couldn't bring myself to toss this particular letter into the shredder.  I set it aside.  For the rest of the day, as I worked, I kept glancing over at the letter on the corner of my desk.  The questions in my head just wouldn't go away.  Who was this guy?  What was his relation to this B-17?  The return address, in French, said something about him being the official historian for the crash of the "Black Swan" in Brittany some 60 years ago, but what made him write this letter now?  Since it appeared we had enough U.S. opponents in France, I couldn't help but think that perhaps that this gentleman, writing in support of our country might merit at least a form letter in response. Finally, I decided that someone higher up at the embassy should look at the letter.  If someone else saw it, and then said shred it, at least I would feel better for having tried.  So, I put a note on the letter and dropped it in the DCM's mailbox.

    To my surprise, I got a call back before the end of the day.  The Office Management Specialist for the DCM said that she had been very impressed by the heartfelt tone of the correspondence and that she would show it to her boss.  She had even gone so far as to call the author at his home and thank him personally for sending it!  Needless to say, I felt very good about this and when the DCM's office later suggested that I send a return letter I jumped at the chance.  But before writing the letter, I decided I had to solve the mystery of who this person was.  So, I did what any red-blooded American would do; I did an Internet search on "Black Swan" and "B-17."

    I had expected to have to wade through pages of useless results but what came up at the top was too good to be true.  It was the personal Web site of none other than the pilot of the bomber himself -- Lt. Verne Woods!  He was 81, living with his wife in Massachusetts and on his Web site, he described in detail the night of December 31, 1943 when his bomber was shot down. They had been hit by flak on the way to Germany and had to turn back alone. By a strange twist of fate, he and the normal pilot had switched seats on that mission and that night, the copilot's side of the plane was raked by cannon fire from a German FW-190 fighter as the crippled bomber limped across Brittany.  The man in the co-pilot seat was killed instantly.  The remaining members of the crew bailed out except for the top turret gunner, who couldn't make it out in time.  The B-17 heavy bomber, still carrying the two brave American aviators, crashed into a barn on a remote Brittany farm. (As testimony to the power of the Internet, the surviving pilot in Massachusetts recently posted a request on a Luftwaffe veterans Web site asking, "Who shot me down?"  Within a short time, he had not only the name of the German pilot, but also a scanned copy of his page in the logbook the day he attacked the "Black Swan" in the skies over Brittany!)

    Well, that solved the mystery of the "Black Swan" but what about the author of the letter? Scrolling down a little farther gave me the answer.  One of the pictures of a ceremony near a marble plaque gave the answer.  Mr. Yves Carnot, the author of the letter I saved from the shredder, was none other than the grandson of the man whose barn the "Black Swan" had crashed into!

    I wrote Mr. Carnot back, thanking him for his concern, and reassuring him that that there still was much friendship between the French and Americans despite the current political situation.  I wasn't sure if I would get a response, but about two weeks later I received a fat envelope containing "the rest of the story."

    In a twelve-page, handwritten letter, Mr. Carnot recounted his lifelong relation with the last flight of the "Black Swan."  His earliest memories, as a child in the late 1950's, were of crawling around in a barn littered with pieces of twisted aluminum plane parts that his grandfather had either hid from the Germans that night, or dug up later while planting.  His grandfather's prize possession was the manufacturer's name plate from the B-17 plant in Detroit, still intact, showing the model and part number of the plane.  It had a place of honor, nailed to the main support pole in the barn and was, in his words, "respected as a symbol, a testimony of this aerial fight, this tragic event."

    Mr. Carnot's grandfather used to sit his young grandson on his knee and tell him the story of that New Year's Eve in 1943 when the flaming bomber fell out of the sky.  "Every Sunday," Mr. Carnot wrote, "when I visited my grandfather, I asked him to tell me about this event.  It became a ritual and every week I came to contemplate that number plate and I dreamed about this fantastic plane."  Over the years it became a ritual for them and as Mr. Carnot grew up, the "Black Swan" came to symbolize the special bond between him and his grandfather.  They used to walk around the farm together, the older man relating to the child every detail of that fateful night when the quiet night sky was shattered by gunfire and explosions. Just before Mr. Carnot's grandfather died, he gave the treasured nameplate to his grandson.  Mr. Carnot, by then a young man, "undertook to do research on the B-17 in the memory of my grandfather, who could not do the investigation himself.  I am sure he would have encouraged my work and in some way, it is a sort of eternal torch I am carrying; it's my mission."

    During the next ten years he overcame numerous bureaucratic hurdles and painstakingly tracked down historical records that enabled him to find the names of the B-17's crew and the crews of other planes on that mission. Based on that information, he managed to locate several surviving members of the "Black Swan" with whom he now corresponds regularly.  His work culminated in 1998 (the 55th anniversary of the crash), when, in a grassy field at the farm "Keranacreach," near the village of Keriquel, in the Bannelec area of South Brittany a small memorial service took place.  It was attended by crewmembers of the "Black Swan," a U.S. Air Force delegation, representatives of  U.S. Army Air Corps Veterans, the French Air Force Color Guard, the French Resistance veterans and many of the witnesses who helped with the research.  A delegate from the U.S. Embassy was also in attendance. As a group of local musicians played "Amazing Graze", the superintendent of the American Cemetery of Brittany undid the tricolor ribbon holding a piece of parachute fabric, which fell away to reveal a granite memorial stone.  On the stone, designed, paid for and installed by Mr. Carnot, was an epitaph in French and English for the two lost crewmembers.  Now the memory of the Black Swan would truly keep flying in everyone's memory.

    I had planned to meet Mr. Carnot for the 60th anniversary of the crash.  But it turned out I was the IPC duty person that day, and with the raised terrorism threat level, I decided to stay close to Paris.  I look forward to the first warm days of Spring so I can visit this memorial, as much a dedication to one man's perseverance as it is to the memory of two Americans who gave their lives to liberate Europe.  Then, we can make a pilgrimage to Normandy together, a Frenchman and an American.  There, on the cliffs overlooking the sea, I plan to lay some flowers on the grave of 2nd Lt. Stuart B. Mendelson, Pilot and Tech./Sgt. Richard G. Hensley, Top Turret Gunner, the two members of the crew that never made it home.


Douglas Wells is the supervisor for mail and pouch operations in the Information Programs Center at Embassy Paris.

Published April 2004 in the Foreign Service Journal.


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