histoire d'une forteresse volante abbattue à Saint-Colomban, près de Nantes, le 4 juillet 1943
1943 - 2004
July 3,4,5, 2004
# 42-5053
crash on July 4, 1943
in St-Colomban
Focke Wulf
into grand-lieu lake
10 young
american boys
B17 technical
Ralph D. McKee
(his escape)
Pilot escape
thanks to
american families
3,4,5 July 2004

3-July-2004 - Day 1

At 11 AM we attend a welcome reception at the Saint Colomban Hôtel de Ville or town hall where we are exuberantly and warmly welcomed by Maire (Mayor) Jean Luc Gauthier via translations by Flora Douville who will serve as our excellent translator for the next two days. We have the first of many toasts and vin d'honneurs (reception with wine). The United States guests - the daughters and nephews of Ralph McKee, and the son, wife and nieces of William "Bill" Mooney, introduce themselves and place a dot on a United States map showing where we live in the US. All the US guests meet the Memorial Weekend Organizing Committee and their families.

About 20 people crowd into the Mayor's office to call the US and speak to Ralph McKee for a prearranged conference call. The call goes well, with Dad (the famous "navigatuer", Ralph McKee!) on a speaker phone.

About twenty people, including all of the organizing committee drive to a nearby town and attend a wonderful luncheon at Le Pelican (Geneston). Also attending is Jean-Paul André, B-17 aficionado from Paris, who has by now taken many of the 700 photos he will eventually shoot during the three days of events. There is more wine tasting, more toasting and a delicious menu of Langostinos (small lobster) and seafood mousse, a wonderful local fish, Sandre, served on a bed of pureed artichoke hearts and a beautifully presented plate of three luscious chocolate and raspberry desserts

We drive back to the village of Saint Colomban in our caravan of cars to the Saint Colomban School, which houses the exhibition of the downed B-17 and their crew. We are taken first to the school yard where there is an exact size chalk outline of the downed B17 #42-5053. Crew member's names, positions and exactly where they were located that fateful 4-July-1943 day are written in the plane's interior. We are all handed red, white and blue balloons and join hands to form the outline of the airplane and release the balloons into the sky. This is quite impressive - but there is so much more to come!

The front of the school is hung with banners of American and French flags and there is a ribbon cutting ceremony lead by Mayor Jean-Luc Gauthier. Dianne Rhodes, eldest daughter of Ralph McKee, is instructed to cut the red, white and blue ribbon v-e-r-y slowly as photos are being taken by the press and bystanders alike. Shortly after the ribbon cutting we have a very emotional meeting with Françoise Cenreaud, who has read about the event that day in the newspaper. She tearfully tells us that her father, Jean Nicolas (now deceased), was part of the French Resistance and is the man on the far left in the group photo taken at the Ligonday home when Ralph McKee was staying there before escaping over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain.

Bill Mooney and his two niecesWe enter the school to view the exhibition. In the entry way of the school, there is a table with B-17 parts from the crash, some of which have just turned up within the previous two weeks. The exhibition itself is wonderful and consists of about 12 six foot high panels. Each crew member has one or more panels with a large photo and personal information. Under each name is the crew position and status of each crew member. i.e. for Ralph McKee - Position: Navigateur (Navigator) and Status: Escapee. For William "Bill" Mooney - Position: Tail Gunner and Status: Taken Prisoner. A wall near the exhibit panels contains colorful artwork and cartoons that school children have drawn and colored of the events of 4-July-1943.In another section, Ralph McKee's video addressing the citizens of Saint Colomban is running in a continual loop. Forties music B-17 crew members may have listened to before taking off on their July 4th mission plays in the background.

We have an emotional reunion with Joël Dugast. Joël is the son of Celestin Dugast who was one of the first two men to reach navigator, Ralph McKee. His friend, Marcel Biret hid Ralph's parachute, while Celestin Dugast whisked Ralph away to safety on their two bicycles to the Biret farmhouse. Joël will be with us for much of the next two days and presents us with gifts for Ralph McKee before we leave.

The school cafeteria is decorated for the next day's luncheon to be attended by 300 people. It is completely hung with banners, French and American flags and a large parachute hanging attractively from the ceiling. We are starting to become overwhelmed by all these events - but little do we know the day is still young!

About sixteen of us pile into cars and go the L'Eglise Abbatiale (Abbatiale Church) in Saint Philbert de Grand Lieu. The church was built at the beginning of the Ninth Century to shelter the relics of St. Philibert from the Norman invasions. It is said that miraculous recoveries took place around the Merovingian sarcophagus, and thus the site became a place of pilgrimage on the way to Saint Jacques de Compostelle. We are filled with wonder to be standing in a church built so long ago and imagine the tales this ancient structure holds.

From here we caravan to the memorial site at Besson and are stunned by the beauty of the memorial, a granite B-17 airplane wing approximately seven feet high, with three flagpoles behind it and a large sign describing the memorial. The landscaping - small trees and shrubs will be quite lovely as it grows in.

Marcel DéraméNext we caravan a short distance to the home of Marcel Derame. His property is where the B-17 plane actually crashed and he gives us many details of 4-July-1943 as he was there on that fateful day. According to Marcel, the plane fuselage sliced through some power lines and started a fire in the fields, which his family tried to put out. There were several dead B-17 crew members, which Marcel's mother was later forced by the Germans to pick up and move with great difficulty on a wooden cart. Marcel's family did not want the German's to get the machine guns from the plane, so they were quickly thrown into a pond on their property. Sometime in the 70's during a particularly dry summer, the pond partially evaporated exposing the guns, which were removed by Marcel and later stolen by a disreputable gun dealer. Marcel told of seeing several parachutes dropping from the sky. Marcel pointed out that if the parachutes had landed on the other side of the river; there would have been no chance of escape as the other side housed a large contingent of German soldiers who would have gotten to the flyers quickly.

Next we drive in our now familiar caravan to a local winery where we meet Gene Johnston, from the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations, who is representing the American Embassy for the event. The winery, Le Gran Fé, produces excellent wine, which we all sample along with some delicious local food.

Our final caravan of the day takes us to the home of the mayor, whose exuberant personality has made everyone feel welcome throughout the day. He gives us a tour of his lovely home and gardens where a tent has been erected for the barbeque and approximately 50 guests. Again more wine, toasts and snacks! We have a delicious dinner of grilled pork chops, a variety of salads, white beans, cheese and dessert.


Helen M. Duncan and Dianne M. Rhodes