A little house in Burgundy
The Legend of Little Eagle, a novel with a strong aviation/WW2 background, is a story that the reader discovers through the investigation of a narrator, Hélène Marchal. She wants to know who was a young USAAF fighter pilot who got killed near her (fictitious) village of Verdeil, in Burgundy, on a summer day of 1944. He had sacrificed his life to save the lives of civilians. The book begins with a prologue describing a mission over Germany and intended to illustrate what it meant to be an aviator in air combat. Here enters Hélène:
Chapter 1: The House
I am in my grandparents’ house. Before they lived here, it was home to several generations of ancestors on my father’s side. And this long family history almost came to an end one day in August, 1944.
I’m sitting in this little north-facing room, gazing out beyond the September garden. The weather is still mild, and the swifts have gathered on the electric wires by the hundreds, soon to depart on their long southward migration. For a few more days, as if waiting for a mysterious signal to take flight on favorable winds, these birds with their torpedo-like bodies and long scythe-shaped wings will practice for the journey, gathering in huge formations where they move as one, changing direction with stupefying speed.
Before long I will see their flocks leave for good, bound for equatorial Africa, following a trajectory that seems to be written in their genes, since even the birds born that year, who leave after their parents, get there in a matter of days. This type of migration, along a precise but mysterious route traced by the position of the stars and the Earth’s magnetic field, is nothing short of miraculous, in my opinion.
Through my window I can just see the row of poplars along the edge of the cemetery, and although I only arrived recently in this village in Burgundy, I’ve already been there several times to lay flowers on a tomb. Not the tomb of a family member—I did not know them, in any event—but that of a young man, John Philip Garreau. This American pilot from the Eighth Air Force died as he crashed into a field not three hundred feet from here, on board his plane that had been hit by German flak not long before. He could have saved his life when he saw the village coming inexorably closer. He still had time to jump with his parachute. But it was noon, there were people in the streets, children on their way home from school. He had to hold on, had to try at all cost to crash-land his plane a bit further along to avoid the carnage. At the risk of his own life.
I only heard this tragic story recently, when I came to see the house I had inherited. It was unfamiliar to me, and while exploring the premises, I stopped in a little room upstairs—where I am writing now —which I had immediately singled out as a possible study and reading room, no doubt because it had a beautiful old oak bookcase. The bookcase was almost empty, but there was a row of books on one half of one of the upper shelves; most of the books were old, some with leather bindings; it was as if they had been forgotten there. There was an edition of the Fables of La Fontaine, illustrated with engravings; there were bound volumes of an agricultural journal, and books about hunting game birds, decorated with reproductions of watercolors; there were Jules Verne novels in the hardbound Hetzel edition, and some classics: Maupassant, Balzac, Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas.
I was perched on the edge of a chair, tilting my head to read the titles, when suddenly my gaze was caught by a piece of pale yellow paper sticking out of a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works. It was a carbon copy of a letter from my grandfather, Paul Lenglin, Post Box 152, Beaune, folded in four and inserted into a passage of The Tempest. Intrigued, I opened it to have a look. It had been typed on an old-fashioned typewriter, and the imprint of the letters had lost some of its clarity. I went to sit by the window to decrypt the missive.
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Garreau,
This is a letter to express my deep gratitude for the action of your son, First Lieutenant John Philip Garreau, on August 12 1944. It took much time and many letters and inquiries to US and Allied military authorities to find your address and this is the reason I write only today. You know of course that your beloved son was killed in action in this part of France during the War when his P-51 Mustang named Lucky Lady crashed. In the name of all the members of my family I present you today my very sincere sympathy for the tragic loss of John Philip.But perhaps you do not know that First Lieutenant Garreau ACTED LIKE A HERO and saved our lives. He could have parachuted and saved himself when he realized that his plane was out of control, but he did not. On the contrary, he remained in his plane with a burning engine to avoid falling on our village, and more precisely right on our family house. My wife and my two young children were inside.
From the front yard, I watched him myself taking a desperate turn very close from the roof in order not to kill us all. The result of this action was that he was killed in a field just behind our house. Myself and my family, and all the inhabitants of the village of Verdeil, see and will always see John Philip Garreau like a real hero. He was a great ace in air combat but he did not hesitate to sacrifice himself to save other, civilian lives. You can be proud of him and we also are. We will never forget him. Your son’s body now lies here in our peaceful cemetery, not far from our house. We visit him regularly and lay flowers on his grave. If you come to France one day, please contact us. It would be a great honor for us to meet the parents of such a brave and courageous young man.
The letter was dated June 14, 1947, and had been addressed to “the parents” of First Lieutenant John Philip Garreau, in Browning, Montana, USA.
I must have gone pale. I remember I made an effort to catch my breath. My heart was beating faster. With my gaze lost in the branches of the trees around the house I struggled, not to understand, but to accept the meaning of this letter which Paul Lenglin had probably asked someone to translate into this somewhat approximate English. And very quickly I had to face facts: were it not for John Philip Garreau’s sacrifice, my grandparents, their son, and their daughter— who was my mother, a little girl at the time—would have perished on that August day in 1944. And… and I would never have been born. I would never have existed.
I knew right away that this discovery would obsess me in a thousand different ways. Once I had absorbed the shock, I visualized the tragic event. I imagined, I saw this pilot in his doomed airplane, his cockpit filling with black smoke, and then suddenly he saw the house a few dozen yards ahead of him. The ultimate obstacle in his line of flight above the village; he did not want to crash here, he had understood in a flash what would happen upon impact, and it seemed inevitable: the P-51 Mustang was still full of fuel and ammunition, a veritable flying bomb. It would crash into the façade of the house, causing the roof to explode, the walls to collapse, and flames to burst from the windows. An infernal roar. Victims, civilians, would be sacrificed.
But John Philip Garreau had made his decision several seconds earlier. He would stay on board, whatever the cost, and do whatever he could to avoid the catastrophe. Did he think he might still make it, with a forced landing? Witnesses later confirmed to me that he had suddenly managed to give his spluttering engine enough throttle to swerve to the right at the last minute: the tip of the left wing clipped the chimney, and he crashed just beyond the house. I reread the letter and paused for a long time on the sentence, “my wife and my two young children were inside.”
During the days and weeks that followed my discovery, while I was arranging the house to make it more comfortable, I came up with an idea which quickly turned into a plan. A mission, even, something it was my duty to remember, as people say nowadays. I needed to know exactly who John Philip Garreau was, I wanted to know about his life, his trajectory as a man and as a pilot. A man? A very young man, almost an adolescent, still. He was hardly a day over eighteen. This detail was devastating. Not only because the boy I was already referring to as Johnny had made it possible for me to be born, but also because I had seen with my own eyes many young men killed in combat. I am a journalist, and for a time I was a war correspondent. I was familiar with the wars that were fought from the 1980s on. Dirty wars, doubtful wars, civilian or ethnic wars: El Salvador, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Everywhere young people were fighting other young people without really understanding what was at stake, caught up in conflicts that stemmed from ideologies and the megalomaniacal, greedy or otherwise odious regimes or individuals. And it was the civilians who paid the highest price in the slaughter.
Was it the tomboy in me who had chosen this profession? I was the best at gym in my school; my knees had scabs on them all year round because of my incorrigible propensity to chase my little schoolmates around the schoolyard. And there were the Sundays I spent with my father exploring the forest of Senart. I had left my dolls behind as soon as I could. Papa and I made a little hot air balloon. I loved nailing bits of wood together. As an adolescent, I had an idol, a model: Martha Gellhorn, who for a time was Mrs. Ernest Hemingway, a correspondent for the American magazine Collier’s, present on every battlefield on the planet for over half a century, from Spain in 1937 to the American invasion of Panama—she was 81 years old!—by way of Vietnam and the Six-Day War. In an interview she said, “It’s exciting being in the middle of all the bombs going off.”
The sounds of war, the danger—it excited me too. But nowadays, I feel like saying, Yeah, sure, Martha, but let’s talk about those explosions and their consequences. I had seen so much blood spilled that it disgusted me. I got a bullet in my thigh in Somalia, and shrapnel from a mine pierced my jugular vein near Vukovar. I don’t know who saved my life. I remember that we went some way by car, I was half conscious, and there was someone trying to stop the bleeding by pressing on my neck with a rag. I woke up in a hospital, having miraculously survived the operation. I have worn a silk scarf ever since, no matter the weather, to hide my ugly scar.
I used to believe it was important to bear witness, I used to believe in the ideals that had incited me to choose this career: the freedom of information, a quest for truth, the defense of democracy and justice, the need to inform people’s opinions, and so on. And then, my job as a war correspondent also meant adrenaline, generated by the feeling— only too real—that I was experiencing something exceptional, the impression I belonged to a prestigious little aristocracy within the corporation. And as far as the public was concerned I was in a caste on my own.
Perhaps it was recognition I sought by showing my courage, by taking risks, by impressing my colleagues and the people around me. It was a good period for me as far as advancing my career went, but with hindsight, I can see how insignificant it all was, because now every time a new conflict breaks out somewhere, I get the bitter feeling that all my reporting from those conflict zones served absolutely no purpose. We don’t learn from past experience, whether private or collective, and posterity doesn’t give a damn. The madness of humankind goes on.
I must however acknowledge that there were the “good wars,” the ones that repaired the abominable consequences of earlier conflicts. I might have come into the world just the same, even without John Philip Garreau and an airplane managing not to land on my grandparents’ house. But in what sort of country or society, under what regime, if the thousands of Garreaus and Joneses and Smiths and all the other American G.I.s had not come to risk their lives in Europe and eradicate Nazism? When I think about this, my doubts as to the usefulness of bearing witness dissolve. I have to piece together all the elements of Johnny Garreau’s life: it’s a noble project, full of meaning to me.