Galesburg Flyer remembered in France

 by Norm Winick

NORMANDY, France — On August 8, 1944 an American B17G "Flying Fortress," took off from the Thorpe Abbots airbase in Great Britain flying on a mission to bomb Nazi defenses in Normandy. It was their 27th mission, part of a much larger armada of 26 aircraft that day whose objective since D-Day, June 6th, had been to clear a path for the liberating forces arriving by sea at the new man-made harbor along the coast of the English Channel.

B17G, #43-37865, belonged to the 100th Bomb Group, 349th Bomb Squadron, — known back home because of its large losses as "The Bloody Hundredth." After its missions bombing German defense positions along the French coast before, during and after D-Day, the 100th had also flown dozens of missions over Germany.

Aboard that aircraft and its 9-man crew that day was Tech. Sgt. Harry D. Park of Galesburg, Ill. He would never return.

The aircraft was hit by enemy artillery fire and exploded in air above the hamlet of Périgny, about 30 miles inland from the coast. Two crew members parachuted out; only one, Gilbert Borba, survived, and he was taken prisoner by the Germans.

To the residents of Périgny, trying to live a normal life under the constant pressure of the German occupation and the allied bombing missions flying overhead, the American bomber and the airmen who fell to earth that day have never been forgotten. Tales of that tragedy have been passed down from generation to generation.

There were 30 residents of Périgny that day seeking shelter in large trenches they had dug for themselves as the bombing missions and anti-aircraft fire blared overhead. The explosion above them was followed by a rainfall of metallic objects. Children were hysterical. Flaming shrapnel ignited bushes and hedges around them. Suffocating thick black smoke and a terrible stench engulfed them. Windows in nearby farm houses exploded as the plane did.

The fires lasted for days. Engines, wheels and large and small parts of the aircraft were scattered among the small farms. The residents were horrified by the mutilated and burnt bodies they soon discovered. A week later, Périgny had been liberated and Emilien Cautru and Fernand Vautier gathered up the bodies and parts and buried them, individually bagged, in a hole that the families had previously dug to protect their belongings from the war and hide them from the Germans. They saved wallets and other identifying information.

Harry Park’s father, George, in Galesburg, was notified his son was missing. A year later, he was notified by the War Department, as was their policy, that his son was presumed dead. In April, 1948, the body was exhumed from the temporary American cemetery to where it had been moved at Blosville and the Park family had it shipped home and reinterred with military rites in Henderson Grove Cemetery next to the grave of his mother.

Sixty years later, the residents of Périgny still remembered that day and decided to build a memorial to honor that crew of Americans who gave their lives in the effort to liberate them.

Two years ago, I received a letter from Yann Thomas of Hérouville Saint Clair, France asking for information on the Galesburg member of the crew. Park’s brother, Donald, still lives in Galesburg with his wife and was forthcoming with the family’s archived memories. I sent Thomas copies of some pictures and documents from the Parks as well as some information acquired from the Knox County Courthouse, microfilmed Register-Mails and a Galesburg High School yearbook.

Harry was known as "Dale" by his friends in Galesburg. He was born February 5, 1924 in Galesburg to George and Lillie Park who lived at 545 Churchill St. at that time. His father was listed as a boilermaker; his mother, a homemaker, died in 1940.

Dale was an outgoing person and a member of the Galesburg High School golf team. He graduated in 1942 and was training to be a mechanic when he was drafted on March 15, 1943.

He went for training in Walla Walla, Wash. and Kearney, Nebr.

On August 8, 2004, 60 years after Flying Fortress 43-37865 exploded and crashed, the long-awaited memorial was unveiled in Périgny before a large crowd of residents, local officials, and two families of crew members. A message from the Park family was read. An additional ceremony was held the previous day at the large American cemetery at Colleville Sur Mer.

For the American families, closure came with the repatriation and reburial of their loved ones; for the French, it took 60 years.