by Charles M. Nekvasil
Chuck Nekvasil was a member of the crew of the ill-fated "Royal Flush." His account of the B-17’s last mission and the story of how Leon Croulebois’ life became entwined with the lives of the "Flush’s" crew, makes one of the great stories of the 100th, as a token of its appreciation, the Group brought Leon, as its guest, to the Milwaukee Reunion in 1973
Horace L. Varian
On his twelfth birthday, a French boy watched as a B-17 was shot down near his grandparent’s house in a suburb of Paris. It was August 11, 1944, and Leon Cruouebois couldn’t have known that he would play a historic role in the lives and deaths of the crew of that B-17, the 100th Group’s "Royal Flush."
As he came to maturity, Leon could not forget what he had seen that day. Through letters to government officials and countless hours of personal inquiry, he pieced together what had happened after Royal Flush crashed. He learned that four members of the crew were killed and that the others were taken prisoner, but battled their way to freedom. He was determined that those who lost their lives over his city, Clamart, have a distinguished burial. Much time and inquiry was required to even learn their names. In 1969 Leon set work with the city fathers to have a new burial site marked by a monument and dedicated in a impressive ceremony. He worked with a marble-smith on the monument’s design. Photographs of each of the crew members were encased in porcelain and affixed to the stone.
Chuck Nekvasil tells of his original contact with Leon Croulebois:
"The Croulebois saga began in November of 1967 when a registered letter sent to an address we had lived before I went into the service was delivered to our hone in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. It was from Leon Croulebois."
"Somewhat leery of this correspondence, I wrote a non-committal letter to Leon in English. Back came an 18 page letter detaining the shootdown as he remembered it, with a pencil sketch showing the plane spiraling and chutes leaving it. The detail was perfect and as I remembered it. Drew Willingham of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, himself and escapee, had been in Paris visiting his resistance helpers and had been written up in a local paper. Croulebois wrote him at Lt. Drew Willingham, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the letter was delivered. Willingham wrote his congressman, who searched Air Force files and came up with known names and addresses of the crew of the ship which crashed just about a mile and a half from the house where Leon was at the attic window."
"From that point on, letters came thick and fast. Photos of the funeral, taken under the noses of German guards came, letters from the funeral director who handled the funeral, contact with the Commissionaire of Police, now are valued friends, even the death certificates of our comrades, and papers attesting to their burial at Petit Cemetery just twenty-five years after the original burial of members of the crew. No shootdown has had more thorough coverage than Leon was able to unearth,"
Chuck returned to Paris for the ceremony at the Clamart Cemetery just twenty-five years after the crash. Something of the detailed planning, the dignity and affection between the people of the two countries emerges from Chuck’s letter, portions of which follow:
"We arrived at the communal cemetery at Clamart at 9:40 a.m., detouring along the way to pick up Madame Traversac, a Red Cross officer, who was an eyewitness to the crash of the Royal Flush and who had worked in the Resistance with famed Colonel Remy. At 9:45 the two floral pieces we had ordered were delivered and carried ahead to the site of the ceremony. At 10:15 the French Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps arrived, assembled, and marched off to muffled drumbeats.
"Additional busses now pulled up. Here was the Mayor of Clamart, City Council and members of the official party. Colonel William Bailey and his adjutant from the U.S. Embassy arrived with an Air Force photographer. The Paris Post of the American Legion now marched up with its flags. Here was Monsieur Jean Laffray. President des Anciens Pilotes deChasses; Colonel Remy, leader of the entire French Resistance Movement during the war; Monsieur Leopold Morchoisne, president du Soubenir Clamartois, the city’s historical group; LePere de Cavarley, a Catholic Priest who assisted in the funeral arrangements for our lads; and Monsieur and Madamme Braconnier of Meudon, the couple who hid Norman Fernaays after he tumbled off the roof of their home on parachuting from the stricken craft. Promptly at 10:29 the Chief of Protocol took his place at the head of the line, and with the official party leading off the parade to the Carre Militaire, that portion of the cemetery reserved for graves of French Army, Navy, and Air Force members.
"Past the chapel we made our way. The muffled drums picked up the cadence as the entourage entered the Carre Militaire. American flags were flanked by the French Tricolors. A crown of nearly two thousand was gathered respectfully some distance from the Carre. The wall of the cemetery just behind the site of the monument was lined with flowers. I was told there were nearly two hundred offerings. From a distance the French bulge Call to Attention was sounded. The party wheeled smartly to a position in front of the monument. I saw it now clearly for the first time. It was set on a granite base, which is exactly the size of the four graves in which Alf, Bud, Stuart, and Bob were buried.
"Mayor Fontaineau spoke of the four who came in peace, for peace – of men who journey to foreign lands to gain freedom for those oppressed. He spoke especially of Alf Aske, a young man with much responsibility was airplane commander; of Gordon Davis, whose deft mathematics guided the plane safely over the target sparing French lives; of Stuart Allison, whose live ebbed at the side of the road, where his parachute brought him down; of Robert Williams, whose body rode the Royal Flush to earth and was entombed in the bomb-bay. He spoke of lasting Franco-American friendship, of the numerous times when America had come to the aid of a beleaguered France, of young people born in Free France, thanks to men – to boys – like these.
"The drums rolled, the bugles sounded Roll Call. The Mayor called each name and each time the French flag dipped in salute. Following each name the chief of protocol responded, "Mont Pour La Liberte" – Died for Liberty. So, 25 years later, Clamart had honored by name the members of the Royal Flush’s crew who were interred in its soil on August 14, 1944, three as ‘Aviateurs Americians Inconnus,’ Alf was the only one they knew by name at the time of the crash."
Chuck Nekvasil now returns to the events of the day of the crash, August 11, 1944. He and several others bailed out of the Royal Flush as it circled to earth.
"I was captured by SS troopers less than 15 minutes after I hit down on a cobblestone street in Meudon. The ship came down in a field about 2 miles west and south of our target, Villacoublay Aerodrome. Chick Barber, our co-pilot, and I were reunited in a German ambulance which carried me from the converted orphanage serving as a Luftwaffe Hospital to Beaujon Hospital in Clichy, a northern suburb of Paris. The SS Colonel who apparently was in charge of the hospital came around to the prison ward and told us he had bad news for us – "Tonight you move to Germany." RAF Squadron Leader Gerry Philbin and I spoke good French and we told the French help at the hospital what was going to happen. The ambulances and trucks were lined up outside the hospital to take us out, when a gun battle began at 7 p.m. The FFI attacked the hospital. One of our prisoners slashed the throat of Willie, our lone German guard on the seventh floor, got the keys, and we all took off. The Germans had made us dress earlier in anticipation of the move, so we were clothed in what remained of our flying gear. Having lost my flying boots when bailing out (they were snapped off my feet when the chute opened) I had to wear a pair several sizes too small.
When the first of our group came down to the second landing, the Germans in the hospital lobby opened up on them and we had several killed and wounded. Several others took off down corridors and whether they made it safely I don’t know. Our group was saved when one of the braver ones made it back to the rear of the hospital, secured a Tommy gun from the FFI outside and came charging in the front door of the hospital, killing the small group of German soldiers firing at us on the landing. This was the break we needed and we raced out the front door, made a sharp right past a cemetery and headed south. Believe it or not, we did nine miles – more because of zigzagging. Whenever we heard firing, we ducked through yards, over fences, you name it. I do recall passing very near the Arc de Triomphe where four German tanks were racing their motors and creating a devil of a racket.
"How we got over the bridge, none of us knows. But we did wind up on the south side of Paris with a handful of FFI in the lead and two on each flank. We saw German lorries and armored cars racing up and down the streets just before we headed into the narrow little street which serves as the entrance to Pitie Hospital, a complex of 15 building with a high stone wall surrounding it. When we counted noses there were 25 of us left. We hid in the caves of the hospital. The Germans knew we were there because all day and night tanks would lob shells into the complex. We lost no one, although several French nurses and a doctor were killed because they walked past a window at night in their white uniforms.
"When the insurrection broke out on Saturday, August 26, we first became aware that our hospital was indeed an FFI strongpoint. I never saw so many Frenchmen with tricolor arm bands. When fighting approached the hospital they would arm themselves with Molotov cocktails and surge out into the streets. We were given very small handguns and were asked to join the fighting. One incident comes to mind: several Frenchmen, apparently sympathetic to the Germans or Vichy French, shot at us in the courtyard of the hospital. The FFI raced across the street to the roof of the apartment complex from which they were firing. A few minutes later, there was several shots and the FFI came to the parapet holding up dead bodies which they unceremoniously dropped down into the street. When a force of Germans apparently got across the Pont d’Italie near the hospital we were all rounded up to become attackers. We did some sporadic shooting at the running gray figures near us, but I doubt we hit anyone. The FFI apparently held, because at sunset we all came back to the hospital cave and did not venture our again that night.
"On the following Wednesday, we were hit by low-flying German fighters which dropped jelly fire bombs, setting one building afire. There was much gunfire about. Chick and I, with about six other prisoners, including Gerry Philbin, went out through the morgue of the hospital, into a park, and out a main street, past barricades. We ran about six miles, usually coming through an area where there had just been a fire fight. Buses and trucks were burning. Two motorcyclists, wearing the uniform of the French 2nd Armored Division, came tearing down the road. We were taken back to Pitie as the safest place around. The following morning ambulances led by the two cyclists came to get us and took us to a field hospital near Orleans. Three days later, after many scares (a German attack came within two miles of us), we were airlifted form the airport at Orleans by c-47’s to Exeter, England, where we were promptly put in another hospital."
Chuck concludes his account of the burial ceremony in 1969:
"Throughout the years since, the people of Clamart have tended the graves, even after the bodies were exhumed and flown back to the States. Today, the monuments stands over the site of the four graves and every week there are fresh flowers there. On May 30 and on July 4, wreaths are placed there by the city fathers. On August 14, the local fleuriste, who has a standing order for a wreath (our crew maintains a bank account for this purpose) to be placed on the monument at precisely 1220 hours, picks up the wreath, pins her resistance medals on herself and her aides, and a small parade enters the cemetery where she tenderly places the wreath on the monument."