Robert "Peck" Wilcox : un aviateur américain tombé du ciel le 31 décembre 1943

Rédigé par Alan dans la rubrique Hommage et recueillementLes Alliés

The following is the amazing story of an American airman Robert "Peck" Wilcox who bailed out along with nine of his fellow crew members during a mission over the South West of France on 31st December 1943 when their B-17 Flying Fortress "Iron Ass" was hit by flak. All parachuted safely inbetween Royan and Saujon in the Charente Maritime but seven of the crew were picked up by the Germans and taken prisoner while three managed to evade capture. 

The crew of "Iron Ass"
From left to right : Robert Wilcox, Harold Freeman, Marvin Bender, William Grupp.
Kneeling : Lawrence Anderson, Francis Rollins, Robert Plumkett (replaced by Levi Collins for 31st December mission,
Francis Anderson, Harold Long and Veikko Koski.

More than 450 planes took part in the mission to bomb German held airfields at Bordeaux, Cognac and St. Jean d'Angely and an aircraft engine factory on the outskirts of Paris. 25 of the planes came down due to enemy attack and bad weather with the loss of life of many of the airmen. Some who were able to bail out were taken prisoner and an equal number managed to evade capture with the aid of French patriots. Robert Wilcox, aged 27, was one of them and landed in marshes near Saint-Martin 10 kms from Saujon. He was first helped by Louis and Jeanne Delpech a family who lived near Saujon, then a second family Edouard and Léona Nadeau and their 23 year old son Frédéric who at incredible risk looked after Robert in their farmhouse near Gémozac for more than eight months until the area was liberated by the FFI Dordogne/ Charente in the second week of September 1944.

Lt Robert B. Wilcox in October 1943
Robert Wilcox was a bombardier with the 351st Bomb Group based at Polebrook, Lincolnshire and what follows (in italics) is his own story in his own words and first published in 1979 in the Eighth Air Force Research Group journal. 
We are very grateful to Robert Wilcox's grand daughter Kari Wilcox Foster for sharing the story and photos with us. I have added a few additional pieces of information in brackets [ ] sourced from "Les deux Charentes sous les bombes" by Bernard Ballanger, Christian Genet and Jacques Leroux, the American Air Museum in Britain website, contribution by Edouard Renière and an article written in 1999 by Bernard Ballanger in Le Journal des Combattants from Michel Souris' blog : Culture - Histoire - Société - Saintes.

"The Milk Run"

The story begins in a barracks room shared by Lts. Al Behrend, Bombardier; Harold Freeman, Navigator; and Robert "Peck" Wilcox, Bombardier at Polebrook Air Base, near Oundle, Lincolnshire on December 31st 1943.

I sat bolt upright in my bunk, the sergeant with his G.I. flashlight was awakening crews. He says, "Lt. Wilcox, Lt. Freeman, breakfast is being served, briefing at 1230 hours". I shook my head trying to clear the cobwebs and get awake. My gosh, I hadn't been in the "sack" very long. Just got back from Peterborough about midnight and had been on a mission over Germany the day before. Hadn't hardly figured on another mission today but oh well, get these missions over with and get back to the States. Only twenty to go as I had qualified for my Air Medal the previous day. We met Bender and Grupp, our pilot and co-pilot, at the mess hall and had our bacon and eggs with plenty of coffee and not much talk. About everyone figured we would "sit down" on this last day of the year and almost everyone was planning on a New Year's Eve Party. I know Andy, our engineer, Harold Long, assistant engineer, and I were looking forward to going back to Peterborough for a gala New Year's Eve.
In the briefing room was another surprise. A lot of high brass was there in their flying clothes and the briefing officer told us "we're going on a milk run". We're going to bomb the docks at Bordeaux, France. We'll be flying over water most of the way down at 12,000; you won't have to wear oxygen masks all the time and won't have the heavy flak suits until we get ready to go in over the target area. If the target should be socked in by clouds we'll come back and hit the secondary target, the airport at Cognac, France. Major Blaylock of the 510th Squadron will lead the mission. Colonel Hatcher, the group C.O., will be in the lead plane. We were to fly No. 2 position right off the wing of Major Blaylock. After briefing we caught our truck out to out plane, stopping en route to get our 50 calibre machine guns. At the plane everything went well only Plunkett, our ball turret gunner wasn't with us. He had been grounded by medics because of a bad cold. his replacement was Collins, who had several missions under his belt and both Andy and Long says he's O.K.
The trip went well. It was good to do without flak so heavy you could get out and walk on it. We made our turn and went in over France and sure enough the Bordeaux area was covered with a thick cloud cover and we headed for Cognac. It wouldn't take too long to get there because Cognac is only about 75 or 80 miles from Bordeaux. The formation was in good shape and was pulled in close. There was some scattered clouds but no flak and no fighters. Up ahead I saw our target. Already the lead bombardier was sighting in on it and on we flew. I wondered why we weren't doing any evasive action. We were closing fast and all of a sudden all Hell broke loose. The lead plane was a victim of a direct hit. Our plane was hit, the air was turbulent, a big hole had been blasted in the nose. I had dropped our bombs but no one had a chance to look down. Planes seemed to be going down all over. The formation was shot to pieces I would say. We had an engine on fire and I remember asking Collins about the damage and about the fire. We made a circle all by ourselves and we were all alone. I mean "ALL" alone. What was left of the formation had headed for England but we all were of the same opinion that we had lost several B-17's over the target area from some intense anti-aircraft fire.
Then it was Bender over the intercom. He said we will be unable to make it back to England. We are too far from Switzerland to go there and the plane may explode at any time so he gives orders to bale out. No one questioned it. I went out the bomb bays after Freeman and Andy. I almost pulled the handle too quick. My chute opened and almost caught on the tail but it cleared and I swung back and forth. I was sick at my stomach. Finally I quit swinging and I counted the nine other parachutes in the sky. I figured Bender's crew all made it out.
Looking down I could see grasslands, a small village and ditches filled with water. I thought I was going to land in a creek, I spilled some air from my chute, hit the ground sort of hard, butt first. I had seen people running toward my line of decent. I slipped out of my parachute and started running as fast as I could into a field of swamp grass. The grass was probably three feet tall and it was my salvation. I ran for a long way and fell flat and laid there for several hours. People came through this field but never found me. I don't know if they were friend or foe, meaning French or German. I only know I was scared. I was a long way from home and I wasn't going to be in Peterborough for any New Year's Eve party.

[There would be no New Year's Eve party on the 31st December 1943 for more than 250 airmen who had taken part in the mission. Some had been killed in action, were missing in action or made prisoners of war. On 15th January 1944 Robert's parents received news from the War Department in Washington that their son was missing in action since 31st December 1943. They would not know his fate until September 1944.]

Robert continues :
I lay flat in the tall grass all afternoon. I figured it was 1330 hours when we were shot down. I didn't raise up until darkness has settled. I had the most lonesome feeling. Where was the rest of the crew? I wished for Long or Andy. I knew our squadron losses were heavy and I wondered how many more were in the same situation I was in. I opened up my escape kit. It contained a map I couldn't read, pictures for a passport, a lot of French money, and some pills to purify water. I headed south across fields and ditches. Walking in fleece lined flying boots with electric lined boots on the inside wasn't easy. When I came to roads I crossed them rather than walk down them because I heard cars or trucks and I figured they were German patrols hunting downed American flyers. Sometime in the night I came close to a house and I heard people talking loud. I think they were celebrating New Year's Eve and that they were French but I dared not to go up to the door.
This place I had picked to stop was a small distillery. Besides making wine they distilled it further and made cognac. Upon hearing this in later years some of my old Infantry buddies said, "Trust "Peck" to pick a place like that to hole up".

[The distillery was 5 kms from Saujon in the direction towards Saintes. Its owners were Louis and Jeanne Delpech. Robert decided to sleep in one of their barns. When he woke he noticed Mr. Delpech in the garden chopping wood and allowed himself to be seen. He asked Robert if he was American and then signalled him to wait there and went indoors to fetch his wife.]

The lady brought me food, a hot soup, and it made me feel much better. We could not converse, even in sign language. Finally, the man went away and later came back with a woman who could speak English. She was a school teacher. I told her I needed civilian clothes, a passport, and a map that I could read that would lead me to Spain. She told me they would get me clothes and a map but it would be impossible to get me a passport, even if I did have my pictures with me. She also said I would have to leave very soon because of so many Germans in the area. She said I must go in to the interior of France, that I was too close to the coast, and she said it would be very difficult for me to get to Spain. She said they had no contact with the underground to pass me on, but would do all they could for me. They brought a few more people to see me but none could speak English. My French language lessons began here though. They taught me cochon was hog, chien was dog, boches was Germans who they hated intensely. They asked where I was from. First I said Illinois. This did not register. Then I said Chicago and they said Al Capone and made a sound like a machine gun. We all laughed. I couldn't tell them I was a small town boy from 200 miles south of Chicago and had only been there once in my life for a short visit to the World's Fair back in 1934.
Later in the afternoon they brought me civilian clothes. I changed my flying clothes for French civilian attire complete with a beret. The man who was splitting wood gave me his French pointed slippers. They were a little tight and my feet were already sore. This was a heck of a gift though. Remember these people had been at war about four years already and I'm sure this was the only pair of shoes he had besides a pair of wooden shoes he clomped about in.
When darkness arrived the man and woman took me to a road and headed me in the direction of the interior of France. We shook hands. They hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks and I was off. They had fixed me a knapsack full of sandwiches and a bottle of wine. They had sewn my dog tags into the lining of the coat I was wearing.

[The land around the Delpech's distillery was heavily mined by the Germans and in 1944 one of their sons aged only 14 years stepped on a mine and died of his injuries. In 1946 Robert was able to contact the Delpech family to thank them for their help.]
I walked but my spirits were low. If I heard any cars I hid. If I heard any bicyclists I hid. Late that night a young man on a bicycle came up behind me so quickly that I was unable to jump off the road and hide. He got off his bicycle and started talking to me. I did not understand. He asked "American"? I answered "oui". He gave me a squeeze and motioned for me to come along. We walked a couple of miles at least and came to a small village. He went up to a door and knocked and spoke softly, "Papa". Quickly Papa came to the door and words were quickly exchanged and we went inside. His mother dressed and came out into the kitchen. Papa, Mama and their son talked of parachutes and Americans. These were the only words I could understand. Mama went to a cupboard and brought out a roast chicken, loaf of bread and Papa fetched a bottle of wine. I knew I was in good hands. After eating they showed me a bedroom with two huge beds in it. One was their son's and they motioned for me to sleep in the other.

[The family were Edouard and Léona Nadeau and their son, aged 23 was Frédéric. They lived in a farmhouse at Bénigousse in the commune of Saint-Simon-de-Pellouaille near Gémozac.]

It had been a long time since I had been in a bed and I slept like a baby. The next morning when I awoke the son was already up and dressed. They brought me water to wash on a wash stand in the bedroom and after a good morning greeting from all three Mama brought me my breakfast-hot milk toast.
Photo of Robert Wilcox from an article in the
Blue Mound Herald and Review
I wondered what the future held in store for me. We couldn't carry on a conversation except by sign language but they got the message across to me that I must stay and rest for a few days because my feet were a mass of blisters from the flying boots and then from a pair of too tight French shoes. Mama gave me a pair of cloth house slippers to wear and motioned that I should stay in the bedroom. They would visit me frequently though with smiles and friendly gestures. I was never scared or mistrusted them one iota. In a day or so Frédéric, the son, went to town and came back with a razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a little French-American dictionary. Now my education really began. In the evenings after they had done all their chores, which included milking the cows, feeding the chickens and turkeys, slopping the hog, gathering wood for the fireplace in the kitchen, we would sit in front of the fireplace and talk. This would be after supper. I ate all my meals in Frédéric's and my bedroom with a door shut in between so if any visitors came they would only see the three table settings at the kitchen table. They didn't want to take a chance on anybody knowing they were hiding an American aviator. There were Germans around and sometimes they went down the street or road past Mama and Papa's house. There was on Collaborator family in the village. Oh, how they hated this "Collaborateur" as they called them. They hated the Germans (Boches) too. I learned Papa had been in th French Navy in World War I and then in the early part of World War II he had volunteered and had been taken prisoner by the Germans when they overran France. This was up in northern France. He, along with hundreds of others, had been kept prisioner in a barbed wire prison camp with many guards around it and had only bread and water to eat. No wonder he hated the Boches with a passion.
With much laughing and fun we used the dictionary and learned to count in French and many other words. I finally made them understand that I wanted to go to Spain or that I would like to be passed on to the underground and to be helped out of France. They told me they didn't know of any connections to pass me on and they would say it was too far and too cold for me to go to Spain. Tears would come into Mama's eyes and they would talk of the American Invasion to come. One day Papa came back to the house from cutting wood, Mama had taken the cow to pasture. Papa told me they wanted me to wait for the invasion. This was January. How long would I have to wait?
The days got longer. Time passed very slowly. I studied my dictionary and learned to read French newspapers and magazines which were German propaganda. They had a radio and in the daytime when they would all leave they would lock me in the house but tell me I could listen to the radio but to keep it turned very low so no one would hear it on the outside. They didn't have to warn me. I would sit with my ear practically in the radio. I listened to the B.B.C. (British Broadcasting Company). I would hear the English version, then listen to it in French and once in a while I would listen to axis Sally from Berlin. One day I remember she played "White Christmas" and said "You American G.I.'s will never make it home".
The days passed into weeks, the weeks into months. Winter passed, Spring came and my French family was so busy farming I wished I would help them. Papa had a yoke of oxen as did all the others in the village. One family had a big fine horse. The house and barn was all one unit. The cows were kept in the back part, right behind my bedroom, and I could hear them hitting the stone walls as they ate hay from their hay bunks at night. This was where I always went to the toilet back in the cattle barn. I could see out from my bedroom windows. There was a lace curtain over them but I could see very good and I knew everybody on sight in the village but no one knew me.
One of my worries was hair cuts. My G.I. hair cut got long and Mama cut my hair. It wasn't short enough to suit me but it was very short by today's standards.
The food was good. Mama could take an onion and a little broth and make the most delicious soups. They were great gardeners and in early summer we had all kinds of fresh vegetables.
On the sixth of June I had the radio on that morning and heard of the Allied Invasion. Papa and Frédéric were out in the vineyards cultivating and Mama had taken the cows out to pasture as she did twice daily. When she came back I told her of the invasion and she was so happy as was Papa and Frédéric when they came in for dinner. They said now before long "Bob" (as they always called me) will be free. This was not to be. For a long time our troops were locked in a bitter struggle in the Pas de Calais area, when they broke out they went east and when the Seventh Army invaded in the Marseilles area they went north and here I was down in south-western France and no way to join either outfit. I had arrived in the winter. Spring had come and gone and Summer was waning. Already it was September.
On the morning of September 9th, 1944, Frédéric said he was going to Gémozac on his bicycle. He had heard of some F.F.I. (French Forces of Interior) down there who had been fighting the Germans. We knew there was still quite a concentration of German troops over at Royan, France, on the coast. Anyway Frédéric went to Gémozac and shortly a big car pulled up out in front of Mama and Papa's house. It was Frédéric and a man from the F.F.I. and from that moment on I was a free man. The villagers came running and Mama was introducing me to all of them as her American son "Bob" and I was calling them all by name which they could not understand how I knew their names. Then Frédéric, the F.F.I. officer and I loaded into the car and went to Gémozac and word had got out about the American coming to the town and it seemed like a hundred people or more were out to get a sight of the American. They took me to a barber shop and got a fine hair cut and some good smelling French hair tonic. We had dinner with the city fathers. There was much toasting and vive la France and vive la America. Then after dinner we marched to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Soldat Inconnu) and I laid a wreath of flowers at the tomb.
We went back to Mama and Papa's then and their little village of Bénigousse was still celebrating and all the neighbors were around sampling wine and wondering how they could keep an American hid for almost nine months.
The next morning, 10 September, 1944, I said goodbye to Mama and Papa with many tears being shed. The F.F.I. officer, Frédéric and I left in a big car for Bordeaux. There was burned out German trucks at several places on the route and there were check points at several places all manned by F.F.I. members.
We drove right into Bordeaux and to the Splendide Hotel that had been taken over as quarters for the F.F.I. It had been a fancy hotel but now was in a rundown condition. Here I met my first American soldier. Capt. Austin (that was his last name) and Sgt. Jack Berlin They had been parachuted into France behind the lines to work with the F.F.I., and had many exciting stories to tell. They had lots of money and Sgt. Berlin gave me a big wad of 100 franc French notes.
I stayed around Bordeaux for a few days. Frédéric and I had the same hotel room. He had great hopes that he could return to the United States with me but Capt. Austin told him it would be impossible. So one morning Frédéric and I said our goodbyes and I left with Capt. Austin and a Captain of the Free French Army. We headed across southern France to meet the U.S. Seventh Army. We were driving a big French car with an American flag on one side of it and the French Tricolor flag on the other side.
We stopped in Toulouse France and went to a French Army Depot and I was outfitted with a French Army uniform to replace my civilian clothes. It was complete from cap to hob nail shoes. I still have most of this outfit. A few moth holes but otherwise in good shape.
On September 20th we met army units belonging to the Seventh Army and they directed us to the 12th Tactical Air Command and I reported for duty or orders. The next morning I was on a plane heading for Naples, Italy. After a couple of days there I picked up orders to start my way back to England. I was routed through North Africa staying all night in a barracks they said used to belong to the French Foreign Legion and the next morning caught a plane out of Casablanca to Southern England. I remember seeing the Rock of Gibraltar from the air. We did not fly over Spain but skirted it because Spain was neutral.
After landing at an air base in southern England I was put on a train to London with a sleeper compartment. The English trains were great. Smooth, not like the lurching of our U.S. trains.
I reported to a place all evadees or escapees were required to report at. My story was checked. I was given a new uniform and drew my back pay. I had almost 10 months pay coming, but wisely sent most of it home.
Then I went back to Polebrook to visit old buddies of the 351st. I got off the train in Peterborough and walked down to the Bull Hotel. When I walked in who was the first American I should see but Captain Al Behrends, my old roomie. He was a second lieutenant when I was shot down nine months before. When I got to Polebrook I met Capt. Sterling Mc Cluskey who was now Operations Officer for the 510th Squadron. "Mac" was a 2nd looey when I had left.
While at Polebrook I found out about the remainder of my crew. They said F.E. "Andy" Anderson, my Engineer, had walked out through Spain in one month and Harold Freeman, our Navigator, had followed him out in three months, but that all the other members were prisoners of war. I was very thankful after hearing all of this. It made me appreciate Mama and Papa all the more! What patriots they were. What chances they and their son took in hiding me all that time. If they had been caught they would have been shot.
In about a month I returned to the States. Although I remained in the Air Force I did not have to return to combat duty but took more training.
In 1945 when the War was over I wrote to Mama and Papa in France and had news from them promptly in return. We have kept in touch through all the years. After I married and we had children they have watched our children grow up through pictures we sent them and now they are seeing our grand-children grow up. They never miss a birthday, a Christmas, or a New Year, without sending a card. In 1967, twenty-three years after my experience, I flew back to visit them and had a wonderful visit. Then in 1977 my wife and I came to England on the 8th Air Force Reunion Tour and the second week we went to France to visit Mama, Papa, Frédéric and family. If I live to be one hundred I will never forget them and will always be grateful for the kindness shown me.

Edouard and Léona Nadeau with Robert Wilcox their American son "Bob" in 1977

Soon after the war Robert married June Uhil and they had two children, their son was given Edouard as his middle name. Robert was a farmer and worked as a rural mail carrier in the Blue Mound area until he retired. He died in 1999 at the age of 82 and is buried in his home town of Blue Mound in Illinois alongside his wife who died a few years later in 2003.
Edouard Nadeau died in 1985 aged 86 and his wife Léona died in 1991 aged 92. They are buried in the cemetery at Saint-Simon-de-Pellouaille. Their son Frédéric died in 2013 aged 92.

In November 2015 the Wilcox family received a letter from the Deputy Mayor of Saint-Simon-de-Pellouaille inviting them to a ceremony in honour of the Nadeau family, organised for December 19th by Souvenir français and the Consulat des Etats-Unis. Robert's grand daughter Kari Wilcox Foster accepted the invitation and flew out from the U.S. to attend.

The day began with a service in the village church then the laying of wreaths at the Monument aux Morts with the American and French flags flying. This was followed by the unveiling of plaques at the Nadeau family tombstone in the cemetery and at the their old house at Bénigousse. Both ceremonies were attended by nearly a hundred people including Thomas Wolf from the U.S. Consulate at Bordeaux, the Deputy Mayor of Saint-Simon-de-Pellouaille Claude Lucazeau who had organised the ceremonies and two historians who specialise in Allied air crashes in the South-West of France during the war, Bernard Ballanger and Michel Souris. A youth choir sang the American and French national anthems.
Kari Wilcox and Thomas Wolf took the opportunity to view inside the old house which has hardly changed since the war and empty for some while. Its new owners, M and Mme Dédouche, are in the process of renovating it. 

In the village hall an exhibition displayed the story of Robert Wilcox, his mission and the Nadeau family showing many press articles that have appeared over the years on their story. A fantastic story and an honour to be able to present it here.

The following are some links to articles in the press reporting the events of the ceremonies :

L'aviateur tombé du ciel (lien)
L'acte de bravoure des Nadeau (lien)
L'hommage franco-américain aux Nadeau (lien)
Video : France3 - L'hommage à une famille de résistants (lien)