Jauldes - 19th June 1944 : The story of the crew of B-17 Channel Express III

Posted by Alan in Les Alliés,Lieu de mémoireMaquis Bir Hacheim

William Massey

In February 2O18 I had the incredible pleasure of speaking via video link with William "Bill" Massey, one of the three American airmen who parachuted to safety after their B-17 "Channel Express III" had been shot down over Jauldes / Aussac-Vadalle in the Charente on 19th June 1944. Bob celebrated his 97th birthday back in November, is in excellent health and is enjoying life at a Veteran's nursing home in Alabama.

This is their story, taken in part from one of the survivors, Lewis Stelljes' memoires (disponible en français - lien), the escape and evasion reports made by the three survivors on their return to England, research by French historian Bernard Ballanger and my conversation with William Massey, a conversation made possible by John Baird to whom I am most grateful.

8th U.S. Air Force
Mission no. 423
19th June 1944
Objective : Bomb German held airfield at Bordeaux-Merignac.

Crew :

2nd Lt William E. Massey   -   Pilot
2nd Lt Dominic Ceresa   -   Co-Pilot
2nd Lt William T. Nealon   -   Navigator
2nd Lt Lewis V. Stelljes   -   Bombardier
T/Sgt Harold L. Eames   -   Radio Operator
S/Sgt Francis Joseph Berard jr.   -   Top Turret / Engineer   
Sgt Robert L. Mahler   -   Ball Turret Gunner
S/Sgt James P. Faulkner   -   Waist Ginner Right
Sgt Alfred F. Wieters   -   Waist Gunner Left
Sgt Paul A. White   -   Tail Gunner

Channel Express III crash at Jauldes (Charente)

During this mission on 19th June 1944 in the South West of France, German anti-aircraft attacks from the ground and German fighter planes caused many losses in the American formations. Of the 464 B-17s that took part, eight  were reported lost. Two made forced landings in Spain, two had to return back to their bases soon after take off, one crashed in the Channel and three came down in France. One of those three planes was the 'Channel Express III', part of the 612th squadron, 4O1st Bomb Group based at Deenthorpe, Northamptonshire. The plane was piloted by Lt William Massey and exploded in mid-air over the area of Jauldes in the Charente, North-East of Angouleme.

The crew of Channel Express III had been woken at 1 am  confirming that their mission planned was on. They were transported to the Mess Hall for breakfast and then to the Briefing Room. A screen was removed revealing a map of Europe with route and destination marked in red. Contrary to the expected destination of Germany the destination was Bordeaux in the South West of France. This was expected to be a "milk run" with not too much enemy flak or fighter planes to worry about.

The crew moved on to the Equipment room where they all changed into their heated suits and collected their oxygene masks and parachutes. The Channel Express III had been on 37 missions, this would be the 17th with this crew.

Nose art of the Channel Express III

At 4.15 am all crews taking part were ready and on board, and at 15 second intervals each of the B-17s took off. After 1 1/2 hours all of the B-17s were at the correct altitude and were in formation. At 6.3O am the formation headed south, reaching an altitude of 12,OOO feet as they crossed the Channel.

The formation climbed to 27,OOO feet just above the clouds with visuals on the ground pretty much non-existent. At 8.2O am the formation was well into France about 35 minutes from their target and the clouds began to clear. As they dropped to 24,OOO feet a cry came over the crew of Channel Express' intercom - Bandits at 12 O'clock low. Some German fighter planes were firing directly towards them. Within a few seconds this caused serious disruption in the formation. A quick check of the crew but no one was hurt. Lewis Stelljes, the bombardier situated in the nose of the plane, could see smoke and burning material falling on to his window.

Formation diagram
The plane's fuel lines situated under the pilot's seat had been hit from underneath by enemy fire and the plane was on fire. Stelljes went to grab the fire extinguisher but in doing so ripped out his intercom connection. S/Sgt Francis J. Berard, the planes engineer, attempted to put out the fire with his hands. The plane began to list to the right and left the formation. The evacuation alarm sounded. Some of the crew put on their parachute equipment while Berard and the Co-Pilot 2nd Lt Dominic Ceresa were struggling to open the escape hatch with no success. They both were no longer wearing their oxygene masks and were becoming weak through lack of oxygene. Stelljes tried to join them to help open the door but was pinned to his seat by centrifugal force.

Suddenly things in the plane began to break up. Stelljes was thrown against the plexiglas nose. Everything in the plane including some of his fellow crew members fell on to him and he was crushed against the screen. His ankle was stuck under a box of ammunition causing him incredible pain. With one hand free he tried to bang against the glass to break it.

There was an explosion and Stelljes was ejected through the Plexiglas window. Thrown from the plane too were the pilot William Massey and the engineer Francis Berard. They all miraciously parachuted and landed safely on the ground. Sadly the other seven members of the crew perished. William Massey had passed out through lack of oxygene and came to while falling through the air. Luckily he was holding his parachute in his hands. He immediately put it on and landed safely in a field of grazing cows who continued chewing and ignored him.
Photo taken at the crash site 
by André Fricaud

The plane exploded above the villages "Chez Renard" and "Trellis" in the commune of Jauldes around 2O kms to the North East of Angoulême. Debris from the plane landed in woods and open land covering several hectares. The largest part, the cabin, fell in the woods near "Font Perron", remaining on fire the whole morning. A few hundred metres away at "Trogniot" fell the fusilage and nearby three of the engines.

Throughout the mission that day in the South West, formations of Flying Fortresses had been accompanied by an escort of 349 American fighter planes comprising 88 Lighning P-38s and 261 Mustang P-51s. Among them there had been many losses that day.

Seven crew members perish in the explosion

At first, five bodies had been found. One of them, Sgt Paul A. White, the tail turret gunner, was found still in his position. The others, ejected from the plane in the explosion were found amongst wreckage in thickets. The gendarmes at Montignac proceeded to gather the bodies, requisitioning a truck from Jules Barrand, a dairyman at Tourriers, to take the bodies to the Mayor's office at Aussac. From there, the Germans had given the order that they be taken to the morgue of the hospital de Beaulieu at Angoulême. They were later buried at the cemetery at Crouin, Cognac. Two years later, they were amongst 19 American servicemen exhumed on 19th May 1946 and repatriated to different American cemeteries.
Photo : Andre Fricaud

During the evening of the 19th June, a sixth body was found, and taken to the mayor's office at Aussac. The following morning, under new orders received from the German authories, the body was taken to the German headquarters at Angoulême.

The body of the 7th airman was found later. Mr. Braud, a joiner  from Aussac put together a coffin and he was buried by Mr Gulon, a local policeman, close to the monument aux morts in the commune. After the war his remains were exhumed and handed over to the American authorities.

Three airmen taken in by the Resistance

After being thrown from the plane, Lt Lewis Stelljes landed near a road about 5O metres from the small village of Chez Renard in the commune of Jauldes. He was a very tall man and built like an athlete. His face was swollen and his eyes puffed up. He was suffering from severe pain in his left ankle. A group of about 15 to 2O people came to his aid and Stelljes asked them in French to hide him. They first asked if he was American and made sure that he was not German. A man from the village named Angel Privat took him under his protection and helped him to get away from the area. Hidden in some undergrowth, Mr Privat left him there for a while and then returned continuing the trek for two miles through woods until they came to "La Combe à Roux". There, in the middle of the forest, an old abandoned farm would serve as an initial refuge for the airman.

In one of the ruined barns they found a haystack giving well needed rest for the airman. While walking he had a few swigs of cognac which seemed to numb the pain and gave him strength to continue. Fresh water found in a nearby well allowed Stelljes to wash his face which helped his swollen eye lids to open a little better.

Half an hour later a group of three men arrived at the farm at "La Combe à Roux". They were two villagers, Raymond Caillaud and Mr Dufau, accompanied by one of the airman, the pilot William Massey who had landed in a field belonging to Octave Meunier at "Chez Renard". The two airmen finding themselves face to face were pretty emotional.

It was now around 1O am. Although difficult to understand, as neither of the airmen spoke any French, they had picked up that they would leave for a safehouse about ten miles away later that afternoon. They all set off at 4 pm hiking through woods and fields on a route obviously known by the guides. Every now and again the group would come accross some Frenchmen who would inform the guides that the way ahead was clear. All the men that the airmen met on the route shook their hands and would thank them with alot of emotion.
1OO Franc note given by Francis Berard as a souvenir to one of the people
who had looked after them with a message of thanks around the edge.

After a few hours they were met by a man with a horse and two wheeled cart. The Americans were told to lay down in the cart and were covered with hessian sacks and canvas. After a pretty bumpy ride they stopped at a barn at "La Fourlière" in the commune of Sainte-Colombe where they all rested for a while. The airmen hadn't eaten for nearly 18 hours and using whatever expressions they could told their guides that they were hungry. Some soup was provided by the owner of the barn.

At around midnight they were on the move again. Two hours later they arrived at the Domaine de Puycharrau, a farmhouse near Sainte-Colombe, which was looked after by Arthur Crine. The airmen were completely wiped out after their trek, especially Stelljes who due to his sprained ankle had dragged his leg the whole day unable to put any weight on it. A cold supper of meat and bread was laid out for them but the two airmen hardly had the energy to eat. Noticing this their hosts lead them to the barn where some straw beds and blankets had been prepared for them.

Their host, Arthur Crine, was a 48 year old farmer and originally from Belgium. His son, Alfred, was part of the maquis Bir-Hackeim based around Chasseneuil and it was he along with Paul Labrousse, a livestock trader, who had taken Lewis Stelljes and William Massey to the farm at Puycharrau. 

1OO Franc note given by Lewis Stelljes

In the morning the two airmen awoke refreshed and were given bread, cheese and coffee. Before eating they washed with cold water in a bucket and Stelljes seeing his swollen eyes in a mirror was pretty shocked at his appearance. They were offered wine but asked instead for water which surprised the Frenchmen. One of the Frenchman said "pas bon" informing them that the water wasn't too good to drink.

At 11 am two guys entered the barn and intimated that another member of the crew had been found and would soon be with them. Half an hour later Alfred Crine and Paul Labrousse turned up with Francis Berard, the third airman who had parachuted safely. He had landed at Davidièreas and had been looked after for by Mr. Dufourneau, a farmer working at a farm owned by Alexandre Ferdinand at Coulgens. Alfred and Paul had transported him in a cart to Puycharrau right under the noses of the Germans.

The Americans were overjoyed at seeing each other but Massey and Stelljes were saddened to learn from Berard that the other seven members of the crew had been killed in the explosion. 

Berard spoke French pretty well and discovered from their hosts that there was a German garrison with 2O,OOO men about 35 miles away and that the Germans had been searching all night for them. They also learnt that the resistant group that Alfred and Paul were part of would pick them up soon and try to help them get back to England via Spain.

One evening, the Crine family were visited by some trustworthy friends from a nearby village. A small party was organised in honour of the Americans. Lewis Stelljes notes in his memoires that they all had rather a lot to drink but all enjoyed the party.

1OO Franc note given by William Massey

The stay at Puycharrau continued for several days but the Americans were beginning to get a little itchy and thinking of their loved ones back home not hearing news of their situation. They discussed the possibility of moving on with one of the commanders of the resistance group. He advised them it would be safer to stay put. However, a few days later on 25th June the Americans ignored his advice and set off with one of the maquis in hope of somehow getting down to Spain. The guy had a friend who thought he could help get them there.

After walking for a few miles it was obvious that Lewis Stellje's sprained ankle would make getting to Spain impossible. Their guide got them to his friends house at Le Mas de Saint-Adjutory, home of the Baud family, where they stayed briefly for a few days. While there they were advised that staying in the area would be their best bet as liberation seemed imminent either by the Allies or the Resistance. They stayed a while at an abandoned farmhouse owned by M. Michaud near Maison Neuve, Exideuil and looked after by his daughter Mme Delage. Later they were then taken to Emile Blanchon at Villeboeuf in the commune of Vitrac-Saint-Vincent. There they were housed in a small uninhabited and isolated house in the woods, at a place called "Le Palais". The three airmen would stay there for six weeks. Bread and meat being supplied each evening by Emile's wife Germaine Blanchon.

The place was secure and the food plentiful, but the three Americans were at first pretty nervous about their situation. As the days went by they settled in and as it was harvest time they offered their help to a neighbouring farm. They were over the moon when one evening in July they were invited to dinner by the farmer. From time to time they would be fed by some families in Chasseneuil, in particularly M. Michallet owner of a Haberdashery and M. Massonnaud owner of a Creamerie.
Jedburgh Team Ian
Major John Gildee, 
Lucien Bourgoin, Alexandre Desfarges

On 13th July to their amazement two Americans dressed in clean U.S. field uniforms arrived at where they were staying. One of the Americans was Major John Gildee and he had come to see the airmen. He was accompanied by his Radio-Operator. Gildee, alias Oklahoma, introduced himself as "Joe" and had parachuted into France on 21st June 1944 with the French Captain Alexandre Desfarges, alias Yves Delorme and the Radio-Operator Lucien Bourgoin alias Mayo, believed to be Canadian at the time but actually born in Massachusettes. They formed the O.S.S. Jedburgh team "Ian" and 
were charged with the mission to organise parachute drops of arms and ammunition to the different maquis in the Charente. When told that they were part of the O.S.S. (forerunner of the C.I.A.) William Massey asked them if they were spies !

Two weeks later on 3rd August the Radio-Operator was killed in an ambush at Pleuville. Major Gildee just managed to escape having to walk back 3O miles to his HQ. Gildee asked the three Americans if any of them could operate a radio, unfortunately they couldn't. He advised them to stay where they were and he would get word back to England that they were safe.

During August many allied airmen who had arrived in the area surviving forced landings or making parachute landings were being looked after by the local maquis. An Englishman by the name of Michael Mcpartland, a seaman from the Merchant Navy who had been taken prisoner in 194O when his ship was sunk by the Germans, had been looked after, since the end of December 1943, by Jacques Nancy's maquis group Section Spéciale de Sabotage based at that time in the Charente. At the beginning of August the three Airmen were joined at their "camp" by Sgt. Flakinger, a Gunner on a B-24 that had been shot down on the 5th March 1944 at La Croix Comtesse.

A week later Major Gildee visited them again, this time with 5 more American airmen that he had picked up in the area that had been looked after by various families. He dropped off with the 5 Americans the Merchant Seaman Michael Mcpartland, who the maquis had nicknamed "Mitchell".

Map showing the activities of the Resistance around Chasseneuil. 
Created by Roger Beillard

William Massey or Bill as he is known told me that he and some of the others participated alongside the maquis in many sabotage attacks during July on roads, bridges and railway lines. They also helped with parachute drops of arms and supplies made by the R.A.F. Bill said that the arms were plentiful and well received but the tins of corned beef had not been so welcome ! He went on to say that he tried not to learn any of the resistants names in case he was caught by the Germans and interrogated. The guys in the Resistance often asked him - why are you here, so far away from home ? He would reply this war affects all of us.
August 1944
Maquis camp at Cherves Chatelars
The three airmen with with unknown
American airmen.
Kneeling, member of the Resistance

At this point, as August went on, the airmen had more freedom as the Germans were not so present in certain areas of the Charente. So they were at liberty to visit, discretely to a certain extent, certain towns including La Rochefoucauld situated only five miles away from a German garrison. The town boasts an impressive chateau, parts of which were built in 12OO. They were given a guided tour. Wherever the Americans went they were welcomed with open arms by the local population.

Back at the Blanchon family home it was becoming difficult to look after and feed so many escapees. So it was decided by André Chabanne, one of the leaders of the maquis Bir-Hacheim, that they all stayed at the maquis HQ in a chateau at Cherves-Châtelars. Towards the end of August the area was close to being completely liberated by the resistance from the Charente and the Dordogne.

One of the American airmen that had arrived in August, Sgt. Joseph Gonet, decided to head north on the 3Oth August to try to get through to the American line close to the Loire river about 15O miles away. He succeeded, but all the other airmen where advised to await pick up.
Joseph Gonet

On 1st September forty allied escapees were instructed by Major Gildee to get to the recently liberated town of Limoges and prepare to be picked up. The following evening they were taken to a small airfield at Feytiat, ten miles south of Limoges where they met Captain Frazer. The airfield had just been taken back from German control and was being run and protected by the Resistance. A little after midnight on 3rd September a USAAF C-47 Dakota landed and at 1 am a 2nd C-47 landed. The planes, part of the Carpetbaggers mission based at RAF Harrington in Northamptonshire were unloaded with supplies for the Resistance and then the forty allies that had been looked after by the maquis and French families, some for nearly ten months, boarded the two planes and four hours later were safely back in England. Bill said that a lot of the guys weren't too happy about being up in a plane without their parachutes but were happy to be finally on their journey home.

Monument in memory to the crew of Channel Express III

To preserve the memory of the fate of the B-17, a monument was erected in the commune of Jauldes, bordering the communes of Coulgens and Aussac. The inauguration took place on 2Oth June 1945, the day after the 1st anniversary of the crash, attended by all the locals. Patriotic ceremonies have been held there ever since to commemorate the anniversary of the crash on each 19th June and also a ceremony as part of the V.E. day celebrations on 8th May is held at 10.30 followed by a ceremony at the Monument aux Morts at Jauldes at 11.30.

The three airmen that survived did not forget their time in France. They kept in contact with each other, remembering their stay in the Charente. In 1961, 17 years after the event, they all decided to return to the location where their plane had crashed. On 25th June 1961 they returned to Jauldes, meeting with emotion the people from the Charente who had risked their lives to help them.

From left to right : The three American airmen, Lewis Stelljes, Francis Berard, William Massey, then, Emile Blanchon, M. Privat, M. Soupe (teacher at St. Colombe) and André Chabanne, one of the founders of the maquis Bir-Hacheim

The three American airmen during their visit in 1961 
visiting Madame Germaine Blanchon at Vitrac

American airmen with the Blanchon family in 1961. Photo taken in front of a Barn at Vitrac where they were hidden 17 years earlier.

In  October 1996 Dominic Ceresa, the nephew of one of the American airmen who lost their life in the explosion 2nd Lt. Dominic Ceresa, visited Jauldes to pay hommage to his uncle. The visit was covered in the regional newspaper Charente Libre
19th June 2O14 : Below : Photos of the commemoration at Chez Renard at the Monument des Américains (Photos - Tony)

To the left one can see in the grey jacket, the son of Guy Pascaud, one of the creators of the maquis Bir-Hacheim. 
The lady in the blue suit is Andrée Gros-Duruisseau, resistant arrested in February 1944 who thankfully returned from the concentration camps in June 1945.

This monument is situated in woods 4OO metres from the main monument 
and is where the largest part of the plane had been found

At the Espace Mémoriel de la Résistance et de la Déportation situated in the heart of Angoulême, part of one of the plane's wing flaps is on permenant display. Pascale Lévêque from the Archives Départementales de la Charente and from the Espace Mémoriel has kindly shared with us some photos of the flap in process of being cleaned before its presentation to the Espace Mémoriel in June 2O16. The wing flap was found by Serge Epardeau who lives near the crash site at Jauldes and donated to the Espace Mémoriel by commandant Patrick Ladonski, délégué régional de l'association des anciens combattants franco-américains.

Samir Bouazza and Pascale Lévêque at the presentation of the wing flap of
Channel Express III at the Espace Mémoriel at Angoulême in June 2O16 (Photo Anne Lacaud)
In September 2O16 Peter Stelljes, the son of the bombardier Lewis Stelljes, paid hommage to his father and the other crew members of the B-17 'Channel Express' by visiting Jauldes and the monument erected in their memory in 1945 at Chez Renard. During his visit to Vitrac he met the two daughters of Marie-Louise Delage who had looked after the American airmen in the summer of 1944.

The Mayor of Jauldes and Janice Stelljes placing wreaths on the monument.
Behind them the Mayor of Aussac-Vadale and Peter Stelljes.
(Photo - Majid Bouzzit)
Janice and Peter Stelljes standing in front of the barn at Vitrac 
where the three airmen were hidden. (Photo - Majid Bouzzit)

In 2O16 William Massey was awarded the Légion d'honneur by France for recognition of his heroism in helping free France from the Nazis.
(link) (in English)
(lien) (en francais)

In May 2O18 I had the pleasure in taking part at the ceremony at the monument aux Américains for the annual VE Day commemoration. I also visited the Blanchon family and the Delage family and took the two photos below of the families holding the recent photo of the Pilot William Massey.

The Blanchon family

The Delage family

2O18 : Photos de la cérémonie du 8 mai au Monument aux Américains à Jauldes et Aussac-Vadale (lien/link)

Photos of the 7Oth commemoration in 2O14 (link/lien)

Exemplaire des mémoires d'un épisode en France en 1944 par Lewis Stelljes (lien)