Piecing together history
A French teenager's quest for information about a World War II event surprised Professor Emeritus Paul Cheek, whose B-17 crashed in a field in France in 1944.
When Antoine Berthe sent his first letter to the American navigator of a B-17 that crashed in a field near his home in France during World War II, the French teenager wasn’t sure he’d get a response.
The last thing he expected was to one day sit alongside Paul Cheek, Elon Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, exchanging details about that fateful day on March 20, 1944, and the years since. But that’s exactly what the two have spent this week doing.
“I didn’t have this idea at all. It’s fantastic,” said Berthe, who is studying English.
The 17-year-old and his father, Lionel Berthe, who live in Le Parcq in the Calais Region of France, traveled to the United States for the first time this week with only one purpose in mind: To pay homage to the Army Air Corps navigator who survived the crash and spent more than year as a prisoner of war.
The father and son also were able to take in some sights during their stay, including a tour of Elon University. Retired French Professor Jane Romer and her husband served as translators during the visit.
Cheek, 94, was both touched and impressed by Antoine’s interest in this piece of history and the research he did to learn everything he could about it.
“It’s wonderful to meet this really brilliant young man,” Cheek said.
As a child, Antoine listened to his great grandfather’s stories about a B-17 crashing in a farmer’s field in Hernicourt in 1944. The story stuck with him, and he wanted to know more.
His father encouraged him to speak with a former mayor of Hernicourt. That exchange led Antoine to the Catteau family, the owners of the field where the crash took place. The Berthes visited the Catteau family, and Antoine was given a black-and-white photograph of the plane wreckage.
The photo provided a visual aid to go with Antoine’s childhood story as well as a valuable piece of information: the serial number was clearly visible on the plane’s tail.
The serial number led the teen to an Internet site with details about the 10-member crew of the 388th Bomber Group, 562nd Squadron, flying the B-17 on that March day. Along with their names, the site included their home addresses at the time of the crash. Antoine searched the white pages and found an Elon address for Cheek, who grew up in the Eli Whitney area of Alamance County.
Cheek received his first letter from Antoine in January 2012. “It was a complete shock when I heard from Antoine,” Cheek said. “I realized what an unusual thing this is that one so young should be so interested in one’s local history and world history. Of course, I had great appreciation for what this young man was doing.”
While the details of the crash and the year that preceded it remain vivid in his memory, Cheek never spoke much about his experience. The plane had flown out of Knettishall, England heading for Germany, but one of its engines blew an oil line, so Cheek’s crew had to break formation and head back. On the way, they lost a second engine.
They were flying low and alone across France when they were hit by cannon fire from the ground that instantly killed two crew members. The other eight survived the crash landing in the field and the fire that ensued.
The crew made it across a nearby road and through a wood when German forces captured them and took them to separate camps. Cheek’s camp was liberated April 29, 1945.
By early 1946, Cheek was back in the United States and busy earning degrees in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He met his wife, Ruth, there, and they were married in 1948. He earned his doctorate in 1950 and started teaching at Elon shortly after. He retired in 1986.
Cheek’s military experience was always in the back of his mind, but he moved on with his life, he said. He kept in touch with several crew members over the years but is now the sole survivor of the group. “I honor and revere the memory of my crew members,” he said.
Cheek never imagined his story would hold the interest of a French teenager.
“I would like to know what you have done since the end of the war and if you would share your memories from that time,” Antoine asked in the first of several letters he’s exchanged with Cheek.
He also expressed appreciation for Cheek’s military efforts. “Thank you for your service during the war, make sure France truly owes its current freedom to men like you,” the teen wrote and was thrilled when Cheek’s response arrived in the mail.
“I waited two weeks and was so happy to receive it,” Antoine said. “It was a wonderful letter telling what he has done since the war.”
But seeing Cheek face-to-face, and getting the opportunity to pore over old photos and other records together, was a remarkable end to his research. “I am very happy,” he said. “When you see a man, and he is real, it’s very wonderful.”