This story begins in May, 1943. My father, 23 yrs old, was a bomb aimer aboard a Halifax bomber on his first night mission over Germany. While returning home, their plane was attacked by enemy fighters and two of the seven crew members were seriously injured. Knowing that the injured were incapable of parachuting, the pilot ordered three able bodied members to jump while he and the navigator tried to land the burning plane on what they believed to be a lake. Just prior to the landing attempt, the navigator was ordered to jump. He did not survive. Their target lake turned out to be a small reservoir with insufficient room to land. The plane ultimately crashed into the shore with all aboard perishing.
A family in German occupied Belgium, the Paulys, came across my father hiding in the woods . At great risk to their lives, they hid him and alerted the underground. The navigator and parachutes were buried to hide evidence of crash survivors from the Germans. The two other Canadians were found shortly afterwards and reunited. In civilian clothes, they were smuggled through Paris to Bordeaux, where they were to arrange for a boat trip to Spain. A traitor in the French underground gave them up and they were caught. Being in civilian clothes, they were treated as spies and handed over to the Gestapo for interrogation. For nine months they endured systematic torture as the Germans tried to extract the Belgium underground network. Back in Canada, they were first reported missing and later deemed dead as they were not on any prisoner of war listing for the nine months. They never divulged any information and were eventually transferred to POW camps where they spent the balance of the war.
My father exchanged letters with the family who found him every xmas until he passed away in 2004. I think it was out of a mutual admiration of the risks and pain both endured helping each other. One day I asked him why he never returned to meet them and he said that it would be too painful to relive. The topic was never again brought up.
Last year, my wife was planning a vacation and asked if there was any place in Europe that I would be interested in visiting. I casually mentioned Jalhay Belgium, the town where my father was shot down. Too my shock a week later she booked it as a part of a longer trip. I said I donít know anyone there and the members of the Pauly family who used to write were no longer alive. In a stretch, I searched the internet and after a few days, I actually made contact with their eldest son. He agreed to meet us and give us a tour. It was a bit unnerving travelling that far and pulling into the train station to meet a stranger on the basis of an e-mail but there we were. He and his sister greeted us in French and not being bilingual, that was a bit uncomfortable. After a while we managed quite well in a language somewhere between English and French. He first told us that he was 2yrs old and with his father when they encountered my father in 1943. I swallowed hard. I really canít explain my reaction. I have seen all the information pertaining to my father during that time but I think the distance and time took away from the reality of what actually occurred. The day progressed. Our first stop was the site of the plane crash. Nothing remained as we were told that the Germans removed all the metal to be recycled into their planes. The pilot didnít stand a chance in trying to land and save the injured crew. His heroism in the attempt cannot be understated. From there we visited the memorial that they erected to the airman who died while parachuting. Jean Claudeís attention to detail in discussing the events reflected the respect he had for both the Canadian and his familyís efforts. It was as if the events had occurred yesterday. Prior to lunch we were taken to the exact spot where they found my father. We were told that he was sitting on a log, in shock, trying to read an RAF issued escape map of Europe. I think they must of thought that I was a bit off as I never said a wordÖ.I couldnít. The last site after lunch was where they hid them in the woods. The shack was no longer standing but they pointed out where it was beside a meandering stream. It was a place my father would have enjoyed, being an avid outdoorsman and hunter. I remember it being eerily quiet when we looked up to see a deer walk out of the bush in front of us to seemingly acknowledge our presence, and then gracefully disappear. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Jean Claude said that had never witnessed that before. NO WORDS CAN EVER EXPLAIN THAT. They spoke of how their mother smuggled food every night past the Germans to the shack and hid messages in the loaves of bread. We were told one rainy night the Canadians thought the enemy was nearing and they fled deep into the woods as instructed. They had only blankets for protection. When Mr Pauly found them , their faces appeared bloodied. At closer inspection, it was merely the dye from the wool that had run. They laughed at that years later. Prior to leaving Jalhay, we finished our journey enjoying a glass of wine in their back yard. We were introduced to all the family members and relatives as they arrived. Jean Claude announced to all that he had something to give to me before we left. He came out of his house and presented me with my fatherís personal items that he left behind when he changed into civilian clothes. They consisted of the silk RAF escape map that he was reading when they found him and a 1900 25 cent paper bill nick named a "shinplaster". They had saved the items 68 yrs in the hope that they could return them personally. As Mr Pauly Srís health was failing, he gave his son explicit instructions to never discard the items in the hope that someday they would return to their rightful owner. That day had come. Few words were spoken on the train ride back to Brussels as our minds tried to comprehend the enormity of what had happened.