It was a grey overcast day when I traveled to Amiens, France to visit the Somme Valley and the location of the crash site of Lancaster KB726 and the final resting place for Pilot Officer Andrew Charles Mynarski, VC.
We were greeted at the train station by our guide, Pierre Ben. I first met Pierre in 2007 when he visited the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (CWHM) in Hamilton, Ont.. The museum was buzzing with excitement after we learned Pierre was part of the Somme Aircraft Recovery Group, members of which had recovered pieces of the Mynarski Lancaster.
The CWHM has dedicated its Lancaster to the memory of Pilot Officer Mynarski, VC, of 419 Squadron, # 6 Bombing Group, Royal Canadian Air Force. Mynarski won 6 Group’s only Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest award for gallantry in battle. On the night of June 12/13, 1944, his Lancaster, KB726, was shot down by a Luftwaffe night fighter. As the bomber sank earthwards, Mynarski, his flying clothing already alit, tried in vain to free Pat Brophy. The tail gunner was trapped in the rear turret. Realizing his efforts were useless, Brophy ordered Mynarski to abandon his efforts. Mynarski did so, but with great reluctance. He stood as erect as possible and saluted his friend, even as his own clothing and parachute continued to burn. Mynarski then turned toward the open door and jumped. Soon thereafter, the blazing aircraft crash-landed into a field and hit a tree with its port wing. Miraculously, Brophy survived the landing, and he was freed from the jammed turret by the impact with the trees. In the aftermath Brophy was able to relate the story of Mynarski’s determined efforts to free him, his courage under such circumstances and his extraordinary demonstration of respect and dignity at a time when Mynarski clearly felt Brophy would not survive. Ironically, it was Mynarski who died, from severe burns. Today, however, he continues to be remembered as a true Canadian hero.
After meeting Pierre and hearing his excavation stories, he promised to donate some small pieces from the Lancaster crash site to the museum. Several weeks later the pieces arrived and are now on display in the exhibit gallery. Pierre and I have kept in touch ever since and he sends updates and photos on his latest aircraft excavation finds. He offered to show me the crash site and resting place of Mynarski, should I ever travel to France. The time had finally come.
Our party all met in front of Amiens Cathedral. Outside the church we met Dany, a friend of Pierre’s from the excavation group, his daughter Claire and her friend Maureen. The first stop was the crash site. There is a monument behind a small fenced off area that is dedicated to Andrew Mynarski and a wreath bearing a Canadian banner at the entrance to the field where the Lancaster made its final landing. We stopped at the monument, whereon I placed a small RCAF flag. We paid our respects and moved into the field. Pierre showed us the exact location of the crash and the cluster of trees where the port wing hit, freeing tail gunner Pat Brophy from the turret.
Most of the crew landed quite far from the aircraft’s point of impact, and Mynarski himself came down in an entirely different spot, too. We drove for what seemed like an eternity, down winding French country roads. Finally, we reached a farmer’s field with a herd of dairy cows grazing in the distance. This, explained Pierre, was where Mynarski landed after jumping from the aircraft. It was hard to reconcile that Mynsarski and Brophy had been together only moments before the crash, but in those subsequent moments each of them ended up so far away from each other.
After a brief visit we headed deeper into the Somme Valley. We passed several military cemeteries, with their white monuments and headstones neatly aligned in rows. After lunch Pierre took us to the home of Nicole Serrant. Her mother was part of the French Underground. She helped to hide Bob Bodie and Jim Kelly, two of Mynarski’s crew. In June 1944, only Mme. Serrant, her daughter Nicole (only six years old at the time) and Nicole’s sister Evelyne were living in the home. Reuniting after the crash, Bob Bodie and Jim Kelly were brought to the Serrants house to hide. German troops soon took over the town and several officers commandeered the first floor of the large house. Bob and Jim spent two days in a closet on the top floor, while the Germans lived downstairs. Fortunately, the two aircrew were able to leave and find a safer place to hide.
Next, we went on to meet Raymond Letoquart who was 18 years old in 1944. He was in a field milking a cow, on the morning after the crash, when a man in an allied uniform walked by. Raymond approached and asked the man who he was and where he was going. The man was Art de Breyne, the pilot of KB726. Art told him about the crash. Raymond told Art to hide immediately, but to return later that night because the area was covered with Germans. Art complied and hid in a cornfield all day long. Later that evening, Raymond gave Art some of his clothes.
Our final stop brought us to Mynarski’s grave. It is located at Meharicourt Communal Cemetery near Cambrai, far from where Mynarski baled out. We found the headstone near the back of the cemetery and noticed that someone had been there not long before us. Small wooden crosses marked in black ink, indicated that someone from Canada had been there only the day before. I placed an RCAF flag at the stone and a wooden cross on which I wrote the date and CWHM, the initials of the museum. By then, it was getting dark and time to catch our train back to Paris.
As the train departed, I sat back and reflected on the incredible day and the remarkable people we had met. I realized how one man’s courage as well as the courage of Mynarski’s crew had indeed affected many lives, including mine. As memories of the Second World War begin to fade we must commit ourselves to working ever harder toward remembering the supreme sacrifice Mynarski and so many others seemed perfectly willing to make, in aid of securing a better life – a life of freedom – for us.
Erin Napier is the curator at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.
This article originally appeared in Airforce Magazine, Vol. 35, No. 4. It is translated and reproduced with the permission of the author and the magazine editor.