Author Susan Tate Ankeny has been contacted and thanked recently by many military families she’s never met, she said. As far as she’s concerned, the real thanks are due to ordinary French citizens who risked their lives decades ago to save the American soldiers who were trying to save them.
Rescued parachutists like the ones at the center of Ankeny’s deeply researched World War II adventure, “The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France,” often didn’t like to relive their traumatic experiences, Ankeny said.
Her father was different. Dean Tate reveled in the story of his own survival and deliverance by just-plain-folks in the French countryside.
“He always told it like he was incredulous to be alive,” Ankeny said. When she was young, the story got so familiar it prompted eye-rolling in front of her friends and boyfriends. It wasn’t until she had a family of her own that Ankeny started pestering her father to write it all down for his descendants. Unfortunately, he never got beyond bits and pieces, she said.
Ankeny found a trove of her father’s records and keepsakes after his death, including hundreds of letters from the French girl, now grown up, who volunteered to hide him after he was shot down. Ankeny reached out to her and received an invitation. With that visit, Ankeny realized what a remarkable story she had on her hands — a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things during a time of worldwide emergency.
“These ‘little people’ made these incredibly big contributions that nobody knows about,” she said. “They were invisible heroes.”
‘This damned war’
Ankeny, who recently moved with her husband from Portland to Camas, said her father was a lifelong pacifist who attended a Quaker college. Dean Tate grew up poor in Newberg, Ore., and worked hard to save enough money to attend law school, she writes.
Then he got drafted, and excelled in the military despite himself. Tate wanted no part of “this damned war,” he wrote at the time. “Instead of a gladiator in a flight suit, I see myself as a fall guy, trying to patch up what the politicians can’t, or won’t. But I’m not sure we’re doing anything of any use to anybody.”
In one early scene, Tate tries mimicking those impossibly cool aviators who “jump, tuck and swing” themselves up into hatchway of their B-17 bomber; his own attempt is sheer slapstick.
Any hint of comedy disappears as Tate’s airplane is shot down over northern France. Tate and several crew mates bail out and land in farming country. It’s hard to imagine what’s in store for them other than imprisonment and worse.