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Nov. 26, 2020

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Camas writer pens true-life World War II adventure about American parachutists in France

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published:
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Godelieve Van Laere Pena and author Susan Tate Ankeny in Le Cardonnois, France, in 2011.
Godelieve Van Laere Pena and author Susan Tate Ankeny in Le Cardonnois, France, in 2011. (From "The Girl and the Bombardier" by Susan Tate Ankeny) Photo Gallery

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.

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“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.

But the village of Picardy turns out to be a center of the secret French Resistance and the home of the Van Laeres, a Belgian refugee family who are tragically accustomed to Nazi soldiers and atrocities. When she’s alerted to three paratroopers falling out of the sky, 17-year-old Godelieve Van Laere behaves the way heroes do: She jumps on her bicycle and speeds toward the danger. She knows her family will hide the men.

She also knows the risk. When the Germans noticed another family producing too much household trash, they searched the place and discovered a hidden pilot.

“They killed the family and dumped their bullet-ridden bodies outside the church as a warning to others who might help the Allies,” Ankeny writes. “A rumor circulated that … what really happened was a neighbor had reported the hidden airman to the Germans. Information leading to someone aiding an Allied airman was worth ten thousand francs, a tremendous sum when children cried with hunger. Collaborators were more frightening than the Germans. Anyone could be a collaborator.”

That’s the landscape of “The Girl and the Bombardier”: suspicion, desperation and deadly risk. Godelieve’s own sister plays a tricky double-agent role as girlfriend of a German soldier, informant for the Resistance. People in Resistance networks view one another with suspicion, and some Resistance leaders don’t hesitate to kill anyone who raises a red flag.

But the Van Leares’ hidden airmen get treated like royalty, as locals “slipped into the farmhouse carrying bundles filled with warm bread, hot soup, fried eggs, and sweet, buttery cognac,” Ankeny writes. “Dean, Bill, and Carl began to feel like local celebrities. The visitors … only stayed long enough to look into the eyes of their would-be liberators, and whisper ‘Merci,’ before scurrying away.”

That’s when Tate realizes what the war is all about.

“Godelieve had lived the past four years suffering under German occupation without any of the freedoms he took for granted,” Ankeny writes. “He felt ashamed that he would have stayed home and let someone else fight for her liberty.”

Hero worship

The thrilling tale of Tate and his crew mates’ eventual escape to England — brandishing fake IDs and handed off from one shady Resistance character to another, right under the Nazis’ noses — is worthy of Hollywood.

It’s a possibility, Ankeny said. Actor and producer John Krasinski (known for “The Office” and “A Quiet Place”) expressed interest in making a film version before the book was even published, she said.

“I’m getting emails from children and grandchildren that are full of gratitude for telling the story,” she said. “I was contacted by two wives who said, ‘My husband never spoke about this, I knew nothing.’ ”

It’s different in France, she said, where stories about brave, stranded American parachutists are the stuff of legend and the reason for frequent tributes and memorials. When Ankeny went there to research her book, she said, the French treated her as if she had personally liberated their nation.

The hero worship was mutual. “The way Dad told these stories, they were like tales of heroes,” she said. “When I actually met these people, I was flabbergasted.”

The whole project took her about a decade, she said. She undertook extensive research drawing on journal entries, those letters from Godelieve Van Laere, her own interviews and even military documents like recently declassified debriefs of the rescued pilots, officially called “Escape and Evasion Reports.”

“I’m not a historian,” she said. “I probably went overboard on the research but I wanted it to be accurate. I doubted myself constantly. I flew in a B-17. I followed Dad’s path in France. I felt like I really had to immerse myself in it.”

The dialogue and quotes in her book are drawn directly from her source materials, Ankeny said.

“It’s a story that hasn’t been told before,” she said, “and I literally had their words to tell it.”

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