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Remembering a Hero 75 Years On in Normandy

Two years ago, a French historian – Mattias – stumbled upon a bag of P-47 fighter airplane parts for sale on Ebay.  He contacted the seller and, working with an American historian, began a search.

After a massive amount of work, they determined the parts could only have come from one plane which crashed in a tiny town in Normandy during the invasion breakout on July 29, 1944.  The pilot, Lt. Joseph Cagney was killed in the crash.  Mattias found a picture of a family member, my brother, visiting Lt. Cagney’s grave in France and managed to contact my brother.  Together the two historians and my brother arranged for a monument to be built on the site of the crash by the D-Day commission and for a dedication exactly 75 years after the crash.

My partner, De, and I decided to ride our recumbent tandem across France for 6 weeks to get to meet my family for the dedication.  We started in Nevers, France in the worst heat wave to hit France in history – 108 in the shade.  We rode along the Loire and then deep into Brittany before turning back East towards Normandy.  We arrived the day before the dedication ceremony.

The head of the D-Day commission led the ceremony along with a color guard of French veterans.  The French all sang the French national anthem and then the Americans sang our national anthem.  The owners of the houses next to the site showed us where the plane crashed and how it set two houses on fire.  In 1944, while the plane was still smoking, a young boy, Henri, picked up parts from the wreck and carried them back to his farm where he made inventions out of some of them – a remote controlled car was one invention.  They remained in his family’s barn for 75 years.

Later that evening, in a ceremony in the town hall, the French officials returned the airplane parts to us.  In return, my brother gave them one of two remaining paintings from our Uncle Joe who, at 23, had just graduated from the Chicago Art Museum before going off to war.  The painting now hangs proudly in the mayor’s office in Cerisy-la-Salle.