Tony and Margaret Chance of Forest took the trip of a lifetime to France over Veterans Day weekend. The trip was not just a planned vacation to sight see in historical Paris or travel the French countryside, this trip to Europe had a much greater significance.
The Chances’ trip was to attend a weekend full of local ceremonies honoring Margaret’s uncle, a fallen World War II hero from Columbia, Mississippi. U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lieutenant Sam Bond Dale, Jr., a fighter pilot with the 63rd squadron of Zeke Zemke’s famous Wolfpack, gave the ultimate sacrifice while dogfighting with German fighters in the effort to liberate France. His final flight ended with a crash after being shot down just outside the small French village of Le Mesnil-Fuguet, and to this day he is still revered as a true French and American hero by villagers.
On July 4, 1944, Dale was on a mission over France when he was engaged by two German fighters and was ultimately shot down and killed. Local farmers cutting hay nearby saw the crash and later retrieved his body after it was released by the Germans. After requesting an oak coffin from the town council, the villagers honored and buried him in the Saint Aubin Church cemetery just outside the village. After the war, his body was moved to the Normandy American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer were he still lies in rest today.
After arriving in Paris, the Chances traveled to Le Mesnil-Fuguet which is 60 miles northwest of Paris located in the northern part of France. A local author and WWII historian, Loïc Lemarchand, and village officials reached out and invited Margaret and her sister Barbara of Baton Rouge, Louisiana to be guest of honor at the festivities honoring her uncle on the 100 anniversary of Armistice Day. What had originated as a fact finding endeavor by Lemarchand ended in a book about Dale and the Chances having the opportunity to see first-hand what the bravery and sacrifice of her uncle meant to the people of France, and especially the villagers of Le Mesnil-Fuguet.
“The wonderful people of the village invited us, housed us, feed us and took us everywhere for the three days we were there,” Margaret said. “The Armistice Day celebration was a big event, but the villagers had a wonderful and touching celebration for my uncle there at the village.”
Margaret said it was really overwhelming to see how much her uncle meant to the people of the village. “My sister was able to tell them stories and things about him that the villagers did not know and it was amazing to see how excited they were to learn more about him,” she said.
In April when Margaret was first contacted by a stranger from France explaining that he was researching her hero uncle she was completely caught by surprise. “At first I was not sure what to think because it was all such a surprise to me,” she said. “Once I had found out about the story I had to find out if this was all legitimate, but it was hard because everything was written in French.”
Margaret did an online search and found that there was a honorary Consul of France right here in Mississippi, and that she teaches French at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. She contacted Consul Keltoum Rowland to find out if she could assist her in further researching the story about her uncle.
“She checked out the whole story and verified that everything Lemarchand had revealed to her was true and that they were in fact planning a celebration in honor of my uncle,” Margaret said. “She went on to say that she would like to make the trip to France with us to join in the celebration and act as our interpreter.”
With Rowland on the trip the Chances were able to truly enjoy their experience and get an understanding of how much her uncle meant to the local villagers. Because of Rowland’s knowledge of the country and her acting as the language bridge between the French villagers, who spoke broken English at best, they were able to easily communicate with their gracious hosts.
“We actually got to speak with villagers that were alive during the war and remembered my uncle crashing and his burial,” Margaret said. “It was extrodinary to speak with people that were actual present when all this took place.”
While in Le Mesnil-Fuguet the Chances were housed by the mayor of the village. Margaret and Tony said he was a wonderfully gracious host and that he was true character they truly enjoyed getting to meet. “He could speak a little bit of English, but the thing about him was how theatrical he was when he was talking,” Tony said. “He used his hands so much when talking it made him almost understandable and he and his family were just great.”
The mayor and numerous villagers took the Chances on the full tour and they were able to visit the actual crash site where her uncle lost his life. “Being able to walk out in the field and be at his actual crash site was really moving,” Margaret explained. “We also got to see the actual written account of his crash in the village official records as it was written in 1944.” It is highly unusual for villages that suffered through German occupation to have complete historical records because the occupiers normally destroyed everything, but the Germans overlooked the official records in Le Mesnil-Fuguet.
The Chances also got to see where Dale was originally buried before traveling to his final resting place in the cemetery at Omaha Beach. Margaret said the crosses at the cemetery are hard to read because they are all white and the names are carved in the stone. But a local woman brought them some of the dark sand from the beach at Omaha to rub in the writing to make it clear and legible. It is said that the dark sandy beaches of Omaha still carry the blood stains from more than 9,000 allied soldiers that lost their lives on that beach during the invasion on D-Day
To the people of Le Mesnil-Fuguet, Dale will always be their own American hero and held in the highest reverence. The villagers worked hard to put together the ceremonies honoring Dale and to welcome and include his family members that were able to make the trip across the pond. The trip was truly a experience that the Chances will remember for the rest of their life.