Flying Free: U.S. Pilots Saved by the Normans

American fighter planes and bombers supported the Allies in the Battle of Normandy from June through August 1944. During the war, some 2,700 pilots were forced to execute an emergency landing. Local inhabitants came to their rescue, and the soldiers were instructed to blend in with the French until the country was liberated. One such aviator, Major McLeod, went on to fight in the Resistance.
A U.S. bomber crew after a mission over Normandy on June 7, 1944. © Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images

The historical novel Des ailes pour la liberté (“Wings for Liberty”) recounts the time spent in France by this Massachusetts native. After fighting with the British Army he flew in the U.S. Air Force and his plane was shot down over Calvados in June 1944. We found out more with the book’s author, French writer and passionate historian Thierry Marchand.

France-Amérique: What inspired your interest in the story of these U.S. pilots?

Thierry Marchand: My grandparents were members of a network that hid pilots forced to land in the Calvados département. The young men were identified by children who kept a lookout for parachutes, and were welcomed by civilians. After being rescued, they were hidden in local farms until the end of the war. Some of them contributed to the resistance effort, although this was officially forbidden by the U.S. Army as captured American pilots would have been treated as spies instead of prisoners of war.

How were the pilots trained to survive in France?

Many of the pilots were students with a taste for adventure and a love of motors. They did not speak French and were not trained parachutists. Before leaving for the war, they attended a conference and received a guide entitled What Evaders and Escapers Should Do. They also carried a survival kit during their missions, containing items such as a fishing line, water purification tablets, and chewing gum. If the pilots were not immediately captured upon landing, they had orders to burn their aircraft and bury their parachute. They then had to locate a “friendly inhabitant,” change into civilian clothing, and hide until they were rescued or could escape. The local people who welcomed them ran the risk of being shot if they were caught.

The protagonist in your novel, Major McLeod, is a pilot from Massachusetts. How did you discover his story?

After the Liberation, American and Canadian pilots were sent to London to be interrogated. Their testimonies recorded in E&E (Escape & Evasion) reports are now accessible online. Major McLeod’s file is a dozen pages long and stands out from the rest. He was older, of a higher rank than his compatriots, and spent 67 days fighting for the Resistance.

Donald W. McLeod, left, in the United States in 1943. Photograph courtesy of the Uhl family.

What did you learn about him?

Donald W. McLeod was born in Blackstone, Massachusetts, and signed up to the U.S. Navy as a pilot. But this railway worker’s son from a modest family of Scottish fishermen was taller than 6 feet 2 and weighed 220 pounds, and so was forbidden from flying for the United States. When war broke out in Europe, he went through the Canadian system to join the less-regulated British Air Force. He joined the Eagle Squadrons along with 243 other American volunteers. When the U.S. joined the war after Pearl Harbor, McLeod was transferred to the U.S. Air Force and flew a P-47 fighter plane over Normandy during the D-Day Landings. His aircraft was shot down on June 10, 1944. After being forced to land at 205 mph in the marshes around the town of Lisieux, he was rescued by local civilians. He then joined a Resistance network led by a double agent named Raoul and spent two months laying mines on roads and blowing up bridges. McLeod returned to the United States but succumbed to his war wounds and passed away a few months later. As an only child with no children, his lineage died with him. He is buried in his native city just a stone’s throw from his childhood home.

Did the U.S. pilots and the French live together in harmony?

The inhabitants of the Pays d’Auge region that hosted the pilots had no real political convictions. They were good souls, salt-of-the-earth types. But the Americans were met with a culture shock. They had grown up under Roosevelt at a time when the United States was developing rapidly, and suddenly found themselves in the Normandy countryside with meager resources and rationing. While none of the pilots remained in France after the war, some of them stayed in touch with the families who saved them. Today, their grandchildren honor their memories by making the pilgrimage to Normandy.