Since its beginning, Pilot International has made remarkable volunteer service contributions to the world. Few of the stories associated with these projects are more compelling than the rebuilding of a village in Normandy, France, leveled in error by Allied troops in 1944. Although preventing and assisting those with brain disorders is now the primary service focus of the organization, it has historically been responsible for many notable projects and programs that have had long-term impact.
It was June 13, 1944, a week into the Normany Invasion. The once-pristine French countryside was under siege. Forty orphans from Epron had fled Caen after it had been leveled by Allied bombs. They had walked 38 treacherous miles, spending six days and nights in terror, taking refuge in trenches and dugouts when the fighting seemed too close by. Older children often carried the little ones on their backs. The unrelenting din of bombs and grenades exploding around them made any rest impossible, but the little group struggled southward to locate sanctuary further inland from the Normandy beaches. Finally, on Saturday evening they arrived at the small village of Vimoutiers, located in a picturesque river valley where the fields and hillsides were filled with clover and fragrant apple trees.
The exhausted children were welcomed at once by the villagers, referred to as “Vimonasteriens,” who fed them freshly-baked bread, cheese and goat’s milk. The children were then taken to a sheltered area of town known as the Halle, or the Wheat Market. For the first time in many weeks, they slept peacefully, their stomachs full, the kindness of caring strangers nearby. When they awoke early the next morning, they recalled the frightening days that had gone before and were thankful for the good fortune they were experiencing in these new, safer surroundings. On that particular Sunday morning the weather would later be remembered as being “lovely and clear.”
A Mild Sunday Morning Is Shattered
At around 7:55 a.m., approximately 36 B-26 bomber planes flew overhead, not an unusual sight in war torn Normandy. A few minutes later, however, most of the planes returned, dropping 29 tons of bombs directly on the village. The bombardment took less than 20 minutes, but in that short time, Vimoutiers was leveled. Two hundred twenty people were dead, about one-tenth of the town’s population. Others were badly maimed. Thirty-four of those who died were under 18 years old, one of them a 7-month old infant. Ninety per cent of the entire village — including every shop and a 700 year-old church — was reduced to rubble. The fires burned and smoldered for nine days, filling the area and beyond with volumes of choking, acrid smoke.
What made the incident even more tragic was that the bombs had been dropped by mistake — an erroneous order had been responsible. Later, it would be determined that Nazi troops had deliberately transmitted misinformation stating that a large cache of their munitions were being stored at Vimoutiers. Unfortunately, this deadly message had been intercepted by the Allies.
Remains of a Tragic Error
In the days following the bombardment, those Vimonasteriens still alive set up a makeshift hospital to treat the severely wounded. Because the village was uninhabitable, townsfolk took shelter in the cattle sheds of outlying farms and in nearby caves. Throughout the rest of the summer as the frontline of the war drew closer to them, the villagers were fraught with fear and trepidation. Thankfully, at the end of August, the ultimate battle of Normandy took place between the villages of Chambois and Vimoutiers over a three day period. The fighting ended and the Allies had prevailed.
On August 22, the first American jeeps entered Vimoutiers, led by a Canadian regiment. The troops were stunned by the devastation, and immediately set to work to rectify the tragic error. Two temporary wooden barracks were erected to house the Vimoutiers survivors — structures that would remain as housing for some of them for as long as ten years. But, with the war at an end, the soldiers were soon bound for home, having done as much as they could under their present circumstances.
During 1945, the Mayor Gavin of Vimoutiers made fervent attempts to secure funds to rebuild the village, but the most assistance arrived from an unlikely sources — noted American architect William Welles Bosworth, who led relief efforts with his Committee of American Aid. His work, and the support of and widely publicized the plight of the Vimonasteriens. Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, only a few months before her untimely death on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, urged Pilot (Club) International to get involved.
Five Years of Help and More
The organization, then led by 1948-49 PI President Josie Roberts, adopted the rebuilding of Vimoutiers as a five-year international project with the stipulation that no local office in the village could be held by a Communist. Dr. and Mme. Boullard of Vimoutiers worked closely with Pilots during the reconstruction, communicating what needs needed to be addressed first. Fundraisers were held at the club level and individual Pilots contributed as well. One especially beautiful contribution funded by Pilot International was the Rose Window, a stained glass creation for the village’s Church of Notre Dame, a 19th Century neo-Gothic edifice. (the term “Rose” in this usage means “round,” referring to the circular shape of the window; it does not refer to a flower).
At the 1949 Pilot International Convention in Chicago, President of the Pilot Club of Paris Marie Louis Bercher made an appearance and accepted financial contributions from many of the 251 Pilot Clubs that existed at that time. In turn, the Frenchwoman presented the organization with a beautifully embroidered sheet made of linen – a gift of gratitude from Vimoutiers.
Pilot members and clubs continued to follow and support the village’s efforts to rebuild. Goodwill ambassador Mademoiselle Nicole Boullard of Vimoutiers made several guest appearances at Pilot Headquarters in Macon, Georgia and to Pilot Clubs throughout the U.S. She was an honored guest speaker at the 29th Annual Pilot International Convention held in Washington, D.C.
When 1951-52 Pilot International President Helen Hoffman took office, she led a group of nine Pilots on a goodwill trip to Europe which included a visit to Vimoutiers. Pilots gave an additional $1,000 to Mayor Gavin at that time. Pilot International Presidents Edith McBride Cameron (1955-56) and Jean Conacher (1956-57), led efforts to purchase and plant “Friendship Trees” at Vimoutiers, an act for which Pilot International received a scroll of appreciation from the U.S. Ambassador of France in 1956.
For their faithful support over the years, Vimoutiers citizens also gifted the organization by naming a rebuilt section of the town “The Square du Pilot International.”
Pilot Clubs, in particular the Pilot Club of Chicago and the Pilot Club of Philadelphia, continued to send “substantial and regular” financial aid to Vimoutiers well into the 1970s.
Today, the historic village is home to fewer than 4,000 people. It is the finish line of the Paris-Camembert Bicycle Race, and the statue of Marie Harel, reported to be the founder of famous Camembert cheese, is restored in the village square. It had been beheaded in the bombing. In the nearby countryside, mountain biking, hiking, fishing and horseback riding are favorite activities. Peace is restored.
Vimoutiers Tourist Information
Office du Tourisme
21 Placce de Mackau
61120 Vimountiers, Franmce
Telephone: (33) 02.33.67.49.42
CREDITS: Cover photo and some facts provided by http://www.vimoutiers.net; Have You Ever Wondered? by Wilda Richardson and members of the PI Headquarters Staff compiled from minutes and other Pilot International records; Through the Years: Presidents of Pilot International compiled by PI Headquarters Staff; The Pilot Log, Fall, 2010, Pilot International and Our French Connection submitted by Pat Hughes, Pilot Club of Brenham, TX