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Pop into France

In mid-March 2022 I received an email from Jack Donovan of Minneapolis, Minn. telling of the World War 2 travails of his late father, David, and his family’s recent endeavors to retrace David’s steps through France. I thoroughly enjoyed the short tale and contemplated how to share it with the wider Fighter Pilot Podcast audience.

When I suggested we feature the story as a musing on the website—this year’s first, as it turns out—Jack was game. “Feel free to use my dad’s story however you wish,” he said, “we have to get these great stories written down or recorded so this part of history will not be forgotten.”

I could not agree more and am humbled to play a small part in doing so. Please enjoy…

Around 5:00 p.m. on June 8th, 1944, two days after D-Day, my father, Lt. David A. Donovan, was shot down as he strafed a German supply train heading towards Normandy while flying a P-51 Mustang. His plane was named after my sister, Mary Joyce, who was 13-months old at the time and lived in Bayonne, NJ, with my mother, Teresa.

Lt. David A. Donovan (1918-1993)

The mission for the 355th Fighter Group that day was to disrupt communications and cut off the main line railroad to Normandy. When my father’s plane was hit, he knew he was in trouble. Still having enough speed from his strafing run, he successfully got his mustang to a higher altitude and was able to bail out. As he parachuted down he saw the Germans coming for him. He landed safely in a field, quickly removed his parachute and ran into the nearby woods to hide. He was in Chalais, a small town located in the Department of Charente about 55 miles northeast of Bordeaux. This is where the story began of his three month escape from German occupied France.

In the fall of 2019, 75 years after the war, myself, three of my sisters (including Mary Joyce), and our spouses, spent time in France following in our father’s footsteps. We visited many of the small towns that he passed through. We met people, though only children at the time, who spent time with him and remembered seeing the plane being shot down or they remembered being afraid as it flew so low before crashing into the hillside. Now, in their 80s and 90s, they each had their stories to tell of that day and the time during his escape. We also were able to stand in the very spot in the Château de Chalais where the German guns were when they shot his plane down.

P-51 Mustang “Mary Joyce” flown by Lt. David A. Donovan

We heard stories of the 14-year old boy who helped hide him in the woods right after the crash and the farmer and his son who dried his clothes and fed him breakfast. The language barrier was mitigated by maps and drawings in the dirt by those who showed him the safest way to go to find the Resistance. We saw the field he landed in, where the plane crashed, and where the hollowed out tree had been where his flight suit was discovered 10 years after the war. We visited several different homes where he was hidden and met current homeowners who welcomed us into their yards and homes, greatly enhancing our experience.

There were two ceremonies to honor Lt. Donovan during our trip. The first was in Montboyer where the plane crashed and where my father spent his first night behind enemy lines. This one even included a fly over of the same route he flew in 1944. The second ceremony was at the Memorial of the Resistance in Saint-Étienne-Puycorbier in the Dordogne, where my father was put into the hands of the French Resistance. It became clear that the French people had never forgotten the role the Americans played in the liberation of their country. The communities of Chalais and Montboyer never forgot this young pilot. On that infamous day in 1944, Lt. Donovan, just 26 years old, was doing his part to help liberate the French people. In the end, though, it was the French people who ended up saving his life. Had it not been for the very brave and ordinary French citizens who put their lives at risk and the help of the heroic French Resistance, my father might not have made it home.

Challenge coins depicting the commemorative 75th anniversary and Lt. David A. Donovan

The reason for our pilgrimage to France was to thank those people still with us, as well as, to say thank you to the descendants of those who have already passed. These people helped keep my father out of the hands of the enemy that were occupying their country. We wanted to leave them with a small gift, a Challenge coin, depicting my father and commemorating the 75th anniversary. It is our hope that this coin will forever link the Donovan family and the French families we are now so grateful to call our friends.

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