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Instructor Herbert Cain introduces his French students to their new trainer. (AFHRA)

French Lessons

With their own country occupied by Germany, French air cadets came to Alabama to learn to fly. Vive la Dixie!

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“I was a student pilot at Gunter Field from July 3 to August 31, 1945,” wrote Andre Graveret. “I left the [French] air force in 1966 after 25 years of service with the rank of colonel.”

Jean Helye wrote that he remembered flying with my father when he was 19 years old. The retired French air force general had flown in combat in Indochina and Algeria, and later worked for the French aerospace manufacturer Aerospatiale.

Isabelle Degoy wrote, “My father, Marc Roche (class 45-I), on his return to France pursued a career in the French air force. He had tours of duty in France, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Indochina, and Germany and flew on combat airplanes from the Spitfire to the Mirage.”

“I have some commonality with your father as I myself was a flight instructor on the T-6 during the Korean War,” wrote René Levy.

Before long, we learned of the Association Personnel Navigant Formé en Amérique—the Association of Flying Personnel Trained in America. The group’s reunions, publications, and Web site enable the former French cadets to keep their memories alive. My father and I submitted a notice to the APNFA publication and more letters and e-mails arrived.

In August 2001, we met René Levêque. The former trainee at Gunter became an instructor there and later married an American and settled in Alabama. He taught French and Spanish and until recently was an active pilot. At his home in Wetumpka, Alabama, he and my father pored over logbooks and photo albums. The two shared memories of Gunter: round-the-clock flight schedules, hurrying a landing when a thunderstorm was approaching, and, when things simmered down, the pool parties at the officers’ club.

The following year, we accepted an invitation to attend an APNFA luncheon at the Aero Club de Paris and visit several pilots in France. When the group’s president, French air force General Theodore Mahlberg, addressed the group, he thanked my father and added, “You instructors were the first ones to teach us how to conduct ourselves as professionals—as pilots and in our careers.”

General Jean Helye brought his photo album, with images of his year in America. One photo showed a smooth-faced 19-year-old peering out of an AT-6 cockpit; another, a young man in a flightsuit gulping down a Coca-Cola.

All had stories about their days after Gunter Field. Jean Kisling served as a P-47 instructor in Michigan. After the war, he embarked on a career as an Air France pilot, eventually logging more than 26,000 hours. In 1945, Robert Camby served as a B-26 Marauder instructor near Dodge City, Kansas. Eager to join his friends from the first detachment, he was finally posted to Naples, Italy; a week later, the war in Europe ended.

Hugues Robin opened his Paris home to us and pulled out maps, memorabilia, and photographs, including one of him and three buddies relaxing in front of their barracks in Alabama. The handsome teenagers smiling back at us seemed to say, “We were the lucky ones”—to be 18, flying, and discovering America.

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