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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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All the French pilots who had trained in the United States had received both French and U.S. wings, and at Maurice Pochet’s apartment near Cannes, he showed us his, encased in a glass globe. After training, Pochet flew the P-47 Thunderbolt, the war’s largest single-engine fighter, over Germany. “Oh, that was a great airplane,” my father said. Pochet made the thumbs-up sign. “A champion,” he agreed.

Jean Pichon welcomed us to his retirement home in southwest France. His training done, he had served with a French fighter group in Italy, flying P-36s, P-39s, and P-63s. He went on to fly for Air France, a job he held for 40 years. His living room was filled with evidence of his 26,000 hours flying DC-3s, DC-4s, Constellations, and other Air France transports.

On Veteran’s Day, 2001, my father, my two sisters, and I stood quietly at Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama, as a bagpiper wailed a tune and French and British flags snapped in the wind. About 150 people gathered to pay tribute to fallen French and British pilots of World War II. Twenty of the 100 French pilots who died in the United States are buried at Oakwood, alongside 80 British pilots. My father, 81, and René Levêque, 79, placed a wreath from the APNFA on a memorial plaque.

The ceremony is held every November on the peaceful, windy hillside that is the pilots’ final resting place. Levêque attends every year.

The cemetery is the most visible reminder that French student pilots once raced across the skies of Alabama. Van de Graaf Field is now Tuscaloosa Municipal Airport. Gunter Field, now Gunter Annex, is no longer an airfield but an Air Force educational facility.

In France, the signs of the remarkable collaboration are also modest. Outside Paris, at Le Bourget Airport’s Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace, a small PT-17 Stearman sits among World War II aircraft that are far more impressive-looking. Still, the Stearman bears witness to those days on a faraway dusty field when nervous young men first took to the air in the hope of flying for a liberated France.

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