George McKewin: Shot Down Over Paris
For the families of servicemen and women waiting at home, nothing could be more dreaded than the delivery of a telegram from the War Department, notifying them of a loved one missing or killed in action. The family of George McKewin of St. Paul received such a telegram after his plane was shot down over France in June 1944. To their great relief, he was found and protected by the Drouet family, members of the French Resistance. His brother, Robert Williams McKewin, shared George's story, excerpted below, with the Minnesota's Greatest Generation Share Your Story web site.
I know many stories of my life with George, my brother, and will probably write some of them down in due time. But this recollection is of his serving our country as a navigator on a B-17 that was part of a squadron of bombers based in England during World War II. George's pilot, Captain Lively, and George were good friends, and they accepted their roles of lead pilot and lead navigator on missions.
There was terrible attrition to those squadrons of bombers. Frequently more than fifteen percent of the planes were shot down on a single bombing raid over Germany or her occupied territories. The rule was that if your crew and plane survived twenty-five missions, then you would have completed your tour of duty, and be rotated back to the United States for safer duty.
George's plane was hit by flak and fell out of the sky from 20,000 feet over Paris on his crew's twenty-fourth mission. The date of that mission was June 14th 1944. Etta and Lindsey McKewin received a telegram from the War Department two weeks later. George was missing in action. Crews from the luckier planes reported seeing nine parachutes leave the stricken craft before it exploded. There were nine crew members aboard. Nothing more was heard of George for three months.
My brother, George, told me of his adventures in France, including his leap from the B-17, and his parachuting to Earth. Since he died of cancer in 1971, I will try to quote him as nearly as possible.
"I fell from the plane, and didn't try to open my chute until I was well below the 20,000-foot level at which we were flying," George said. "When I pulled the rip cord, the chute streamed out behind me, not opening. For the next few thousand feet I snapped at the shroud lines, and the chute finally did open very close to the ground.
"I drifted over a dirt road with a German truck stopped under me. A soldier watched me descend. Another was under the truck, trying to repair some part of the engine. The one who watched me just watched, and didn't tell the other about me. I found out later that my observer was drafted into service, a Frenchman, and that his counterpart was a German.
"When I landed, I quickly buried my chute, and hurried south, away from Paris. I must have walked only a short way before I saw some men working in a field near a small village. I approached them, not knowing any French but remembering a little of the German I was taught in high school, I said, 'Ich bin einer Amerikanish........' That was close to the extent of my knowledge of their enemy's language. But it got their attention. I was surrounded immediately by those workers, each carrying a pitch fork, and all of the tines aimed at me.
"One of them spoke some English, and after a while they grew more friendly, and took me to a farm home nearby. The people there were instrumental in helping me to the Underground, and I was reunited with my pilot, Captain Lively. We were taken to an apartment in Paris, given false IDs that said we were deaf mutes, and were provided the necessities of food and housing for the next several weeks.
"The French family that cared for me were Drouet. The daughter was Jeanette, who was a student nurse.
(Decades later, my sister, Lynette McKewin Kimble, visited that family when she was touring France and met Jeannette and her mother. Jeannette's son took Lynette to the place where George landed, "fell out of the sky." They told Lynette that they had protected George by hiding him in their garden when Germans came to search their home.)
"I was with Captain Lively, living in Paris from near the end of June until August 24th, my birthday, the day Paris was liberated.
"Then, and only then, could Lively and I speak to each other in English as we walked down the streets of Paris. A woman ran up to us and said, 'You're Americans?' and we said we were. She then insisted we go with her and we found ourselves as guests in the Dutch Embassy for a wonderful party celebrating the freedom of Paris.
"The next day Lively and I found a Signal Corps major rushing around taking pictures. We told him who we were, and that we wanted to get out. We had seen enough of Paris."
My brother was twenty years old when he enlisted. He was trained as a navigator on B-26 crews, but after bailing out of crippled B-26s before ever flying over enemy territory, he transferred to B-17s. He was 23 years old when the war ended.
He never spoke about the missions his crew made over enemy targets. He was like many veterans who saw too much tragic death of comrades, and who helped deliver death to unknown persons who had the misfortune to be recipients of falling bombs.
George was given many medals for his service to the country during WWII. He continued in the military for another eighteen years, retiring shortly after he turned 41.
His rank on retirement was that of a Lieutenant Colonel in The United States Air Force.
McKewin, Robert Williams, Shot Down Over Paris in World War II. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, 2006.
Kimble, V. Lynette McKewin, Story of two nurses, French and American. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, 2006.