The Man To Whom I’m Most Grateful

My photo, from 1982.

He’s someone you’ve likely never heard of, although he’s a well-known and beloved figure in his native France. I dedicated my first book to him and include him — more than 25 years dead — in my second book’s acknowledgements.

Philippe Viannay, (the photo here of him is one I took),  is the most inspiring man I’ve ever met. He founded a newspaper, a sailing school, a journalism school, an international journalism fellowship and a home for wayward boys.

All this, after being a Resistance hero during World War II.

He was in his 60s when we met in Paris, when I was chosen as one of 28 journalists, aged 25 to 35, from 19 countries as Journalists in Europe, an eight-month fellowship that forever changed my life and my notions of what was possible in it, both professionally and personally.

His idea, simple but complicated to fund, was to find the world’s best and most eager bilingual journalists to come and live and travel all over Europe, learning about its people and politics by living them, not parachuting in for a week or studying it only in a classroom.

We each took a 10-day reporting trip, alone, four times, some of which scared us to death — and often produced our best work. No one thought I’d survive the eight-day truck trip from Perpignan to Istanbul with Pierre, the 35-year-old trucker from Rheims. Best trip ever!

Our group, which still remains in touch, included men and women from countries including Brazil, Japan, Italy, New Zealand, Ireland, Togo and Sweden, forging deep and ongoing international friendships.  I now consider Paris a second home and plan to retire to France, at least part-time.

That year also taught me the world is filled with kind people, many unusual ways to get around, amazing and untold stories begging for passionate narrators. The greatest skill we brought — or developed, fast — was se debrouiller — to fend for ourselves. To figure it out. To be resourceful and get it done.

Viannay was joyful, demanding, impatient, demanded the best of everyone. He called me “le terrible Caitlin” — which I finally realized was a great, affectionate compliment, meaning “terrific”, not awful.

He died in 1986. I’ve never cried at work, except for the day I came back to the Montreal Gazette newsroom to hear that news. Amazingly, that room contained two other former fellows, two men who also knew the extraordinary gift Viannay and his progam had given us.

In June 2007, I made the pilgrimage, long overdue, to his grave in his hometown of Concarneau, in Brittany. It was a hot day when I entered the small graveyard and began searching for his final resting place. Surely, given all his extraordinary accomplishments, it was marked with a slab of gleaming granite or an an enormous angel.

I couldn’t find it and finally asked the guard to show it to me.

It was simple and understated, easily missed, just a flat, jagged slab of raw stone, a rock from his beloved Glenans, the sailing school he founded.

I slapped his stone, sat down beside him, and sobbed for a long, long time. My career had nosedived and I felt little but despair at the lost early promise he saw, and nurtured, in me.

More than anyone, he believed in me and my talents, for which I remain in his debt.

Viannay now lives on in every single person whose life he touched.

I remain forever grateful I’m one of them.

Buzz For The WASPS — Pioneer Women Aviators Finally Win Congressional Medal of Honor

Harlingen Army Air Field, Texas--Elizabeth L. ...
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About time!

The women who flew airplanes in WWII — yet whose contributions remain invisible to many historians — were finally honored today in D.C. with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

From the AP:

These aviators — all women — got long-overdue recognition on Wednesday. They received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress, in a ceremony on Capitol Hill.

About 200 women who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were on hand to receive the award. Now mostly in their late 80s and early 90s, some came in wheelchairs, many sported dark blue uniforms, and one, June Bent of Westboro, Mass., clutched a framed photograph of a comrade who had died.

As a military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one of the women who had been sitting in a wheelchair stood up and saluted through the entire song as a relative gently supported her back.

“Women Airforce Service Pilots, we are all your daughters; you taught us how to fly,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She said the pilots went unrecognized for too long, even though their service blazed a trail for other women in the U.S. military.

In accepting the award, WASP pilot Deanie Parrish, 88, of Waco, Texas, said the women had volunteered without expectation of thanks. Their mission was to fly noncombat missions to free up male pilots to fly overseas.

The WASPS were crucial to the war effort. From Wikipedia:

The WASP women pilots each already had a pilot’s license. They were trained to fly “the Army way” by the U.S. Army Air Forces at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. More than 25,000 women applied for WASP service, and less than 1,900 were accepted. After completing four months of military flight training, 1,078 of them earned their wings and became the first women to fly American military aircraft. Except for the fact that the women were not training for combat, their course of instruction was essentially the same as that for aviation cadets. The WASPs thus received no gunnery training and very little formation flying and acrobatics, but went through the maneuvers necessary to be able to recover from any position. The percentage of trainees who were eliminated during training compared favorably with the elimination rates for male cadets in the Central Flying Training Command.

Florene Watson preparing a P-51D-5NA for a ferry flight from the factory at Inglewood, California

After training, the WASPs were stationed at 120 air bases across the U.S. assuming numerous flight-related missions, relieving male pilots for combat duty. They flew sixty million miles of operational flights from aircraft factories to ports of embarkation and military training bases, towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice and simulated strafing missions, and transporting cargo. Almost every type of aircraft flown by the USAAF during World War II was also flown at some point by women in these roles. In addition, a few exceptionally qualified women were allowed to test rocket-propelled planes, to pilot jet-propelled planes, and to work with radar-controlled targets. Between September 1942 and December 1944, the WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types. Over fifty percent of the ferrying of combat aircraft within the United States during the war was carried out by WASP pilots.

Thirty-eight WASP fliers lost their lives while serving during the war—11 in training and 27 on active duty. Because they were not considered to be in the military under the existing guidelines, a fallen WASP was sent home at family expense without traditional military honors or note of heroism. The army would not even allow the U.S. flag to be put on fallen WASP pilots’ coffins.[5]

A Wet Normandy Field Taught Me The Meaning Of War

A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) fro...
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No one in my Canadian family served in World War II, so why did I end up in a wet, green field in Normandy, weeping uncontrollably at the Canadian cemetery?

My American partner, whose uncles did serve, took me there. “You need to know your history. You have to understand what your country did,” he insisted. So, in late October 2008, we went.

Unlike Americans, Canadians are generally raised and socialized to be pretty undemonstrative. We don’t generally wear flag pins. We don’t have a Pledge of Allegiance, nor do we officially and publicly place our hands over our hearts for anything related to our country. Our patriotism is usually quiet, modest, understated.

And so we’re not told what extraordinary courage and heroism we brought to the battles of D-Day, the same day, June 6, as my birthday.

It was a cool, gray day when we visited. The site is marked by a grove of maple trees, the same tree that centers our flag, one of few symbols we all immediately recognize as ours. My heart caught a little at that unfamiliar sight here in France, the wet grass blanketed with the familiar and beloved shapes of fallen red, yellow and orange leaves.

The Canadian cemetery is not, as I’d expected, a row of plain white crosses. It’s much more heartbreaking because it’s so deeply personal — curved headstones, each deeply incised with a maple leaf inside a circle. Row upon row upon row of our symbol. And many of the stones bear personal messages from their families.

Canada is a country forever, stupidly, riven by regional differences. Tell people out west, or east — anywhere, really — you’re from Toronto (Tronna. i.e. snotty and Type-A and a workaholic) and you can feel a chill in the air. Here, French Catholics from Montreal lie forever beside Jews from Winnipeg — their stone marked with a Star of Israel — or Anglicans from Alberta. Small-town boy lies beside big-city slicker. Here, there is unity.

I grew up knowing almost nothing about what we did there. Canadian students’ history classes still don’t make clear what a contribution Canada made to D-Day — 1,074 soldiers were injured, 359 of those killed.

I recently asked a family friend why. “We don’t celebrate militarism,” he said, without hesitation.

But what about honor and courage and impossible bravery and sacrifice?

Walk through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Bayeux, the first French town to be liberated and signs still read: “Thanks to our liberators.”

Walking slowly among all those white gravestones, I finally understood something of what had been accomplished on those sands and soil.

I cried so hard I could barely stand up. I almost never cry. The magnitude of this sacrifice — and the impossible  distance, forever now buried thousands of miles and an ocean away, from these soldiers’ homeland — was overwhelming. This was no film or movie or book or representation of war. I’d seen “Saving Private Ryan”, and so I thought I knew this place.

I did not.

This place, amid the neat, square fields of Normandy, so near the ocean you can smell the salt in the air, is theirs now. They were buried — as was planned — near where they fell. I wondered how many of their sons and daughters and grandchildren had ever come to visit.

It is a place everyone must see. I’m not sure how else you can ever understand.