B-17 ceremony notes

On Wednesday 31st August, Alberto Tanturri and I met up with our visitors, Jon Upham and his son Brooks, and Kirstie Saunders and her husband, Aaron at their hotel. We had time for a quick visit to the Automobile Museum, lunch, the Cinema Museum, and a small tour of Turin. Jon's sister, Sydney, her husband, Clint, and their two children Elliot and Hudson arrived later that evening. Hurricane Irene had upset their travel plans and delayed their flights, but they just made it in time for the "introductory" pizza evening at Avigliana, organized by Gianni Boschis. On Thursday, they all went to visit one of the castles in the Aosta valley with Gianni and stayed the night near Aosta.

Early on Friday morning, Alberto and I left Turin left for Mont Blanc, meeting up with the whole group at the cable car parking lot. The group included Pierluigi and Gianni, Fred Blond and his wife, and a number of others. The weather was spectacularly good - I had expected it to be very cold at the top and insisted that the visitors should take jackets and gloves, etc., but even at 12000 feet it was about 6 or 7 degrees C, so quite amazingly warm. They all thought I had exaggerated about the temperature, but the last time I was up there it was about 10 degrees below zero!

We descended to eat at the Pavillion restaurant, at the first cable-car stop, about 9000 feet altitude, after which we took the cable all the way down and set off up the valley for our hotel “Des Glaciers” in Courmayeur where we found the US military contingent had already arrived.

We had the pleasure of meeting Lt. Col. Rebecca Sonkiss, pilot and Commander of the 15th Airlift Squadron, and Captain Burke, also a pilot, as well as their "press corps" - the "Combat Camera" crew, Angel Lawrence and Tonia Morgan, and the PR woman, Nicole Mickle. The "boss" had also brought a four-man Honor Guard, Sr. Airmen Joshua Bischoff, Steven Doubler, Joshua Nelson, and Staff Sgt. Paolo Santos, (all loadmasters). We also met the two Majors, Chris MacLean, from the Embassy in Rome, and his friend Gene Richter.

The hotel was owned by Edoardo Pennard, the Alpine Guide who had found the famous propeller, and he proudly showed us his "Aladdin's cave" of a museum. This had photos and mementos of his family going well back in time, including a letter to his mother from the Ladies Association congratulating her on the birth of her son, things found on the mountainside, such as the broken-off third blade of the famous propeller, a complete range of military helmets from WW2, bits of bombs, a rifle or two, wooden skis, climbing boots etc, etc. He is a jovial character and made us all feel more than welcome. An evening reception had been arranged by the Mayor of Courmayeur in the Purtud hotel, half-way along the road to the "Elisabetta" refuge, giving us a chance to see a glacier from the carpark, and begin mixing and making new friends.

Alberto and I were particularly impressed by the way that both Jon and Clint (Sydney's husband) managed their children - just enough leash to work off any high spirits, but always under control. Definitely nominees for our informal "Top Dad" chart! There were a number of Italian children, too, so the kids had plenty to do and didn't get bored. After the meal, we were shown a number of B-17 parts that had been recovered from the Estellete Glacier.

We were hopeful that the weather would break in our favor for Saturday, and the early morning promised well. Bureaucracy always seems to want to put its foot in things and it seemed that there might be difficulties getting permission to drive up close to the refuge, but Gianni and Pierluigi pulled off a remarkable diplomatic coup and convinced the powers-that-be that it was essential, particularly for the Air Force personnel in dress uniform and shiny shoes, that we should have vehicular access, in some cases right to the refuge. Some of us decided we'd like to hike it anyway, which was a long haul - about 5 miles. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and we were wonderfully warm (and damp) as we trudged up the last steep slope to the refuge, but I got some great shots of a pinnacle emerging from the mist lower down the valley, and some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. The Aiguille de Glaciers, immediately beyond the refuge, was a magnificently rugged triangular peak that stuck out like a sword – the Estellette glacier hung below it like a white apron on its flank.

In addition to the US military personnel, the families of the crew, the committee and other civilians including an ex-Carabiniere who had participated in the 1972 recovery mission, the ceremony in Italy was attended by a Colonel on behalf of the Air Ministry and a group from the Italian Air Force Association, with flags and a trumpeter. For good measure there was even a priest to provide a blessing.

There were about 50-60 people in all and, after some of us had a hike up the moraine guided by Gianni Boschis (now generally referred to as “Jean du Bois” since he was our main - and very competent - French translator), to see some of the larger pieces of the aircraft, we came back to the refuge for the unveiling of the commemorative plaque. Pierluigi nominated me as the MC to scene-set and introduce the various speakers in English and Italian. And despite the odd error (like introducing the charming Mayoress of Bourg Saint-Maurice as "Monsieur Poletti" instead of “Madame”) it seemed to go along quite well.

All the main dignitaries had a few words to say, and the plaque was duly and fittingly unveiled by two children - Gianni's elder daughter, Giulia, and Sydney's son, Hudson. "Taps" were sounded, the Honor Guard was magnificent, the Italian trumpeter played "Silenzio", and I saw a glimmer of a tear in the giant Major MacLean's eye. It was a very moving ceremony. But it didn't stop there, as Pierluigi presented Lt. Col Sonkiss with a beautiful model of a B-17G (specially obtained from Boeing) which had been reworked by the members of a historical aircraft recovery group and repainted in EATS livery with the serial number of "our" B-17 on the tail.

The "magic moment" was, however, when Pierluigi called forward a man who had found Col. Upham's dog tag. He had only found out through the internet whose it was. He came forward and the dog tag was handed over to Jon and Sydney; a very moving moment indeed. The only downer was the clouds which had been gradually descending towards us, and prevented the flyover of the C-17 which Lt. Col. Sonkiss had hoped to put on. I know both she and Capt. Burke were genuinely disappointed, since they had flown such a long way to get there, and most likely had needed to be extremely persuasive to get the authority for the flight. The flyover would have been a truly culminating event. But even with 2000 ft AGL (about 14000 ft ASL) as their flight height, with even the lower slopes of the Aiguille in clouds it would have been too big a risk, and nobody would have seen anything anyway. In reality, it also would have been a surprise, with only a few of us knowing it was planned, so nobody missed anything when it didn't happen.

We enjoyed an excellent buffet at the refuge, and took a few more photos before it was time to return to the cars way down the valley.

Following a rendezvous at the Hotel des Glaciers, we left the highway near Morgex for the amazingly long and winding road that took us through the ski resort of La Thuile and across the Small St. Bernard Pass into France. About the only straight part of the road is right at the very top where it passes the St. Bernard's Hospice. We speculated that the French and Italian builders had been in competition with each other to see who could construct the largest number of hairpin bends in their respective sectors! But we made it to Bourg Saint-Maurice, found the hotel, had a shower and got ready to go to the first event organized by our French friends - aperitifs chez Mme. Poletti, the lady Mayor, in the Hotel de Ville, aka "le Mairie". Following the usual toasts, etc., we moved off to a nearby restaurant & enjoyed a very good meal, courtesy of the town council. The Mayoress had an English lady do all the translations from French, so we all had a good idea of what was going on. As her name suggests, Mme. Poletti is of Italian origin, and she translated her own words into Italian. The deputy mayor of Bourg Saint-Maurice was fantastic - he is a great hill walker (he walked between the two refuges both coming and going on Saturday!) and likes country music! As the "party" in the restaurant began to grind to a halt, he took a few "volunteers" along to a bar with a French country band for a grappa or two, great stuff - I never imagined that a place like Bourg Saint-Maurice had so much nightlife!

After nearly taking the wrong road home (to our hotel in Sainte Foy), Alberto and I finally made it to bed but were up at the crack of dawn (more or less) to get breakfast and organize ourselves for the trip to the Des Mottets refuge, on the French side of the Aiguille des Glaciers, only about a 2-hour fast walk from Elisabetta according to the deputy Mayor, and more than100 km by road as we'd found out the day before! By Sunday morning the weather had turned out as forecast, as if to spite the French attempts to put on a good show, with the early morning drizzle turning into continuous rain. Once again, however, Mme. Poletti had it all figured out and had laid on transport to take those without 4 x 4's up to the refuge.

The previous evening, having seen the weather forecast, I had asked the deputy mayor if he could provide two black gents’ umbrellas (for Majors MacLean and Richter, who were going to be in dress blues and shiny shoes, since dress regulations say that's the only coverage allowed), and he came up trumps again with two, almost regulation-style brollys. These were gratefully received by Chris & Gene! The trip up to the refuge was quite easy despite the rain, and a mini-marquee had been erected as protection against the elements for the protagonists. It was strategically located right across the track leading to the refuge and once or twice was in close encounter with some high-speed mountain bikers, who were unaware of its presence till the last moment.

Lt. Col. Sonkiss and the other dignitaries were under the tent, and Sean Burke had a small black umbrella. Tonia & Angel, the "Combat Camera" crew, had their own umbrellas & waterproof bags for the cameras, as did Nicole.

The only ones right out in the rain were the four magnificent stalwarts of the Honor Guard and the four young shirt-sleeved Frenchmen of the Chasseurs Alpins. They all stoically braved out the downpour without flinching! Top marks, guys!

The French ceremony was basically similar to the Italian one, but with all three National Anthems being played from recordings at the appropriate moments. The drapeau was the Stars & Stripes over two items - a plaque similar to the Italian one, and a small sculptured stone monument bearing an inscripted quote from a poem by Saint-Exupery. In analogy to the Italian ceremony, a randoneur who had found part of Col. Upham's fountain pen handed this over to Sydney, Jon's sister and fellow-grandchild of the plane's captain.

After the ceremony, we retired to the Refuge for lunch, once again offered by the Bourg Saint-Maurice council. The rain had stopped when we came out again, and the Aiguille came and went in the clouds and mist, emphasizing the difficulties of flying around these peaks in the dark.

It was a wonderful weekend, one way and another, and everybody appreciated all that had been done to make it that way. I'm certain that the crew family members will take back the most intense and meaningful memories of these few days in the mountains, perhaps better understanding the nature of the people who have cared so much for their dead relatives. Many of the speeches emphasized the debt still felt by the common people of France and Italy towards the many Americans who gave their lives in the cause of freedom. Countless photos were taken, and with the ceremony beginning to wind down, everybody began to shake hands with everybody else, and parties began to sort themselves out for transport back to Bourg Saint-Maurice.

Alberto and I kept a close eye on Kirstie and Aaron, since we were going to lead them back to Turin. From Sainte Foy we set off as a two-car convoy up the switchback mountain pass again. We stopped at the St. Bernard monument at the top of the pass to take a photo for them with this dramatic and unusual backdrop, then off again for Italy where, believe it or not, the sun was shining! All's well that ends well as they say, and having bid them goodnight at their hotel, Alberto and I went home. Kirstie and Aaron flew back to England the next day, while Jon, Sydney, Clint and their children drove off to Florence.

In these few days we had made so many new friends, seen so many new things and done so much that we were all tired, but extremely happy that from such a small seed, such a great international enterprise had been born.

The 15th Airlift Squadron personnel, commanded by Lt. Col. Sonkiss, were magnificent, with only the low cloud at the Elisabetta refuge preventing what would have been the ultimate salute to the B-17 crew - a fly-over by a C-17 of the descendent unit of the Troop Carrier Group to which our crew was assigned. It was flown all the way from the USA for the occasion.

There is a famous but appropriate quote from Winston Churchill which unites those who participated in these commemorations - ceremonies where people from four different countries and from many walks of life came together in a common cause of respect for eight brave men: “We will always remember them.”

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