The French Farm Girl of the Flying Field: Yvette Hamel and the 371st Fighter Group

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence Popravak, jr. (ret.)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs History
It was the summer of 1944 in Normandy, France. In June, Allied forces had successfully landed on the European continent and began the great campaign across northwestern Europe to defeat Nazi Germany. Within days of the landing, aviation engineers carved out advanced landing grounds (ALGs) to be used by forward-deploying tactical air forces. One of the first, if not the very first, fighter outfits to be based in France was the 371st Fighter Group (371FG).

For those who may wonder what the 371FG has to do with the Oregon Air National Guard's 142d Fighter Wing, the 371FG was redesignated after the war as the 142d Fighter Group and allotted to the state of Oregon. The 142d inherited the lineage and honors of the 371FG and is currently designated as the 142d Fighter Wing.

But in the summer of 1944, the unit was a fighter group equipped with the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Based at ALG-6 (A-6), Beuzeville Airfield, the 371FG employed this aircraft effectively; its pilots and ground crews helped batter German forces attempting to contain the Allied foothold on the continent. Of note, A-6, also known as La Londe, was adjacent to the famous village of Sainte-Mère-Église.

On July 15, 1944, after nearly a month in action at A-6, the group commander, Colonel Bingham T. "Bing" Kleine, took advantage of some less than optimum flying weather and had a first birthday party for the group on the green of the chateau that served as group HQ. It was at this birthday party that Col Kleine announced another "first" for the 371st; that the group would become a "father" to a young French farm girl named Yvette Hamel.

How the 371FG came to "adopt" 16-year old Mademoiselle Yvette Hamel is a tale of overcoming adversity. In early July, 1944, Yvette was milking cows with her sister on the family farm in Normandy, which was being used by an American artillery unit. But on that fateful day, she was grievously wounded by German artillery and nearly died - her sister was killed. US Army medics provided first aid, saved her life, and transported her to the Army's 67th Evacuation Hospital, a field hospital at La Fière, about four miles west of Sainte-Mère-Église. Surgeons there were forced by the extent of her wounds to amputate both of her legs; they also worked to save her shattered right arm. Yvette began her recuperation in this field hospital amidst wounded soldiers, as no French hospital was available or equipped to take care of her serious and still life-threatening wounds.

But the 67th Evacuation Hospital soon had to move on, and could not bring Yvette. However, a fortuitous meeting of Col Kleine and the hospital's staff resulted in the 371st at nearby A-6 taking over responsibility for helping in Yvette's recovery. There are probably few combat units in the annals of warfare that assumed such a humanitarian responsibility, albeit one which gave many group members a greater motivation to do their utmost to fly, fight and win.

Yvette recuperated with the group for several months, being treated royally by unit members, and learning "GI English" in the process. The men pitched a tent for her exclusive use, lined with parachute silk to brighten the interior. Group medical staff took care of her medical needs and monitored her condition. The group dentist fashioned a special chair for her to recline in during the day. Pilots, ground crews and even the cook made her feel welcome, visiting her and doting upon her creatively as best they could in field conditions. From the French Red Cross came some help too: a pair of French sisters separated from their family volunteered to assist. While Yvette rested and regained her strength, the war continued, as the group hammered the enemy in Normandy, engaged in the breakout from the Cotentin Peninsula by Patton's Third Army (Operation Cobra), and then supported that army's epic and swift movement across France.

In addition to direct care, group members took up a couple of collections in order to help with Yvette's future medical needs. The first collection of $2,000 was placed with Col Kleine pending the time Yvette needed it to help with her recovery and procuring artificial legs. A second collection taken near the end of the war provided $3,000 more in assistance for her needs.

When the group moved eastward 300 miles to Perthes Airfield (ALG A-65, also called St. Dizier) in late September, 1944, in order to keep up with General Patton, Yvette was packed aboard a C-47 transport plane. "She traveled with us as we moved around France as 'miscellaneous parts,'" remembers 404th Fighter Squadron P-47 pilot Willis R. "Wally" Walling, of Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Yvette's condition continued to improve, and her presence was a morale booster and motivator for the group; Yvette was "really a great mascot," said Walling, who recalled that she stayed with the group "...up till (after) we moved to St. Dizier."

The group was not long at A-65, however. The western front slowed near the German frontier as enemy resistance increased. By the end of September, the 371st was ordered south to support the US Seventh Army, which was approaching the western front, coming up the Rhone River valley from southern France. Yvette did not accompany the group on this move to the next flying field at Dole-Tavaux (ALG Y-7), which was initially planned as a short deployment of ten days. Many group personnel remained at A-65 into mid-November, by which time all ended up at Dole as that deployment was extended. This all occurred as the time neared for Yvette to undergo further surgeries in preparation for receiving prosthetic devices, which group members had collected money to buy for her. Group staff, however, particularly the medical section, were still involved with her follow-on care at other military facilities as the group prepared for the move to Y-7.

By early December, General Eisenhower himself reportedly became aware of Yvette and decided her days of moving around as miscellaneous cargo for the benefit of the 371st were over; but he offered her an option of going to the U.S., or to remain in France, for further medical care. Away from her family in Normandy and faced with having to make a quick decision, she decided to remain in France; the group continued with the war, while Yvette went to Paris for reconstructive surgery and the next phase in her rehabilitation battle.

After the war, Yvette gradually overcame her disability, married and had a family. Group veterans kept in touch with her, and in 1980, Yvette came to the United States to join some 371FG pilots at a P-47 Thunderbolt Pilots Association reunion held in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In the 1990s, several group members returned to France and met with her again.

Yvette Hamel passed away in 2007, but not before her story inspired a nicely-written novel based on her life called "Sunward I've Climbed" by author Annie Laurie Morgan. It was published in 1994, in time for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. It conveys a better appreciation of her struggle, and the positive impact members of the 371FG had on her, and that she had on the 371st Fighter Group.

The story also reportedly found its way into the well-known Airborne Museum at Sainte-Mère-Église, which is said to feature a display sharing this remarkable story.

Yvette Hamel lived through a traumatic period of history and was dreadfully affected by it. But with determination she overcame her grievous wounds and endeared herself to a generation of GIs as she did. Although she is gone now, she remains in the hearts of 371FG veterans, and is part of the rich history of the 142d Fighter Wing. Her example of grit and grace from World War II is worthy of reflection today.