The reach of the World Wide Web never ceases to amaze, and that is what brought M. Marc Thillerot, a former school teacher and local historian from France, to Sherman at the beginning of the month to put the finishing touches to a story that started almost 75 years ago.
In 2007, Betty Reese brought me a memoir written by her late husband, (ret.) Colonel William H. Reese USAF that told of his adventure as a young fighter pilot shot down over German occupied France two months after D-Day. She thought Herald Democrat readers might find the tale interesting, and she was right.
I transcribed the story, made some editorial and informational additions and it ran as a three-part feature in the paper in March of that year.
Bill Reese, a P-51 fighter pilot, was shot down by German anti-aircraft while on an interdiction mission over German occupied France. He crash landed his plane and escaped into the woods where he met a French farmer who put him in contact with the local Maquis, the French resistance movement in the region.
For the next several weeks, the Maquis hid the young American flyer from the Germans, and he joined their efforts to sabotage and disrupt German military operations in the region. Eventually, Bill Reese made a connection with forward elements of the U.S. Third Army and got back to his own line. After some time recovering, he returned to flight duty.
This spring, I got an email from M. Marc Thillerot, a retired teacher who lived near the village of Épagne in the Champagne-Ardennes region where Lt. Bill Reese had fought with the Maquis. Thillerot, who was researching the history of the Maquis in the area, had come across the local accounts of the story. He looked for information about Bill Reese on the Web, found the Herald Democrat story written in 2007, and found a way to contact me, asking for permission to use some of the information.
We corresponded with several emails, and I asked if he would like to talk with members of the Reese family if I could find them. He said yes, and I started to search. I did not know if Betty Reese was still in Sherman or not, nor did I have information on Reese’s two sons. I wrote a Good Morning column asking if anyone knew the family, and in nothing flat, I heard from Betty Reese, still a Sherman resident and from her son Robert of San Antonio.
I sent Robert Reese a copy of my correspondence with Thillerot, and the two started exchanging information via e-mail. A month ago, I got a call from Betty Reese. She told me that Thillerot was coming to Sherman in November and she wanted me come to her home and meet him.
Thillerot and his grandson, Renard Berthier, who is doing duty as his grandfather’s translator, arrived in San Antonio on a flight from Paris last week where they were met by Robert Reese. They stayed with the Reese family, who made sure the visitors got a taste of Texas chili, some barbecue and a trip to the Alamo. On Sunday, they drove up to Sherman.
I met Thillerot and grandson Monday morning at the Reese home in Sherman. He said that he had known many of the older residents of Épagne and had interviewed them in regards to their activities with the Maquis, the French resistance movement in the area. Through these interviews, he had heard bits and pieces of the story involving the young American airman who had been shot down and then fought with the French for several weeks until he could get back to American lines.
In particular, a photograph of Reese with a group of villagers taken in 1944 intrigued him. The picture, reproduced in the book, “Hommage à Nos Parents ces Resistants” (“Tribute to Our Parents the Resisters”), edited by Gabriel Jaillant, shows Bill Reese with a group of French civilians, including some of the Maquis. Thillerot wanted to know more, so he started searching for information on Bill Reese on the Web and turned up the story from the Herald Democrat in 2007.
The connection Thillerot eventually made with the Reese family proved fruitful. Betty Reese had carefully saved photos, articles, notices from the War Department, telegrams and other documents referring to her husband’s activities in France. After the war, Bill Reese had carried on a written correspondence with Auguste (Papa) Doizelet, the mayor of Épagne and head of the Maquis in the area, his wife Yvonne (Mama) and their two sons, Henri and Andre, also members of the Maquis. Betty Reese had saved these letters as well, and Thillerot said they gave him a new source of information.
After our morning meeting, I met the Reeses and Thillerot and Berthier that afternoon at the Perrin Air Force Base Museum, which opened especially for them, for a tour of the facilities. Col. Reese’s final duty station was Perrin. Thillerot, a ham radio operator, was especially intrigued by some of old radio equipment on display at the musuem.
The visitors left with Robert Reese on Tuesday to return to San Antonio and a flight back to France.