Saskatchewan-born WWII pilot remembered in France

By Trelle Kolojay
September 26, 2014 - 2:46pm

The story of a Second World War pilot started on a Saskatchewan wheat farm and ended in a wheat field in France.

Don Beerbower spent his very early years on a farm near Kenaston before moving to Hill City, Minn. with his family because of drought. By 1944, 22-year-old Beerbower was squadron commander and an accomplished pilot, known as a triple ace, having shot down more than 15 German planes.

This month, the village of Saint-Thierry, near where his plane went down in France, honoured him with a plaque on the wall of their local church.

"To have a plaque on a church wall, to the French that's quite significant," author Paul Sailer said.

Sailer's dad was friends with Beerbower and it was those wartime stories Sailer heard from his father that inspired him to tell this pilot's story.

"Like with so many of those who died, there was really no one around to promote their story," Sailer said.

Sailer travelled to Saint-Thierry, France to attend the ceremony honouring Beerbower and was amazed by the community's response.

The ceremony was attended by more than 200 people including French Air Force officers and veterans from a French parachute unit.

War memorials and cemeteries cover that area of France, but Sailer said Beerbower's story resonated with this town of around 600 people because of the mayor's personal connection.

 

Beerbower's plane crashed in a wheat field owned by Marcel Lamaire who was mayor of Saint-Thierry in 1944. This year, 70 years later, Marcel's grandson, Antione Lamaire is the mayor.

"It's not that Don liberated their village, but he symbolizes what British and Canadian and American lives produced for them. It produced their freedom," Sailer said.

Sailer explained Beerbower's death was a blow to his squadron, but it was an even bigger loss to his young family. Beerbower left behind his wife Elayne, who never remarried, and a 15-month-old daughter, Bonnie. The young pilot had always tried to keep his family close even while fighting so far from home.

"His plane was named the Bonne B for Bonnie Beerbower. He flew two aircraft with that name. The first one actually survived the war, only to be scrapped. The second one is the one that he was flying when he was killed," Sailer explained.

It was on Aug. 9, 1944 when Beerbower, inside his P51 Mustang, the Bonnie B, was on a mission to destroy a German airfield near Reims, France. His plane was shot and plummeted to the ground.

Just this month, Sailer met an older man, Guy Perron, who explained he was 14 years old at the time of the crash and was one of the first on scene to that wheat field.

"Here's this man with one of his friends and they were on their bicycles and they heard the airplane crash. They rode about a quarter of a mile out of town and over to where it had impacted in a wheat field. The plane and the body were about 80 metres apart and the plane was demolished and Don Beerbower was dead and his parachute was partially open."

Perron went on to tell Sailer about how a lone American fighter pilot flew low over the crash site to see what happened and also how Germans came to pick up the body and tow the plane away.

Perron also took Sailer to that wheat field to see where Beerbower's plane came down.

"I have a photograph I took of it ... from a distance in the low sun of early morning and it has a haunting sense to it," Sailer said.

This week, Sailer presented the flag that was covering the plaque in France to Beerbower's daughter Bonnie. She has been unable to finish the final two chapters of Sailer's book because it is too painful to read how her father died.

Sailer said the recognition of Beerbower is significant, but it's also crucial to remember all the others who gave their lives during the Second World War.

"Don's death is important to the people of that village, but there are many who died fighting for freedom and he's really a symbol, I think, of the sacrifice of many others."

For more information on Sailer's book, visit his website

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