Vickroy: A World War II tale about luck, adventure and, now, closure
Ted Fahrenwald bailed from his Mustang fighter two days after D-Day.
Seconds after he pulled the ripcord on his parachute, he watched his beloved plane, which he’d named The Joker, spiral toward the French countryside, ending in a fiery explosion after getting him through 100 combat flights.
“He never went back to the Continent after the war and just kind left The Joker in his past,” his daughter, Madelaine Fahrenwald, said.
Though the lifelong resident of Chicago’s Beverly community had enjoyed countless adventures before he floated onto a farm in occupied Normandy, his greatest story began on June 8, 1944.
Last summer, I told you about Fahrenwald’s rescue by a French farm couple, his work with the French Resistance and his daring escape from a German prison camp, all of which is chronicled in the book, “Bailout Over Normandy: A Flyboy’s Adventures with the French Resistance and Other Escapades in Occupied France.”
The aspiring journalist wrote the book soon after returning to the U.S, but after a publisher turned him down he threw it in a cabinet. After his death in 2004, Madelaine recovered it and shared it with the world.
Serendipity and closure
Soon after my story ran, I got an email from Laurent Viton, a French postman who spends his free time searching for Allied planes that were shot down over his homeland during World War II.
Viton, who lives in Goderville, France, is somewhat of a celebrity in the country. His discoveries have been featured in various French publications, as well as on Great Britain’s Royal Air Force website.
His hobby began in 1994 after he discovered a Spitfire engine hidden in a hangar at the St. Valery-en-Caux aerodrome. Recognizing that hundreds of pilots were shot down over occupied France, he and some friends organized a search party that has lasted decades.
In December 2012, Viton located part of an Allied fighter plane near Triqueville, where a German airfield was located in June 1944. The unearthed starboard main leg bore black and white stripes, identifying it as an Allied plane that had participated in the D-Day invasion, he said.
After he read my story about Fahrenwald bailing out near Triqueville, Viton said he started putting the pieces together. He had already accounted for other wreckage found in the same area.
He asked if I could put him in touch with Madelaine. I did, and soon after heard back from Madelaine, who now lives in California. She was jubilant — The Joker had been found.
“It turns out, it was buried about three feet down, on the same farm where my dad landed in his parachute,” she said.
That farm was owned by Helene and Maurice Marais. The couple, who had a young daughter named Odile, took Fahrenwald in, hid him, disguised him and put him in touch with members of the French Resistance.
“Odile’s parents left her the property,” Madelaine said. “All this time she was living on the grave of The Joker and never knew it.”
Viton sent Madelaine a 1944 photograph of Odile sitting with her parents. She is dressed in a silk christening gown made from Fahrenwald’s parachute.
Viton said that although he has unearthed only a few pieces of The Joker — the starboard main leg and the radiator — he believes it is Fahrenwald’s plane.
“We know that more (parts) are still buried in that meadow in Normandy. A dig will occur next year to excavate what was left of Ted’s Mustang,” he wrote in an email.
At that point, he said, he will be able to conclude that the plane is US serial No. 42-103336, aka The Joker.
He hopes to uncover blue nose markings, unique to the 352nd Fighter group, or a piece bearing the plane’s serial number. Also, the engine, a V-12 Packard Merlin, or a machine gun can be easily identified because their numbers are listed in the Missing Air Crew Report, he said.
Viton explained how the discovery was made.
“Finding the plane was an odd method in itself — a friend of mine uses divining rods and goes up and down in the field until the rods react,” he said, adding that on the same day the parts were found he met Odile.
“Many French people took great risks in hiding downed airmen here,” he said.
If caught, the sympathizers would surely have been shot, Viton said.
Over the past 20 years of researching and digging, Viton has had great success. He has met veterans and traced plane remnants to relatives of the pilots who died. In some cases, he has also organized memorials.
“A gripping one was about a crew of eight from a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber lost in a woods near Dieppe the same day as Ted, 8 June 1944,” he said. “Their bodies were never recovered for burial, hence they are all reported as missing. The story was so moving that with some help we have erected a memorial panel in the cemetery where they should have been buried at the time, and relatives from U.K. and Canada attended the ceremony.”
A dig last year uncovered a Royal Air Force Spitfire that was flown by a Free French pilot, who attended the dig, Viton said.
“At 94, he was delighted to see the remains of his fighter plane, and (before) his eyes we recovered the control column, throttle lever, gun sight and engine. He spent some time signing some pieces for the diggers,” Viton said.
Fate comes calling
On the night before he jumped, Fahrenwald felt uneasy as he took off amid zero visibility from a British airfield near the chilly North Sea. It was his 100th bombing mission, and his orders were to stay in his assigned area over the Normandy countryside until he had only enough gas to get back to England.
Turns out, he was right to be worried. As he was taking one last run at a German convoy, Fahrenwald got too close to an ammunition-packed supply truck. When he hit, it hit back. Hard. As his plane sputtered and smoked, he made the decision to bail out.
He immediately was taken in by the Marias family, who quickly got him out of his uniform and into French farmer garb. They connected him with members of the Maquis, or French Resistance. As the freedom fighters led him back to the British front along the northern coast of France, Fahrenwald returned the favor by assisting on many guerilla-led missions. He spent three months behind enemy lines, trying to get back to the Allies.
Eventually, he was captured by the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) and interrogated as a spy. He made a daring escape and again was forced to rely on his wits, his outdoors skills and his incredible luck to get back to his unit, the 486th Squadron.
The journey is peppered with daredevil acts of courage, nightly rounds of liquor and seemingly endless smoking. Fahrenwald’s stoic sense of humor beams through his prose. So does the heroic work of the many Resistance fighters he fought beside.
Fahrenwald attended Clissold Elementary School and Morgan Park Military Academy, now Morgan Park Academy. He later studied journalism and earned a pilot’s license at Carlton College in Minnesota. But after two years of higher education, he decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps.
After the war, Fahrenwald came back to Chicago and helped run the foundry that his father started in Harvey.
Growing up, Madelaine said, “was like having a Boy Scout leader for a father. ... My dad was a real character and a fixture in his old South Side neighborhood, where he lived for most of his 83 years,” she said.
Madelaine and her sister, Roxanne, who lives in Montana, will be in Normandy in June for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Madelaine said she can’t wait to bring back a souvenir from her father’s plane.
She also said she looks forward to meeting Odile (Marias) Valois, the “little girl” who once got a chocolate bar from a courageous American pilot and who proudly wears the distinction of being the daughter of the couple who saved Ted Fahrenwald’s life.