American Woman Helped Save Airmen In France

As President Obama commemorates the sacrifices made by American troops on the D-Day beaches, supporters of another American hero who helped to liberate France are calling for her role to be recognized. Virginia D'Albert Lake stayed on in France during the German occupation, joined the resistance and helped to rescue more than 60 Allied airmen.

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In addition to those who landed on the beaches of Normandy, there were other Americans in France who played a role in liberating Europe. One of them was a young woman who risked her life to save downed American and British airmen. Though she died 12 years ago, those who know the story of Virginia D'Albert Lake are asking President Obama to recognize her valor with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Eleanor Beardsley has her story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: When War World II broke out in 1939, 29 year-old Virginia D'Albert Lake was living in Paris. The newly married Florida native did not leave France as most Americans did. She wanted to stay with her French husband, Philippe, who had been drafted into the Army. D'Albert Lake's diary hauntingly describes the approach of German troops through the Netherlands and Belgium, the fall of France in 1940, and life under the German occupation. Then, one day in 1943, Virginia and Philippe's lives took a dramatic turn. The village baker asked Virginia to come over and meet some of his friends. D'Albert Lake recounted the story in this 1989 interview.

Ms. VIRGINIA D'ALBERT LAKE: And when I went into this dining room, there were four or five Americans around this table that had been shot down and were being evacuated. Those Americans were so excited about meeting an American in the middle of occupied France. And I certainly got a kick out of it too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEARDSLEY: Virginia and Philippe joined the resistance and helped spirit allied airmen out of France. The airmen were fed, clothed, and hidden in the D'Albert Lake's small Paris apartment and their country house until they could be smuggled to Spain and eventually get back to England.

Historian, Judy Barrett Litoff, who studies the role of women during World War II at Bryant University in Rhode Island, says the couple were members of the largest escape network for airmen, the Comet escape line.

Ms. JUDY BARRETT LITOFF (Professor of History, Bryant University): What they did was extremely dangerous work. They were members of the Comet escape line, which was the largest of the escape lines. And escape lines like the Comet were infiltrated many, many times because they were indeed so very large. And people were arrested. They were shot. They were imprisoned, and they were deployed to Germany for their work.

BEARDSLEY: Barrett Litoff is the editor of �An American Heroine in the French Resistance, D'Albert Lake's Wartime Diary and Memoir.� Reading the book, one is struck by how brave and carefree she is in the face of the daily danger. She even took airmen sightseeing around Paris where they would literally rub shoulders with German soldiers. She said she knew this was a dangerous sport, but that sometimes the airmen had to get out after being cooped up in the apartment.

Ms. D'ALBERT LAKE: Also, we had to have the false papers made, their photographs on the false papers, and they just weren't allowed to open their mouths if you happen to go out because if the Germans realized that they were aviators escaping, I mean, that would be the end.

BEARDSLEY: Virginia and Philippe helped save the lives of more than 60 American and British airmen. They helped keep up the morale of allied pilots who knew that if they crashed in France, there was at least a chance of getting home. But in June, 1944, D'Albert Lake was caught by the Gestapo. She ate a list of contacts before the Germans could get hold of it and never gave the names of any resistance fighters. Just days before Paris was liberated, D'Albert Lake was deported to Germany, where she nearly died in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. She returned to Paris after the war weighing just 75 pounds.

Mr. PATRICK D'ALBERT LAKE: Oh, hello.

BEARDSLEY: Hello.

Mr. D'ALBERT LAKE: Nice to meet you.

BEARDSLEY: Very nice to see you.

A year later, D'Albert Lake gave birth to her only child, Patrick, who still lives in the Paris, not far from where his mother and father hid the airmen. He said before his parents died, the pilots they rescued would come back and visit them, but his mother never considered herself a hero.

Mr. D'ALBERT LAKE: She just considered that to do what she did and to save airmen crashing in the - in Europe was normal, especially for an American person. What she always said was that it was nothing exceptional, it was just she had to do it.

BEARDSLEY: In 1989, France awarded Virginia D'Albert Lake its highest civilian medal, the Legion d'honneur. Now, her supporters hope America will grant her a similar declaration.

From NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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