NOIRMOUTIER, France — A trip 70 years back in time was memorable for 22 Crestview Sister City members who visited this French island.
For the first time in seven decades, a B-17 Flying Fortress roared low over the beach of La Guérinière, a small village on the island's west coast.
On July 4, 1943, another B-17, the "Battling Bastards" — returning from a bombing raid on a German-held airfield — crash-landed in low-tide shallows near Camp Tirpitz, a German blockhouse fortification.
The 10 crewmembers survived the crash and spent the rest of the war as German prisoners. Their plane's wreckage can still be seen at low tide, a vivid reminder to swimmers and fishermen of their community's freedom.
"We keep it so everyone on the island remembers what our American friends did to help liberate us," Noirmoutier Sister City committee vice president Gérard Moreau said.
The crash was the focus of "Wings of Freedom," a June 29 and 30 commemoration of the American forces’ role in freeing the island from German occupation.
Front and center was the Crestview delegation, augmented by the sons of two Battling Bastards and the co-pilot’s brother and grandson.
Niceville resident Don Bohler, a member of the Crestview group, had spent several months tracking down families of the B-17 crew and was rewarded when some of them joined the celebration.
They were honored guests during the ceremonial unveiling of a monument dedicated to the crew on the beach near the crash site.
"My wife and I were planning to vacation in Hawaii," said Richard Burton, son of tail gunner Harold Burton. "When we got Don's phone call, I told her, 'Hawaii can wait.'"
"Isn't it interesting that an event 70 years ago — that probably lasted less than an hour — has brought people together from different nations to keep the terrible memories of war alive and bring into perspective the value of peace and freedom?" said Gregg Stephenson, grandson of co-pilot Hubert Stephenson.
Noirmoutier’s classic vehicles club organized events on the beach and displayed their restored war-era Jeeps, troop trucks and civilian cars.
Their historic reenactment on the beach, scripted from actual wartime events, starred club members and some of the Crestview group's host families in authentic German, American, Free French and British uniforms, and civilian garb.
Shells exploded and the crackle of gunfire mingled with stirring music as a vintage landing ship dropped its front loading gate and Allied troops stormed the beach.
The weekend's grand finale, the flyover of the "Sally B," the last operational B-17 in Europe, drew cheers from thousands of people gathered on the beach.
Crestview visitors’ presence, maintaining the memory of Americans' roles in liberating their island, drew the praise of U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller-R, Fla.
"The island of Noirmoutier ... maintains an inextricable link with our nation's military history," he said June 12 in the House. "I am privileged to recognize the friendship between the people of Northwest Florida and Noirmoutier."
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.