"Heroine of French Resistance saved Neponset vet from Germans"
Sunday, Veterans Day, we honor those who have given military service to their country, but living World War II veterans are getting harder to find as age catches up with “The Greatest
So, when one of their stories came along a few weeks ago and I learned the individual was still alive (and well), I saw an opportunity to tell a real tale of heroism about a living local veteran.
Fifty years ago on Sept. 12, 1962, Neponset farmer John “Jack” Verbout, and his wife, Jo, were invited to Chicago for a special preview of a soon-to-be-released 20th Century Fox movie about the Allied invasion of Normandy, “The Longest Day.”
It was also a reunion of American soldiers and members of the French Resistance who saved their lives.
Verbout was one of three servicemen who movie executives brought to the screening along with Janine Boitart http://www.francaislibres.net/liste/fiche.php?index=70991, a leader in the French Resistance, credited with saving the lives of 68 men, including Verbout’s. He also met Irina Demick, a French model turned movie star who portrayed Boitart in the movie.
In a cast made up almost entirely of men, Demick was the only female listed in the primary cast with major Hollywood stars of the day including Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Red Buttons, Richard Burton, Peter Lawford, and many others, each playing small roles to recreate on screen the bigger story of the June 6, 1944 invasion of the beaches at Normandy, and on across France.
Verbout was a tech sergeant in the Army Air Corps and radio gunner on a bombing mission in a B26 Marauder when, a month to the day after D-Day, July 6, 1944, his plane was shot down near the French village of Touques, several miles from the English Channel. Three members of the eight-man crew were killed in the crash, and four were captured by the Germans, but Verbout, just 20 at the time, managed to escape.
He shared his harrowing experience with Neponset correspondent Betty Sullivan for a July 6, 1984, Star Courier story. The Verbouts had just returned from ceremonies in Normandy marking the 40th anniversary of the invasion where Jack shook the hand of President Ronald Reagan, who spoke at the event.
Verbout said after the plane crash, “I kind of hung around haystacks for three days until I made contact with a farmer,” evading German patrols ahead of the front line. “He (the farmer) eventually came out to his cows,” said Verbout who was living on green apples and milk. “I’d been milking his cows for him,” he said in the ‘84 interview.
The farmer secretly contacted the French underground, who took Verbout to Touques where he hid in the home of Hubert and Odette Gatine. The French Resistance moved Verbout from house to house for several days, one being bombed by Allied aerial artillery.
I had the privilege of meeting Jack this week and he told me after 10 days, he made contact with a Belgian battalion attached to the British 6th Airborne Division, and was flown safely back to England. Today Verbout recalls that Janine Boitard was not the head of the resistance, but was active in the Normandy region. She is often portrayed in the movie smuggling Allied flyers and paratroopers on her bicycle. “Of all the places to be dropped, you couldn’t have picked a better one,” Verbout says today of how he was treated, protected and saved by the French in and around Touques.
He and Jo have been back four times, the last being in 2000 when his entire family made the trip. Jack and Jo’s first son, John, Jr., was born in May of 1944, while he was overseas. When he returned home, they had two more sons and two daughters — five children in all — four of whom would not have been born if he had not survived of the plane crash and been rescued and hidden by the underground. Jack also points out today that of the 28 members in his bomber group, he is the only one still alive.
He said the Gatines are now both gone, but their son, who is the same age as John Jr., plans to travel to Neponset next September to visit the Verbouts.
According to a biography provided to Verbout by the French ambassador prior to the 1962 movie preview, Boitard was a law student living in Caen when Germany invaded and occupied France. “The years of the silent, undercover battle against the Germans completely changed her life,” the biography states. She also met, and later married, another resistance member, Leonard Gille. After the war, she became one of France’s most honored women receiving medals from the French, U.S. and British governments.
“Longest Day” producer Darryl F. Zanuck brought Boitard-Gille to the set during filming of the movie and she and Demick are said to have become good friends.
A Sept. 18, 1962 Ann Marsters column in the Chicago American described Demich, who was making her first screen appearance, as a “beautiful unknown.”
According to the article, Zanuck met the fashion and photo model at a cocktail party in Paris. “He was enchanted by her looks and personality and undismayed by her complete lack of acting experience. He discovered that Irina, remarkably enough, was intelligent as well as beautiful. So he decided to cast her in the picture’s leading feminine role…
Jack has many memories of the three-day, 1962 reunion and film preview in Chicago where he and Jo were special guests of 20th Century Fox and escorted around town by studio executive Saul Gordon. Jo’s handwritten notes of the highlights are on the back of the last page of Boitard’s bio and begin with a press conference at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, followed by “supper” in the “Pump Room” at the Ambassador Hotel, where they stayed. On Thursday, Sept. 13, she wrote, “The men (Jack and the other two veterans) went to O’Hare Field to meet Madame & Leo Gille (Janine Boitard), Margaret Gardner, and Miss Demick.” Googling some of the names in Jo’s notes, I learned that Margaret Gardner was vice president in charge of international affairs for a Los Angeles PR firm and handled the publicity for many films, including “The Longest Day,” and worked with such stars as Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor.
They also had dinner with a group which included a Joe Porter, who, it turned out, was also shot down over Normandy, saved by the Free French Resistance, and served as a consultant on “The Longest Day.” He was from Carthage, Ind., which is probably why he was invited to the Chicago preview.
“The Longest Day” was not released in the U.S. until Oct. 4, 1962. It debuted in France on Sept. 24, and in the UK on Oct. 23.
The film was the last one made by Sean Connery before he was cast in the role of James Bond and, at $10 million, it was the most expensive black and white film made until “Schindler’s List” was released in 1993.
On the film’s 50th anniversary, Jack Verbout said of his sneak peak, that “they did as well as they could” to make the nearly three-hour movie realistic.
He’d know. He was there.