By Linda Corbitt
Special to the Caloosa Belle
I was invited by American Legion Post 1 in Paris, France to be a part of the 98th American Memorial Day ceremony on June 28, 2017, honoring Americans killed in war in France. It was memorable because it celebrated the centennial of America entering the first World War. My husband Tom Corbitt and I joined the American Legion after he retired from the Air Force as a Colonel with over 43 years active service. It was fun joining in Paris and going to Pershing Hall in downtown Paris where the American Legion started. It was an unexpected, bittersweet honor to be asked to come for the ceremonies the year after he passed away.
I immediately went online and researched the event and found lots of interesting information I didn’t know. History was a subject I did well in while in high school, but I never knew they had air planes that fought in World War I.
I found out that after war broke out in 1914 between France and Germany, many pilots from America and Americans living in Europe volunteered as non-combat ambulance drivers and some as combat aviators. The first of three ceremonies we were honored to be included in was held in the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery where a squadron of 49 American pilots who sacrificed their lives as volunteers to keep France free are buried, along with their two French commanders of the Lafayette Flying Corps. One of the speakers was Lieutenant General Bernard Shuler, Commander, Strategic Air Force Command. The Mayor of Marnes-LaCoquette among many other notable speakers showed their respect.
One of my traveling companions, Micah Mims also from LaBelle, was touched by the ceremony. She laid flowers on the grave of an American pilot from Florida, Patrick C White who was shot down in the First World War in Paris. She intends to look up the family and send a picture letting them see how well the gravesite is being maintained.
The second ceremony was at Suresnes American Cemetery performed by General Tod D. Wolters, Commander, US Air Forces in Europe and the Mayor of Suresnes and many others, too numerous to mention. The chaplain Colonel J. Daniel Brantingham, Command Chaplain, US Air Forces in Europe gave the Benediction. World War I and World War II heroes are buried there.
Standing near me was a gentleman I guessed to be in his late eighties or early nineties. Micah took his picture. During the ceremony, the temperature was well above ninety degrees and even us LaBellians from south Florida were wilting and hoping for a little cloud or a puff of wind. This older man, stooped, shakily but proudly honoring those who lost their lives, stood in the sweltering heat. He stood during the entire playing of Taps, Sonnerie Aux Morts, both national anthems, La Marseillaise and the Star-Spangled Banner and the rising of the colors. It made me feel honored to be near him.
I later asked about him from a Paris local and was told he was a young American who had just married a French woman that was in Paris with her family when war came to France. He enlisted in the Army shortly afterwards and was sent to Africa to fight Rommel far from his young, pregnant wife in France.
Although the story goes his wife lost the baby due to malnutrition under German occupation, she told him it was a miracle day when Americans marched into Paris and she was thrown a candy bar by an American soldier. Although his wife passed on many years ago he still lives in Paris with his children and comes yearly to all three ceremonies to show his gratitude for American soldiers saving his family. There were many others like him who came to do the same.
The final ceremony was held at the Arc De Triomphe by the Eternal Flame of Freedom of the Unknown Soldier’s resting place. Flowers were laid by dignitaries from France and America and a full ceremony, full of pomp and circumstance was held. I was honored to be a Flag bearer in the procession next to the American honor guard and Micah helped two American Generals lay flowers for America at the Eternal Flame. It was a once in a lifetime experience for us both. The photographer for United States Air Force Europe, aka USAFE, took pictures and said they would be up on the website soon. USAFE@af.mil, if you would like to see them. See page four of photos on the current website for some and more can be accessed upon request. After the ceremony, I presented to the Commander of American Legion Post 1, Paris a plaque from the City of LaBelle, Florida and a letter of appreciation from our Mayor, Dave Lyons. The Plaque was shaped like a blue flame and engraved with, ‘Thank you for continuing to keep the flame of American freedom alive.’
This was an honor of a lifetime and I know my husband was proudly smiling down from heaven that I could be there for him, LaBelle, Florida and all Americans.