A Veteran's Story....Part Three

The letter written from Raoul Francois to Stanley Lowell
The letter written from Raoul Francois to Stanley Lowell
A group image from the monument dedication. Courtesy: Ted Matsel
A group image from the monument dedication. Courtesy: Ted Matsel
Stanley Lowell (l) and Ted Matsel (r), along with Raoul Francois hold a control wheel from L-297808 at the monument dedication. Courtesy: Ted Matsel
Stanley Lowell (l) and Ted Matsel (r), along with Raoul Francois hold a control wheel from L-297808 at the monument dedication. Courtesy: Ted Matsel

(Editor's note: This is part three of three about the experiences of retired Carmi school principal Ted Matsel during World War II and during his part in a ceremony held earlier this year in Belgium)

Raoul Francois is an eleven year old boy called upon to perform a man's work. In this case, dangerous work, for if he's caught, he will be shot. In May of 1944, Raoul Francois is a member of the Belgian underground who works with his mother to get information and escaped prisoners to the Allies.

Riding with Raoul along that road on May 29, the road next to the plowed field, is his friend Renee Dupont. The boys are able to move freely about occupied Belgium, because the Germans do not expect someone so young to be a threat.

Just before four in the afternoon, Raoul hears the B-17 before he can see it because it is flying so low. He would say later, "It was a magnificent, shiny airplane. Very graceful. I hoped that it would land safely and the crew escape."

Raoul watches the crew as they torch the airplane, and later, as they are roughed up by the Germans. "One of them winked at me." After the Germans leave, he carefully writes down the plane's tail number to give to his mother.

1994. Raoul Francois' mother died that year. In going through her papers, he found the scrap of paper with L-297808 written on it. Growing up, Francois had often wondered what happened to the crew of that B-17, how he wished he could have helped them escape that day.

Francois was now a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Belgian Air Force with high influence in NATO. Using the Internet, his son tracked down Stanley Lowell's e-mail address through the Air Force archives at Maxwell Air Force Base. Francois sent an e-mail to Lowell.

1995. Other than taking part in a couple of school programs, Ted Matsel hadn't thought much, or talked much about his ordeal in World War Two. Then a letter arrived from his old pilot buddy, Stan Lowell. The letter included the story from Raoul Francois, the 11 year old boy Matsel saw by the side of the road. "It just blew my mind...that after all these years, that boy would grow up to have the influence to find us and want to thank us. He (Francois)said it had haunted him for 50 years, not knowing our fate."

Over the next couple of years, a friendship was struck and Francois arranged to bring the crew of L-297808 and their families to Belgium to unveil a monument in their honor. In May of this year, Matsel, Lowell, their families and some of the other surviving crew members made the trip.

On May 29, 2000, Belgian officials dedicated a memorial by the field, along the road near the village of Grand Leez. Matsel says, "I didn't really want to go back,  but my family convinced me. And I guess I'm glad I did. My daughter called it 'a closure', but what I realized, finally, is that my sacrifice was not in vain, those who made the ultimate sacrifice didn't die in vain." Matsel says it is common for Belgian parents and grandparents to teach children about the occupation and how the Allied Forces gave them back their freedom.

In fact, while they were in Grand Leez, a man came up to Matsel and handed him a note that says in part, "I was born in 1940. Now I am free. Thank you. Thank you eternally." Other villagers showed him crosses made from Plexiglass they scavenged from the downed B-17. 


By the way, Renee Dupont was there. He did pretty well for himself too. Dupont is now a rocket scientist who came back for the ceremony from Huntsville, Alabama where he worked on a project with NASA.

On Memorial Day, Matsel's group visited one of the big cemeteries where thousands of servicemen killed in World War Two are buried. He scoffs at the idea that his experience is special. "Every one of those guys is a story. What makes mine unusual is that someone was there who made the effort after 50 years to find out what happened to us, and decided to do something to show his appreciation."

Click here for the complete inscription on the Belgian monument.

Click here for full size view of Raoul Francois' letter.

Click here for a full size view of the note Matsel received in Belgium.