Jardine: WWII pilot killed in France soars anew

05/03/2009 4:06 AM

02/15/2012 8:58 PM

To the people of a small area in northern France, he was an unknown American fighter pilot who gave his life rather than crash his burning plane into their village.

To the people of Modesto and certainly the vast majority of those now living in his hometown of Ceres, his is simply another name etched into granite monuments listing those killed in war -- memorialized but not really remembered.

And to his nephew, he was for decades more legend than real: the dashing and daring uncle who galloped horses, flew planes and died for his country.

Now, nearly 65 years after he died, Walter F. Perra has been brought back to life in fact, documents, lore, video and tribute. His memory will be honored Friday in a ceremony in the Les Corvées district of Vernouillet, France, where he died June 15, 1944.

Ceres native Mark Perra, the nephew born three years after Walter's death, will speak at the ceremony.

"I'm going back to thank this village for doing what we couldn't," Mark Perra said. On behalf of his family, he'll thank them for giving him a proper burial and for treating him as one of their own.

Walter Perra's story is one of bravery and sacrifice, no different from those of so many others who gave their lives during World War II and other wars. Perra's story, though, took decades to assemble even though he lived only 24 years.

He grew up on the farm his parents, Richard and Ida Perra, owned at Service Road and Central Avenue. The third of four boys, Walter graduated from Ceres High in 1937. He studied aeronautics at Modesto Junior College and went to work designing aircraft fuel systems at Consolidated Vultee, which developed the B-24 Liberator bomber and other planes in Southern California.

Perra had two passions: flying planes and riding horses.

"I saw a pattern of Walter being drawn to where he's in control of really powerful animals and machines," Mark Perra said. "That's what he derived his joy from."

And what drove him from designing planes to flying them in combat.

"We're pretty sure Walter didn't have to sign up for pilot training," Mark Perra said. "He was in a critical position in a critical industry. I doubt he would have had to volunteer for the service, but that's what he wanted to do."

Walter joined the Army Air Corps to become a P-38 Lightning fighter pilot, completing his training in 1943. While at a base near Salinas, he once buzzed the family farm during a training run.

Soon after, he steamed to England on the Queen Mary to join the 20th Fighter Group, 77th Fighter Squadron, based at King's Cliffe.

On June 6, 1944, Walter -- now a second lieutenant -- flew cover for bombers that pounded German gun placements and for the Allied soldiers trying to take the beaches at Normandy. He noted in his flight record, "June 6-7-8 -- flew fleet support, E-Channel (English Channel)."

As Allied forces moved inland, the flyboys attacked bridges and trains. Walter's onboard camera took remarkable film footage of him strafing a German supply train on June 14.

Flying at low altitude the next day, flak from German artillery tore into one of his engines, and it burst into flames. He knew his plane would crash, and the villages of Les Corvées, Dreux and Vernouillet loomed in his path.

"Some say he was about to crash in the village of Dreux and he may have stayed with his plane to guide (it) into a field nearby. In either case, at the last moment, he bailed out but was already too near the ground and was killed instantly about 100 yards from where his plane crashed," according to an account from French and American publications at the time.

German soldiers swept in to take his dog tags and flight jacket along with the plane's instruments and ID markings.

"(But) ... the mayor of the village preserved the plane number, 02104067, the plane was named 'Little Bug' and four swastikas were painted on the side," the report continued.

The information later enabled the Americans to identify Perra as the plane's pilot, and the swastikas likely represented his prior "kills" of German aircraft in his 18 missions.

For four days, the Germans, who still controlled the area, refused to let the locals bury this unknown pilot. And when they finally relented, the Germans refused to allow the French to bury him in a wooden casket.

Military historian Art Sevigny, who visited the region to research Perra's death, wrote that Vernouillet's mayor argued: "He is not a dog. You wouldn't bury your soldier that way."

The German commander finally allowed them to build the coffin. They marked Perra's grave with a small wooden cross bearing the day he died and adorned it with flowers. A group of children, four of whom had witnessed the crash, were among those who attended his funeral.

The following November, the Germans driven out, the villagers led Allied soldiers to the grave. His remains were moved to an interim military cemetery at St. Andres and then to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, joining more than 9,000 other Americans buried near the beaches they died trying to take.

Back home in Ceres, the Perra family knew only that Walter had been declared missing. A day or so after receiving his MIA notification, they received a letter he had written shortly after the D-Day invasion.

Not until Jan. 22, 1945, did they receive a personal letter from Gen. Hap Arnold informing them that Walter had been killed.

The family mourned, Mark Perra said, in a quiet and dignified way that muted their heartache. Over time, they received the dog tags the Germans had stripped from his body in 1944. They received his deceased soldier's file, which detailed every flight he took while in training and in battle. It included his medals, a Purple Heart among them.

"They collected stuff," Mark Perra said. "They didn't study it. It was too painful."

Mark Perra's father, Medrick Perra, kept it all, though.

"My parents (both now deceased) were pack rats," Mark said. "They saved everything."

While he often wondered about his uncle, it took a lucky break to get some real information about how Walter had died. In 2002, Mark Perra and his wife, Joanne, vacationed in France.

"We traveled to Normandy, and I believe it was the first time any family member had visited the grave site," he said.

A year later, he got a call from Sevigny, who was looking for relatives of Walter Perra. The American Battle Monuments Commission was preparing to build a new visitors center at the Normandy American Cemetery.

"They wanted to tell some of the stories of courage, competence and sacrifice of what it took to take that beach and move inland -- not through the eyes of the generals and strategists, but through the men who fought and died there," Mark Perra said.

They wanted to include an airman and found Walter Perra's story most intriguing.

Sevigny visited Les Corvées in 2005 and met with those who had been the children who witnessed the plane crash and attended Walter's funeral. Until then, the residents of the village never knew Walter's name, his hometown or anything else about him.

From Walter's file, Mark Perra discovered that when Walter's remains were taken from his original grave to St. Andres, his identity had not been confirmed.

"He was buried as Unknown X-121," Mark Perra said. "It was only later that Unknown X-121 was conclusively identified as Lt. Perra. ... In part, this accounts for the initiative to build a memorial for Walter now: (They) finally know who this person was."

As do those who enter the Normandy American Cemetery's visitors center, which opened in 2007. Guests watch "On Their Shoulders," a video that repeats every seven minutes.

Walter Perra is one of the men featured in the video, which, by pure coincidence, is narrated by Modesto native Harve Presnell.

The video's creator, Max Lewkowicz of New York, produced other videos that also feature Walter Perra. One of them, called "Sacrifice," includes footage Mark Perra came across while sifting through his uncle's belongings.

"I found this steel tin -- a large, round tin," Mark Perra said. "Inside were a whole bunch of rolls of 8-millimeter movies. They hadn't been looked at for 60 years."

Lewkowicz sent them to the National Archives to be digitized and preserved.

"There was film of (Walter) flying (near Modesto), the skies just as clear and clean and blue as you could imagine," said Mark Perra, who now lives in the East Bay. "There were shots taken on the family farm. Where there were open fields are now buildings and trees and development. The barn is gone now. It's striking how different it was."

The family's address -- Route 1, Box 152 -- is directly across the street from Ceres' newest high school, Central Valley.

Much of the Walter Perra memorabilia -- including photos, letters, high school yearbooks and military records -- is on display at Tom Hillier's museum at Modesto Airport.

The museum houses a Boeing Stearman PT-13B plane that Walter Perra very likely flew while training at the Cal-Aero Academy in Ontario in the 1940s. Hillier and Mark Perra became friends because of Walter.

"We all have grown to think we know Walter from knowing this guy right here," Hillier said, pointing to Mark one recent afternoon. "There's a piece of Walter in Mark."

Mark and Joanne Perra soon will leave for France to attend the unveiling of a monument in his uncle's honor and to thank the people who built it. Among them will be the four children -- now adults in their 70s -- who witnessed Walter's death and helped protect his remains.

Nearly 65 years later, the villagers finally can call him by name.

His family finally understands how he died.

And nephew Mark Perra -- Mark Walter Perra -- knows his uncle, even if they never truly met.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com

To view the Walter F. Perra exhibit, call 526-8297 or visit www.HillierAirMuseum.com for directions, hours and information.

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