Henry Quimby knew his plane was going down.
It was Aug. 3, 1944, and Quimby was flying over the hedgerows of Normandy when his P-47 Thunderbolt was hit by flak.
The plane went into a tailspin. Quimby, a 25-year-old squadron commander, hoped he wouldn’t crash into a hedge.
The plane struck a tree in a field. Quimby was alive, but his plane was mangled and burning. The tree ripped off one wing, and the engine careened into the field.
Two Frenchmen on a nearby farm saw it happen.
“They went to see: ‘Is this thing going to blow up?’ ” Skip Quimby, Henry’s son, recalled recently at his home in Kansas City. “They went and got two friends nearby, and they all went to the plane. They saw Dad raise an arm and flop back down.”
The men pulled him from the wreckage and hid him in their barn amid the hay. They had to be swift in their rescue: German troops were stationed to the east.
One of the Frenchmen, 19-year-old Raymond Joseph, rode his bicycle to town to track down the American troops stationed nearby. A translator came, and Quimby was rescued a few hours later.
The men never spoke again. Quimby never talked about the rescue, and his children never knew about it.
Then, 50 years later, a letter arrived in Kansas City.
“Out came a photograph of what looks like a crashed airplane and a letter,” said Skip, 67. “I said, ‘Well, that’s gotta be my dad’s airplane. He crashed in France.’ ”
It was lucky the letter, which was from Joseph and his son, Clem, even reached Skip.
Soon after the rescue, Henry wrote to the farmer who owned the land where he crashed. Henry had no memory of what had happened right after the crash, and he asked the farmer to explain the sequence of events. On the envelope, Henry left the return address of his parents’ home in Waldo.
Raymond and Clem, who lived on the adjacent farm, found the address and sent the letter in 1994. By then, the Waldo house had new occupants, but they found Skip in the phone book and forwarded the letter.
The message, penned by Raymond, had a request: “After all this time, we hope you are in good health and that you have forgotten that terrible time. We would like to hear from you and hopefully see you again in Normandy so we can show you in detail where everything happened.”
Skip was floored. He replied, explaining that his father had died in 1977, nearly 20 years before the letter arrived. Skip couldn’t go to Normandy that time, but he struck up a correspondence with Clem.
They wrote back and forth, developing a friendship that has endured more than 20 years. Since then, they have met three times. The third time was last month, when Clem and his fiancee visited Skip and his family in Kansas City.
Sitting around Skip’s kitchen table, they pored over old letters and a hand-drawn map of Clem’s family farm. They talked about the war and reminisced about the unusual circumstances that brought them together.
The sons have strikingly different memories of how they learned of Henry’s rescue. Clem grew up hearing his father and grandfather tell the story of the man he pulled from the plane.
“When I was young, it was always … ‘I’d like to know about that pilot,’ ” Clem said, eyeing photographs of Skip’s father in his airplane. “They both told us when I was young. Repeating and repeating, ‘What about that pilot? What about that pilot?’ ”
Henry’s children, on the other hand, had never heard the story from their father.
His arms were scarred from burns he endured in the crash. He coached Skip’s childhood baseball team, and other men on the field would ask Henry about it.
“He just wouldn’t talk about it,” said Jayne Quimby, his daughter. “He just wanted to talk about happy times. He was a jokester, you know?”
Henry went on to work in sales at a bank in the River Market. Skip said his father never loved his job, partly became there wasn’t much room for advancement. His passion was always flying.
The year they sent the letter, Clem’s family visited the U.S. to spend Thanksgiving with Skip’s family. To dinner, Raymond brought Calvados, a traditional French apple brandy, and pieces of the airplane he had salvaged decades earlier.
In exchange, Skip’s family gave Raymond their father’s Purple Heart. At his father’s funeral, Clem tucked the medal away in a suit pocket, hidden from view. He said it kept him strong when he had to give a speech that day.
“I think Clem’s father sort of claimed my dad as his own — part of his story that touched his life and was important to him,” Skip said.
Skip, a creative director who now lives in Loch Lloyd, turned the plane wreckage into art. He commissioned his friend Steve Mayse, a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, who used the pieces and a photograph of Henry to craft an assemblage.
And Raymond got his wish a few years later when Skip and his family traveled to Normandy and the site where his father crashed. The mayor, two councilmen and town residents gathered to greet them.
“They introduced me as the pilot’s son,” Skip said. “And everybody knew who that was.”
Clem, 52, still lives nearby the original crash site. He has an orchard and produces a traditional Normandy hard apple cider. Memories of the war are all around him, and the people in the village often find remnants in their fields and around the town.
The war, and Henry’s crash, are part of Clem’s identity.
“Our families became friends,” Skip said while the two reminisced last month.
“Became family,” Clem said. “I’m your French family. You’re my American family.”