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65 years later, a WW II vet finally gets his own recognition

Posted by on May. 24, 2009 at 10:41 PM
  • 1 Replies

65 years later, hero's sacrifice honored

Historian puts name to pilot who saved villagers during World War II

Item Staff Writer


Sometimes, it takes time to recognize a hero. In the case of Lt. Walter F. Perra, it took 65 years.

But now, thanks to Art Sevigny, 20th Fighter Wing historian at Shaw Air Force Base, the villagers of Les Corvees, France, know the name of the 20th Fighter Wing pilot who saved their lives. And Perra's family knows how he died.

"It was an amazing turnout," said Sevigny, of the May 8 dedication ceremony that honored Perra's sacrifice. "But one (French) woman was upset. She couldn't understand why it took this long to recognize him. But, of course, they were doing this with thousands of bodies across Europe."

Assigned to the 20th Fighter Wing in April of 1944, Perra flew 20 combat missions in his P-38 Lockheed Lightening. According to Sevigny's research, his onboard camera took excellent footage of his strafing of a German supply train on June 14, 1944.

The next day, Perra was flying cover for bombers above the Loire Valley and for Allied soldiers trying to take the beaches at Normandy. Because he was at a low altitude, he took flak from German artillery. The bullets tore into one of his engines and caused it to burst into flames.

Three villages — Les Corvees, Dreux and Vernouillet — lay straight ahead.

"Villagers from Les Corvees watched in horror as a large fighter aircraft with an engine in flames descended rapidly over their village," recounted Mark Walter Perra, Perra's nephew, who was born three years after Perra died and who spoke at the ceremony. "The pilot stayed with his aircraft until he had cleared their town, thereby possibly preventing additional casualties. ... He bailed out — too late — hit the ground and was killed."

The Germans quickly came upon the body and stripped Perra of his clothing and identification. They removed all markings from his plane. Then they brought the body into town and covered it with rocks.

Eventually, the Perra family learned how the townspeople of the three villages stood up to the Germans and cared for Perra's body.

"As near as we've been able to tell, some of the villagers sought permission from the German commander to bury him, which was denied," said Sevigny. "But one individual begged and pleaded. Finally, the commander gave permission to bury the body, but without any box. More begging. I was told that the mayor of Vernouillet said to the commander, 'He's not a dog. You wouldn't bury one of your soldiers this way.'"

"Finally," Sevigny continued, "the commander relented. However, no adults were allowed to attend the funeral, except the vicar. Children were instructed to collect flowers and they held a procession. They placed the (flowers) into his hands and buried him."

Because Perra was still unknown, the Germans marked the grave with a small wooden cross that bore only the day he died. Perra's family was told that he was missing in action.

The next year, Allied soldiers liberated France and villagers led American soldiers to the grave. Perra's remains were moved to a temporary cemetery at St. Andres and then to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, where he joined more than 9,000 American soldiers who had died trying to take the nearby coast.

That's when Perra's family learned that he was dead. It wasn't until 2005 that they realized what he had done for the villagers of Les Corvees, however — after Sevigny contacted them, seeking information. As part of his research, Sevigny also traveled to Les Corvees and met with the children who had witnessed the plane crash and participated in the funeral procession. Until then, the residents had not known Perra's name.

Last month, Perra was honored with a ceremony, a memorial stone and a wreath in the town of Avern, home to the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor's Center, which opened in 2007. He is one of just five soldiers — and the only Air Force member — featured in the museum's film about the sacrifices of American soldiers.

But without Sevigny, it might never have happened.

"One of the great things about being a historian is that you actually get to do something useful," Sevigny said. "There was real benefit here. People could fill in pieces of their history and know what their family member had actually done during the war. Without this, they would not have, and that's great. It was also nice to highlight that the French are still very much appreciative of what we did during World War II."

Contact Staff Writer Annabelle Robertson at or (803) 774-1250.


Please, take a moment and remember those who lost their lives to protect us by giving up their own lives. They may even be someone you know. A family member, a co-worker, or a family friend. Keep them in your heart and mind today and give them a moment of silence to show that you are grateful for their sacrifice.

by on May. 24, 2009 at 10:41 PM
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by Corinne on May. 24, 2009 at 10:49 PM

That is awesome!!!!!  There is so much bad that you read, it is so nice to read stories that are just so great.

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