Digging up history: Writer Laurent Viton and Chantal Oliver, owner of the property where pieces of the plane were found. Photo supplied
Digging up history: Writer Laurent Viton and Chantal Oliver, owner of the property where pieces of the plane were found. Photo supplied
1
2
People used to say World War II pilot John Hartley-Watlington was the man who came back from the dead.

That's because he was missing for a nearly a year after his plane was shot down on June 22,1943 over France.

His mother even got the chilling news that her son, who was 23 at the time, was dead. Months later, she learned he was alive. His plane had crashed, but he had made a parachute landing in Nazi-occupied France and spent the next 11 months wandering through Europe, trying to evade capture by German soldiers.

After his cloak and dagger existence, he returned to Bermuda by way of Gibraltar, England and Canada and went on with his life.

He dictated the story of his odyssey to his mother, who took it down in shorthand. It was published as "Under Cover in France" in Bermuda Historical Quarterly in 1949, four years after the war had ended.

His daughter, internist Dr. Marion Watlington, the eldest of his four children, said she grew up very aware of her father's wartime experiences, but he didn't talk about them very much.

Mr. Watlington died in 1988 at age 69, but the final pieces in his story have been literally unearthed in a garden. For his children, Marion, Hartley, Tom and Betsy, it's as if Mr. Watlington has come to life again.

Last November, French history buff Laurent Viton, who is writing a book about Allied planes shot down in France during the war, discovered the wreckage of Mr. Watlington's single-seater Mustang fighter plane in the garden of a home in Preuseville, France.

In May, Dr. Watlington and her husband Peter Vorley, in France for the French Open tennis tournament, made an emotional side trip to Preuseville to meet Mr. Viton. They stayed one night at the home of the owners of the property in whose garden the remnants of Mr. Watlington's plane were found and also met Roger Bourgeois, who was a teenager at the time of the crash.

Mr. Bourgeois told the local newspaper that reported on Dr. Watlington's visit: "I remember very well that time. Many people from around the region came to see the crash site. The Germans were letting us close despite the fact that they were investigating the whereabouts of the pilot."

Dr. Watlington said Mr. Bourgeois greeted her with tears in his eyes and told her: "I can't tell you what it means to met you, to meet the daughter of someone who risked his life like that."

It was, she said, "very touching, very heartwarming."

Dr. Watlington is speaking publicly about the discovery of her father's plane wreck on the eve of Remembrance Day as a tribute to her father and all those who fought in World War II.

She said: "I hope [the story will] touch those who are still alive and to say that we all appreciate what they did at that time.

"It's just one example of the many war stories that exist. It's important to remember them."

The final chapter in her father's war story began last year with an e-mail inquiry from Mr. Viton that was forwarded to her after an appeal in The Royal Gazette.

The two began communicating by e-mail and she sent him photos and a copy of Bermuda Historical Quarterly, with her father's story.

His detailed report made it possible for Mr. Viton to pinpoint the actual location of the crash.

"The French keep records of all the planes that were shot down over the Normandy area, " Dr. Watlington said. "He was able to determine from the book the date that my father was shot down. There was only one plane shot down that night. He was able to determine where it was shot down and where it landed in France."

In March of this year, Mr. Viton drove to Preuseville, which is about an hour from his home, with his metal detector.

He reported in an e-mail: "Finally I went to your father's crash site last Sunday. I thought one hour would be enough. In fact, I spent all the day there, talking about your father with the owner and finding bits of his Mustang so easily (over 20 pounds)."

He also found some bullets, he said. He told her the owners, Englishman Stephen Oliver and his French wife Chantal, were unaware of the pieces of history that lay buried in their garden, but were very enthusiastic about the discovery.

When she told Mr. Viton of her plans to visit Paris, he said he would take her to the crash site. She and her husband spent several days in Preuseville, and visited places Mr. Watlington had mentioned in his story. Mr. Viton drove in to meet them. He gave her some of pieces of the plane to take home, but she left the bullets behind.

"We did a little digging up ourselves, he showed me how he did it. We pulled up a couple of more pieces," she said. "It was very emotional."

She said Mr. Viton works in a post office and is married with two young children. "He just has this thing about history. He loves to research and he likes working in the job he works so he has time to devote to writing and research. He hopes to get a book out of this."

John Hartley Watlington grew up on Victoria Street, Hamilton, the oldest of three brothers, all of whom are now deceased. Hal did not serve in the war, he was younger than Hubert by about 10 years. John Watlington attended Saltus Grammar School and Ridley College in Canada. He spent most of his adult life in Somerset, where he moved several years after his marriage. Faith Watlington was a Canadian nurse, who was taking care of Mr. Watlington's mother when both sons were serving overseas. Dr. Watlington said one of her mother's responsibilities was to help her grandmother, who had cancer, come to terms with a bittersweet reality- that while one son was alive and awarded a medal for valour, the other, her eldest, would not be coming back. She said Faith Watlington was captivated by the story of the man who came back from the dead - she met her father at a party after he had returned to Bermuda.

Mr. Watlington and his brother Hubert joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, after serving in the local forces and training to fly at the Bermuda Flying School.

He was attached to the first Canadian squadron of 50 men to reach England after war was declared. As a fighter pilot, his job was to do night patrols and attack enemy trains in France. On the night, he was shot down, he was flying at a low altitude to attack a train station when his plane was hit by a bullet. Despite having a damaged radiator and a cockpit filling up with fumes, he managed to take the plane to 2,000 feet to establish contact with England. He then climbed up to 9,000 feet, an altitude that was safe enough for him to make a parachute landing.

He wrote in Under Cover in France: "The moonlight was brilliant and below me lay a great countryside which I began to observe with growing interest. Faintly, in the distance, I could hear my plane falling; and soon afterwards saw the fire on the ground on which it crashed."

From there it was the start of a race against time, according to the report in the local French paper in May, to get back to England. Mr. Watlington wrote about how he removed everything from his uniform, including his badges that would have identified the army he was serving with and hid out in a field for a time. Then he inspected his escape kit, which included French and Belgium money, maps of Western Europe, chocolate and energy pills - before starting his wanderings through France.

He decided to make his way to Gibraltar. "It so happened," he wrote, "that Gibraltar was reached by the grace of God, the good French people, a few Dutchmen and a British Consulate in Spain."

He was helped by a shepherd, French people who supported the Allies and policemen who directed him to a train. He used fake IDs, travelled to Brittany where a Royal Navy ship that was supposed to pick him up failed to arrive.

There were hideouts in several French towns, after he made his way to Paris. Eventually, he was smuggled across the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and flown back to England.

From England, he went to Halifax where he was reunited with his brother, who by then was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Medal. The brothers arrived home on July 10,1944, a day before their mother's birthday.

Mr. Watlington wanted to return to the front, but the war by then was winding down, Dr. Watlington said. He met and married her mother, Faith, worked as an accountant and later operated Somerset Pharmacy. He had a debilitating illness for the last 20 years of his life, but was an avid sailor even after he took ill. She said her parents visited France in 1954, when they met many of the people who had given him shelter. Her youngest sister Betsy was conceived on that trip.

She said: "He retraced his footsteps and tried to visit all the people that had hid him. He and my mother kept in touch through Christmas cards and birth announcements . My mother was still getting Christmas cards until her death this year. Slowly people are dying off. "

When her brother Hartley visited France on his honeymoon in 1990, he was shown a room in a chateau where his father was hidden. She said the owners had kept the room like a museum.

Of the whole experience she said: "I was the oldest one in the family. My father and I always had a very special relationship that was very important to me. He died in '88 after a long debilitating illness. He just left this legacy to us all, having fought in the war… They went at such a young age and now I have two children of my own that are both sons and I think how on earth could anyone at that age go over there with such bravery and sense of indestructibility?

"It was extraordinary and then to be lost in France for nine or 10 months, and nobody knew whether he was alive or dead. And to face such dangers. He was a hero to me in many ways. So to have this man e-mail me and take such interest in it brought my father back alive to me and then to go over there and to touch pieces of the plane that he sat in and survived the crash of, it was very touching. To see this man and to see these people want to keep the memory of those who fought alive."

She said her brothers and sister, all of whom live in Bermuda, were moved by the experience as well. Seeing the remnants of the plane she brought back was for them a way of reaching out and touching him, even though he has "passed over the other side."

Her mother died in February, knowing that Mr. Viton had embarked on his search for the plane, but before the pieces were discovered. Her mother didn't think he would find any pieces - they had tried back in 1954. Dr. Watlington said her mother would have been very "touched" that they turned up.

So what does she intend to do with the pieces of the plane? "Maybe putting a piece in a shadow box for each of us children. I don't know what we will do with the rest of the pieces.

"I was showing them to a cousin the other night, he was all excited. He wanted me to go back to France to get the rest of the pieces.

"I don't know what will happen. A couple of pieces will go up to the Maritime Museum.

"They will be mementoes for our family."