by Rita Richardson
Discovering the story of Captain Peal
The request from Steve Schmoldt came in the form of a forwarded email in October of 2007: Captain Charles M. Peal—a twenty-five-year old WWII ace fighter pilot from Nashville and graduate of Hume-Fogg High School—was killed while flying a mission over Crouy, France. In appreciation, the people of Crouy erected a monument in memory of Captain Peal and named a street after him. “Therefore, I propose that the citizens of Nashville extend their hand in friendship in appreciation of Crouy's care and respect in honoring the memory of Captain Peal,” he wrote, “and declare Nashville and Crouy Friendship Cities.”
I was intrigued. I called and met with Mr. Schmoldt. I learned that while working as a cemetery groundskeeper in Nashville, he had noticed with dismay that the grave marker of Captain Charles M. Peal was in disrepair. He asked his supervisor for permission to refurbish it. In working on the marker, Mr. Schmoldt’s curiosity led him to the Internet and to the Tennessee State Archives for research that revealed the details of native Nashvillian Captain Peal’s death.
While flying over Crouy, a tiny village about seventy-two miles northeast of Paris, Captain Peal saw an enemy supply train loaded with munitions stopped at the Crouy train station and fired on it. The train exploded, Captain Peal’s plane was caught up in the explosion, and he was killed. The townspeople of then occupied Crouy retrieved the soldier’s body and risked their own lives to give him a proper funeral service and burial in the town cemetery. After the war, Captain Peal’s parents were asked if they wished to transfer the body of their beloved son to a U.S. military cemetery in France or to bring him home and bury him in a cemetery here in Nashville. They wanted him home.
After my meeting with Mr. Schmoldt, my family and I went to Woodlawn Cemetery in Nashville. We found Captain Peal’s grave. His marker is simple but looks shiny and new; his mother and father are buried next to him. In the following days, I was shown pictures of young Charlie, as he was known to his family and friends. I saw his Senior Signature in the Hume-Fogg yearbook and the description of him as “bashful” by his classmates. And I saw a picture of Captain Peal and his bride Norma Moore beaming with joy on their wedding day, only a couple months before he was killed.
Steve Schmoldt’s Friendship City proposal began gaining traction. The proposal to twin the two cities was quickly and unanimously passed by the city councils in both Nashville and Crouy. A date was set for the twinning ceremony, and thanks to the generosity of former SCN president James A. Webb III, a trip was arranged for Mr. Schmoldt to be in Crouy, France for the ceremony. On February 11, 2008, Crouy, France and Nashville, Tennessee were to officially become International Friendship Cities, and I would have the privilege of accompanying Mr. Schmoldt and serving as his interpreter.
A surprise awaits us in Crouy
A couple weeks before the scheduled trip, I wrote to the mayor of Crouy with a request: if there were any people in the village that remembered the events surrounding Captain Peal’s death, we would love to meet and talk with them. Upon our arrival we learned that, in fact, we would be given the opportunity to meet and interview six townspeople who witnessed Captain Peal’s plane crash. Their ages at the time ranged from thirteen to twenty-one.
One French gentleman, Georges Carpentier—18 years old at the time and today 85, had actually collected Captain Peal’s remains and took them to the building that served as the town morgue. He was emotional as he explained that even now, at night as he’s falling asleep, he can still smell the burning fuel and flesh. He told me that when he found the pilot’s hand, he saw that he was a young man, and he remembers feeling very sad. Monsieur Carpentier then asked me to make sure Captain Peal’s family and all Nashvillians know that Captain Peal was given a very dignified funeral. He explained that the townspeople woke up very early for the funeral and were very quiet, so as not to awaken their occupiers. He added that there were so many flowers on Captain Peal’s gravesite that it was completely covered up.
That afternoon, after the interview, Mr. Schmoldt and I took part in a procession – complete with a French color guard. The procession began at Crouy’s city hall and continued down the street that bears the name Rue du Capitaine Peal —the same street that leads to Captain Peal’s monument, which is located near the spot where his plane went down. We lay a wreath on Captain Peal’s monument and we listened as the anthems of our two nations were played.
That evening, we attended the official signing ceremony, which was very moving. At the ceremony, a French version of the Sister Cities proclamation bearing the signatures of Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Crouy Mayor Bernard Pitois was read aloud. The beautifully defines the mission of Sister Cities.
One Sunday morning in late September 2008, I was having coffee with my husband Tim when I began talking about my Friendship City experience. Tim listened patiently, as he usually does, as I rambled on and on. Finally, my monologue led me to the realization that there was a missing character in this story. Let me explain: I had read documentation published by the town of Crouy for the 50th anniversary commemorating Captain Peal’s death. I explained to my husband that in the description of the funeral, there was mention of a young man. It said that this young man risked his life at the funeral to read words of gratitude. His name was Lionel Lebeau. There was no Lionel Lebeau in Crouy for the twinning ceremony. Nonetheless, I had a strong feeling that he was still alive.
I slipped quietly to my computer and did a quick Google search on Lionel Lebeau in the Picardie region of France. There was indeed a Lionel Lebeau who had been the mayor of a small town in the 60’s, about 45 minutes from Crouy. A little more research, and I found that there were two listings for the name Lionel Lebeau. I picked the first one and called the number. A man answered, and the voice I heard indicated he was probably an older gentleman. I could feel my heartbeat start to pick up speed.
Bonjour, C’est Lionel Lebeau?
And then I explained who I was, “Rita Richardson de Nashville dans le Tennessee aux Etats-Unis.” He was a little surprised to hear this and said, “Continuez.”
I’m calling because I’m doing some research. May I ask you a few questions?
Did you ever live in the town of Crouy?
Did you live there during the war?
And do you happen to remember there was an American soldier whose plane went down….
He didn’t let me finish my question.
Yes, and I read a word of gratitude at his funeral.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing—“It was YOU!” I exclaimed. “Oui, mais c’était pas grand chose,” he said. It wasn’t a big deal. “I was 19 at the time, and a group of young people decided that it was the right thing to do, so we organized the ceremony.”
“Oh it is a big deal, M. Lebeau,” I replied. And then I explained the Friendship City story to him. I told him I was sorry I hadn’t gotten to meet him when I was in Crouy the preceding February. But I did meet another gentleman, Georges Carpentier, who also was at Captain Peal’s funeral.
Ah, Geo Geo—c’était mon copain! He was my friend! I haven’t seen him in thirty years!
I thanked M. Lebeau on behalf of all the citizens of Nashville for what he had done for our soldier, and I reassured him that Geo Geo is looking very well and that he would probably love to hear from him.
A simultaneous commemoration
August 2009 marked the 65th anniversary of the death of our native son Captain Charles M. Peal. On August 26, the city of Nashville joined our Friendship City Crouy, France in a simultaneous commemoration ceremony. At the same moment in time (9:00 a.m. in Nashville, 4:00 p.m. in Crouy), our two cities--which are forever linked because of this soldier’s bravery and sacrifice--remembered and paid tribute to him, as well as all the soldiers who have fought for our freedoms. Additionally, we showed our gratitude to the citizens of Crouy for risking their safety to give our soldier a dignified funeral and for continuing to honor his memory for the sixty-five years since his death.
The ceremony is open to the public. I am told that both Georges Carpentier and Lionel Lebeau will attend the ceremony in Crouy.
Tennessean article uncovers more of the story
An article about Captain Peal appeared in the Tennessean Memorial Day 2009. It gave a summary of his story and mentioned the commemoration for Captain Peal in August. About a week after the story was published, I received a phone call from Donna Stafford, the daughter of Captain Peal’s widow, Norma Moore. (Norma remarried after the war and had two daughters.) Donna had heard about Charlie growing up but hadn’t asked many questions about him. She told me that she remembers a model airplane that was displayed in her living room, a replica of the one Charlie flew, with the name Miss Norma painted on the side. She was calling me because she had some documents and photos that she thought I’d be interested in.
I received her packet on June 17, 2009. I was overwhelmed by the contents: a beautiful 8 X 10 photo of ; another one of Charlie’s mother Josephine; and a collection of Norma’s very descriptive first-hand accounts of her ti
me as a nurse on the front lines. Norma had sent these Army Nursing Overseas letters to her church, and the church in turn published them in their Sunday bulletin.
After Norma and Charlie were married, Charlie returned to the war and Norma followed soon after. She was stationed in England, not far from Charlie’s base. While on the ship, one day before she was to arrive in England, Norma received news that Charlie had been killed. Norma, now a young bereaved widow, had to remain in Europe to serve in the Army. And serve she did. In these documents are details of her harrowing experiences that included caring for the starving prisoners in the Langenstein concentration camp. “Each prisoner had a small number tatooed on his arm” she writes. ”Many kissed our hands as we fed them their first small portion of food. However, some were so far gone, they died as we were feeding.