70 years later, small French town remembers NC pilot who crashed there

An American flag is folded over a marker honoring Lt. James Lowder Jr. in Jouarre, France.
An American flag is folded over a marker honoring Lt. James Lowder Jr. in Jouarre, France. Town of Jouarre

After more than 70 years, townspeople from Norwood in Stanly County and Jouarre, France, discovered – and honored – a link from World War II they never knew existed.

On July 8, 1944, the liberation of France in full bloom, a P-51 Mustang fighter plane crashed in woods near Jouarre, just east of Paris. The pilot died and was buried in an American cemetery in northeastern France – all but forgotten.

Until last year, when a small group of Jouarre war veterans set out to track down the pilot’s name. They discovered it was James Lowder Jr. from Norwood, 40 miles east of Charlotte.

In early July, Jouarre paid homage to the forever-young pilot with a moving dedication of two plaques they’d installed in his honor. The ceremony drew nine Norwoodians – including Lowder’s distant cousin – to the French farming community of 4,000, 50 miles east of Paris along the Marne River.

“The connection could have been in any small rural town in America,” said Les Young of Norwood, who helped organize the trip to France. “But James Lowder was one of ours. He belongs to Jouarre, too.”

For decades, Europeans have erected similar memorials and held similar remembrances to honor the sacrifice thousands of Americans made in World War II to liberate them from the grip of Nazi Germany. Those ceremonies have accelerated in recent years while warriors who took part are still alive to receive the appreciation.

Each June 6 on the D-Day anniversary, thousands of Europeans journey to the American cemetery at Normandy, France, to pay their respects to the thousands who died on the beaches below and battlefields beyond.

Last year, the town of Braintree/Bocking in England dedicated a memorial to a B-17 crew of 11 Americans on their way home when the bomber was clipped by another Flying Fortress on May 10, 1945 – two days after the war in Europe ended. Two of the 11 killed were from Charlotte.

Each Aug. 5, the people of Mayenne, France, celebrate Army Pvt. James Dougald McRacken of Red Springs, N.C., who less than a month after Lowder’s plane crashed died saving the town’s bridge and was given the title “the savior of Mayenne.” The town renamed the bridge Pont Mac Racken and in 1946 built a monument to McRacken where children lay cut flowers on the anniversary.

“Every day in … villages across France and in Western Europe, we are reminded of just how much support the American sacrifice receives overseas, and how it continues to resonate,” said John Wessels, a deputy secretary for the American Battle Monuments Commission who’s in charge of overseas operations. “We see tangible evidence day in and day out of European support for the American sacrifice.”

Crashed on 20th mission

Until this month, the only tribute to Lowder came in 1946, when VFW Post 6183 in Norwood was named after him.

Sixteen Norwoodians were killed in the war. “We had four or five kids in school whose daddies died in the war,” Young, 74, said. “They could have named the post for any of them.”

Lowder grew up on a farm near Norwood. His father, James Sr., was a World War I veteran and principal of the Aquadale School (he’d later become a state senator); his mother, “Miss Polly,” was a church organist.

Their son was studying agriculture at State College (N.C. State) when America was drawn into the war. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, although he had never flown. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, he joined the 358th Fighter Squadron of the 355th Fighter Group, based at RAF (Royal Air Force) Steeple Morden air field in England.

On the way back to England from his 20th mission, his squadron was strafing a German airfield when his plane crashed and blew up in woods outside Jouarre a day after Lowder was promoted to first lieutenant. None of the other pilots saw the plane get hit, a report said, and the cause of the crash is unknown.

Six months later, his only sibling’s husband, Wallace Shipplett of Norwood, a B-17 bombardier, was killed when his bomber crashed near Berlin. The families in Norwood asked that the two be buried side by side at Epinal, which includes 5,300 other Americans killed in the war.

“James’ parents and sister were planning to make the trip to France in the late 1960s, but by then his father had a heart condition and they never made it,” Young said.

Operation Mustang born

Young hadn’t thought of Lowder for years until a call came last year from Graeme Wright in Paris.

Wright had been hiking near Jouarre and read a sign about an unrelated World War II event. He asked in town about the incident and was told to talk to Claude Pottin, president of the local “Le Fraternelle,” an organization of war veterans.

By then the Fraternelle had undertaken Operation Mustang, an effort to find the identity of the pilot of the plane that had crashed in 1944 and honor him in a lasting way. Jouarre’s mayor, Fabien Vallée, endorsed the effort.

Wright spoke English, and Pottin asked if he’d help them find the pilot’s family.

A friend in England used military records to find Lowder’s name and hometown. And there was a VFW post in town named for him. Wright called the post and was led to Young.

The Fraternelle and Vallée, Wright said in an email, wanted to “create a trigger for those present and future … a trigger that, in whatever way, would cause people to ask questions, remember and perhaps reflect on the historic alliance between these two great countries.”

Linking the two towns

Wright invited a Norwood delegation to come for a ceremony near the time of the 71st anniversary. He asked Young to find relatives – but few were left. Lowder’s only nephew was unable to go. A delegation of nine, including distant cousin Chester Lowder, made the trip for the July 11 ceremony.

They flew to Paris and, before heading to Jouarre, took a train to Epinal to visit the graves of Lowder and Shipplett. There, sisters Jina (10) and Lina (12) Park of Norwood put red roses at the granite crosses. Chester Lowder spoke about his cousin, Young read a poem he’d written about Lowder, and the group recited Psalm 23.

Then it was on to Jouarre, where they were put up in a chateau built in 1760, fed four-course meals and treated to three full days of events. “We didn’t have any free time,” Young said. “The French were amazing hosts and had everything planned.”

At 9 a.m. on July 11, a small group of French and the Norwoodians gathered at the village cemetery where a stone marker with Lowder’s likeness was dedicated. Afterward, as the group headed to a plaza near the town hall, the crowd grew into the hundreds.

At noon, a P-51 Mustang flew laps around the town to signal the start of the ceremony. The national anthems of both countries were played. An American color guard from Ramstein Air Base in Germany presented the flags. Flowers from French veterans were given to the Norwoodians, who met three witnesses to the crash.

Then in a park, near where Lowder’s plane went down, the people of Jouarre unveiled a large historical marker with a Mustang pictured – and the crash’s story in French and English.

The Americans and French found more similarities than differences. Both towns farm, are built inside the fork of two rivers and are similar in size. Both towns hope the relationship will grow.

“Lt. Lowder is now forever a part of Jouarre’s history,” Wright wrote. “From that has risen a new friendship between two towns … and the linking of these two communities across the miles, across generations, is perhaps the legacy of Lt. Lowder himself.”

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