Landing in Honor of Liberty

The town of Vicheres, France, will honor Warrenton resident Robert Couture this summer for his emergency efforts during World War II
By Brad Urban, staff writer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Later this summer, Warrenton resident and former U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Robert Couture will return to the place where 61 years ago he made what he considers “the best landing I ever made.”

On June 7, 2005—61 years to the day from when Robert Couture crash-landed his P-51 Mustang fighter into a hill outside Vicheres, France—Couture will again be in Vicheres. Couture may be years removed from the war in which he fought, but when the Vicheres community honors him this summer by naming the hill on which he crashed in his honor, the memories of the war, and of those who helped him, will be refreshed in his mind.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Couture said of his visit. “I know I’ll choke up….It’s going to be interesting and emotional.”
Couture’s planning to make the trip to France started earlier this year when he and his wife Betty received a letter from one of the Vicheres residents, Bruno Chapelle. The letter said that Chapelle had discovered Couture’s name through the Internet and Chapelle was writing to see if it was the same Couture that had landed near Vicheres in 1944.

Chapelle informed Couture that the town council for Vicheres had noted in January to name the hill where Couture crashed in “honor of your participation and your devotion to the liberation of our country.”

Couture wrote back to Chapelle to let him know that he planned to attend the June dedication of the hill and to give him some history about his enlistment into the Army Air Corps and his service in Europe. Later, Couture also received a letter from a former mayor Vicheres who informed Couture of the dedication plans and requested his presence at the ceremony.

The ceremony, which will include members of the families that helped Couture recover from his wounds and evade capture, will dedicate a monument on the hill that tells the story of June 7, 1944.

While that particular day in Couture’s military service will be recognized this summer, the Warrenton man’s military journey began two years earlier, when the high school student that was preparing to graduate took a test that vaulted him toward military aviation.

Representatives of the Army’s aviation boards came to the Wisconsin native’s school in search of prospective airmen. Couture had never had a ride in an airplane before, but taking the test intrigued him—and it also meant a day out of school. Couture scored well on the test and he enlisted right out of high school into the Aviation Cadet program.

For the next year, Couture conducted light training on several different types of airframes as the military sped him along in a “hurry up” program. “You either did or they washed you out,” Couture said. “It was fast, (if) you dropped your pencil, you’ve lost a week.”

After just seven hours of flight time, Couture soloed in a Stearman airplane. He then moved on to train in the AT-6 and the P-40 before he graduated from light training Nov. 3, 1943. Then he moved to Florida for training in the P-51 Mustang. After logging about 50 hours in the airplane—which landed at 120 miles per hour and was capable of top speeds over 430 miles per hour—Couture boarded the New Amsterdam liner and headed to Great Britain in February of 1944.

After arriving in Scotland, Couture took a train to his base in Steeple Morden, England, and didn’t quite know yet what to make of his new environment.
“It was the uncertain(ty),” he said about entering the theater of war. “You didn’t know what to expect…you knew you were going to be flying and people would be shooting at you, but it didn’t quite sink in when you arrived.”

In the months leading up to the D-Day invasion, Couture and the rest of his squadron—which consisted of 16 aircraft—would conduct escort missions and ground attack missions on Nazi convoys.

On June 6—D-Day—the squadron conducted a patrol over Omaha Beach to protect the Allied assault on the beach from German aircraft. The next day, the squadron set out on “search and destroy” missions during which they were ordered to stop enemy convoys from heading toward Allied positions on the Normandy beaches.

The squadron ran into a German convoy and started its attack. Couture made two passes at the convoy and on his third pass his P-51 was struck by anti-aircraft fire. The fire had disrupted the airplane’s control system, and shrapnel struck Couture in his legs and in his head.
Couture flew the airplane as far away from the area as he could when he crash-landed on the hill near Vicheres. “I remember being scared as hell,” Couture said about the crash. “I had never bellied an airplane before.”

In spite of his fear, Couture remembers that the training that had been drilled into him “day after day” took over as he got out of the airplane and started to run toward Vicheres with a parachute still strapped on his back. He can still recall, as he approached the town, an image of a woman putting her hand to her mouth as she saw him—most likely with blood on his head—running toward Vicheres.

Couture was on the ground only 10 minutes before residents in Vicheres hid him away in a barn. He stayed in the barn that night, and then on June 8, two people took him to an open field and left him there until an older man came by that night to take him to a farm.

For five days, Couture remained at Marcel Rousseau’s farm as the family helped hide him from Nazis that were searching for him. They even had to hide him in a cave for a period of time. When Couture left the farm, a member of the family would walk in front of him and put down sheets of paper so Couture could step on the sheets so he wouldn’t leave footprints for the Germans to follow.

Couture was then moved to the home of Madame Celina Houpillart, a nurse that helped tend to Couture’s wounds. After spending a couple of days at Houpillart’s home, Couture was moved again to a camp of French resistance fighters. At the camp, he met two Belgian military officers, who were responsible for finding and gathering downed airmen. He along with several other soldiers established a camp in the woods called Freteval Forest.
Every day, new solders would come to the camp, which eventually grew to 152 soldiers that had come to fight in Europe from places around the globe. On August 13, 1944, the 3rd Army liberated the camp. After that, Couture was interrogated, sent home, and spent the next year in Florida as an instructor pilot.
Though he remained in the reserve forces until 1957. Couture spent the post-war years working for a trucking company in states around the Midwest as he served the company as a clerk, sales representative, and terminal manager. He also raised two daughters with his wife of 48 years.

After his first wife passed away, Couture met Betty—who had lost her husband—and the two married in 1997. Today, the couple has an extended family that includes 14 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Over the years, Couture has tried to keep in touch with some of the people he met and who helped him in France and he is looking forward to this summer when he can offer his thanks to the people that are paying respects to him. “It’s going to be a very emotional time to think of what they did for me.”

Villagers will honor flier they hid during WWII

By Tim Bryant
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wednesday April 27, 2005

Skimming above the French countryside at nearly 300 mph, 2nd Lt. Bob Couture spent the afternoon of June 7, 1944—the day after D-Day—hunting and strafing German army convoys until anti-aircraft fire knocked his P-51 Mustang fighter out of the sky.

Shrapnel hit the American flier in the head and legs. Smoke poured into the cockpit. The airplane’s controls jammed and its engine lost power. Couture was going down. Miles from where he was hit, Couture belly-flopped the Mustang onto a low hill outside Vicheres, a small village near the medieval city of Chartres.

Blood streaming from his wounds, Couture sprinted from the wrecked fighter, fearful it would explode.

“I jumped out and broke the 100-yard dash with the parachute on my back,” Couture said. “I didn’t know where I was. I was all by my lonesome.”
Skip ahead to this month. Couture, now 81, bags groceries part time at the Schnucks supermarket in Wentzville because he likes to keep busy. That won’t be a problem on June 7—exactly 61 years after he was shot down—because he will be back in France as the special guest of Vicheres residents who are commemorating the crash site in his name. “I’m humbled to say the least,” Couture said.

The French national veterans office and an association of Resistance veterans plan to unveil a plaque honoring Couture, who said he is eager to see some of those who for three months hid him and other American and Allied fliers from German occupiers.

Vicheres is thousands of miles from Rice Lake, Wis., where Couture graduated from high school then dashed to join the Army Air Corps. By the time he was 20, he was an officer and part of the 8th Air Force’s 354th Fighter Squadron, based at Steeple Morden, a town in southern England. In the months before D-Day, Couture flew missions over northern France but had little inkling the Allies were planning the massive invasion of Europe.

“They got us up at 2 in the morning on D-Day,” Couture recalled. “That was unusual. And the weather was lousy. We got a briefing and we took off in the soup.”

For 18 hours that day, he flew “top cover,” high-altitude missions to prevent German planes from attacking the Allied forces on Omaha Beach.
Couture never saw the anti-aircraft gunners who raked his plane the next day as he fired the Mustang’s six .50-caliber machine guns at a German convoy rushing to try to push the Allies back into the English Channel.

“On the third pass, they had the audacity to shoot back at me,” said Couture, chuckling slightly. “They hit me.”

Vicheres residents rushed to the crash scene, said Couture, adding that he vividly recalls a woman who gaped at his bloody face and screamed.
A farmer and his daughter, about to celebrate her first Communion, bandaged Couture’s wounds and hid him in their barn. Over the next few days, locals moved him to other houses and even a cave to elude German soldiers. At one point, a doctor with the Red Cross symbol on the top of his car quietly stopped by to treat Couture’s wounds.

Eventually, he and other downed fliers were taken to a Resistance-organized camp in the dense Freteval forest, near the Loire Valley town of Cloyes. Farmers aided the camp by providing mutton and rabbit the fliers cooked over low fires. With the help of a Resistance member, Couture risked a trip to Cloyes, where a doctor treated the American’s festering wounds.

“There were German soldiers on every corner.” Couture said.

On the return trip, a flat tire disabled his borrowed bike and he walked the rest of the way. On the lonely road, he passed two young German soldiers, who barely glanced at Couture even though he wore his GI shoes as part of the “peasant” look he had adopted.

More than 150 soldiers from the United States, Britain and other Allied nations used Freteval as a refuge until Aug. 13, 1944 when a U.S. armored column swept through the area and brought them to freedom.

He was then sent to Florida where he taught pilots P-51 flying tactics until he left the military shortly after the war ended in 1945.
He went home to Rice Lake and began what turned out to be a 33-year career with a trucking company. He married and had two daughters. A job transfer sent the family to St. Louis in 1968.

After leaving the trucking company, Couture ran a grocery, the Village Market, in St. Charles. His wife, Priscilla, died in 1994. They were married for 48 years. The following year, Couture was working as a bagger at Schnucks in Harvester when he struck up a conversation with a woman in the parking lot. That woman, Betty Lewis, later became his wife, and they live in Warrenton. They celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary last week.

Couture shrugs off his ordeal in France by saying his military training helped him survive. Still, he and the others who hid in Freteval marked their exit from the war in a civilian way.

“The first day we all drank so much wine—on an empty stomach,” he said. “We got sicker than dogs, celebrating.”

Please contact the St. Charles County Veterans Museum Oral History project at sccvetsmuseum@gmail.com or call 636-294-2657 for more information and lets’ talk. We want to hear from you because we know…Every Veteran has a story.