Would I have called him “Grandpa” or “Poppa”? Louis Paul Emile Piche was my grandfather, but I never got to meet him. He died as did thousands of others during World War II. Had he lived, I wonder what he would think of our world today. We do not seem to have evolved very much during the past 70 years. There is still so much conflict driven by greed and power masked under the guise of religious conviction. But this post is not a rant about that – it is about a man – my grandfather.
Louis Paul Emile Piche began his life in 1910 in the small French community of Upton in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. His mother was Aline St. Pierre and his father was Oscar Piche, a descendant of Pierre Picher who came to New France in 1661. Work was scarce in the years leading up to the Great Depression and Oscar moved his family to Montville, Connecticut in search of employment. Paul was 13 years old.
While working at the Empire Theatre in New London, Connecticut, Paul fell in love with the theatre’s bookkeeper, Mary and married soon after. It is thought that during these first few years of marriage that Paul learned to fly. He owned a Stinson Reliant SR-5 manufactured in Wayne, Michigan. Just as the young family was getting on its feet, New London was devastated by a fierce hurricane in 1938. Life in post-depression USA just became a lot more difficult.
As war broke out in Europe and Canada joined the allied forces to fight Hitler’s tyranny, Paul’s desire to contribute to the war effort grew stronger. As a father of two young children, Paul thought it would only be a matter of time before he would be called upon to fight. Paul was determined that if he was going to serve in WWII, he would do so for Canada.
He enlisted on December 19, 1940 in Montreal, Quebec and after a period of training became a flight instructor at the Elementary Flight Training School (EFTS) No. 13 in St. Eugene, Ontario. Paul moved his young family from New London, Connecticut to St. Eugene, Ontario where the family was billeted with the Brazeaus – a friendship that would last well beyond the war years.
As the war progressed, the flying schools were closed. Paul was initially posted to 127 Squadron in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and at 33 years of age, was considerably older than his squadron mates. 127 Squadron became 443 Squadron where it carried out defensive patrols of the Eastern seaboard. In December 1943, when 443 was informed that they were being posted overseas, Paul took a special leave and drove his wife and kids (now numbering four) back to New London to live with his parents. In early January 1944, he and his fellow 443 pilots and aircrew boarded a ship which took them across the North Atlantic arriving in Liverpool, England on January 31, 1944. This photo was taken shortly after their arrival:
Much has been written about the history of 443 Squadron during WWII but there was some mystery about the sudden disappearance of Paul and fellow Spitfire pilot, Art Horrell on October 11, 1944. Paul was ferrying Art a short distance from Grave, Belgium (B.82) to Antwerp, Netherlands (B.70) to pick up a Spitfire. After dropping off Art in Antwerp, Paul was to continue on to Brussels in order to find R & R for the ground crew. The weather had been foul during the previous weeks and was especially trying for the ground crew who were living in tents. Paul and Art were flying in an Auster V (MJ 669)and were never seen again.
The village of Ysselsteyn was liberated on October 17, 1944 and the burnt out shell of the Auster was found on October 28th two miles east of Deurne, but the bodies of the two pilots were not found. On October 25, 1944, Art’s dog tags were recovered from a German Prisoner of War.
For eight agonizing months, Paul and Art’s widows corresponded back and forth sharing information and hope that the two men were prisoners of war. It wasn’t until July 9, 1945 that the families of the two pilots were informed that the men were considered killed in action. Paul left behind his wife and five children – the fifth child only two months old at the time of Paul’s death. Mary lost her life to cancer four years later and the five children were orphaned.
Because the Piche children were so young when they lost their parents, they have very few memories of their father. Through a series of coincidences beginning with Pierre Lagace’s website in 2013, the Piche family was connected to relatives of Art Horrell and began the process of unravelling the mystery about Paul and Art’s death.
In December 2013, we were connected with residents of the tiny village of Ysselsteyn, Netherlands where the Auster crashed . The village is located close to the German border and was occupied by German forces throughout the war. Residents have initiated a project to commemorate the 44 planes which crashed near their village during WWII. Incredibly, no one in the village was killed from the plane crashes.
The Auster had been shot by a 20 mm calibre shell and was on fire when it crash landed in a field on the Jeurrissen family farm. Two eye-witnesses, now in their eighties maintain that the plane was flying very low and was travelling from the north when it crashed. This information was key in understanding the events leading up to the crash.
There were many German soldiers including members of the SS in the area because the front lines were nearby. The Germans soldiers on the Jeurissen farm were weary of the war but were terrified of the SS soldiers who were camped nearby. When the Auster crashed, the German soldiers immediately ran to the site of the crash where it is thought that one of the pilots was still alive. The Germans shot the two pilots and they were buried in unmarked graves on the Jeurissen family farm. A third soldier from ground forces was also buried at this location. The Jeurissen daughters tended to the graves until the bodies were moved to the British War Cemetary in Venray about 10kms from the crash site.
Since the Auster never checked into the airfield in Antwerp, it was assumed that the pilots landed and upon finding that the Spitfire was not there, initiated the return flight to Grave. We now know that the records are correct and Paul and Art never made it to Antwerp.
We will never know why Paul and Art were so far off course and found themselves in German-occupied territory. Was it poor visibility due to weather? Did they make an error in navigation? Did they lose their way due to flying so low? The Auster they were flying in was used for ferrying operations and carried no weapons. It was a simple plane made of stretched canvas over a frame.
The village of Ysselsteyn honours Paul and Art’s graves where they now lay side by side as they had died. The Piche family is grateful to Joe (Flying for Your Life) and Pierre Lagace (RCAF 443 Squadron)for their respective websites and the opportunity to pay homage to their father and grandfather.
Some of the official records about Louis Paul Emile Piche identify him as an American because his family had lived there. He gave his life defending the country that he and generations of Piches before him loved. Please know that Paul Piche from Upton, Quebec was a Canadian Spitfire pilot with 443 Squadron. He was a man. He was Oscar and Aline’s son, Jeanette’s brother, Mary’s husband, father to five children, and my grandfather. If any extended family members from pilots and crew from 443 Squadron have information about Paul, the Piche family would be grateful.
Additionally, I am looking to connect with family members from these 443 Squadron members:
- Thomas G. Munroe
- Len H. Wilson
- Percival Edward (Ed) Ferguson
- Cy E. Scarlett
- M. Vince Shenk
- William (Bill) Aziz.
I am co-writing a book about 443 Squadron and would like to provide family members with the opportunity to share stories and photos.
April 11, 2015 Update: Thanks to Alex Hunter – 96-year old Spitfire pilot for identifying the last unknown pilot in the photo above as E. Hal Fairfield. What an honour to speak with you this afternoon!