WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – A Wichita family is finally finding answers about their loved one’s time in World War II. It’s a journey that spans more than seven decades and thousands of miles.
SSgt. Jack Garrett was a tail gunner in WWII, but rarely talked with his family about his service.
When he passed away in 2007, his family didn’t expect to learn much more about his time in France.
Then American missionary Mark Nelsen, who serves in France, reached out to the family and said he had been speaking with people in the small French village of Niort, and had learned so much more about Jack’s final flight, where he landed and where he was for the six months he was declared Missing in Action.
Years later, a French woman reached out to the U.S. Air Force, and said she was going through some of her mother’s things and needed to find the family of Jack Garrett.
JoAnn and Jim Schiefelbein are Jack’s daughter and son-in-law.
“That’s Jack right there,” Jim said.
Jack was just 19 years old when he volunteered to serve.
A few years later, WWII broke out.
“They knew they were in the fight of their life,” JoAnn said.
Jack was with the 448th Bomb Group, which made bomb raids over France.
His son-in-law says he and Jack once watched a documentary about the war and the aircraft on the screen went down.
“They make a noise, the motors, as they are going down, and Jack was sitting here, I was sitting over there, and I heard him moan,” Jim said.
Jack’s grandson once asked Jack if he could see the enemy face to face.
“I could tell whether they were wearing goggles or not,” he answered.
Missing in Action
While flying their seventh mission in 1944, Jack and his crew were shot down by about 15 German aircraft.
The pilot of the B-24 sent Jack’s mother a letter with words of hope for his family, that Jack would return home.
“I know he got out, for I saw his chute open,” he wrote.
The letter also told Jack’s family how brave Jack was.
“He shot down one for sure and probably two fighters, as attested to by the pilot,” Jim said.
The pilot also told the family he always felt safe with Jack in back, as his tail gunner. He told them he was proud to have Jack on his crew.
The family also received a letter from another crew member, who also stated he thought Jack was still alive.
Jack was alive. He found himself in a small village in occupied France.
“When you come up on somebody, you know the Germans are coming, and if you help them, you are going to get shot,” Jim said. “And who steps forward? A young boy steps forward with his bicycle, ‘Get on! Get on!'”
The boy was Gaston Morisseau. He was a on a two-seater bicycle and begged Jack to get on.
“(Jack) didn’t want to at first, but he got on it, he gave him a beret, and a coat and off they pedaled to get away,” Jim said.
They didn’t pedal too far, when they came across Lizette Vergnon.
“They switched at that point, and they took Jack’s flight suit,” Jim said. “Gaston gave Jack his pants, because it was March and (Jack) was bleeding heavily.”
Jack gave Gaston something in return.
“When Gaston and Jack parted, they had a very heartfelt handshake and Jack gave Gaston his ID bracelet,” Jim said.
He said Gaston and Lizette knew they had to do something with the American’s belongings.
“They took it and buried it,” Jim said. “Gaston buried it and the bracelet, because if they would have been caught with anything they would have been executed.”
Lizette then took Jack to a doctor.
“She got him on to a doctor, where they dug the shrapnel out of his legs,” Jim said.
He says his father-in-law often laughed when telling the story about how that went.
“He said, ‘I think the imprints of my fingers are still in that steel table.'”
The small village of Niort protected Jack while he recovered.
Jack would later tell his wife, he watched German soldiers execute an entire family for refusing to tell them about his whereabouts.
“My dad said there would be big spotlights looking for them, the Germans would be looking for them, because they knew the plane had crashed, and there was probably survivors,” JoAnn said.
While the village helped protect Jack, he helped the French Underground as they blew up railroad tracks and tunnels across the country.
It was six months before he finally jumped, literally, on a plane back home.
“He said the plane came in real fast and you better be ready and jump on it and they took right off, and they got him out after six months, they didn’t even stop,” Jim said.
More than 70 years later, Lizette’s daughter was going through her mother’s things, and became curious about Jack and what he had left behind.
“One man has a bracelet, and a parachute from an American aviator,” Jim said.
The bracelet read, “Jack M Garrett.” The family never knew it had been given away to the boy who helped save him.
Earlier this year, Jack’s family members gathered when the pieces of WWII history made the journey to Wichita.
“Everybody was standing around here when we opened it and that touch, that was on Grand, the boys put it on,” Jim said.
Lizette’s daughter Jacquelynn has invited them to France to visit where Jack once stayed. She says she’s named after the American aviator her mother saved.
Jim said they would love to be able to make the trip someday.
“They said they can take us to the very spot where Jack lit with his parachute,” he said.
The family said it is all about honoring the service of their greatest hero and the bravery of those who ensured he made it home from the war.
“They just wanted to come home from this hell they had been through for so many years, just come home, raise a family,” Jim said.
That’s exactly what Jack did. He got married, had two daughters and eight grandchildren.
“He loved being with family, so he was just a delightful man to be around,” Jim said.
Jack told his family that even though he had it rough, there were people who had it far worse than him.
Jim said the French Underground has been very helpful in tracking down the timeline of events for Jack’s time in France. He said you can ask them just about anything and they are very helpful with returning details.
He said they are currently looking for that two-seater bicycle.
For all of her bravery in helping save Jack, Lizette was named a Heroine of the French Resistance.
Unfortunately none of the details of Jack’s time in France surfaced until after he passed away. He died in 2007.
The family said they have also heard someone is working on a book in France, about Jack’s story.
Jim said there is also someone working on a diorama of where the plane crashed, in that area of France.
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