In the early hours of 4 July 1944, 23-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Lonnie LeRoy Moseley woke up ate his breakfast and reported to briefing room next to what is now Hangar 4, the Battle of Britain exhibition, at Duxford. He was an American fighter pilot with the 84th Fighter Squadron and his mission that day was to fly to France and attack ground targets to the west of Paris.
Within hours, he would be faced with making three life or death decisions - and American Independence Day would take on a whole new meaning for him.
'One hell of a way to spend the 4th July!' - Lonnie Moseley
Moseley had joined the US Army Air Corps in August, 1942 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Feeling a strong urge to serve his country, he enlisted and spent over a year in flying training before being sent to England.
He arrived in late May 1944 and was posted to the 84th Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group, then based at Duxford, as USAAF Station F-357. Not long after arriving, D-Day was underway and the Allied Expeditionary Force had finally gained a foothold in France.
On 4 July, 1944, after standard maintenance checks with his ground crew, Moseley strapped himself into his P-47 and took off from Duxford alongside 15 other Thunderbolts from the 84th Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group. It was his third combat mission.
Engine trouble over France
It was during their crossing over the French coast near Dieppe that things started to go wrong. Thick cloud started to make it difficult to see their original target, so they diverted to Rouen where they attacked a railway centre filled with German supplies and reinforcements.
Almost immediately they were met by heavy anti-aircraft fire and Moseley soon began to notice problems with his aircraft’s engine. Unsure whether he had been hit or not, Moseley calculated that he could either guide the plane back to England, or at least to a newly constructed airstrip behind the Allied lines in Normandy.
Unfortunately Moseley could do neither. As his engine failed he had no other choice but to radio the bad news to his escort, 1st Lieutenant William Newton III, before bailing out of the plane. With the P-47 at about 5,000 feet in the air and doing roughly 150 miles per hour, Moseley calmly exited the aircraft - but forgot to disconnect his oxygen mask and other equipment. He was forced to return to the cockpit and fix his error. When he finally left his aircraft, he got out and rolled off the wing which immediately sent his body free falling into a violent spin. In training, he had been told that parachute cord could get wrapped around the body and fail to open in that situation, so Moseley continued to fall. He desperately tried to straighten himself by sticking out his arms and legs. Finally, 100ft above the ground and with nothing else to lose, Moseley pulled his rip cord and opened the parachute.
Nearby, someone had been watching. Had Moseley opened his parachute earlier and been more visible he might have come face-to-face with a German sentry, but when he looked up he saw farmer Lucien Lestang standing just a few feet away. Aware that some French civilians actively collaborated with the Nazis, Moseley didn't know whether to stay or run but instincts told him to trust the man. After simply saying ‘hello,’ Lestang motioned for Moseley to hide the parachute.
In 1940, the farmer and his wife, Nellie, had sheltered two British soldiers who had been cut off from the retreat to Dunkirk, so had experience hiding servicemen. Lestang took Moseley back to his house where his wife gave him some apple brandy for his shock, before tending to his wounds. They also gave him civilian clothing so he wouldn’t be marked out as an Allied airman.
Moseley spent the next three weeks hiding in the Lestang’s barn where he began to write a diary. He was careful not to jeopardise his rescuer’s lives by naming them in the diary, in case it fell into enemy hands - the Germans had announced that anyone found to be helping the downed airman would be shot.
Moseley wrote about his concern that his mother and wife would think he was dead.
Contact was made with the French Resistance, who were able to provide Moseley with a set of false identity papers and on 20 July, he became known Louis René Meslin: a ‘deaf-mute agricultural labourer’ from Cheux, Calvados. It meant training his mind to ignore voices and sounds, but it enabled him to work on the farm with Lucien and, behind closed doors, get to know the rest of the family. As time went by, Moseley began to feel like a genuine member of the Lestang family, enjoying time spent with ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’ and their two children, Bernard and Lucienne.
Germans regularly patrolled the area - on one occasion, Moseley was ordered to stand face to face with German soldiers as they inspected his papers. He was fully aware that both he and the Lestangs would likely be killed if his true identity was discovered.
'You can't imagine the bedlam'
On 28 August, word came through that British troops had captured the nearby town of Hauville. Despite pleas from the Lestangs for him to wait longer, Moseley decided to make a break for it. After bidding a tearful farewell to his adopted family, he set out on what felt like the longest walk of his life, past the German sentries in broad daylight, knowing that he could be shot in the back at any time. Fortunately for Moseley, the Germans had more to worry about than a lone farmer strolling through the French countryside.
Moseley was met with suspicion when he made it to Hauville and ran towards the British but after a brief conversation with the local French Resistance, he was allowed to board a Bren Carrier which took him back behind the lines and back to England.
He returned by train to Duxford and entered his old room where he could hear the familiar laughter of his friends. 'You can’t imagine the bedlam that erupted when my two close buddies recognised who I was,’ Moseley later remembered.
After the end of the Second World War, Lonnie Moseley and his family shared a bond with the Lestang family and visited them numerous times.
Lonnie Moseley died in 2014 at the age of 93. It prompted his youngest son, Richard to visit Duxford, learn about his father's wartime experiences and share what he knew of Lonnie's time at Duxford with the museum. Having kept many things from his military service, including the parachute ripcord, the farmer’s clothing he wore, the diary he kept and his false identity papers, the family donated them to the museum. Finally, after 74-years, Lonnie Moseley and IWM Duxford had been reunited.
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