Louisiana man receives French Legion of Honor medal

Hewitt Gomez was dropped off by train under the cover of darkness at Harrington Airfield in England, then informed, to his surprise, that he had been tapped for one of the most secretive U.S. operations of World War II.

“They said, ‘You are not to tell your wife, your parents, nobody,’ ” the 89-year-old Lafayette resident recalled.

The mission was to fly at night across German-occupied Europe, skirting enemy fire to drop spies, weapons and supplies to resistance forces behind enemy lines.

On Thursday, Gomez was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal for his service, France’s highest distinction.

“The French people will never forget what you and your comrades did to return France’s freedom,” said French Consul General Jean-Claude Brunet before pinning the medal on Gomez, as friends and family crowded around during an evening ceremony at the International Center of Lafayette.

Brunet honored Gomez as a man “who more than 60 years ago risked his young life for the liberty of France and Europe.”

Gomez, a Baton Rouge native, volunteered for service in 1943 at the age of 18 and trained as a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor of the Air Force.

He was part of select and secretive group now known by their code name, “carpetbaggers,” a name Gomez said he had never heard until it became public in the 1980s, when the government declassified documents related to the operation.

His job as a navigator was to pore over maps and chart a course that would, hopefully, avoid Germans on the ground trying to knock the B-24 bombers from the sky with anti-aircraft guns and exploding flak shells scattering shrapnel through the air.

“It was very difficult to go around them, because they were all over the place,” Gomez said.

Just as hazardous were the hillsides and trees, Gomez said, because the big planes dipped to about 500 feet to drop the supplies and to let the special agents parachute down. He remembered one flight in Norway when a tree line appeared from nowhere.

“The bombardier in the front was yelling, ‘Pull it up. Pull it up,’ ” Gomez said.

When the crew arrived back at the base, they found limbs stuck in the trailing edge of the wings.

“A little bit lower, and I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” Gomez said.

The airplanes were painted black to avoid detection, he said, and dark curtains covered the windows so interior lights would not give them away.

Gomez said the secret supply drops were always done on moonlit nights, so the crew could see the resistance fighters on the ground.

The group on the ground would often hide and wait until just before the pre-arranged drop time, then build small fires to mark their location, Gomez said.

He said the little fires were then quickly put out and covered up, and the weapons, ammunition, radio equipment and other supplies were either hauled off on foot or in oxen-drawn carts, because an engine might attract undue attention.

“Germans were all around them, so they didn’t want to make noise,” Gomez said.

He said the flight crews knew nothing about the special resistance agents they dropped behind enemy lines.

They were referred to anonymously as “Joe” or “Josephine,” Gomez said, and arrived at the plane just as it was preparing to take off.

He said the only member of the crew who saw the agents was the man who told them when to jump.

As for the danger, Gomez said he rarely dwelled on it once a mission got underway, but he always had jitters in anticipation.

He said he and others were told when they first arrived at Harrington Airfield that they could choose another assignment and would not be forced to participate in what they were warned would be a highly dangerous operation.

“At 18, 19 years old, you don’t think about death, and nobody walked out of the room,” Gomez said.