Shot down over WWII France, this Utah man evaded Nazis with help from a French farming family that came to love him as a son

(Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum and the Lonnie Moseley family) Lonnie Moseley poses in this undated photograph his wife, Carol Moseley, kept in her basement.

Holladay • In the early morning of July 4, 1944, Lonnie Moseley squeezed into the single seat of his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane and raced into the darkness.

The 23-year-old from southern Utah’s St. George was nervous as he embarked on what was just his third mission of the war. And what began as an Allied bombing run over Europe would alter Moseley’s life forever, forge unexpected family bonds and draw interest from historians more than seven decades later.

The fight plan that day called for Moseley and several other U.S. pilots based at the Duxford, England, airfield to carry out a fighter strike in German-occupied France. Allied forces launched on D-Day a month earlier held a small foothold in the region.

The fliers drew enemy fire after crossing the English Channel, and again as they neared their target, a German military outpost near the city of Rouen. Moseley had been singularly focused on sticking close to “the rest of the boys,” he would later tell an interviewer, but the raspy sound of the P-47’s engine leaking oil soon grabbed his attention.

He’d been hit.

Moseley relayed the news to the group leader, and another pilot peeled off to escort him back to England. Moments later, the plane’s engine stalled and suddenly went into free fall from 4,500 feet. Moseley frantically restarted it for a short time, only to hear it seize for good. Oil poured over the windshield, obscuring his view.

There was one option left: Ditch the aircraft. Hope for the best.

“I don’t recall hesitating at all,” Moseley, who died in 2014, told a television interviewer in 1956. “I had sufficient altitude, so I just climbed out the side of the cockpit.” But in his haste, Moseley realized he’d failed to remove his oxygen mask and headset. “So I climbed back in, unhooked those, rolled onto the wing, then rolled off of it.”

Free fall.

His white silk parachute snapped open at the last possible moment, and Moseley caught only a glimpse of the trees racing up at him. “I don’t recall seeing the ground before I hit it,” he said

He landed hard, deep inside enemy-occupied territory. His knees hurt. His face was bloody. When he looked up, a man stood over him. Speaking French, the man motioned for Moseley to pack up the parachute and follow him.

Moseley knew the man might turn him in. He could easily be a German collaborator. But the young pilot couldn’t run. “I figured, ‘Well, I’m here, and I may as well cast my fate with this man,’” he said.

It proved a life-changing leap of faith.

An all-but unbelievable tale

Moseley grew up poor in southeast Texas and later Delta, Utah, before moving to St. George, where he played football for Dixie Junior College. There he met his future wife, Carol, who is now 94 and lives in Holladay.

They were married five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Carol recalled in a recent interview, after the couple realized Lonnie might be shipped off to the war at any time.

Their relationship nevertheless endured over 72 years, throughout Lonnie’s service in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He died three years ago, after a fall at home, Carol said.

“He was a person that could not pass anybody by that needed help,” his wife said. “He was one of the most gentle, loving people. He never was rowdy.”

Carol and her sons — Roger, Russell and Richard — gathered on a recent afternoon in her Holladay living room to recall their father and husband, and retell his war stories — especially being shot down over France. Carol’s recollection of her husband’s ordeal remains sharp, no doubt aided by hundreds of old pictures, documents, newspaper clippings and other materials neatly organized in their basement.

Moseley’s exploits are fresh in their minds, since a visit over the summer by a curator with the British Imperial War Museums, Adrian Kerrison, to check out Carol’s collection for a possible exhibit at its Duxford American Air Museum.

Their son Richard had visited the museum about a year ago and mentioned his father was once based there — something museum officials hear from family of retired airmen all the time.

But the tale Richard told about his dad’s time in France, Kerrison said, was something different, something nearly unbelievable. And yet, in Utah, there was proof: After scouring Carol’s keepsakes for days, he shipped two big boxes packed full of historical materials back to England.

“I thought it was amazing,” the curator said. “You don’t come across that type of story very often.”

Dodging the Nazis

After stashing the parachute in a barn, the Frenchman led Moseley to his farmhouse in the small town of Hauville. Moseley grew increasingly anxious, his mind racing as the desperate nature of his predicament came into focus. German troops could be anywhere, he realized. Surely they saw his plane go down.

“I wanted to hide somewhere very badly,” Moseley said in 1956. “I wasn’t afraid when I had to jump out of the airplane, but now that I was on the ground? I wanted to hide.”

But he soon realized the mysterious man, Lucien Lestang, knew what he was doing. Lestang, Moseley learned, was an associate of the French underground, the secretive German resistance movement with a long record of assisting Allied soldiers and airmen trapped behind enemy lines.

(courtesy of the Imperial War Museum and the Lonnie Moseley family) 2nd Lt. L. L. Moseley, 78th FG, 84th FS at his crash site in France.

Lestang woke his wife, Nellie, and their 20-year-old son, Bernard. He fetched tattered farming clothes Moseley could pull on as a disguise. The family members patched up Moseley’s face and gave him a food bag. They used hand gestures and a French phrase booklet Moseley had in his escape kit to communicate.

“The family was very excited, but frightened,” Moseley told a Deseret News reporter in 1981. “It is very possible they could all have been shot for taking me in. They took a tremendous risk for which I can never repay them.”

Food bag in hand, Bernard brought Moseley back to the edge of the forest and instructed him to hide in the tall ferns. After several hours passed, Moseley thought maybe he was in the clear, that the Germans hadn’t seen his white parachute popping open only 100 feet above the ground as he bailed out.

But later that night, a Canadian bomber crashed in the same forest. Enemy soldiers fanned out to find any survivors, shouting instructions in German, Moseley recalled.

“That search almost took me with it,” he said. “Had they started 75 yards closer to the edge of the fields, they would’ve found me without any doubt.”

The immediate threat gone, Moseley moved into a barn. He slept on a straw pile and warily peered through the cracks for German troops. Several times as they approached, he fled again to the forest, ducking behind a tall hedge.

After three weeks, underground members finished creating fake identification papers for Moseley, with the help of a local town clerk. By now at least two more neighboring farm families — also part of the French underground network — had started to help the Lestangs conceal him.

Playing a character to survive

They concocted Moseley a new identity. He would be a deaf and mute French farmhand, named Louis René Meslin.

The idea, Moseley later recounted, was to create a persona that wouldn’t reveal he spoke no French. He had long ago removed anything that might divulge he was American — his wedding ring, wristwatch and Air Force dog tags. The Lestangs gave him a French wallet with a few francs. And the underground made sure his fake home address was located in Allied-controlled territory, so the Germans couldn’t verify it.

(Photo courtesy of the Moseley Family) Fake ID, used by Lonnie Moseley, when he crash landed in France in WWII, avoiding detection of Germans by hiding out hiding out with a French farming family at her home in Holladay, Friday, October 6, 2017.

But the new identity required training. Moseley practiced ignoring the sound of a door slamming; he no longer glanced up at the loud chimes of the Lestangs’ cuckoo clock. If any sound garnered a physical reaction, he might be found out.

“You would imagine you could just sit down and close yourself off from the world, and not hear what was going on,” Moseley said in the 1956 interview. “But I found it very difficult.”

He soon put his new character to use. One morning, as Moseley was staying in the Lestang house — he had taken to calling the couple Mama and Papa — he looked out the window to see a company of 200 German soldiers and military trucks entering the yard. He thought surely he’d been discovered.

Papa Lestang went outside to talk with the soldiers. They were only making camp at the Lestang farm as a temporary resting place on their trip to the front lines. Lestang urged Moseley to stay calm and sit at the breakfast table as he would any other morning. A German officer shortly came inside to ask Papa for pots and pans and some butter, Moseley recalled.

“I felt as though I was trapped,” he said.

Though he avoided the officer’s suspicion, Papa soon urged Moseley to leave for a nearby farm. Barely containing his nerves, Moseley walked through the crowd of German soldiers as they washed and shaved.

On another occasion, four soldiers carrying submachine guns arrived suddenly at a neighboring farm where Moseley was working, catching him off guard. He ducked inside a house, but the soldiers still spotted him. He listened as the men yelled at him to come out.

“I could not answer because I was supposed to be deaf and dumb,” he said.

His mind racing, he pretended he’d darted into the house to fetch something and emerged with a horse harness and rope in hand. He approached the Germans as they stood on the other side of a gate and asked for his papers.

Moseley didn’t move at first, he said, playing the “deaf and dumb” role, faking incomprehension. Finally, he produced the wallet. The soldiers hesitated, he said. They studied his faked papers closely and discussed the ID amongst themselves.

They let him go.

Anguish at home

Five thousand miles away, in St. George, Carol Moseley kept showing up to her job at the hospital, but inside she was suffering. A Department of Defense telegram had arrived while she was at work: “I regret to inform you that your husband is missing in action … ”

“You have no idea how long the days are,” Carol said, thinking back on that summer 73 years ago. “You don’t know anything — nobody knows anything.”

But Moseley was healthy and feeling more confident in his ruse as deaf and mute farmworker.

He and the Lestangs were still exceedingly cautious when the Schutzstaffel, or SS — the elite Nazi force — came near the farm. But Moseley had grown more brazen around average German soldiers.

He reported working with French underground members several times to cut German communication lines, and once, joining several French Resistance commandos on a nighttime raid of a nearby German military post.

The Germans were being steadily pushed back by the Allied forces. Moseley sometimes caught snippets on their progress on the radio at night. About two months into his new undercover life, news reached him that British soldiers had gathered less than a mile away, in a neighboring village.

He decided to break for it.

“The French go to town every day to buy bread … it isn’t uncommon to see people walking right through the middle of the [German] lines,” Moseley said in the 1981 interview.

“I just acted like I was going to town and walked right through the middle of them … I kept waiting for a burst of gunfire to rip through my back, but it never came.”

Eventually, Moseley approached a British patrol. Unconvinced he was American, the troops trained their guns on him and threatened to shoot, he said, until finally a French Resistance member intervened and confirmed his identity.

The British returned him to Duxford, where Moseley, according to a 2004 report in a veterans publication, The Chosin Few, still wore the French farm clothes and “casually walked into his barracks to greet an incredulous group of fellow pilots.”

Carol Moseley received a telegram Sept. 7, 1944, confirming her husband’s safety.

Moseley had somehow gained weight during the ordeal; the Lestangs, though poor, fed him generously. They’d also shown him their resilient outlook on life, despite a suffocating German occupation in which soldiers often dropped in to take any food and supplies they pleased.

“They had a wonderful spirit there,” Moseley would recall in the interview a dozen years later. “They could lose everything they had, and within 30 minutes, they could be laughing and giddy. We lived a wonderful life.”

‘The original packrat’

Six years later, Moseley was once again flying, with the U.S. Army in the Korean War. He earned a Silver Star for repeatedly navigating enemy fire to airlift injured Marines locked in battle with the Chinese in the mountains of North Korea.

Moseley later also served with the Army in Vietnam, at the same time as his oldest son, Roger, who was an Air Force fighter pilot. He then settled back in Utah and rose to acting commander of now-inactive Fort Douglas, on the University of Utah campus.

But it was Moseley’s time spent undercover in France — and his relationship with the Lestangs — that caught the Imperial War Museum’s attention.

Kerrison, the curator, said the museum hunts for new material “based on what kind of personal story it can tell.” And Carol’s collection of artifacts, he said, had it all: The original French farm clothing Moseley wore. A diary he wrote while in hiding. The parachute rip cord he pulled after bailing out of the P-47.

“Really rare,” Kerrison said of the materials. He is midway through cataloging everything, he said, and expects it will still be five to 10 years before Moseley’s story is ready for display.

“He met the original pack rat, and that’s me,” Carol said of Kerrison’s July visit. “I kept every single thing. They said, ‘Will you give it up?’ And I said, ‘Happily, for a museum.’”

Moseley’s relationship with the Lestangs endured over the intervening decades, despite their language barrier. They traded dozens of letters and packages through the years. Nellie Lestang used parts of Moseley’s silk parachute to create a First Communion dress for their daughter — and sent him a picture.

(Photo courtesy of the Moseley Family) A communion dress made out of the Carol Moseley talks about her husband parachute used by Lonnie Moseley, when he crash landed in France in WWII, avoiding detection of Germans by hiding out hiding out with a French farming family at her home in Holladay, Friday, October 6, 2017.

Moseley first returned to the farm a decade after his escape, surprising the family with a telegram just a few days before: “I’ll be there this weekend.”

The Moseley-Lestang bond continues today, family members say, despite Lucien’s death from a brain tumor in 1964.

Josiane Fiquet, 66, is the granddaughter of Moseley’s “Mama” and “Papa.” She lives in Normandy. In an email, she said her grandfather would call Moseley “my son from America.” He was considered a “brother for my father” — Bernard — and “an uncle for me,” she said.

“Early, he gave me the desire to discover other languages, other cultures … the envy to understand the world around me,” Fiquet wrote. “As soon as I started to learn English at school, I began to translate Lonnie and Carol’s letters and write for my family.”

Fiquet and several of her family members have visited the Moseleys in Utah, she said. And various members of the Moseley family — including Carol and Lonnie’s grandchildren — have stayed at the Lestang home in France.

“Such a relationship is very important to show that beyond the violence of our world, small sparks of hope and peace can arise,” Fiquet explained.

Carol still recalls vividly her first visit with Lonnie back to the Lestang farm. She was nervous — worried she couldn’t speak French, worried the Lestang family, who had accepted her husband like a son, might not like her.

She was wrong.

“I didn’t have to speak French to talk to Papa,” she said. “We just wept. We just loved each other.”