On July 31, 1944, 2nd Lt. Jesse T. Mountjoy departed the Picauville airstrip on a combat air support mission during World War II. His P-47 Thunderbolt was hit by flak, resulting in a fatal crash that left his 1-year-old son, also named Jessie, without a father and minimal insight into how he passed.
The younger Mountjoy resides in Utica and spent nearly six decades without even remotely understanding his father’s purpose in the war until he received an enlightening phone call in 1999. A local woman invited him to the village of La Haye-Pesnel, France, for the dedication of a monument honoring his father.
Mountjoy was able to make the trip in 2001 to see the monument, which reads:
“A LA MEMOIRE DU LIEUTENANT JESSE T MOUNTJOY, AVIATEUR AMERICAIN – 9TH US ARMY AIR FORCE – TOMBE POUR LA LIBERATION DE LA HAYE PESNEL LE 31.7.1944 – REMEMBER”
“To the memory of Lieutenant Jesse T. Mountjoy, American aviator – 9th US Army Air Force – died for the liberation of La Haye-Pesnel on July 31, 1944 – Remember”
Upon being struck, 2nd Lt. Mountjoy attempted to land in a field but clipped a cherry tree on the left and a steel pillar on his right before crashing into a wall, resulting in an ejection. Local villagers near the farm of La Cleriotiere quickly buried his body before German forces could find it.
In 2001, Mountjoy met some of those villagers, quickly understanding the impact his father had bestowed upon the locals. The day of the crash coincides with the same day the allies liberated La Haye-Pesnel during the final phases of Operation Cobra.
On his journey, Mountjoy encountered Claude Bouillon and his wife Josette, who resided at La Cleriotiere. As it turns out, it was Bouillon’s family farm, and Claude had a first-hand experience of the crash when he was 11-years-old.
Bouillon even revealed a scar he acquired from playing on the plane against his mother’s wishes when he was a boy. To this day, he has remnants of the lieutenant’s plane stored in the loft of his workshop.
After 20 years and a global pandemic, Mountjoy could finally take his three sons – John, JAT, and Worth – to La Haye-Pesnel so they could share the same experiences. All three brothers referred to the trip as surreal and said the French villagers’ kindness and gratitude made for a remarkable expedition.
“In the interim, my father’s contact info for these folks didn’t work anymore, so we weren’t even able to call ahead and let them know we were coming,” Worth said. “We sought help at the Hotel de Ville, which was their city hall. A sheriff escorted us to La Cleriotiere, where Claude was working in his workshop. It took him a few minutes to recognize us.”
Bouillon brought down a piece of the plane and, despite a language barrier, was able to share a vivid recollection of the fatal crash. The brothers collected some dirt from the farm and brought it home to sprinkle on 2nd Lt. Mountjoy’s current gravesite at Hillcrest Memorial in Lexington.
“It was a valuable experience,” Worth said. “Those people had a deep connection with our grandfather and viewed him as someone who helped them defend themselves and their ways of life against people who didn’t want them to. They were quick to praise and recognize his efforts, and it was powerful to see that and inhabit the space where such a great sacrifice was made.”
Worth and his brothers were overwhelmed by the similarities between the French region and Kentucky. He said the train ride through Normandy created a sense of familiarity, almost like he was traveling at home.
John Mountjoy said there was a weird familiarity with the entire experience, attributing much of it to the similarities in geography and topography of the two terrains. He had always heard that travel could make the world a smaller place, but it wasn’t until this trip that he genuinely grasped that concept.
“Seeing all the similarities made the world smaller and created this appreciation for how small humanity truly is,” John said. “Standing on Utah and Omaha beaches and seeing where it happened was like standing on hallowed ground. I’ve been to other battlefields, and I understood what happened there, how it happened, and why it happened, but I never felt this connected.”
John is in the process of having his grandfather’s story portrayed at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky, just a few miles from his final resting place in Lexington. He hopes the museum will consider some form of display or assist in acquiring a piece of the aircraft.
He alluded to the many families that have had a loved one die in the war but rarely are they able to discover how they passed, much less meet people who were there the day it happened.
“We were able to meet people who can really tell you the story and guide you around what really happened through their personal experiences,” John said. “It provides you such a unique and wonderful kind of privileged perspective, not only to what happened to my grandfather but also what their life was like during the war.”
The story goes that local villagers buried the lieutenant’s body before German forces could find him, later moving him to the Brittany American Cemetary in Montjoie-Saint-Martin. John said there’s irony because that same town is the origin of the name Mountjoy.
While on the trip, John said he and his family felt the same kindness and selflessness extended to his grandfather from the locals.
“I found that in Normandy, and all the places we went were full of the most wonderful people I’ve ever come across,” he said. “It was like they were your neighbors; you would go into a local pub or tavern or simply drive through a village, and everyone was just so kind. That also reminded me of home.”
Despite not visiting for more than two decades, the villagers went above and beyond to make the Mountjoys feel like small-town celebrities. JAT Mountjoy booked the group’s AirBnB just a few miles south of La Haye-Pesnel and said the host immediately recognized the last name.
He also spoke fondly of Josette and Claude, an active 85-year-old that relives the infamous day during his daily adventures on the farm. The Bouillon’s farm resembles the one you would see on the outskirts of Owensboro, not what you would expect for a WWII battlefield.
“Seeing Claude venture into his shop and climb into the attic to cut off a piece of the plane and give it to my dad – it was pretty touching from that standpoint,” JAT said.
The family extracted some dirt from the Bouillon’s farm and brought it back to Lexington to scatter over 2nd Lt. Mountjoy’s grave.
“I think I really lost it when Josette put the dirt in a ceramic pot and wrapped it for me,” JAT said. “She didn’t say much, but the kindness she extended through her body gestures – that kindness and thoughtfulness were very touching. I’m just so thankful and grateful.”
2nd Lt. Mountjoy departed the Picauville airstrip in 1944 to not return, but a group of dedicated villagers has preserved his legacy through countless acts of kindness. Those same villagers shared the story with his son and his grandsons, who intend to take their kids when the time is right.