Camas author Susan Tate Ankeny had heard her father’s breathtaking World War II story — Dean Tate, a B-17 bombardier, shot down over Nazi-occupied France, rescued by a French Resistance network — countless times before.
“I had heard the story about Dad being shot down over France so often I knew it by heart. Or at least I thought I did,” Tate Ankeny, 58, writes in her newly published book, The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France. “While most men never talked about their war experiences, my dad told his story of being rescued by the French Resistance to anyone who would listen.”
Dean Tate had written a partial memoir of his WWII experience, but Tate Ankeny said her father, a lifelong educator and former school district superintendent, lived more in the present than the past. Instead of finishing the memoir himself, he turned his writing and notes over to his daughter.
“I felt like this was a story that was really important,” Tate Ankeny says. “But it was a story that had fallen into my lap.”
After her father’s death in 2003, Tate Ankeny would learn there were stories about her father that she had never heard — stories best told by the people who lived them.
Dean Tate never returned to France after the war, but he had corresponded with Godelieve Van Laere, the French girl who saved his life after he bailed from his burning B-17 plane.
“She was 17 … and was having her hair done when she saw him in the sky,” Tate Ankeny recalls of Van Laere’s introduction to her father. “She went to find him. He had fallen in a church yard. They carried him to a little barn across the road, to hide him.”
But the Nazis also had seen Dean Tate falling from the sky.To protect the young bombardier, Van Laere would have to convince her parents to hide him in their own home.
“It was late enough in the war that people were just being shot in front of their homes for helping the Allies,” Tate Ankeny says. “So it was very dangerous to keep the men in a house.”
Along with two other airmen that had been shot down by the Nazis, Dean Tate found refuge in a variety of locations during those weeks with the French Resistance network: in a pile of straw inside a barn, in an upstairs bedroom of a house, in an old bunker.
“They moved almost constantly until they got to the bunker,” Tate Ankeny says. “The Germans were always right behind them.”
After Dean Tate’s death, one of the first things Tate Ankeny did was grab her father’s box of letters from Van Laere.
“They had always stayed in contact with my dad,” she says of Van Leare and her family. In fact, Van Laere had met with Dean Tate and his wife, Lillian Tate, in San Francisco in 2000, just three years before Dean Tate’s death.
When Tate Ankeny reached out to the woman who saved her father’s life, Van Leare’s message was clear: “Please come to France,” she told Tate Ankeny. “We want to show you everything.”
That trip to France convinced Tate Ankeny that she had a truly special story to share with the world.
“After I went to France and met Godelieve and she poured out every memory she had, I felt her story needed to be told,” Tate Ankeny says. “Part of the reason it took me so long was the research. I’m not a World War II expert, so I had to learn.”
The research took Tate Ankeny to the same places her father had experienced as a young man. She flew in a B-17 and in a vintage bi-plane. And she visited every place she wrote about in her new book.
The process, Tate Ankeny says, helped her feel closer to her departed father.
“Feeling close to my dad was probably my main motivation,” Tate Ankeny says. “When I found (Van Laere’s letters) and contacted her … it was a way to keep him alive.”
And when she visited the sites her father had seen and flew in the vintage planes?
“He was with me every step of the way,” Tate Ankeny says of her dad.
The end result of Tate Ankeny’s efforts is her newly released book, The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France, published by Diversion Books.
Released Sept. 8, with an audiobook version coming out Sept. 22, the book is billed as a story that “traces the thrill and chaos of an air war, the horror of bailing over enemy territory and the daring of a little-known French resistance network for Allied airmen known as Shelburne. But, most brilliantly, it shines a light on the courage and cunning of a young woman who put her life on the line to save another’s.”
For Tate Ankeny, the book’s release was bittersweet. The works she’d poured more than eight years of her life into was finally finished, but her plans to promote the book, including a two-week book tour, were on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been doing mostly radio interviews, but it is harder to get the word out,” Tate Ankeny says.
Still, there are glimmers of hope, including interest in a movie version of The Girl and the Bombardier.
Until the world returns to a more normal version of itself, Tate Ankeny will continue to promote her book on radio shows and online. She and her husband of 36 years, Joel Ankeny, moved to Camas in 2019 and are still getting to know their new community.
The pandemic has put a damper on visits with their children, who live in Los Angeles and Boston, but the couple enjoys hiking, especially near Cape Horn and Lacamas Lake.
“We feel like we’re in a holding pattern,” Tate Ankeny says. “We moved here and, within six months (COVID-19 hit). But we do hike a lot. This is a great place.”
To learn more about Tate Ankeny, visit susantateankeny.com. Her book, The Girl and the Bombardier, is sold through Powell’s Books and Broadway Books in Portland, as well as at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Goodreads and Indiebound.