WHITEFISH, Mont. — Air Force pilot Norbert Herriges was flying a mission over Pourrieres, France, on Aug. 12, 1944, when he was shot down by a German fighter pilot.
Herriges managed to bail out of his Thunderbolt, but his parachute failed to open and during the incident, he was shot in the head. The owners of a farm where Herriges landed hid his body from the Germans until they were threatened with execution.
In spite of the Germans, the citizens of the town picked up his body and conducted a funeral. In a town with a population of about 1,000 at the time during World War II, a reported 3,000 people were present , the Whitefish Pilot reports.
Herriges’ body was eventually returned to be buried in the cemetery of his hometown of Whitefish. A 1938 graduate of Whitefish High School, Herriges volunteered for the Army Air Corps serving as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
Though seemingly well-known in the town of Pourrieres, France, the story of Herriges’ death and memories of his life was told only in fragmented pieces amongst his family members.
Until last year when a filmmaker from France reached out wanting to bring his story and the connection with the town to life on screen.
Margaret Herriges, whose father-in-law is one of Herriges’ brothers, received a Facebook message from director Lionel Kabac who was searching for his family members. Kabac was shooting a short film about the town and its history.
“I am preparing a reconstruction of some historical facts including that of our dear Norbert who came to our country to deliver France,” he wrote. He wanted to know if the family could provide photos and information about Norbert Herriges.
Margaret spoke with her family members including Norbert’s four living siblings who gave their blessing to be their representative putting together the pieces of the story for the film but also the younger generations of the family.
“He was a man they held in regard for saving their town even though they never met him,” Margaret said. “He’s become my hero now too.”
A letter found in a bottle on Herriges’ grave in France points to the significance that he and other veterans who died fighting for the country hold.
“In the name of all French people, we wish to tell you how much we regret the mortal blow which touched you so cruelly in our country,” it reads. “In the name of our comrades, we French thank you for having fought to save our native land.”
The second child of Nick and Anastasia, Norbert was born in Canada in 1919 before his family came to the United States. Norbert was married to his wife Jean in 1940 and they had one child, John.
Norbert worked for the Great Northern railroad as a yard office clerk before he enlisted, according to a notice in the Pilot announcing a High Mass held in his honor in May of 1961. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He went overseas in May 1944 before being shot down on his 35th mission in the south of France.
Providing a large piece of history for Norbert’s story was Dan Herriges, the youngest boy in the family who was 4 years old when Norbert died. In 1973, Dan and his wife traveled to Pourrieres and the farm where his brother’s body was found.
“I found out the information about what happened to him when we traveled there,” Dan said. “I spoke with the owner of the farm who was the son of the owners of the farm when it happened.”
The couple who owned the farm knew they’d be criticized for hiding Norbert’s body, but they wanted to make sure the Germans couldn’t find him. Later they moved his body into town and to a mortuary and then held the funeral for him before burying him in the local cemetery.
Dan visited the town’s city hall where they had an entry in the town register of Norbert’s death and other men who died in the battle. An obelisk in the early 2000s was dedicated in the town square to Norbert.
“They’ve kept Norbert as an important part of the town’s heritage,” Dan said.
About 20 years ago, one of the pilots who flew with Norbert corresponded with Dan providing further information about the events of that fateful day in 1944. Norbert took off from Serragia, Corsica, a military airfield in France on a mission and eventually shot down two German pilots before bailing out of his aircraft.
When Herriges’ body was found he had been shot in the head either in the air coming down in his chute or after he hit the ground, according to the recollection.
After the film titled “Un Ete en Provence” was completed, the town earlier this year hosted a screening and ceremony where they renamed the town square in honor of Norbert. Dan and his wife once again traveled to France this time to represent the family.
“It was a really big celebration,” Dan said. “Norbert has just been their guy ever since 1944.”
Dan said the town has kept Norbert’s memory alive and the celebration was an emotional day.
“They’ve done a really good job of doing that for someone they didn’t even know,” he said. “He’s been a pretty important piece of that village for 70 some years.”
During his speech at the ceremony, Dan shared his and his siblings’ memories of their brother and thanked the people of the town.
Dan has a vivid memory of the day his brother left home sitting on his knee while Norbert sang some popular song of the time to him. Brother Roland says Norbert was his “flying hero.”
Sister Anastasia remembers him as a very kind young man who learned woodworking in high school and built a huge kitchen table and cabinets for their mother.
Margaret had the responsibility of gathering photos of Norbert and details to provide to the filmmaker.
“I learned the most from talking to every one of the aunts and uncles,” Margaret said. “Watching them reconnect over it and how emotional it still is for them was incredibly powerful.”
She says the research and subsequent film have put her in touch with family members she’s never met before. Though Norbert’s son has died, part of the research led the family to reconnect with his grandchildren.
“This story has really had a unification effect on our family because there is a lot of pride involved,” she said. “Pride in the sacrifice Norbert made, but also because the family has a huge history of military service.”
The director is submitting the portion of the film about Norbert for entry into various film festivals, so it hasn’t been released to the public. But the Herriges family is hopeful they’ll be able to show the film at their family reunion scheduled for 2022.
“During family reunions in the summer there were discussions with my brothers and sisters, and we’ve kept his memory alive,” Dan said.
“Hopefully someone by seeing the film will decide they’d like to know more about a family member they had who was a service member,” he added.