Red River Scrapbook: The Bill Reese Story-Part 3: Death of the spy
By William H. Reese/Edward Southerland
Jun 6, 2017
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A month after Operation Overlord, the D-day invasion, Lieutenant Reese, was in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang flying interdiction sorties over occupied France in support of Allied ground forces. The account that follows is taken from a manuscript written by Reese in later years about his experiences in World War II and during a twenty-seven-year career in the U.S. Air Force. His final assignment was as Base Executive Officer at Perrin AFB. He retired in 1969. Lt. Col. Reese died in 2007, but he left behind a memorable account of his time with the French Resistance.

Recap: After his Mustang was brought down by German ack-ack over occupied France, Bill Reese was taken under the wing of Papa Doiletz, the leader of the Maquis, the French resistance movement, around the village of Èpagne in the Champaign-Ardennes region north of Paris. As the Allied armies moved into into Northern France following the Normandy breakout, the Maquis around the village of Èpagne received instruction to take and hold two bridges over the River Aube.

Papa Doiletz collected his men, and picked up a known female spy who had been passing information about the Maquis to the Germans. Lt. Reese was given a pistol and put in charge of guarding the spy. The Maquis then gathered up the women and children of the village and moved them to secret hideout in the forest to protect them from German reprisals.

Death of the Spy
by William H. Reese

I was an instant hero—the first American to be seen—so now they could believe the Americans were really coming. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one meal. I noticed some of the older women really enjoyed watching me eat; they were all smiles and yakety yakking in French. Andre said they were the cooks.

About this time, our spy said something to Andre, and he said she wanted to wash up, so we took her down to the river. As she finished, our little gendarme came strolling up; he said something to Andre, smiled at me and then saw our spy. He took one look, let out a scream and piled into her with both fists going.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. What was going on? I finally decided she was my prisoner, so I grabbed him by the collar, lifted him up and off her and said, “No!” He immediately calmed down, and I let him go. He brushed himself off, smiled, saluted and left.

Our spy was a mess. He [Andre] had pulled both pierced earrings off, and she had a bloody nose and mouth. We took her back to the river and let her wash off again.

About this time, another Maquis came running up to us from out of the woods, acting pretty excited. He jabbered to Andre and pointed to me. Andre came over and said he had some bad news. There were Germans in the area and Papa was afraid that if they captured the spy—she now knew who many of the Maquis were—all would be killed by the Jerries. I was told to shoot her immediately as this would be an American soldier shooting a spy in wartime.

A day later I would have killed her and not thought a thing about it, but I hadn’t really been exposed to the horrors of war yet, and I pretended I didn’t understand what Andre was saying. While we were talking, one of the Maquis went up to her and shot her five times. He dumped her body in the river, said something to Andre and took off.

Andre said we had to get back to the bridge and help hold it, so we took off too. On the way, I asked why the gendarme had acted the way he had. Andre said the spy had turned in his brother to the SS as being a possible Maquis. They had tortured him until he died. When his relatives buried him, they could no longer tell that he had been a man. No Maquis had been arrested, so it meant that he hadn’t talked.

Defending the bridge

The Germans couldn’t make a move without the Maquis knowing about it, so we knew a force of about one hundred Germans soldiers were retreating toward our villages. This was the group that caused Papa to order the death of the spy. He was also sure the Germans had orders to destroy the two bridges. His intelligence indicated they would probably hit the bridge north of Èpagne first, so most of the men and guns were dispatched to the other bridge.

They set up along the bank of the river with about thirty men. All the women and children were at the stockade except for four or five old folks who couldn’t travel and one twelve-year-old girl who wouldn’t leave her grandfather.

There was no way for the Maquis to defend both the bridge and the village, so they had to position themselves at the north bridge. The rest of us set up around the Èpagne bridge.

We were a motley crew. I couldn’t believe some of the weapons the teenagers had—pitchforks, a shotgun with a broken stock held together with wire, some rusty, antique rifles with three or four cartridges. I had my .45 and seven or eight hand grenades, Andre had a Sten submachine gun, and the two Maquis with us each had good rifles and ammo. The Canadian had a rifle of sorts and a handful of ammo.

I set up in the bushes next to the road approaching the bridge since I was the only one with grenades. We had been told that the Germans might have a light tank, and we felt our only chance against that thing would be the hand grenades. Lucky me.

We settled down and waited. About 2 p.m., we heard heavy firing from the other bridge, but no one, neither friend nor foe, came down our road. About an hour later, a Maquis came running down from the other bridge and said we were all to come up and help at up there, so off we went. Just before we got there, all the shooting suddenly stopped.

Several Maquis had been wounded, but Papa and Henri came through OK. They told us the Germans had pulled back and were heading upriver in a hurry to get out of there. We cautiously approached the village, and our worst fears were realized.

The old folks had all been shot, and the little girl had been tied to a bed and repeatedly raped. She was covered with blood and in deep shock, conscious but her mind was a complete blank. We cleaned her up, and the Maquis took her to the doctor that had fixed me up. The last I heard, they did not expect her to live.

I realize now, that this whole experience had a profound effect on me. From that point on, every time I turned my machine gun loose, I would be smiling, really enjoying it. It didn’t matter who or what was on the receiving end, as long as I thought it was German.

Back to Uncle Sam

The next day we saw our first Americans. A jeep came rolling into Èpagne with two American soldiers, and I came out, along with the entire town. The soldiers were engineers scouting for Patton’s tanks, and they were lost. They were very surprised to find we had two bridges intact, which would certainly help Patton’s tanks. At that moment the tanks had outrun their fuel supplies so they were waiting for gasoline about a day away. The soldiers said they would take me to the tanks, and they, in turn, would get me back to an airport so I could fly back to London.

It was really a happy, sad farewell, with much hugging and kissing as I really did feel like part of the Doizlet family, and I felt that they considered me their American son. My Canadian friend also went along with us, and that evening we arrived at some type of field headquarters the tankers had set up. It was here that I met the chaplain who got word to my wife, Betty, that I was alive and back with friendly forces.

The End