A few weeks ago in a Virginia hospital, one of the Finest Generation passed away. His story isn't one of the most famous from World War II, but it may deserve to be.
William "Bill" Overstreet Jr. was a flying ace in the 357th Fighter Group. His most famous flight took place in June, 1944.
Here’s some context: In 1944, France's morale was shot. Although Allied forces had just landed on Normandy's beaches, it promised to be a long, bloody fight to Paris. In the meantime, French Resistance forces were actively hunted. German forces were known to execute entire villages in retaliation for supporting the Resistance.
No one knew for sure how the war would end.
It was in the middle of this that Captain Overstreet made his flight. Details are hazy about all that happened, but there are a few things we can know: The mission involved flying over the heart of Vichy France, in the path of legions of German Messerschmitts in the sky.
Overstreet found himself in solo chase of a Messerschmitt Bf 109. Besides the gunners on the ground and German forces everywhere, this was not a place for low flying. Trying to get Overstreet off his tail, the Messerschmitt drew him lower and lower. He drew Overstreet towards the biggest obstacle he could find--the Eiffel Tower.
Rather than lose his target, Overstreet did the unthinkable. He directed his plane...and flew it under the Eiffel Tower's arches.
French fighters witnessed the flight from the ground. They never forgot it.
Remembering the story, a French dignitary told the Richmond Times Dispatch: “This guy has done even more than what people are thinking...He lifted the spirit of the French."
The French people proved the point in 2009, when they awarded Overstreet France’s highest medal--the Legion of Honor. Rather than accepting the praise with swagger, Overstreet quietly thanked them, and insisted it was the men who died in World War II that deserved the honor.
According to Overstreet’s obituary, he worked quietly as an accountant after the war. But that’s not to say that he lost his soldierly confidence. The Richmond Times reported that to the end of his life, "Overstreet still kept his wits and attitude. One night, when [he] was about 90 years old, [a friend] asked if he could give Overstreet a ride home. He...looked back at him insulted and asked, 'Did you forget what I am able to do?'"
A soldier to the end. We want to join in honoring him too.