Today, people on two continents mourn the death of 92-year-old William Overstreet Jr. He was a resident of Roanoke, Virginia, a retired accountant, and like many men from his generation, a veteran of World War II. And in the spring of 1944, Overstreet did something people in France and the U.S. still talk about.
Overstreet, who died Sunday at a Roanoke hospital, is remembered for being the U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who flew underneath the Eiffel Tower's arches in his P-51 Mustang during an aerial battle while in hot pursuit of a German fighter plane, which he ultimately shot down.
Even back in war-torn, Nazi-occupied Paris, that wasn't something you saw every day. Or ever. And it was an act that is said to have reignited the spirits of the French resistance fighters who witnessed it from the ground. The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted the son of one fighter, who had this to say:
One of those French Resistance fighters was the father of Bernard Marie. A French dignitary who has hosted D-Day events every year since 1984, Marie said he met Overstreet in 1994.
He knew Overstreet was well-known for his flight underneath the Eiffel Tower but didn't understand its true importance until he spoke with his father.
"My father began shouting at me — 'I have to meet this man,' " Marie said. Members of the French Resistance had seen his flight and it inspired them, including Marie's father, he said.
"This guy has done even more than what people are thinking," Marie said. "He lifted the spirit of the French."
The website Warbirds Express has a pretty comprehensive summary of Capt. Overstreet's life and military career. Born in Clifton Forge, Virginia in 1921, Overstreet was a student at what is now the University of Charleston when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He enlisted in the Army with the goal of becoming a pilot, which landed him in the 357th Fighter Group, 363rd Fighter Squadron.
Overstreet was flying P-51s in the Atlantic Theater by early 1944; he named all of his planes the "Berlin Express." He had at least one close call where a burst of flak cut off the oxygen line in his plane, causing him to black out and disappear from his formation over enemy territory. But news reports at the time said he flew for 90 whole minutes "on reflex action alone" and only regained consciousness after slipping into a spin and nearly crashing.
His most famous mission came not long after that. According to Barnstormers, Overstreet was in hot pursuit of a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Paris. The German pilot figured the anti-aircraft artillery on the ground would take care of the American, but that was not to be.
What happened next is kind of nuts.
The German's engine was hit, and Overstreet persisted through the intense enemy flak. As a last resort, the ME109 pilot aimed his aircraft at the Eiffel Tower and in a breathtaking maneuver, flew beneath it. The unshakeable Overstreet followed, and scored several more hits in the process.
The German plane crashed and Bill escaped the heavy flak around Paris by flying low and full throttle over the river.
Overstreet describes the heroic event in his own words:
"I had followed this 109 from the bombers when most of the German fighters left. We had a running dogfight and I got some hits about 1500 feet. He then led me over Paris where many guns were aimed at me. As soon as he was disabled, I ducked down just over the river and followed the river until I was away from Paris."
The audacious move stunned onlookers on the ground, and most likely, Overstreet himself.
After that, Overstreet and his group flew eight missions on D-Day, and he flew secret escort missions after that. Sent home in October 1944, he taught at the gunnery school in Pinellas, Florida. Following the war he became an accountant, and also worked with various charities and veterans groups.
And in 2009, Overstreet returned to France to receive that nation's highest award: the Legion of Honor. The Roanoke Star reported at the time that the award was given to him by Pierre Vimont, the Ambassador of France to the U.S.
Ambassador Vimont was lavish with his praise of Captain Overstreet, stating that his valorous deeds helped liberate France from the Nazi Occupation. He also alluded to Eddie Simpson and all of the many brave Americans who never made it home from Europe after WWII.
Once Vimont had pinned the beautiful Legion of Honor medal to Overstreet's coat and given him the traditional two-cheek embrace, Captain Overstreet, standing straight, sans walker, made his way to the podium and issued a strong "Thank You" several times.
Overstreet had said that if he was awarded the Legion of Honor before he died — it cannot be given posthumously — he would have accepted it on behalf of his comrades who didn't make it home during the war.
After shyly accepting the Legion of Honor at the age of 88, Overstreet said, "If I said, 'Thank you,' it wouldn't be enough," but then added, "What more than 'thank you' do you need?"
Hopefully, people thanked him as well.
Photos credit AP