The day July 29, 1944, holds a special meaning for Encinitas resident Kemper Cagney, the nephew of fallen U.S. Air Force pilot Joseph T. Cagney, who died after he was struck down by German forces during the World War II Battle of Normandy.
On July 29, exactly 75 years after the fateful incident, a monument to honor the memory of the pilot was inaugurated by the association D-Day Overlord and the municipality of Cerisy-la-Salle, in the presence of Joseph Cagney’s family.
The celebration was held in Le Coton in Cerisy-la-Salle, France at the location of the crash, with the shape of the monument inspired by an airplane wing.
His uncle’s death was a somber topic for many years, and Cagney was never certain about the exact circumstances of his uncle’s death — it was an event that he tried to forget.
“Nobody talked about my uncle Joe,” Cagney said.
The Encinitas resident attended the event with his four siblings and three cousins and said they all felt the support of the French people and the bond that the United States still shares with one of its World War II Allies.
“The French are gracious to this day beyond belief, and that deserves so much credit,” Cagney said.
Joseph Cagney was originally an artist from Chicago, having graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago.
But, in 1942, only weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Joseph Cagney volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Force and was appointed to serve with the 10th Fighter Squadron, arriving in Normandy at the end of June 1944.
In the late morning of July 29, 1944, Joe Cagney boarded his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber, named “Gallopin Gertie” and alongside three other planes, supported air fighters in the area of Saint-Denis-le-Gast.
The American fighter pilots had to turn back to their starting point to refuel and were caught under the fire of a German anti-aircraft battery.
Joe Cagney’s plane was hit, and despite attempting to maneuver a makeshift landing, the damage was ultimately too much to overcome.
The plaque placed on the monument to honor the Air Force pilot memorializes his final mission and reads in both English and French: “Lieutenant Joseph Cagney exchanged his paintbrush for fighter plane in the name of freedom. He paid the ultimate sacrifice here in Cerisy-la-Salle.”
The road to establishing what happened to Joe Cagney happened due to some investigative work on the part of two historians, Matias Heisler and Clayborn Stokes.
“I got emails from a stranger a year ago in July about somebody finding my uncle’s plane parts for sale on a French eBay website,” Cagney said.
The German historian Heisler and the American Stokes helped to piece together the history of the plane parts from the online seller.
At first, Cagney was skeptical that the plane parts were directly linked to his uncle’s crash. But the Cagney family and historians were able to obtain military records and talk to witnesses on the ground to confirm that the parts belonged to Joe Cagney’s aircraft.
Due to administrative difficulties, Joseph Cagney’s body has never been repatriated to the United States, contrary to the wishes of his deceased parents.
However, the extended family of Joseph Cagney which traveled to France for the inauguration were given the original pieces of the P-47 Thunderbolt found at the scene of the crash.
“We are going to take one of the plane parts and bury it and reunite him with his parents in a small cemetery in Chicago,” Cagney said.
In gratitude for the tribute of Joseph Cagney, his family gave one of his three existing paintings to the town of Cerisy-la-Salle. The city’s mayor, Yves Simon, said the art will be showcased in the town hall.
Top Photo Caption: Members of the Cagney family gathers at the monument dedicated to Lt. Joseph T. Cagney in Cerisy-la-Salle, France, on July 29. Photo courtesy Kemper Cagney