05/30/2011 12:49 pm ET Updated 4 days ago

Memorial Day 2011: Chicagoan Travels To France To Honor WWII Father And The Man Who Saved His Life

This Memorial Day weekend, Linda Packer traveled from her Chicago home to Le Cardonnois, France, to attend a ceremony honoring 10 American soldiers who were shot down by Germans during World War II. Her father, Paul Packer, was one of those soldiers.

But that is not the whole story.

Because what happened after Paul Packer of the U.S. Army Air Forces fell from the sky -- and what his daughter did decades later -- is extraordinary.

Packer and nine other men had been returning to their base in England on Feb. 8, 1944, after a bombing mission to Frankfurt, Germany, when the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress they were on was shot down over France. One of the 10 men, Abe Rosenthal, died in the resulting explosion.

Of the remaining men, five enlisted men who had escaped from the plane were caught by German soldiers and sent to concentration camps. The four remaining men, all officers, left the plane just minutes after the others. Among them was Paul Packer, a 23-year-old man from the South Side of Chicago with a wisp of a mustache. This had been his first bombing mission.

He and the other officers had more luck than their counterparts. They were eventually found by members of the French Resistance, who had been fighting against the Nazi occupation of France. They hid the American soldiers in their homes. One of those homes, a picturesque, two-story brick house in a town called Bulles, belonged to a carpenter named Pierre Coulon.

The house in Bulles, France, where Paul Packer was hiding thanks to Pierre Coulon. Photo courtesy of Linda Packer.

Coulon opened his home to Paul and the other officers for 12 days. Once, when Germans soldiers came knocking, Pierre Coulon hid the soldiers in a small room on the second floor. Coulon, who lived with his wife and two daughters, told the Germans that he was just a simple carpenter, and they went away.

That, believes Linda Packer, saved her father's life.

Paul Packer felt so grateful to Coulon that he handed over his watch as a memento. After the war, he wrote to Coulon to thank him.

Linda, born a decade after her father's plane was shot down, grew up hearing stories of Pierre Coulon every February 8, the day her father's plane was shot down. It's the only time he would speak of the incident.

"It was almost like Pierre Coulon took on this magical quality," Linda Packer said last week.

Though she remembered his name as she grew older, Linda Packer didn't reach out to Coulon until 1986, twelve years after her father died. That year, Linda called the French Government Tourist Office in an effort to find Bulles. She found the address of the postmaster in the area, figuring he would know everyone, and wrote him a letter explaining who she was.

Pierre Coulon, it turned out, still lived in the same house where he had hidden her father during WWII.

Letters crossed the Atlantic and in July, so did Linda, who found herself in a car with Pierre Coulon's eldest daughter, Denise, and being driven to the same brick house where her father had hid from the Germans four decades earlier.

When she arrived at the house in Bulles, the postmaster who had made her transatlantic communication possible came out to greet her. Pierre's younger daughter, Colette, strolled out next. More relatives emerged and then, out walked a short man with white hair and gray-blue eyes. He wore a green sweater and a smile that looked both dignified and kind. This, Linda knew, was Pierre Coulon.

Immediately, she embraced him.

"I felt like I was hugging my whole life," said Linda Packer, now 56. "I really did. My whole life -- and everything that came before me."

They spent the afternoon dining and drinking Kir Royale, and the 82-year-old Coulon sat at the center of the table, smiling the whole time.

Coulon and his daughters brought out dolls sent to them by Linda's father after the war had ended. They showed her a letter signed, "Your firm friend, Paul."

He was the only American soldier who had written to thank them.

Linda Packer and Pierre Coulon (center) in 1986 with Coulon's family in France. Photo courtesy of Linda Packer.

"My dad would just not believe it," Linda Packer said of finding the man who saved her father's life. "He would be very proud of me for having pursued this."

Two years after her visit, Pierre Coulon died.

This weekend, while attending a ceremony in Le Cardonnois, France, near the place where her father's plane crashed 67 years ago, Linda will continue the World War II bond forged between her father and Pierre Coulon. She said she would be attending the ceremony with Coulon's eldest daughter, Denise. There, a memorial will be unveiled, etched with the names of the 10 men who were shot down in 1944, including her father's. Though Linda and her husband, Stuart Rathje, 52, don't have children of their own, they delight in entertaining Coulon's two great-great grandsons, Theo and Enzo.

"The amazing thing to me is that the daughter of Paul Packer knows the great-great grandsons of Pierre Coulon," said Linda, who is working on a book based on the experience, calling the 1944 meeting of her father and Pierre Coulon "this moment in time that changed everything."