The American Colonel Who Saved a Cathedral

The 12th-century Cathedral in Chartres, France draws the eye from many miles around.  Its two towers are among the highest structures in that part of France, and they have beckoned pilgrims for many hundreds of years.

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On August 16, 1944, American forces were approaching the city of Chartres on their way to help liberate Paris.  They were under heavy fire, and commanders assumed the Germans must be spotting their approach from one of the cathedral’s towers.  So an order was given to shell the Cathedral.  An American Colonel, Welborn Griffith, questioned the order.  He volunteered to go behind enemy lines to investigate.  Only one enlisted man went along on this dangerous mission.  After searching the Cathedral and climbing the towers, Colonel Griffith signaled that the church was clear of the enemy; the bombardment was cancelled and the town taken, but not without a fight.

Colonel Griffith was killed in the ensuing firefight in Leves, just on the outskirts of Chartres.  Some of the locals saw him fall.  They covered him with blankets, flowers, and with an American flag until his body could be taken away.  The locals had pieced together the facts of his heroic action that saved their beloved Cathedral from destruction.  In gratitude, they placed a plaque with his name on the spot where he fell.

However, the name on his dogtag confused them.  His name was recorded as Griffith Welborn, not Welborn Griffith.  For nearly 50 years, his family had no idea that he had saved one of the world’s most important and beautiful Cathedrals.  Finally, in the 1990s, a local amateur historian discovered the mistake and contacted the Colonel’s descendants.  Some of them traveled from the United States to Chartres, where during a ceremony honoring him, the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” echoed through the magnificent Cathedral.  Today, a park in Leves honors Colonel Griffith. He is featured in one of the explanatory displays within the Cathedral, which expresses profound gratitude to him and to the other Americans who served alongside him.

On this Memorial Day, when Americans solemnly honor their war dead, I think of heroes, both famous and obscure, who have given their lives for the cause of freedom.

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