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‘Because of others’ sacrifices’: Perham fourth graders are the first in the country to perform new WWII musical

Heart of the Lakes Elementary School music teacher Kim Jacobson, at the piano, gets one of her fourth grade classes into formation for a scene in "Mademoiselle Louise and the Flying Yankee" during a rehearsal on Monday. Marie Johnson/FOCUS1 / 2
During a rehearsal Monday, Heidi Swenson, a.k.a. "Mademoiselle Louise," runs lines with students in the Heart of the Lakes Elementary School music room. Marie Johnson/FOCUS2 / 2

It was a fateful day in February, 1944.

In the midst of World War II, an American B-17 plane was shot down by the Nazis while attempting to fly over occupied France. Peppered with large caliber shells, the aircraft lost power. The gunners were wounded, and a 2nd Lieutenant was killed.

With the plane nosediving, its engines in flames, the nine surviving crew members had no choice but to parachute out before the rig crashed.

The men landed safely, but the Nazis soon located and captured five of them on the ground. The other four were more fortunate; they were rescued and hidden away by members of the French Resistance.

Families of this secret anti-Nazi network opened their doors to the four American strangers who had fallen out of the sky. They put their own lives at risk in order to help, sharing what little food they had with the airmen, issuing them false traveling papers and giving them civilian clothes to wear.

Members of the network moved the airmen across France from house to house, usually under the cover of night. Eventually, five weeks after the plane crash, the airmen reached the coastal area of Plouha, in Brittany, where an English Navy ship was silently waiting to carry them to safety.

Reaching the beach was no easy task. The men had to carefully, quietly hike down some of France's steepest, most rocky cliffs, in the dark, as Nazi snipers lurked close by, watching and waiting for enemy escapees to target.

Somehow, the four men defied the odds and avoided detection. They boarded the Navy ship, snuck across the English Channel and made it back to their Air Force base in southeast England, unharmed.

It's a true story. And it's just one of many.

The local resistance network that saved these four airmen, the Shelburn Network, saved a total of 135 soldiers between January and August of 1944. Today, a monument stands atop the cliffs at Plouha, honoring and memorializing the great courage and heroism of those who dared defy the Nazis and keep their allies alive.

‘Mademoiselle Louise and the Flying Yankee’

In the music room at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School on Monday, students in Kim Jacobson's fourth grade classes appeared mildly nervous as they rehearsed for their upcoming musical.

This was their last practice before a full dress rehearsal in front of their teachers and peers at the school on Tuesday. Many of the kids have a solo speaking or singing role in the show, and have never had to put themselves out there like that in front of a live audience before.

In an interview with several of the students, they all admitted to having butterflies in their stomach. But they also said they were excited for the performances, and that they'd learned a lot about history, and the privilege of freedom, from being in the show.

"I've learned that we're spoiled," said Autumn Branchaud. “We have it easy.”

Her classmate, Megan Hoppe, added, "Things were a lot harder then."

"Then" being World War II. The kids have been learning all about that era, and the hardships of war, for the past few months as part of their performance prep.

The musical they've been working on is based on the life-saving efforts of the French Resistance, and the American soldiers they saved during the war.

"Mademoiselle Louise and the Flying Yankee" tells the tale of a young French teacher, Louise, who hides an injured American pilot in the attic of her boarding school. As the Nazis grow more suspicious, she struggles to balance the safety of her students with her duty to protect the pilot. The kids end up getting in on the act, pretending to have typhoid fever to keep the Nazis at bay.

Originally written in French, the show was only recently published in English, and to the best of Jacobson's knowledge, it has never been staged in the United States before. That makes these 98 Perham fourth graders the first in the nation to perform it.

"As far as I know, we're the very first ones," Jacobson said.

The show was commissioned by a French music academy, the Academie musicale de Villecroze, which is run by a family with strong ancestral ties to the French Resistance.

Last October, Jacobson was one of just 10 North American teachers invited to partake in a 5-day workshop through the academy to learn more about "Mademoiselle Louise and the Flying Yankee."

Along with those 9 other teachers and 10 more from France, Jacobson worked with the show's composer and two directors to learn and perform the music in both English and French. The group also learned about the history behind the piece, and toured some WWII historic sites in France.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Jacobson said of the workshop. "I jumped at it."

Jacobson minored in French in college and had traveled to France once before.

"I'd always wanted to go back,” she said.

“Joy, laughter, sadness, sorrow”

"Not all heroes are famous." This idea -- that everyone has a story to tell, and that many heroic people go unrecognized -- was a driving force behind the creation of "Mademoiselle Louise and the Flying Yankee," according to Jacobson. The Academie musicale de Villecroze wanted to honor and help share the stories of some of these lesser-known figures.

"I love it so much," said Jacobson of the show. "It is absolutely incredible what these people went through. I've always had a soft spot for soldiers and for people who do things for the good of others, and it just struck me. The music is fantastic; it's fun, it's catchy, it's beautiful. It covers such a wide range of emotion -- joy, laughter, sadness, sorrow..."

At first, she said, she was afraid that the subject matter might be too mature for her fourth graders, but after talking to the kids, she realized the meaning behind the musical was actually well within their grasp. As she taught them the music, she was always sure to put the story into perspective, to make sure the kids understood what was happening and why.

"War is a reality of the world, and the things they're exposed to on TV, in the movies, in video games... I thought, 'If they can handle that, they can handle this,'" she said.

To gain an even broader understanding of the war, Jacobson had the kids visit Perham’s In Their Own Words Veterans Museum in April. The kids said they learned a lot there; it helped them make connections between the musical and the real world. They were struck by the personal stories of local veterans, and some of them discovered that their own relatives had fought in WWII.

Students also made projects related to the musical in their Enrichment class. They researched certain aspects of the war and then made posters and slides to teach others what they’d learned.

Maddux Swentik, for example, found and studied old pictures of the inside of a B-17 airplane, and then sketched that out onto a poster. Beau Nelson helped make slides depicting scenes from the musical, which will be played off to the side of the stage to help audiences follow along with the action. The kids’ posters will be on display the night of the shows.

“Mademoiselle Louise and the Flying Yankee” is about 45 minutes long. There were two performances on Thursday, May 25, at the Perham High School auditorium. Free will donations were accepted, going to local veterans and the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum.

“Above all else, what I really want my students to take away from this is an appreciation for the lives that we have because of others’ sacrifices,” said Jacobson. “I want them to love singing and music, but the main point that I want to stick with them is... to not take their current lifestyle for granted.”

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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