Remembering a local hero

On Aug. 9, 1944, Major Don M. Beerbower, the leading ace in aerial victories in the Ninth Air Force with 15.5 planes shot down, led the 353rd Fighter Squadron in a strafing attack against approximately 30 twin-engine enemy aircraft located at an ...

Don Beerbower in the summer of 1944.
Don Beerbower in the summer of 1944.

On Aug. 9, 1944, Major Don M. Beerbower, the leading ace in aerial victories in the Ninth Air Force with 15.5 planes shot down, led the 353rd Fighter Squadron in a strafing attack against approximately 30 twin-engine enemy aircraft located at an airdrome north of Reims, France.

During the low-level engagement the 22-year-old squadron commander's P-51 Mustang, Bonnie "B," was struck multiple times. The fighter plane crashed near the village of Saint-Thierry.

Beerbower, a native of Hill City, and an alumnus of Iowa State University, died at the scene. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Paul Sailer of Wadena authored Beerbower's story in "The Oranges are Sweet: Major Don M. Beerbower and the 353rd Fighter Squadron - November 1942 to August 1944." Sailer received the 2012 Aviation Writer of the Year award for the book.

When two French writers were putting together a history of a major French airbase and, after seeing "The Oranges are Sweet," contacted Sailer to use parts of Beerbower's last mission in their book. Later, they suggested placing a marker at the site near the vineyard where Beerbower crashed.


Last spring, a plan was finalized for a ceremony and a marker outside the Mont d'Hor church at Saint-Thierry. Sailer was invited to attend. He plans to do so with two of his brothers, Tony and Joe, and his sister Mary and her husband. Sailer said a number of people from Hill City, which will become a sister city of Saint-Thierry, are expected to make the trip, too. The ceremony is expected to include school children and Sailer said they plan to visit the school.

It means brushing off the two years of French he had in high school 50 years ago. Recently, Sailer found his old French school work book. On it were a couple of planes in a dogfight.

Beerbower's squadron ended the war with more aerial victories than any other United Stated Army Air Forces' squadron (290.5). Beerbower graduated from Hill City High School in Aitkin County in 1939.

Saint-Thierry Mayor Antione Lemaire and the city council recently announced a 70th anniversary remembrance ceremony will be held in the village at 3 p.m. Sept. 9, to commemorate Beerbower's sacrifice for helping free their community from Nazi occupation.

A memorial plate/marker in English and French will be placed near the entrance to the village's 12th century church, Mont d'Hor. The airfield will be opened to show how the attack was made that fateful day.

Dignitaries are expected to include the area Prefect, mayors of neighboring communities, and guests from France, United Kingdom and America, including former members of the French Armee de l'Air, Royal Air Force, United States Air Force, and United States Army.

Sailer plans to visit England, as well, and tour two of Beerbower's airbases there. Sailer, a pilot himself in the Army, flew helicopters in Vietnam during 1970 and 1971. Sailer developed a serious interest in World War II pilots and their airplanes, which led him to the Army and learning to fly. He began researching his book on Beerbower in 1998 and started writing in 2007.

"I'm really quite excited to go to Europe," Sailer said.


He plans to go to Normandy, where Beerbower was based, and drive out to what's left of the airfield. Sailer wants to pay his respects at the military cemetery were Beerbower is buried.

"I think that will be an emotional experience for me," Sailer said. He's also appreciative of the French people for the effort to remember a 22-year-old Minnesota aviator who left his young family to fight Nazi Germany in Europe.

"How can you appreciate any better, people who are doing something like this in a way that's quite meaningful," Sailer said. "It's hard for us to understand what it's like to be occupied."

The French people understand invasion and occupation and the freedom from that, even 70 years later, Sailer said. He said a real part of the story is the thoughtfulness of the French people, whose ties with America goes back to the Revolutionary War.

Sailer said he first learned of Beerbower's story from his own father, who was friends with Beerbower.

"We go to France to honor Major Beerbower, but also to honor our father and his desire that we remember his friend's sacrifice," Sailer said.

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Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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