Remembering Sherman Peabody

Sherman Peabody, a Sherbrooke resident, was on the Bishop’s University golf and hockey teams and a popular man on campus when World War II broke out. Leaving school without finishing his degree, he became an RCAF Flying Officer and the pilot of a Lancaster heavy bomber.

On July 28, 1944 while taking part in a raid on Stuttgart, his plane was shot down over eastern France by a German night fighter. Two managed to parachute out, and three bodies were recovered at the crash site. That leaves two unaccounted for… In 2016, the family of Sherman Peabody commissioned the History Department to find out the truth about his fate and that of his fellow crew member Flying Officer Doe.

To commemorate Sherman Peabody’s disappearance, we’ve met with Full Professor Dr. Michael Childs of the History department, as well as with alumni Sean Summerfield and Megan Whitworth to discuss their findings.

 

Bishop’s: How did this project come about?

Michael Childs: about a year and a half ago, Robert Peck, a diplomat with Global Affairs Canada, contacted the Principal.  He explained that his family came from Sherbrooke, and that a family member, Sherman Peabody, had been a BU student in WWII who left without finishing his degree in order to join the RCAF.  In 1944 he had been shot down over the Vosges Mountains of France while piloting a Lancaster bomber. The bodies of three crew were recovered at the site, and two crew reached the ground alive. Sherman Peabody and another crew member simply disappeared.  Robert Peck remembered Peabody’s parents had never really accepted his death.  He and his brother Jon asked if our History Department could help find out what actually happened.  Principal Goldbloom contacted us and both Dr. Manore and I agreed to supervise some students, with Dr. Manore doing the Public History angle and me supervising the archival research.  We quickly got good students to volunteer to do the project for academic credit during 2016-17. The Pecks were very generous with expenses, and archival research and interviews took place in Ottawa, in London, England and in Lorraine, France.

 

Bishop’s: Give us a summary of your travels and research.

Sean Summerfield: I began work on this project in April 2016 when it was initially brought to the attention of the department. I began combing through online sources, then, Library and Archives Canada learning more about Peabody, Bomber Command, and war crimes. In the late summer of 2016 both I, and Spiro Trent, a student involved in the project before his graduation in December 2016, made use of Bishop’s Old Library, a room in which Sherman Peabody spent countless hours as a student. There, we accessed material in the Archives of the Eastern Townships Resource Centre and Bishop’s University Archives uncovering Peabody’s pre-war life. The archivists in the Old Library, Jody Robinson and Anna Grant, were extremely helpful in directing us to relevant material and steering us along the right path.

In March of 2017 Megan Whitworth and I flew to London to access documents held at the British National Archives in KEW Gardens. There we learned more of the Flight and the situation developing in the Vosges Mountains, the location of the Crash, in the summer of 1944. We read of commando operations, the secret actions of the French Résistance, and the atrocities of the Third Reich, but, still, little of the Bishop’s student we were searching for. Frustrated we then flew to Paris where we travelled, with the aid of countless espressos, to Nancy by car.

In Lorraine Megan conducted interviews with members of the community. Something made easier by kindness of Eric Girard and the local population. While there, and in pouring rain, we climbed into the mountains finding the crash site and the wreckage of Peabody’s Lancaster. The site, on the side of a mountain, saw debris strewn across exposed rock and metal shards hidden by dens moss. Cold, wet, and tired, we climbed down finding shelter, and wine, in the home of Eric’s friends. There we discussed the missing bomber crew, the French Résistance, and the beauty of the Larraine.

The following morning, we travelled west toward Germany to Natzweiler-Struthof the sole concentration camp in present day France. Located in a remote region, the Camp witnessed the deaths of some 22,000 people from its construction in 1941 until its liberation by the by the French First Army in November 1944. Although I did not realize this at the time I would later conclude it was in this place where Peabody spent the last moments of his life. His body, once incinerated, was likely used as to fertilize the vegetable garden near the entrance to the camp. With new information, we once again flew to London where I pursued new avenues of research, collecting the final documents needed to complete the investigation. I concluded that Peabody, and the Planes navigator James Doe, survived the crash, and were eventually captured. The two were then brought to Natzweiler-Struthof under the cover of darkness where they were killed.

Megan Whitworth: I was brought onto this project in the fall of 2016. As the intern for the history department, it was my job to organize the fall event and advertise it. Following the presentation in November of 2016, I was asked to join the project, as my knowledge of the French language was greatly needed. I started my research by corresponding with the mayor of Saint-Sauveur (pop. 42), Philippe Arnoult, as well as the president of the conservation society of the Saint-Sauveur Abbey, Eric Girard. During my travels to France, I was able to host a town hall meeting to discuss the crash and the subsequent events with over 50 people attending. Furthermore, I was able to conduct many one-on-one interviews with witnesses of the crash, as well as members of the French Résistance. Finally, a remembrance ceremony was held in the Petitmont cemetery (where the three confirmed dead airmen are buried) in honour of the victims of the crash.


 

Bishop’s: How important is a project like this for this History Department and Bishop’s University?

Michael Childs: As a faculty member, I think some issues stand out.  First, it provided a truly wonderful opportunity for our best students, while still undergraduates, to really dig into original research, to directly interview people, and to accomplish what every historian wants: to uncover “what really happened”.  Secondly, for Bishop’s University, it provided closure in a sense for one of our own: This was a student who gave his life fighting against a horrific regime, and whose body has never been found.  As historians, we owe a duty to record such events and such sacrifices.

Sean Summerfield: I think the Project underscores the strengths, and the opportunities, of the education model present at the University and within the History Department. History students, from their first year, are immersed in an environment where they’re able to pursue research interests not available to those in larger institutions. In introductory classes, often numbering less than 15 students, faculty are quickly able to identify the strengths and weakness of students and their interests. With this knowledge learning is tailored to continually push students to develop scholastically and, critically, as people. This project is indicative of the opportunities available to History students at Bishop’s. The faculty was aware this project was in line with my research interests and provided me with the ability, and mentorship, to be able to explore academic avenues at a level not typically available to those at other Universities.

Megan Whitworth: Personally, I think it is incredibly important that a project like this came to life at Bishop’s. I think it shows how history isn’t only textbooks and remembering dates, but that it has a real human impact, even today. This projects shows other history students that there are options for them after their bachelor’s degree other than what one would typically think a humanities student could get. I think the success of this project is directly linked with how Bishop’s small classes allow for amazing student/professor interactions. Because of this, I felt confident that my professors were guiding me in the right direction, yet they allowed me to conduct my own original research.

 

Bishop’s: How did this project affect your experience at Bishop’s and as a History student? 

Sean Summerfield: The Peabody Project presented me the opportunity to apply the trade I had been learning throughout my time at Bishop’s University. It allowed me to conduct original research independently, forcing me to develop new skills, all the while confirming the lessons I had learned in the classroom. When in need of help Dr. Michael Childs, and all faculty members, were always available to provide thoughtful guidance and instruction over the phone, in their offices, or over coffee. This small and intellectually intimate environment encouraged me to look at problems in new ways and explore new avenues when approaching the past. They had the patience to allow me to ignore their advice and the kindness to help me on my feet when, inevitably, I ran into difficulty.

Megan Whitworth: This project allowed me to apply skills that I learnt in the classroom to a “real-life” situation. It allowed me to put my critical thinking and research skills to the test and showed me the importance of social history, not just for me as a student, but for the people being interviewed. It re-affirmed the importance of the experience of everyday people within a large event. Most importantly, this project allowed me to discover what I enjoyed about being a historian and what I didn’t. It persuaded me to continue with my studies and apply to graduate school, where I will continue to develop the skills necessary to become a historian.

 

Bishop’s: What’s next for Sherman Peabody?  

Michael Childs: The University plans to highlight the Peabody case in a very special way. Stay tuned!

Sean Summerfield: I’m continuing to conduct research into Peabody and war crimes investigations following the end of the Second World War.

Megan Whitworth: I will be travelling to France, to continue my search of what really happened to Peabody as well as the others in the crash. I will continue doing archival work and interviews.

 

Bishop’s: What’s next for you Sean and Megan?

Sean Summerfield: I am perusing graduate studies at the University of Waterloo where I will continue to focus on the political, diplomatic, and military history of the Second World War.

Megan Whitworth: I will be attending grad school (Warburg Institute) in London in the fall, in Cultural and Intellectual History, 1300-1500. I am also in talks about presenting this project at Vanier College during their Ron Charbonneau lecture series in the fall.

 

Want to learn more about the History Department? Visit our website!
www.ubishops.ca/history

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