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'It is but nothing at all': Dina Desormes details rescue of U.S. soldiers in WWII-era France

Photo courtesy of Dina Desormes - Jacques Dykstra, left, and Bill Harvey, right, became lifelong friends after the Dykstra family saved Harvey’s life in France during World War II. Harvey’s plane was shot down over France behind enemy lines, and the Dykstra’s protected Harvey and another American pilot until they could make it back to the American forces. Harvey, born in Saginaw and a Mt. Pleasant resident after the war, eventually sponsored the Dykstra family to immigrate to the United States in the 1960s, where Jacque Dykstra’s daughter Dina Desormes and her husband Robaire Desormes opened Robaire’s Bakery in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. By Holly Mahaffey

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - History is hiding in plain sight in Mt. Pleasant. 

Despite running a successful Mt. Pleasant bakery for many years, it’s not widely known how and why Dina Desormes and her family immigrated to the United States from France.

Desormes, owner of Robaire’s Bakery in Mt. Pleasant, moved from France to Michigan with her husband Robaire in 1961. Her experience in war-torn France years prior laid the foundation for her family’s transition to the U.S. 

“It is the right thing to do”

On April 24, 1944, two American pilots on a bombing mission were shot down behind enemy lines near a farm in Burgundy, France. 

The farm belonged to Jacques Dykstra, a Dutch farmer born in 1910 who moved to France in 1928. Dykstra lived on the farm with his wife Renee and their young daughter Dina. 

“Surrounded by Germans, they came to our house and we took them in,” Desormes said. “For weeks we had them at the farm; we had them in the attics with hay.”

“During the war, you don’t trust anyone,” Desormes said.

Despite this, Desormes’s father trusted that the Americans were who they said they were and decided to help.

The family hid the airmen, feeding them at night and putting themselves at risk with German soldiers occupying the area. Desormes said her family knew of other French families killed by the Germans for harboring Americans during the war. 

“It was very, very dangerous, what we did,” she said. “My dad made the decision to take in those two pilots — those guys were only 20. We could have gotten killed, so how do you judge, ‘do I put my family in danger?’”

Dykstra was a member of the French Resistance and known as a religious and moral man. 

“He was very strict, but very fair — it comes from that religious background,” Desormes said of her father.

“Our house was headquarters, for Germans when we had them, and for Americans after they came,” Desormes said. “All the French doctors went away for the war, so they came to my dad to help find a German officer or doctor who could deliver babies. And they did. On top of that, we fed French people.” 

Desormes said the lack of food during the war made their farm a valuable resource for everyone in the area.

“It was headquarters, but you had to be careful what you said,” Desormes said.

Desormes remembers her mother being scared protecting the American pilots out of fear for the safety of family, thinking that they could be German spies. 

“She’s a mother,” Desormes said. “She questioned ‘how could you put us in danger in a war like this.’” 

Dykstra and his family housed the airmen for a time before deciding that conditions were becoming too dangerous with Germans visiting the farm daily for milk, butter and eggs.  

Dykstra arranged to move the airmen to a nearby town where they would hide in a hospital’s basement.

“We put them under hay (in a wagon), and all along the road we had Germans. You were supposed to have a pass (to travel). The German would say ‘What do you have underneath,’ and kind of poke with a pitchfork. We took them about 10 miles from our house, got them there, but it was in town with a train station full of ammunition,” said Desormes. 

This new location proved even more dangerous for the pilots when the train station full of German ammunition became a target in the war.  

“It was the Americans bombing the train station, of course the bombs fell around them,” Desormes said. “They were scared and decided to come back in the woods, with Germans all around them.” 

The pilots made it back to the safety of Dykstra’s farm. 

“Can you imagine, when we see them coming back,” Desormes said. “We had to take them back in. They would have gotten killed for sure.” 

The Dykstra family housed the airmen until the time seemed right for them to make their way back to American troops. 

“They still had to walk and join their people,” Desormes said.

One of the pilots Desormes’s family helped was Bill Harvey, a Saginaw native and U.S. Army Air Corps airman who lived in Mt. Pleasant after he returned from the war.  

Harvey stayed in touch with Jacques Dykstra after the war, developing a close friendship, and Harvey eventually sponsored the Dykstra family to move to the United States in the early 1960s. Desormes moved to Michigan a year after her parents while she waited for her husband Robaire Desormes to come back from the Algerian War. 

After working in the food industry in Mt. Pleasant, the couple opened Robaire’s Bakery, now a staple in town. 

Jacques Dykstra was killed in a car accident at the corner of Baseline and Mission roads about three years after moving to Mt. Pleasant and buying a farm, leaving Renee, Dina Desormes and her younger siblings. 

Desormes can’t say exactly what made her father decide to risk their lives to help the American pilots, besides that “it is the right thing to do.” 

“I guess he could see a lot further than a lot of people would have seen,” Desormes said. “Maybe it was a way to say ‘thank you’ to the Americans, to the American people. It’s hard to say. He had strict morals, you know, and I think that was a job to save those two young men.”

“It was almost something natural,” she continued. “You didn’t do it for yourself, it’s because (it was) what you had to do and the right thing to do.”

25 June 1943 MIA: The Search for Miss Deal and The Early Raiders on The Reich

Tony Crawford, a writer living in Texas, contacted Desormes after publishing his book “25 June 1943 MIA: The Search for Miss Deal and The Early Raiders on The Reich.” 

The book tells the story of Crawford’s 14 years of research to learn more about his uncle Charles “Charlie” Crawford, a gunner on a B-17 bomber that was shot down by German fighter planes in the Dollard Sea on June 25, 1943. Charlie Crawford and John Way, his pilot, are both listed as MIA and are believed to be entombed in their B-17 at sea, Crawford said. 

During his research, Crawford wrote about the story of Bill Harvey, the American pilot helped by the Dykstra Family. 

“The first time I got a letter from Texas, I said ‘I don’t know that person,’” Desormes said. 

Crawford sent Desormes a copy of his book, which has a chapter dedicated to Harvey’s story — told in first person — about his time during World War II and his experiences with the Dykstra family. 

“It was fate,” Desormes said. “I didn’t know that story, but Tony told me Bill Harvey was with his uncle the night his uncle got killed.”

Harvey — in Scotland at the time — visited a bar and missed the train that would have taken him back to his base on time. Arriving late, he found his plane and crew had been called for a mission and a replacement co-pilot and navigator went in his place. 

The plane was shot down with no survivors.

“He got punished, but it saved his life,” Desormes said. “(Harvey) was confronted by Germans and got lucky so many times. Why him and not somebody else? Fate really played a big role.”

An excerpt from Crawford’s book details the first time Harvey met Dykstra, after hoping he had not made a mistake visiting the French farm for help:

“‘Hello,’ I said, extending my hand,” the excerpt reads. “‘We are American pilots.’ He gave us a great big smile, took my hand and said, ‘My name is Jacque Dykstra. I’m Dutch, but have lived here many years. Are you hungry?’”

Crawford continues to research his uncle’s time in the war, and his book reflects the many people his uncle came in contact with while serving in World War II. He is currently searching for the family of the bombardier on his uncle’s original crew, 2nd Lt. Donald J. Andrews of Muskegon. 

Crawford’s book is available on Amazon; he provided The Morning Sun with the excerpts relating to the Dykstra family and Bill Harvey. 

‘It is but nothing at all’

Desormes remembers her childhood in postwar France as a time where many people from different backgrounds worked together.

“I was a child when the war kind of ended,” Desormes said. “I remember after the Americans came, a lot of the POWs went to camps. We had Italian, Spanish, I remember especially that, because we were allowed to get them to work on our farm. They came to the farm to work daily.”

“So everybody had a job,” Desormes said. “One of the Germans, his job was to take me to school. Some days, because I lived a mile from school, he took me on his bike and I would scream all the way because I didn’t want to go.”

That German POW later visited France to show the Dykstra’s former to his family. Upon learning of Desormes’s mother’s death, he wrote a letter to Dina.

“In that letter, he remembers we were all eating together,” she said. “We had diversity — now they make a big deal about it — but he took me to school and we ate all at the same table. When we were in the kitchen we were all human, all on the same level. If my mom would say no to me for something, all those guys would say ‘oh come on,’ and gang up against her. I was a little princess, raised with all the guys, American, German, so on.”

“It was right after the war, and I never felt hate,” she continued. “It’s a great thing. Because if only now we could act the same with all that’s going on in the world.”

“That’s a big thing too, we could have been hateful,” Desormes said. “Except for the SS (the Schutzstaffel, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary group), it’s not really the fault of the people. They were there because the government sent them. They were family men like French people were.”

Desormes hasn’t visited France since her husband Robaire passed away about 20 years ago and said if she ever does visit her birthplace again, it will be with her sisters.

In the meantime, she’s going to keep her bakery up and running.

“Everyone is asking me when I am going to retire,” said Desormes, now 75. “It won’t be for another 10 years. I will be walking with a cane around the bakery.”

One of Harvey’s memories chronicled in Crawford’s book is a story Desormes said she remembers as well: a second bombing attack by Americans on German ammunition trains. 

One of the trains was parked near the Dykstra farm, and Crawford documents Harvey saying:

“We left the house and ran down the driveway to the macadam road and jumped into the ditch on the far side. I was on the end, Dick (the other American pilot) next to me, then Jacques, Renee, her baby (Dina), and the young girl. Thank God, it was a deep ditch because here came the fighters strafing the train, then flying right over us with empty shells falling all around. Then after making a 360 degree turn, back they came firing at the train as they crossed over us. Again, empty shells were falling all around us. What a sight! I noticed Jacque’s cows were still out in the field. I said, ‘Jacque, they are going to kill all of your cows.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry, it is but nothing at all.’ I’ll never forget that expression and have used it many times since.”

Originally published online and in print in the Morning Sun, a Mount Pleasant, Mich. daily newspaper.