Chartres, France - August 16, 1944. Colonel Welborn Griffith crept silently through the halls of Chartres Cathedral in search of German soldiers. Atop the roof was a bell tower-perfect lookout to spot American troops now bearing down on Paris to liberate the city from Nazi occupation. Allied bombers had blown a hole in the German front near Cherbourg, France. Under the command of General George Patton, the Third Army had German soldiers on the run. American pilots bombed the path of the Germans as they retreated. Now Chartres Cathedral was in the crosshairs. Allied command believed that German observation posts were established inside the church. They gave the order to destroy Chartres Cathedral.
One man challenged this order. Colonel Griffith must have known about the cathedral. He must have known it was a national treasure in France. Built in the middle ages, he must have known that Chartres was considered one of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, an architectural miracle that used principles far ahead of its time. Griffith took action. He volunteered to go behind enemy lines to determine if German soldiers occupied the cathedral. Accompanied only by his driver, Griffith searched every closet, every pew for the enemy. Every step into a darkened room could have been his last. Cautiously, he climbed the stairs to the bell tower, awaiting a burst of machine gun fire. Silence. The bell tower was empty. Triumphant, he hurried back to the command post. The order to destroy Chartres Cathedral was canceled.
Later that day, Griffith spotted a machine gun nest in the nearby village of Leves. He turned back to the American front and climbed the turret of an army tank. He was too big to fit down the hatch and stayed on top of the tank. In the battle, the Germans were defeated, but Griffith lost his life.
Colonel Griffith was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and awards from the French government. A plaque is nailed to a wall in Leves near the site where Griffith died. He is buried in the St. James World War II Cemetery in Brittany, France.To this day, he is remembered as the American soldier who saved Chartres Cathedral.