A tribute in bronze: Statue honoring French resistance takes shape in Kearns

WWII » Statue honoring French resistance takes shape in Kearns warehouse studio.
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Each time Stan Watts' sledgehammer fell on the ceramic mold, pieces broke off and more of Daniel Nevot's bronze, youthful face was revealed.

Nevot, a Frenchman now living in St. George, is nearing his 90th birthday and is one of the last living members of the Free French Forces who served during World War II.

The statue Watts is creating -- piece by piece, which will then be welded together -- in his Kearns warehouse-studio will memorialize Nevot, as a tribute to the "common" and "unsung heroes" of the French resistance after the country's leaders had reached an armistice with Germany.

Nevot, a renowned fencing instructor who still teaches at Dixie State College, said his native France has many monuments commemorating Charles de Gaulle, the French general who led the Free French and was later president, and Phillipe Leclerc, another famed commander of the resistance.

But for the hundreds of thousands French soldiers -- only a few hundred joined the resistance initially -- and tirailleurs, or Africans from the French colonies, who fought against the Axis powers, "there is no memorial for those people," Nevot said in heavily accented English, slipping into French for pronouns and other small words.

Nevot and his American wife, Helen, commissioned the sculpture as a gift to Chad Marine Infantry Regiment, and it will go to the regiment's new headquarters in France. The regiment was formed out of the forces that fought in North Africa.

The bronze statue will feature two roughly 8-foot-tall figures. One represents tirailleurs, or riflemen from Senegal, Morroco and Tunisia. The other, representing French fighters, is modeled by Watts based on photos of Nevot.

Nevot was an active part of the sculpting process, giving Watts feedback on the width of pants, footwear and manner of holding guns. Nevot mailed Watts photos of himself, standing in his backyard, holding a grandson's toy rifle to demonstrate.

Watts is known for sculptures depicting three New York City firefighters raising the American flag amid the destruction of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack, as well as a sculpture of George Washington praying on his horse.

Through a series of acquaintances, Watts learned that Nevot had spent the past few years searching for the right artist to capture his fellow soldiers. And Watts, who is choosy about the figures he will honor in bronze, knew this was a narrative he wanted to tell.

"This is the story of the real heroes, the men that went out and did the work," Watts said. "They didn't just give the speech. ... They put their life on the line, but they survived. They survived and they did their job."

And Watts was intrigued by Nevot's stories, such as sneaking with two other men into an Italian post in Libya in 1942.

Nevot had expected to find a maybe a dozen enemy fighters. Instead, they caught the Italian commander by surprise and ordered him to use the broadcast system to call the rest of the soldiers into the courtyard. There, Nevot and the others used the fort's machine guns to hold more than 70 soldiers captive until French reinforcements could arrive.

"They had to use cleverness and chutzpah," said Helen Nevot. The couple are spending about $125,000 for the statue and their trips to France to present the monument when it is completed, expected to be in July, she said.

"It's quite a gift," she said, "but this is his way of giving back to the regiment and honoring the regular soldiers. And we thought it was important, so we made the sacrifice."