Wars may end but for those who’ve lost loved ones their grief lasts a lifetime.
War kills. Families are notified, there’s the inevitable anguish and grieving then, sooner or later, more or less, the healing begins.
But when there’s no body, no official identification, only surmise, there’s no tangible sense of closure. There’s always the ever-so-faint hope that, somehow, somewhere, the beloved soldier, sailor, airman or marine is yet alive, perhaps as a prisoner-of-war.
Then the war ends, more years pass, and the military, if not the families, moves on. But the file remains open.
During the Second World War (1939-1945), for example, 10,000 Allied and German aircraft were shot down, many downed over the Netherlands which was on the direct flight path between England and Germany. A thousand planes, most of them bombers, are believed to have plunged into the Zuider Zee.
That’s where, frequently over the past 40-plus years, Fate has played a belated hand in the recovery of the remains of some of these lost Canadian, British, American, Allied and German airmen.
Originally an inland sea that covered 12 per cent of the Dutch nation, the Zuider Zee was converted into an inland fresh water lake in 1932 by means of a 25-mile-long dike across the inlet. As stated, it was on the direct route used by Allied bombers which, by the time they reached the off-coast Friesen Islands, were still struggling to gain altitude and vulnerable to ground anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighter planes. The losses were staggering.
In the 1970s the Dutch began to drain what remained of the lake. Almost immediately they began to discover the wreckage, not just of Second World War aircraft, but that of First World War planes and, sometimes, galleons dating back to the Spanish Armada. Occasionally the remains of the pilots or crews were still inside the wreckage, such as the pilot of a British Spitfire who was remarkably well preserved. In his pockets were his ID, some silver coins, a rosary and a silver cupid from his wedding, 14 days before he flew his last mission.
Another discovery was that of a German fighter plane which had 63 icons on a wing indicating its pilot had downed 63 Allied aircraft.
From the beginning the nations of each plane’s origin were officially notified. But the salvage efforts by the Royal Netherlands Navy posed the sensitive question as to whether or not attempts should be made to trace down the lost airmen’s next-of-kin. Wouldn’t that just open up old wounds? Once the decision to do so was made, however, it became Dutch policy and the results, by all reports, have been positive.
Even after decades, it became apparent, after parents and many siblings have themselves died, families still want to know what happened to an uncle or grandparent in the war.
The Dutch Aircraft Recovery Group believes that there are at least 500 crashed airplanes beneath the waters and reclaimed lands of the IJsselmeer (the former Zuider Zee); the locations of 159 Second World War aircraft have been published on a map that’s updated as required. Not all of these wrecks have been salvaged or even explored and documented because of the costs involved. In some cases they’ll be left undisturbed and “will have a seaman’s grave”.
Some recovered artifacts have been returned to their respective air forces which have donated them to appropriate museums for public display and remembrance. A poignant example is that of the American bomber B-24H No. 638 which, on Dec. 22, 1943, was returning to its English base after bombing a target at Munster, Germany when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire over the Zuider Zee.
Its engines disabled, the pilot ordered his 10-man crew to bail; four parachuted but the others, seeing that they were over water, opted to ride the plane down. The impact when it struck the waves “tore off its nose, and the co-pilot, Lt. Charles Taylor, floated free. He held onto a life raft but soon passed out in the frigid water. Unconscious, he was rescued by some German soldiers in a patrol boat and sent to prison camp at Stalag Luft I for the remainder of the war.
“Taylor was the only member of the crew to survive. The four who bailed out died from exposure; their bodies were recovered from the Zuider Zee by the Germans and buried. No trace was found of the other five men, and they were ‘Missing in Action’ as of Dec. 22, 1943.”
During reclamation efforts in the 1970s Dutch workmen saw the remains of a battered aircraft as it began to emerge from the slime. A U.S. star insignia gradually became visible and months of research identified the wreck as that of the long missing B-24, 42-7638. When, in 1976, the RNAF began recovery operations, the remains of the missing five crewmen were found in the wreckage. “On request of the next-of-kin, their remains were returned to the U.S. for burial, more than three decades after they had failed to return from a combat flight.”
This is an exception; usually upon being identified, recovered airmen, Allied and German, are interred in the most appropriate regional military cemetery. In the words of Capt. Suzanne de Boer, of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, “We want to bring home [she’s speaking figuratively] the people who sacrificed for our freedom, so that their families can have a decent final goodbye.”
In August 2016 another Second World War bomber, this one British, was in the process of being recovered by a salvage company working for the Dutch Ministry of Defence. At month’s end they’d retrieved a bent propeller, parts of an engine and two loaded machine guns from what was believed to have been a Vickers Wellington from IJsselmeer Lake. The bulk of the wreckage, while still underwater and known to contain human remains, was secured by erecting steel walls around it and 4,000 cubic metres of water were pumped out, exposing the lake bottom and the wreckage.
The wreck was found in 2014 by a dredging company exploring the IJsselmeer for sand and gravel; because no alternative site could be found the plane had to be moved to allow the dredgers access. In honour of the plane’s crew, thought to have been Polish, and shot down in 1941 while en route to bombing Bremen, the Royal Air Force planned a fly-past over the wreck site with a vintage bomber. Said Major Arie Kappert, who was in charge of the recovery project, “It is an honour to be able to bring home the missing. If they are there, we will find them.”
As of 2016 it was believed that there are 501 Second World War crash locations in the Netherlands which have yet to be investigated. Of the missing crew members, some 600 are British, 228 American and 247 German. Many missing airmen are also believed to have crashed in the Netherlands’ Wadden Sea.
How important is it that these ‘found’ airmen be recovered, identified and given proper military funerals? This 1996 New York Times story about American P-47 fighter pilot Frank D. Gallion serves as a vivid example. Bearing the headline, “Five decades later, a fighter pilot’s final flight ends,” reporter Michael Winerip described the 29-year-old Gallion’s half-century-long delayed funeral that was held on Memorial Day. How F/O Gallion was declared missing on Nov. 3, 1943 after his Thunderbolt was hit by German machine gun fire and went down over the Zuider Zee while escorting a force of 500 B-17 bombers. When a Dutch dredging ship hit something with its propeller in just 10 feet of water, it proved to be Gallion’s long lost plane from the 334th Fighter Squadron; his skeleton, almost intact, was still seated in the cockpit.
On May 28, 1996, “at precisely 1 p.m. in a pouring rain,” an honour guard from Fort Knox, Kentucky placed a container smaller than a shoe box containing F/O Gallion’s cremated remains in the back of a long silver hearse. A 20-car procession then drove by the Holmes County Courthouse and the war memorial “which look exactly as they did when Frank Gallion and his brother, Ottmar, were boys swimming in Saps Run Creek,” before proceeding to the Pleasant Grove Cemetery. When the small cavalcade arrived they found others had arrived ahead of them — there were vehicles “as far as the eye could see,” all of them there to honour this airman who’d been missing for more than half a century.
Two weeks after he went down his wife Phyllis had been informed that he was unaccounted for and a notice that he was Missing In Action was later posted in the local newspaper. In August 1945 his mother placed a headstone for F/O Frank Gallion over an empty grave in Pleasant Grove Cemetery. Over the years his family made inquiries to the American and Dutch officials without learning anything more and his brother Ottmar wondered if he hadn’t been captured by the Germans and died in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Phyllis, who died childless in 1990, had kept in touch with her mother-in-law until the latter’s death in 1960. Neither of them lived to learn of the recovery of Frank’s plane and his skeleton in 1996.
The stories of discovered aircraft and their crews, still poignant, even heartbreaking despite the passage of 50 and more years, goes on. As recently as this September, Jennifer Rankin reported in The Guardian that the Dutch army and air force were working to recover the wreckage of an RAF Short Stirling bomber from a large, shallow lake near Amsterdam. BK716 of the Gold Coast Squadron vanished with its seven-man crew on March 29, 1943.
Part of its landing gear was accidentally discovered in 2008 but it took years of further scouring the lake bottom to identify the craft thanks to the dedicated efforts of “volunteer wreck detective” Johan Graas and members of the Aircraft Recovery Group who’ve investigated hundreds of wrecks in the Netherlands and who’d lobbied the Dutch government since 2008 to begin recovery operations. It was the serial number on an aluminum plate that had all but disappeared in the mud that confirmed the BK716’s identity. But it took police forensic experts using chemicals until April 2019 to identify once and for all that the last digit of the serial number was a six, not a zero, confirming the BK716’s identity.
Among its lost crewmen was 30-year-old Leonard Shrubsall who’d left his wife Beatrice three months pregnant with son Richard, now 77, who expressed shock upon being informed personally by Graas of the discovery. “We thought he was shot down over the North Sea but we didn’t know where,” he told The Guardian. “I am really pleased that [the plane] is coming up.”
“It’s absolutely marvellous,” said his wife Janice. “It has taken over our lives at the moment.”
Personal effects (but not their remains) of other crew members had also been recovered and their descendants notified. Upon recovery the airmen were to be buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the Netherlands, with individual headstones. It’s British policy that servicemen from the two world wars are buried in the country in which they died.
Said Graas: “A crash site is not an official grave. It’s very important to give the official burial so [relatives of the men] can go up to the ceremony [sic] and put some flowers on it and remember their loved ones.” Two of the crew, unnamed in The Guardian account, are said to have been Canadian. Until 2018 the Dutch government had underwritten salvage operations by a maximum of 70 per cent, leaving it to smaller local governments to cover the balance and this had led to some requests to search wreck sites being refused. The federal government has since agreed to cover all costs incurred by military personnel and salvage experts.
An exceptional case is that of Halifax bomber LV905 of 78 Squadron, RAF, which was shot down over Holland, May 25, 1944, and crashed into a dike. Two bodies were recovered upon its discovery in 2005, but five crewmen including F/O Sidney Glen Peterson, RCAF, remained entombed in the wreckage. To finance their recovery the Salvage Halifax 1944 Foundation was formed to accept public donations from Dutch citizens, including the late HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Archivists, crew members of the RNAF Salvage Team and the Identification Team of the Royal Netherlands Army, and Veterans Affairs Canada joined in retrieving the five lost airmen. The Canada Remembers Division arranged for F/O Peterson’s interment in Jonkerbos War Cemetery, Netherlands.
Twenty-one-year-old Peterson graduated from Lord Selkirk High School in Winnipeg and had served as a cadet officer in The Fort Garry Horse Cadets before enlisting in the RCAF in January 1942, 10 months before his brother F/O Lawrence Herbert Peterson was killed in action over El Alamein.
F/O Sidney Peterson, RCAF is still listed at (https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/2646708),Veterans Affairs Canada’s Virtual War Memorial which, like Vimy Ridge for the First World War, honours those for whom there is no known grave. His entry reads, “Still remembered for his wonderful sense of humour, his leadership qualities and his keen sense of duty,” and says he was an inspiration to his younger brothers. He received his commission and Observer’s wing in Canada, completed Operational training in England and served in 65 Squadron. As a navigator with 78 Squadron, RAF, he flew 26 operational missions in Halifax IIIB bombers until his last flight in May 1944. He was posthumously awarded his Operational Wings in November 1946.
To put Bomber Command’s contribution to the Allies during the Second World War into perspective, it had the highest attrition rate for any Allied unit — 55,573 men killed in action in the skies over Europe, and a further 2,427 men and women died as air and ground crew.