“Flying Fort Crashed Near Dussen”
by Paul Pouwels
Brabants Dagblad, Lanstr/Heusden-A, 10 November 1983, p. 4
(Translation by Peter Smit, 19 Feb. 2003 with corrections by Paul Pouwels)
Tomorrow it will be exactly 40 years ago that a shot-up B-17F bomber crashed near the little town of Dussen. The type of downed plane, known as a Flying Fort, on 11 Nov. 1943 was on its way to its home base, Great Ashfield, in the southern part of England. It was returning from the city of Münster where, with 38 other planes of the same type, it had bombed the railroad marshalling yards. On the mission, the plane with the crew came under attack by German anti-aircraft artillery. The B-17F, # 42-30795, was part of the American 8th Air Force, called the Mighty Eighth.
The Netherlands was going through the fourth winter of the war and, under the pressure of the German occupation, conditions became worse and worse. The worse the war went for the Germans, the more they oppressed the people in the occupied countries. But what everybody in The Netherlands experienced was more intense activity by the Allies, particularly from the air forces. In the daytime the people watched the white contrails from the American planes, particularly from the Flying Forts and the Liberators. By night you could hear the reverberations of hundreds of British bombers on their way to a target in Germany or on their way home. The German anti-aircraft guns took a heavy toll from the Allied planes. In our country alone the number of planes shot down is estimated at 6000. This is the story of the survivors.
When the flight of bombers of the 8th Air Force on 11 Nov. 1943 reached the vicinity of Münster they came under attack by 88mm anti-aircraft guns. When 2nd Lt. Tom Applewhite, the bombardier, dropped the bombs from 7000 meters, the plane was hit in the inner port engine. The motor caught on fire in no time. The speed of the plane dropped, the plane fell out of formation, and it headed home.
But a plane in that position, as a straggler, was an easy target for the German fighter planes with their 20mm cannons. For a short time pilot McGowan, with the help of co-pilot Lt. James Bufkin, was able to keep the plane in the air. But they were losing speed and altitude. There was no other solution and McGowan gave orders to bale out. The plane, without the crew, flew for a couple of minutes in the air and then crashed without causing any damage on the ground at ten minutes before 3 p.m. in the neighborhood of Dussen.
All the crew except radio-operator Sgt. James French landed safely on the ground in the neighborhood of Heusden. Nobody may know exactly what happened when he came down. According to witnesses, French died of a stomach wound from a 20 mm bullet. When he left the plane, none of the crew knew of his already being wounded. Captain McGowan believed that the German Messerschmidts shot French while he was parachuting down.
French came down on the border between Heusden and Nederhemert and they brought him to a hospital in Den Bosch [‘s-Hertogenbosch]. When he arrived there he was already dead. As far as we know it was not possible to find out where the Germans buried him. Since then his body was brought to the U.S.
Two Americans parachuted into Herpt. Right away the German police arrested them. Between Heusden and Eethen, another American fell into the hands of the police. All three were taken to the German Ortskommandant in Tilburg. [Smit remembers the “Green Police”, the German police so called because of their green uniforms.] And they ended up in a German POW camp.
Two men were found in a field by Mr. Van Ooyen. He kept them a couple of days in his house where he was living by the Rietveldenweg [name of a road referring to cane from cane fields, used to make mats put on dikes for reinforcement] by the town of Herpt. On their way to freedom they end up in the hands of the Germans.
Lt. Tom Applewhite, the bombardier, was better off. He came down near the intersection of two streets, Groenstraat and Lambertusstraat, in Hedikhuizen. His parachute was hidden and he took off on foot by way of the medieval ruins [of the Vroom fortress] and he came to the vicinity of a Protestant church on the dike in Hedikhuizen where he hid himself in a shed located between Hedikhuizen and Bokhoven. From that point Jan van Bommel of the Underground helped him. They gave him regular men’s clothing and helped him to the Gelderse Waard (field) near the Maas where Peek de Noo brought him to the other side. This man hid him at Het Heust between Wellseind and Ammerzoden. The Germans were looking intensively but never found anything.
From here on the trail becomes a bit hazy. Applewhite escaped via Belgium, France, and Spain and that’s how he ended up in England. From there they brought him over to the U.S. He could no longer fly in Europe; if shot down again, that would endanger the existence of the escape line. Instead, he became involved in training Chinese bombardiers.
Except for French and Applewhite, the rest of the crew ended up in different POW camps. Not mentioned are navigator Lt. Ellis Shorb, gunners Nello Malavasi, Vernon Mulvaney, and Robert Johnson. After 18 months, they saw each other back in camp Lucky Strike in France and from there they returned home.
The 11th of November 1943 ends up in history as not the most successful day of the American 8th Air Force. The 175 Flying Forts from the 1st Division had to return to their bases because of the very bad weather conditions. The city of Wesel was spared for the same reason. The 3rd Division counted 167 B-17’s. They made a mistake in organization and for that reason 84 bombers had to go back before they came close to the Dutch coast. Twenty-one planes were turned back because of a fire in the leading bomber. Of the 347 planes that left their bases, only 59 of them were able to bomb the marshalling yards in Münster. The 2nd Division was not in operation on that day. Four planes were hit on this mission and lost. By coincidence, all four ended up in The Netherlands (one in Dinteloord, one in Numansdorp, and one close to Breda). In that mission 27 bombers were damaged but no crew were lost.
Side Box “Speurtocht van Pouwels Elshout”
Elshout — The search for clues was conducted by Paul Pouwels (51) of Elshout, author of articles written about bombers shot down 40 years ago.
Pouwels, a teacher at the MDS school in Sint Michels, for ten years has been examining air battles. According to him this is one of about 100 cases he is studying. Because of the area where he lives, he is busy with about 25 cases.
Pouwels bases his reports on authentic documents. He collects old trials and reports from The Netherlands, Germany, England, and the United States. In addition, he locates eyewitnesses of the incidents from the Second World War. He really goes out of his way to get information from every possible source. This is his hobby.
About the Second World War he says, “You should not forget about it because it must not happen again.”