In the Dutch community of Zoetermeer, there is a street named for 578th Squadron gunner S/Sgt John E. McCormick. The local scout group bears his name. School children in the area learn about him and take field trips to his grave in Zoetermeer and to the hunting lodge in nearby Zevenhuizen where he spent the last months of his life. In 1994, a Dutch film crew went to his home town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to film a documentary about his short life. In 1995, the US Consul General spoke at the unveiling of a monument in front of the hunting lodge and talked extensively about him. More than sixty years after his death, flowers are still laid on his grave.
How did S/Sgt John McCormick become so well-known in this Netherlands community? It is because of nine weeks in early 1945.
John's Military Career
John enlisted in the Army Air Corps on 11 April 1942. He was selected for pilot training but was eliminated during Basic school (the second of three phases of training). Before he washed out, he had learned to both fly and land an airplane. He then applied for navigator and bombardier training, feeling he had both the mathematical skills and aptitude for that kind of work. Because the Air Corps already had a huge backlog of men waiting for those schools, his requests were denied and he was sent to gunnery school in Harlingen, Texas (5 March-24 April 1943). Upon graduation, John had done well enough that he was offered a job there as a gunnery instructor. He accepted and was sent to Gunnery Instructor School in Ft. Myers, Florida (24 April-12 June 1943). After finishing the training, he returned to Harlingen where he taught aerial gunnery until early November 1943 when he requested an assignment overseas.
From 15 December 1943 to 23 June 1944, John was at Langley Field, Virginia, for combat training. He then went overseas with his bomber crew. Military orders dated 25 July 1944 sent them from the 2nd Combat Crew Replacement Center to the 392nd Bomb Group in Wendling, Norfolk, England.
Men in the original crew were:
Standing left to right: 2/Lt Bill J. Jurczyn, copilot; 2/Lt Frank Walker, bombardier; 1/Lt William A. Sturm, pilot; 2/Lt John L. Rawlings, Jr., navigator
Kneeling left to right: S/Sgt John A.H. Lingle, waist gunner; S/Sgt Jack C. Brown, radio operator; S/Sgt Donald E. LaChance, engineer; George Austermuhl, rank and position unknown; S/Sgt Russell H. Huff, tail gunner; S/Sgt John E. McCormick, waist gunner (photo from S/Sgt Lingle's family)
John completed his first mission on 11 August 1944. On his fourth mission (24 August 1944), the plane returned with 30 holes and the pilot, copilot, and navigator had been hit by glass or flak fragments. He was wounded during the mission on 11 September 1944 and did not fly for a month. The other waist gunner, S/Sgt Lingle, also was out a month due to flak wounds. While they were recuperating, the Sturm crew flew another seven missions. As a result, John and Lingle still had several more missions to fly after their crewmates finished their required number in early February 1945.
The Last Mission
On 22 February 1945, John and Lingle were assigned to fly with 1/Lt Joseph R. Walker, Jr. The nine men on board B24 #42-95241 that day were originally part of six different crews. Tail gunner Duerr was on his 35th and final mission while it was the first mission for both Nagle and Hicks.
1/Lt Joseph R. Walker, pilot
2/Lt Ralph C. Casstevens, copilot
1/Lt John J. Donohue, bombardier-navigator
S/Sgt Harold A. Shea, nose gunner
Sgt Francis J. Nagle, radio operator
S/Sgt Allan W. Hicks, engineer
S/Sgt John E. McCormick, waist gunner
S/Sgt John A.H. Lingle, waist gunner
S/Sgt Elmer E. Duerr, tail gunner
There is some disagreement as to whether the plane was nicknamed Jolly Duck and if she had any nose art. The Missing Air Crew Report said it had no nickname and a pilot who flew #241 over 20 times said as far as he could recall, she had neither nickname nor nose art. Navigator 1/Lt Donohue (who flew in her ten times) said she had no nickname. Crewman Francis Nagle said he did not remember any of the crew calling the plane Jolly Duck nor does he recall seeing that name painted on the nose. Correct or not, the plane is now usually referred to as Jolly Duck.
The mission was unusual from start to finish. The assigned target was the marshalling yards at Nordhausen, Germany, with bombing to be done at the extremely low altitude of 6,000 feet. Because of smoke and haze at the primary target, the 392nd elected to bomb the rail yard at Northeim instead. After another Group cut in front of them, the 578th Squadron diverted at the last minute to a large industrial plant six miles northwest of the town, with excellent hits on the aiming point.
Elmer Duerr remembers encountering "much more flak than expected" and leaving the target "a burning inferno." As they neared the Dutch coast, an engine suddenly quit. Pilot Walker told engineer Hicks to see how much gas was left; Hicks reported they were almost out of gas. (Navigator 1/Lt Donohue later wrote, "We thought it possible that the heavy flak may have hit the gas tanks; additionally, we had climbed to high altitude to cross the coast eastbound and after dropping to the low level bomb run we had to raise up again to go out," a likely reason for a higher-than-usual fuel consumption.)
The crew began to throw everything they could out of the plane (guns, ammunition boxes, flak vests, etc.) to try and lighten it. Navigator Donohue worked feverishly to plot a course to Antwerp which was in Allied hands. Then another engine quit.
By this time, they were over the North Sea so Walker turned south. Donohue remembered, "We were hugging the coast southbound but again the decision, based on fuel, was made to turn in and have some power left for a landing or bailing out over land." Walker put the wheels down as a sign of surrender and instructed radio operator Nagle to shoot flares to signal that they were going to land. The Germans then "threw up everything but the kitchen sink." Impact was at 3:15 in the afternoon near Zoeterwoude, Holland.
The plane clipped a dike, breaking off the nose wheel. It then flew just off the ground for a few hundred yards before touching down and ripping the main landing gear off at the wings. It narrowly missed a farmhouse, but its right wing cut off the tops of some fruit trees. The nose finally hit a dike on the other side of the farm and the ship came to an abrupt halt. The propellers were bent and the nose was broken off by the force of the impact. Otherwise, the plane was largely intact. The crew had no serious injuries, although everyone was badly bruised by the landing and several faces were bloody from being thrown around the plane. S/Sgt Lingle had the worst injury, a badly sprained ankle.
1/Lt Donohue later wrote, "I was on the flight deck when we sat down-hard. Again the pilots in unison pulled that nose up by standing up and heaving with all they had…. I remember being outside the plane and Walker shouting he was pinned in and I went back to help free him. I mention this as I recall when turning around that the nose turret was detached and was about five yards in front of the ship as were some of the engine nacelles in front of the wing. The wheels were upright in the mud a considerable distance behind the plane..."
They all got out through the bomb bays or waist windows. As he exited the plane, one crewman (thought to be S/Sgt Duerr) gave his parachute to a young Dutch man standing nearby, Bill Niekerk. He gave it to his fiancée, Wilhelmina van den Berg. When they were married on 19 July 1945, her wedding dress was made from that parachute silk. She used more of the parachute silk later to make a christening gown eventually worn by their four children and four of their grandchildren. The Niekerks finally emigrated to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. On 6 March 2002, they donated the dress to the Aerospace Museum in Calgary, where it is on display.
Martinus Janson, owner of the farm, motioned to the crew to get away as fast as possible, as he expected the Germans to arrive any minute. While stripping off their heavy flying gear, Walker ordered the crew to split up to maximize their chances of evasion.
Four German soldiers arrived at the farm within half an hour and began to interrogate everyone there about what had happened. Other soldiers were searching the nearby farms and communities.
Hicks and Nagle started up a path together but looked back and saw Shea struggling to help Lingle, who could hardly move due to his hurt ankle. They came back to help. They then heard a shot and saw a uniformed German. All four were captured and transported in a horse-drawn milk cart to a bunker in Zoetermeer where they were put in separate cells. They were eventually taken to Frankfurt for interrogation and them to a prison camp in Nurnburg. After being marched to POW camp at Moosburg, the four airmen were liberated on 29 April 1945 by the US 14th Armored Division under General Patton.
Walker and Casstevens headed off together. While they were swimming across a small river, farmer Leen Dogterom found them and hid them at his farm. Mrs. Dogterom bandaged their bloody faces. Being afraid of their discovery, the farmer hid them in the back of his cow stable. Meanwhile, the Dutch resistance came and promised to get them away.
While they were in the stable, two German soldiers arrived at the farm and told Mr. Dogterom they were looking for American airmen. The farmer said he knew nothing and offered them a glass of milk and some cheese. Little did the Germans know they were using the same glass Walker and Casstevens had used just moments before! Luckily, they left without searching the farm. The airmen were taken to the village of Berkel where they were hidden by the Havenaar family. They spent the rest of the war near Rotterdam.
Duerr and Donohue set out together. They were picked up by a farmer named Van Schie. He hid them until a member of the resistance came, identifying himself with the password "Roosevelt." Dressed as Dutch farm workers, complete with wooden shoes, they rode bicycles all the way to The Hague, following a guide from the underground who rode in front to show the way. They were re-located several times and had many anxious moments when a nearby German V-2 rocket base was bombed. They were finally transported by "ambulance" to the DeCarpentier home, where they stayed until liberated by Canadian forces on 11 May 1945. At Le Havre, France, Duerr boarded a ship on 9 June and arrived in New York eight days later. On 19 June, he was back home in Pennsylvania.
In the undated letter written in the early 1990s, John Donohue wrote, "Obviously, we always will hold the Dutch in high esteem. Many risked their lives and freedom in aiding us. A farmer got us started from a haystack with bikes, bandages and clothing; a family with small children took us in to their apartment; doctors tended us at night; couriers ferried us from safe place to safe place (including an abandoned house battered by V-2 failures and Spitfire bombings); a police inspector took our photos for identity cards; a mother provided food, etc.; a husband and wife (British gal) and daughter provided months of hiding… At this age the near misses and close calls seem nerve-shattering but at 'that' age it seemed routine."
John McCormick headed off by himself. He hid in a haystack on Leen Dogterom's farm for three days before being discovered when the farmer came to get hay for his cows. He was dirty and very hungry. Mrs. Dogterom fed him fresh milk and lots of bread; she remarked later that she was quite amazed at how much the young airman ate!
As soon as the crew disappeared, Dutch farm workers Wim Janson and Henk Bakker siphoned off about 20 liters of oil from the propellers. They also retrieved one of the tires and hid it in a hay stack. The rubber was eventually used to make soles for shoes.
Then the German soldiers arrived and during the next few days, removed everything they wanted from the plane, including 600 gallons of gas. A guard was posted, but the soldiers allowed curious villagers to come and look at the plane that had landed so unexpectedly in their midst.
On the morning of 26 February 1945, an RAF Spitfire from 542 Squadron taking reconnaissance photos passed over the crash site. When the pictures were developed, the mostly undamaged Liberator was seen. It was long-standing policy to destroy any Allied aircraft that came down in enemy territory to prevent the enemy from learning about new technologies and equipment. Later that day, three Spitfires from the 542 Squadron flew to Zoeterwoude and circled around the crashed B-24. The Spitfires then repeatedly strafed the Liberator until it was destroyed, obviously unaware that the Germans had already taken whatever they wanted from the plane.
When the low-flying planes first approached, a German guard shouted, "Take cover!" Dirt flew in all directions as the bullets hit the ground. Inside the farmhouse, another soldier ordered everyone into the cheese cellar. Among those who sought shelter was a young woman with two little boys, both badly wounded in their stomachs.
Those in the cheese cellar heard three volleys from the Spitfires. During the strafing, several people who were unable to take shelter in time were wounded; a German soldier and four Dutch sightseers were killed. Fifteen-year old Jopie van Bemmelen-sister of the two wounded boys in the cheese cellar-had tried to protect her four-year old brother Gerrie by hiding him under her dress. Jopie's body was so badly mangled by the bullets that she could hardly be recognized.
Gerrie was hit in his abdomen by one bullet. He was bandaged up by Dr. Kortmann, the local doctor, who used a first aid kit from the Jolly Duck which he had retrieved on the day it crashed. Young Gerrie died on the way to a hospital in Leiden.
Also killed were Martinus Janson, the 62-year old owner of the farm where #241 crashed and Maria den Elsen-Zonderop, a 36-year old mother of five.
The huge Liberator was a continuing reminder to Mrs. Janson of her husband's death during that terrible afternoon. Jan van Rossum and Maarten Bakker finally obtained a permit to dismantle the aircraft. It took them three weeks, using just a metal chisel and a hammer, to cut the plane into pieces. The segments were then pulled manually to a flat-bottom boat and after that moved by water to van Rossum's farm. They had to use a farm horse to move the four heavy engines. After the war, the material was transported to a scrap heap and demolished.
John and the Resistance
Meanwhile, farmer Dogterom was naturally terrified that the Germans would find John, so he got word to the resistance. Wim Olivier told leader Dr. Joseph Kentgens, a dentist, that the last airman had been found and then went to get John. As he walked into the room, John was sitting on a chair with a very anxious look on his face. He asked, "Are you from the Dutch underground?" and was obviously relieved at the affirmative reply.
Three members of the resistance brought clothes for John to change into and bicycles for the 25 kilometer trip to the hiding place. John had never ridden a bicycle before and a Dutch eyewitness recalled that he kept going from side to side in a very wobbly manner.
Wim Olivier's sister Jannie rode in the very front. By pre-arranged plan, if she stepped off her bicycle and looked at the rear tire, it was a signal of danger. After riding a few kilometers, she heard a bicycle hitting the ground. When she turned to look, she saw John hiding in some bushes. Apparently, he had seen a man in uniform approaching and had panicked. The Dutch had quite a laugh as the "threat" was just a mailman and not a German soldier! It should be noted, however, that the Dutch had been dealing with the German invaders for over four years while John's experience had been only a few days.
When the group reached Zevenhuizen, Miss Olivier turned around and rode home while another member of the resistance took the lead for the last two kilometers. John got a warm welcome when he reached the remote hunting lodge called "Het Jachthuis" on the banks of the River Rotte. It was the hideout for several members of the resistance who were being hunted by the Germans, including Dr. Kentgens and his second in command, Jacob L van Rij. A police sergeant, van Rij was known throughout the community for his hatred of the Germans.
The hideout was quite isolated with only one house nearby. There, Pie de Koster lived with her two small children. She knew that the Jachthuis was being used by the resistance and she helped them when she could.
Dr. Kentgens, who spoke good English, offered John a choice. He could surrender to the Germans and become a prisoner, but most likely survive the war. Or, he could join the resistance group. John decided to help the resistance. Every day, he led the group in physical training, doing push-ups, bench presses with bags of sand, etc. He helped the Dutch make fake passports and false identification cards. He helped steal food ration cards that were then used to get food for the people in the underground as well as those they were hiding. When the resistance group went out on a mission, John went with them, armed as they were armed. On one raid, John and the group stopped three Germans and robbed them of their guns, ammunition, jewelry, money, and ration cards.
At some point, John learned that two of his crewmates were being hidden in The Hague and he wrote them a note which was delivered by the resistance. The note said,
"Hi men: I'm not sure just who you are but thank God you are safe. They said you were from Pitt. & N.Y. so I think one of you is Elmer or Walker-Right? I am feeling fine and am getting treated swell. But it's not like dear old England. I can't understand Dutch as yet but manage in my own little way. One of the men can speak English very good and that helps a lot. I see the Spits [Spitfires] every day overhead. You must get the hell scared out of you, any nearby? Bombs? Well fellas, hold on. Be patient and God bless you. J. McCormick "
A few days later, John got a reply saying they were Duerr and Donohue. They were ok and asked John how he was. He then wrote this letter, dated April 7:
"Dear Johnny & Elmer, Well I finally heard from you. I just got it yesterday. It was dated March 27.
Yes, I was a little banged up. Couldn't walk very well but now I'm fine. All traces gone except a little scar on my forehead. I remember Walker's nose all cut up & bleeding like hell. You know I still can't remember how the hell I even got out. Don't get too pissed off like I was but Jerry found 600 damn gallons of gas before the Spits blew her up. How about that?
I get lonely as hell at time but I shouldn't kick because I'm treated swell but I sure miss the Chesterfields & even a damn Cinc would taste good.
I'll do that little phone job when & if I ever hit God's Country but I think we will all be home around the same time. I know the vicinity of your home & I'm not too far from you.
As far as the women are concerned all I see are the wives & girls of the men here so I'll really be all keyed up.
They speak English here too so my Dutch is no good either. What a language to even pronounce let alone learn.
I understand Lingle, Shea & R.O. [radio operator Nagle] & E [engineer Hicks] walked right into a German. They didn't even run-I was thinking that the way our armies are going they will (if not already) be home before us.
Well Elmer, Johnny, here's hoping-I hope I won't be here for a reply. Mac"
John was obviously lonely. Every day, he spent some time playing with Pie de Koster's young children, an experience they all enjoyed and where words weren't necessary.
On 29 April 1945, about 20 German soldiers unexpectedly surrounded the Jachthuis. Inside at the time were Dr. Kentgens; Jacob van Rij, his wife, and 10-year old son; John; six crewmen from a British Stirling that had crashed near Nieuwerkerk on 12 April 1945; a Dutch supporter of the Germans who was being held prisoner; and several other members of the resistance group and their children. Mrs. Kentgens had been visiting her husband but had luckily left a little earlier.
It is not known exactly how the Germans discovered the hideout. One theory is that German soldiers hunting for duck eggs were fired on by someone in the Jachthuis. Another is that someone betrayed the resistance group to win favor with the German occupiers. In any event, at about 6:30 that evening, German soldiers demanded that those inside the Jachthuis come out and surrender. Instead, they began firing. In return, the German soldiers threw a hand grenade into the Jachthuis. Dr. Kentgens was shot in the head almost immediately and was thought to be dead.
Dutch accounts disagree about what happened next. One version says that by pre-arranged plan, John was to be the first to try and escape. Another account describes how he came out firing with a Sten gun and killed between one and three Germans before running for the building next door. A third story is that he was trying to help his friend Jacob van Rij flank the Germans and get them in a cross fire. In any event, when John was in the open, he was killed by a single bullet to the back of his head.
At almost the same time, Mrs. van Rij, who was following close behind him, was hit in the knee. Seeing his wife get shot so enraged van Rij that he attacked the Germans single-handedly. While all their attention was on him, five of the six RAF fliers and several other resistance people were able to escape. In the firefight, van Rij was hit twice. He lost consciousness, fell into the water, and drowned. Without a doubt, his heroic actions saved many lives that day.
The five escapees from the Stirling crew (F/Lt G.E. Sharp, F/O D.W. Anderson, F/Sgt Basil D. Rowland, F/Sgt Gerald D. Hollick, and F/Sgt W.H. Bell) were interviewed on 11 May 1945; their statements are now in file WO 208/3348 at The National Archives in Kew, London. F/Sgt Rowland reported, "… [Our hiding place] was attacked by S.S. troops. Everybody was ordered by the Commander to fight. The S.S. troops advanced quickly and threw four bombs into the house. We opened fire, killing approx. ten Germans. The Commander was badly wounded in the house; the Second in Command was killed outside the house trying to take two Germans in hiding. An American airman (Liberator) John MaCORMICK was shot through the back of his head and died shortly afterwards. The Second in Command's wife lost her knee cap… After 30 minutes fighting the remaining people… and I were ordered to fight our way out, and escape. We all did so successfully, with the exception of F/Sgt Johnstone, - he was taken prisoner."
F/Sgt Hollick reported that the S.S. troops were armed with "rifles, [machine] guns and hand grenades. One German kicked down the door leading to the Dining Room. He was fired at by the Doctor, but the German returned fire and the Doctor was seriously wounded and later left for dead." F/O Anderson then shot the German from his position at the stairs and killed him.
"After approximately twenty minutes of fighting," F/Lt Sharp said, "[Jacob van Rij] gave the order to fight our way out and escape. He charged two Germans who were guarding our escape route, with his sten gun, and killed them. He was also killed in the action. His wife was seriously injured. John McCORMICK was killed. My engineer, F/Sgt JOHNSTONE, was taken prisoner."
When the firefight was over, the Germans asked Mrs. de Koster who John was. She was terrified she would be shot if she said he was an American airman so she reported that he was a stranger from The Hague. The Germans removed their own casualties and on 2 May gave the people of Zevenhuizen permission to search for Dutch casualties. John's body was found some 20 meters from the Jachthuis next to a barn. Jacob van Rij was found in a small creek, still holding his Sten gun.
4 and 5 May 1945
John and Jacob were buried next to each other in Zevenhuizen about 8:45 on Friday evening, 4 May 1945. F/O Anderson attended their funeral. Earlier in the day, the German High Command in The Netherlands had surrendered all their forces fighting in that country; combat was to cease by 8 a.m. on May 5. This "truce of God" was intended to avoid further bloodshed in the region. The resistance workers were told that they could come out of hiding on 5 May. That morning, many of the trained members of the resistance were gathered in a schoolyard in Zoetermeer. Several were wearing their "uniform" (a blue overall with a red, white, and blue armband). A truckload of Germans drove by. Apparently unaware that their command had surrendered the night before, they opened fire. Cornelis van Eerden and Jan Hoorn were killed, the last Dutch casualties of the war in that community.
Since the crewmen were first reported missing in action, their families had been exchanging information about what (if any) news they had each learned. On 3 May 1945, John's father wrote the mother of S/Sgt John A.H. Lingle, "I am still praying for the safety and protection of all the crew, and may be the Lord come to their aid and grant them comfort, if they are suffering in any camp as prisoners. I have a feeling that the war in Europe may soon be over, but they may not yield unless under great pressure."
By June 1945, he was becoming quite concerned as he learned that all the other crewmen were coming home to their families-except his son. On 18 June, he wrote Mrs. Lingle, "Up to the present-I have not received any word from my boy as yet; but according to a telegram received from the War Dept.-he is unofficially reported as having returned to military control, so I presume he must be safe somewhere. Yet I cannot understand why he could not write to me… In any case I feel very much worried about the whole situation."
Finally, in an Army document dated 12 July 1945, John's missing in action status "was terminated on 2 July 1945, when evidence considered sufficient to establish the fact of death on 29 Apr 45 was received by the Secretary of War."
An undated newspaper article (now part of John's Missing Air Crew Report) published this often inaccurate account:
"…Hidden from the Nazis for nine weeks by members of the Dutch underground, S/Sgt John E. McCormick Jr., twenty-three, was killed in action in Holland on April 29 "while resisting capture by the enemy," according to an official War Department message to his father, John E. McCormick, 746 Madison Avenue, but information received from comrades disclosed that he died in a gallant effort to save the life of a Dutch woman at whom the Germans were shooting.
An aerial gunner, Sergeant McCormick was a member of the crew of the B-24 Liberator bomber, "Jolly Duck," forced down near Amsterdam, Holland, on Feb. 22. For five days and nights he hid from the Germans, then was found by the N.B.S. (Dutch underground), who cared for him for nine weeks. He met death at 6:30 o'clock on Sunday evening April 29-ten days before V-E Day-in the village of Zevenhuizen during an enemy attack on his disabled plane, which apparently had been undiscovered by the Germans until that time.
"My crew and I had the good fortune to have lived with your son in one of the Dutch underground headquarters," write G.C. Sharp, Royal Air Force officer, to Mr. McCormick in a letter from London dated June 9. "During our four weeks together, I am glad to say a deep friendship grew between us. The Dutch people with whom we lived were very fond of him and they were very distressed when they heard of his untimely death."
Sharp went on to say, "When the Germans attacked he died trying to shield a Dutch woman at whom the Germans were shooting. I believed he saved her life as she was only wounded."
"We were still in hiding when he was buried but were able to visit his grave three days later. The whole village paraded to his grave. There, in that tiny cemetery, I, as senior Royal Air Force Officer, read the enclosed speech over his grave. When we left, his grave was covered with flowers."
"For reasons of security I can not give you a full account of his life over there or names of the Dutch underground members who looked after him. He had many friends in Holland."
Another comrade, in a letter written ten days after Sergeant McCormick made the supreme sacrifice, declared that "the people of Zevenhuizen will cherish that part of Holland that is forever American," adding that the Scranton airman's death "prevented him from seeing the victory he so nobly helped to attain."
Sergeant McCormick, a graduate of Central High School, entered service in April, 1942, and earned his silver wings at the Harlingen, Tex., gunnery school before going overseas in June, 1944. He was in Iceland, Northern Ireland and England. He had completed thirty missions over enemy occupied territory."
Re-Burial in Zoetermeer
On 31 October 1945, John McCormick was reburied in the courtyard of the Dutch Reformed Church in Zoetermeer, but this time with full military honors. Interred next to him were Jacob van Rij, Cornelis van Eerden and Jan Hoorn. A monument lists their four names and above them is a headstone with the epitaph in Dutch, "Faithful to Their Fatherland." The ceremony was complete with full resistance honors and was attended by Dr. Kentgens and other members of the resistance; American and English soldiers; and hundreds of Dutch who wanted to pay their respects to these men.
Keeping John in Zoetermeer
In early 1946, John's Dutch comrades wrote his father and asked if he would leave his son buried in Zoetermeer rather than have his remains returned to the US. Mr. McCormick agreed, and wrote the Army that he "would like my boy's body to remain where it is."
The Army felt that was perhaps not the wisest decision since "the willingness of the present inhabitants of this small town to care for [the] grave does not guarantee in any way permanent care…." Mr. McCormick held firm. On 16 January 1947, he wrote, "I considered that it was very nice of the people of Zoetermeer Holland to subscribe for a monument to be erected over my boy's grave; and that they wanted his body interred there; and they stated that his Grave would be taken care of. So I had no other alternative but agree with them. Hence my decision for stating to them that I would like the body of my boy to remain there. Therefore under these circumstances-I would not like to alter my decision."
Several months later, the Army asked Mr. McCormick to complete a waiver form certifying that he was John E. McCormick's next of kin and that he released "the United States Government from any further responsibility for these remains or for perpetual care and maintenance of this grave. I will not call upon the Government of the United States at any time in the future to return said remains to the United States at Government expense. All responsibility concerning this subject will be borne by me."
Mr. McCormick completed the waiver form and returned in on 16 July 1947, with a letter saying, "I am unable to see any sense of reason in taking a person's body from Europe to the United States-whereas I consider that it does not matter where a person's body is buried-so long as his Soul is in Heaven. I am also grateful to the people of Zoetermeer, Holland for subscribing for a monument to be erected over my boy's Grave in recognition for his heroic action."
There was one final step. In September 1947, the Army told Mr. McCormick that he had to appoint an agent to meet with an Army representative in Zoetermeer and accept in writing the custody of his son's remains. The agent also had to ensure that local authorities would let the remains be permanently interred there.
Mr. McCormick turned to Dr. Kentgens for help and he quickly responded. On Mr. McCormick's behalf, Dr. Kentgens met with the Army's Grave Registration Service and formally accepted responsibility for John's remains. On 16 February 1950, all required action was completed.
Since that time, John's grave has been tended jointly by the Dutch Reformed Church and the municipality of Zoetermeer. They look after the site in all aspects-cleaning the tombstones, maintaining the flower bed, and ensuring that it is a fitting memorial to fallen heroes. In early 2005, Mr. J.J. van der Vorm, treasurer of the Church, said, "We cherish this place and it is the center of our manifestation of gratitude for what the fallen have done for the liberation of our country." An organization of Dutch resistance workers places flowers on the grave every 29 April; the City Council of Zoetermeer arranges flowers on 4 May, the Dutch Memorial Day.
"Reflection Towards the Future"
The town of Zevenhuizen created the John E. McCormick Foundation with a goal to establish a monument to commemorate the assault on the hunting lodge, and in memory of all those who gave themselves to free Holland. The monument-situated just in front of the hunting lodge and titled "Reflection Towards the Future"-was unveiled on 21 April 1995. John W. Shearburn, U.S. Consul General in Amsterdam, made these remarks at the ceremony:
"John E. McCormick was a typical, average American young man who has become, probably much to his surprise, an important symbol… McCormick was, as President Clinton said at last year's D-Day ceremony, one of the millions of ordinary Americans who did the extraordinary to liberate Europe during the war.
Fifty years after the war, some of the extraordinary nature of these deeds has begun to fade. My generation, the children of WWII veterans or Dutch resistance fighters, was raised in the television age and we sometimes see history as dry and uninteresting-boring pages in a book, not something we can see and touch. There is almost a feeling that if TV wasn't there, then it must not have happened. This is certainly understandable but it is also dangerous-we run the risk of forgetting history and the important lessons we learn from it. This is one of the reasons stories like John McCormick's are so important. His last two weeks of life serve as a symbol both of the horrors of war and the strength of the human spirit. The events speak for themselves. The dangerous bombing run over Germany. The frightening belly landing of his B-24. The compassion of the Dutch civilians ho cared for him. The bravery, ingenuity and gallantry of the Dutch resistance. The cruel German attack on the "Jachthuis" that killed McCormick and Mr. Van Rij. And perhaps worst of all, the knowledge that a fine young man of 23 years died needlessly so close to the end of a long war. Like the Anne Frank story and other experiences that came out of the war, the story of John McCormick is real, personal, moving history that keeps fresh in our minds the horrors, sacrifices and occasional joys of war. I applaud the efforts of the McCormick foundation to maintain McCormick's memory and the lessons to be learned from his death.
Before I unveil the monument, let me simply say that I am extremely proud to be the Consul General of the country where John E. McCormick was born and for which he fought and served so bravely. I am also proud to be serving my country here in the Netherlands, a wonderful nation whose citizens protected McCormick and continue to honor him and maintain his memory. I commend the John McCormick foundation and the city of Zevenhuizen for commissioning this statue in McCormick's honor. I know it will continue to remind your children and mine of this ordinary American from Pennsylvania who carried out extraordinary deeds to defend his country and help liberate Europe. God bless the Netherlands, God bless John McCormick and God bless the United States of America."
At about that same time, a documentary called "Unknown Soldiers" was shown on Dutch television. A production of H.T.V. Hunter Television B.V., it documented the lives of a Canadian, a Pole, and an American who were killed while trying to free Holland. The American featured in the show was John McCormick. The producers had traveled to John's home town in Pennsylvania and interviewed several of his childhood friends. They went to Dayton, Ohio, and interviewed his crewmates Elmer Duerr and Francis Nagle at the air museum there. Finally, the television show had segments with John's Dutch friends, Leen Dogterom, Piet van Driel, Dr. Kentgens, and Pie de Koster.
Dutch Military Re-Enactors Remember the Past
On 22 February 2005, Dutch military reenactor Ad Moest welcomed an audience of over 120 people to a ceremony at the crash site. In the audience were the mayors of nearby towns, representatives from the American Embassy, and relatives of those killed in the strafing. They had gathered for the unveiling of a memorial plaque at the spot where Jolly Duck came to rest. It commemorates the emergency landing by listing the names of the nine Americans, the four Dutch strafing victims and the "unknown German" who was killed. Perfectly attired as a 392nd Bomb Group airman, Mr. Moest reminded the audience, "The past is gone but it should not be forgotten." With help from fellow reenactors in Triple A (American Airborne Association), he and Alex van Os envisioned, planned, and built the memorial as one way "to keep the history alive."
The parachute covering the memorial was pulled aside by three people with personal ties to the tragic events of 26 February 1945:
Coby den Elsen-den Hollander saw her mother Maria being hit by bullets and killed.
Ed van Bemmelen was 6 years old when he, his two brothers, and two sisters came to see the plane. His brother Gerrie and sister Jopie were killed. He himself was wounded and hospitalized for nine weeks.
Bertus van der Post was 15 years old and was present when his uncle Martinus Janson was killed.
During the ceremony, Lt. Col. Ralph King, military attaché at the American Embassy in Amsterdam, read a letter from Col. Lawrence G. Gilbert, the 392nd Bomb Group's last commander. He wrote, "The memorial plaque that is unveiled today is a reminder of innocent Dutch victims of the war. It is also a reminder of the men in the 392nd Bomb Group who were killed in action or captured, and those who evaded capture with the help of courageous Dutch patriots who risked everything in the name of freedom."
A weeping willow was also planted near the memorial plaque.
The deaths of 392nd Bomb Group gunner S/Sgt John E. McCormick and Dutch resistance fighter Jacob van Rij were reenacted at a local park in Zoetermeer temporarily renamed "Camp McCormick." The event on 7-8 May 2005 was the culmination of over ten months of planning by Mr. Moest and other Triple A members. Although Triple A normally depicts the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, they wanted to portray local history and Camp McCormick was the result. During the weekend, over 2,000 people visited the site, where they could see authentic or replica WWII-era vehicles, weapons, tents, and other gear used by Allied and German soldiers and Dutch resistance workers. Decorating the walls of one building were photos of John and his crew, Jolly Duck, and other information about the Camp's namesake. Also on display was a piece of the Liberator which had been excavated from the crash site by Mr. Moest.
Visit with Dr. Kentgens
After Camp McCormick's successful conclusion, Mr. Moest visited Dr. Kentgens. He brought with him a letter from Col. Gilbert and a 392nd Bomb Group coaster. Col. Gilbert wrote, "Because of what you did for your fallen comrade so long ago, John McCormick is remembered even today by the Dutch. School children learn about him, flowers are laid on his grave, a scouting group is named for him, and thus his memory lives on. The 392nd Bomb Group will never be able to adequately thank you for honoring him equally with your own fallen resistance fighters." Dr. Kentgens was amazed that people are still interested in the story after 60 years.
In October 2005, research continued. Maarten Havinga and other members of a historical society in Zoetermeer (Historisch Genootschap Oud Soetermeer) did both a theoretical and actual investigation at the crash site.
In the theoretical investigation, they analyzed the entire crash site and compared the results with the reconnaissance photos taken by the Spitfire. They calculated where the propellers first hit the ground, when the plane itself impacted, and the damage caused when the nose hit the dike on the far side of Martinus Janson's farm. When they actually searched along Jolly Duck's path, they found part of the right bomb bay door and several other small pieces. They will eventually be exhibited in the society's museum in Zoetermeer. The group is driven by the need to discover and preserve everything they can about the history of Zoetermeer. When B-24 #42-29521 landed nearby, it became a part of their history, too.
Why are the Dutch still drawn to the story of John McCormick? One possible explanation is the irony of events of 29 April 1945: John was killed in action; his four crewmates were freed from POW camp; and the RAF dropped food to the Dutch for the first time. Thousands of bundles of food, not bombs, descended on the starving people of western Holland.
Another explanation is the universal admiration for courage: John McCormick had already risked his life many times in the air. Before his last mission, he was surely advised that the war was almost over and if shot down, he should just try to stay hidden until the Allies came. Instead, he chose to actively work to speed the liberation, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dutch resistance.
Perhaps the best answer is that John McCormick is now forever linked with the Dutch community in which he unexpectedly landed. As his father might once have hoped, S/Sgt. John E. McCormick is no longer in enemy-controlled territory, but at home.
For more information on John McCormick (in English and Dutch), see Triple A's website at http://www.101st-airborne.net (click on Reenactment, then Recent Events). Information in Dutch is available at http://www.oudzoeterwoude.nl.
Many people provided information and photos to help ensure that this story and the people who were part of it are not forgotten:
Ernie Barber, 392nd Bomb Group archivist
Oliver Clutton-Brock, who provided information about the Stirling crew and their accounts of the firefight on 29 April 1945
Elmer Duerr's family
Jim Goar, editor of the 392nd Bomb Group's quarterly newsletter
Maarten Havinga and Historisch Genootschap Oud Soetermeer (HGOS)
Bill Jurczyn, who flew 27 missions as John McCormick's copilot and said, "You couldn't help but like the guy."
Art Mattson, who went through gunnery school with John McCormick and remembers him as "a real swell guy"
John A.H. Lingle's family
A great deal of information was also found in the Suetan, the journal of the Historical Society Zoeterwoude. The Suetan has published several articles by strafing eyewitness Bertus van der Post that tell not only his personal account of the strafing but also describe the extensive research he did to find out what happened to #241's crew after they left his uncle's farm.