January 15, 1998. Three American men are zooming down French autoroute A4 in their powerful rental car at eighty miles an hour leaving Metz headed toward Verdun. All past their biblical three score years and ten, they are vibrant, excited. Loudly, they sing along to a Glenn Miller audiotape. I know, because I am one of them. They have been awed by the stained glass in Chartres Cathedral, imitated Napoleon's final speech to his troops in Fontainebleau, tasted the flinty white wine of Chablis, and followed the tracks of Richard the Lion Hearted to the medieval hilltop village of Vezelay. They have visited Andre Parra, an old friend and one of the outstanding chefs of Burgundy, at his luxurious hotel and restaurant in Beaune, savored the wines of Chateau Meursault, seen the massive 13th century wooden wine presses of Clos de Vougeot, and are now on the way to the most important stop of their journey. What are these boisterous senior citizens doing here? Where are they going? Why are they so animated, so young?
January 16, 1945, fifty-three years earlier. It was cold at three o'clock that morning in England. The U.S. Eighth Air Force was mobilizing for its daily mission. Bicycle tires slipped on the slush left by a light snowfall. The bright lights of the mess hall welcomed the air crew. Hot, black coffee snapped them awake. Briefing at 4:15 AM. Smoke from nervous cigarettes filled the briefing room as fliers tensely waited to see the target location. A dark curtain was drawn back revealing the map and a long string of red yarn stretching deep to the eastern limits of Nazi Germany. An intake of breath into many lungs and a long exhaling "oooooohh". The recognition of a really tough one.
"The target for today, gentlemen, is the oil refinery complex at Ruhland just outside Dresden". Then the details followed: weather, German fighter activity, flak areas, turning points, time of bombs away, the route out. The time hack when watches were synchronized and finally, "Good luck and good bombing". On to the drying room, like the locker room of a pre-war football team, to draw complicated flying gear from equipment sergeants. Suited up and carrying full flight bags, the airmen waddled to the trucks for the trip to the waiting B-24 Liberators.
Their B-24 was the old "Niagara Special", a veteran of many missions. The pilot, Lt. Bob Vickers, the flight engineer, Sgt. Ed Markham, and the crew chief walked around the plane checking it out. The navigator, Lt. Keith Roberts, crawled into his compartment to lay out charts, draw the routing, and pencil in planned times and courses. The armorer-gunner, Sgt. Bill Nock, checked out the guns, their loading, and the ammunition supplies. The rest of the crew, Co-Pilot Don Schwarzer, Radioman Sgt. Russ Moore, and Gunners Sgt. Bill Henthorn, Sgt. Tom Damuth, and Sgt. Bob Leinweber gathered under the high, slender wing. The flare from the control tower climbed into the frosty air and the flight crew crawled into the old Lib.
Coughing, the big Pratt and Whitney engines caught and the roar of one hundred and twenty engines shook the airfield. Nearby farmers and villagers turned toward the engines' thunder. The big bombers moved onto the perimeter track where they lined up in single file, nose to tail, rumbling -- the waltz of the elephants. At the head of the runway, a fully loaded B-24 charged into the takeoff run every thirty seconds. Finally, at 8:48 AM, the last of thirty Liberators was off and climbing into the winter sky. Climbing and climbing, wheeling and turning, finding the 392nd Bomb Group, then moving into formation for the long trip into Germany. Then all Eighth Air Force Groups were forming into vees, like Canadian geese, with the arrowheads pointing eastward to Germany.
The coast of England disappeared and then the rumpled, gray English Channel. Below were Amsterdam and the Zuider Zee. Europe was white with newly fallen snow. Then on past Wilhelmshaven, past Hanover, between Magdeburg and Berlin, and on to the target. Low clouds and smoke obscured the primary target. The Group's low squadron chose an alternate target, industrial facilities at Werminghoff. Here came the anti-aircraft artillery fire, the flak. German flak gunners were excellent marksmen. The black flak puffs formed into a cloud, each black puff with an orange center and a wiggly black tail. Steel flak fragments hit the Niagara Special with a sound like hail on a tin roof.
The call from the waist gunner, Bill Nock: "Number four engine is throwing oil!".
Oil pressure dropped to zero and pilot Bob Vickers shut off number four, feathering the propeller to a stop so it could not slow the airplane by twirling without power. The Niagara Special dropped behind the formation and bombs were salvoed into the smoking cauldron below. More and more flak. Number two engine hit and shut down. The intercom shot out so the crew could not talk to each other. All electrical systems gone. No radio communication with other planes. Gun turrets could not move. No navigation systems left except the compass floating in kerosene above the pilot's instrument panel. The formation flew away. The Niagara Special was alone over Nazi-held Germany.
Miraculously, no-one was hurt or even scratched. The pilot, Bob Vickers, kept the plane in the air by using power settings to hoard gasoline as if it were Chanel No. 5. The flight engineer patched the fuel transfer system to rescue fuel from the tanks of the dead engines. The navigator, Keith Roberts, tried mightily to discover visual checkpoints under the blanket of snow, slowly found one, then another, finally plotted a course toward safety in France, and handed a note up to the cockpit. The gunners manned their stations so as to appear armed and ready. The plane droned on, steadily losing altitude. Flak rattled against the ship again as the sturdy B-24 passed between Frankfort and Darmstadt.
As the Moselle River passed under the wing, another engine coughed and died, stricken by the last flak bursts. The navigator squeezed through the bomb bay along the narrow catwalk to give the crew the signal to bail out in their parachutes. They dropped out of the rear hatch with no hesitation, one by one, chutes opening and swinging them away like life-size puppets on silken strings. The navigator returned to the flight deck and out went the nose gunner, the radio operator, and the engineer. The ground was coming up rapidly, only a few thousand feet left to jump. Then out went the navigator, the co-pilot, and the pilot last with a head-first dive.
Chutes popped open with a jerk and suddenly a deathly silence. A soft swinging, gazing down to see smoke trailing behind a train below, looking for a landing place, then thudding to the ground. I landed in a field near a line of small trees. The pilot and co-pilot landed in a ditch behind a barbed wire fence in a grove of trees. After the pilot had laboriously climbed out of the ditch, over the barbed wire, and out of the trees, a young boy came running up to him. Bob took off his Mae West life preserver and put it over the boy's head. The Niagara Special was sending up columns of smoke in a nearby field. Serious farmers armed with pitchforks and shovels rushed up to me, wary of German paratroopers. They were French, recently freed by General Patton's U.S. 3rd Army. A pretty young lady stepped forward and said to me in English, "You are American, yes?". At my positive "YES!", she passed the news to the serious men. Unrestrained joy and handshakes all around! These young combat fliers had made it back alive!
The French historian. In 1994, Bob Vickers attended ceremonies in Normandy celebrating the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the day the Allies crossed the English Channel to wrest Europe from the grasp of Adolph Hitler. Bob travelled south from Normandy with the specific goal of finding the crash site of the Niagara Special. Between Verdun and Metz the surroundings seemed familiar. Driving near the village of Doncourt-les-Conflans, he spotted a muscular gray-haired man hiking along the road and stopped to "talk" to him. Bob speaks very little French, mostly with his hands, but he valiantly made gestures picturing an airplane crashing and parachutes floating down. The man, Louis Gutvein, nodded agreeably and Bob thought that he had found the place. Bob asked for Louis' name and address which he sent on to me, the navigator. I, too, lacked French but, by enlisting the vounteer help of Linda Kline, a Newport Beach librarian, as translator, I wrote a letter to Louis Gutvein. Answering, Louis explained that he had not seen the crash but he sent the address in Reims of a childhood friend who probably could help with the search. This was the French historian Bernard Michel. During the ensuing letter exchange, Michel indicated a close interest in our quest because his specialty was the military history of this area of the Lorraine region. He asked for specific information about the kind of airplane, its nickname, the date and time of the mission and the approximate time of the crash. On September 17, 1997, he wrote an excited letter exclaiming , "EUREKA! A few days ago I found out some amazing information; the Niagara Special did not crash near Doncourt-les-Conflans but 14 kilometres from there near the little village of Mouaville". Bernard immediately contacted the mayor of the village who had been eight years old at the time of the crash and clearly remembered it. Several eyewitnesses to the event still lived in and near Mouaville. Bernard enclosed photographs taken by local villagers of the remains of the Niagara Special. This exhilarating information clinched our decision to revisit these climactic scenes of our youth on the exact fifty-third anniversary of the crash. Informed of this, Bernard Michel sent large scale maps of the area delineating the flight path of the Niagara Special, the exact locations where we landed after our parachute jumps, and the spot of the crash. The target for our anniversary return was the main street of Mouaville at 1:00 PM on January 15, 1998. Bill Nock, the waist gunner and armorer on Niagara Special, was elated to join the expedition in the hope that we could also locate the spot where he landed south of Thionville.
The Belgian historian. In May, 1997, in Irvine, California, a reunion was held by the men and women who had served in the Second Air Division of the WWII Eighth Air Force, the outfit that flew B-24 Liberator bombers out of England and over Europe. A young Belgian historian had taken a vacation from his job, had left his home near Brussels, and had flown halfway around the world to attend this reunion to further his passionate research into the history of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. In California in the Irvine Hyatt Regency Hotel, he came to the hospitality room of the 392nd Bomb Group. A handsome thirty-four year old with straight brown hair and hawklike features who spoke good English, his engaging personality gave him open sesame to the archives of the 392nd. This was Luc Dewez, Belgian historian and author. We shared a couple of beers, became friends, and traded addresses and phone numbers. When my former pilot, now Colonel Bob Vickers (Air Force retired) and a published historian in his own right, and I decided to return to France in the following year to revisit the crash site of our airplane, the Niagara Special, and the site of our parachute jumps, I immediately thought of Luc Dewez. Bob and I speak very little French. We would need an interpreter. I wrote Luc and received the excited answer: "I would be delighted to come to Lorraine and help you!". Our rendezvous with Luc Dewez was set for the main street of Mouaville, France, at 1:00 PM on January 15, 1998.
The return, January 15, 1998. Now, back to those three ebullient oldsters roaring westward from Metz along the A4 autoroute. We find and take the Conflans off ramp and begin following Bernard Michel's map and directions to Mouaville. At twelve noon, driving slowly through Jarny, we see a MacDonald's. MacDonald's in France are excellent. "We're an hour early, we don't know what will happen in Mouaville, so let's get a Big Mac and chow down on the way!". We pull up to MacDonald's and Bill and I go in to order, leaving Bob in the car. A young man rushes up to Bob waving a newspaper. He says excitedly in English, "Are you the pilot? I saw your friends go by and I saw the red, white, and blue ribbons on the car! You must be the pilot!". He introduces himself as Patrick Jacquemot, a reporter, and shows us a full page article from his newspaper describing our return to Mouaville. The headline: TROIS AVIATEURS AMERICAINS SUR LE SOL DE MOUAVILLE". Bernad Michel wrote the story for the January 14th edition, the day before our arrival. Patrick is assigned to cover our arrival in Mouaville. He tells us, "I know exactly where we are going. Let's finish our lunch, than you can follow my car, and we have plenty of time to get there".
The day is overcast with moments of light mist. The roads get narrower and narrower as we go further out into the country, lightly rolling land with occasional neat farms and manicured woods. We turn left at a dead-end crossroad where perhaps twenty ancient buildings line the street on each side and find a group of some thirty people, headed by Luc Dewez, Louis Gutvein, and Bernard Michel. We are motioned into a parking space in front of an old building with a name carved in the stone over its entrance: "Mairie - Ecole" (Mayor's Office - School). The crowd surrounds us. Luc introduces us to the mayor, Gabriel Albrech, as we wave and smile to the friendly crowd. We are led up the steps into the building where we find a schoolroom cleared to make room for a long table covered with champagne glasses. We all stand around the edge of the room as Luc works out the program with the mayor. The mayor makes a short introduction and calls for the national anthems, Benard Michel punches his tape recorder to play "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Le Marseillaise", and the mayor makes a touching speech of welcome. Bob responds by presenting the village of Mouaville with an American flag -- one that he requested from his New Mexico senator, Pete Domenici -- that had flown over Washington, D.C. Domenici had also written a personal letter of thanks to the villagers for their help fifty-three years ago. Luc translates the letter on the spot; the villagers smile. Champagne is poured, I toast "Vive la France!", champagne of Lorraine is quaffed, and the party disintegrates. Groups of people surround us and we all call for poor Luc at the same time. Fortunately, a local lady, Sylvie Hardy, had spent time in the States and, with a young French Eighth Air Force enthusiast, pitches in and helps to interpret.
After the national anthems I turn to my right to see a short, round, gray-haired man in a gray suit. He is in tears, overcome emotionally. He is Rene Lelievre. His brother was killed by the Gestapo in 1944. In 1945 Rene owned Amblemont Farm, the farm on which I landed and was one of the first to reach me after I hit the ground. He and his wife, Paulette, present me with three gifts: a decorative plate of Lorraine, a small bottle of Mirabelle, the local plum brandy, and a picture of the young lady who first had spoken in English to me on that exciting day. Her name was Marguerite Evrard, called Margot, and during the war ostensibly she was a farm worker. Rumor has it, however, that during the German occupation, she was a member of the French resistance broadcasting information to England on a radio hidden in Amblemont Farm. After the war, she moved to Metz, married to become Marguerite Laprrand, and raised three children. Bernard and the villagers tried to find her for our return but could not.
Bob is approached by a man carrying a knife enclosed in a leather sheath bearing the carved initials "BV". Bob last saw that knife when he put it in his flying boot before his parachute jump. The man showing Bob the knife is Claude Mangin, the "boy" over whose neck Bob had placed the Mae West after he had come out of the woods. Now Claude is a balding, florid-faced, sixty-four year old man wearing round wire-framed glasses. In searching the field close to where he found Bob, Claude discovered Bob's knife buried in the snow. Bob tells him to keep the knife as a souvenir from an American pilot.
A little lady proudly shows us a small cross made from plexiglas that, as a girl, she salvaged from the crash of the Niagara Special. She wears the cross on her necklace.
The party forms up and moves out in a fleet of Citroens, little Renault trucks, Jeeps, and Dodge 4x4s to an ancient stone barn to see where a piece of the Niagara Special's fuselage had been used to close up an exterior door. Inside the building, now used to store farm equipment, a piece of a bomb bay door leans against a wall.
The motorized fleet cranks up again and heads out into farmland to the field where the Niagara Special had crashed. Claude Mangin drives Bob to the place he landed, then they join us to drive out into the muddy field to the crash site. Over the years, farmers have planted around, and preserved, a hole in the ground where a propeller had dug in. Monsieur Robert Warin, now of Briey, was working in the nearby woods that day. He describes how the plane turned around because only #3 engine was running, then straightened out, and did a perfect belly landing all by herself, engines cartweeling ahead, spreading debris over at least a one hundred yard area. On this misty overcast day, Bob rides out of the wet field with Louis Gutvein in his little white Renault truck which sticks in the mud and requires help from the other villagers to pull it out.
On to Amblemont Farm where I landed in my parachute. The current owners, Jean-Marc Lecossois and his wife Annette, a handsome couple in their middle forties, and their three daughters are there to meet us in the very kitchen where Margot had taken me to enjoy real (not powdered) eggs and sausages after my jump. The kitchen is completely modernized, unrecognizable. I walk alone to the back of the farmhouse and am joined by Rene Lelievre, the former owner, who, with Sylvie Hardy interpreting, describes the distant railroad, the flight of the Niagara special, and the path of my parachute descent to a spot about a half mile across the wet, rolling farmland. Paulette, Rene's wife, tells us that returning to the farm was difficult for him because that wall over there was where the Gestapo shot his brother. Back inside, more champagne toasts to friendship.
It's getting dark now and we move on to the closest larger town -- Etain. We're invited to the home of Andre Bauchot, the owner of a local trucking firm and one of the eye witnesses of the crash. He and his wife serve us wine and cookies, we toast France and friendship, then we cross the street to a garage loft where Claude Mangin and his son climb a ladder and produce the large U.S. Air Force star which Claude had cut from the fuselage under the waist window of the Niagara Special so many years age. To see it in a better light, we bring it into Claude's son's home where an oxygen bottle, an aluminum inspection cover, and a little battery, all rescued from the half-century old crash, are displayed. Claude Mangin's grandchildren play on the stairs and peek at us.
Finally, this day's tour is over and we are driven to our lodgings, a lovely bed-and-breakfast in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Etain. This is "La Ferme des Vales" run by Andre and Ghislaine Valentin. After sipping Pommery champagne, a present from Bernard Michel, before a crackling fire, we, mayor Gabril Albrech, Jean-Marc Lecossois, Luc Dewez, and Sophie Hivre, Luc's girl friend, all relax over a six course dinner complete with fine Burgundy wines from the area we had left so long ago this morning. A hurrried, hectic, exciting, and touching day. Several things are on our schedule for tomorrow: a pilgrimage to Bob's exact bail-out site, another meeting with the villagers in the mairie-ecole, luncheon with Claude Mangin and his family in Buzy, and finally a last visit to Amblemont Farm and Jean-Marc Lecossois.
January 16, 1998 - Anniversary Day. Through another misty gray day, we drive out into the country. "Stop here", Bob says. We crawl carefully over a barbed wire fence, slog through a muddy field past two voluble Frenchmen working to free a stuck farm truck, and halt near a sizeable grove of trees. Bob tells the story.
"Our airplane came in from this direction and my co-pilot and I bailed out into this grove of trees which fifty-three years ago was small. Compared to then, this is a forest. About fifty feet into the trees from this barbed wire fence is the ditch where I landed. I went through a tree which broke my fall. Coming down, I was wondering whether I would land on this fence, in the ditch, or in the trees. Suddenly I was in the trees. The airplane crashed over there about a half mile. I recall that, on the road where we just parked, the most welcome sight I ever saw was the Red Cross ambulance that came over from a nearby airbase to find out if anyone was hurt in the crash. Here's the ditch - I remember it. My parachute was up here and Don Schwarzer, our co-pilot, was laying right in here. A doctor from the ambulance came running up and shouted 'Did everyone get out?'. I told him 'yes'. They carried Schwarzer across the field to the ambulance because both of his ankles had been sprained when he lit hard in the ditch. Then a boy came running up and I took off my Mae West and put it over his head." Bob stopped. A quiet memory-filled moment.
Back at the mairie-ecole, we listen to an emotional talk from Gabriel Albrech, the mayor of Mouaville. "Yesterday you came back to see the places you remembered and to meet the witnesses, people of Mouaville, who welcomed and helped you fifty-three years ago. They are here today by my side and it is an occasion to tell you, and all your countrymen, of the gratitude that the French people feel for your help in recovering the freedom of our country in 1944-1945 as you did in 1917. Many young American soldiers ended their lives here in Lorraine and are resting here forever. We will never forget you here in Lorraine, the memories and friendship are forever".
We raise our glasses in an anniversary toast. Again the people crowd around. Marc Legarde, one of the villagers, steps forward carrying a propeller dome from the Niagara Special. As a boy, he dug it out of the ground on January 16, 1945. Now, he presents it to us as a souvenir of this day and of the same day fifty-three years ago. Bob, touched, responds with a hug. We kiss that propeller hub. It brought us back. Later, Bill and I vote to give it to our pilot. Bob will plug the hole in the dome and use it to cool wine and champagne, a conversation starter par excellence.
The tall, slim, dark-haired Andre Bauchot approaches carrying three small round devices which he recovered from the wreckage, one for each of us. We thank him profusely and then wonder what these widgets were. They could have been roller-bearings used in the tracks of the bomb bay doors or gun turrets or, as one of our old crew chiefs guesses, they may have been bearings in the engine-feathering mechanism under the propeller dome. Another villager presents each of us with a piece hacksawed off of the bomb bay doors. These items will be framed as treasured souvenirs of the old airplane that brought us to safety. We shake hands all around and are off to luncheon at Claude Mangin's home in Buzy. Claude shows us his extensive collection of World War I and II artifacts. Did Bob's Mae West and knife spark his passion for collecting? We think so.
After a long luncheon washed down with good, local wine, we at last drive off to Amblemont Farm. Waiting for us is Jean-Marc Lecossois. He has planned a special treat. His giant Renault tractor, twice the height of a man, is fired up and connected to a truck-bed trailer. Steps made of plastic milk crates aid us into the trailer-bed and Jean-Marc welcomes us aboard. With a roar of the motor and grinding of gears, we charge across the wet fields of Amblemont Farm, throwing mud and carving up the dormant crop. Over hill and over dale, we hit the muddy trail, shouting and laughing. Our trip ends at the exact spot where I had dropped out of the sky so long ago. Jean-Marc tells us that pieces of the property had been given names over the centuries. I had landed on the "piece of the twenty days" close to the "run", a small creek threading through the land. This was the exact place! I recognize the nearby small trees and, looking back up to the horizon, remember the buildings of Amblemont Farm as I had walked slowly up to them fifty-three years before. Another rocking and rolling tractor ride back to the kitchen where Jean-Marc presents me with a bottle of 1989 Mercurey and a bottle of 1991 Pommard, two exceptional Burgundy wines from his cellar, and aerial photographs of his farm. We drink a final toast of Mirabelle de Lorraine, the locally made brandy, exchange farewell hugs, and say "au revoir" with real regret.
Our mission to France is not yet complete. Tomorrow we must comb the countryside south and west of Thionville to find the place where Bill Nock bailed out.
The Bail-out Site of the Waist Gunner. This morning we shake hands with our hosts at "La Ferme des Vales", Andre and Ghislaine Valentin, and say goodbye with our thanks. As Luc Dewez said, "Staying there was like being with family". We decide to pay a final courtesy call on the mayor, Gabriel Albrech, and find him and his son wearing tall rubber boots and carrying pitchforks. He welcomes us into his barn where we are scrutinized by two long rows of dairy cows. Mrs. Albrech carries a freshly killed rabbit. They invite us into their kitchen for a farewell shot of Mirabelle and Gabriel presents us each with a Perrier bottle filled with the plum-based white lightnin'. He has made and bottled this batch himself. Final toasts: "Vive la France! Vive L'Amerique". We say "au revoir" to Luc and Sophie and are off to search for Bill's landing place.
Bernard Michel had provided us with a large scale map of the region that he had marked with the track of the Niagara Special. The requirements for finding Bill's spot were: it must be just west of the Moselle River, slightly south of Thionville because 3rd Army Military Police found him quickly, near a road on a large clearing on top of a rolling hill on which was located a water tower, and it had to be northwest of the track of the airplane because of the prevailing wind that drifted his parachute on that day. To summarize a search of many hours, we backtrack the A4 autoroute, turn north to Amneville, west to Rombas, north through forests and a river valley, then east on D136 through more forest, then right at the town of Neufchef where we finally hit open fields. Then up over a rolling hill and there was a water tower! Bingo! There we were!..The spot fit all the requirements, including Bill's memory! We check out the surrounding country as far west as Avril and Briey and find no other spot that fits the requisites. We had found Bill's landing place after fifty-three years plus one day! Mission complete!
Why? Friends ask, "Why did you want to return to the scene of such a frightening, nerve-racking, life-and-death experience?". I really don't know. Sometimes I feel like Mallory, the English mountain climber, who, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, replied, "Because it is there". Our opportunity was there. Sometimes I feel that our mutual love of adventure was the reason, the search for the unknown.
And sometimes I think that a mysterious chain of circumstances slowly led us into the whole experience. A skillful pilot who would later fly every multi-engine aircraft in the Air Force during a distinguished thirty-six year career. A navigator who had studied navigation at the University of California before Air Force training. A flight engineer who, pre-war, made engines at Pratt and Whitney. Waves of flak hitting the Niagara Special yet not touching the air crew. The extra few minutes of flying time that took us across Allied lines to safety. The encounter in the French countryside with robust Louis Gutvein. Louis' childhood friend, the sensitive and thoughtful Bernard Michel, who unlocked the treasure of history. The meeting in California with Luc Dewez, our interpreter from far-off Belgium. The mayor who remembered the crash as an eight year old boy. The little lady with her treasured plexiglas cross. The "boy" who found Bob's knife and became a noted collector. Did all those things come together simply by chance? Or was it destiny? A miracle? I do not know.
I do know that I must tell this story of three old aviators whe returned to Lorraine and touched the heart of France -- her country people. Smiling, appreciative, thoughtful, generous, and friendly people who have never forgotten. And also this story of the valiant B-24 Liberator whose last flight left them all a legacy, a bonding in memory and friendship more than a half century later -- the legacy of the Niagara Special.
December 7, 1999
Keith E. Roberts
Mission Viejo, CA 92691