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OPIJNEN: The Dutch Village That Still Cares

Written by Lyn Ritchie (originally published in May 1983, updated 2024)


On July 30 of 1943, at about 11 in the morning, a lone and apparently crippled American bomber was attacked by two Luftwaffe fighter planes and shot down over the quiet farming village of Opijnen in German-occupied Holland. Located some 30 km (19 miles) southeast of the city of Utrecht, Opijnen is nestled behind an ancient dike on the northern side of the Waal River, one of two Dutch branches of the Rhine. The bomber, a B-17 Flying Fortress from the U.S. 8th Air Force, was reportedly struggling back to its home base in England after a raid on Kassel, Germany. If it weren’t disabled, it certainly would have stayed with the massive wedge formation always flown by heavy bombers on their way to and from a target. Despite the bravery of its crew and at least eight machine guns strategically placed from nose to tail, the lumbering giant didn't stand a chance against a pair of swifter, more maneuverable fighters.


Aboard the four-engine B-17 was the customary combat crew of 10 men: only two of them survived. Lieutenants Keene C. McCammon, John P. Bruce and Daniel V. Ohman, respectively the pilot, copilot, and bombardier, were able to bail out just seconds before the burning ship exploded in midair. According to an eyewitness on the ground, the German planes strafed the fliers as they dangled helplessly in their parachutes.


McCammon, who was not wounded, splashed down in the Waal, near the hamlet of Heesslet and was escorted by two dutiful Dutchmen to Bart Formijne, the Mayor of the municipality of Est and Opijnen at that time. Since most of the population of the district had followed him, the pilot's presence couldn't be denied. Before being seized by some of Hitler's soldiers, he only had time to tell Mr. Formijne his name, that he was from St. Paul, Minnesota and that he had been a motor patrolman there. The 28-year-old McCammon, who had already completed 25 bombing missions and was due to retire from combat soon, spent the rest of the war — nearly two years — in German prison camps.


Meanwhile, Bruce had landed — alive, but with a knee injury — at the village of Varik near Opijnen. He too was captured, then taken to a hospital some 10 km (6 miles) north in the town of Tiel. The parachute of Ohman, the bombardier, may have been shredded by bullets from the German aircraft. He died shortly after plummeting through the thatched roof of a barn.


Of the eight men aboard the bomber who were killed in action that day, four were only 22 years old, one was 24, two had reached 25, and the oldest would have been 29 if he had lived just one more month. Two of the crew, McCammon and Ohman, hailed from the same state: Minnesota. Otherwise their homes were widely scattered — "from sea to shining sea" — in California, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. But due to World War II they had become blood brothers in combat.


In the silence that followed the angry growls and gunfire of the aerial clash and subsequent crash, Burgemeester Formijne and some other men from the village retrieved the burned and broken bodies of the Americans. Four were in the flaming wreckage (the tail gunner's finger was still clutching the trigger of his machine gun). They brought Ohman the bombardier down from a nearby barn and three other crewmen were found among the rows of potatoes and sugar beets in surrounding fields. Their remains were carried on a horse-drawn farm wagon to the local mortuary. Mr. Formijne managed to obtain special permission from Berlin to bury the eight fliers in the village. He chose a place of honor for their graves: in the center of the walled cemetery next to Opijnen's 17th century Dutch Reformed Church.


Their funeral was held two days later at 9 p.m. The Germans had scheduled it for 11 p.m. — curfew time during the war — to prevent the villagers from attending, but the hour was changed  due to the arrival of torrential rain storms. After the war, Mayor Formijne wrote:


The Germans had ordered that no one except myself was allowed to be present. Nevertheless, the whole population was outside. After the burial, I opened the cemetery for the public and in no time everyone assisted the diggers. When everything was finished, they placed flowers. A few months later, the people brought flowers again and the graves are still covered with them.


Such surreptitious salutes to enemies of Hitler's Third Reich were definitely not appreciated by the Nazis and their sympathizers.


———


Northern Europe has enjoyed nearly 80 years of peace since WWII and its five dreadful years of death and destruction, but the conscientious people of Opijnen have kept the memory of those eight Americans alive and have graced their graves with a profusion of flowers and greenery ever since the summer of 1943.


Shortly after the Netherlands was liberated, in May 1945, Mayor Formijne began writing letters to the U.S. Military asking for information about the plane that had crashed on the edge of Opijnen and requesting the names and addresses of the dead crewmen's next of kin. He also wrote to the mayor of St. Paul about the wartime incident and asked for his assistance in locating Lt. McCammon, the bomber's pilot, if still alive. Eventually, Mr. Formijne learned that the men aboard the B-17 were members of the 323 Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group (H). (The initial H stands for “heavy.”) One of the original 8th Air Force units assigned to England, it was based at Bassingbourn, near Cambridge, from September 1942 until July 1945. The diligent Mayor, upon learning that Lt. McCammon had survived imprisonment, renewed their brief acquaintance by mail. Although the two men never saw each other again, they corresponded regularly until Mr. Formijne's death in 1979, at the age of 82. Evidently an exceptionally kind person and a dedicated public servant, Bart Formijne was appointed Mayor of Opijnen by Queen Wilhelmina in February 1938 and served in that capacity until his retirement in August 1955. He was certainly a fine official spokesman for a sharing, caring community. On behalf of its 700 citizens, he wrote to the families of the eight Americans buried in Opijnen's churchyard, described how the villagers had cared for their graves and gently suggested that the valiant crewmen should remain where they had fallen. A former member of the AWCA's Opijnen Committee, Liz Willems, perfectly described the situation: It must have been heartrending for the bereaved families to decide to entrust their sons or brothers, whom they would never see again, to people they had never seen and could never really know. Yet the people of Opijnen did receive the consent of the families and of the American Government. 


Over the intervening decades, a number of Opijnen's adults and many of its schoolchildren have devoted a great deal of time and energy to keeping the fliers’ graves tidy and “ready for guests at any time." Hendrik de Kock (who died in 2003), however, deserves special praise for his continuous efforts to make the burial site representative of Holland's legendary flower power. A lifetime resident of the village, De Kock was 18 years old and working in the fields when the bomber limped into view. Mr. de Kock often recalled the tragic details vividly. Some years ago he was made an honorary member of the 91st Bomb Group and positively glowed when talking about the various delegations of men from that organization who have visited Opijnen with their wives.


The American Women's Club of Amsterdam first heard about the eight airmen in Opijnen in 1949, when Mayor Formijne asked the Netherlands War Graves Committee if any Americans would be interested in attending the annual Memorial Day ceremony for the U.S. Army Air Force men who were buried in his village. A Dutch woman on that committee contacted Mrs. Virginia Delgado, who was then our Club President. In those days, the AWCA had only 46 members. About half of them, including Mrs. Delgado, had lived in the Netherlands during the war. The members were particularly interested in visiting Opijnen and were amazed to hear about the graves there. Everyone had assumed that all the American servicemen who lost their lives here during World War II had been reburied: either in the States or in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial at Margraten, near the city of Maastricht, in the south of the country. Margraten is the final resting place of more than 8,000 U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force personnel — out of more than 17,000 who died in the Netherlands during the 1940-45 hostilities. Among those buried in Margraten are 40 men from the 91st Bomb Group.


While visiting Opijnen, the women from our Club realized that some financial assistance would be appreciated for the maintenance of the American graves. Since the villagers had taken full responsibility for the burial site, funds were not available from the U.S. Government. Some method of raising money for Project Opijnen had to be found. Then, out of the blue or, in this case, out of the bookcase — came Betty McDonald, the American memoirist and humorist who wrote The Egg and I, an amusing bestseller which was published in the U.S. in 1945. After the war, it was translated into Dutch and 10,000 copies were printed in the Netherlands. At that time, the Dutch Government prohibited transferring money out of the country. Fortunately for Opijnen, Mrs. MacDonald stipulated that all royalties due her from the Dutch edition be donated "to the foundation which takes care of Holland's cemeteries for American soldiers." Because the U.S. Government provides sufficient funds for Margraten, it was decided that a Betty McDonald Foundation should be established. With that understanding, a check for 3,760 Dutch guilders was received by the American Women's Club of Amsterdam in March 1950. Independent of, yet allied to, the AWCA, that Foundation has been administered by a board chosen from Club  members residing in the Netherlands permanently.


Despite regular expenditures, the Betty MacDonald Foundation fund has remained viable through the years because that donation was wisely invested. In addition to contributing toward the upkeep of the American graves in Opijnen, the fund has financed excursions for the village schoolchildren; provided refreshments for them after the Memorial Day ceremonies; and

purchased equipment for the school. In 1979, the fund gave 1,000 guilders for wood with which the student's parents constructed a playground. In 1983, the McDonald Foundation contributed 1,400 guilders toward the cost of the memorial plaque.


From 1949 to 1970, the memorial services in Opijnen were held annually and members of the AWCA always attended. Since 1970, the ceremony has been scheduled every five years. The 1983 program altered that pattern temporarily, but Opijnen's officials agreed we should observe the 40th anniversary of the wartime incident that became the first chapter of this to-be-continued story. Through the years, other representatives of the American community in the Netherlands have also participated regularly in the Opijnen programs. Various persons assigned as the American Consul General in Amsterdam have been particularly active. Over the years, they represented the American Ambassador to the Netherlands (who was usually attending the May 30th Memorial Day ceremonies in Margraten), but gave speeches in Opijnen. In 1960, this is what G. Edward Clark, the Consul General, said in his speech:


During the past several hundred years, Europeans traveled to America to find new homes. Some of their sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons returned. Among them have been American soldiers, sailors and airmen — many of whom fell on European soil in defense of freedom. In a sense, you have welcomed these eight men here in your friendly land. You have cared for their resting place as if they were your sons…which in a way they are. Your example and the deeds of these valiant men have taught us one very important lesson: none of us today can live alone — neither people or nations. We must help each other and, if need be, we must die for each other. You, the people of Opijnen have shown that even in death, a warrior need not be alone. On behalf of the relatives of the men who rest here, and on behalf of all the American people — I sincerely thank you.


Traditionally, the American Consul General also sent letters to the families of the eight airmen in Opijnen, describing that year's ceremony. On May 31, 1963, Byron T. Blankenship wrote:


On Memorial Day, as has been the custom for many years, the people of Opijnen and a good many Americans gather in the churchyard of the village in memory of your brother or son made on behalf of all of us twenty years ago. I have participated in this commemorative ceremony and I find that the appreciation of what those heroes gave for their country and for the Netherlands is as strong, or stronger than ever. Yesterday, 107 school children of the village of Opijnen placed flowers on the graves of the eight airmen. Dutchmen and Americans participated in the offer of thanks to these valiant Americans.


This reply to the letter above was from the mother of one of the two officers among the eight men buried in Opijnen:


We are always inspired to hear of the devotion of the Burgemeester and the people of Holland to the graves of the airmen. It is indeed a tie between Europe and America, we only wish more people could know about it. I am always especially touched by the participation of the school children. Last year I sent a little Christmas check for them and the Burgemeester wrote me he had purchased a moving picture projector for the school. My appreciation is very deep for the people of Opijnen.


The parents of a Staff Sergeant also responded to the American Consul General's message in 1963. They wrote:


We received your nice letter and what it all meant to us you'll never know. We do appreciate everything that you all over there have done for us and all the other families. We always send money each May to buy flowers for Memorial Day and they in return send us pictures which we are so grateful for. We have two girls in their 40's. Our son was all the boy we had so God seen fit to take him. He was our baby too. We know there's no good in this old war and hope no more comes very soon.The Mayors all have been so nice to us in the last 20 years. We kept in touch with them each year for Memorial and at Christmas time. With Love and Prayers to all you fine people.


The U.S. Air Force Tactical Fighter Squadron, based at Soesterberg, near Amersfoort, until 1994, has frequently paid homage to the eight crewmen buried in Opijnen. In the past, a chaplain from the air base has participated in the memorial services, the C.O. has provided an honor guard for the occasion, and there has been an impressive flyby. On May 30, 1970, for example, the aerial salute was made by F-4E Phantoms from the U.S. Air Force and F-104 Starfighters of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Similar arrangements were made for the 1983 memorial. It was felt a permanent tribute should be given to all the wonderful individuals who have maintained this touching tradition. And so, during the 1983 ceremony in the village, a plaque was dedicated which says:

In gratitude

to the people of Opijnen

for honoring

eight American B-17 crewmen

killed in action here

during W.W.Il

They rest in this churchyard

The American Women's Club of Amsterdam

and the Betty McDonald Foundation



Carved into polished granite, those words were accentuated with gold gilt. The plaque, mounted on a 4-foot-high pillar, stands next to the sidewalk, near the entrance of the 17th century village church and adjacent to the churchyard. When Carol André de la Porte, our Club's President in 1983, was looking for a stone mason to make the memorial, she contacted a company in Haarlem, near her home. By sheer coincidence, the manager/owner of that firm, H.M. Troupin & Zonen (Sons), was one of the 410,000 Dutchmen who were shipped to Germany during the war and forced to labor in Nazi camps. When he heard the Opijnen story, Mr. Troupin declared he would not charge for the words on the plaque. That, he said, would be his "way of thanking the Americans who helped liberate Holland." As the American Consul General of Amsterdam said in 1960: "Even in death a warrior need not be alone."


                                                                                                                           

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