By Lauren Mescon
With contributions from Nancy Koster Tschirhart
Hans van Arkel, the last surviving witness, remembers it like it was yesterday. A boy of 11 years old at the time, he remembers exactly where the plane went down and where the survivors fell. On July 30, 1943, Man-O-War, a B-17 filled with 10 U.S. Airmen returning from their mission, was shot down over Opijnen. Eight crewmen died and only the pilot and co-pilot survived their parachute jumps.
Mr. van Arkel says it was 9:25 a.m., 25 degrees Celsius and a beautiful summer day. He saw it all… the plane exploded and the falling wreckage looked like pieces of silver paper raining down as the bodies fell. He saw one airman crash through the roof of a barn.
The co-pilot, John Bruce, had a broken ankle and an injured shoulder and needed a doctor. The doctor turned out to be a Nazi sympathizer and alerted the Germans. The two survivors were sent to German prison camps until the war ended.
Mr. van Arkel took a gun from the wreckage and his father, afraid of the Germans finding it, buried it. Today it is in the museum in Opijnen.
This is not where the true story ends, but where it begins.
We traveled to Opijnen to rejuvenate the long relationship between the American Women’s Club of Amsterdam and the residents of Opijnen. Fortunately, we had former AWCA President Nancy Koster-Tschirhart with us. Nancy, with the former mayor Ton Jansen and other community leaders, was instrumental in the amazing memorial that allows the memories of these brave men to live on and influence generations.
After the plane was shot down, in spite of the Germans’ prohibition against anyone attending the burial of the crew, villagers laid flowers at the graves in the middle of the night. When the war ended, the residents of Opijnen asked the families not to move their sons’ bodies to Margraten, the Dutch cemetery for more than 8,000 fallen American soldiers, nor to take them back to America, but rather to leave them where they fell, in the loving hands of the residents of Opijnen.
Opijnen was a poor farming area and one of 11 villages in the current municipality of Neerijnen. The villages are built along the dike protecting the Waal River. Unlike Amsterdam, their history is an oral history, passed on from parent to child. The community is one that most Americans know only from nostalgia, where everyone knows everyone else and celebrates and mourns life events together; where adult children live minutes away from parents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
This village has not only kept and lovingly tended the graves of the fallen Man-O-War crew, but they have also memorialized the plane in the middle of their newest residential housing development (completed in 2006). The streets bear the names of the crew. Although there are only four official streets, through the ingenuity of Nancy and the Opijnen representatives, they were able to use all 10 names of the men.
The shadow of the plane, constructed from bricks with an elevated rudder listing their names lies in the middle of the common area in the center of the homes and the streets. The common area is named McCammonplein to honor the pilot, Keene McCammon, and the main street around it is called Brucestraat, to honor the copilot, John Bruce. And those that died are there, with names like Cianfichipoort and Polingstraat.
We began our visit with coffee, tea and cakes before we visited the school where the children, ages 10-12, practiced their English with us by telling us what they knew about the plane that crashed in their village so many years ago. They know the story well because they have the benefit of Mr. van Arkel and the others who teach them what it means to their village, to honor the men who died for their freedom.
These children are proud, as they should be, of their village and they understand and are interested in their futures and from this huge example, are learning the lessons of right and wrong. As one of the residents, Bauke Algera (my translator, thank goodness) shared, these children hear about all the wars in the world and are interested in this history, their history, a time when good vs. evil was much more clear.
Our last stop was to visit the actual graves of the men. They are buried side-by-side in a beautifully kept row, with marble headstones shipped from the US and like those used at Arlington National Cemetery. Although the headstones were spotless, the Opijnen children cleaned them shortly before Remembrance Day, celebrated on May 4 in the Netherlands. May 5 is Dutch Liberation Day. What is striking about the graves is that these heroes were just entering their adulthood, most of them were 22 years old, the oldest was 28. They were from all parts of the US, from New York to North Dakota. They were younger than my own children.
But their legacy and their message live on in a wonderful way. Mr. McCammon’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter visited Opijnen in 2007. Although Mr. Bruce passed away in 2007, two of his children and a daughter-in-law returned yet again May 4, 2010, to lay flowers at the memorial. Close friends and neighbors of the parents of airman Krueger paid their respects that day as well. In July 2015, the nephew of airman Duggan visited Amsterdam and made the trip to Opijnen, hosted by former mayor, Ton Jansen.
On May 4, 2019, Opijnen will once again honor these men during the Remembrance Day commemoration. All AWCA members, families and friends are welcome to join the Opijnen Hervormd (Protestant) Church service from 6:45-8:15 p.m. Once again, the residents of this remarkable village will remember, as they said to us more than once, quoting John Bruce during his visits, “Freedom is not free.” These brave men died to ensure freedom, not only for Americans but for everyone.
Please email Martha Canning if you are interested in joining the group this year. It is about 45 minutes away and we will enjoy a group dinner nearby before the commemoration. We will also be arranging for carpools. It is a special opportunity to connect with our community and represent the U.S. and honor these brave men.