Veterans dug up a WWII bomber—in hopes of finding peace

Excavation in England sheds light on a tale of courage, loss, and healing.

By Roff Smith
Published 8 Sept 2021, 13:54 BST
B-24 Bombers In Mid-Flight
Flying from bases in England during World War II, B-24 Liberator bombers were key weapons in freeing Europe from Nazi domination.
Photograph by Photograph via Bettmann/Getty Images

It’s a hazy summer day in southern England, not far from the medieval market town of Arundel, and the Sussex countryside is dozing in the heat. In a pasture on a family farm a mile or so west of the town’s historic castle, an international team of military veterans and archaeologists from the University of York is methodically sifting through mounds of soil taken from a long, deep trench.

The site they are excavating is a surprisingly recent one, given Arundel’s ancient past. It dates from World War II, specifically the evening of June 22, 1944, when an American B-24 Liberator heavy bomber crashed in this field after sustaining severe damage in a daylight raid over France. The dig is shedding light on an unsung—and as yet unfinished—tale of courage, heroism, airmanship and, ultimately, loss.

Of the bomber’s 10-man crew, seven were able to bail out as the stricken plane approached the British coast: Bombardier, gunners, radio man, and navigator all were picked up safely, bobbing in the waters of the English Channel or washed up on the beach. The cockpit crew, however, remained in the plane, struggling to keep the aircraft stable and aloft so their crewmates could exit. The pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer all perished when the plane slammed to earth in a fireball moments after the others bailed out.

One of many B-24s lost in combat, this one was returning from a bombing raid over Austria when it was attacked by German fighters. The bomber caught fire and exploded, killing all 10 crewmen. “It happened so fast, they didn’t have much of a chance,” the photographer was quoted as saying.
Photograph by L. S. Stoutsenberger/Keystone/Getty Images

The body of the co-pilot, First Officer John Crowther, was thrown clear of the wreck. Found and identified at the time, it was later repatriated to the U.S. to be buried in Crowther’s home state of New York in 1946. The remains of the pilot, 2nd Lieutenant William Montgomery, and the flight engineer, Technical Sergeant John Holoka Jr., were never recovered. The men have been listed as missing in action ever since.

“That’s something we hope to change,” says lead archaeologist Stephen Humphreys, founder of the American Veterans Archaeology Recovery (AVAR) program. Working in tandem with the University of York archaeology department and under the auspices of the U.S. Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), Humphreys and his team are searching for the remains of the two missing airmen. Anything found will be sent to the DPAA’s forensics lab in Hawaii for DNA analysis and, hopefully, identification. Says Humphreys: “It’s been a long time coming. We want to bring these men home and provide a sense of closure for the families.”

American ground crewmen train hoses on the flaming wreckage of a B-24 after the bomber crashed on an airfield in southern Italy in 1944.
Photograph by Photograph via Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

The search for the missing airmen is providing closure and healing for others as well. Most of the volunteers working on the site are veterans themselves, men and women who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them suffered physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their service.

“The idea behind AVAR is to use archaeology as a form of therapy,” says Humphreys, a former U.S. Air Force captain, now a research fellow at the University of York’s department of archaeology. In the five years since Humphreys founded AVAR, in 2016, the award-winning program has conducted 15 excavations, from Revolutionary War battlefields in upstate New York to Hellenistic temples in Israel to downed WWII aircraft in Sicily and Britain. The program has been a lifeline for veterans struggling to find purpose and meaning in their lives.

An international team of military veterans and archaeologists excavate the remains of a B-24 nicknamed Johnny Reb that crashed near Arundel, England, in June 1944. Seven of the plane’s 10-man crew bailed out and survived; three died in the crash.
Photograph by Mackenze Burkhart, AVAR
University of York archaeologist Steve Roskams searches for artifacts during the recent excavation near Arundel.
Photograph by Mackenze Burkhart, AVAR

“It has made a huge difference to me,” says Karen Reed, a former NASA rocket scientist who joined the Air Force out of a desire to do something for her country in the aftermath of 9/11. After three harrowing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, using her satellite intelligence gathering skills to assist special forces in planning their operations, and often accompanying them into the field, she found herself depressed and adrift.

“I was in very real danger of becoming one of The Twenty-Two,” she says, a reference to the 22 former veterans who are said to take their lives each day. Now she’s in the broad English sunshine sifting soil and searching for artefacts that will write the final chapter of a 77-year-old story. “There is immense satisfaction in doing this, helping to bring these guys home again.”

Gregg Ashcroft, a former USAF paratrooper who served in Afghanistan, agrees. “I never knew the men who died in this crash, but there’s a connection here. These guys were my predecessors in the Air Force. In helping to bring them home, their stories become part of my story.”

It is an intensely personal excavation. The mounds of soil dug out of the crash site have so far yielded a pilot’s wristwatch, a U.S. Air Force bracelet, a pair of dog tags in startlingly good condition, and the remains of a boot with the heel worn down on one side, a legacy of the rolling gait of the man who wore it.

The mission that ended in this patch of Sussex farmland began at RAF Halesworth, a bomber base in Suffolk, about 150 miles away, that was home to the U.S. Air Force 489th Bomber Group. The target that day was a Nazi airfield at Saint-Cyr, just west of Paris. Nothing in the pilot briefings suggested the mission would be any dicier than usual, the mission’s group leader, Captain Francis Bodine, would recall later in History of the 489th, a post-war account written by the group’s former bombardier, Charles Freudenthal. “There was little likelihood of fighter opposition and the weather was bright and clear. The only premonition of trouble to come was a warning that the airfield was protected by radar-aimed flak that was usually pretty accurate.”

While British bombers flew mostly night missions, U.S. bombers conducted high-risk daylight raids. In 1943, an American airman stood only a one-in-five chance of surviving his 25-mission tour of duty.
Photograph by Photograph via PhotoQuest/Getty Images

They were to go in at 22,000 feet, dropping 2,000-pound bombs. Flying time would be five hours, round trip. Forty-three B-24 Liberators were assigned to the mission. Among them was bomber number 42-94826, a.k.a. “Johnny Reb”, piloted by 24-year-old Lieutenant William Montgomery.

Montgomery and his crew had arrived in England only the previous month, having recently completed their training at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah. In the few weeks they had been operating out of RAF Halesworth, they had seen plenty of action, flying missions in advance of D-Day and on D-Day itself. The flight to Saint-Cyr was smooth and uneventful. The bomber group arrived over the target at around seven o’clock on a bright summer evening, the Eiffel Tower visible in the distance. Trouble began almost immediately. The radar-guided anti-aircraft guns guarding the airfield proved to be deadly accurate.

“Just a few seconds after bombs were away, we were hit hard by flack,” recalled 2nd Lieutenant Henderson, the bombardier aboard the “Johnny Reb”, in his official statement that would later form part of the Missing Air Crew Report. The plane plunged 2,000 feet before Montgomery and his co-pilot, 21-year-old First Officer John Crowther, managed to regain a semblance of control. But the bomber had suffered crippling damage. No aileron controls were left, only one rudder and one elevator were still functioning, and the cowling on the number one engine had been entirely shot away. “Must have been over a hundred holes in the plane,” Henderson estimated.

By the end of World War II, more than 18,000 B-24s had been built, making it the most mass-produced aircraft in history.
Photograph by Photograph, via GL Archive, Alamy

With so little to work with, Montgomery asked Henderson, along with the gunners and radio operator, to go to the rear of the plane in the hope their weight would act as a counterbalance to help keep the plane’s nose up. From the navigator he obtained a bearing for the approved corridor for returning to England. Using just the one rudder and one elevator, he and co-pilot Crowther set a course for home and successfully followed it for nearly two hours. “We managed to stay in the vicinity of the formation, but of course much lower, until the French coast was reached,” Henderson recalled. It was a remarkable feat of airmanship.

But over the waters of the English Channel things began to unravel. As the chalky Sussex coast drew near, Crowther spoke on the intercom and told the men in the rear of the plane to prepare to bail out. It was the first indication, said Henderson, that they might not make it. By then whatever was happening in the cockpit was happening fast. Only a moment after telling them to prepare, Crowther gave the order to bail. Six men went out the camera hatch in the tail; the navigator went out the nose. Only the pilot, co-pilot, and the flight engineer, 19-year-old Sergeant John Holoka, remained aboard.

"Rough day"

“It came in from that direction, over those trees,” says 57-year-old James Sellers, the third-generation owner of the farm on which the American bomber crashed all those years ago. “It was about nine o’clock in the evening.  My father was a child at the time. He was just getting ready for bed when all of a sudden he heard the screaming engines of a plane in a power dive followed by a ground-shaking explosion.”

The plane slammed to earth next to the Sellers’ chicken coop, not much more than a hundred yards from the farmhouse. “It came in nearly vertically,” says Sellers. “There was almost nothing left of it, just five smoldering craters in a line, four engines and the fuselage, a perfect cross-section of the plane.”

Police located and identified the body of the co-pilot, and Sellers’ grandfather found and buried body fragments of the other men. The craters continued to burn underground for another 10 days, the 5,000 rounds of .50 calibre ammunition the bomber carried popping like fireworks all the while. The seven men who baled out were swiftly returned to duty, flying yet more missions over France. Those were hard times, and they were hard men. Henderson, the bombardier whose eyewitness account of the crash formed part of the official Missing Air Crew Report, concluded his statement with two terse words: “Rough day.”

Life and the war moved on. Afterwards the body of the co-pilot, Crowther, was repatriated to America and the names of 2nd Lieutenant William Montgomery and Tech Sergeant John Holoka Jr. were added to the Wall of the Missing, a monument at the American Military Cemetery in Cambridge, England, commemorating those whose remains were never found.

Ground crewmen wave off a B-24 as it departs an airfield in England to bomb targets over mainland Europe during the run-up to the D-Day invasion.
Photograph by Photograph via Popperfoto/Getty Images

“Many people even right here in Arundel never knew about this particular plane crash,” says Sellers. “During the war, you see, nobody talked. You just didn’t. If you saw something, you kept quiet. After the war, nobody wanted to talk. I didn’t even know about the wreck myself until some people from a local aviation historical society came around when I was a kid, in 1974, to try to dig up the engines. I was astonished.” (Hear the last living voices of World War II share their stories.)

Sellers’ father, though, never forgot the crash he’d witnessed as a child, or the American airmen who’d perished on his land. In 2017, by then an old man in his eighties, the elder Sellers contacted the POW/MIA Accounting Agency to see what, if anything, could be done about finding and identifying the men’s remains. He died two years later, having lived long enough to see a monument erected at the edge of his field commemorating the lost airmen. “It was because of him,” says Humphreys, “and his thoughtfulness in preserving the site, we are here today with a chance of bringing these guys home at last.”

For now, the answers lie in the DPAA’s laboratory in Hawaii, where bone fragments brought to light during the excavation will undergo analysis and DNA testing. Should there be a match with 2nd Lieutenant William Montgomery or Tech. Sgt. John Holoka, their families will receive the long delayed formal notification of their deaths, while up in Cambridge at the Wall of the Missing,  gold rosettes will be painted beside their names to indicate the men are no longer among the missing.


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