Today marks the 68th anniversary of the crash of the 384th Bomb Group’s B17 ‘Damn Yankee’. Since the crash site is only about 5 miles from my place, I decided to drive over to the site to pay my respects. I thought it would be a nice touch to drive over in the Jeep which for the occasion had been marked to the unit the ‘Damn Yankee’ belonged to; 545th Squadron, 384th Bomb Group of the 8th AAF based at Station 106 at Grafton Underwood, England.
The B17-F USAAF Ser#41-24557 was shot down by fighters on the way back from a bombing raid over Germany and crashed in a field near Jabbeke, Belgium.
In 2007 Domenic Denardo painted the scene…
Here’s a description of the events that took place that fateful day:
The 384th Bombardment Group was activated on December 1, 1942. It was comprised of the 544th, 545th. 546th and 547th Bombardment Squadron.
In January 1943 it began training in B-17s for combat in Europe. Thirty-six B-17s of the 384th Bomb Group were assigned to USAF Station 106 near the village of Grafton Underwood, Northamptonshire, England.
On December1, 1943 if would appear that there wasn't a war going on. The base was entertaining a film production company that began work on the bomber scenes for the movie "Target For Today". The movie was being produced by the 8th Air Force as a sequel to the RAF production "Target For Tonight". While all this was going on, the Group had a mission to fly as well. It was mission #39 for the 384th Bomb Group with the target being a manufacturing complex near Solingen, Germany. Briefing showed the route would take the 384th through fighters and flak for about 150 miles after crossing the enemy coast.
“Damn Yankee", a B-17F “Flying Fortress” of the 545th Squadron piloted by Lt. Bruce G. Sundlun is on its 13th mission. It is the first B-17 of the 384th to take the name “Damn Yankee” into the war over Europe. Once over the target at 28,000 feet, planes of the 384th encounter intense flak. “Damn Yankee’s” #4 engine is hit and throws out oil. With the propeller beginning to windmill and the bomb bay doors jammed open, “Damn Yankee” loses speed and altitude and falls behind the group. A call is made to the leader to report that the plane is leaving the formation.
“Damn Yankee”, now alone and easy prey for enemy fighters, earns the dreaded title of a “straggler”. As navigator Lt. Reino O. Jylkka, gives the heading for the shortest distance back to England, tail gunner Sgt. Frank Lekas suddenly calls out, “enemy aircraft at six...” but has no chance to finish. Focke Wulf 190s, from Jagdgeschwader (JG) 26, assault the “Fortress” from 6, 7, and 8 o’clock destroying the left horizontal stabilizer and tail gunner’s cabin, killing Sgt. Lekas. One 500 pound bomb, caught in the bomb bay since the bomb drop, is released by bombardier Sgt. George C. Hayes, who is then killed by gun fire while in the doorway of the bomb bay. Over the intercom an agonizing cry is heard from the belly of the stricken bomber “Oh...they got me bad.” Orders are given to rescue mortally wounded ball turret gunner Sgt. Harry F. Cologne.
The fighters are deliberate in their attack, viciously firing at the lumbering target. The #2 engine is hit and begins smoking. Attempts to feather the propeller fail and it begins to windmill. The situation is now desperate, with the tail shot to pieces, the rudder useless, the intercom out, the fuse box shattered and oxygen leaking freely. Diving and losing altitude fast, “Damn Yankee” reaches cloud cover. However, at only 100 feet thick it does not provide sufficient cover. Fighters again attack the stricken bomber hitting the control cables, instrument panel, and automatic flight control equipment while severely wounding radioman Sgt. Charles L. Snyder. The surviving gunners in the B-17 fire back a constant stream of .50 caliber rounds, hitting two of the FW190s, causing one to disintegrate.
At 5000 feet the #2 engine catches fire and partial control of the aircraft is maintained by pilot and copilot only by pushing the control column full forward and aileron to maximum left bank. With both the ball turret and top turret out of action, the FW 190s take advantage of the withering fire and shoot out both waist guns, killing gunners Sgt. Chester P. Snyder and Sgt. Mike J. Cappelletti. “Damn Yankee” can no longer return fire. With the air speed now fluctuating between 90 - 100 miles per hour, the ship vibrates badly.
Under extreme duress pilot Lt. Sundlun and co-pilot Andrew V. Boles struggle valiantly to maintain control of “Damn Yankee”. With all hope of reaching England now gone and the ship in danger of exploding, the crew is ordered to bail out. Navigator Lt. Jylkka and top gunner Sgt. William M. Ramsey are the first to bail out, going through the nose hatch. After sending an S.O.S., Sgt. Charles Snyder bails out of the bomb bay. As the ship rapidly descends from 1800 to 1200 feet any notion of a crash landing is abandoned. Believing that they are the only two alive in the plane and with barely enough altitude, Lt. Sundlun and Lt. Boles bail out over Jabbeke, Belgium. The crippled, out of control, B-17 rolls over in a sharp 180 degree left turn and crashes into a turnip field at 1240 hours. One of the first to see the crippled B-17 approaching at about 1000 feet was Achiel Saeys, who was harrowing the field in the path of the bomber. He ran at first, but hearing the crash, he returned and saw one of the fliers hiding his parachute. It was the pilot Lt. Bruce Sundlun. Of the five surviving crew members who had bailed out safely, only pilot Lt. Sundlun avoids capture by escaping to Switzerland.
In all, the 8th Air Force's Bomb Division launched 299 B-17 bombers that day with "Damn Yankee" being one of 18 that did not return.
5 men perished in the crash, 4 were taken POW and only the pilot, Bruce Sundlun managed to escape to Switzerland, helped by Belgian farmers and the resistance. The 5 KIA were buried at the Epinal American Cemetery in France.
There are not many pictures of the plane and its crew, but here’s one showing some of the crew after the 10th mission. The plane crashed on the 13th (!!) mission.
LtR: Sgt RAMSEY (POW), Sgt CAPPELLETTI (KIA), Sgt HAYES (KIA) Lt SUNDLUN (Escaped), Lt ZEDNIK (only on this 10th mission), Kneeling: Lt JYLKKA (POW)
The wreckage was removed by the Germans at the end of December 1943 but in the years following the war small pieces of debris were still to be found on the field.
Sundlun left his shearling jacket, flying suit and boots with a local farmer who wore them out after WW2.
In 1987 during an exhibition commemorating the liberation of our region a Jabbeke resident gave me a leather Type 11 Flying Helmet which he had found on the crash site a couple of years before.
The A-11 Flying Helmet from the crash site.
On 1st December 1993 on the 50th Anniversary of the crash a small memorial was unveiled near the crash site by pilot Bruce Sundlun, who had become governor of RI after WW2. Mr Sundlun returned to the site once more to remember the event and pay homage to the men he lost that day in April 2009. Sadly he passed away earlier this year.
Bruce Sundlun holding a speech at the monument in April 2009...
The monument is quite small and lists the names of the 5 crewmembers killed that day. It was erected near the field of the crash across the small street. It is kept clean and cared for by some locals who also put flowers at the monument from time to time.
I took a Poppy wreath over to lay at the base of the monument.
Edited by Johan Willaert, 08 May 2014 - 05:27 AM.