The moment the B-17 crashes down nearly hitting the house of the van Andel family.

Artist Scott Nelson

On June 22nd 1943 B-17F with serial number 42-5877 takes off from USAAF airbase Snetterton Heath in Norfolk, England. The bomber is part of the 96th Bomb Group, 337 Bomb Squadron. The time is 07:10 and the bombers are heading for the North Sea where its squadron will join more than 180 other B-17’s. The target that day is the synthetic rubber plant is Hüls, Germany

The crew of 42-5877, courtesy of Don Russell grandson of the pilot Harold Russell

The crew of 42-5877 during an unexpected night out on April 30 1943 at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago together with the exotic dancer Sally Rand. The following day the crew start their journey to Europe.

Not long after takeoff Pilot Harold “Hal” Russell notices that there is an oxygen leak and due to the dangerous nature of such a problem he decides to return to base where a team is waiting to fix the problem. As the rest of the squadron flies on Russell lands and only has ten minutes to have the leak repaired, any longer and they cannot catch up the formation heading towards Germany. Ten minutes pass and Navigator Rae Purcell indicates that it is now too late however the base commander insists that they have to go even if it would mean flying to target alone which was a daunting prospect without any protection of the formation. After the leak was fixed the plane took off and flew maximum speed to catch up with the other B-17’s. Eventually at 09:40 the targets was reached only a few minutes after the main formation that had already dropped their bombs or were in the process of doing so. The 42-5877 dropped their bombs, turned and headed west towards the North Sea and the base in England

National Archives Washington

Photo taken at the time of the bombardment. Explosions are clearly visible

Whilst heading back the formation is attacked by German Focke-Wulf planes and is under constant threat of German Flak. Various planes are hit and then also the 42-5877 is hit in engine nr 4. Russell switches off the engine and feathers it. Because of this the speed decreases and the bomber is forced to leave the formation together with another damaged B-17. Both of the B-17s now form an easy target for German fighters and soon the accompanying B-17 disappears after a German attack. This is probably the B-17 which crashed at Opheusden in the Netherlands. Russell and crew are now on their own.

Map courtesy of Don Russell

The route of B-17F 42-5877

The B-17 is approaching the town of Tiel and is under constant attack from German fighters. Tailgunner Sam Sacco is hit multiple times but still manages to shoot down at least one German plane. The plane now flies over the town of Leerdam and is losing altitude when German Pilot Gustav Wrobbel in his Messerschmitt Bf 109 carries out another attack, In 2013 numerous .50 casings are found in a field at Asperen just south of Leerdam and they might well be from these dramatic events, The attack of Wrobbel proves the be the decisive one. The right wing is on fire and the altitude is 1500 ft when they approach the town of Gorinchem. Russell sounds the bailout alarm after which he makes a turn to prevent the B-17 to crash on the town of Gorinchem. Most of the crew land in or around Gorinchem.

In a house on the dyke in Arkel just north of Gorinchem Cees van Andel is sleeping in his cot when he is dragged out by his sister who sees the burning B-17 heading towards their house. The family rushes outside and sees how the plane narrowly misses the house and crashes in the field nearby

 

Before bailing out himself Russell notices that Engineer/Turretgunner Emilio Galli is lying on the floor unconscious. Leaving him means his certain death so Russell pushes him out of B-17 hoping the airflow will make him gain consciousness so he can pull the cord and open his parachute. Russell than bails out himself and lands not far from where the B-17 came down. He hides in cornfield and is helped by a local farmer and the father of toddler Cees van Andel. They also help him to hide but eventually he is captured by the Germans just as the rest of the crew. Gunner Ed Kelso lands on bakery in the Lingewijk district of town and is captured and taken to local German HQ accompanied by enthusiastic locals. A Gorinchem resident manages to take a photo of this bizarre parade.

Photos of the American crewmember. Courtesy of the Regional Archives at Gorinchem

The co-pilot Rae Purcell manages to keep out of German hands for some time but is eventually captured 6 miles to the west near the village of Giessenburg.

Two other men land in the Haarwijk district and when the Germans take them away a huge crowd of locals gather applauding the Americans. This leads to the Germans taking some action. One of these locals is Henk Sommer and below is his story which appeared the newspaper "Gorcumse Courant".

 

 

Click the photo for the translation

 

Near the house of Cees van Andel the parachute of Harold Russell is found.The mother of Cees uses it to make clothes for her children as during the war clothing is scarce

Photo courtesy of Cees van Andel

The van Andel children dressed in Harold Russells parachute

The story of Cees van Andel as it appeared in the local newspaper "Gorcumse Courant"

Click on the photo for the translation

The inside of a B-17.

Photos Eric Long en Mark Avino. Smithsonian Air and Space museum

After the crash the Germans ordered a local salvage company to dismantle the wreck and take most parts to a scrap yard. Some pieces were saved like this fuel pump and pieces of plexiglass.

Photos courtesy of Cees van Andel

The crew of 42-5877

 

2nd Lt Harold G. Russell - Pilot

POW

 

Don Russell the grandson of Harold G. Russell wrote a great story about the experiences of his grandfather before, during and after the war. This includes the dramatic story of what happened on June 22nd. Click on the picture below for the story. A great tribute to a great man.It is a large file so please be patient.

Flight Officer Purcell L. Rae - Co-pilot

POW

Staff Sergeant Edward J. Kelso - Ball Turret Gunner

POW

2nd Lt Sidney J. Loveless - Bombardeer

POW

2nd Lt Louis S. Chadwick - Navigator

POW

Technical Sergeant Robert I. Clark - Radio Operator

POW