65 Years Later: Families Return to Site of Fallen
February 18, 2009
- -Niece finds uncle's name online and discovers his war history
- -Families travel from the States to honor their heroes who died in WWII
- -Locals who witnessed the B-17 crash, 65 years ago, offer support to surviving Family members
CHIMAY, Belgium - Having a hero as an uncle whom she'd never met, but heard so much about, Romona Reed decided to search the Web in order to get to know him better. That search led to more than she had ever imagined, including a 5,000-mile trip to Belgium.
About a year ago, Reed sat down to her computer after watching the WWII movie Memphis Belle. She simply was hoping to learn more about the planes featured in the film, but as her search developed, memories of her uncle surfaced.
"So much reminded me of my uncle, I just put in my uncle's name" she said. One of the results that popped up was a 2005 article in the Benelux Meteor-Heraut newspaper on the story of a WWII B-17 bomber named Susan Ruth. The story featured a photo of her uncle and his crew.
Reed grew up hearing tales of her uncle's time in the service and the sacrifices he made, but the information before her on the computer screen led her down a new path and a new journey.
Her uncle, Louis Colwart was born in 1925. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II as a ball turret gunner. The little history that Reed had on his military past was from the words of a fellow crewman, Joseph Musial.
Colwart and Musial's plane was shot down on Feb. 8, 1944, on a mission to bomb Frankfurt, Germany. "It was a beautiful day and we could see our target very plainly," Musial wrote in a letter to Reed's grandmother (Colwart's mom). "The Germans of course could see us just as plainly," he added.
The letter continued on about the bravery and success of the young gunner as he carried out his mission, but as the bomber flew across the German-French border, it was attacked by a squadron of German fighter planes.
According to the letter, Colwart and Ross Kahler, the radio operator, were killed instantly, but Musial managed to bail out of the plane even though his leg took a direct hit and was torn off completely.
While Reed held this letter close to her heart for many years, it left many questions unanswered. It was only signed Joe, and it didn't name the plane or the location of the crash. So when Reed's Internet search opened doors to those unanswered questions, she chose to see where they led.
The article Reed found, written in 2005 by J.D. Hardesty, unveiled a memorial on the Susan Ruth that Reed didn't even know existed. "Since 1989, we have come several times per year to lay flowers in front of this small memorial which reminds us of the sacrifices of the five young U.S. airmen killed in 1944," Dr. Paul Delahaye, chairman of the Belgian-American Foundation said in the article.
Once Reed made contact with Delahaye, it didn't take her long to decide she wanted to come to Belgium on the 65th anniversary of her uncle's death. Another niece of Colwart's, Keela Phillip and a friend, Karen Allen, decided to accompany her.
At the same time, relatives of George Eike, a co-pilot of the Susan Ruth, were uncovering their own details and were also planning a trip to the 65th anniversary memorial.
Eike, Robert Benniger and John Pindroch evaded capture for three months after the crash, but were then captured and executed along with other air crew and resistance fighters in April 1944.
Robert Norman, Eike's cousin, made the trip to Belgium with his daughter, Nancy, and granddaughter, Lisa, to stand on the field where his cousin's plane crashed and to honor his memory.
Norman, a Korean War vet, was a young child when Eike deployed, but he recalled communicating with him through letters during WWII.
As the Families gathered near Chimay on Feb. 8, 2009, members of the 309th Airlift Squadron stationed at ChiAfA..vres Air Base honored the fallen, as they presented the U.S. and Belgian Flags.
"The crew of the Susan Ruth performed their mission magnificently," said Lt. Col. Mark A. Gaubert, commander of the 309th Airlift Squadron, in his speech. "But, they did so much more. They provided hope-hope to the people of the area who witnessed the survivors of the crash; a hope that they would soon be liberated and find the freedom they cherished," he stated.
Some of those witnesses were present at the ceremony, and although they couldn't speak English, the crew's Family felt their compassion and felt honored to meet them.
"It is very moving to be here at the spot where the Susan Ruth came down and where my uncle died," said Reed. "I found out that a local lady, who witnessed the crash, closed my uncle's eyes and put paper flowers on his body. I am so grateful for what she did."
The lady Reed referred to later gave Reed a cross she had made out of the plane's cockpit. It was inscribed with her name, "Yvette," and painted with a U.S., Belgian, British and French Flag.
Reed said she only wishes that her grandmother was alive today to know what Yvette had done for her son.
Following the ceremony, Norman traveled to the memorial where his cousin and others were executed. "That's when my dad cried," said Nancy Johnson. "I cried when I was 13, and I thought I got it all out," he jokingly added.
Although he tried to maintain a strong exterior, Norman, donning his own Airborne wings in his neatly pressed suit, was very moved by his entire experience in Belgium, as were the other Family members.
His daughter was impressed with the spirit of the Belgian people and said she learned so much more about the history of WWII - more than what she was taught from books.
"They believed in something. They risked their lives," Phillips added, referring to the locals who helped the victims of the crash and those who were captured. "Mother's sent their sons to bring them food."
"People should find this country," Johnson added. "Belgium is a lost country."
But what are no longer lost are the memories and the stories of their fallen heroes.
"We all must die someday," Musial wrote in May 1944, after surviving the crash. "But not all of us can die fighting for something!! As Louis did - for something very great - to rid the world of cruelty and Nazism - so that others can live in a world of peace - full of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Three other crewman survived the crash of the Susan Ruth on Feb. 8, 1944. Musial, Richard Daniels and Roy Holbert bailed out but were captured by the Nazis and sent to a prison camp. The Susan Ruth commander, Howard Snyder, evaded capture and fought with the Belgian and French resistance until the liberation.
The area was liberated seven months later in early September 1944 and the crew members of the Susan Ruth gave the local residents hope to survive until that day they were liberated.
[Cis Spook, ChiAfA..vres Garrison Public Affairs, contributed to this story.]