Military | Staff Sergeant | Tail Gunner | 388th Bomb Group
KIA 5 November 1943. B-17 "Flak Suit" # 42-30789 of 388th Bomb Group/563rd Bomb Squadron.
Shot down 5 November 1943 in B-17 #42-30789 'Flak Suit', Prisoner of War (POW).
"A Pilot’s Daughter’s pilgrimage to her Father’s crash place in Belgium", by Edouard Renière, Belgium (December 2013)
Based at Knettishall, B-17 Serial #42-30789 of the 388th Bomb Group, 563rd Bomb Squadron was part of a composite group, six from its own and a few of the 96th and 100th Bomb Groups leaving on November 5, 1943 to bomb the Gelsenkirchen marshalling yards in Germany.
The aircraft had a lot of trouble assembling the flight together, losing almost two hours finding the formation and #30789 was about the last ship to come in. They met no Flak going over the coast and picked up their P-47 escort before the IP, but just as the B-17 opened its bomb bay doors above the target it was met by accurate, concentrated and heavy Flak. Their #1 engine was hit and set on fire and they pulled out of formation, fearing an imminent explosion.
Somehow, the fire got out but the damaged propeller couldn’t be feathered and started wind-milling. The pilot, Lt Bramwell decided to leave the formation and Navigator Lt Smith gave a course to home base while bombardier Lt Maiorca dropped the bomb load on some railroad tracks north of Gelsenkirchen. Their escort of four P-47s had to leave them for lack of sufficient fuel and as the Fortress was flying over Antwerp, Belgium, it was attacked by German fighters one of which raked the entire plane from one end to the other. The B-17 went into a dive and it began to level off at about 5000ft. A 20mm shell had exploded in the cockpit, severely wounding the pilot and killing radio operator T/Sgt Albertus Harrenstein and tail gunner S/Sgt John Craig who were lying dead on the floor of the radio compartment. Pilot Bramwell and co-pilot Lt Current managed to stabilize the plane and the pilot gave the order to bail out. They set the plane on a course preventing it to crash on the city of Lokeren, Belgium before jumping themselves from a very low altitude.
Sgt Harrenstein and Craig were first buried in the local cemetery and their remains were repatriated to the States after the war, respectively to California and Iowa. Lt Bramwell had been hit by 27 shell splinters at his right hand side and his back hurt by his brutal landing. He was immediately helped by a farmer then cared for by Dr Eugene Van Cauteren from nearby Zele who tended to his wounds. He had a broken vertebra and his spine was in such bad shape that it was decided to hand him over to the Germans so he could receive adequate medical help. After stays in hospitals in Sint-Niklaas, then in Brussels where he was put in a cast, he was hospitalized in Germany before spending several months in Stalag Luft 3 in Sagan, Poland, ending up in Stalag IV D/Z – Heilag Annabrug, a revalidation facility south of Berlin. He was part of a prisoner exchange program and, together with hundreds of civilians and other wounded POWs, he boarded the Swedish hospital ship "Gripsholm", arriving in the US in February 1945.
The co-pilot and the navigator, Lts Current and Smith, as well as gunners Sgts Meader and Sage were arrested after landing in parachute and sent to prison camps in Germany. As for Hank Johnson, John Maiorca and George Watt, they evaded capture, thanks to the Belgian evasion network Comete. Travelling through Belgium, France and Spain, they arrived back in England via Gibraltar, Johnson and Watt reaching the UK on December 20, 1943, John Maiorca on January 5, 1944.
In Sgt Johnson’s December 20, 1943 Escape and Evasion Report (E&E 281), Sgt Watt is mentioned as having heard from Belgians that the plane had gone down in a cemetery near a school and that they thought the pilot was a hero for hitting the cemetery instead of the school.
Fast forward to 1988. Manchester, CT. Bombardier Maiorca, who had received letters from some Belgian and French people who had helped him in his evasion, or from relatives of those who had, decided to make a trip to Europe with wife Margaret in order to meet them and express his gratitude. He succeeded in locating four of the other surviving crew members and Maiorca, navigator Smith and co-pilot Current briefly met George Watt and his wife Margie at JFK airport before the three of them travelled to Belgium and France in April 1988. They had grand and moving reunions with many of some still living helpers and family members of those who had passed away. In October of that same year, six of the crew, Current, Watt, Maiorca, Smith, Meader and Bramwell reunited in Lexington, Kentucky and their meeting made the front page of the Lexington Herald-Leader. George Watt had already visited his helpers in 1984 and 1985 and had started writing a book about his evasion and his return trips to the places he journeyed through in Belgium, France and Spain on his way back to England. His book, first published in 1990 has been reprinted in 2007 by the Kentucky University Press, "Escape from Hitler's Europe : An American Airman Behind Enemy Lines."
Fast forward to 2012. Belgium. A Lokeren historical society, “De Souvereinen”, started planning a ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the crash of the B-17. André de Munck, one of the society’s members, started searching for additional details about the plane, its mission and crew as well as trying to locate surviving crew members or family. Addresses were found. Hank Johnson’s sister regretted she wasn’t able to make the trip. It was the same for George Watt’s son David and wife Molly and ultimately only the pilot’s daughter and her husband flew over to Belgium. They landed in Brussels on November 7, 2013 and the writer had the honor to meet Joan Bramwell Wootton and her husband Michael and have lunch with them, exchanging information and memories about those events of so long ago. Joan’s father, pilot Bramwell, 96, the only surviving member of the 42-30789 crew, is still with us but in failing health in a veterans hospital in California.
After a stay in Brussels, the Woottons left by train for Lokeren the next evening and were greeted at the station by André De Munck who drove them to their hotel. They spent the next day, Sunday November 10, with André who drove them to the place where Joan’s father had parachuted down in Zele and showed them his city.
The ceremony itself took place in Lokeren on November 11, 2013 and was coupled with the annual official Armistice Day commemoration of the end of World War I. After a first meeting at the Lokeren City Hall, attending the annual commemorative Mass at the
Sint-Laurentius church and the laying of a wreath at the Monument to the locality’s dead from both World Wars, the American guests and other invited gathered at the Oude Brug cemetery to the north of the city center for a special ceremony in honor of the Bramwell crew.
At the initiative of the historical society, a plaque had been made to honor the crew of 42-30789. It was unveiled at the Oude Brug cemetery by Lokeren burgomaster Filip Anthuenis and Joan Wootton, in the presence of almost 200 people from Lokeren itself and surrounding localities where the airmen had landed and had been first helped by the locals. The plaque was affixed on the reconstructed part of the very wall hit by the Fortress when it reached the ground with most of its parts damaging and putting some houses on fire in a side street.
After unveiling the plaque, a lone bugler played Taps after which a music group sounded both the Star Spangled Banner and the Belgian national anthem. Wreaths were laid, followed by a vibrant speech by Burgomaster Anthuenis to the memory of those young Americans who crossed the Ocean to help win the war against oppression and tyranny. At the request of Dan Watt, George’s son, I read a text he had written honoring the brave people who had helped his father in his evasion, as well as its Flemish translation.
After the ceremony, everybody gathered in and around the small former cemetery chapel for a reception offered by the City authorities. Many witnesses of the crash and descendants of helpers of the Bramwell crew were present. Joan Wootton had the opportunity to talk with them and exchange memories and stories, some of them she heard for the first time. Like the fact that four occupants of nearby houses were wounded and that one 59-year old lady, Maria Van Damme, who was visiting the cemetery that day, died from her burns. Her grandson and his wife were present at the reception and sad reminiscences were exchanged of the tragic event.
Among the invited were also Nadine Paelinck and Victor Van Cauteren, daughter and son of Dr Eugene Van Cauteren who had first cared for Lt Bramwell’s severe wounds. Suzanne, Lucien and Lydia Lauwaert, whose parents, Eduard and Mathilde Lauwaert had been among George Watt’s first helpers. Those were very emotional moments for many and they will long be remembered by all who were present.
On her return to the US, Joan went to visit her father in California. She had already told him before the trip that a ceremony was being organized in Belgium and that seemed to bring back some memories to the old veteran. She wrote that she was able to show him a lot of the photos of the trip and the ceremony on a laptop so they were large enough for him to see. He still couldn't believe everyone "made such a fuss" about him. He is so unassuming and doesn't think that what he and his crew did was extraordinary. He loved the plaque and the flag of the city of Lokeren that the burgomaster had presented to Joan as a token of gratitude from the city and its citizens. The flag now hangs in his room where he can look at it every day as well as at an enlargement of a picture of the plaque. Listening to Joan talking about their trip to Belgium elicited more memories and his daughter could just see his brain working trying to remember his experiences. He has good days and bad but fortunately was able to understand much of what Joan and Michael told him about Lokeren and the ceremony.
Additional photos of the November 11 ceremony at the “de Souvereinen” website :
Pages about the evasions of Hank Johnson, John Maiorca and George Watt (with his son Dan’s text in English) can be accessed by clicking on their names in the alphabetical list at http://www.evasioncomete.org/aFichesChoix.html#
Military | Staff Sergeant | Tail Gunner | 388th Bomb Group
KIA 5 November 1943. B-17 "Flak Suit" # 42-30789 of 388th Bomb Group/563rd Bomb Squadron.
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B-17 Flying Fortress
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Military site : airfield
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|Born||Kansas, United States||11 April 1917|
Cloud County, Kansas
|Lived in||Cloud County, Kansas, United States||1942|
|Enlisted||Los Angeles, California, United States||18 March 1942|
Enlisted as a Private in the Air Corps
|Prisoner of War (POW)||6 November 1943 – 31 January 1945|
POW in Germany. Repatriated to the US in a prisoner exchange program.
|Died||1 January 2018|
|10 September 2020 23:45:04||decwriter||Changes to awards|
NARA verified Air Medal. Without personnel records it is unknown how many campaigns he participated in regarding the EAME Campaign Medal but it was at least one. He would be eligible for the POW Medal, but would have to have applied for it while living and through official channels, and if wounded, would merit the Purple Heart medal, although there is no Purple Heart file for him in the NARA files.
|01 May 2020 21:10:38||jmoore43||Changes to biography|
Added a "-" to the A/C serial # in the "Summary biography" to aid clarity & consistency.
|13 March 2020 16:04:55||ED-BB||Changes to middlename, biography and events|
WWII Draft card
|12 May 2015 12:17:58||general ira snapsorter||Changes to biography and place associations|
Merged with duplicate record to include details from MACR 3137 / Paul Andrews, Project Bits and Pieces, 8th Air Force Roll of Honor database
|20 April 2015 15:31:14||ED-BB||Changes to service number, biography, events, person associations, place associations, aircraft associations and mission associations|
NARA WWII Enlistment records
|27 September 2014 18:28:15||AAM||AAM ingest|
Drawn from the records of the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, Savannah, Georgia / MACR 3137