“Distress Call Over Zeeland”

by marlys good

World War II: Sept. 18, 1944. An American B24 flying from England over the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands on its way to Germany was shot down and the 10 crewmen aboard the plane, that included Staff Sgt. L.E. Ely, a waist gunner, were forced to bail out. One of the crewman did not have a parachute so he jumped onto the back of his friend and they jumped together. However when the ripcord was pulled he could not hold on, and fell to his death. Another 19-year old was afraid to bail out. Sgt. Ely tried to persuade him but to no avail and Ely had jumped to save himself.

Of the eight survivors six were arrested by German soldiers, marched to Germany and placed in a prison camp (all six survived the camp).

Ely and 2nd Lt. Joe Sulkowski ended up with the Dutch Underground. The resistance group  arranged for them to go to a safer place. (After teaching Ely to ride a bicycle) they disguised them as blacksmiths/farmers, got them through several roadblocks, and by a circuitous route took them to a “safe house” where they were hidden away until the province was liberated by the Canadian Army a month later.

Dutch author Mark van den Dries, grandson of a member of the resistance group, has recounted the story of the crash, the crew, his family and the connections in a book newly released in the Netherlands, “Noodsein Boven Zeeland,” which translates as “Distress Call Over Zeeland.”

Mark, his wife Jacqueline, and two of their three daughters were in Greybull this week visiting with Tina and Earl Miller and extended family of Ely.

Mark said, “As a kid I only knew my grandfather helped two Americans; I didn’t know what happened. My oldest daughter asked me if I knew someone she could interview for a school paper about World War II.  I gave her all of my grandfather’s files; there were lots of documents and the police report about the crash. She got a good mark on the paper and that story was at our house so I read it. It was very interesting; I wanted to know who the crew was, what kind of bomber, etc. … so I did research. It took me three and a half years (to complete it). It was a fascinating story. Even now I am learning new things.”

Mark said the book was “not only the story of the plane crash and the rescued airmen but the story of the courageous members of the Dutch underground.

“If American soldiers were captured they were sent to prison camps. Members of the underground who were captured were shot on sight for helping Americans. It was very dangerous.”

In their research Mark and Jacqueline drove to where the plane had gone down, and along with aides from a museum, used metal detectors and “found quite a lot … ammunition, parts of the bomber, a complete gun.

“When I started this ‘journey’ the plot was still alive, in his 90s. I wrote him a letter and he wrote back and encouraged me. He was very important in my research. ”

Mark and Tina first came in contact when the author was attempting to find members of the flight crew families. Two years ago Tina and Earl visited the Netherlands. “It was very special for me,” Tina said.

Mark said he “organized a meeting with Tina and Earl and helpers of her father, people of the resistance, people who actually saw the plane come down. They were children then.”

Tina took the story from there.  “They took us in an old army truck from World War II to the hiding places where they were held; I was in the room where Dad was kept. We went to where the bomber went down … ” Tina said, tearing up as she recalls the emotions the trip induced.

Mark and Jacqueline also took the Millers to a museum where a commemorative plaque, with pictures of the 10 airmen, had been placed and Tina was given the privilege of uncovering it.

The Millers also visited another museum that held pieces of the downed B24, including a propeller.

Tina told Mark, “We are thankful that your grandfather helped save our dad.”

In return Mark told Tina, “We in Holland are very thankful that these your people placed their lives on the line for our freedom. It was a mutual thankfulness.”

Mark’s research put him in touch with other surviving members of the downed plane’s crew “and they have come up with stories – side stories. If I had known them before I could have included them in the book. It is fascinating to meet people connected with this story.”

The crewmen killed in the crash were buried “where it happened,” Mark said. “After the war they were reburied in a large American cemetery in Luxemburg. We visited the two graves. It was so overwhelming. There were thousands and thousands of white crosses and Stars of David; so many of the graves were anonymous. But these two, we knew their stories, they were very well documented and we could walk in a straight line and go right to those two graves.”