38th Annual 8th Air Force Reunion

(Posted: October 10, 2012)

I have recently attended my 3rd 8th Air Force Reunion, October 3 – 7, 2012.  As in the past, it is an honor to be among heroes.  My only regret is that there is not time during the busy days to visit with every one of them to learn their story.  Many of them did graciously record their Oral History while in attendance.  There are so many stories that it can be overwhelming and impossible to listen to all.  All I can hope is that they all realize how much that we appreciate their sacrifice.  I’m adding a picture of the approximately 50 Veterans from our group of about 260 attendees.  How grand to be graced with the presence of so many!

Veterans of the 8th AF

My Father belonged to the 92nd Bomb Group; however, I have joined the 96th Bomb Group as well as the 92nd.  Following is a photo of the Veterans attending from the 96th Bomb Group:

96th Bomb Group  Veterans – October 5, 2012

I have to mention my experience in B-17 “Sentimental Journey.”  I didn’t plan to ride as I’ve ridden in the B-17s “Fuddy Duddy” and “Liberty Belle.”  I, however, could not pass up the opportunity.  It seemed that it was “meant to be”, to ride in a bomber named so fittingly.  I remember years ago, when my Dad was still alive and we were listening to music from the WWII era, he mentioned “when I die, I’d like this song played at my funeral.”  The song that was playing was “Sentimental Journey.”  Dad died so suddenly;  we were all in shock.  In the haze of his passing, I never remembered this wish until I was writing my book and it hit me like a ton of bricks!  How could I forget such an important request!  I’ve always regretted this oversight but in my own defense, planning my Father’s funeral was something I never chose to think about.  I never thought of him not being here.  Consequently, I knew this ride would be something special for me!  It could not have been more meaningful for more reasons than one!  Dad had flown 4 missions but only received credit for 3 because the first was recalled due to bad weather over the target.  This was my 3rd ride so you can see why it was significant to me in more ways than one.

It was also wonderful to fly as a “crew” with people whom I have become acquainted with through the 8th Air Force Reunions.  The only way it could have been better is if I was with Dad.  It is a daughter’s dream!  But the next best thing was to witness the Toombs family riding with their Dad.  I could feel their emotions along with the sentimental feelings that overcame Laura Edge and me as we sat in the waist area of the bomber.  Laura’s Dad had flown missions as Waist Gunner and I was seated very near Dad’s position, the Ball Turret.  I thought of him in that confined space beneath the plane.  I could imagine him climbing into his position, without his parachute due to the cramped quarters.  He depended on the waist gunners to manually crank the turret should they lose power.  It was a most memorable flight with an unforgettable crew!  Following is a photo of Laura and me with our photos of our Dads in our books which rode with us on this memorable flight!  I am certain that our Fathers were with us in spirit on our “Sentimental Journey” as we remembered and revisited their past.

Laura’s excellent book “On The Wings of Dawn” was just recently published in August!

I participated in every tour that was available.  I had never been to San Antonio and didn’t know if I would ever return so I wanted to take in as much of the sightseeing as I could.  Anyone who I told that I was visiting there mentioned the Riverwalk and the Alamo.  They were two of the must sees.  We also visited the Buckhorn Museum.  That is an amazing place and appropriately named.  I never saw so many antlers.  I took a million pictures to try to capture everything but it is impossible.  There are so many different animals on display.  I think my favorite picture is of my friend, Merton Thurston, standing among the “Texas Rangers.”  I love it!  He looks like he fits right in, doesn’t he!!

Merton Thurston with “Texas Rangers”

Another highlight of the reunion was the opportunity to attend a Basic Training Graduation ceremony at Lackland Air Force Base.   What memories this had to stir in our Veterans who began their service in the same way so many years ago.  I thought of how proud the families and friends of these young men and women must be.  I felt a great sense of pride in them, as well as those on whose shoulders they stand!  As always, I think of my Father at that age and how he went through gunnery and technical school training.  I know he would have excelled.  I’m sure during those days that the families didn’t make it to their graduations.  They were prepared so quickly to move on to the positions that they were called to fill.  In those days, I assume that it was impossible for most to travel to attend the graduation ceremonies of their loved ones.  I guess I’m basing that on my Dad’s family, who anxiously awaited word of where their son and brother was and at what stage of training he reached realizing full well that soon he would be sent abroad.  The families could, however, talk proudly of their loved ones when the community read the notice of their graduation in their local newspaper!  I know I’ve mentioned this before but it is a fitting time to interject once again how Dad graduated with the highest average in his flight of 95 per cent!  That was no surprise to me knowing my Father!

Lackland Air Force Base Graduation Ceremony

Our featured speaker on Thursday evening  was a person who I greatly admire, George Ciampa.  The role he played during WWII was different than that of any of the Veterans who I’ve been fortunate enough to talk with along the way.   It was an honor for me to finally meet George.  I became acquainted with him when I read an article about his dedication to educating the younger generations concerning critical events in WWII and responded.  The article was in the American Legion magazine.  He has produced 3 enlightening and stirring DVDs that can be found on his web site “Let Freedom Ring For All.  http://www.letfreedomringforall.org/.  George poignantly spoke about the recent documentary, his 4th,  that he has been immersed in which should be completed in January.  His current endeavor addresses another facet of the War that many may not be aware of.  He just recently returned from Belgium where he interviewed individuals who have adopted and care for the graves of the many “liberators” who lost their lives during WWII.  It is amazing the respect and care that is exhibited in the steadfast upkeep of the graves of the lost heroes.  The documentaries that George has relentlessly made his mission to produce are excellent tools in educating our school children about the price of freedom; something that should never be forgotten.

George is an incredibly unselfish veteran having served with the 607th Graves Registration Company.  He has experienced firsthand the high cost of freedom.  He explained that thousands of fallen soldiers who are buried at Omaha Beach were first buried in temporary cemeteries by his company.  It is difficult to imagine this young man and the memories that would linger from the duties that his assignment entailed; all of the faces that he would never forget.  I’m sure this is why George has devoted so much of his life to keeping the memory alive.  As he emotionally stated in his talk, every one of those white crosses in the cemeteries represents a young man’s face; a young man who gave his life for our liberty.

Thank you, George Ciampa, for your service and your caring efforts then and now!

George Ciampa and Donald Casey (Author of “To Fight for my Country, Sir”)

Jaak Ramakers – B-17 Crash – February 4, 1944

(Posted: February 24, 2012)

It is with a heavy heart that I’ve learned that my friend, Jaak Ramakers has passed away on May 20, 2016:

 Following is a brief history of how I came to meet this generous and kind gentleman.  My heartfelt sympathy is extended to his loved ones.  He will be sadly missed.  The story of our meeting………..

Richard Heyligen is one of my Belgian friends who I met in 2006 when my Mother and I were pursuing the Belgium portion of my Father’s WWII experience.  Richard Heyligen’s brother Jules  hid with my Father’s tailgunner, Thomas Mikulka , in a field until dark and then took him to his home where he spent the night.  It was Mikulka’s  first night as an evader and the beginning of his journey back to England with the help of the Comete Escape Line.   If you read my book you would learn about this 2006 visit.

On July 26, 2008, Richard sent me an e-mail telling me that he  “met a person, a farmer, Jaak Ramakers, living in the neighborhood of the crash.  He saw the plane coming down.  He was at once in the plane before the Germans.  He was looking for a pistol or weapons.  He found something like a chronometer.  You can see it on the picture.  When you turn it up, it is still working.  That’s all that he took because the Germans arrived.  The Germans took the plane away but they left one wing.  In this wing Jaak took little wheels and made pulleys of it.  See the picture.  He took also metal of the wings to make curry-combs to curry the horses and the cows.  But these ones are used.   So he said to me when you come back, he will give you that souvenir.  It is a pity that I had not met him before your visit.  Maybe you can write to him to convince him that we can send to you by post office, or if you know somebody who is coming to Belgium who can bring it to you.”

I didn’t waste any time in writing to Mr. Ramakers.  It was exciting to learn about another witness, a person who lived close to the crash site and could give me more details of that fateful day.  On July 27, 2008, I wrote that “It was a great surprise to receive news recently from Richard Heyligen who I met when I visited Belgium in September, 2006.  It was a most memorable stay meeting many wonderful people to include Richard and his family. It was an incredible experience traveling to several areas so significant to my father’s route on February 4, 1944, when the B-17 that he flew in as ball turret gunner was shot down on a mission to Frankfurt, Germany.

I find it fascinating to hear that you entered the crashed bomber before the Germans arrived at the scene.  I do wish that I could have met you when my Mother and I were in Belgium, our visit made possible as a result of the efforts of Raimond (now deceased), Guy and Willy Wendelen.  I am so interested to hear your memories of the day my Father’s plane crashed in your neighborhood and wonder if you would mind writing them to me.  Every piece of information that I can collect from those who were there is so valuable to building my father’s story.

Richard mentioned the mementoes that you have from my father’s plane and I am delighted that you were able to obtain them.  I would treasure and be most appreciative to receive any of these souvenirs that you are willing to part with.  It is most noble of you to make the offer. 

I have spent the last four years since his death retracing Dad’s journey and would be happy to share any information that I have with you if you so desire.

I wanted to write to you right away so you would know how interested I am in anything that you are willing to contribute to my mission to write my Father’s story.  I am grateful that Richard met you and notified me.  If you are indeed willing to pass on any souvenir of my father’s aircraft to me, I will do whatever I need to do to obtain it.  It may take some time to arrange but if it must involve a return trip to Belgium that is what I will do.  I would love to meet you and to see those fine people that contributed so much to my previous visit again.”

And then I received this response in an e-mail  from Jaak through his grandson, Koen:

“Dear Mrs Brown,

I was very delighted with the letter you sent to inform me that you would appreciate the souvenirs I’ve got from your father’s plane. I’ve kept these souvenirs for many years and now I’ve reached the age of 83 I’m glad that you will be able to enjoy them for the rest of your life.

While writing this letter I can still visualize the plane crashing down, slanting in a circle. I think the right-wing hit the ground first and then the plane flipped over. I got there immediately and I could see the scrap (the debris of the plane),  I entered the plane and saw a machinegun and also some 1m bullets. This brings me to a question…(that I hope you can answer) Was the plane hit by anti-aircraft guns or did German fighter aircrafts brought it down?

In those days, a souvenir of our liberators was sacred. And so, after the Germans cleared the scrap, they still left some pieces of the plane and I took a piece of the wing home and made pulleys of it. I also used it to make some currycombs (used for grooming horses) but those are worn-out. 

Remember that the family Heyligen suffered agonies by helping the pilots. This remembers me to something in the journal from last week, a women from 93 years old, who helped 28 pilots escape during WW II was caught at the end of the war and still sent all the way to Germany to a concentration camp. Last week, she passed away.

I’m looking forward how and when I can hand over these souvenirs? 

With kind regards from Belgium,

Jaak Ramakers

P.S. My name is Koen Ramakers, I’m one of the eleven grandchildren of ‘Petere'(that’s how we call Jaak J ). I’ve tried my very best in translating this letter. (I apologise for possible mistakes)”

Sent the following email 9/1/08

Dear Mr. Ramaakers (Koen/Jaak),

I am so pleased to receive your response and enjoy so much reading your memories of my Father’s plane.  I can almost visualize you myself reading your recollections.  It is noble of you to think of me and I am not sure yet if I am going to be able to plan a trip.  I do not know anyone who will be traveling to Belgium.  I will, of course, let you know when I have figured out something.  What I would really like to do but I just don’t know if it can happen is go to England next May for the reunion of the 40th Combat Wing of the 8th Air Force of which my father’s 92nd Bomb Group is a member and then at that time also visit Belgium.  That would be the ideal plan to me and that is what I would like to try to accomplish.  You will be the first to know.

As for your question about the downing of my father’s plane.  The number 2 engine was hit by anti-aircraft fire and the bomber was forced to leave the security of the formation.  Pilot Cook dropped the plane to cloud cover and they became a “sitting duck”.  They were then picked up by the German fighter planes.  In my father’s “missing aircraft report” the anti-aircraft guns were given credit for shooting them down.  Before today is over I will send you some information that I have concerning this.   Guy Wendelen gave me a report that you will find interesting I’m sure and I will send that along with pages from the missing air crew report that are pertinent.

I am so glad that Richard met you and now that I have.  My mother and I had such a wonderful and memorable visit in Belgium in September, 2006.  It was a feeling that I cannot describe being where my father was and seeing the same people that he saw over 60 years ago.  There were 2 witnesses who saw my father come down in his parachute in a garden.  And to think that you also may have seen the parachutes descending from the wounded bomber.  Richard remembered seeing them and it was so interesting to also hear his recollections of the day.  It must have been something for you to enter that plane.  You also must have had to get out quickly before the Germans came.  Did you watch them take the plane away?  I know those times were very dangerous for everyone.  Two of my father’s crew members were helped to freedom by the Resistance.  Jules Heyligen hid the tail gunner, Thomas Mikulka, in the field until dark and then took him to his house to stay overnight beginning his route in the escape line.  There were so many heroes who put their lives on the line. Many we will never know of.  It is hard to imagine what the 93 year old woman you spoke of endured in helping the Allied Airman.

Thank you again for writing to me.  You write beautifully and I admire that.  I can only speak and write in English.

As I mentioned, I will send you some information concerning my father and his crew.  I just have to get it together.   

My goal is to write my father’s story.  He never talked about it so it has to be based on the information that I have gathered from others.  I’ve retraced his entire route and now I have the overwhelming task of putting things together in his memory.  It is taking time because it is important to get it just right for him.”

I also mailed documents from my Father’s Missing Air Crew Report when I sent the email.

I had hoped that one day I could again travel to Belgium to meet Jaak Ramakers but it did not seem very promising.  It meant a great deal to me that he desired to relinquish the treasured “souvenirs” that he had collected from inside the B-17 to me.  I had hope, but it didn’t seem likely, that it would be possible for me to travel to Belgium a second time.

But then it occurred that my friend (and editor), Jim Morrin, had discovered that there is a monument commemorating his Father’s crew in Duffel, Belgium.  Jim’s Father, John Morrin, was the pilot on the B-17 “Pluto’s Avenger,” which crashed in Duffel on February 22, 1944.  Jim was so touched by this kind remembrance that he wanted to personally thank the responsible parties.  He planned to present them with a plaque and he worked diligently on a speech that he would deliver at the presentation in Dutch.    See:  www.303rdbg.com/360morrin.html

Jim and wife Deb planned to travel to Belgium in September of 2010 and extended the invitation to me to travel along.   It was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.  Not only would I be able to meet Jaak Ramakers but I also planned to meet Marcel VanLierde, whose family had hidden my Father’s pilot and top turret gunner for 5 weeks.  I also wrote to all of my Belgian friends and invited them to attend the ceremony if they could possibly be available to meet again.  My book was very close to being published and I was hoping that I could take the books with me to present to my friends.  As it ended up, I mailed them to Jim’s friend, Wim, so that they would be there when we arrived.

I have to say how honored that I was to attend the ceremony  in memory of Jim’s Father, John Morrin’s crew and to witness how smoothly Jim read his speech, that could be understood by all in attendance (except me but I had already read the English version.)  It was an impressive performance and I was proud to be there to participate in a most moving event.

It was such an exciting day for me!  Guy and Willy Wendelen; Richard Heyligen; Marcel VanLierde; Robby Van den Wyngaert; Jaak and Marie Ramakers, their son, and grandson, Koen; Edouard Renierre and Victor Schutters were all there and it could not have been better to be able to personally present my books to my friends.  After the ceremony, Guy and Richard once again guided me along with Edouard and Victor to the significant areas of my Father’s past that I had traveled to in 2006.  It topped off a superb day; another day that I will never forget thanks to my Belgian friends!!


Marie and Jaak Ramakers in Duffel, Belgium, on September 19, 2010


Jaak Ramakers showing me the pulleys made from the wheels from the wing of my Father’s B-17


Jaak and Marie Ramakers – 60th Anniversary!

Just loved this picture!  What a lovely couple!

Geneseo Air Show – July 8, 2011

(Posted: July 21, 2011)

I’ve been meaning to add a post about the exciting day at the Geneseo Air Show a couple weekends ago.  It was great!!  I have made a promise to myself that I will never miss another show.  The main attraction for me was the B-17 “Movie Memphis Belle.”  It is not the original “Memphis Belle.”  I’ve seen the original at the Air Museum in Dayton, Ohio, where she is being refurbished to be displayed. 

They saved the best for last and she was really worth the wait!!  Movie Memphis Belle

B-17 “Liberty Belle”

(Posted: June 14, 2011)

In one of the chapters of my book, I tell about my good fortune to be able to sit in the ball turret of the
B-17 “Liberty Belle” when it was at Prior Aviation in Buffalo, NY. The reason that my Mother and I wanted to see the B-17 was because we had previously ridden in the B-17 “Fuddy Duddy” but we never got the chance to see it take off from the ground as there was only one flight that day and we were lucky enough to be on it. It is the most exhilarating experience to listen to the four engines on these old bombers start one by one. We’d felt the excitement riding in the magnificent plane but now we wanted to watch it take off from the outside. I also wanted to walk around and study the inside of this beautiful machine. I managed to accomplish that three times. In talking to a kind gentlemen who was with the “Liberty Belle” group, I mentioned my Dad’s position on the bomber during WWII. He told me to wait a moment and he’d be right back. He came back all right…with tools to open up the ball turret so my Mother and I could see the inside of it. It was great! And it got better when I asked if I could climb inside and he said I could…not only did I climb inside but I asked him to shut the door so that I could get as close as I could to how it must have felt for my Father to be cramped in that lonely turret..me for moments…him for hours at a time; me under 5’…him 5′ 8″; him with the gun sight…me without it. The day was more than I could have ever hoped for and I will never forget it. I could not have been more grateful to the “Liberty Belle” group.

I, also,…and this is not in the book…have ridden in “Liberty Belle.” It was my second ride in a B-17. (My first was in “Fuddy Duddy.”) In “Liberty Belle” I was very fortunate to have a seat behind the Pilot and Co-pilot in the cockpit. When I called to make arrangements for the ride, the kind gentleman that I talked to told me he was going to give me the best seat in the house. I had proudly told of my Father’s role on the B-17 and explained the amazing day that my Mother and I had previously experienced. I couldn’t wait for this flight! I proudly wore my Dad’s army shirt and I took a log book that he kept that told about the stops that they made in a B-17 on his route to England and gave a copy to the Co-Pilot. I knew that “Liberty Belle” was going to be reenacting the same stops later in the year, which I thought was great. I was envious of anyone who was going to be fortunate enough to man the crew on that historic flight.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I have heard the sad news that “Liberty Belle” had been grounded a couple of days ago for mechanical problems. Having been returned to service this morning, she took off from a Chicago suburban airport. The pilot had to make a forced landing in a corn field after a fire had started. Fortunately, everyone got out unharmed! The “Liberty Belle”, a national symbol of the price of freedom, is tragically destroyed taking a toll on many who loved and appreciated what she stood for. She carried on the memory of owner, Don Brooks’, Father, as well as the men like him who flew as crew members of the B-17. Seeing the pictures of the broken ship and the flames and billowing smoke, brings to mind footage of similar tragic scenes from days gone by. “Liberty Belle” may be destroyed but WE WILL NEVER FORGET!


JW-P (2)

(Posted: May 5, 2011)

As follow-up to the JW-P post……. I have received a photo of my Father’s crashed B-17. After the crew bailed out, the plane crashed in Koersel, Belgium. Please see the picture and read the incredible story of how I came about receiving this photo and the verification from the eye witness who climbed into the bomber before the Germans arrived. (Please click on ‘story’).


(Posted: March 15, 2011)

On my father’s last mission, they flew in a B-17 from the 326th Bomb Squadron, rather than their own 407th Bomb Squadron.  The identifying letters for the bomber on that fateful day were JW-P.  I have a little story to tell about those letters and their significance.  That story is coming soon…..