29.4.1944 729th Bomber Squadron B-17G 'Karen B' 2nd.Lt. Hal J. Nelson
Operation: Berlin, Germany
Date: 29th April 1944 (Saturday)
Unit: 729th Bomber Squadron (452nd Bombardment Group (H))
Type: B-17G (‘Karen B')
Serial No: 42-39920
Code: M3-D (Dog)
Location: Lichtenvoorde, SE of Ruurlo, Holland
Base: Deopham Green, Norfolk, England
Pilot: 2nd.Lt. Hal J. Nelson O-689085 AAF Age 24. Survived (1)
Co Pilot: 2nd.Lt. Charles F. Ramlow O-818746 AAF Age 23. Survived (2)
Navigator: 2nd.Lt. Noyes Richey O-708376 AAF Age 22. PoW Camp: Stalag Luft 1, Barth-Volelsang, Prussia. (3)
Bombardier: 2nd.Lt. Philip Richard Cavanaugh O-757650 AAF Age 23. Survived (1)
Radio/Op: S/Sgt. George P. Paulk 34539372 AAF Age 26. PoW Camp: Stalag Luft 4 Gross-Tychow, Pomerania now Poland (3)
Top Turret: S/Sgt. Michael Dencavage 36175982 AAF Age 30. Survived (4) (5)
Ball Turret: Sgt. Robert W. Zercher 13092429 AAF Age 27. Survived (6)
Right Waist: T/Sgt. Victor A. Ryczko 6976087 AAF Age 23. Survived (5)
Left Waist: Sgt. Don E. Jackson 35602808 AAF Age 23. PoW. No further details (7)
Tail: Sgt. Floyd E. Ragsdale 34649424 AAF Age 21. PoW Camp: Stalag Luft 4 Gross-Tychow, Pomerania now Poland (3)
From left to right: Nelson, Cavanaugh, Ramlow and Richey. (Credit: Mrs. Ruth Rumsey-Richey & Mr. Jelle Reitsma)
In front: Ryczko, Paulk, Dencavage; at the back: Ragsdale, Jackson and Zercher. (Credit: Mrs. Ruth Rumsey-Richey & Mr. Jelle Reitsma)
REASON FOR LOSS:
On the morning of the 29th April 1944 at about 0600 hours B-17G 'Karen B' 42-39920 took off from Deopham Green and joined a force of more than 700 heavy bombers tasked with bombing the Friedrichstraße railway station in Berlin, Germany.
'Karen B' lost an engine en route to the target from flak damage and second whilst over the target. The loss of two engines caused the aircraft to fall out of formation and they headed for home alone. 2nd.Lt. Hal J. Nelson roll-called the crew over the intercom and warned them to prepare to bailout. Sgt. Don E. Jackson apparently took this as the cue to immediately bailout from the aircraft.
Shortly before crossing the Dutch border the aircraft lost a third engine through flak damage and with only a single serviceable engine 2nd.Lt. Nelson decided to attempt a crash landing instead of ordering the crew to bailout. The aircraft was put down in a field near Lichtenvoorde, SE of Ruurlo at about 1445 hours. The crew escaped with some minor injuries and remained long enough to try and set the aircraft ablaze before heading for a wooded area to avoid capture. That night they were taken in by the Dutch resistance and were sheltered prior to being dispersed throughout the resistance network.
(1) 2nd.Lt. Nelson and 2nd.Lt. Cavanaugh evaded capture with the assistance of the Dutch resistance for almost a year before being liberated in the town of Laren on the 6th April 1945 by elements of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division.
(2) 2nd.Lt. Ramlow evaded capture with the assistance of the Dutch resistance for almost 11 months and after several unsuccessful escape attempts reached Allied lines at the town of Moerdijk after crossing the freshwater tidal wetlands of De Biesbosch on the 10th March 1945.
(3) 2nd.Lt. Richey, S/Sgt. Paulk and Sgt. Ragsdale evaded capture with the assistance of the Dutch resistance for almost 7 months during which time they were in the company of 1st.Lt. Low Jr. and 1st.Lt. Moore from B-24H Liberator 42-52506. On the 18th November 1944 they were part of a large group that was ambushed in the village of Meulunteren whilst awaiting an attempt to cross the Rhine. S/Sgt. Paulk and Sgt. Ragsdale were captured and 2nd.Lt. Richey suffered a gunshot wound to the chest but survived his injuries. S/Sgt. Paulk and Sgt. Ragsdale were incarcerated at Stalag Luft IV but did not take part in the forced clearance of the camp and were spared the ‘Death March’. They and the remaining PoWs were finally liberated by the elements of the Russian Army, who knocked down the fences and left the PoWs to fend for themselves. After about two weeks the US PoWs were transported to France for onward travel to the USA and home.
2nd.Lt. Richey was confined at Stalag Luft 1. This was the only camp that the Germans did not evacuate and was liberated by elements of the Russian Army on the 1st May 1945.
(4) S/Sgt. Dencavage was also the designated Engineer.
(5) S/Sgt. Dencavage and T/Sgt. Ryczko evaded capture with the assistance of the Dutch resistance for almost 5 months before being liberated whilst at the village of Klimmen in mid-September 1944 by elements of the 2nd US Armoured Division.
(6) Sgt. Zercher evaded capture with the assistance of the Dutch resistance. However, the family who were sheltering him in Apeldoorn was betrayed by a Dutch collaborator which resulted in their home being raided by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) on the 30th September 1944. Sgt. Zercher and a F/Sgt. Kenneth H. C. Ingram (RAF) along with eight members of the Dutch resistance were arrested, two of whom were Mrs. Bitter-van der Noordaa and Narda van Terwisga.
It was reported that on the 2nd October 1944, Sgt. Zercher and F/Sgt. Ingram along with six of the Dutch resistance members were shot by firing squad, without a trial, upon the orders of SS Hauptsturmführer Karl Fielitz the Commander of the Sicherheitspolizei and Sicherheitsdienst (Sipo-SD) garrisoned at the Willem III Kazerne barracks in Apeldoorn. The two women were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where Mrs. Bitter would lose her life but Narda van Terwisga survived her ordeal.
The bodies of the murdered men were displayed around the village for several days each with a sign inscribed with the word “Terrorist”. Sgt. Zercher and F/Sgt. Ingram were eventually interred at the general cemetery in Ugchelen-Heidehof.
An investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Sgt. Zercher was instigated on the 15th January 1946 by Capt. Harold Olian from the Judge Advocate section in Wiesbaden, Germany. The remains of Sgt. Zercher were exhumed and a post-mortem carried out. The pathologist’s report concluded that he had died from a stab wound consistent with the blade of a bayonet. However, this was at odds with the events described in the interrogation reports taken from some of the SD personnel involved in the murders, which stated that Sgt. Zercher was shot. Upon the conclusion of the investigation Sgt. Zercher was reinterred at the Ardennes American Cemetery.
There is documentary evidence that a case was made to prosecute the prime suspect, Hauptsturmführer Karl Fielitz, and other named killers of the two airmen and six Dutch resistance members, but no records have been found that reports that the perpetrators were brought to trial for this war crime.
(7) Sgt. Jackson landed about 2 miles NW of Braunschweig in the village of Ölper in Germany. It was reported that he had been severely beaten by the village residents before he became a PoW.
Sgt. Robert W. Zercher. Ardennes American Cemetery Neupre, Belgium, Plot B Row 42 Grave 16. Born on the 26th October 1907, the son to Mr. Frank W. Zercher of Hallam, York, Pennsylvania, USA.(Credit: Mrs. Ruth Rumsey-Richey & Mr. Jelle Reitsma).
On the grounds of Heerenloo Midden-Nederland (formerly Groot Schuylenburg, previously the Apeldoornsche Bosch) there is a simple marble plate with eight names which was unveiled on the 2nd October 1969 (Revised on the 2nd September 2006 to correct Sgt. Robert W. Zercher’s details). It is accompanied by a glass plate with the name of Mrs. Bitter-van der Nooraa, which was added on the 3rd October 2011. (Credit: Mr. Jelle Reitsma).
A chapter is dedicated to Sgt. Robert W. Zercher in the book “One Way Ticket to Berlin - A day in the Life of the Mighty Eighth” By John Meurs.
Researched by Ralph Snape for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with thanks to Traugott Vitz for his work on the database. Thanks also to Mr. Jelle Reitsma for access to his paper “The Adventures of Sergeant Bob Zercher and other crew members of the ‘Karen B’” and for his kind permission to use images from the paper. Thanks also to Mr. John Meurs for his assistance and for the reference materials provided.