18.03.1945 613th Bomb Squadron (H) B-17G 43-38607 ‘Lady Jane II’, 2nd.Lt. David E. Vermeer
Operation: Berlin (Mission #231), Germany
Date: 18th March 1945 (Sunday)
Unit: 401st Bombardment Group (H), 613th Bombardment Squadron (H), 1st Air Division, 8th Air Force
Serial No: 43-38607 Lady Jane II
Location: North of Wittingen, Germany
Base: Deenthorpe (Station 128), Northamptonshire, England
Pilot: 2nd.Lt. David Elmer Vermeer O-782812 AAF Age 21. Killed
Co Pilot: 2nd.Lt. John Joseph Thompson O-781710 AAF Age 20. PoW **
Navigator: 2nd.Lt. Eugene E. Holley O-272461 AAF Age 19. PoW **
Togglier:* Sgt. Ernest James Butlin 11104427 AAF Age 20. Survived (2)
Radio/Op: Sgt. Milan Basara 36735307 AAF Age 21. Killed
Engineer: Sgt. Harold E. Churchill 16115914 AAF Age 22. Survived (1)
Ball Turret: Sgt. Fred A. Gerhardt 36946801 AAF Age 19. PoW (3)
Waist Gnr: Sgt. Rodney Alverson Williams 19178774 Age 34. PoW **
Tail: Sgt. Harold Loren Babcock 19074356 AAF Age 29. PoW **
One of the two Waist Gunners were removed from crew complements starting on the 7th June 1944 and then both from 23rd February 1945.
* When it was required for all aircraft in a Squadron formation to drop their bombs simultaneously, the designated Bombardier was on the lead aircraft. The task of the Bombardiers in the rest of the formation was to drop their bombs when the lead aircraft dropped theirs. When there were personnel shortages the role of Bombardier was carried out by an enlisted crew member and was designated as the Togglier.
** Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang, Prussia now Poland.
Standing L to R: 2nd.Lt. Vermeer, 2nd.Lt. Thompson, 2nd.Lt. Holley, 2nd Lt. John C. Sites: Kneeling L to R: Sgt. Williams, Sgt. Churchill, Sgt. Basara, Sgt. Gerhardt, Sgt. Babcock. (Courtesy: Andy Swinnen)
2nd Lt. John C. Sites, the Bombardier, was not on this mission and Sgt. Ernest J. Butlin is not depicted on this crew photograph.
Left: Sgt. Ernest J. Butlin (Courtesy: Andy Swinnen)
REASON FOR LOSS:
The 401st BG mission report detailed Lady Jane II taking off from Deenthorpe at 07:15 hours on 18th March 1945 on a mission to bomb the Schlesischer Bahnhof (Silesian Railway Station) marshalling yards in Berlin. Lady Jane II was flying in the No. 3 position of the low group (a vulnerable position on the outside of the formation) when the formation was attacked by German fighters at 11:12 hours prior to reaching the Initial Point (IP) to turn onto the target.
This was the first time in a number of missions that the Group encountered enemy aircraft. This encounter was with six to eight German Me-262 jet fighters which flew through the formation, shooting down Lady Jane II and damaging another B-17. The Group also flew into accurate flak, which resulted in major battle damage to two aircraft and minor damage to fifteen others.
After being hit by the fighters the Lady Jane II continued to fly over the target but then ‘fell off one wing’ (stalled) and out of the formation. 2nd.Lt. Vermeer gave the bailout signal and from the various Individual Casualty Questionnaires (ICQ) it was possible to deduce that all of the crew except 2nd.Lt. Vermeer bailed out of the aircraft.
In his ICQ Sgt. Williams reported that Sgt. Basara was last seen uninjured and preparing to bail out. Hearsay information from Sgt. Gerhardt, who was badly injured, said that he saw him being buried by Germans but could remember little else because of his injuries.
Seventeen B-17s were claimed by Me-262 jet fighters on this day, three by Stab/JG-7 and fourteen by III./JG-7. It has not been possible to attribute the loss of the ‘Lady Jane II’ to an individual pilot or fighter. (Reference: The Me-262 Stormbird by Colin D. Heaton & Anne-Marie Lewis)
German documents record that the aircraft crashed just over ½ mile north of Wittingen, some 16 miles SSW of Dallahn. During the trial of the individual accused of killing Sgt. Churchill, see (1), testimony given by several witnesses described that four airmen were captured in or around the hamlet of Dallahn. One was identified by a Walter Müller a Gendarmeriebeamter (Police officer) as Lt. Tom Jones (2nd.Lt. John J. Thompson), who was held in custody at the house of the Bürgermeister (Mayor) of Dallahn. This airman was later collected and taken to a PoW camp at Uelzen, some 11 miles west of Dallahn, via Nestau.
(1) The fate of Sgt. Harold E. Churchill was unknown until a General Military Government Court was convened in Dachau in Germany between the 14th and 18th October 1945.
A German national *** was charged that he did, at or near Göddenstedt, Germany, on or about 18th March 1945, wilfully, deliberately and wrongfully kill a member of the United States Army, believed to be Harold E. Churchill, ASN 16115914, who was then unarmed and in the act of surrendering himself to the German Reich, by shooting him with a machine pistol.
*** The name of the individual has been withheld out of consideration for innocent family members still living in the region and will be referred to as ‘the accused’ in this report.
The accused was a former Oberarbeitsführer (notional Lt.Col.) of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Workers Front - A Nazi labour organization) No. 81 Kreis (District) Uelzen and a battalion commander in the Wehrmacht.
The court heard that on Sunday the 18th March 1945 at about 13:30 hours an airman had parachuted and landed in the Göddenstedt community in Kreis Uelzen. A search was mounted from where the parachute was found in a field and some foot prints that were leading into a nearby forest.
The accused arrived, armed with a machine pistol, and took charge of the extended line search through the forest. After advancing about 160 ft into the forest through the tightly packed trees he fired three rapid bursts of 6 to 7 rounds each from his weapon. The first burst was unobserved, the second burst whilst the airman was seen by two witnesses lying on the ground with his hands extended above his head and the third burst shortly thereafter.
Testimonies by two witnesses told the court that they did not hear the accused issue a warning or a challenge before opening fire other than to say “here he is” or words to that effect. The body was searched and his ‘dog tags’ identified the airman as Harry Churchill. His body was carried to the car of the accused and taken to the Arbeitsfront camp at Rosche, about 2 miles to the NW of Göddenstedt, and buried in the nearby woods. He was later interred in the local cemetery in Rosche.
The court found the accused guilty of the charge and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. A Review and Recommendation board reduced the sentence to 30 years imprisonment commencing on the 1st June 1945. It was then further reduced to 17 years and he was paroled during March 1954.
(2) No evidence has been found that the fate of Sgt. Butlin was ever made the subject of a trial. However, during the trial of the German national accused of killing Sgt. Churchill, some information transpired which was not formally received in evidence, yet can be found in the trial documentation.
According to a side remark of one witness and a pre-trial statement of the accused, one Unterfeldmeister (T/Sgt) in the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, named Otto Kühne, shot an airman close to the Deutsche Arbeitsfront camp at Rosche on the day in question, allegedly “while trying to escape”. This airman, together with the one shot by the accused, was later buried in the local cemetery in Rosche. The name of this second victim was not mentioned in court.
Two graves in the Rosche cemetery were exhumed on the 11th August 1945. One body was identified as Sgt. Churchill. In a paragraph which was not made part of the court record, the autopsy report detailed that the other body was identified as Sgt. Ernest J. Butlin, and that he had sustained a fatal gunshot injury to the head.
This together with other injuries sustained to the back of his neck and coupled with the trajectory of the bullet through his head makes it probable that Sgt. Butlin had been shot at close range after being captured. The autopsy report also mentions the presence of a first field dressing on his left foot which suggests that he walked with difficulty, making an escape attempt unlikely.
There is no evidence that Kühne was ever arrested or brought before a court to answer for his actions.
(3) Sgt. Gerhardt was badly injured during the fighter attack and was assisted to bail out of the aircraft. In his ICQ 2nd.Lt. Thompson reported that Sgt. Gerhardt was hospitalized in Braunschweig (Brunswick) and last seen in Le Havre, France.
Image of the original grave markers used in the Rosche cemetery. They were discovered stored in a nearby barn (Courtesy: Andy Swinnen)
Left: (Courtesy: Andy Swinnen) 2nd.Lt. David Elmer Vermeer. Air Medal, Purple Heart. Ardennes American Cemetery, Neupré, Plot C, Row 5, Grave 33. Born on the 15th March 1924. Son to Peter E. and Rena (née Borgman) Vermeer of Sioux County, Iowa, USA.
Right: (Courtesy: Andy Swinnen) Sgt. Ernest James Butlin. Air Medal, Purple Heart. Ardennes American Cemetery, Neupré, Plot D, Row 22, Grave 3. Born in 1925. Son to Ernest James and Martha Henrietta (née Kreutzfeldt) Butlin of Stratford, Connecticut, USA.
Left: (Courtesy: Andy Swinnen) Sgt. Milan Basara. Air Medal, Purple Heart. Ardennes American Cemetery, Neupré, Plot D, Row 19, Grave 14. Son to Helen Basara of Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Right: (Courtesy: Karen Hill-FindAGrave). Sgt. Harold E. Churchill. Air Medal, Purple Heart. Repatriated and interred at the Riverside Cemetery, Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Born on the 25th November 1923. Son to Albon Wilber and Millie Inez (née Elwood) Churchill and husband to Joanna Jane (née Schmidt) Churchill of San Antonio, Texas, USA.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with additional thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’. Thanks also to Andy Swinnen from Remember Our Heroes for permission to use the crew images and grave markers in this report.