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Archive Report: US Forces
1941 - 1945

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.

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8th Air Force
11.05.1944 838rd Bombardment Squadron (H) B-24H 41-29468 ‘Peg-O-My Heart’ 1st Lt. Frank Vratny

Operation: Chaumont (Mission #350), France

Date: 11th May 1944 (Thursday)

Unit No: 838rd Bombardment Squadron (H), 487th Bombardment Group (H), 3rd Air Division, 8th Air Force

Type: B-24H Peg-O-My Heart

Serial No: 41-29468

Code: 2C:B

Location: Coulonges-les-Sablons, just south of Bretoncelles, France

Base: Lavenham (Station #137), Suffolk, England

Pilot: 1st Lt. Frank Vratny O-743141 AAF Age 26. Id No: 78328 *, PoW No: 8158 ** (5)

Co-Pilot: Lt Col. Beirne Lay Jr. DFC O-309771 AAF Age 34. Evader (1)

Navigator: 1st Lt. Alfred Herman Richter O-724355 AAF Age 27. Evader (2)

Lead Navigator: Capt. Donald Edward Wilson O-789848 AAF Age 25. PoW *** (3)

Bombardier: Capt. Francis Goodrich Hodge Jr. O-660360 AAF Age 27. PoW **

Radio/Op: S/Sgt. William Michal Alich 35670952 AAF Age 26. PoW ****

Engineer: S/Sgt. Arthur Joseph Pelletier 31031017 AAF Age 27. Id No: 78335 *, PoW No: 8183 ** (5)

Ball Turret: S/Sgt. John Pershing Watson Jr. 13057737 AAF Age 25. Id No:78333 *, PoW No: 8196 ** (5)

Right Waist Gnr: S/Sgt. Lawrence Albert Heimerman 32288706 AAF Age 25. Id No: 78334 *, PoW No: 8171 ** (5)

Left Waist Gnr: S/Sgt. Robert Warren Peterson 37295299 AAF Age 22. Evader (4)

Tail Turret (Observer): 2nd Lt. Walter Armstrong Duer O-691484 AAF Age 22. Evader (1)

The B-24 had 10 crew positions. Crew complements evolved during the war and generally comprised 9 personnel who were typically, but not always, Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier, Navigator, Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, Radio Operator/Waist Gunner, Nose Gunner, Ball Turret Gunner, Waist Gunner, Tail Gunner.

* Buchenwald concentration camp established on Ettersberg hill near Weimer, Germany in July 1937.

** Stalag Luft 3 Sagan-Silesia, Germany, now Żagań in Poland. (Moved to Nuremberg-Langwasser, Bavaria).

*** Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang, today situated in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.

**** Stalag Luft 4 Gross-Tychow, Pomerania, Prussia now Poland (Moved from Stalag Luft 6 Heydekrug. Moved to Wöbbelin near Ludwigslust and then to Usedom near Swinemünde).

Above: The original 1st Lt. Frank Vratny crew:

Back row L to R: S/Sgt. Arthur J. Pelletier, S/Sgt. Robert W. Peterson, Sgt. Irvine A. Studer (Tail gunner), S/Sgt. John P. Watson Jr.; Middle row L to R: S/Sgt. William M. Alich, S/Sgt. Lawrence A. Heimerman; Front row L to R: 1st Lt. Steve Kulik (Bombardier), 1st Lt. Frank Vratny, 1st Lt. Hyatt D. Ballantyne (Navigator), 2nd Lt. Clayton Hutchinson. (Photograph supplied by Frank Vratny through Ivo de Jong and courtesy of the 487th Bomb Group association)

Note: S/Sgt. Irvine A. Studer 15329271, 1st Lt. Steve Kulik Jr. DFC O-682432 and 1st Lt. Hyatt D. Ballantyne DFC (OLC) O-687974 where not on this mission. They survived the war and returned to the USA.


The Peg-O-My Heart took off from Lavenham on the morning of the 11th May 1944, on only the fourth operational mission for the 487th Bombardment Group, to bomb the Chaumont marshalling yard in France. Aboard was Group’s Commanding Officer Lt Col. Beirne Lay Jr. DFC.

The Peg-O-My Heart was crippled by flak over Châteaudun while enroute to the target. There were numerous holes in the wings. Three engines were knocked out and feathered, and the hydraulic and electrical systems were disabled.

Châteaudun is some 283 km (176 mls) west of the target.

German reports state that the aircraft crashed at Bretoncelles, 60 km (37¼ mls) NW of Châteaudun. Lt Col. Lay said that the aircraft crashed at Coulonges-les-Sablons which is about 3½ km (2¼ mls) SSE of Bretoncelles.

All of the crew successfully bailed out and appeared to have come down in the area between the crash site and Nogent-le-Rotrou, which is to the SW, a spread of some 10½ km (6½ mls).

1st Lt. Riggs Mellen, flying #3 position in the lead squadron witnessed the following:

Lt. Vratny’s plane, flying lead in the lead squadron, began to falter and stagger. It finally left the formation under control but soon began to stagger even more and give indications that the pilot was losing control. Finally the crew began to bail out. It is understood that a witness who was flying in the tail of another aircraft from the 486th BG, followed the parachutes to the ground with binoculars. He counted eleven chutes, saw them land, remove the chutes and run for nearby woods. This witness is almost certain that he recognised the last to jump as Lt Col. Lay’.

In his Individual Casualty Questionnaire (ICQ) S/Sgt. Alich reported that Capt. Hodge had been injured and was helped to bail out by Capt. Wilson and 1st Lt. Richter. Then 1st Lt. Richter and Capt. Wilson jumped followed by himself, S/Sgt. Watson and 1st Lt. Vratny. The pilot, Lt Col. Lay stayed at the controls. A letter from 2nd Lt. Duer reported that S/Sgt. Heimerman and S/Sgt. Peterson jumped next, and that he and Lt Col. Lay jumped at about the same time and were together until they returned to England. S/Sgt. Alich was captured at 05:00 hrs on the 16th June in Chartres.

In his ICQ Capt. Hodge gave an account of his own capture:

“We were flying at 12000 feet as lead ship of the 487th BG leading the 92nd Wing. We received three separate flak bursts. I was hit by the first burst in the right foot, by the second burst in the right eye and left wrist and the next burst resulted in a piece lodging in my right thigh. When bail out order was given it was only with the aid of 1st Lt. Richter that I was able to disentangle myself from my inter-phone wires and flak suit, and buckle on my chest pack chute. This is in the way of official thanks to 1st Lt. Richter for his help.

I landed on the top of a hill, one side of which the brush had been cut and piled. As soon as I landed I found that I was unable to stand on the leg that had received the two hits. I did unhitch my chute, however and attempted to hide it in a nearby brush pile. I had a white scarf on and hid that with the chute. My first thought was concealment and I could not walk so it had to be close by. The brush piles offered the answer. I crawled halfway down the hill and burrowed into one of the many brush piles.

Three panels had been shot out of my chute while it was still in the plane but the trip down been OK except that I'd not shifted position for fear of dumping the chute. Because of briefings on such a situation I had surveyed the countryside on the way down. There was only one farm in sight. I should judge it to be a quarter mile from my brush hiding place.

At about ten o'clock (shot down about noon) I decided I’d best get out and try to get some help from the French. My leg was absolutely numb now. Did not hurt as there was no feeling or use. I crawled the quarter mile to the farm. There was a huge tree in front and I proceeded to sit leaning against it. It was twilight. Soon the French farmer came out. I probably looked a sight because the wound just above my eye, while the least troublesome bad bled a great deal, that plus the dirt from crawling and dragging myself along must have made me look a mess. The Frenchmen and I discussed the situation (By means of the Fr - Eng dictionary in the escape kit plus three years of Fr. I'd studied in school). He stated he had no connection with the underground and that the woods were full of Jerries and that he had no intention of risking his neck and his wife's and daughter's (he brought these out to show me) to help me when I was in such a wounded condition that I was unable to stand up and walk. I had no gun and no alternative. He brought me wine and bread and a farm helper(I guess) to watch me, then climbed on his bike and went into the village of Condé-sur-Huisne to get the Germans. They arrived in a Ford and I’D HAD IT”.

Condé-sur-Huisne is some 6½ km (4 mls) SSW of Bretoncelles.

(1) Lt Col. Lay’s narrative from his Escape and Evasion report (EE-939) describes how he and 2nd Lt. Duer (EE-940) evaded German forces:

“I was leading 72 B-24s of 92 Combat Wing on a mission to bomb marshalling yards at Chaumont. I had a crew of 11 including 2nd Lt. Duer who was riding as observer in the tail turret. I ran into moderate to intense flak, and received considerable damage to my ship. I gave the order to bail out about 5 mls (8 km) north of Châteaudun and everyone succeeded in jumping except 2nd Lt. Duer who had not received the alarm. I took over the controls and a few seconds later the ship went into a spiral dive from 12,000 ft. I bailed out at 10000 ft, and as I left the cockpit I rang the bell again. I jumped and pulled the rip-cord as I went out the hatch and tore a complete panel out of the chute. In landing I got a crack on the back of my head and wrenched my right knee.

Many Frenchmen appeared as soon as we landed and asked us what we wanted to do. We hid out in a patch of trees and later crawled through the field and hid in a hayloft where we stayed for two days. The French brought us food and civilian clothes. They advised us to go toward Spain and gave us detailed instructions on the location of German troops.

On the 13th May 1944, we left and started cross-country in a westerly direction. After walking all night our feet started going bad. I advise anyone to take shoes and socks off in crossing a stream. We contacted a Curé (Curate) in a small town but he would not assist us. We were stopped by a German soldier but after brief questioning we were released. Shortly thereafter a French farmer approached us and took us to his house and fed us. A few minutes later Germans approached the house and while we hid under a bed, the farmer was questioned by the Germans. The next day we left the the farmers house again entered a church and kneeled down to pray. The Curé appeared and we told him we were Americans after which took us in, fed us and gave us a bed. We stayed here two days and the Curé brought a farmer to us who went to the village to contact the Resistance Groups, but with no results. The next day we left and travelled for a further ten days during which time we were aided and fed by various French farmers.

We then contacted another Curé in a village where we were helped by a French woman who took us to another house and put us in contact with the local Resistance Group. We remained here for 12 days and taken in a car to a farmhouse 15 mls (24 km) north-west of Vendôme.

This location is some 47 km (29 mls) due east of Le Mans and some 40 km (25 mls) south-west from where they Bailed out over Châteaudun.

We lived as part of the farmer's family for two months during which time he advised us against going toward the front lines. On the 13th August, the Germans started leaving Vendôme. On this day we were picked up in two cars by seven members of the local Resistance group. They were armed with weapons which had been hidden at the house of the farmer where we stayed. We were then taken to a town near the American lines, where we contacted an advanced platoon of the US 5th Infantry Division”.

Note: On the 13th August 1944 the US 5th Infantry Division had established a Command Post at Saint-Calais, a few miles to the south-west of their last location.

Above: Lt Col. Lay Jr. and 2nd Lt. Duer visiting the 487th Bomb Group base at Lavenham, England on August 15, 1944. Note the One Star rank on Lt Col. Lay’s epaulet. After he was recovered from occupied France on August 13th, his old friend Brig Gen. Richard E. Nugent, Chief of Staff for Operations, 9th US Army Air Force, gave him this uniform. (Source: Lay's book 'I've Had It', page 128). (Photo provided to Ivo de Jong by Verner S. Dempsey, a veteran of the 487th Bomb Group and courtesy of Paul Webber of the 487th Bomb Group association)

Note: Maj. Verner Stephen Dempsey was the Group Communications Officer.

Note: The aircraft behind Lt Col. Lay Jr. has been identified as an AS.10 Airspeed Oxford. This may have been the aircraft in which he and 2nd Lt. Duer had arrived at Levenham, albeit the Control Tower log entry identified the aircraft as a C-78. The C-78 is similar in airframe layout and size as the Oxford so could have easily been misidentified if the personnel had not seen an Oxford before. The USAAF had 137 Oxfords on loan from the RAF.

Lt Col. Bernie Lay wrote about the experience in his book "I’ve Had It", first published in 1945. This book was reissued in 1980 with the title "Presumed Dead".

(2) 1st Lt. Richter jumped from the aircraft at about 7000 ft and landed SE of Nogent-le-Rotrou at 14:10 hrs. A French farmer whom he approached later that afternoon fed him and provided him with civilian clothes. 1st Lt. Richter was found the next afternoon by two 18 year-old boys who took him into a wood where Capt. Wilson and S/Sgt. Pelletier from his crew when hidden. The owner of a farm near the wood, which was NE of Nogent-le-Rotrou, brought them food and bedding. The next afternoon a former French officer came and told him that he had found S/Sgts. Watson, Peterson, and Heimerman. The three of them remained in the woods two more days. Then the French officer brought them identity cards and took them to the farmhouse from where another man drove them in a horse-drawn carriage to Nogent-le-Rotrou.

There in a tavern next to the railway station they were turned over to two men who took them by train to Paris. They first went to a jewellery shop which was owned by one of their guides. After breakfasting there they were taken to Lagny-sur-Marne where they were hidden in a building behind a school which was run for refugee children. S/Sgts Watson, Peterson, and Heimerman joined them there. Several days later all six Americans were turned over to a Frenchman who had served in the British Royal Navy in the last war, Accompanied by four or five armed men the six Americans were taken to the house of a caretaker of a cemetery where they were interrogated and split up.

1st Lt. Richter was taken to a small general store owned by an M. Dupres, who had served in submarines in the last war. After he had spent two days here he was taken by a French detective to his home a block away and later that night to another part of town where other evaders had been gathered together.

1st Lt. Richter, S/Sgt. Peterson and S/Sgt. Wilson were then taken by a Gendarme to the home of his parents, whose father was an electrician working for the railways, where they remained for two days. 1st Lt. Richter and S/Sgt. Watson were then moved to the home of a young Frenchwoman who had lived for seven years in the US. Two days later the Gendarme arrived to inform them that they were to leave by aircraft for England and took them to a rendezvous with S/Sgt. Watson and S/Sgt. Heimerman. The plans were quickly cancelled and 1st Lt. Richter and S/Sgt. Peterson were taken to the home of an English-speaking Frenchman. The next day an unnamed young man took the two airmen to the Paris apartment of Mme. Cristol where they remained until 27th June. During that time they were visited by Dorothy Tartiere and Albert Mahuzier. Genevieve had at first told them that they would leave in a few days but on 6th June told them that their departure was delayed.

On 11th June Genevieve took them to meet James Stewart an RAF Typhoon pilot, and Mahuzier took moving pictures of them at the Trocadéro and on the Quais de la Seine.

Fg Off. James Alexander Stewart DFC, 128499 was from 609 Sqn and was shot down by flak flying Typhoon Ib MN414 bailing out north of Fleury. He was betrayed and captured by the Gestapo and taken to Fresnes prison, then to Buchenwald (Id No.78416) and then to Stalag Luft 3 (PoW No: 8069).

On 27th June Genevieve said that Mahuzier was going to southern France and could take one man with him. She led 1st Lt. Richter to a park where he met Mahuzier who took him by train to Pau. There in a hotel Rosemarie met with 1st Lt. Richter whom she took the next day first to her home and then to the home of Leon van der Poele. 1st Lt. Richter remained with van der Poele for three weeks because Rosemarie told him that all the guides had joined the Maquis.

On 22nd July van der Poele and his son, Jack, took 1st Lt. Richter by bicycle to St. Palais and turned him over to a Belgian, his French wife and a French captain. The three of them and 1st Lt. Richter cycled to a farm in the mountains where they met a Basque guide. The guide, 1st Lt. Richter, the Belgian and his wife set out at 01:00 hrs and rested at a farmhouse the next day.

On the 23rd July at midnight they crossed the frontier into Spain. They were met by a Spanish priest who took them to a monastery from where they walked to the road below Roncesvalles to where a taxi was waiting for them to drive them to San Sebastien. There 1st Lt. Richter went to the American consul who took him to Irun where he stayed for a week. He was then taken to Alhama de Aragón.

On 13th August Lt Col. Spillman, the American Air Attaché, took him to Madrid and then crossed into Gibraltar. He left Gibraltar by air on 16th August and arrived in the UK on the 17th August.

The following were helpers of the Bourgogne (Burgundy) escape line:

M. Dupres has not been identified;

Rosemarie was Rosemary (née Wright) Maeght an American who married Frenchman Pierre Maeght and went to live in Paris in 1939;

Mme. Cristol was Madame (Mme) Olga Christol who was credited with hiding thirty-nine airmen evaders in her Paris flat;

Dorothy Tartiere was Madame (Mme) Dorothy Tartière who was an American and former film actress, Drue Leyton, who married Jacques Tartière, a French actor, and moved to France in 1939. Jacques was shot in the back and killed in Syria on the 20 June 1941 by Vichy French troops;

Albert Mahuzier was the French writer and film maker;

Genevieve Soulie was Mademoiselle (Mlle) Genevieve Germaine Soulie had a French father and English mother and was word perfect bilingual;

Leon van der Poele and his wife are credited with sheltering at least 35 Allied evaders at their home in Pau.

(3) After bailing out and landing S/Sgt. Peterson met up with S/Sgts. Watson and Heimerman and together they walked to Condé-sur-Iton. The caretaker of the cemetery in Condé-sur-Iton hid them in a cave for three days during which time he brought food, which he said was donated by six families in the town. A French officer in civilian clothes fixed papers for us and told them that he was arranging to take us to Paris. We were then taken by a guide to Paris and hidden in a house behind a school which was run for refugee children in the eastern suburbs of city where they remained for six days.

Condé-sur-Iton is some 44 km (28 mls) north of Bretoncelles.

S/Sgt. Peterson was moved around several other places and finally to the flat of Mme. Cristol on the 30th May and stayed until the 7th August, about 10 weeks. Whilst he and 1st Lt Richter were at Cristol’s they heard no more about their fellow crew members.

On the 27th June 1st Lt. Richter left with an Resistance chief. Lt. Wood, of another crew then joined him in hiding. They left with a guide by train from Paris on 7th August and journeyed to Foix from where they continued on foot. They spent a night in a house on a hillside above Ferrières-su-Ariège, owned by an old couple whose son took them across the mountains arriving in Spain on the 22nd August 1944. They then travelled to Madrid via Andorra, Alp, and Barcelona.

On the 2nd September they crossed to Gibraltar and departed from there by air to England on the 4th September 1944.

2nd Lt. John B. Wood Jr. O-814477 was the Navigator aboard B-24H 42-94858 of the 847th BS(H), 489th BG(H), shot down by flak on the 2nd June 1944 on a mission to Bretigny, France. He was one of 6 Evaders, the other 4 of his crew became PoWs.

He reported to 20 Grosvenor Place, London on the 6th September 1944.

HQ ETOUSA was the Headquarters of the European Theatre of Operations US Army located at 20 Grosvenor Place, London.

(4) Capt. Donald E. Wilson (16th August 1918 - 9th July 1961)

Above left: Courtesy of The Burlington Free Press, dated May 24th, 1945; right: Courtesy of the Addison County Independent, dated July 21st, 1961

(5) The details of the escape and evasion of 1st Lt. Vratny, S/Sgt. Pelletier, S/Sgt. Watson Jr. and S/Sgt. Heimerman are unknown. However, what is know is that all four were betrayed in Paris and arrested by the Gestapo on the 19th July 1944.

They were then taken to the Fresnes prison located to the south of Paris. This was were French political prisoners were held and ordinarily Allied airmen, after questioning, were moved to a PoW Camp. In the summer of 1944, with the Allies having liberated Paris and closing in, the Gestapo guards started reducing the prison population by execution, and then relocating surviving prisoners to various concentration camps east of France. On the 15th August 1944 they were amongst 169 Allied PoWs and hundreds of French men and women who were packed into a freight train and transported to Buchenwald concentration camp on a journey lasting five days. Buchenwald was located 8 km (5 mls) north of Weimar, in the German province of Thüringen.

Note: Fg Off. J.M. Stevenson C27788 RCAF escaped from the train and successfully evaded.

Sqn Ldr. Lamason and Fg Off. Chapman succeeded in getting all but two of the Allied PoWs transferred to Stalag Luft 3. Two airmen, 1st Lt. Levitt Clinton Beck Jr. O-736945, US AAF and Fg Off. Philip Derek Hermmens, 152583, RAFVR, died in the camp hospital.


For decades the International Red Cross (IRC) had stated that there were no military personnel in Buchenwald despite the overwhelming documentary and anecdotal evidence. It was not until 1988 that the IRC eventually confirmed the airmen were illegally held at Buchenwald.

The Australian, New Zealand and Canadian governments also consistently denied that any of their service personnel were ever held in concentration camps and refused to investigate the claims made by a 'mere’ handful of men.

Reparations were made to the British airmen who had been illegally held at Buchenwald in 1965. Eventually in 1988 the Australian, New Zealand and it is believed the Canadian governments acknowledged that their airmen had been illegally held in concentration camps.

American airmen were among those who received compensation and the US Air force have acknowledged the Buchenwald airmen with an exhibit at the Air Force Museum, albeit the airmen are shown in uniform rather than in civilian attire. Furthermore, there is no mention of decades-long denial of their experiences by other branches of the government.

Burial Details:

None. All of the crew survived

Researched by Ralph Snape for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew. Many thanks to Paul M. Webber Secretary, 487th Bomb Group Association for permission to include the photograph of the original 1st Lt. Frank Vratny crew and for other information for this report (Jan 2023). Many thanks again to Paul M. Webber for the additional clarifications, updates and new photograph (Feb 2023).

RS 02.02.2023 – New images added

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Acknowledgments: Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Stan D. Bishop, John A. Hey MBE, Gerrie Franken and Maco Cillessen - Losses of the US 8th and 9th Air Forces, Vols 1-6, Dr. Theo E.W. Boiton - Nachtjagd Combat Archives, Vols 1-13. Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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