A single shell, a determined man, and 36 allied airmen never to be forgotten

May 10, 2015
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The field where it all began (Image: Peter den Tek)

The field where it all began (Image: Peter den Tek)

The skies above Giessenlanden, Holland, are peaceful now, but during World War II, they were the battleground for flying beasts locked in duels to the death the likes which will never be seen again.

Thousands of B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24 Liberators, and British Lancaster and Halifax bombers on their way to targets inside Nazi Germany were thrown against walls of flak hurled upward by enemy anti-aircraft guns and the flaming cannon fire of Luftwaffe fighters.

The story you are about to read directly descends from those skies and those battles.

It was early morning, on March 2, 2013, when Peter den Tek and his daughter took to the fields outside their village of Asperen, Holland, to search for ancient Roman artifacts. With winter’s chill still in the air and the sun just starting to break through the blanket of fog, there was a certain tranquility about the area.

With the initial search area refusing to give up its treasure, they moved on to another, and it was there, decades after the guns above had gone silent, that the present met the past and a new chapter in history was born.

A single .50 caliber casing was found. On it, the markings,”R.A. 43 — Remington Arms 1943.” A lover of World War II history, Peter knew there had been no ground battles in the area, so he surmised his find must have come from an air battle.

What he could never have deducted at that moment was the depth and breadth of what he was about to discover and the lives that would be touched on the journey he was about to begin.

Most men would have stopped when they learned, as Peter would, that more than 6,000 planes fell from the skies of Holland during the war and that as many as 10 percent of them are still entombed in the Dutch soil.

Most men would have stopped at discovering that one American B-17 was attacked over Asperen on July 28, 1943, and crashed with two of her crew dying and the remaining taken prisoners by the Germans.

But Peter den Tek is not most men.

After tracking down family of the crew members and talking to witnesses on both sides of the Atlantic, he explained in an email “these stories of sacrifice sparked a wish to make a monument of some sort for these 10 men so their efforts and sacrifices would never be forgotten.”

Mission accomplished

He contacted Anneke Bode, of one of the local historical societies, and they took his idea to the mayor of Giessenlanden, who was very positive but asked Peter to research other possible crash sites as well.

One downed B-17, turned to two, and then two more American planes and two British planes were discovered — six planes, with a total crew of 36 airmen, 14 of whom gave the ultimate sacrifice while their comrades spent the rest of the war in various German stalags.

The more he learned, the deeper his respect for the crewmen and their families grew. He became a man on a mission to ensure that their missions never be forgotten.

A foundation was created to raise money and design a monument.

As Peter describes: “We didn’t want just a stone with names on it somewhere remote. It had to be in the middle of one of the villages so it would become part of daily life as a constant reminder that in times of need, you need friends — friends who are willing to give their lives for you.”

On Saturday, May 2, Peter den Tek accomplished his mission.

With 52 relatives of those 36 airmen, embassy representatives and dignitaries, and a crowd of hundreds looking on, Pieter van Vollenhoven, a member of the Royal Dutch family, officially unveiled the Giessenlanden Allied Airmen Memorial. Moments later, a British Lancaster bomber and the last flying Dutch Spitfire flew over in tribute.

And what a memorial it is. Cut into a vertical wing structure are three bomber silhouettes with the crash sites named below.

On the hexagon base is a plaque for each downed plane and the names of her crew symbolizing the lasting link between the villages and the airmen and their families — links such as the van Andel children, who after a burning B-17 barely missed their house, got new dresses for the girls and a fine shirt for little brother Cees from the parachute of pilot Harold Russell.

Or of a young man who four years ago purchased an old life vest at a local market for a single euro only to learn from one of Peter’s lectures that its original owner was Sgt. Stephen Maksin, of the crew of the downed B-17 that started the entire process. Or a pair of sunglasses that would forever go unclaimed by its owner.

Living history

History is more than dates on a calendar. It is the connection between who and what once was and why we are what we are. When given the chance, it becomes as alive and vibrant as any living thing, and Peter den Tek gave it that chance.

In two years and two months, one man from one village in Holland took the finding of a single shell casing lost in the Dutch soil for more than seven decades and turned it into a lasting memorial dedicated to the very meaning sacrifice.

May 8 marked the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, the end of hostilities in Europe. And while tens of millions of Americans went about their Friday without a second thought or a moment’s pause to give thanks to those who did what was needed most when it was needed most, it’s nice to know that there are still those among us who refuse to forget.

Even if they are 4,600 miles away and live in another country.

PUBLISHER NOTE:  This column first appeared in the EXPLORE section of the Sunday, May 10, 2015 print edition of the Joplin Globe.

The memorial to the 36 fallen airmen is seen below.  View the full page with additional pics by clicking this link:  GlobeMemorial5.10.15

Mission Accomplished May 2, 2015

Mission Accomplished May 2, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

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