Dinklage is a small village (population 11,600) that has been in existence since the 1200s. The crash site is on property owned by the Vila Vita Burghotel, which is just 1.5 km east of the center of Dinklage. Here is a description of the hotel, from a hotel reservations website:
In the immediate vicinity of Burg Dinklage, one of the oldest moated-castles in the region, and located in the middle of a centuries old 133-acre park, is our 4-star hotel in idyllic green surroundings. A first class hotel set in quiet surroundings with the countryside. Suitable for families as well as business travelers. The half-timbered building in Northern German style is a refuge of peace and relaxation. Of special interest, not only to children, are the nearby local deer and wild boars in the hotel-owned game preserve. Further attractions are the duck pond, the playground and the zoo for children. The hotel offers a rich selection of Regional and International specialties and a broad variety of first class wines. The generous Wellness and Beauty area offers a variety of possibilities for pampering the body and soul and just relaxing.”
To get to the crash site, we walked out of the hotel and turned left onto a paved road. (Please refer to the attached map of Dinklage for locations.) If we kept walking on this paved road, we would come to what is now a Benedictine abbey. It had been the ancestral home of the von Galen family since 1667. Count Clemens von Galen, born there in 1878, was a strong anti-Nazi force during WWII. Galen was the Bishop of Münster from 1933 until his death in 1946. He publicly criticized the Nazi Party and delivered many sermons denouncing their policies, especially about euthanizing the mentally ill. A month before he died, Galen was appointed a Cardinal. We were told that later this year the Catholic Church will name him a saint. As we walked, we could see on the other side of some trees the Chapel (built in 1844), where he and his family had worshipped. (This photo of the chapel, obviously taken in the winter, is from a book about Dinklage that the mayor gave me.)
We turned left onto a dirt path. Signposts marked it as part of a fitness course. To our right was a fairly wide moat filled with water. Although it looked brackish, the water was actually quite clean and we even saw a duck with 7 ducklings paddling along. We soon turned left again onto a much-less traveled path while the fitness trail continued straight on. Just before we came to a wooden bench along the trail, Markus veered to the left and led us into the woods.
Just a few yards off the path, we came to a small, circular crater (perhaps 12 feet in diameter) filled with rain water. Just beyond it is a larger, more irregularly shaped crater (perhaps 25 feet in diameter) also filled with water. Surrounding the two craters are mostly young trees, briars, underbrush, and scrub grass. The plane crashed here, and we think the craters are where her bombs were exploded a few days later.Here is what we think happened to El Lobo and her crew on April 29, 1944:
2Lt Wyatt and 3 other crews from the 392nd Bomb Group were chosen to fly with the 44th BG on this particular mission. This was not unusual since both the 392nd and 44th BG belonged to the 14th Combat Wing. At their mission briefing, the 392nd crews would be told what radio frequencies the 44th would be using and where to go to join up with them in the skies over England. They would take off with the 392nd, assemble and fly with the 44th, and land back on the 392nd's runways.
The Wyatt crew took off at 7:35 a.m., joined the 44th BG in the air, and headed to Berlin. A total of 751 planes started the mission. First came 263 B-17s in the 3rd Air Division, then 236 B-17s in the 1st Air Division, and last were 252 B-24s in the 2nd Air Division. The 14th CW was at the front of the B-24 section of the big formation.
Capt. Robert Copp, command pilot for the 392nd BG, wrote Dad that he saw El Lobo over the target. That is the last time El Lobo was positively identified by any American.
Dinklage is about 300 miles due east of the bomber bases in England and 230 miles west of Berlin. There were German night fighter bases and flak units in nearby Vechta and Diepholz, but otherwise Dinklage had no military significance at all. Nonetheless, because of its location, about 80 American, British, or German planes crashed in the area during WWII.
April 29, 1944 was a Saturday. One man told us that he was always happy when the weather was good during the week because that usually meant the bombers would be passing overhead about 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning and he would be dismissed from school for the day. This precaution was for the safety of the children. If there were bombers in the air, there was the definite possibility of dogfights with German fighter planes. Even if there were no crashes, spent machine gun bullets, pieces of 20 mm cannon shells, or even fragments of damaged planes falling from 20,000 feet would kill anyone on the ground that they hit.
At the reception after the dedication, an eyewitness—previously unknown—spoke to Markus. He was 13 at the time and heard the sound of gunfire from above. He looked up to see where it was coming from, but he could not see anything due to the clouds. He heard very loud, slow gunfire which we think was from a German fighter pilot’s 20mm cannon. He also heard very rapid, not-so-loud gunfire that was probably from El Lobo’s .50 caliber machine guns. As he scanned the skies, the plane suddenly dropped below the clouds and he could see it for the first time. It was smoking. He feared the plane was going to hit his house. Then it went into a flat spin and headed toward the woods, crossing over a meadow in the process.
There is obviously no way to know how badly damaged the plane was or if anyone in the crew had been wounded or killed in the dogfight. One eyewitness remembers that as the plane passed over the meadow, a crewman jumped out without his parachute, sure proof that things were desperate inside the plane. It seems he knew the plane was going to crash and he decided to jump out and hope for a miracle. The witness remembered that the crewman had reddish hair and a rosary in his pocket. Sgt. Alfred Archambeau, the tail gunner, had reddish-brown hair and was a Catholic, so I suspect he was this desperate man.
Another eyewitness remembers wondering why the pilot didn’t try and land the plane in the meadow, as it was fairly wide and flat. (We can only speculate that the pilots were physically unable to direct the plane, or the plane was so badly damaged that it did not respond to their efforts.) He thought that if the plane kept on its present course, it would hit the big Catholic church in the center of town. This 13-year old could also see thick smoke coming from the forward part of the fuselage. As he watched, the plane went into a flat spin, and then went behind the trees. He heard only one sound, the sound of impact. He then saw a cloud of dust emerge from the treetops. By the time he got to the crash site, it was obscured by smoke and flames. Apparently, just before the plane hit, another man bailed out. He was found dead, dangling from his partially-opened parachute that had been caught in a tall tree. After looking at a photo of the crew, the witness thinks this man was my uncle, 2Lt Douglas Franke, the navigator. The witness could see another body on the ground. He could not see it well enough to identify who it was, but he is pretty sure that it was an officer, based on the clothes he was wearing. He could not see anything else at the crash site due to the smoke and fire, so we know nothing about the exact fates of the other seven men in the crew.
Several witnesses are positive that they saw both large and small unexploded bombs in the wreckage. The bomb load for the mission was three 100-pound incendiary bombs and five 1,000-pound general purpose bombs.
The wreckage remained on fire for many hours after the crash; the flames caused machine gun bullets inside the plane to explode and kept people from getting too close. Most of the fire was put out and the bodies removed that same day. The bombs were still there amid the smoldering ruins when the bodies were removed, so this must have taken a great deal of courage on the part of the Germans. A witness who returned the next day said there were still small fires throughout the crash site.
As the bodies were taken from the plane, they were placed very close to where the memorial is situated. The bodies were then moved to the nearby town of Vechta, put in individual coffins, and buried the next day in individual graves in the Waldfriedhof, or “Forest Cemetery.” During our trip I learned that 70 percent of the residents of the county of Vechta are Catholic and the number might have been even larger in the 1940s. I was told that “these people worshipped God, not Adolph Hitler,” so I am absolutely convinced that the bodies were treated with respect and dignity by the townspeople.
The cemetery is bigger now than it was in 1944; there was no one at the office when we visited, so I was unable to learn exactly where the men were buried sixty years ago. There are immense trees throughout the cemetery, hence the name. There is also a small chapel in the middle of the cemetery with tablets honoring both unknown soldiers and those buried in other locations (see the photo above). All the graves are very well looked after.
Perhaps two days after the crash, soldiers from Vechta Airbase came and exploded the bombs. We think it would have been too dangerous for the soldiers to have tried to move the bombs, so they were probably detonated in place. We think, then, that the two craters are where the bombs were exploded. Since the smaller crater is almost perfectly round, probably one bomb was exploded there. The larger crater is irregularly shaped, so we think that several bombs were exploded there. A man who lives 1 km away from the crash site remembers that his cellar was damaged when the bombs were exploded. (This man also saw another smoking B-24 pass overhead on its way west on April 29, 1944. We think this might have been Shere’s plane from the 392nd Bomb Group, as it crashed maybe 10 miles west of El Lobo sometime between 1:30 and 2 p.m. The pilot, copilot, and radio operator were killed.)
In late April 1946, the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service came to the area. Their Report of Investigation Area Search has no information about the cause of the crash, not even what kind of plane it was. All ten bodies were removed from the cemetery at Vechta and taken to a temporary US military cemetery near Neupre, Belgium (about 12 miles southwest of Liege). Thousands of other bodies were sent there as well, as Army teams swept western Europe for US military remains. At this temporary facility, morticians carefully examined each body and tried to identify it by dog tags, physical characteristics, laundry marks on the clothing, and dental charts. Everyone in the Wyatt crew was positively identified during this process, and they were all buried there.
Sometime between January 1948 and October 1949 (exact dates varied by crewman), the government sent letters to the next of kin of each man asking if they wanted their loved one 1) to be buried in a permanent American military cemetery overseas; 2) to be returned to the US for permanent burial in a military cemetery; 3) to be buried in a private cemetery overseas; or 4) to be returned to the US for permanent burial in a civilian cemetery. If this last option were selected, the US government would bear the cost of preparing and transporting the remains, with military escort, to the town designated by the next of kin. The next of kin would then be responsible for all subsequent transportation and burial expenses. The Government would provide reimbursement for burial expenses, up to $75. If requested, the escort could remain an additional 72 hours in order to be present at the funeral.
Ultimately, next of kin for five of the men requested that their remains be buried overseas in an American military cemetery. They were eventually reburied in a “permanent” cemetery on the same site as the old “temporary” cemetery. This is now known as the Ardennes American Cemetery.
Next of kin for the other five men requested that their remains be returned to the US for interment in a civilian cemetery. Navigator 2Lt Douglas Franke, left waist gunner Sgt Robert Thompson, and tail gunner Sgt. Alfred Archambeau were returned to the US aboard the same ship, which docked in New York City on May 4, 1949. Then 2Lt Franke was escorted to Minnesota, Sgt Thompson to Iowa, and Sgt Archambeau to Massachusetts, for burial. Ball turret gunner S/Sgt David Harbaugh was returned to the US a month later; his remains were escorted to Texas in July 1949. T/Sgt. Hassett was returned to Michigan in April 1950.
Despite all the answers we now have, one big question remains: Why did they still have their bombs on board? We speculate that something happened before they reached Berlin to prevent them from opening their bomb bay doors. Perhaps flak caused the doors to buckle or maybe there was damage to the electric or hydraulic systems. In any event, they did not release their bombs. No US airman who survived the mission saw what happened to them. However, El Lobo and two other B-24s crashed within a 15-mile radius of Dinklage between 1:30 and 2 p.m. This leads me to believe that the German fighters were out in force near Dinklage, and these three planes were far enough apart that they couldn’t help protect each other.
The meadow where Sgt. Archambeau jumped to his death had seen tragedy before. In 1939, the RAF dropped a bomb in the meadow, reason unknown. When a family went out the next day to make hay, it exploded and killed two people. A year later, a bomb dropped on that same family’s house, killing everyone.
The memorial is less than 100 yards from the crash site. During the winter, you’ll be able to see the memorial from the crash site. Leaves keep it hidden from view in the summer.
On April 29, 2004, I went to the crash site early in the morning. Birds were singing, the sun was shining, and it was as peaceful as any place could be. I said each man’s name aloud and told them their families still missed them. A few moments later, I heard the bells from the convent calling the nuns to mass.
There was a meeting at 9 a.m. of those involved in the ceremony—Mr. Moormann,, mayor of Dinklage; Mr. Beck, manager of the hotel; Mr. Heimann, one of the eyewitnesses; Father Schulte, the Catholic priest in Dinklage; Markus, my father, husband, and me; and Capt. Allan Conkey, head of the Elite Guard from the 568th Security Forces Squadron at Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany.
After we had thoroughly discussed and finalized plans for the memorial service, all of us walked to the memorial site. The six enlisted Airmen from Ramstein Air Base joined us. It was decided where the Guards would be positioned during the ceremony. Then we all walked to the crash site. We showed the Airmen where their predecessors of 60 years ago had crashed. The Airmen were the same ages as the Wyatt crew: early- or mid-twenties. We described what we knew of the situation, why there were two craters, and answered all their questions.
Then they returned with Capt. Conkey to the memorial site to practice, while we went on with Mr. Moormann to the convent. He had arranged for us to get a guided tour. (Since the convent is where the nuns live and worship, it is not usually open to visitors, so this was quite an honor.) Several hundred years old, it is a fortified manor home surrounded by a moat. In the early 1940s, a group of Benedictine nuns settled there after being forcibly removed from their original home, and in 1949, the brother of Clemens von Galen turned the property over to them permanently. In 1961, they converted the stables into a chapel (“very appropriate, don’t you think?” asked the nun, with a twinkle in her eye.) I think about 40 nuns live there. As we got ready to depart, the nun assured us that the entire convent would be remembering us and the crew in their prayers that afternoon.
At 1:45 p.m., my husband and I were at the memorial site. There was no sound except birds singing and the rustle of leaves. Then, I heard a plane high overhead. It seemed like an echo from 60 years ago. That was the most emotional time of the entire day for me.
Brig. Gen. Vern Findley, Director of Plans and Programs for the US Air Forces in Europe, arrived at the hotel about 3:15. He reminded us that he was there as Gen. Foglesong’s representative, and that Gen. Foglesong (the 4-star commander of the USAF in Europe) would have been there if he could. He had obviously read the information I had sent his staffers about the crew and he knew about their mission to Berlin.
Just at 4:00, we walked out of the Burghotel and joined the many people who had assembled. We all walked together to the crash site. When we came in view of the memorial, we saw still more people, including two German Air Force officers from the nearby base at Diepholz and many reporters. When everyone was in place (about 120 people in all), two members of the Elite Guard presented the US and German flags, flanked on either side by a rifleman. There was not a sound when they marched in. Their knees moved completely in unison. Their steps were completely synchronized and must be the result of many hours of practice.
Once the flags were in position, Mr. Moorman welcomed everyone. Then the Landrat (like a county commissioner, but more prestigious), Mr. Focke, spoke. Then Markus talked briefly about why he got involved in the search for information about El Lobo, what El Lobo’s mission had been, and the events of April 29, 1944.
Then Mr. Heimann told what he remembered seeing as a 13-year old boy. Then my Dad spoke, in German. He expressed his “sincere thanks to all of you, whether here as participant, an honored guest, or simply an interested citizen, for coming to this very special occasion. It is a day of remembrance for those in the Vechta/Dinklage area who lost their lives as a result of the air war over Germany in World War II. But it is also a day of celebration that family members, friends, and acquaintances from both sides of that terrible time in our history can meet here today in friendship with our thoughts firmly focused on the future rather than on the past.”
He told the audience about the crew. “The crew consisted of ten men. The youngest was 20 years old, the oldest was 29. Eight were single, one was divorced, and one was married. It is somewhat unusual that the youngest person was also the only one that was married. Even more unusual is that he was the pilot, which automatically made him the commander of the crew. His wife was pregnant and in September 1944 gave birth to a son. He was named after his father… Three members of the crew, including my brother, had grandparents who immigrated to the US from Germany. Five members of the crew are still buried in the US cemetery near Liege, Belgium. The other five, in accordance with requests from family members, were returned to the US for private burials. Each crew member grew up in a different state.”
Dad talked a little bit about his search for information about the cause of his brother’s crash and how he had had little success until Mr. Markus Graw contacted him by phone with news from eyewitnesses he had interviewed. Thus developed a real partnership between Mr. Graw and his daughter (me) as we searched to find not only answers, but also crew family members to share those answers with.
Then Dad said, “…my thoughts kept returning to April 1944. Soon it would be April 2004, 60 years after that fateful mission of April 29. ‘Is there something I could do or should do to memorialize that tragic day,’ I asked myself. Perhaps a memorial of some kind, but what? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could place a memorial near where the fatal crash occurred? But how could I ask permission in a German town to erect a memorial to a US bomber crew whose purpose had been to wreak death and destruction on German factories, railroads, and even small towns such as Dinklage. And then it came to me: the memorial would include not only my brother and his crew, but all the fliers who lost their lives—not in all of Germany, of course, but in the area around Dinklage. That would include not only American and Allied fliers, but also German fliers, some of whom were almost certainly shot down by B-24 Liberators like the one my brother flew on. I had already learned from Mr. Graw that there was an anti-aircraft unit at Vechta, as well as a night fighter squadron. They almost surely had suffered casualties, probably even deaths, from bomber attacks, and civilians had undoubtedly suffered casualties as well. Suddenly, everything fell into place; the memorial should honor not only my brother and his crew, but all those who died in the Dinklage/Vechta area as a result of the air war.”
Dad concluded by thanking Markus for his research work and his tremendous effort to make the memorial a reality. [Markus worked tirelessly on our behalf. He got permission of the landowner to erect the memorial, took photos to help us choose the best site for the memorial, located a stonemason to create the memorial, formed a committee with the mayor of Dinklage and Mr. Heimann to help plan the ceremony, and publicized the event.] Dad then said, “And now it is time for the unveiling.” After pulling the covering off the memorial, he concluded, “I will read the inscription.
Then a trumpeter stepped from behind a tree and played the German song, “I Had a Comrade.” The audience really came to attention! It was written in 1809 and set to music in 1825. The poem/song is often quoted and performed in memory of the veterans of the two world wars and at German Veterans Day observances on the third Sunday in November. Translations vary, but the words are something like this:
I don’t think these words really convey what the song means to the Germans, just as the words of “Taps” don’t reflect this song’s significance to us. I saw the widow of a German WWII veteran crying at several points during the service, so the service had a deep impact on those present. (Her husband had been home on leave from the Italian front on April 29, 1944 and taking a walk in the woods when he heard the sounds of gunfire above him. He returned to Italy and became a prisoner of war two weeks later.)
The Catholic priest and Lutheran minister then stepped forward. I was told afterward that the Lutheran minister read the Beatitudes. I didn’t have to be told what happened next—she led us in the Lord’s Prayer, whose rhythm, in any language, is unmistakable. Then the Catholic priest gave a homily about peace. He concluded by sprinkling holy water on the memorial.
The ministers stepped back and then from down a path where they had previously been hidden, came two Airmen. The first one had a large American flag draped over one arm. They stopped in front of my father, who was still standing in front of, and to one side of, the memorial. The two Airmen first pulled the flag tight, and then unfolded it to full size. They then folded it in half lengthwise, then in half again, and then began to fold it into triangles. I took a quick look around the audience. Every pair of eyes was glued to the uniquely-American ceremony occurring before them.
Apparently, the flag-folding ritual that we Americans hold so dear is not a custom at all in Germany. (One person told me at the reception that the only time he had previously seen an American flag being folded was in video clips of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral.) When the flag was completely folded into a triangle, one Airman marched across the few steps toward Dad. When he was close to Dad, he stopped, extended his arms with the flag in his hands straight up to heaven, and then slowly lowered it into Dad’s hands. After Dad had received the flag and folded it to his chest, the trumpeter began to play “Taps.” At the first note, the Airman raised his hand in a salute. He held that salute until “Taps” was finished. Since the audience had previously heard “I Had a Comrade,” I’m sure they had a sense that this was as important to us as their song had been to them.
This little bit of American military ritual had a tremendous impact on me. In a lot of ways, I felt at that moment as if the crash had occurred yesterday and this was the crew’s funeral. (This photo was taken by Christoph Floren, reporter for the Nordwest-Zeitung. It and a similar photo by a different reporter were printed with articles about the ceremony in two local newspapers the next day.)
When the song was over and the salute ended, the two Airmen marched off in the direction they had come from (the path shown to the right in the photo above). After this solemn and dramatic conclusion, the mayor thanked everyone for coming and invited them back to the hotel for a reception.
While most of the guests started walking back to the hotel, we stayed for photos. A retired German Air Force colonel brought me a bouquet of flowers and asked if he could lay them at the memorial. Of course I said yes. That gesture, more than anything else, showed that the memorial was already doing what it was intended to do: allow two different nations to remember, honor, and grieve together for lost loved ones.
On Friday, April 30, we drove the 229 miles to the Ardennes American Cemetery (AAC). Markus came with us, as he also wanted to pay his respects to the American fliers whom he had come to know so well in the course of his investigation. I had emailed the superintendent that we were coming and arranged for him to put flowers on the graves of each man in the Wyatt crew. Also buried there are six other men from the 392nd BG who were killed on April 29, 1944. The superintendent had an American and a Belgian flag placed in front of each of the eleven graves. I gave him an information packet on the five crews represented by these eleven men. Each packet included a crew photo (labeled with each man’s name) and the circumstances of their crash.
The superintendent also told me that about half of the graves have been “adopted” by a Belgian. (During the late 1940s when it was still a “temporary” cemetery all of the graves were adopted.) There is no manual labor or monetary obligation involved. The godparents are just asked “not to forget the sacrifice of our brave young Americans buried in our overseas cemeteries. All of our godparents receive a personal invitation to the Memorial Day ceremony.” 2Lt Wyatt is the only one of the five in his crew who has been “adopted.” I left a packet of information about him and a letter to the godparent from his cousin Mable, which the superintendent promised to mail to the godparent. I also included the names of the other four men in the crew, in the hope that the godparent might want to “adopt” them as well.
The superintendent has been at the AAC for four years and before that he was the assistant superintendent at the Normandy Cemetery. He is keenly aware of his duty to properly maintain the final resting place of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The superintendent told us that after the war, over 113,000 bodies were removed from the “temporary” cemetery and returned to the US for reburial. Now buried in the Cemetery are 5,328 Americans with another 462 names listed on The Tablets of the Missing.
2Lt Wyatt is in Plot A, Row 40, Grave 7. On either side of him are unknowns whose headstones read “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”
A military funeral, conducted by a military chaplain, was held for each man. The American flag that draped his coffin was sent to his next of kin.
2Lt Wyatt’s brother Tom had sent me a letter to leave at his brother’s grave. I carefully placed the letter between the flowers and the American flag. As we prepared to move on, the superintendent reached down, pulled up the American flag, handed it to me, and asked me to send it to Tom. He said, "Tell Lt Wyatt's brother that at the bottom of this wood, he can see Belgian soil from his brother's grave."
--Annette Tison, May 2004