“There is another one!”, I shouted, pointing to a parachute unfolding against the blue sky one summer day in 1944. “Rotmoffen (German Bastards)!” I shouted again as German flak exploded among broken pieces of an Allied bomber and unfolding parachutes with crew members hanging from them. “Keep your mouth shut!”, shouted my mother, which was sound advice, as German police occupied several houses not far from us.
I was 13 years old and seated at the table with my family for lunch. When we heard the noise of a whining plane and explosions, my mother and I ran out of the house. My brother Jan and sister Ali perhaps ran to the upstairs balcony. We could not see the plane in front of our house, so we ran across the street to the neighbors’ homes from where we could see the bomber. From that location, my mother and I, and a few neighbors, watched how a life and death drama of a shot down bomber and its crew unfolded in front of our eyes.
The bomber was going down, then the flak exploded. When the flak hit the bomber, there was no fire; the plane engine just whined one last time, then the plane spiralled out of control, somersaulted a few times, and broke up in large pieces. About five parachutes unfolded after the bomber split up, one of which disappeared quickly. The flak stopped soon afterwards and the crew floated further unmolested to the ground. The parachutists landed near Gorinchem, the small Dutch city where I lived. Pieces of the plane were scattered between Gorinchem and Hoornaar. I heard that the parachutists were caught by German soldiers and brought to Gorinchem for incarceration in an old army barracks, occupied by Germans at the time.
The next day, my friend Sjors (George) de Winter and I set out into the polder to look where the plane pieces had dropped. We knew the polder around Gorinchem very well, as we often went out in spring to search for mallards nesting in old pollard willows. Mallard eggs were a good substitute for chicken eggs which were scarce during wartime. We trekked as straight as the crow flies through the polder; and jumped across many ditches with the aid of long poles to where we thought the pieces of the bomber had fallen. We saw a few people standing where the wing of the bomber had fallen across a large ditch. A pair of feet of a crew member were sticking out of the water beneath the wing. The dead airman’s feet only had socks; obviously someone had pulled off his shoes. Sjors and I were upset that someone could commit such a sacrilege. That person may have needed the shoes, but had no respect for an Allied airman, who paid with his life to fight against our common enemy.
People were helping themselves to anything from the plane they thought they could use. Shortly after, I informed my older brother Jan where we found pieces of the bomber. He collected strips of rubber from the wing. The rubber was used to repair the big holes in the soles of my shoes. I was on my last pair of leather shoes, which after the repair, lasted for several more months. Several weeks later, my older sister Cato found a pair of sunglasses, still intact in its case not far from the wing site. I can no longer consult her but her son, Johan, has
the case with the sunglasses. Inside there is a note from the manufacturer — American Optical Company with some serial and order numbers. My sister Cato also wrote a note ‘Wednesday, July 28, 1943 found in the surroundings of Hoornaar. Fallen out of an American warplane. Signed C. Vermeer.’
Later on, I found an airplane turret which had slammed into a griend, a place where willows grow in dense rows. The turret was partly submerged in muddy ground, and landed about 1 km from the site where the wing rested. I brought Jan to the site; he collected phosphorescent tipped light switches from the turret as we could use those at home. We also collected pieces of shatter proof glass from the turret dome. People carved rings, little airplanes, and other items from that glass. These were then much in fashion as souvenirs from shot down Allied airplanes. People wore the rings on their fingers and pinned little airplanes on their blouses and jackets. They were also traded for goods and scarce commodities such as eggs, sugar, tea, coffee, and cigarettes.
The griend, where the turret landed, was in a very isolated part of the Dutch polder. It later became one of my favorite places to visit. Many songbirds sang from alder and willow branches. Plants such as Noli-me-Tangere, bitterroot, hop, marsh ferns, and tall wespenorchis (wasp’s orchid), which were uncommon elsewhere in the polder, grew there. I took some of the tall orchid stems home, and shook the spores near red currant bushes in our garden. Beautiful wespenorchis showed up each year in the shade of the currant bushes, and were visited by bees and wasps. Maybe they still do, I don’t know, I left my home for Canada in 1954.