On January 24, 1944, the first of over 500 American airmen bailed out of their disabled planes over the German-occupied zone of Serbia. That first day, the Germans shot down two Liberators…one over Zlatibor and the other over Toplica. One bomber made an emergency landing between Plocnik and Beloljin. That crew of nine men were rescued by the Chetnik Toplica Corps under the command of Major Milan Stojanovic. The crew were placed in the home of local Chetnik leaders in the village of Velika Dragusa. The other bomber crew bailed out over Mount Zlatibor. They were found by members of the Zlatibor Corps. A radiogram message on the rescue of one of the crews was sent by Stojanovic to Mihailovic on January 25th. Major Stojanovic wrote that the previous day about 100 bombers flew from the direction of Nis towards Kosovska Mitrovica, and that they were followed by nine German fighter aircraft. After a half-hour battle, one plane caught fire and was forced to land between the villages of Plocnik and Beloljin, in the Toplica River valley.
Over the next few months, more planes were shot down, and more crews were rescued by the Serbian resistance. In all it was thought that 432 men had been hidden, effectively saving them from the German prison camps. In the end, it was determined that the actual number of men in need of rescue was 512. The men had no way of knowing that they would be “guests” of the Serbian resistance for 7 long months, and in some cases longer.
The two resistance groups, Marshal Tito’s Partisans and Draza Mihailovic’s Chetniks, both hated the Nazis vehemently, and they also hated each other. It made working together difficult at best. Still, they shared a common goal…to defeat the Nazis, and they were willing to do what was necessary to achieve that goal. While it was sometimes possible to smuggle the airmen out and reunite them with their units, it was not always possible. When they could not get the men out, they kept them in their homes, and shared what little food they had with them.
In July 1944, these men again came to the attention of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and they began to draw up plans to bring the men home. I’m sure by then, the men thought they really had been forgotten, or maybe that no one knew about them at all, but now they were going to be going home. Operation Halyard, the operation to bring home these men, commenced on August 9, 1944 and continued until December 28, 1944. The men would be airlifted out of Serbia 12 men at a time, but before any airlift could take place, they had to build an airstrip. The C-47 cargo plane required 700 feet of runway for takeoffs and landings. The men and the people of Serbia built an airstrip that was exactly 700 feet long. It was bordered by forest and mountains, so the takeoffs and landings would have to be precise. According to historian Professor Jozo Tomasevich, a report submitted to the OSS showed that 417 Allied airmen who had been downed over occupied Yugoslavia were rescued by Mihailovic’s Chetniks, and airlifted out by the Fifteenth Air Force. According to Lieutenant Commander Richard M Kelly (OSS), a grand total of 432 United States and 80 Allied personnel were airlifted during the Halyard Mission. In the end, at least in this mission, the military lived up to its motto, “Never leave a man behind.”
Airplane disasters are always horrible, but sometimes the circumstances just don’t seem to fit the disaster. During World War II, the US Army Air Forces were stationed in bases around the world, mostly for quick access to air targets, but with the added benefit for the people in the area of some protection from enemy forces. Just having the planes in the area tended to be a deterrent for the enemy planes, who did not want to be attacked in great numbers. Planes like the B-17, B-24, and others regularly flew over the towns near their bases. One such flight…unfortunately ended in a disaster.
On August 23, 1944, a pair of newly refurbished B-24 Liberator heavy bombers were being taken on a test flight, prior to their delivery to the 2nd Combat Division. The planes departed US Army Air Force Base Air Depot 2 and Warton Aerodrome at 10:30am. Due to an impending potentially violent storm, both planes were recalled. Unfortunately, by the time they returned, to the vicinity of the Aerodrome, the wind and rain had significantly reduced visibility. Newspaper reports detailed wind velocities approaching 60 mph, water spouts in the Ribble Estuary and flash flooding in Southport and Blackpool. As the two planes flew in formation from the west toward runway 08, the pilot of the B-24H-20-CF Liberator, US aircraft serial number 42-50291, named “Classy Chassis II”, 1st Lieutenant John Bloemendal, reported to the control tower that he was aborting landing at the last moment and would “go around.”
Shortly afterwards, and out of visibility of the second aircraft, the aircraft hit the village of Freckleton, just east of the airfield. As it came down, the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber crashed into the center of the village of Freckleton, Lancashire, England. The aircraft crashed into the Holy Trinity Church of England School, demolishing three houses and the Sad Sack Snack Bar. The death toll was 61, including 38 children.
The plane was already flying very low, and for whatever reason, the wings were very nearly vertical. The plane’s right wing tip hit a tree top, and was ripped away as it impacted the corner of a building. The rest of the wing continued, plowing along the ground and through a hedge. The fuselage of the 25 ton bomber continued, partly demolishing three houses and the Sad Sack Snack Bar, before crossing Lytham Road and bursting into flames. A part of the aircraft hit the infants’ wing of Freckleton Holy Trinity School. Fuel from the ruptured tanks ignited and produced a sea of flames. In the school, 38 schoolchildren and six adults were killed. The clock in one classroom stopped at 10:47 am. In the Sad Sack Snack Bar, which catered specifically to American servicemen from the air-base, 14 were killed…seven Americans, four Royal Air Force airmen and three civilians. The three crew members on the B-24 were also killed.
The official report stated that the exact cause of the crash was unknown, but concluded that the pilot had not fully realized the danger the storm posed until underway in his final approach, by which time he had insufficient altitude and speed to maneuver given the probable strength of wind and downdrafts that must have prevailed. Structural failure of the aircraft in the extreme conditions was not ruled out, although the complete destruction of the B-24 prevented any meaningful investigation. Because many of the pilots coming to the England commonly believed that British storms were little more than showers, it was recommended that all US trained pilots should be emphatically warned of the dangers of British thunderstorms. A memorial garden and children’s playground were opened in August 1945, in memory of those lost, the money for the playground equipment having been raised by American airmen at the Warton airbase. A fund for a memorial hall was started, and the hall was finally opened in September 1977. Another memorial in the village churchyard was placed at the accident site in 2007. The plane that had come to signify protection for the area people, in the end spelled friendly disaster.