Champaign man gets message from beyond
Sixty-three years after a B-17 bomber crashed into the North Sea, a piece of the plane washed up on the beach.
It was a stunning moment for Michael Darter of Champaign, who was there for a memorial service for his brother, who had been on the plane and died in the frigid waters.
On May 3, Darter was in Holland, where a memorial was erected for his brother, the radio officer on the plane, missing in action since 1943.
"The Dutch told me my brother was sending me a message from the dead," said Darter, a University of Illinois emeritus professor of civil engineering. The piece of the plane that washed ashore had a part number that identified it.
Darter, 63, was just a baby when his 30-year-old brother Eugene came home on leave in 1943. His parents told him how the older brother flew him around the room on a pillow, but he is too young to remember it.
On Dec. 16 of that year, the B-17F Lonesome Polecat II was on a bombing mission over Bremen, Germany, a harbor for U-boats, as well as an industrial center. It was the first bombing raid for the 10 young airmen.
The plane took off with other heavy bombers from the 95th Bomber Group in Horham, England. It had reached its target when a wing was hit, an engine was damaged and the bomb doors were jammed. An airman freed the door by hand, and the bombs pushed them fully open.
The plane was able to get off its bombs, according to Darter's research, but had to limp back from Germany alone, without the safety of numbers or fighters. German fighter planes shot up the B-17, and injured several of the airmen, including Staff Sgt. Eugene Darter.
Airmen bailed out as the pilot warned them that the B-17 could explode at any minute. But Staff Sgt. Darter was in the back of the plane and wounded in the arm, so he didn't hear the first message until the plane was almost over the North Sea.
Over a speck of an island, Staff Sgt. Darter had the choice of bailing out over land or in the frozen North Sea. He jumped out over the east side of Texel Island, and, according to witnesses, landed in a few feet of water.
That is when, according to witnesses his brother found with the help of a private eye, a terrible situation turned even worse for Staff Sgt. Darter.
A 17-year-old, Cornelius Ellen, who has survived to meet Michael Darter, saw a badly wounded Staff Sgt. Darter come down through the fog by parachute, screaming for help and landing in the sea, a quarter mile off the Texel coast. Wounded in the arm and leg, and struggling with a badly designed buckle, the airman couldn't free his parachute.
Ellen told Michael Darter that he saw the parachute get puffed up by stormy winds, dragging the sergeant out to sea, where no one could help him. He was declared missing in action because none of his fellow airmen saw him land.
"My parents would never acknowledge he was dead," Michael Darter said.
The plane's wreckage was found in 1981 when it snagged and ruined a Dutch fisherman's net, Darter said. The site was mapped to prevent other fishermen from damaging their nets, which can be worth thousands of dollars.
There was no Internet then, but by 2000, Darter was able to do a Yahoo search and find oral histories of the crewmen of the Lonesome Polecat II who'd survived, though several had to endure life in Hitler's prison camps.
"Many miracles have occurred along the path of discovery of my brother, and now finding a piece of the aircraft just before the memorial is beyond words," Darter said.
From his research, Darter has written a book, "The Fateful Flight of the Lonesome Polecat II," which he self-published in 2004. It's available online at such stores as Amazon.com, as well as at Pages For All Ages in Savoy.
Darter was just in time. Doral Hupp, who bandaged Staff Sgt. Darter's wounds and helped him jump out of the plane, was able to visit Texel Island with Michael Darter a few years ago.
"But now they're all gone, some just this year," Darter says of his brother's crew.