Elmer Edgell - A Hero’s return
By Hans Onderwater
5th April 1945; B17s and B24s of the 8th Air Force are heading for Bayreuth in Germany. It is only four weeks before the German surrender. Yet, for the crew of B24H, 42-94941 ‘Pin Up Girl’ of 446BG, 705 BS, it will be a mission of horror. The weather is so bad that the 446BG is recalled. With bombs still on board, the B24 makes a large circle and returns to England. The pilot wants to drops his bombs over the North Sea.
Little is Sergeant Okla Elmer Edgell to know that by the early hours of the afternoon, four of his eight crew members will be killed and two severely injured near a small town he never heard of, called Barendrecht, about 5 miles south of Rotterdam in Holland. On the homeward flight, the B24 gets separated from the others. Horrible weather and strong winds push the Liberator slowly over the western part of the Netherlands, still occupied by the Germans and bristling with anti aircraft guns of all sorts and calibers. When Pin Up Girls breaks through the clouds, the crew finds themselves over Rotterdam. The feared 88mm guns open up and the aircraft starts to burn. Nose Gunner Staff Sergeant Raymond Theissen is deadly wounded when 20mm bullets from quadruple guns rip through the fuselage. Edgell returns fire with his .50 caliber guns, but soon it is clear that the Liberator will never reach England. The pilots attempt to fly south and reach liberated Holland. Sadly, the plane approaches a lethal place: the large bridge at Barendrecht. On top of the engine room of the tower bridge and on both sides of the road leading towards it, 20mm quadruples wait for their kill. Soon the bullets tear through the aircraft. The pilot, 2nd Lt Robert LaJoie, decides it is time to abandon the bird. The bomber makes a sharp turn back to the North, the pilots looking for a place to land. However, the Liberator is too badly damaged. The crew gets orders to bail out. First waist gunner Sgt Durette jumps. He lands almost immediately next to a farm. Staff Sergeant Leo Coyle jumps second. With horror, Elmer Edgell watches his chute hit the tail of the plane, the body making that horrible thump when it hits as well. The lifeless body of Coyle falls down to the earth. Staff Sergeant Darrell Waas jumps as third. His parachute fails to open enough to break his fall and he smashes in the wet clay, dying instantly. All the way down the Germans keep on shooting, Edgell, from the confined position, feels bullets slamming into his armored vests, one over his body and one on his knees. A bullet grazes Edgell’s head, temporarily blinding him. Fighting the controls Flight Officer Beebe tries to bring the big bird down, navigator Flight Officer Hill tries to crank up the bomb bay doors in an attempt to release the bombs before hitting the ground. At the same time, he fights the fire inside the fuselage. With the nose gunner and the pilot now dead, the co-pilot is struggling with the controls. The people of Barendrecht watch while the bomber comes lower and lower, leaving a trail of dirty black smoke and flames. A few seconds before the aircraft slams into the ground, the starboard wing hits the roof of a farm.
With a terrific crash the B24 touches the ground, skids along while bits and pieces fly around. Elmer Edgell is thrown out of his tail turret, with hands burned, face bleeding and his chest bone crushed. Eddy Beebe lies outside the cockpit section with his arm torn open to the bone and his left leg virtually severed. Flight Officer Hill lies near the wreck, bleeding. From the village a group of Germans approach the aircraft. Villagers who try to help the wounded are chased away at gun point. Elmer Edgell is the only crewmember able to walk. Slowly he stumbles towards his enemies and surrenders. Once the Germans are sure that the crew is helpless they allow the wounded to be carried to a farmhouse. In the kitchen, Beebe and Hill get first aid from Edgell. After a while, the Germans sent for a small flat bed truck and the four prisoners are taken to the German Town Headquarters, where they are locked up in the attic. There, Durette joins the other three men. The next day the three wounded are taken to the Zuider-ziekenhuis of Rotterdam, now a German Naval Hospital with German wounded on the ground floor and Dutch patients –acting as a cover for the Germans– bedded on the floors above. Beebe and Hill stay there until the German surrender of the hospital to the Allies on 9th May 1945. Durette and Edgell are taken to the Jail at Rotterdam separately; at the Jail the Germans show Edgell the execution place, with its slippery pole; just a reminder what the can do with the American if they feel like it. Than they throw him in a cell. After a few days he is driven to the Carmelite Monastery of Aalsmeer, near Amsterdam, where he is locked up with other allied prisoners, British, Canadian, American, Belgian and Dutch. On 9th May 1945 Canadian troops arrive and Elmer Edgell is free. He is taken to Nijmegen to be deloused; then he makes the long trip to Camp Lucky Strike, the last spot before returning home to the USA.
27th April 2004: Elmer Edgell, now 79 years old, arrives at Amsterdam airport. Invited by author and air war researcher Hans Onderwater, he will be the guest of honor of the mayor, council and people of Barendrecht. He will attend the unveiling of a commemorative stone, incorporated in the monument for the Resistance fighters, the soldiers and sailors who were citizens of Barendrecht when they died for their country. The fallen crewmembers of Pin Up Girl will get their rightful place among their Dutch brothers in arms. During the nine days of his visit Elmer Edgell revisits many places from the past. Fortunately, this time he comes as a free man and not as a German POW.
28th April 2004: On the second day of his visit Elmer Edgell is the guest of Hans Onderwater in the town hall. Elmer opens an exhibition remembering the crash of a Spitfire, killing its Australian pilot and that of Pin Up Girl. A presentation with photographs brings back memories of that fateful 5th April 1945, when a mission to Germany brought disaster. Among the visitors are many people who actually saw the Liberator crash. Some of them surprise Elmer by returning to him parts of Pin Up Girl, including one of the control wheels.
29th April 2004: It will be a very emotional day for the now 79-year old tail gunner. The director of the Rotterdam prison has allowed Elmer and Hans to visit this building. Among strict security, the present inmates are not the sweetest boys of the block, they pass through the gate, the same that Elmer went through, closely guarded by German soldiers who pointed their Schmeisser sub-machine guns at him all the time. Once inside Elmer Edgell immediately remembers the winds and the center court where he stood, waiting for things to come. To make him scared the Germans twice took him to the execution pole, leaving no doubt that this would be Elmer’s last place if he proved un-cooperative. The cells have changed, but Edgell has no trouble to find his. It is a very emotional encounter with a time and place of fear. Yet, for Elmer, it is a cleansing experience, or now he is welcome and, most important, he can leave the building at any chosen moment.
30th April 2004: A great day of festivity in the Netherlands. The people celebrate the official birthday of Her Majesty Queen Beatrix and Elmer is invited by the mayor of Barendrecht to join him at the balcony of the town hall. Cheered at by local people Elmer watches the community singing and later joins the town’s people in the reception inside the town hall.
1st May 2004: Today Edgell visits more places related to his crash. First Hans Onderwater takes him to the farm where Edgell and two wounded officers received some medical care before the Germans took them to the Town Commanders Headquarters. The present owner and his wife welcome Edgell with great hospitality; there is coffee, tea and the special Orange pastry that the Dutch eat to honor their Queen. During a guided tour through the house and the large garden, the doctor, who lives in the villa, hands Edgell a poignant souvenir. It is a piece of shrapnel, quite large, of one of the bombs from Pin Up Girl, which were exploded by the Germans after the plane had crashed. The wall of the house still shows the scars of the shrapnel that flew around. It happens that the doctor was the director of the hospital where Edgell and his pilot Beebe and navigator Hill were treated before Edgell was sent to jail. After saying goodbye to the doctor and his wife, Elmer and Hans drive to the house where the German Ortskommandant (Town commander) resided. Again the present owners welcome the American with great pleasure and heartfelt happiness. They open a trap door in the kitchen ceiling. ‘Do you remember?’ Edgell does, a small stair leads to the low attic where in April 1945 the four prisoners were locked up to await further action from the enemy. For the first time in 59 years Edgell looks through the one square foot window through which he gave the V-sign to cheering villagers, who were then chased away at gunpoint. Later that day Edgell returns to the hospital. It has changed little from the outside, in fact, as far as Edgell is concerned, the only people no longer there are the SS guards who gave him such a gloomy welcome.
2nd May 2004: This is perhaps the hardest day for Sergeant Elmer Edgell. With Hans Onderwater and a friend he travels to Margraten, the American Cemetery near Maastricht, where the remaining member of the crew, his best friend and engineer Staff Sergeant Darrell Waas, lies buried. Margraten is a wonderfully kept cemetery. The long rows of crosses and stars of David are a poignant remembrance of the many young lives lost for our freedom. With the help of the caretaker, the grave of Darrell Waas is soon found. In his uniform of the American Ex-Prisoners of War Association, Elmer lays a large floral arrangement in front of Darrell Waas’ grave. On the ribbon reads what Orlin Waas has asked to write on behalf of the family: "You gave your life for the freedom of others". Elmer stands at attention and gives a smart salute, remembering the bicycle rides, the fun and the terror he experienced with his friend Darrell. From the bell tower of the cemetery a song flies with the wind: ‘God bless America, my home, sweet home’….
It is a long drive back to Barendrecht, but there is a surprise in store for Elmer. At the town of Tilburg lives Tony Mutsaars, 79 years old. In 1945 he shared a room with Elmer and ten other prisoners in the POW camp at Aalsmeer. While in the camp Elmer asked his fellow prisoners to write their names in his handkerchief. Hans Onderwater has seen the name and after a long search he traced Mutsaars. Now they will meet again. The encounter between two former inmates is very emotional. Tony and Elmer embrace each other like brothers. Tony, who speaks little English, cries and says repeatedly in Dutch: "My friend, my old friend, you have come back. Now I can die; it does not matter". He is a sick man and it is quite shocking to see the physical difference between a fit and straight 79-year-old American airman, who plays about 300 softball games a year and this 79-year-old Dutchman, who is frail and ill. But the comradeship is obvious and where the language may be a barrier, the eyes and the smiles say enough: two veterans, both fighting for the same cause, both jailed by a common foe, have joined again. Typical Dutch hospitality shows a table full of delicious sandwiches, hot soup, coffee, tea and the ever-present Dutch gin. "Eat, eat, my friend, my dear friend", Tony says while his wife happily watches the American enjoying the food. When we leave, Tony Mutsaars and his wife cry; so is Elmer: "I will be seeing you", says the American. "God willing, my friend", is the reply.
3rd May 2004: An important day, for this morning the mason will arrive at the Barendrecht War Memorial to place the new stone with the names of Warrant Officer Jack Dawson Green, an Australian Spitfire pilot of No.603 Squadron RAF and those of 2nd Lt Robert LaJoie, S/S Darrell Waas, S/S Raymond Theisen and S/S Leo Coyle. The press is there, keen to interview Margaret Bardwell, a niece of the Australian pilot, and Elmer Edgell as the sole survivor of the B24 crew. The beautiful marble stone is amazingly nice. Many photographs are made to appear in the following day’s papers. For Elmer Edgell it is another special day. We will visit the Carmelite Monastery, in 1945 a POW camp, now again the silent place where Carmelite monks pray, sing and work. Brother Frederick waits at the door. "Welcome my dear friend. I am so pleased that you have come back to see this house as it should be, a house of God’s peace." After coffee the monk takes Elmer through the building. Within minutes Edgell has found his old jail room, where he and eleven other prisoners eagerly awaited the German surrender. The cellar, the attic, the church, the kitchen, nothing has changed much, even the garden, where the prisoners were allowed to exercise one hour a day, is still the same. To our utter amazement the monk tells us that they have a video film, made from an old film, shot on 8 May 1945, the day of liberation. We watch the film and see the Canadians arrive while the Germans, no longer carrying weapons stand waiting for their captors. Happy prisoners hang out of the monastery windows. After a few minutes the first leave the building. They carry a blanket, some have a small bouquet of flowers. Then, suddenly, a young man with dark curly hair, dressed in a British tank overall appears. "That’s me", Elmer shouts. "I swapped my flying jacket with a British tank driver". The kind monk gives us the videotape so that it can be copied on a DVD. Another chapter from Elmer Edgell’s story can be closed. The day ends with a visit to the crash museum at Lisserbroek, not far from Aalsmeer. Here volunteers have established a museum showing the results of many excavations of aircraft wrecks. It shows how many different aircraft have come down during the war over Holland. One of the items on exhibition is the engine of a B24 Liberator.
4th May 2004: In the Netherlands each 4th of May people gather to remember those who died during the 2nd World War and the wars during which the Dutch were involved. In cities and villages people think of the resistance fighters, the soldiers and airmen and the merchant mariners, whose lives were cut short. They also remember the allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who found a last resting place in the country. In Barendrecht a monument remembers them all. A simple brick wall with two plaques mentioning the names of the resistance members, with on the left hand side a marble stone the names of the Barendrecht young men who died in the Dutch East Indies, on the left a similar stone with the names of the men who died at sea. Today a new stone will be dedicated. It tells the names of Spitfire pilot Warrant Officer Jack Dawson Green from Australia, killed in March 1945 and the names of the four members of the crew of "Pin Up Girl", 2nd Lieutenant Robert LaJoie, Staff Sergeants Leo Coyle, Raymond Theisen and Darrell Waas. It is a beautiful marble stone, like the other two, laying flat in front of the brick wall in a 30° angle. At the top of the stone it reads "Fallen for our Freedom" and at the bottom “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends". In the morning Elmer Edgell and Margaret Bardwell are present when the mason, with great diligence, places the stone on its foundations. At 1800 hrs. the official guests of Barendrecht assemble at the town hall. Mayor Van de Wouw welcomes Ambassador Stephen Brady of Australia, Colonel David McDaniel, the USAF attaché, Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sukolski USAF, Alex Tenich, who represents the US Veterans of Foreign Wars and Major Willem Bogaard of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Other guests are Hans Onderwater and his fellow-committee members Jan van Tol and Jan Drewes, who were instrumental in the preparations of the stone laying, Dutch veterans and other distinguished guests. After coffee they walk to the old medieval church for a service of remembrance. At 1945 all gather in front of the monument. Hundreds of people wait for the official ceremony, which begins with the mayor laying a wreath on behalf of the council and people of Barendrecht. A bugler plays "the Last Post" and at exactly 2000 hrs everything comes to a standstill in total silence for two minutes. All over the Netherlands the people, including Her Majesty Queen Beatrix, silently remember loved ones, friends, and strangers who gave their lives for the freedom of the Dutch. Then the bugler plays the Reveille. Ambassador Brady lays a wreath on behalf of the government and people of Australia. Colonel McDaniel does the same on behalf of the United States. Then Elmer lays his wreath; the ribbon reads ‘My comrades in Arms’. Elmer salutes while all present watch in silence, many thinking how emotional this must be for the last surviving crew member of ‘Pin Up Girl’. Margaret lays her wreath too, followed my many others and school children, representing the youth of today. It is dark when the group returns to the town hall in silence. For Colonel McDavid this is a very special occasion. His father, like Elmer Edgell, was a member of 446th Bomb Group and for David this is an opportunity to meet and talk with a contemporary of his father. He has brought his father’s flying jacket and talks a long time with Elmer about the days of 446BG.
When Elmer Edgell leaves, he looks back at an amazing week in Barendrecht, Holland, a small town south of Rotterdam. A town where the people have never forgotten the sacrifice of the crew of B42 ‘Pin Up Girl’ of 446 Bomb Group.