Sylvain Colla has walked through the rolling green fields of La Roche-en-Ardennes many times throughout his life.
But no matter how many times the 88-year-old Belgian passed through there, the one time he did April 13, 1944, as an 18-year-old would haunt him the most.
On that afternoon in Axis-occupied Belgium, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-17 bomber came under fire from enemy forces and crashed into the hillside, less than a kilometer from Colla’s house.
“The whole forest was on fire – I saw the burst of flames were dozens of meters high when the plane crashed,” said Colla, who hurried to the scene with fellow residents. “When we arrived, our first concern was to see if there was anyone alive or wounded and to help them. Fortunately, we saw people jumping out in parachutes. We looked for people in the fire and the smoke and saw a number of bags floating and thought they were men.”
The crash’s flames would sear into the hillside, not only altering the landscape but the identity of the town of Bérismenil forever.
As it would turn out, nine crewmembers of the B-17, known as “The Joker,” managed to escape in those very parachutes Colla had seen earlier. Some of the survivors later took refuge among those of the resistance movements, and some faced arrest at the hands of enemy forces.
Yet Colla’s hopeful search through the debris came to an abrupt halt with his discovery of the crew’s 10th and final member.
“A few meters below, we saw a body,” Colla said. “Unfortunately, he was badly burned, and we couldn’t do anything. It was horrible.”
The extraordinary circumstances that brought the young Belgian to find the body of U.S. Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. James H. Young, 545th Bomber Squadron – who enlisted from California – was just one of the many horrors during international war.
“Each time I’m close to this wood, I think about James Young,” Colla said. “I cannot forget him. Each time I go around this place, I think about it. It’s something I cannot forget. It’s rough. A day like this is really painful for me, because I see things back again and again.”
The reason behind Colla’s return to the field more than 70 years later is rooted in both mourning for the price paid for an eventual victory over fascism and celebration for the mutual values and accomplishments that resulted from those sacrifices.
Colla, and more than 200 Belgian and American soldiers and airmen and civilians conducted a memorial ceremony April 29 across three separate World War I and II-era monuments at Bérismenil, Belgium.
U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany, stood alongside soldiers and airmen of the Belgian Army and Air Force to render military courtesies to the memory of Young and citizens of the town whose lives ended abruptly in the fight for freedom against the Axis powers.
“We came as an American contingent carrying immeasurable admiration for the citizens of this Belgian town, who 70 years ago risked their lives to save survivors of American forces in a B-17 named ‘The Joker,’” said U.S. Air Force Col. Paul Bell, senior national representative for forces at Geilenkirchen, who gave his remarks in French during the ceremony. “We also bring our sincere gratitude now to the current inhabitants of this region who even today maintain their memory.”
The community’s devotion to historical preservation and insistence on honoring respective anniversaries remain a common feature throughout both Bérismenil and the Kingdom of Belgium.
No matter a city’s size and population, memorial obelisks, crosses, tombstones and even museums populate the countryside, reminding those today of the debt they owe of yesterday.
“An army of optimism, and at some times sacrifices, made possible what we hold most dear: the freedom for our children,” said Guy Gilloteaux, mayor of La Roche-en-Ardennes, which includes Béresmenil. “Bearing a sense of necessary responsibility, we can understand [that freedom] is provided by the sacrifice made and the values that drive the United States of America and the members of the European Union.”
Between the World War I and World War II memorials, Belgian and American service members marched through the streets of Bérismenil to the separate English and French cadences – perhaps just as their predecessors did through the same town nearly 70 years before, during the Allied Liberation of Europe.
As a reflection of the past, present and future, Colla joined Belgian leaders, American commanders and Belgian children from five schools within the La Roche-en-Ardennes region to lay wreaths at each memorial.
A military bugle playing Taps, followed by a bagpiper’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” punctuated each stop as service members saluted the memory of the fallen defenders.
The final memorial, located near the site of The Joker’s crash, included presentations from local school children about the fallen B-17’s legacy and a commitment to remembering the sacrifice of many.
“We have been brought here today because of a tragedy,” said Bell to the gathered Belgian townspeople. “But it is your friendship, camaraderie and your hearts that keep us together now.”
At its conclusion, event organizers played anthems written in English, French and German: the American “Star Spangled Banner,” the Belgian “La Brabanconne,” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” for the European Union.
Gilloteaux then alluded to the nations and languages represented by those anthems on two continents and what would mark history following The Joker’s crash.
“We’ve had 70 years of peace – I’m 50 years old, so this is a whole lifetime for me,” the mayor said. “We can count and rely on the American people, building upon the European Union’s main goal to transfer former enemies into friends, particularly Germany, which is a great achievement. The Americans are our friends both for today and in the future. We must work for building a stable future for our children – it’s so close.”
And for Colla, the day and its memory remain bittersweet – characterized by hope for the future and sorrow for the loss of life, including the American Airman who gave his life not far from Colla’s house whom he never had the opportunity to thank for defending his country.
“We remember and keep in our hearts Sergeant Young and all those who died in our small village here of Bérismenil,” Colla said.
B-17 “The Joker” Crew
2nd Lieutenant Herbert T. Swanson, pilot and aircraft commander
2nd Lieutenant Donald O. Smith, co-pilot
2nd Lieutenant Austin W. Dunning, bombardier
2nd Lieutenant Charles O. White, navigator
Staff Sergeant James H. Young, top turret
Staff Sergeant Clarence M. Wieseckel, radio-operator
Sergeant Ralph W. Sack, right waist gunner
Sergeant Gordon W. McIntosh, ball turret gunner
Sergeant Edward F. Zabinski, tail gunner
Sergeant Donald M. Brown, left waist gunner
Editor’s Note: Isabelle Engels’s book “‘The Joker,’ B-17 crashed at Bérismenil: On the trail of the crew” greatly contributed to the historical descriptions in this story. Additionally, the author would like to thank Monsieur Gilles for serving as an interpreter.
To see more photos of the ceremony, visit Spangdahlem’s Flickr page at https://www.flickr.com/photos/spangdahlemairbase/sets/72157644431886071/