If you’ve recently seen a map of Europe, you may be forgiven if you can’t point out Luxembourg.
The tiny country, with its nearly 500,000 citizens, is not even a thousand square miles in area. To put that in perspective, Rhode Island is both bigger in size AND population.
But the fact that the country is still on the map is a testament to the dedication of its people as well as the sacrifice of others made on their behalf during World War II.
It’s also not lost on many Luxembourgers, particularly as many towns throughout the countryside feature memorial sites in honor of those who gave their lives to ensure the nation remained free.
Roger Feller, a Perlé, Luxembourg, native and honorary commander of the 52nd Operations Group, was 8 years old during the summer of 1944 — a summer marked by desperation, hope and eventual liberation. He recounted the time he met an American Soldier, a welcome sight for the young boy who spent years under Axis control.
“I handed him a bottle to drink, and he handed me back something black,” Feller said. “I showed it to my mother, and she told me to go ahead and eat it. That was the first time I ever had chocolate.”
Feller’s culinary anecdote is just one among many stories from those who greeted the Allies after the liberation of Luxembourg in September 1944. But some of those tales don’t end with exchanging sweets or drinks — they often entail a loss of life on a grand scale.
Sadly, Feller’s town of Perlé is no exception. It serves as a shrine to freedom as well as a memorial for those who came from afar and later died there to preserve that same freedom.
Considering there were nearly 5,000 U.S. B-17 bomber aircraft used in the war, the odds of two of them crashing into each other would seem inestimable. But as trivial as finding out that number may seem, no statistician could truly determine a quantity to measure the gratitude the Luxembourgers felt for them, even 70 years after a crash of that nature occurred.
More than 200 Luxembourgers, Americans and Germans gathered at Perlé July 12, 2014, for a memorial ceremony to celebrate the sacrifice of 18 fallen U.S. Army Air Corps Airmen. The Airmen served aboard two B-17s – “Curley’s Kids” and “Off Spring” – that collided above the skies of the city July 12, 1944.
“We pause to give thanks to those who have shown the way of freedom by giving their own lives and heeding the call to defend Luxembourg,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Sean Randall, 52nd Fighter Wing chaplain, during his invocation. “Bless us all present here today as we honor those who gave their lives. Provide, protect and propagate freedom for this great country and throughout the world.”
According to the program’s flier furnished by the 385th Bomb Group Memorial and Museum, the aircraft assigned to the 8th Air Force flew from Great Britain with a target of Munich, located deep in the Axis-controlled south of Germany. Inexplicably, the two aircraft collided in mid-air over the city July 12, 1944.
Of the 20 crewmembers on board both planes, only two would survive: Sgt. Larry Atiyeh from “Curley’s Kids” and Sgt. Robert McPherson from “Off Spring.”
The townspeople carried the bodies to a school — the place that would eventually become the 385th Bomb Group Memorial Museum. At the time of the crash, Luxembourg still endured Axis occupation. Yet, after the eventual liberation, Perlé held a memorial service at its church Oct. 17, 1944.
“I’ve had the fortune of being able to participate in several of these in this 70th anniversary of the liberation of Europe,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Noel T. Jones, vice commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa command. “Each of them is touching and reminds me and our armed forces of how truly grateful the men and women of the nations of Europe were for our American participation and those of our allies.”
The general said he shared those experiences with many of his peers stationed in the United States who may have never been stationed in Europe.
“While this year is significant numerically, as the 70th anniversary, the emotion that is felt and expressed and thankfulness that is displayed by the nations and the cities and the men and women who were liberated by our allies and our forces is a daily occurrence,” he said. “They, along with I, share our gratefulness for your remembrance.”
The memory of the fallen Airmen takes a center stage at the town’s 385th Bomb Group Memorial and Museum established in 1999. The museum features a collection of personal effects from the war including pieces of debris from the crash itself.
“We honor them – we grieve for them – we give thanks for them and for the many thousands of others like them who left their homes and their families to venture far and wide in the defense of freedom and to fight tyranny,” said Thomas Gagnon, president of the 385th Bomb Group Association. “What [the citizens of Perlé] did 70 years ago for the crews of Off Spring and Curley’s Kids and for others lost in that war and your continuing dedication to their memories forever assures you a special place in our hearts.”
The memorial ceremony concluded with a wreath laying at both the B-17 memorial in the town center as well as the one commemorating all local World War II victims from the village.
“Today, we are here to stop, think of and celebrate the greatness and courage of heroes like these Airmen who left their blood here in Perlé,” said Jeffry Olesen, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg. “We have a duty and an obligation to remember the fallen soldiers of World War II. We must never forget the sacrifices they made in the name of freedom, and we must continue to tell the stories of those tragic days to a younger generation. The fact that so many people are gathered here today symbolizes and celebrates the enduring friendship between our two nations and its people. We must guarantee that the values of friendship, liberty and peace for future generations.”
After the ceremony, the townspeople hosted their guests for dinner at an establishment that once served as a clinic for Soldiers under the command of U.S. Army Gen. George Patton. The gathering for the local cuisine also marked a unique observance as both American and German guests – the leading nations on opposite sides of the conflict decades ago – came together as long-standing allies to pay tribute to the fallen war dead.
That opportunity to bring the descendants of the two nations to Luxembourg may have been a fitting tribute to Luxembourg, a small country with a rich history of persisting endurance. Yet, for Feller, the occasion stood to bring focus on those men on board those aircraft 70 summers ago.
“This is a day to celebrate the lives and legacy of those 18 men,” Feller said. “I’ve been able to live a life in freedom and peace because of what they gave for me and my village. We must never forget them.”
Crew of the Off Spring B-17 G / 42-31917
Capt. Richard B. White
2nd Lt. Patrick J. Flanagan
2nd Lt. Clarence E. Gittins
Flight Officer James W. Johnston
Staff Sgt. Marvin W. Nieman
Staff Sgt. Harry E. Fitzwater
Staff Sgt. William Lord, Jr.
Staff Sgt. Homer Comegys
Staff Sgt. Samuel L. Canter
Staff Sgt. Robert P. McPherson (Survived)
Crew of Curley’s Kids B-17 G / 42-102606
1st Lt. Robert L. McDonald
2nd Lt. Stephen F. Ryan
2nd Lt. William T. Henry
Flight Officer Francis M. Chrisman
Staff Sgt. Russel Hale
Staff Sgt. Peter J. Heffernan
Staff Sgt. Walter R. Berosh
Staff Sgt. Peter Linton
Tech. Sgt. George E. Brown
Staff Sgt. Larry Atiyeh (Survived)
To see more photos from the event, visit Spangdahlem’s Flickr Page.