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    77 years After WWII Plane Crash, Family Returns to Learn of Extraordinary Rescue

    77 years After WWII Plane Crash, Family Returns to Learn of Extraordinary Rescue

    Photo By Sgt. Avery Cunningham | 1st Lt. William Monahan’s crew in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress after the...... read more read more

    Twenty-five bombers assigned to the U.S. Army Air Corp’s 303rd Bombardment Group took off from Molesworth, England on Aug. 31, 1943 for a bombing run over German-occupied France. Planning to bomb an air deport in Romily-sur-Seine 70 miles East of Paris, the planes flew with only enough fuel to reach the objective and return – there was no room for error.

    Five aircraft aborted the mission before reaching the target. As a result of poor visibility, the bombardment group was unable to target the depot and selected the Amiens/Glisy Airdrome, where Luftwaffe aircraft flight operations took place, as the alternate target.

    One of the B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 358th Squadron, nicknamed Augerhead, left the formation and headed toward the coast. Attempting to gain cloud cover from enemy fighters, it was last seen going down over Abbeville, a town near the coast, attacked by two German Focke-Wulf 190 fighters.

    “At 22,000 feet we were ordered to bail,” said 2nd Lt. Walter Hargrove in the book “The Hell’s Angels Bombardier, How French Patriots Saved Walter Hargrove.”

    Hargrove spent the next four months evading German forces until he was able to return to England. His family knew a little information about the story and the assistance Walter received from the French resistance in avoiding capture, but they didn’t know the whole story until they returned 77 years later to the crash site.

    Like many veterans, Walter never spoke much about his experiences.
    “My father never said anything about it for years and years until the movie ‘Patton’ came out,” said James L. Hargrove, a son of Walter Hargrove and an author. “Then he explained the whole thing and my jaw dropped open, and I exclaimed, ‘You what?!’”

    James prepared the first compilation of his father’s memoirs for the 303rd Bombardment Group newsletter, an internal publication for surviving members of the unit and their families; he sent it in along with some pictures.

    “People started to write to me and say, you got some things right and you got some things wrong,” said James Hargrove. “Do you want to know the real story? Do you want to know who the people were that saved him? So, they started writing to me.”

    James compiled the new information, along with his father’s story of events, and he was struck by the bravery of the French resistance fighters who saved his father and many Allied airmen.

    “I felt if I didn’t do anything with it, it would all be lost,” he said. “So I tried to compile all this information from the original sources and credit people who took part in this story during WWII from 1943 to 1944.”

    James eventually gathered enough of the story to publish a book in 2018, titled, “The Hell’s Angels Bombardier, How French Patriots Saved Walter Hargrove.”

    When Walter’s grandson and James’ nephew, an Army Green Beret officer assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), had the recent opportunity to participate in a parachute operation near Mont St. Michel in Normandy May 18th to commemorate World War II special operations, members of the Hargrove family flew in to retrace some of Walter’s steps.

    “It was incredible to think that I just jumped into France into friendly territory and was welcomed by a throng of people who were thankful for something my grandfather was a part of 75 years ago,” said his grandson.

    Many of the Hargrove family followed Walter into service. Of his six children, a son and two daughters served in the U.S. Air Force.

    "I was influenced from a very young age by my great-uncle John Hanson who served in the Pacific and was a POW of the Japanese forces, and my grandfather,” said Walter’s grandson. “Their service, collectively, was the single defining reason why I wanted to serve. They are certainly the examples I have tried to emulate."

    Walter rejoined the Air Corps (shortly the U.S. Air Force) after the war and completed 20 years of service as a sergeant in the Office of Special Investigation. He died at 82 on Aug. 8, 2001, and is buried in the Tahoma National Military Cemetery near Seattle.

    Eighteen years after his death, and 77 years after the crash, members of the Hargrove family met with French amateur historian Philippe Ducastelle in the town of Eu, who had discovered the crash site and diligently researched and interviewed witnesses on the ground to paint a complete picture of the Augerhead crash and Walter Hargrove’s evasion.

    The family followed Walter’s World War II journey from beginning to end.

    Walter Hargrove initially tried to join the Navy, but they rejected him for high blood pressure. When he tried to join the Marines, they rejected him for a heart murmur. He finally entered the service by joining the U.S. Army Air Corps in Denver, Colorado.

    "An officer saw me backing a truck into a narrow parking space and asked me to take a test that must have qualified me for flight training," said Walter in a previous interview. "In August of 1942, I was assigned to the Bombardier training at Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in 1943, I applied for flight status as a Bombardier, leaving Brooks Field for basic training in Santa Ana Army Air Base in Costa Mesa, California."

    After commissioning as a second lieutenant, Hargrove traveled to Molesworth Air Base, England, to serve with the 358th Squadron.

    “Molesworth buzzed with activity day and night,” he said. “With combat missions leaving every few days, the ground crews worked around the clock to repair their aircraft.”

    August 31, 1943 would be his crew’s 13th mission. A repair to their usual aircraft meant they would fly the Augerhead instead.

    As a bombardier, Walter aimed and dropped the bombs from the aircraft onto targets.

    The crew that day consisted of Hargrove, pilots 1st Lt. William J. Monahan and 1st Lt. Louis Benepe, navigator 2nd Lt. William P. Maher, engineer Tech Sgt M.D. Ignaczewski, radio operator Staff Sgt. Frank Kimotek, assistant engineer Staff Sgt. Walter Gasser, turret operator Staff Sgt.

    Alfred R. Buinicky, waist gunner Staff Sgt. James H. Comer Jr., and tail gunner Staff Sgt David Miller.

    An extra man, combat photographer Sgt. Barton Pryor, was also on board.

    Because of poor visibility, the bombing group wasn’t able to target the air depot and selected the airdrome in Amiens as the alternate target, where the German air force based its flight operations in the region.

    The Augerhead trailed behind the main formation as they turned towards home and safety across the English Channel, making them a prime target for the defending German fighters.

    The plane was hit multiple times, prompting the pilots to order the bail out. Inside the plane, the crew raced to destroy sensitive equipment as the situation became grim.

    “I unpinned the bomb sight to drop it out,” said Walter in the book. “The navigator, 2nd Lt. Bill Maher, was chewing up the secret flimsy code sheet which contained classified information as he bailed out.”

    The gunner, Sgt. Miller, was wounded by a 20mm shell. The radio operator, with help from the waist gunner, got Miller to the escape door, got his parachute on him, placed his hand on the parachute ring and pushed him out.

    “His chute opened okay, but he didn't live,” recalled Walter. “He was too badly wounded.”

    German accounts confirmed that Miller was dead upon landing. Miller was the only casualty from the crew. He is buried at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville Sur Mer, France.

    He was among 841 airmen from the 303rd Bombardment Group killed during the war.

    “When I bailed out, I couldn't see anyone, probably because of cloud cover, but also because I free-fell for a ways,” Walter said.

    Of the remaining ten crew, three managed to successfully evade the Germans and six were captured. Hargrove found himself alone in the French countryside, his parachute landing him in a tree.

    Over the next five days, Walter survived by travelling at night, raiding gardens for fruits and vegetables, sleeping in haystacks or in the forest, and avoiding major roads. Cold, tired, and sore from shrapnel from the German fighters, he resigned himself to surrender.

    His spirits were buoyed when the weather turned.

    “The sun came out, nice and warm and I thought, ‘Hell, it's only 700 miles to Spain and I have a wife waiting for me to come home, with a little help I can make it.’”

    Hiding in the hayloft of a barn near a village, Hargrove was spotted by a French family. Uncertain whether he was going to be turned over to the Germans, he was relieved when he was given food and wine.

    The family introduced Walter to a French resistance leader in the area, who started Walter on his four-month odyssey through occupied France, being smuggled by various resistance groups.

    His first stop was Paris, where he met Jean-Claude Camors. Camors helped Allied airmen escape from France until he was killed by the German Gestapo two months after helping Walter.

    After a failed attempt to cross into Switzerland, Walter travelled via train to the Brittany region of Northwest France. Once there he was moved around the province by Camor’s resistance members, staying amongst French families who risked their lives to harbor Allied airmen.

    Two more failed attempts to reach England by boat followed, at one point stranding Walter in an island cave. So he stayed with French families until Christmas day.

    As Walter and his comrades listened to BBC radio on Christmas afternoon 1943, they received a coded message that said, “Get your fannies out to the coast, we are coming for you.”

    Because the Germans only allowed emergency vehicles on the road during the holidays, members of the resistance stole an ambulance to transport a group of 32 airmen and resistance members to the coast. They nervously made their way through pill boxes, barbed wire, and steel obstacles while avoiding German spotlights.

    Once past the fortifications, they waded in the sea water during low tide to get to the island of Tariec, where a whaleboat with 18 British commandos rowed to shore to meet them. After unloading weapons, ammunition, and explosives to supply the French resistance, the Allied airmen boarded the boat and rowed out to meet British Motor Gun Boat 318 waiting in the bay.

    From there they reached safety in England, and Walter was returned to the United States to finish his wartime service.

    To help the Hargrove family understand Walter’s journey as well as the bravery and resilience of the French during German occupation, Ducastelle arranged a meeting with leading citizens in Eu, a commune in the Seine-Maritime department in the Normandy region in northern France.

    There a French archivist showed them debris and equipment from similar downed Allied planes and they visited preserved remnants of the German occupation—a cave field hospital and tunnel supply system, and the Kahl-Burg fortified hideout above the cliffs in Le Tréport.

    “When Philippe learned we were coming he started calling people all over the area to get meetings and tours arranged,” said James.

    The most personal of which was meeting Omer Dumond, who witnessed the Augerhead’s crash when he was 7 years old.

    Dumond led the Hargrove family to the crash site, and, as if transported to that day as a boy, he told them the story of the aircraft that crashed.

    Sitting on a small embankment near the road in the late afternoon near his farmhouse, Dumond was startled when the B-17 flew past at about 100 feet above the tall trees on the farm.

    Cartwheeling as it hit the dirt, the plane came to a stop in a nearby field. According to Dumond, the plane appeared empty and no one exited after the crash landing. He went to investigate, but the site was almost immediately swarmed by German soldiers.

    His family, as well as many other families in the area would come to assist not only Walter Hargrove's crew, but many other Allied pilots who found themselves stranded in France behind enemy lines.

    “I heard the story from my grandfather when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old. To be able to see and understand what he did and how so many other people affected his survival for those four months is just incredible,” said Walter’s grandson. “You don’t really get to appreciate it until you’re here on the ground talking with people who were involved or seeing the terrain in which it happened.”

    Having heard the story from his grandfather, it was a powerful moment to be able to see the places his grandfather spent some of the war.

    “Without families like Omer’s, there couldn’t be families like ours.”



    Date Taken: 06.20.2019
    Date Posted: 06.20.2019 05:13
    Story ID: 328440
    Location: FR

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