DPAA In The News

News 2 | July 14, 2021

The hunt for Johnny Reb: American veterans dig up wreckage of WW2 B-24 Liberator that crashed in Sussex field after 1944 bombing raid in search for three crew who didn't make it - Via The Daily Mail

By Jack Wright

The search for the remains of US soldiers who were killed after a Second World War bomber plane which was gunned down by enemy fire near Paris crashed in a farmer's field in Sussex has begun, as American veterans dig up the area to finally take their fallen compatriots home. 

A B-24 Liberator with the 489th Bombardment Group dubbed 'Johnny Reb' was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast. 

Seven of the 10 crew on board managed to bail out of the stricken plane, but three - pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr - were killed as it crashed in a field near Arundel Castle. It is believed they were trying to fix the bomber. 

Sergeant Crowther's body was found and repatriated, but nothing was found of the two others except Lieutenant Montgomery's identity bracelet. The crash site was largely forgotten about 2017, when farmer John Sellers - who witnessed the crash as a boy - contacted the authorities. 

Seventy-seven years after the crash, US veterans with the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR) have teamed up with academics at the University of York in an effort to recover any human remains from the site so that they can be repatriated back to the United States. 

Project leader Stephen Humphreys, CEO of AVAR, said he hopes the mission will bring closure to any surviving family members back home as well as provide an opportunity for veterans on his team to build archaeology skills. 

The former US Air Force captain said: 'We can't divulge a lot of specific information about the aircraft but I can tell you that the aircraft did crash in 1944 in a farmer's field.    

Seven of the 10 crew on board a B-24 Liberator dubbed 'Johnny Reb' managed to bail out of the plane on its journey back to England, but three - pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther (pictured together front right) and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr - were killed as it crashed in a farmer's field near Arundel Castle

Seven of the 10 crew on board a B-24 Liberator dubbed 'Johnny Reb' managed to bail out of the plane on its journey back to England, but three - pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther (pictured together front right) and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr - were killed as it crashed in a farmer's field near Arundel Castle

Archaeologists and American Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency staff work to recover the remains of an American bomber crew, whose aircraft crashed at a site in Arundel in 1944

Archaeologists and American Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency staff work to recover the remains of an American bomber crew, whose aircraft crashed at a site in Arundel in 1944

Handout photo issued by the US Air Force of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator taken in the 1940s

Handout photo issued by the US Air Force of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator taken in the 1940s

US veterans with the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR) have teamed up with the University of York in an effort to recover any human remains from the crash site so that they can be repatriated to America

US veterans with the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR) have teamed up with the University of York in an effort to recover any human remains from the crash site so that they can be repatriated to America

The bomber that crashed near Arundel was part of the 489th Bomb Group, which flew B-24 Liberators out of RAF Halesworth, Suffolk, for several months in 1944

The bomber that crashed near Arundel was part of the 489th Bomb Group, which flew B-24 Liberators out of RAF Halesworth, Suffolk, for several months in 1944

A B-24 Liberator with the 489th Bombardment Group was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast. Seven of the 10 crew on board managed to bail out of the stricken plane on its perilous journey back to England, but three - pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr - were killed as it crashed in a farmer's field near Arundel Castle

A B-24 Liberator with the 489th Bombardment Group was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast. Seven of the 10 crew on board managed to bail out of the stricken plane on its perilous journey back to England, but three - pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr - were killed as it crashed in a farmer's field near Arundel Castle

'That farmer took a deep interest in both the crash and in the story of those airmen and was a big part of preserving this site within the local community for the last 77 years so that this site would be here for us to come in and do this recovery mission in 2021. 

'So our mission is to actually recover the remains of those service members who were lost when this aircraft crashed in 1944, have them identified... and hopefully give closure to some families if we can.' 

The bomber that crashed near Arundel was part of the 489th Bomb Group, a unit of the United States Air Force that flew tactical missions in support of Allied ground forces in northern France during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.

After training in the United States, the 489th was stationed at Halesworth, Suffolk between April and November 1944 and flew 106 operational missions in their B-24 Liberators. Twenty-six aircraft were lost in combat - including the so-called Arundel Bomber - and a number of aircrew became prisoners of war.

From its first combat mission was to Oldenburg, Germany on May 30, 1944, just prior to the D-Day landings, the crews of the 489th carried out saturation bombing of Nazi-occupied territories before the final Allied breakthrough in July 1944 - and dropped food and ammunition into France and Holland.  

The 489th's final mission was on November 10, 1944, when the group was then redeployed to the US for training for the Pacific theatre of the war with Japan. However, many of the aircraft and personnel were reassigned to other bombing groups in the 8th Air Force.   

The site in West Sussex where the Liberator is believed to have crashed sits on green farmland less than a mile from Arundel Castle. 

Handout photo issued by the US Air Force of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator taken in the 1940s

Handout photo issued by the US Air Force of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator taken in the 1940s 

The site in West Sussex where the Liberator is believed to have crashed sits on green farmland less than a mile from Arundel Castle

The site in West Sussex where the Liberator is believed to have crashed sits on green farmland less than a mile from Arundel Castle

The four-week excavation at the site involves a digger removing piles of soil from a wide trench and carefully depositing it on tarpaulins ready for examination

The four-week excavation at the site involves a digger removing piles of soil from a wide trench and carefully depositing it on tarpaulins ready for examination

Despite its condition, the pilots and crew managed to nurse the aircraft back to the English coast, but for reasons unknown it crashed in a farmer's field near Arundel, West Sussex

Despite its condition, the pilots and crew managed to nurse the aircraft back to the English coast, but for reasons unknown it crashed in a farmer's field near Arundel, West Sussex

The dramatic event was witnessed by a young boy who lived at the farm, and who would go on to ensure that the site was preserved over the subsequent decades. A memorial to the airmen sits at the edge of the field - a small memento to the lives lost marked with two star-spangled banners.  

The four-week excavation at the site involves a digger removing piles of soil from a wide trench and carefully depositing it on tarpaulins ready for examination. 

The team then sets about painstakingly sifting through the earth in search of anything from the crash. 

Mr Humphreys added: 'So obviously this is a fairly traumatic crash site but still there will be human material and human remains that survive so that is what we are attempting to recover. 

'And personal effects, a number of items that would have been carried by those airmen at the time, those can help us to pinpoint where in the wreckage we might be able to find those remains. 

'It's all about making the details of the excavation as precise as we possibly can so that we can be as precise as we need to be in terms of being able to say where those individual finds came from out of the ground while we're looking for those airmen.' 

The dig is being run as part of Operation Keeping Faith, a partnership between the the US Government's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and American Veterans Archaeological Recovery, a company giving veterans the chance to work on archaeological sites to gain experience and boost mental wellbeing

The dig is being run as part of Operation Keeping Faith, a partnership between the the US Government's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and American Veterans Archaeological Recovery, a company giving veterans the chance to work on archaeological sites to gain experience and boost mental wellbeing

Archaeologists and American Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency staff work to recover the remains of an American bomber crew

Archaeologists and American Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency staff work to recover the remains of an American bomber crew

The dig is being run as part of Operation Keeping Faith, a partnership between the the US Government's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and American Veterans Archaeological Recovery, a company giving veterans the chance to work on archaeological sites to gain experience and boost mental wellbeing. 

Mr Humphreys said: 'On my team we have the full range of individuals from people who are veterans and who want to go out and do something cool and learn a new skillset, but we also have veterans who already have degrees in archaeology and who do this as a career and of course this is great training for them in the pursuit of that career.'

Mark Khan, a veteran who served in Northern Ireland, helped get the project off the ground after meeting military aviation researcher Andy Saunders at an archaeology conference in Dorking. They discussed the plane crash and as an Arundel resident, Mr Khan was keen to take it further, including extensive research.

He told the West Sussex County Times: 'The farmer's dad was a young lad at the time, living in the cottages nearby, so when it crashed he was quickly at the scene. He wrote a first-hand account and there has been extensive research.

'It is a very evocative story. The bomber was based at Suffolk and was on a mission to Versailles. It was hit over the target and damaged by flak. They lost most of the flying controls but nursed it back in the bomber stream. 

'They followed a one-way system so they couldn't go straight back to base. It was a tremendous feat of airmanship.

'As it neared the English coastline, the pilot gave the order to bail out. As it flew on over Arundel, something happened that caused the aircraft to crash, we don't know what, and the three remaining crew were killed.'

The 844th Bombardment Squadron flew strategic bombing missions to Germany in July, and primarily engaged in bombing strategic targets such as factories and oil refineries and airfields in Ludwigshafen, Magdeburg, Brunswick and Saarbr├╝cken among other cities until November 1944.

The squadron dropped food to liberated French and to Allied forces in France during August and September, and carried food and ammunition to the Netherlands later in September.

A B-24 Liberator with that squadron dubbed 'Johnny Reb' was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast.

Seven of the 10 crew on board managed to bail out of the plane on its journey back to England, but three - pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr - were killed as it crashed in a farmer's field near Arundel Castle.

Lieutenant William Montgomery and Sergeant John Crowther were killed in a crash in a farmer's field near Arundel Castle

Lieutenant William Montgomery and Sergeant John Crowther were killed in a crash in a farmer's field near Arundel Castle

Sergeant Crowther's body was found and repatriated, but nothing was found of the two others apart from Lieutenant Montgomery's identity bracelet. The crash site was largely forgotten about 2017, when farmer John Sellers - who witnessed the crash as a boy - contacted the authorities. 

Speaking to authorities in June 2017, farmer John Sellers recounted the crash he witnessed as a schoolboy. He said: 'At about 9pm I had started to get ready for bed when there was a thunderous scream of a plane in a power dive then bump of it hitting the ground. 

'About 15 minutes later I slipped out and went behind the farm buildings to where I could see the crash site (some 300 yards away). The fireball was long gone out, the only sign was the scorched area of ripening barley in the next field. There was little sign of debris in the grass field, only the dirt around five craters. 

'There was very little smoke coming from the craters by then. The following morning I walked down the lane past the site some 75 yards away and could hear the ammunition exploding underground. Later that day the farm dog came back in carrying a severed forearm on which was a bracelet, (not dog tags) with a name on. 

'My father retrieved the arm and removed the bracelet. He arranged for the bracelet to be given to the police. He then buried the arm in the hole where the rest of the remains were.

'A guard was placed to keep people away whilst the ammunition was still going off from time to time. The holes smouldered for about 10 days before one last flare up and then going out. Once it was safe I took the first chance to inspect the crash site. I found that the plane had come down near vertically, the wings at about 45 degrees to the ditch and fence. 

'This was confirmed by the digger driver who excavated it in 1974. One wing hit the ground before the other as one side outer wing was crumpled in a slot in the ground, while the other had sheared off and shot some 40 yards across the neighbouring field. I found a piece of wing about 6'x2', by far the biggest piece of debris on the whole site. 

'Also there was more small debris collected from the barley field than the grass filed where the plane landed. The pile of debris collected from the grass field grew by about three times when 'all hands' were set to clear the the barley field ready to harvest. I would estimate that 90 per cent of the plane ended up in the ground. My father told me at least three of the survivors did manage to get to see the site and speak to him.'

A B-24 Liberator with the 489th Bombardment Group was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast. Seven of the 10 crew on board managed to bail out of the stricken plane on its perilous journey back to England, but three - pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr - were killed as it crashed in a farmer's field near Arundel Castle

A B-24 Liberator with the 489th Bombardment Group was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast. Seven of the 10 crew on board managed to bail out of the stricken plane on its perilous journey back to England, but three - pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr - were killed as it crashed in a farmer's field near Arundel Castle

Mark Khan, a veteran who served in Northern Ireland, helped get the project off the ground after meeting military aviation researcher Andy Saunders at an archaeology conference in Dorking. They discussed the plane crash and as an Arundel resident, Mr Khan was keen to take it further, including extensive research.

He told the West Sussex County Times: 'The farmer's dad was a young lad at the time, living in the cottages nearby, so when it crashed he was quickly at the scene. He wrote a first-hand account and there has been extensive research.

'It is a very evocative story. The bomber was based at Suffolk and was on a mission to Versailles. It was hit over the target and damaged by flak. They lost most of the flying controls but nursed it back in the bomber stream. 

'They followed a one-way system so they couldn't go straight back to base. It was a tremendous feat of airmanship.

'As it neared the English coastline, the pilot gave the order to bail out. As it flew on over Arundel, something happened that caused the aircraft to crash, we don't know what, and the three remaining crew were killed.'

The 489th Bomb Group was a unit of the United States Air Force that flew tactical missions in support of Allied ground forces in northern France during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.

After training in the United States, the 489th was stationed at Halesworth, Suffolk between April and November 1944 and flew 106 operational missions in their B-24 Liberators. Twenty-six aircraft were lost in combat - including the so-called Arundel Bomber - and a number of aircrew became prisoners of war.

From its first combat mission was to Oldenburg, Germany on May 30, 1944, just prior to the D-Day landings, the crews of the 489th carried out saturation bombing of Nazi-occupied territories before the final Allied breakthrough in July 1944 - and dropped food and ammunition into France and Holland.  

The 489th's final mission was on November 10, 1944, when the group was then redeployed to the US for training for the Pacific theatre of the war with Japan. However, many of the aircraft and personnel were reassigned to other bombing groups in the 8th Air Force.