Freedom Isn’t Free

First published in The Smithfield Times, May – 2015

By Jim Ignasher

Sgt. Robert Martin

     In November of 2013, the former Your Smithfield Magazine published an article I wrote titled “Chance Relics Reveal A Forgotten Tale”, about a man in Asperen, Holland, named Peter den Tek, who happened upon some World War II relics in a field near his home. The find led him to the discovery of the wreck site of an American B-17 Bomber that was shot down July 28, 1943 during a fierce running air-battle with four German fighters.  The tail gunner aboard that aircraft was Sgt. Robert Martin from Smithfield, who along with another crewman was killed on that mission.  The rest of the crew spent the remainder of the war in a P.O.W. camp.  

Den Tek is a man with a deep regard for history, and recognizes the need to preserve it, for what is forgotten could be repeated.  During World War II Holland was under Nazi oppression, but those old enough to remember the horrors are fading away.  For the youth of today; not just in Holland, but all around the world; World War II is a vague concept, touched briefly upon in school history books and glossed over with political correctness.  Many take their freedom for granted, not fully realizing what sacrifices were made so they can enjoy it.  That’s the message den Tek wants the youth of his country to understand – that freedom isn’t free.  It was for this reason he felt that a memorial to honor Sgt. Martin and his crew should be erected.  When he under took this project of his own initiative, he had no idea how much it would grow to consume a major portion of his time.

In researching the lives of the bomber crew, Peter was put in contact with me due to Sgt. Martin coming from Smithfield.  He and I have maintained an e-mail correspondence ever since where he has kept me up to date on the latest developments, of which there have been many.

For starters, anyone who has ever worked on a project of this kind will tell you that one doesn’t just “put up a veteran’s memorial”.  There’s a process, a long one, tied together with numerous bows of red tape.  There are proposal meetings with local, state, and government officials, cost estimates, design presentations, and conceptual drawings.  And that’s just to get the go ahead to move forward.  Often this process drags on because the more people brought into the mix, the more each wants to put his or her thumbprint on the final product by offering “suggestions”.  If everything is approved, the site selection process begins, which sets off another round of negotiations.  Then come the fund raising efforts.

The politics of such an undertaking can’t be underestimated or overstated.  Which site will be chosen?  Who gets to design the memorial?  Who gets the contract to build it?  Who supplies the materials?  And when the dedication day comes, you’d better not leave anyone out!

Den Tek slogged though this process numerous times causing something unexpected to occur.  As word of his project got around, long time residents in his locality came forward with information about other allied crash sites all within a radius of twenty miles of the one where Sgt. Martin perished.  So far he has found the crash sites of six allied planes which came down in the municipality of Giessenlanden: two American B-17 bombers (One being Sgt. Martin’s) one American P-51 fighter, two British Halifax bombers, and one American P-47.   He’s currently tracking down rumors of two more, but hasn’t found them yet.  The discoveries have led him to expand his memorial project to include these aircraft and crews.  

These wreck sites aren’t as easy to find as one might imagine.  The large portions of wreckage were removed decades ago, leaving only fragments which have been covered by Nature with the passage of time.  To confirm a site, Peter uses a metal detector.

At Sgt. Martin’s B-17 crash site, Peter believes one of the aircraft’s four propeller driven engines still lies buried in the ground.  He had hoped to recover it for use in the memorial design, but local environmental officials have denied permission to excavate it.

Another area of interest is a lake in Asperen which according to local legend, has a fully intact British Typhoon 1B fighter plane at the bottom.  According to some locals, the pilot crash landed on the frozen lake during the war, and was immediately captured by the Germans.  Then the aircraft fell through the ice before the Germans could secure equipment to haul it away.  If the plane can be located, it would likely be in pristine condition since the lake is deep and contains fresh water – not salt – which would make the aircraft a valuable prize for any aviation museum.  However, there are multiple layers of government and international bureaucracy that must be sifted through before any recovery efforts can even begin to take place.  If permission is ever granted, the logistics of actually carrying out the recovery becomes a whole other matter.

Part of Peter’s research on Sgt. Martin took him to Belgium in late December of 2014, where he visited Sergeant Martin’s grave at the Ardennes American Cemetery.  While there, he left a copy of the Your Smithfield Magazine story for the cemetery archives. 

Sgt. Martin’s bomber was part of a formation sent to destroy the Fieseler Aircraft Factory in Kassel, Germany.  Peter has since learned that what Martin and his crew had no way of knowing was that the factory was filled with Dutch citizens being used by the Nazis as forced labor.  One of them was Leo Schuurmans, of Asperen, who was killed in the raid just twelve days after his 29th birthday.  Schuurmans father was shot by Nazis one month earlier, and his brother was arrested and sent to Germany where he died of starvation. Sgt. Martin died hours later over Asperen. 

Further research included obtaining a copy of the U.S. Army’s crash investigation report pertaining to Martin’s B-17, which included statements of the surviving crew members taken after the war.  He also interviewed an elderly witness who remembered seeing Martin’s Body.  He’s also been in contact with Richard Campbell, a nephew of Martin’s, who has supplied him with copies of family photos and other memorabilia.  In addition, he’s located one the plane’s .50 caliber machine guns in a Dutch museum, and wonders if it’s the one used by Sgt. Martin.   Now imagine doing all of this research on every crewman of every wreck site he’s investigated, and one starts to get a sense of the magnitude of his project, all of which he has accomplished while holding a full-time job!    

Peter fills some of his spare time giving talks on the history of the air war in his region to local schools and civic organizations.  After a talk in March of this year, he was approached by a teenager who recognized the name Steven Maksin, a crewmate of Sgt. Martin’s, and informed Peter that he had Maksin’s life vest with his name and serial number on it!  He’d found it in a flea market some time ago, and one can only speculate that someone hid it from the Germans at the time of the crash.  What Peter found even more interesting is the fact that according to statements in the Army crash investigation report, it was Maksin who was forced by the Nazis to identify Martin’s body!

After much effort, as well as personal and financial sacrifice on his part, Peter has finally achieved his goal.  As of this writing (Which is a month ahead of publication date.) the memorial honoring Sgt. Martin and other allied crews is being constructed.  It will resemble an aircraft wing with the crew names of the local villages and silhouettes of their aircraft etched into it. The base will have six shields, one for each plane containing the names of the 36 airmen.    

The dedication is set for May 2nd, near May 5th, which is Dutch Liberation Day – seventy years to the day the Germans surrendered in Holland.  Dignitaries from Holland, the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada, are scheduled to attend, as well as twenty-six relatives of the allied airmen.  Music will be provided by the Royal Dutch Air Force Band, and it’s even been arranged for a WWII British Lancaster to do a “fly over”.  We Americans, and we in Smithfield, owe Peter a great deal of thanks for what he’s done.

To see the memorial created for Sgt. Martin and his crew, click here: Sgt. Robert Martin Memorial

Chance Relics Reveal a Forgotten Tale

By Jim Ignasher

Staff Sergeant Robert M. Martin, WW II.

Staff Sergeant Robert M. Martin, WW II.

In March of 2013, Peter den Tek was hunting for ancient Roman artifacts in a field near Asperen, Holland, when he unearthed two relatively modern .50 caliber shell casings from World War II.  The casings were American, and den Tek, an avid historian, knew they were out of place, for although German troops had occupied the area during the war, no known land battles had occurred in that vicinity.  He therefore surmised they might be relics of an aerial battle, and subsequent research led him to learn that a desperate duel of life and death had in fact occurred decades ago and thousands of feet above that field.  Further investigation revealed a connection to a place den Tek had never heard of – Smithfield, Rhode Island. 

“Hi Coach, It’s been a long time since I’ve written you and a lot has happened since then.”  Thus began a letter written by Robert M. Martin of Spragueville to his former high school football coach Tom Eccleston Jr. in December of 1942.  World War II was raging, and Martin was serving in the United States Army Air Corps training to be an aerial gunner. 

“I’m now in my second week of school.” His letter went on, “I finish on Christmas, or at least I’m supposed to.  I never saw such a place because they try to flunk you out instead of pass you.  The captain wants about twenty percent washouts.”

In Martin’s case, being “flunked” would have relegated him to a ground assignment; a horrible disappointment for a man who yearned to fly.   Those who served in the Air Corps were volunteers, but applicants were expected to be “perfect” both physically and scholastically with no margin for error.

In another letter dated February 3, 1943. Martin wrote that he completed gunnery school and was promoted to Staff Sergeant.  He was assigned to the crew of a B-17, a four-engine “heavy bomber” designed to deliver its payload of explosives to the heart of the Third Reich.  Such a plane was ideally suited to a man of Martin’s training for it bristled with up to twelve machine-guns, earning it the name, “Flying Fortress”.   Martin was designated the ship’s “tail-gunner”.

Martin wrote he was offered the chance to go to Officer’s Candidate School, but turned it down.  “I just as soon stay in the ranks,” he wrote Eccleston, “I’m making so much money right now if not more taking everything into consideration, than a second lieutenant does.”  In addition to his regular pay, he was receiving “flight-pay”, and would get a twenty percent increase once overseas.

In a third letter to Eccleston dated May 20, 1943, Martin wrote, “I’m seeing a little bit of this country.  Just last week we took a trip up in the Black Hills of South Dakota and we flew all around where the faces of presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt are carved in the side of a mountain.  We are going to fly over the Grand Canyon if we can, and I guess we will alright.”

Martin further wrote that he hoped to see Eccleston sometime in June for he expected a brief leave to see friends and family before going overseas.  “It’s been a long time and the old pace sure will look good to me.”  Whether the army granted that promised leave is uncertain, as things can change quickly during wartime.   

Martin’s crew was assigned to the 8th Air Force, 92nd Bombardment Group, 407th Squadron, and sent to England where they would take part in the allied strategic bombing campaign being waged against Europe.  

On July 28, 1943, Martin woke before dawn, shaved, ate breakfast, and made his way to briefing for what would be his crew’s first combat mission. It’s possible the men joked back and forth to hide their apprehension of what the day would hold.

The target that day was a ball-bearing plant in Kassell, Germany.  After dropping their bombs the formation turned for home, but along the way encountered heavy flack and enemy fighter planes.  Martin’s plane suffered damage causing it to fall behind from the protection of the formation.  Then they were on their own; a “straggler”.  Sensing blood, a squadron of five German fighters moved in for the kill. 

Staff Sergeant Sebastian Stavella of New Jersey, was the ball-turret-gunner, and wrote of his WW II experiences in April of 2005.  He recalled that the fighter planes, “were hitting us from all sides.”

As bullets tore through the aluminum fuselage, the pilot, 2nd Lt. Harold Porter, gave the order to bail out.  ”I quickly got into position to get out of the ball turret” Stavella wrote, “and as I did, an FW 190 attacked the side of the ship and hit it with a 20 millimeter, (exploding shell.) ripping off the side of the ship and hitting one of our waist gunners, (S/Sgt. Jerre M. Algeo.) killing him.” 

Another account of the battle was remembered by Kees Vermeer, who was 13 years-old at the time, and saw what happened next from his front yard.  Martin’s B-17 was shot down by enemy fighters, but from Kees perspective it appeared to have been downed by flack. “When the flack hit the bomber, there was no fire; the plane engine just whinned one last time, then the plane spiraled out of control, somersaulted a few times, and broke up into large pieces.  About five parachutes unfolded after the bomber split up, one of which disappeared quickly.”  

The parachute that “disappeared quickly” was evidently Sgt. Martin’s, whose body was later identified by his crewmate, Tec. Sgt. Stephen Maksin, who noted that Martin’s chute was badly torn.  Martin’s remains were brought to a nearby village and buried, but after the war they were re-interred in Ardennes American Cemetery, Belgium. The rest of Martin’s crew survived, and spent the remainder of the war as POWs.

Of the five German fighters that attacked Martin’s aircraft, two were shot down.  Although it can never be proven, perhaps S/Sgt. Martin was responsible for downing one of them.  It’s also possible the shell casings found by Peter den Tek might have come from Martin’s gun – at least it’s an intriguing thought to consider.

After learning the details of that long forgotten air battle, den Tek began planning the creation of a memorial to honor Martin and his crew.  His idea has generated tremendous local interest and he is currently negotiating with Dutch officials over a suitable location for the project. 

Through old photographs and eye witness accounts, den Tek has located the B-17’s crash site and has recovered pieces of the aircraft.  He believes at least one engine still lies buried in a field, and if it can be recovered, he wants to incorporate it into the memorial.  If soil conditions are right, it could still be in relatively good condition.  He has also learned that one of the plane’s machine guns is on display in a museum, and hopes the serial number will give him a clue as to its position on the B-17.  

S/Sgt. Martin has been remembered here in Rhode Island.  His name appears on the Spragueville War Memorial located at the corner of Pleasant View Avenue and Swan Road.  Martin was also remembered in 2007 when three Burrillville High School students, Brian Baily-Gates, Douglas Clark, and Adam Goudreau, researched the circumstances surrounding his death for a history project.  They chose Martin as a subject because he had graduated Burrillville High School in 1940, and had played for the school’s champion football team.  (Smithfield didn’t have a high school then, so residents attended school elsewhere.) 

The research that Peter den Tek has conducted since his initial discovery has been, to use a metaphor, like peeling an onion, for the air battle that brought down Martin’s B-17 is only a fragment of the overall story.  There is so much more to tell.   For example, there were nine other crewmen on S/Sgt Martin’s aircraft, and his was but one of many lost that day.  Furthermore, Dutch civilians, some from the Asperen area, were used as forced labor by the Nazi’s in the very industrial complex the allies bombed!    

There is other information that Peter has shared, but for now it will have to wait, for this story is still unfolding. (A follow-up article is anticipated.)  In the meantime, he and I correspond through frequent e-mails as he literally digs deeper to preserve the memory of a crew of World War II airmen. 

Special thanks to Bill Eccleston of North Providence, and Peter den Tek of Holland, for their help with this article.  (JI)

To read a follow-up article about Sgt. Martin, click here: Freedom Isn’t Free

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