MARGRATEN, Netherlands — Lois O’Keefe touched the ghostly white marble of her father’s grave marker for the first time Saturday — one day shy of the 70th anniversary of his death.
She never knew the man, never met him. He died a day before she was born, shot down by German forces over Belgium during World War II.
But through his death, she’s become part of a growing ad hoc family of surviving family members whose lineages all trace back to that one flight.
O’Keefe was among nearly two dozen members of this informal clan that arrived in Europe last week to visit the graves of relatives and walk in the footsteps of the crash survivors.
“It both closes the loop in terms of seeing his grave and knowing where he is, and also opens another channel in my life to all of these people who have the same experiences, some of whom may have some memories of my birth father,” said O’Keefe, who was adopted as a baby.
Five other men died with her father, Calvin Anthes, when their B-17 Flying Fortress was downed by German flak guns on April 13, 1944: Lloyd Brady, James Lavin, Louis Benton, James Malone and Raymond Marz.
Four men bailed out and survived the war: Charles Johnson, Harold Ashman, Edward Price and Troy Hollar.
Hollar, now 94, is the sole remaining member of the crew and a conduit to a past his unofficial family wants to know more about.
He doesn’t talk much about the war, he said. When his family asked him about it, “I told them I didn’t do anything different than what 10 million other guys did,” he said.
But on Sunday, he opened up a bit as he, his children and relatives of some of his former crew mates took part in a memorial ceremony in Fouleng, Belgium, honoring the crewmembers. A handful of witnesses to the crash shared their memories with Hollar, who said he remembered parachuting into a tree and getting secreted away by a member of the Belgian Resistance.
Harold Ashman Jr., son of one of those who made it out of the plane, was there, too, walking the same ground his father parachuted onto 70 years ago.
“It means a great deal” to be here, Ashman said, his voice shaking slightly.
It made him think of what his father and all the other men who fought in World War II went through.
“You just try to put yourself in their place — 20-, 21-, 23-year-old guys, the courage that they have just blows you away.”