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Family finds father's WWII crash site in Belgium

By JILL WHALEN | Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa. | Published: April 9, 2018

HAZLETON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — A Belgian man never forgot seeing an American B-24 bomber succumb to enemy fire and crash in a field near his family’s farm on Christmas Day 1944.

Viktor Yansenne was 6 at the time but can still see the parachutes of two crewmen who bailed as the warplane exploded in flames.

Seven went down with the plane.

So impacted by the crash, Yansenne bought the land in hopes of finding remnants of the plane. After four years of searching, crews found the spot — and that’s how Yansenne recently met the family of one of the two survivors, the late Tech. Sgt. Peter Ferdinand Sr. of Drums.

“I was in disbelief,” Peter Ferdinand Jr., Conyngham, said upon learning that the remains of his father’s B-24 Liberator, nicknamed “King Size,” were uncovered. “It’s 73 years ago but the amount of emotion was the same as if it was days before that. It just hits you so hard and so unexpectedly because it came out of nowhere.”

He knew about the crash over Lafosse, Belgium, but never expected he’d actually see the site, much less hear that pieces of the plane were recovered.

He, his sister, Debbie Ferdinand Kelley, Virginia Beach, and brother-in-law, Joseph Cortese, Hazle Twp., recently visited to participate in a memorial service and help excavators dig for pieces.

Ferdinand was familiar with the crash because his father often talked about his World War II service.

“He told me quite a bit over the years, he thought it was important to share these stories so the sacrifices of his crew mates were never forgotten,” Ferdinand said.

The trip to Belgium, however, unveiled some new details about the crash and the days that followed for the elder Ferdinand.

It all came together when Yansenne, now in his 80s, purchased the land with the intention of preserving it.

“That’s how much it meant to him,” Ferdinand said.

Search and dig

Ferdinand said Yansenne remembered playing in the plane’s fuselage until it was removed for scrap. He had an idea of where the plane went down, and four years ago, he asked his community to help metal-detect and locate pieces.

A group of Dutch and Belgian men led by Bob Konings of Grandmenil, Belgium, eventually located the debris field and recovered numerous small pieces which they were able to identify as a B-24.

Yansenne wanted to erect a memorial to the crew on the property — but the plane’s name and the identity of its crew stumped searchers.

Konings asked Myra Miller, a World War II historian in St. Louis, for her help. Three planes had been shot down over the area that day, but Miller determined the wreckage was that of a B-24 bomber nicknamed “King Size.”

“The fact that seven died and two survived the crash was interesting because it was possible a survivor was either still alive or there were descendants. My reaction was excitement! When I was in the (National) Archives reading the files, my heart was pounding and I had an adrenaline rush as I read that the location in the papers matched the location on the ground: Lafosse, Belgium,” Miller said in an e-mail to the Standard-Speaker.

She was able to locate Ferdinand Jr. through Facebook, she explained.

“I had already pulled the files of his father at the Archives and had found numerous newspaper files from the (Hazleton) area about Peter Ferdinand,” Miller said.

She and Konings then invited the Ferdinand family to the site to participate in the dig and help erect a monument near the crash site.

Ferdinand Jr. was hoping to find something that his father — a radio operator — may have used on the mission.

After some digging, he found part of a headset and a transistor. The dig also revealed ammunition — and an English schilling. Service personnel weren’t supposed to carry currency when they were flying missions, he noted.

“I said, oh well, if they weren’t supposed to carry money, I’m sure it was my father’s then,” he laughed.

Other pieces of the plane will be catalogued and donated to a museum.

Ferdinand hangs on to mementos, photographs and accounts his father brought home from the war.

The war journey

The Belgium crash wasn’t his father’s first, he said, pointing to a framed photo of his father’s original crew.

“They were involved in a mid-air collision over their base in England and they all died except for my father and his bombardier,” Ferdinand said. “He lost that crew. That was in November 1944.”

Less than a month later, the Battle of the Bulge continued to rage, and Ferdinand Sr. was chosen to be part of the King Size’s crew.

“Their radio operator on this crew had already completed his full amount of missions,” Ferdinand Jr. explained. “And this was their last mission, so they were going home.”

Their mission would take them to Wahlen, Germany, to bomb a manufacturing facility.

“As soon as they dropped their bombs on the target, they were attacked by German fighter planes,” Ferdinand said.

The bomber caught fire and began to spin out of control. The pilot eventually steadied the plane but the Luftwaffe pursued.

The elder Ferdinand, then 21, described the attack to the local newspaper.

“They swung in for the three plane element that I happed to be in. They were throwing 20-millimeter cannon shells our way. They got in some lucky hits and our plane started burning. That 100 octane gas is just like cigarette lighter fluid,” he was quoted as telling The Standard Sentinel newspaper, predecessor to the Standard-Speaker.

As flames engulfed the plane, the pilot gave the directive to bail out, Ferdinand Jr. said.

When bomb bay doors didn’t release, Ferdinand Sr. and a crew mate decided they’d attempt to bail through a nose wheel. Ferdinand Sr. found the plane’s engineer and tried to convince him to make the jump.

“He was too afraid and the plane was going down,” Ferdinand Jr. said, recalling his father’s account. The engineer was among the seven to perish.

Ferdinand Sr. deployed his parachute and watched the plane explode at 1,000 feet. Germans continued to fire at him as he glided into a pine tree in the Ardennes Forest.

The elder Ferdinand hid for three days. There’s a chance that members of the resistance sheltered him in a wood mill until he was picked up by American troops.

Americans, however, were cautious and treated Ferdinand Sr. as a prisoner. They had caught Germans wearing American uniforms in infiltration attempts.

He was sent to spend the night in a barn with dead German soldiers.

Once his identity was confirmed, he was taken to verify the name of the other surviving crewman, Robert Ball of Willow Grove.

The two men eventually made it back to their base in England.

The flight was Ferdinand’s 16th and last raid over enemy territory. He finished his U.S. Army Air Force career stateside and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with Clusters.

He married his late wife, Ruth, with whom he also had daughters Diane Cortese, Hazle Twp. and Kimberly Collum, Drums. He operated Ferdinand’s Tavern and was a Butler Twp. supervisor. He died in April 1998.

jwhalen@standardspeaker.com

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