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Class ring recovered from WWII crash scene in England is returned to gunner’s son

Ken Spatz holds his father's 1941 high school graduation ring near the crash site where he died during World War II in Ridgewell, England, Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. About a decade ago, British farmer Andy Cox found the ring near a disused World War II airfield in England.

WILLIAM HOWARD/STARS AND STRIPES

By WILLIAM HOWARD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 4, 2018

RIDGEWELL, England — Ken Spatz never met his father, a B-17 aircraft waist gunner with the same name, who died in World War II. But last week he visited the site where the B-17 crashed and collected a memento — his father’s long-lost high school ring.

Andy Cox, a British farmer and metal-detecting enthusiast, discovered the ring about a decade ago in a dump on a friend’s property, near a disused WWII-era airfield in Ridgewell, England. The 1941 class ring was from a high school in Birdsboro, Pa.

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It was among many other items, he said, “everything from U.S. Army toothbrushes to bits of aircraft and dog tags.”

Cox said he was unable to find the owner of the ring until he met Todd Peterson, a Pennsylvania police officer, two years ago on Facebook.

“I explained to him about this ring and I would like to try and get the records for the school for that year,” Cox said. “He gave me the list of names, and there was one guy in there, Ken Spatz, and I traced him back on the unit’s roster.”

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Kenneth L. Spatz, it turned out, had been assigned to the 381st Bomb Group, a unit that flew B-17 Flying Fortresses from the former Royal Air Force station known as RAF Ridgewell, between June 1943 and April 1945. He and seven other crew members on board a B-17 named Smashing Thru were killed when their plane crashed after two engines failed.

Peterson managed to locate Spatz’s son in Pennsylvania and asked him if he’d be willing to talk to a man from England.

Cox said he called Spatz that night and emailed him photos of the ring.

“I told him the ring is yours and it belongs with you,” Cox said. “He said, ‘Don’t post it because that’ll be the one thing that gets lost. We’ll come and collect it.’”

Last week, Spatz and his wife began a pilgrimage through Europe, visiting various WWII historical sites. They ended their journey in England.

Cox and his friends planned a whole day of events for Spatz and his wife after picking them up from the Ridgewell train station. They went to see the reconstruction of a B-17 cockpit and the Ridgewell Airfield Commemorative Museum. Their last stop was the crash site, now a farmer’s field, where Cox gave the 1941 class ring to Spatz.

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The field belongs to Cox’s friend, who also has a dump of items left from the former air station. Some hand-sized pieces of melted metal from the B-17 remain at the crash site.

“I’m incredibly in debt to these fellows and what they’ve arranged,” Spatz said, fighting back tears. “Just imagining that B-17 coming in here and flipping over is too big for me to talk about.”

howard.william@stripes.com
Twitter: @Howard_Stripes

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British farmer Andy Cox, right, shows some of the wreckage from a B-17 named Smashing Thru to Ken Spatz at the bomber's crash site in Ridgewell, England, Friday, Aug.31, 2018. William Howard/Stars and Stripes
WILLIAM HOWARD/STARS AND STRIPES

A photograph of Kenneth L. Spatz, a waist gunner on board a B-17 Flying Fortress that crashed after takeoff on July 13,1944. Spatz was assigned to the 381st Bomb Group, a unit that flew B-17 Flying Fortresses in England between June 1943 and April 1945.
COURTESY OF ANDY COX

Photo of the crash of a B-17 Flying fortress named Smashing Thru in Ridgefield, England, July 13,1944. Eight crew members were killed as the plane skidded into an unseen railroad cut during an emergency landing.
COURTESY OF ANDY COX

Ken Spatz sees his father's 1941 high school graduation ring near the site where he died in a World War II plane crash in Ridgewell, England, Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. "Just imagining that B-17 coming in here and flipping over is too big for me to talk about," Spatz said.
WILLIAM HOWARD/STARS AND STRIPES

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