Nazis murdered downed airman from York County, Part IIII
This artwork was the header for a York Corporation poster detailing employees serving in the military in World War II – and those who died. This was distributed in “Shop News,” a newsletter for employees at home and in the military. The right part of the header stats that 991 men and women had served to date. The six stars indicated that six employees had died in uniform. Background posts: Zercher I, Zercher II , Zercher III and ‘Little Johnny’ called for Allies in World War II.
York’s factories kept employees up to date about those who were serving in uniform in World War II and those who had died.
No one did it better than York Corporation, previously known as York Ice Machinery and later as Borg-Warner, York International and Johnson Controls York.
But Yorkco could not keep up with a fast-moving war… .
Robert W. Zercher is listed as serving in the military in this Yorkco poster.
When the honor roll published above was distributed, Robert W. Zercher was presumed missing for two days.
Months later, it was reported that the Nazis executed him and labeled him a “terrorist.”
He was one of 25 Yorkco employees to die. The final number serving was 1,200.
The total of six who died in uniform listed in the header above grew to 25. The poster’s May 1, 1944, publication came before the June 6 Allied invasion of Normandy and some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. The casualties would grow, and Zercher would become one of the dead.
My York Sunday News column (1/20/08) fills in some gaps in his story:
With a surname starting with “Z,” Robert Zercher was probably accustomed to standing last in line.
So when York Corporation honored employees dying in World War II, the gunner on a Flying Fortress was in his customary place as last named on the long list of 25.
In its wartime newsletter “Shop News,” Yorkco published photographs of most men on its honor roll, but not Zercher’s. It listed his date of death as April 29, 1944, when he actually lived for five months after his B-17 crash landed.
A newspaper located his picture but merely noted he had been missing and was killed in action.
The airman was thus assigned to obscurity in his home county, as are many of the more than 570 York countians who died in the war.
This end, for a soldier the Germans branded “Terrorist.”
* * *
Zercher seemed lost to history.
Lost, that is, until York countian Jim Marsteller read a paragraph about him in my York County World War II book, “In the Thick of the Fight.”
Marsteller researches all things related to the 392nd Bomb Group and started checking out the downed airmen’s story.
“I know from my research, most of the time, the story of what happened doesn’t end when they were shot down,” Marsteller said, “it is only the beginning.”
He enlisted the help of fellow intrepid researcher Annette Tison, and they found Dutchman Jelle Reitsma, who was familiar with Zercher.
Indeed, Reitsma has written a paper titled “The Adventures of Sergeant Bob Zercher and the other crew members of the ‘Karen B.’ ”
Bob Zercher has received higher honors in Europe than in his home county.
* * *
In skeleton form, here’s Robert Zercher’s story, as outlined by Jelle Reitsma and other researchers:
Frank and Ella Zercher of Hallam bore twins, Robert and Pauline, in 1907.
Bob graduated from William Penn High School and then Penn State and later worked as a test engineer for York Corporation.
As with about 20,000 other York County men and women, military duty beckoned. He enlisted in the Army in 1942, and trained as a gunner on a heavy bomber.
Assigned to the 452nd Bomb Group flying out of Norfolk, England, Zercher and other crewmembers of the “Karen B” were sent on April 29, 1944, to bomb a railway station in Berlin.
The B-17 took withering anti-aircraft fire over Berlin on April 29 and attempted to limp home.
After crossing the Dutch border with three engines gone and one burning, the pilot successfully crash-landed in a field.
Zercher and the rest of the crew survived, hiding in the German-occupied region with help from the Dutch resistance.
For the next five months, the resistance, risking their own lives, moved Zercher from house to house. By that time, escape to friendly territory was difficult.
The downed airmen would attempt to wait out the war.
But the Germans found Zercher and another crewman, Kenneth Ingram, dressed in civilian clothes in a house in Apeldoorn on Oct. 1, 1944.
The Germans knew Zercher and Ingram were Allied soldiers, legally prisoners of war.
But the Germans sought to warn others against harboring downed airmen.
Without a trial, they shot Zercher, Ingram and six members of the Dutch resistance on Oct. 2.
But the Germans did not stop there with their war crimes.
They laid the bodies on the streets of Apeldoorn with papers on their chests bearing the word “Terrorist.”
* * *
Years after the war, a monument was dedicated to honor Zercher, Ingram and the resistance fighters who gave them and other airmen refuge.
The inscription spelled the York countian’s name as “Zurcher.”
In October 2006, his name was corrected and the monument rededicated.
Jelle Reitsma was pleased to learn that Zercher’s story appeared on my local history blog, http://www.yorktownsquare.com, thanks to Jim Marsteller’s and Annette Tison’s digging.
“I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate what you have done to make sure that S/Sgt. Zercher is remembered,” Tison wrote. “And now, the people of his home town know about S/Sgt. Zercher and what you have done as well.”
Perhaps veterans organizations in York County should honor Sgt. Zercher as their Dutch counterparts have done.
He was an example of the scores of other World War II heroes who quietly passed from public view in their home county.
For a moment in York County, Robert Zercher should stand first in line.
“Bob Zercher was a reserved, matter-of-fact kind of person, a sharp observer with a good sense of humor and a sense of self-mockery. Not exactly an Adonis, he once said: ‘Nobody loves me, I’m a monkey’. This type of humor was typical for him; he found pleasure in playing the fool at bridge or poker, at the start of the game later he turned out to be an accomplished player. When awaiting the coming liberation he and Kenneth Ingram, the British Flight sergeant, being in the same boat together, made drawings of the American and English flag, so that they could be reproduced rapidly after the liberation.”
– Jelle Reitsma
American Battle Monuments Commission
World War II Honor Roll
Robert W. Zercher
Sergeant, U.S. Army Air Forces
Service # 13092429
729th Bomber Squadron, 452nd Bomber Group, Heavy
Entered the Service from: Pennsylvania
Buried at: Plot B Row 42 Grave 16
Ardennes American Cemetery
Awards: Purple Heart
* The commission incorrectly listed Zercher’s date of death as Oct. 4, 1944. It should be Oct. 2, 1944.
– Jelle Reitsma
To learn more
For a detailed story on Robert Zercher’s fortunes in Holland based on researcher Jelle Reitsma’s account, search on his name at http://www.yorktownsquare.com.
And to check out research on the 392nd Bomb Group, see http://www.b24.net. The site links to researcher Jim Marsteller’s story on his uncle, Fawn Grove resident Everette N. Morris, killed on a bombing mission in March 1944.