Nazis murdered downed WWII airman from York – Part II
York County’s Sgt. Robert W. Zercher, a gunner for a B-17 Flying Fortress in World War II, survived a crash landing but could not escape the cruelty of his German captors. For a full account about this downed airman, with appropriate kudos to researchers Jim Marsteller and Annette Tyson, helping to locate it, see below. Background posts: World War II in York County, by the numbers, York County historical war deaths top 1,000 and York County’s World War II sacrifices …. part last.
More information has surfaced on Robert W. Kercher, the downed airman from York County executed by the Nazis in October 1944.
A bare-bones story of how the Nazis then posted a sign saying “Terrorist” on Kercher’s body was related in a previous York Town Square post… .
For years, Zercher’s name was misspelled on this monument in Apeldoorn in Holland. It was changed from “Zurcher” to its proper spelling in September 2006. Background post: To view a wealth of other stories detailing York County in World War II, see this blog’s World War II archive.
First, a newspaper story on Zercher’s death states that he graduated from William Penn High School and Penn State University before enlisting in the Army after eight years tenure as a test engineer for York Corporation.
While he was away, his mother, Ella, died. Then his brother, Harold W. Zercher, a civilian inspector, died in an airplane crash in August, 1943, at Homestead Field in Florida.
Meanwhile, a researcher in Holland has made available a manuscript detailing Zercher’s experiences living with assistance from the Dutch resistance for five months after his plane crash landed.
That manuscript, ‘The Adventures of Sergeant Bob Zercher and the other crew members of the ‘Karen B,’ written by Jelle Reitsma, follows:
The reason for this paper is twofold: when writing the book ‘Apeldoorn ‘ 40 – ‘ 45 the story behind the Apeldoornse war monuments ‘ it appeared that on the monument at ‘ s Heerenloo Midden-Nederland (formerly Groot Schuylenburg) the name of sergeant Zercher had been misspelled: Zurcher instead of Zercher. This mistake must be corrected. Moreover the story about Sergeant Robert W. Zercher and the crew he belonged to was unknown. In the ‘official’ source we consulted we found no more information than: ‘In spite of many investigations in America the names of these aviators could not be found’. Meanwhile further information has become available – especially internet has proven to be an invaluable asset – and that’s the reason why the story could be reconstructed.
Robert W. Zercher was born in 1907 as the son of Frank and Ella Zercher, in Hallam, York, Pennsylvania, where he grew up with his twin sister Pauline. He went to college for four years and started afterwards to work in a shop. He remained single and enlisted as a soldier in the US Army Air Force (USAAF) September, 22 1942 in Harrisburg. He was trained as a belly turret gunner.
After his training he was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the crew of 2nd Lieutenant Hal J. Nelson from Iowa City, Iowa. The remaining crewmembers came from all parts of America. The copilot 2nd Lieutenant Charles F. Ramlow came from Shawano Lake, Wisconsin, 2nd Lieutenant Noyes Richey the navigator, from Ragley, Louisiana and 2nd Lieutenant Phillip R. Cavanaugh, the bombardier, from Baltimore in Maryland. Staff sergeant Michael Dencavage, the flight engineer, who also manned the machine-guns in the top turret, was from Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. His fellow Staff sergeant George P. Paulk, who operated the radios, came from Bartow in Florida. Sergeant Don E. Jackson, Stone Creek, Ohio, was the left waist gunner, Technical sergeant Victor A. Ryczko, the right waist gunner, from Corona, New York and Sergeant Floyd E. Ragsdale, the tail gunner, came from Honea Path, South Carolina.
After the training as a B-17 crew in Texas they were transferred to the 729 Bomb Squadron (BS), one of the four squadrons of the 452 Bomb Group (BG). These BG’s were part of 8 USAAF, commonly known as the ‘Mighty Eight’.
In the period December 1943 – January 1944 the 452 BG moved to the United Kingdom. Deopham Green in Norfolk became their home base. The `Nelson crew’ was assigned to the ‘Karen B ‘, a B-17G Flying Fortress. With this aircraft they completed their first operational flight on April, 24; Braunschweig was the target and they returned unscathed.
On the early morning of Saturday 29 April 1944 the ‘Karen B’ took off from Deopham Green as one of the more than seven hundred heavy bombers that were going to bomb the Friedrichstrasse railway station in Berlin. This station was a key point in the city’s [railroad] passenger traffic system. By eliminating it, the Americans thought, they would deal a terrific blow to the German war industry in and around Berlin. The factory workers would no longer be able to reach their factories and as a result, production would strongly decrease.
To protect the bombers against German fighters, the ‘Mighty Eight brought an impressive array of more than 800 Allied fighters: P-38 Lightnings, P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts, into action
For the ‘Karen B’, flying in the first of the three formations, the outward flight was relatively uneventful .That did not apply to all planes: two BGs from the first formation went off course because the radars of their ‘Pathfinder’ bombers malfunctioned; they went astray to the south and entered the airspace over Braunschweig without fighter protection. There they were mercilessly attacked by more than a hundred German fighters. Especially the third, last formation was delayed by wind: 10 to 20º northerly and 10 to 15 knots stronger than predicted. As a result, no contact could be made with their fighter escort. In the vicinity of Hanover the formation was attacked by 60 to 80 German fighters.
The German fighter control brought the fighters extremely competently into action in two waves one after another causing considerable losses amongst the American bombers. Eventually no more than 580 bombers appeared over the target in Berlin; the formations had been seriously disrupted by the German air attacks. One of the navigators from the third formation sighed: ‘Too many aircraft in very poor formations over target’. Moreover the target was badly visible due to a low overcast. The German anti aircraft artillery, the ‘Flak’, took over from the fighters and harassed the bomber fleet violently. No more than 1408 tons of bombs hit the surroundings and the railway station Friedrichstrasse itself.
The bombers that went astray chose Magdeburg as their ‘target of opportunity ‘and dropped the bombs there. During the return flight the bombers got a good beating. The third formation now became the victim. Due to the delay caused by the unfavorable wind and the German fighter attacks, the fighter escort could not locate the bombers in time. Effective protection could only be offered after passing Hanover. Nevertheless the results of the attack were assessed as ‘fair to good’, but the price was high: 38 B-17 Flying Fortresses, 26 B-24 Liberators and 14 fighters were lost. 355 bombers landed with battle damage – the majority (325) was caused by German anti aircraft artillery. After the mission 636 crew members went missing (MIA), 39 were wounded and 18 killed. Of the 636 MIA it later became known who were taken prisoner (POW) and who had been killed. Fortunately the majority of them proved to be POW and most of them survived the war.
The ‘Karen B’ was also hit by anti aircraft artillery over Berlin. That resulted in a no. 2 engine burning and its fuel tank leaking. The B-17 could no longer keep up with the formation and had to continue the flight home alone. Very soon it became clear that it would be impossible to return to the home base, Deopham Green. At a given moment it appeared that the complete crew would have to bail out. The pilot, second lieutenant Hal Nelson, told his crew members on the intercom at 12:40 hours how serious the situation of the plane was and ordered them to strap on their parachutes if they had not already done so. On hearing this, Sergeant Don Jackson, the left waist gunner, immediately, bailed out of the plane. It could be possible that he misunderstood the orders. Other crew members said later on, as he stood near the door and the intercom in the plane was malfunctioning, Jackson just jumped out of the plane as soon as he heard the pilot. He landed in the village Ölper, approximately 3 km northwest of Braunschweig. He was given a severe beating by the local population and made POW immediately. Don Jackson was moved to an unknown prisoner of war camp (Stalag Luft?) and was liberated at the end of the war.
Shortly after passing the Dutch border, with three engines gone by now, and one burning, the plane lost more and more altitude. The plane being still under control, the pilot decided to make a crash landing and not to order his crew to bail out. During the landing only the pilots, the lieutenants Nelson and Ramlow, sat in the cockpit – the rest of the crew stood together in the radio room. It was 13:30 hrs, and the plane had landed at the corner of Veldermansdijk – Strengendijk on Het Vellert, some 5 kilometers south of Ruurlo. Nobody was wounded. The crew tried to put the plane on fire, but to no avail; only one wing burned out. They then fled and hid themselves in the woods and in ditches to avoid being taken in as POWs. Around two o’clock the Germans arrived on the scene of the crash. By then the American crew had already fled.
Helping downed Allied aviators was very risky business. One could get the death sentence. The Germans were without mercy. Nevertheless the Resistance, in the person of Hendrik Wieggers from Zieuwent, picked all crewmembers up that night. Nine Americans found their first shelter at the house of milkman Hendrikus Lambertus Becking in Aalten. On 1 May 1944, an important football game was being played; because of the crowds in the streets and all the distraction; it permitted a relatively safe transfer of the airmen to Zutphen. They went there by two taxis. By continually changing hiding places, the risk could be reduced. In the end it was the aim to let the aviators escape by means of the `pilot line’ to let them return to the United Kingdom. Organizing this was not only terrible dangerous, it consumed quite a lot of time and took a lot of effort. Peters himself could offer accommodation at his house for five men and the four others (amongst which George Paulk) were taken in by the Peters Sr . After about three days. Michael Dencavage, George Paulk and Floyd Ragsdale were taken in by the Vinke family at ‘Huize de Voorst’ in Eefde; about May, 18 they moved on to the Hetebrei sisters in Zutphen, straight across the road from the German ‘Ortskommandantur’. Charles Ramslow and Noyes Richey went into hiding with the Jansen family in Zutphen till May, 17 and later on at Ross’s house in Eefde, and at the house of the widow ten Kate, also in Eefde from May, 26 till August, 14. Afterwards they moved on to Apeldoorn.
Later on the other crew members went to the two next addresses, to the Koeslag family in Laren, where Floyd Ragsdale and George Paulk were taken in and to the Slagman family in Harfsen, where Philip Cavanaugh, Hal Nelson, Victor Ryczko, Michael Dencavage and Bob Zercher arrived.
Two crew members remained in the Achterhoek region for a long time.
Tiemen de Jonge and Bertus Hekman, from Nijverdal and well-known in the Resistance, took Hal Nelson and Philip Cavanaugh along to that village. They stayed there till March 24, 1945 in the house at the Campbellstraat 30 (now demolished), with the Arnold family. On 6 April 1945 soldiers of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division liberated them.
Two crew members, Michael Dencavage and Victor Ryczko, managed to disappear from the Achterhoek region to Echt near Maastricht by means of an ‘escape line’, probably with the aid of J.B. (Joop, nickname ‘Pilotenjoop’) ter Haar. Possibly they traveled by train from Lievelde via Nijmegen to the south of the Netherlands. On their way to Liège in Belgium , units of the First American Army in Maastricht liberated them, in September. According to the official report they returned to active duty afterwards.
Sooner or later, the five other crewmembers arrived in Apeldoorn. Around August, 10 Floyd Ragsdale and George Paulk were picked up by bicycle in Laren by members of the Resistance group called Narda. They all cycled together to Apeldoorn. To avoid the German control at the IJssel Bridge they crossed the river IJssel in a small rowing boat. The Oxener family, living at the Loseweg 59, temporarily took in Floyd Ragsdale and George Paulk. After a couple of days they moved on to the Kliest family, at the Valkenberglaan 25, where John Low, Bill Moore and David Smith already had been hidden.
Bob Zercher at the Slagman’s in Harfsen and Charles Ramlow at the widow ten Kate’s were picked up in the same way around August 15. During the first few days the family De Vries and doctor Stigter took care of them. Noyes Richey had to stay a few days more in Eefde, because he could not ride a bicycle; he was picked up by car on August, 18. Charles Ramlow and Noyes Richey stayed with the ladies de Bree, at the Badhuisweg 121, later on, they moved to the Vonderlaan 15 to Notary Blommesteijn. Bob Zercher moved on to Mrs Meijer-De Vries at the Jachtlaan.
In June the Allied forces notified the Resistance that aviators were no longer allowed to escape but had to stay put in occupied territory and await their liberation. Moreover, in the autumn of 1944, many of the Resistance, who were involved in the ‘pilot escape lines’, fell into the hands of the Germans, as a result of treason. Thus, it became extremely difficult to reach Allied lines.
Losing the battle of Arnhem on 26 September 1944 was not only a heavy moral blow for occupied Holland, but also for the Resistance and for the aviators in hiding. Everyone had thought that the liberation was imminent, and that it would only take a couple of days before the Allies would arrive in Apeldoorn. It didn’t come true.
Saturday, 30 September turned out to be a disastrous day: because of the treason committed by Willem l’Ecluse the Narda group was eliminated. The SD set a trap in the house at the Paul Krugerstraat 30 for Narda van Terwisga and arrested Narda and most of the members of her group. The SD also tried to arrest another member of the group, Joke (Joop) Bitter, the son of Mrs. Bitter-van Noordaa, who lived at the Jachtlaan 134. To their great surprise the SD people discovered the Englishman Kenneth Ingram and the American Bob Zercher in the house: ‘Komm schnell, hier sind zwei Engländer’. In the confusion Joke was able to escape.
It still remains unclear, how and why Bob Zercher and Kenneth Ingram, who were taken in by Mrs. Meijer-De Vries, arrived at the house of Mrs. Bitter-van de Noordaa in September, 1944. Frequent moves for security reasons? Other reasons? We do not know.
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.
Both Robert Zercher and Kenneth Ingram wore civilian clothes when they were arrested on September, 30, but the SD knew they belonged to the military. Both of them should have been treated as prisoners of war. On the contrary, they were shot the next day without trial. Bob’s body, with the cardboard sign ‘Terrorist’ pinned to his chest, was laid down on the Deventerstraat in front of the shop that belonged to the ladies De Jong. He was buried in the local cemetery Heidehof.
Due to this arrest, the existing secret addresses were considered compromised by the Resistance. On Sunday October, 1 the Resistance found a new shelter for the Americans hiding at the Valkenberglaan 25 and so John Low, Bill Moore, David Smith, George Paulk and Floyd Ragsdale moved to the Hasseltlaan 52, the house of Mrs. ‘s Jacob. On October 2, they heard there that the Germans had shot all the men and had their bodies displayed at several places in Apeldoorn with a cardboard sign ‘terrorist’ pinned to their chest. The same evening the SD searched the Van Hasseltlaan house with much violence and arrested Bill Moore, but they did not discover the shelter in the attic, where the remaining aviators hid themselves. As soon as the aviators thought it was safe, they escaped to Wenum Wiesel and hid themselves in the haystack of the farmer Buitenhuis. Buitenhuis sent them to Vaassen the same day. They arrived at the haystack of the Pannekoek family . They stayed hidden there from October, 4 till October, 29.
Valkenberglaan 25, 2006
Jachtlaan 134, 2006
The Pannekoek haystack, 1944
‘Our home Oct 4 – Oct 29 ’44, with fresh rye and new top’
The first escape of hidden Airborne soldiers and Allied aviators across the river Rhine in the night of 22 to 23 October – Pegasus I – was such a success, that the Germans got wind of it and took the necessary measures: the area south of the highway Utrecht – Arnhem and a strip north of the highway was declared out of bounds. The next attempt of Pegasus II, started under an unlucky star.
The Resistance enabled the aviators, hidden in Vaassen, to participate in the Pegasus II escape attempt on November, 18 1944. To that end they had to be relocated, this time to a mill in Barneveld and some time later to different farms in Kootwijkerbroek . From there they went to the henhouses in Meulunteren, the meeting point for Pegasus II.
Charles Ramlow and Noyes Richey were still in Apeldoorn and had to hide elsewhere to prevent further accidents. Charles was able to cycle and was the first to be moved . He was almost discovered, when a German soldier tried to confiscate the bicycle of his companion who belonged to the Resistance. The next day Noyes Richey went on foot to a place 5 km from Apeldoorn . He traveled from there as a passenger on the back of a bicycle to Barneveld. Via this village Ramlow and Richey both reached the meeting point for Pegasus II.
Unfortunately, even though this attempt failed, George Paulk and Floyd Ragsdale succeeded to stay out of the hands of the Germans that particular night. At daybreak they were surrounded by more than a hundred German soldiers with rifles. Armed only with an old stengun they decided to surrender. David Smith was also made prisoner. Lieutenant Noyes Richey was shot through the lung. Lieutenant Ramlow succeeded to stay out of the hands of the Germans once again and finally reached the Allied front line at Lage Zwaluwe by crossing the Biesbosch on March, 10 1945.
How did the rest of the crew succeed? Don Jackson spent the rest of the war in an unknown German POW camp and was finally liberated in May 1945. As has been described before, Michael Dencavage and Victor Ryczko finally managed to escape, as did Charles Ramlow. It lasted till March 1945 before Hal Nelson and Philip Cavanaugh were liberated in Nijverdal. George Paulk and Floyd Ragsdale were confined to a prisoner of war camp – Stalag Luft 4 – at Gross-Tychow, in former Pommeren. Nowadays the place where the camp was situated is called Tychowo in Poland. When the Russians approached the prisoner of war camp, the Germans cleared the camp at the beginning February 1945 and forced the prisoners to march to camps in Germany such as Wöbbelin near Ludwigslust and Usedom, both in Mecklenburg Vorpommern. The circumstances were terrible, it was icy cold, the roads were covered with snow and the maintenance during the march was abominable. Instead of three days, as the Germans had suggested, for many prisoners, the trip lasted almost three months. The number of casualties was considerable.
According to an interview with Floyd Ragsdale he and George Paulk did not take part in this ‘death march’. They were finally ‘liberated’ by the Russians, i.e. that only the fences were knocked down and the prisoners were abandoned to their fate. After approximately two weeks the American prisoners were transported to France by B-17 bombers.
Noyes Richey did not experience this death march. He was confined in Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang, 23 km North West of Stralsund, in Mecklenburg Vorpommern, the only camp that the Germans did not evacuate. On 1 May 1945 the Russians liberated him. Bob Zercher was the unfortunate one who was assassinated in Apeldoorn.
part of the ‘Karen B’ crew in Florida, June 1945
[from left to right couple Cavanaugh, Richey, Ramlow, couple Paulk, Jackson, couple Ragsdale]
The others returned to the United States and they met once again in 1945 .Then and there the reports about the crew of the ‘Karen B’ were written. At that time Noyes Richey was still suffering badly, from his lung complaint. Hal Nelson remained in the service and retired eventually as a lieutenant colonel in the USAF. Charles Ramlow was killed in an aircraft crash in Miami Beach in1946. Michael Dencavage reenlisted in 1946 in the USAF as Technical Sergeant. The others resumed their studies or returned to their civilian professions. George Paulk returned to the Netherlands in the ’80s to meet the people who had helped him and to visit the scene of the crash-landing once again.
On February 1946 the American Eldon Soper of the Judge Advocate Section ordered the remains of Bob Zercher to be exhumed and to be examined more closely. As cause of death a bayonet stab dealt with much violence was concluded. That does not fit in with the reconstruction of the assassination according to the interrogation reports of the SD-men and Willem l’Ecluse who were involved in the execution. From the interrogation reports it is evident that Kenneth Ingram and Bob Zercher were shot. Afterwards Bob Zercher was reburied at the American war cemetery Neuville-Condroz (Neupré) in the Belgian Ardennes.
On October, 2 1969 the memorial stone at Groot Schuylenburg was unveiled. On the stone is written: R. ZURCHER U.S.A.A.F. Why not as R.W. ZERCHER, SGT USAAF in full, as Kenneth Ingram? His data have been correctly inscripted on the stone: K.H. INGRAM, F/SGT R.A.F. We still do not know how this could have happened.
In 2006 nobody of the crew of the ‘Karen B’ is alive, anymore. Nevertheless it is high time that this error must be redeemed and that Robert W. Zercher’s name is now inscripted correctly on the memorial stone at Groot Schuylenburg: R. ZERCHER together with the names of the members of the resistance who did their utmost to keep the aviators out of the hands of the Germans.
The monument is in remembrance of those who did everything in their power to regain our freedom.
AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS COMMISSION
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
Bob Zercher’s date of death is not registered correctly by the American Battle Monuments Commission; 4-Oct-44 should be 2-Oct-44
H.W. Poorterman, Van bezetting naar bevrijding, Enschede 1978, p.143-145
A. Meijer, 55 namen op Heidehof, Apeldoorn 1985, p. 51 f.f.
Wim en Peter Rhebergen, Vermist boven de Achterhoek, Naarden 1991, p.94
Bob de Graaff, Schakels naar de vrijheid, ‘s-Gravenhage 1995, p. 111 and 112
Wolter Noordman, Gevangen op de Veluwe, Kampen 1998, p. 30, 47, 48, 50, 51,177
Wolter Noordman, Luchtalarm op de Veluwe, Kampen 2002, p.76 f.f.
NARA POW records http://aad.archives.gov/aad/series-description.jsp?s=644&cat=WR26&bc=sl
8 USAAF Missing Aircraft Report (MACR) 4449, by Lynn.Gamma@MAXWELL.AF.MIL
The Mighty Eight Air Force Message Board, June 2006, http://www.com-web.com/
Stalag Luft 1 on line: http://www.merkki.com/index.htm
Annete Tison, The Berlin Bombing Mission, flown by The 8th Air Force on April 29, 1944, http://www.b24.net/stories/annette.htm, 2004
WW II Squadron Patch Gallery, USAAF http://members.aol.com/brimiljeep/WebPages/SquadronPatchAAF2Page.html
Jan Heerze en Jelle Reitsma, Apeldoorn ’40 – ’45 Het verhaal achter de Apeldoornse oorlogsmonumenten, Apeldoorn 2006, p.72 f.f.; p.100 f.f.
E-correspondence with Mr. Martin Hols, Eelde and Mr. John Meurs, Rüti ZH, Zwitserland
E-correspondence with Mr. Willis S. Cole Jr, Kirkland, WA 98034, Colonel USAF (retired) William D. Kay, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464 and Mrs. Ruth Rumsey – Richey, TX, USA
Conversation with Mr. P. Monasso and Mr. J. Geerdinck in the AVOG Crash museum August, 6 2006 and the following e-correspondence with Mr. Monasso