Part 7: Nazis murdered downed WWII airman from York, Pa.
In the early 1940s, York County, Pa., resident Robert W. Zercher was a York Corporation employee, one of thousands playing a hand in the making of refrigeration and cooling equipment. Then came World War II, and Zercher became a gunner for a B-17 Flying Fortress in World War II. He did not survive the war. Background posts: Nazis murdered downed WWII airman from York, Part I, Zercher, Part II, Zercher, Part III and Zercher, Part IIII and Zercher Part V.
Robert Zercher is unknown today in York County.
His Flying Fortress was shot down over Europe.
He survived that attack and lived with the help of the resistance against the Nazis in war-torn Holland.
He was discovered, executed and his body placed on public display bearing a sign labeling him as a terrorist.
Memories flood in of those heroes being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.
But no Zercher relatives have stepped forward when this story has been told around York County.
But there’s interest on the Web… .
Such is the case with Scott Brener, who is related to Charles Ramlow, a mate of Zercher’s, who survived the airplane’s downing and its aftermath. He e-mailed after learning from this post that Zercher and Ramlow were part of the same crew.
“My late father was a younger cousin of Lt. Charles Ramlow and when his
Aunt Agnes died recently we found she had saved some newspaper articles from
the Shawano (Wisconsin) Leader covering a speech Charles made recounting his
experiences in Belgium. I have scanned it in and copied the text below. I
can make no guarantees as to the accuracy of his story. All the Ramlows have
passed away now (2010). My Dad enlisted in the Army in June, 1944 and served
with the 8th Infantry Division in the Rhineland. I have posted some of his
wartime photos at BucksWar.NET.”
Scott provided some clippings about Charles Ramlow. Notice in the second one that he witnessed a fellow crewmate, presumably Zercher, lying dead in the street.
Hope Held For Lieutenant Charles Ramlow; Missing
Hope that he may have parachuted to safety or that his Flying Fortress may
have made a safe landing, was being held today for Lieut. Charles Ramlow,
24, son of Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Ramlow, who was reported missing in action by
the War department since April 29. The telegram arrived yesterday.
In England hardly long enough to get acquainted, Lt. Ramlow had already been
on four missions over Nazi territory, according to a letter received from
him dated April
Charles was, and probably is yet, a likeable lad. Many friends remember how
proudly he wore that cadet uniform on his first furlugh home in March, 1942;
how he survived a forced landing in the hills of Tennessee, and. the long
hours of study he put in to qualify as a heavy bomber pilot. His folks and
friends believe that if he had half a chance, “Chaz” bailed out or possibly
brought the plane: to some kind of a landing. Although it is not definitely
known, it is assumed he was a co-pilot, because the younger lads’ are
usually broken in as second officers of a big ship before they are placed in
command. After graduating from Shawano High in 1937, Charles attended Ripon
college. He began his pilot’s training at Maxwell Field, Alabama, and then
attended a Flying Fortress school at Dalhart, Texas. He received his wings
last December at Seymour Indiania and went to Nebraska, to join his regular
crew before going over
Lt. Ramlow’s father is secretary of the Shawano Chamber of Commerce. He has
one brother, Sgt Roger, in the air service, and another brother, Clifton, at
Wisconsin Rapids. It just happened that Roger was home on furlough from
Chicago when the message arrived.
Lt. Ramlow Owes Plenty in “Borrowed Time”
One of the most amazing stories to come out of the European war belongs to
Lt. Charles P. Ramlow, brother of Clifton O. Ramlow; 500½ Twelfth avenue
north. And even more amazing is that he’s alive to tell about it.
Lieutenant Ramlow, whose home is in Shawano and who was employed at the
Griffith State Nursery before the war, lived several lifetimes in fighting
the Nazis both as a B-17 bomber and as a member of the Dutch “underground”
and, unless you’ve a good stout heart, don’t read further.
Lt. Ramlow was wounded twice, once in the chest from flak just before they
were forced to make a crash landing in Germany and later in the foot while
making an escape from the Nazis. He was awarded the Purple Heart and wears
the Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Presidential Citation and Symbol
for Escape from Enemy Territory. He entered the army in August, 1942, and
spent a year and a half overseas; of which 11 months was spent working with
the Dutch underground.
His hair-raising experiences got off to a fast start on his trip overseas
when a bomber was lost near Iceland. He landed in Norwich, England, in
April, 1944, where he was stationed with the Eighth Air force.
After bombing raids on such targets as Kiel, Frankfurt and Posen, Poland,
Lt. Ramlow’s troubles really began in a 2,200-plane raid over Berlin.
Two Motors Knocked Out
“As we were heading toward Berlin, one of my motors was knocked out by flak.
We are allowed to return to our base according to regulations, but we didn’t
even consider it as we wanted to pay our respects to the super-race,” he
said. “As we dropped our bombs on the Embassy building and the marshalling
yards in Berlin, the second engine was knocked out.
“I guess everyone knows how the German pilots wait for crippled bombers. So.
there they were, 10 of them, licking their chops. They closed in and we went
into a cloud to avoid them but they had damaged our instruments so we headed
toward the coast. When we were forced down to 8,000 feet, the flak was
terrific and suddenly one piece ripped through my parachute cutting my
shoulder. The parachute started to burn and, with the help of my crew
members, we got it off. I knew we soon would have to land and told the boys
they could jump but they wouldn’t hear of it,” he said with a proud
“One of the boys apparently thought I told them to jump and he did. Later I
heard he was reported a prisoner of war. .
Make Forced Landing
“Our troubles really started about this time as we ran into a snow storm and
I told the boys to prepare for a crash landing. As we came about 200 feet
from the ground, we hit a couple trees and the plane was flipped on its
back. I just got it back to normal when we hit the ground. Our gas tanks
were split and we headed for the door, I stopped momentarily to get rations
and equipment and, as I reached the door, the plane exploded, tossing me
about 20 feet into the air. None of us were injured, however.
“German civilians started running toward us and we noticed some patrol cars
closing in, so the nine of us made a dash into the woods.
The Germans brought bloodhounds and we were surrounded. We shot it out with
our .45 automatics and escaped without injury. We were without, food for
eight days but managed finally to find a friendly Dutch farmer when we
reached Holland, who contacted the underground. In the meantime we hid in a
chicken coop with the chickens,” Ramlow laughed.
Pass Patrol by Ruse
“We had to march past a German patrol so I lined up my men and told them to
‘goose step’ and I counted in German. We went right past the patrol, which
must have figured we were Germans. But I did sweat later when I learned they
only ‘goose step’ in dress parade. They sure are dumb. They are so
methodical that a little psychology completely fools them.
“Then we split into four groups to avoid detection and my party went to a
small village in Holland. I learned the Dutch language pretty well and was
appointed interrogation officer for the Dutch underground in that section.
We would raid courthouses and similar building to obtain food cards but even
so I lost 35 pounds during the 11 months. We also did a little demolition
work but stopped when after blowing up a bridge, the Nazis rounded up 150
supposed underground members and shot them in the streets after burning the
town. One of my crew members was among them and, as the victims laid in the
streets for three days, I disguised myself and went down and identified his
body,” he stated bitterly.
“At Arnheim, when the parachute troops were dropped, we tried to reach them
but couldn’t get through. We lost eight of our 30 men and were forced to
retreat to northern Holland.
“Material” For Next War
“At this time the Nazis again rounded up airmen and civilians and shot them
in the streets, I escaped and found myself working with a famous Dutch
neurologist. I worked in the hospitals for awhile and little did I think
that I would be: called upon to deliver six babies. The Germans brought
their women to the hospital to have their babies because it was safer than
at home, I overheard some of the German women discussing the war. One
remarked ‘It looks like the Allies are going to win this war, but, we have
the material here for the next one’ and pointed to her mid-section.
“One day we were detailed to get some important papers from Gestapo
headquarters. So we dressed in SS uniforms, went into the building, got the
papers and got away without mishap. But for anybody’s future information —
“During my stay there, we made four attempts to reach the” British Second
army, as we were in contact with them by radio, but failed.
“In November, 1944, we started out at night with 90 men for the Rhine river.
We were within a half hour of our destination when we were ambushed. The
Germans waited until we were within 10 feet of them and opened up with about
15 machine guns. We automatically dropped, those that weren’t hit, My three
crew members yelled out that they were hit. I felt all over my body, as I
was sure I was wounded but all I could see was flying lead. I gave first aid
to some of the boys and told them I’d have to leave or be shot.
Killed Trying To Surrender
. “I crawled into a ravine with my gun and laid there. The boys were moaning
and groaning and the Nazis were shouting — believe me — I felt that I had
reached the end of my rope. The Germans told us to come out and surrender,
that they would treat us well. I saw two American officers walk out with
their arms up and the Nazis mowed them down. A few minutes later I saw four
SS troopers walking away with four Americans. I had one clip in my gunb and
decided that, if I were going to die, I’d take a few with me. I opened up on
the four Germans. I didn’t miss and the Americans escaped,” he said grimly.
“They trailed me to a farm house where I hid in a panel in the wall. They
ransacked the place but couldn’t find me. Before they left, however, they
sprayed the walls and floor with bullets. I didn’t count the number that
came through that panel — but I can tell you that I didn’t move for about 14
“The underground contacted me again and we started for the coast. We always
had a scout about 50 yards ahead of us and, when we saw him get picked up,
we turned on our bicycles and, believe me, I don’t think the back wheel was
on the ground. The guards fired at us and I was wounded in the foot. A
little later we were captured by a group of German youths, ‘werewolves,’
they were called, but we scattered suddenly and escaped with only one man
“I wish every American could have seen some of the boys that were forced to
land in Germany. I saw plenty of our men who were killed with pitchforks
when they landed. The Germans just ran the pitchforks into their backs and
hung them on their downed planes.
Dined With Hodges
“That about ends my story except that when rubber boats were dropped to us
and the Canadians picked us up, I laid on the ground, kissing it until my
face was red. Then we celebrated. That was on March 10, 1945,” Ramlow
Lieutenant Ramlow was flown to Brussels, Belgium, then to Paris, France,
where he was interrogated by Allied intelligence officers and had dinner
with Gen. Courtney Hodges, First army commander. Later, flown to England,
Ramlow went on a lecture tour in England for two months, telling airmen what
to do when shot down in enemy territory.
“I came home by boat May 23. Guess the Nazis wanted one more crack at me as
we escaped being torpedoed three times en route,” Ramlow concluded.
Lieutenant Ramlow has been recommended for Diplomatic Air service by Gen.
James Doolittle, commander of the Eighth air force, and, when he returns to
Fort Sheridan after a 60-day leave, he hopes to get such an assignment.
After an e-mail exchange, Scott wrote:
(I)t’s strange how a story from so long ago continues to resonate.
Whenever I meet a vet I ask to shake their hand and say thank you.
Invariably they answer the ones I need to thank are the guys who didn’t come
home. So here’s my thanks for remembering all those boys who bought our
privileges at a price we too often forget about.
Also of interest:
York County historical war deaths top 1,000, York County Vietnam marker funding at half-way mark; looking for more and Neglect, racism undid all-black 24th in Korean War
– All York Town Square posts from the start. Then use “find” function on browser to search for keywords.
– Of course, you can always search for York Town Square posts on Google. For example, when you search for yorktownsquare and York Corporation, you get this.