The village of Opijnen (oh-PIE-nin) in the Netherlands is a farming community where grazing sheep, cows and goats outnumber people (population around 1,200), and cars have to move to the side of the narrow roads for tractors coming in the opposite direction. There are no stores and one church, which discreetly tolls the hour. It’s therefore hard to imagine how shocking it must have been 75 years ago when the town’s slow, ancient, chthonic rhythms were surreally interrupted by a thunderous explosion.
On July 30, 1943, an American B-17F bomber, heading home to its base in England after a raid over Kassel, Germany, was shot down and crashed in a local field. Villagers looked up to see men falling out of the sky.
“It was about 11 o’clock in the morning of the 30 July 1943 that the population of my parish got alarmed by a terrible noise. A few minutes later we heard an awful smack. I was at the Townhall and ran outside and saw to the right a great column of smoke. I took my bike, raced to the plane of black smoke, and saw a burning aircraft of which the cannons were still firing,” wrote Bart Formijne (for-MYN-a), then the young mayor of Opijnen, in a 1945 letter (in English) to the family of one of the crew of the plane that he later learned was named Man-O-War. “In the air we saw two white things, which were slowly coming down. Those things were parachutes. At the same time we saw two dirty German aircraft still circling above the burning plane.”
One of the Americans had fallen without a parachute through the thatched roof of a farmhouse. Formijne found him in the hayloft. “He couldn’t speak, and was still groaning,” he wrote. Although the local doctor was called, it was too late.
As the flames engulfing the plane abated, Formijne approached and “saw under it two corpses of American soldiers. In the neighborhood between potatoes and beetroots, I found besides five other corpses. After this very sad view, I went home to fetch help to transport the eight bodies to the mortuary.”
Two villagers had watched a parachute land safely on the ground. It was the pilot of the plane. They brought him to Formijne’s home, trailed by “nearly the whole population of the village. Of course stupid, but they stood in front of my house to greet him again to see what would happen.” It didn’t take long to find out. “Not more than five minutes of speaking, the whole house was surrounded by Germans.” One other American — the co-pilot — had also parachuted safely to the ground and landed elsewhere; he was soon captured, too.
The bodies of the eight dead airmen were gathered in the mortuary and guarded by a German soldier, a “brute” who refused to allow the American officer to see his comrades inside. Two days later, in a remarkable act of graciousness and bravery, the village decided to hold a funeral for the Americans and to bury them in their church cemetery. The Germans ordered that no one except Formijne be present inside during the service. “Nevertheless the whole population was present outside, including some Nazi friends,” Formijne wrote. “It was obvious that these men were coming to hear if I should say in my speech anything against the Germans. Of course I didn’t give them any chance.” After the burial, the people defied the Germans and filed into the graveyard, “and in no time everyone assisted the diggers, and when everything was finished, they placed flowers. There were great wreaths, great bouquets, and small ones from children. It was a sea of flowers.”
Outside of one vast U.S. military cemetery farther south, the tiny churchyard in Opijnen is the only place in the Netherlands where American airmen who perished as a crew in that country during World War II are buried as they died — side by side. For the past three-quarters of a century, Opijnen’s citizens have tended eight graves of total strangers. A formal church service to honor the men — with prayers and hymns, and singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America” — has taken place almost every year since 1949 and has always included the laying of flowers on the burial site.
I learned about these uncommon acts of kindness from my friend Tim Mortimer, whose uncle, 1st Lt. Robert U. Duggan, was the navigator on Man-O-War and is one of the eight buried in Opijnen. I shared Tim’s amazement that an obscure Dutch village had been able to sustain these acts of remembrance for so many years. Living in New York, not far from Ground Zero, I’ve been moved by the concerted determination of the families of 9/11 victims that a ceremonial air of gravity be upheld by local and national government each year on that day. I’ve also seen how hard it can be to preserve those fragile emotions in a city and country that tends to bulldoze the past.
The staggering personal destruction that World War II inflicted on combatants and noncombatants alike around the globe — an estimated 80 million dead — only registers indirectly now, and the echoes grow fainter every year. In 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 362 Americans who fought between 1941 and 1945 die every day. We are nearly as far from World War II as the generation that shed blood in those battles was from the Civil War. What’s remarkable about the people of Opijnen is that despite the ever-widening distance from those events, they have managed, with dignified modesty, to keep the memory of these eight Americans alive.
Ton Jansen was my guide when I went to Opijnen this summer. A compact man in his 70s, retired since 2005 after nearly 18 years as mayor of Opijnen and 10 other villages in the municipality of Neerijnen, he devotes himself now to reading, cooking and singing, both in a choir and as a baritone soloist.
I had asked by email if I might talk with anyone who was alive in 1943 but was informed that the one living eyewitness at the crash site “thinks he won the war.” Instead, in a meeting hall next to the church, Jansen brings together three local middle-aged couples: Joke and Frans van Dam; Hennie and Jan Burggraaf; and Ties and Nelda van Tujil. Although born many years after the end of World War II, most have participated in the annual May ceremonies since they were children, and all are active now in teaching the next generation about the war. (Not all spoke English, so Jansen acted for some as an interpreter.)
Hanging above our table, where we sit for coffee and tea, is a blue-and-white triptych that dates to 1947 and commemorates the eight dead U.S. airmen. On the left panel, beneath a gold stamp of the American eagle clutching arrows and olive branch, is a list of their names; on the right, beneath the royal Dutch coat of arms, are the words, “In Memoriam, Eighth Air Force, U.S.A. July 30, 1943, Est en Opijnen, Opijnen, Holland.” In the center is the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus holding a scroll that reads: “I am come that you may live.”
The piece was commissioned by the stepfather and mother of Robert Duggan. They hadn’t realized, however, that its Roman Catholic symbolism would be unsuitable for the austere aesthetic of a Protestant Hervormde (Reformed) Church. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, the citizens of Opijnen put the triptych in various buildings over the years, and it has ended up here.
In the years immediately after 1945, it wasn’t difficult to establish the tradition of honoring the airmen. Memories of the German occupation were fresh, and gratitude toward the liberators was overwhelming. After being overrun by the Nazis in four days in May 1940, the Netherlands was occupied for the next five years. An estimated 350,000 Dutch, more than 5 percent of the population, were sent to work as slave labor in Germany. The Holocaust was more brutal here than in France or Belgium, with only about 38,000 of the 140,000 Jews who had been in Holland in 1940 surviving. After D-Day in June 1944, when American, British and Canadian troops landed to retake Europe, the country became a blood-soaked battlefield. Liberation did not occur until May 5, 1945, two days before Germany’s surrender.
“All of us know stories about the war from our parents,” said Jan Burggraaf, who remembers laying flowers on the graves and — his favorite part of the day — receiving sweets from the Americans who attended. Jansen, translating the general feeling of the group, said: “There was a lot of respect for the Americans, what they had done for us and the sacrifices they had made.”
But as parents who were alive on July 30, 1943, began to die, so did the memory of what had happened during the war. By the start of the millennium, the urgency for a ceremony honoring eight dead Americans was harder to justify. They had kept it going for more than 50 years, but in 2006 Jansen stepped down as mayor, and his successor discontinued the annual service in 2010. “She said it was so long ago and there was no longer any interest,” Burggraaf said bitterly. “We talked and decided to revive it but to combine it with remembrance of all the dead, in all wars.”
In 2014, the observance was reborn and has been gathering momentum since. The ceremony this past May saw perhaps the greatest attendance ever, with 100 people filling the church to capacity and another 200 outside for the laying of flowers. “We have children the same age as the pilots,” said Burggraaf. “It is larger now than it was 10 years ago because we know that peace is not taken for granted. Everywhere the world is burning. Burning everywhere. We live now in a world that we feel is more dangerous.”
Our discussion concluded, we walk the several hundred feet from the meeting hall to the cemetery beside the church, a trim structure in red brick dating from the early 20th century. (The American Women’s Club of Amsterdam has contributed to the upkeep of the graves and been a co-organizer of the annual ceremony.)
The eight graves themselves are shielded from public view by a low U-shaped hedge. They face away from the street, as though to further guard the privacy of the men. They were originally buried with simple wooden crosses. But by 1962 these had deteriorated in the weather and were replaced by white marble headstones, carved in the same style found in other American military cemeteries.
The graves are arranged in a line, neither alphabetically nor by rank. From left to right: George Richard Krueger; Mike Anthony Perrotta; Daniel Victor Ohman; Hermon Daines Poling; Harold Royce Sparks; Robert Urquhart Duggan; Douglas Victor Blackwood; and Americo Cianfichi. Reading their names and birthplaces — North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, California, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin — offers a glimpse at the ethnic and geographic breadth of the U.S. Army that fought together in World War II. Most piercing is their youth. Doing the math from their listed birthdays, I calculated that they died, respectively, aged 25, 22, 25, 21, 21, 21, 24, 27.
Jansen then led our automotive caravan to the field where Man-O-War went down. The field remains a field. The farmhouse where one of the airmen fell without a parachute through the roof is still a whitewashed and thatched farmhouse. How many landscapes in the United States or in Europe, I wonder, look as they did 75 years ago?
The most visible tribute in the village to the lives of the eight airmen can be seen in a group of homes a short distance from the church. As one of his last and most ambitious acts as mayor, Jansen proposed the construction of 86 housing units for Opijnen. His plan was supported by the American Women’s Club of Amsterdam, led for many years by Nancy Tschirhart Koster, an American who has acted as unofficial archivist and connector for the families of those who crashed that day in 1943. It was decided to name the streets after the American crew on Man-O-War. The housing complex officially opened in 2006.
A small park in the center of the low-rise buildings is named McCammonplein — after the plane’s surviving pilot, 2nd Lt. Keene C. McCammon. At one end of this oval is the only true monument in Opijnen to the events of 1943: the shadowy silhouette of an airplane, at reduced scale, outlined in bricks and imprinted on the grass.
The design by Dutch artist Joris Baudoin is anything but imposing. There is only one three-dimensional element: a reconstruction in concrete of the vertical tail section from the bomber, about half size, with Man-O-War’s markings: a white triangle signifying the 1st Air Division of the Eighth Army Air Force, a red “A” for the 91st Bombardment Group, a “V” for the 323rd Bomb Squadron, along with the serial number.
Beginning in the 1980s, McCammon and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. John Bruce, often attended Memorial Day in Opijnen with their families. McCammon died in 2003 at age 87 before seeing the park named in his honor. Bruce, who had gone on to a distinguished career in the U.S. Air Force, lived until 2007. In 2004, he sent an email to the then-president of the American Women’s Club of Amsterdam: “I find nowadays that I get emotional about some things and the detailed events of that day can do it,” he wrote. “I knew those young men just 4 months but nothing of their private lives but they dwell forever in my heart.” At the village’s Memorial Day ceremonies in 2006, Bruce had a chance to visit the housing complex, to walk along Brucestraat, and to express in a speech his gratitude and love to the people of Opijnen for honoring his men and the plane they flew. “The young,” he recalled, “came from all walks of life, answering the call of duty in the fight against a ruthless war machine.”
The crews that flew B-17s in 1943 suspected when they went out on a mission that the odds were relatively high they wouldn’t come back. Fully 20 percent of the U.S. bombers in the Eighth Army Air Force were lost in 1943. In October alone, 176 planes were destroyed — nearly six a day.
The idea of a round-the-clock Combined Bomber Offensive was developed by the allies at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. It was decided that Americans would hit German military targets during the day, while the British would strike at night, both military and civilian sites.
Bombing on such a concerted scale had never been tried before by the United States and Britain, and strategies for defending large formations of planes, against antiaircraft fire and Luftwaffe fighters, were similarly untested. Before they had their own fighter escorts, beginning in 1944, B-17s had only one another for protection. The constant vulnerability to enemy fire — arriving suddenly, from any direction — and the constant vigilance against the likely possibility of being hit meant that pilot burnout was a constant for everyone who flew on these bombers.
First Lt. Robert Duggan seemed to have a presentiment of his fate during the last weeks of July 1943. More privileged in his background than his fellow crew members, he had grown up in a wealthy suburb of Long Island. He was a sophomore at Harvard when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. During winter break, the 20-year-old enlisted. After training he was commissioned a second lieutenant in July 1942, and in October sent to England to join the Eighth Army Air Force.
Between November 1942 and February 1943, he flew 13 combat missions as a navigator on a B-17F over France, the Netherlands and Germany before being relieved from operations and assigned to be a flight instructor for several months. Some of his letters to his stepfather, Fairman Dick, and his mother, Elise Urquhart Dick, are remarkably blunt about the war. He was adamant that he not be considered a hero.
When awarded the Oak Leaf Cluster, he warned his mother in an April 1943 letter not to “get wrought up over this decoration business as it is purely courtesy. There is absolutely nothing heroic about this business. It is not even exciting. It is just a job — terrifying, granted, but not thrilling — a laborious routine, nasty job.”
While on leave in London, he experienced his first air raid and enjoyed it by comparison: “Very interesting and incredibly noisy. To me not frightening at all. It was very comforting to be in a huge city with a little pinpoint in the sky shooting at you, rather than to have all the Luftwaffe after you. Perhaps if they had hit closer to me I would think differently.”
Left to reflect on what combat was doing to him, he did not like what he saw. “Anything you read about war ennobling people and sacrifices and that sort of rot you can laugh at,” he wrote his mother in a letter postmarked June 26. “War is compounded of drudgery and boredom, occasionally spiced with moments of fear and a sort of humor — the latter brought out by cynicism or alcohol. It narrows the mind, dulls the faculties, and even obscures the sight.”
He was returned to active duty in late July and flew over Germany on the 25th, 26th, 28th and 29th. With attrition increasing that summer at a deadly pace, many of the crews became mixes and matches. His first assigned bomber, the Vertigo, had been shot to pieces while he was an instructor. When Man-O-War’s regular navigator went down in another plane a few days before July 30, Duggan became his replacement. His last mission was thus also his first mission with this particular group of men.
Before taking off into the dangerous skies, many airmen wrote letters to be sent in the event of their deaths. Duggan wrote two on July 24. The first one is to his stepfather:
This is only if killed or missing. If worried about missing, give it up because over 50% of our crews are prisoners and don’t let Ma worry.
We’re going out again tomorrow. I’m not scared any more, and I’ve even given up feeling sorry for myself. I just don’t give a damn. Everyone has to go and this at least looks well. Cheer up, Cuthbert.
Take care of Ma . …
I’m sorry I couldn’t give you more details about this racket — there really isn’t much to do — just shoot your way in and drop the bombs and shoot your way out again.
His letter to his mother, dated the same day, is more personal:
This is not to be mailed unless I am killed or missing. First of all I want you to understand that missing does not necessarily mean anything — well over half of the Fortress crews shot down are prisoners of war — some even escape. So don’t worry too much.
I am writing this to tell you how wonderful you have always been to me, and that, although I may not have shown it, I have always appreciated you. It has taken war to show me how much.
You know I have had more fun with you all than with anyone else, which is as it should be but rare nowadays. I think I have been amazingly lucky to have known you.
I can’t be noble about the war — I don’t really feel any exaggerated patriotism. I suppose I am fighting for my own egotism and my background rather than my country.
We are going out again tomorrow. It’s funny — I don’t even feel scared any more. I just don’t care. Still, I have torn up one of these — I may live to tear up this one.
Lots of love, Bobby
P.S. I hope you don’t mind my not having told you I am back on ops — but you do worry so.
The furious letter-writing and activities of his mother from the 1940s and ’50s — petitioning the other families and the U.S. government to allow the bodies of the eight men to remain in Opijnen — indicate a need to do something to mitigate the depths of her loss (which was only made more acute by the fact that her other son, Robert’s older brother Philip, had earlier committed suicide). She was, it appears, the driving force that allowed this unusual arrangement to happen.
Memory is a responsibility, a task made easier by the written word as well as memorials. In the World War II military cemeteries across Europe, at Normandy and Margraten, it’s easier to feel the scale of the soldiers’ sacrifice by walking among the acres of headstones. The U.S. government spends millions of dollars every year to make sure that the grounds are in perfect repair. Large crowds gather on Memorial Day and Veterans Day for ceremonies honoring the dead and their families.
Whether that same sense of connection to the past can be secured in the indefinite future among the people in Opijnen is harder to imagine, although Peter den Tek, an amateur Dutch historian who researches and lectures about the air battles between 1940 and 1945, doesn’t believe that will ever be an issue. “Opijnen shows what appreciation is,” he told me. “The men are buried there, on that spot, close to where they died. That has created an almost everlasting link between the Netherlands and America. That’s how I look at it.” (He pointed out that the British government had allowed its R.A.F. pilots, killed over Europe during World War II, to be buried near the towns and villages where their planes were shot down, and that these sites in France and Italy had created unusually strong mutual bonds.)
Ton Jansen was less certain that rituals of gratitude are eternal, more philosophical about the cycles of history. The ceremonies at the church in Opijnen were discontinued once during his lifetime; when seated with the villagers who revived the annual ceremony, I asked him if it might be abandoned again.
“It depends on Trump and what he is going to do,” he said, laughing darkly. “Seventy-five years ago, Germany was our enemy. Now it is our ally, an example of a Rechtsstaat” — a righteous state. He was pessimistic that the United States under this president would be the admired nation it had been.
Before leaving Opijnen, I stopped for a last visit at the church and the cemetery, where I felt eerily alone. The street in front was empty, the villagers having withdrawn into their homes for supper. Only when I turned the corner did I hear a sound: the voices of residents in the housing development where the streets are named after the 10 airmen — the eight who died, the two who survived — and where the outline of their B-17 is a playground feature of a park.
Listening in the dusk, it occurred to me how much of our memory is below the threshold of consciousness. The people who live here will likely never know anything about the Americans who went down in a plane not far away. But their lives are nonetheless woven together, as generations learn to say “Blackwoodstraat,” “Dugganstraat,” “Ohmanstraat,” “Polingstraat,” “Sparksstraat,” “Perrottastraat,” “Cianfichipoort,” “Kruegerpad,” “Brucestraat” and “McCammonplein” — children memorizing and reciting these foreign names, if only to reassure their parents that they can find their way home at night.
Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York. He is writing a book on photography and violence for Yale University Press.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that outside of one vast U.S. military cemetery farther south, Opijnen is the only place in the Netherlands where American soldiers who died in that country during World War II are buried. The memorial in Opijnen is the only place in the Netherlands where American airmen who perished as a crew are buried as they died — side by side.