The Arundel Bomber: Who were the men and what actually happened?

Work to recover the remains of the crew of an American bomber that crashed in a farmer’s field in Arundel in June 1944 has been completed but who were the men and what actually happened?

Co-project investigator Mark Khan has shared his historical analysis report, which he created to provide context to the crash which saw an American B-24 Liberator heavy bomber nose dive into the ground with three of the crew still on board.

The pilot, 2nd Lieutenant William Bailey Montgomery, co-pilot Flight Officer John J. Crowther and TSgt John Holoka went down with the plane on June 22, 1944.

Fg Off Crowther was listed as Killed in Action and his remains were repatriated but 2d Lt Montgomery and TSgt John Holoka are still listed as Missing in Action.

The crew pictured in May 1944 at Halesworth. In the front row, left to right, is 2nd Lieutenant Herbert K. King, 2nd Lieutenant D. M. Henderson, Lieutenant William Bailey Montgomery and Flight Officer John J. Crowther. Staff Sergeant Richard M. Rodriguez is believed to be second row, far right, but the others as yet, have not been confirmed. Picture provided by Mark Khan, courtesy of Kenneth Whitehead.

The seven other crew members, navigator 2nd Lieutenant Herbert K. King, radio operator Sergeant Joseph A. Foley, bombardier 2nd Lieutenant D. M. Henderson, tail gunner Staff Sergeant Edwin J. Sumner, ball turret gunner Staff Sergeant Pearl Toothman and waist gunners Staff Sergeant Richard M. Rodriguez and Staff Sergeant Aaron D. Roper all bailed out and were able to return to duty.

The plane had taken off from its base at Halesworth in Suffolk to take part in an 8th Air Force tactical bombing mission. Along with 42 other aircraft of the 2nd Bomb Division, they were to attack the airfield at St Cyr, south-west of Paris.

The aircraft sustained severe damage caused by anti-aircraft fire while attacking the target. The only operable controls were one rudder and elevator.

The pilots and crew managed to nurse the aircraft back to the British coast but unfortunately, for reasons unknown, it crashed.

The pasture land at Park Farm where the plane crashed was excavated in December 1974 and has been dug up several times since. During these excavations, various aircraft parts, the guns and larger surviving parts, including the engines, prop hubs and armoured seats, were recovered but their whereabouts is unknown.

In June 2017, a team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) visited the site, with the permission of the Seller family, which runs the farm. Mark was brought in to help the team understand the history of aircraft wreck recovery and the licence process.

Mark gathered various accounts relating to the crash, including a first-hand account from John Seller, who was about ten and living in the farm cottages at the time.

Recording his recollections in the 1970s, he said: “At about 9pm, I had started to get ready for bed when there was a thunderous scream of a plane in a power dive then bump of it hitting the ground.

“About 15 minutes later, I slipped out and went behind the farm buildings to where I could see the crash site (some 300 yards away). The fireball was long gone out, the only sign was the scorched area of ripening barley in the next field.

“There was little sign of debris in the grass field, only the dirt around five craters. There was very little smoke coming from the craters by then.

“The following morning I walked down the lane past the site some 75 yards away and could hear the ammunition exploding underground.

“A guard was placed to keep people away whilst the ammunition was still going off from time to time. The holes smouldered for about 10 days before one last flare up and then going out.

“Once it was safe, I took the first chance to inspect the crash site. I found that the plane had come down near vertically, the wings at about 45 degrees to the ditch and fence. This was confirmed by the digger driver who excavated it in 1974.

“One wing hit the ground before the other as one side outer wing was crumpled in a slot in the ground, while the other had sheared off and shot some 40 yards across the neighbouring field.

“I found a piece of wing about 6ft x 2ft, by far the biggest piece of debris on the whole site. Also there was more small debris collected from the barley field than the grass field where the plane landed. The pile of debris collected from the grass field grew by about three times when ‘all hands’ were set to clear the barley field ready to harvest. I would estimate that 90 per cent of the plane ended up in the ground.

“My father told me at least three of the survivors did manage to get to see the site and speak to him.”

Colin Bruce, a member of the 1974 recovery team, also witnessed the crash. He was a member of the Royal Observer Corps, on duty at Elmer and said this particular aircraft was observed to be in trouble as it was trailing smoke.

In the official Missing Air Crew Report, it states the plane was hit very hard by flak as it passed over the target airfield.

The plane made a sharp turn to the right with some loss of altitude before the pilot and co-pilot could bring it under control. By now, they were so far out of formation, they were unable to join it again. Instead, they flew below another formation of B24s until they crossed the French coast and were then given a heading back to the English coast.

But as they were flying over the briefed point of entry to the English coast, the co-pilot gave the order to bail out. Four men landed in the sea, one on the beach and two in a field.

The plane went into a power dive and crashed into the ground. The survivors said the bomb-bay doors, the logical way for the pilot, co-pilot and engineer to escape, were peppered with flak holes and never opened.

One ended his report with the words ‘Rough day’.