I received this message earlier today:
Hi Luanne, I just read your Veterans Day. It was very nicely done. My father, Lt John E Drilling, replaced your father as the Bombardier in the Simon Crew. He survived the crash near Rostock, Germany on August 25, 1944. My brother and I are going to Rostock on August 25, 2013 to attend a special memorial service for Lt Simon, Lt Dzanaj,Lt Barkell, and Sgt Saint. Jim Drilling
I was so moved to receive the note, all the more so because it arrived on Memorial Day weekend. Although I've never met Jim Drilling, we are members of the same "Band of Cousins." Our fathers served in World War II--flying with the Simon Crew at different times. My father trained in the States with these men. With John Simon as pilot, they trained in B-24 Liberators, then shipped overseas to North Pickenham, England, and flew many missions together.
My father and these men had gone through so much from the very beginning, and when he was transferred to a different lead crew, he refused to leave them until his new crew forcibly carried his belongings to their Nissan hut on the air base.
On one of the next missions Lt. John Simon and his crew were shot down. My father went through life believing all his friends had been lost. The story is more complicated than that. Rolland Swank, a researcher who works mainly through the U.S. Army Air Forces website, recently contacted me. He has been working with Lutz Müller, a teacher in Rostock Germany, to help Mr. Müller and his students uncover information about this and other WWII crashes. Rolland gave me this information:
When the 492nd BG was broken up, the Simon crew went to the 446th Bomb Group. They were a lead crew with two new members, John Drilling the new bombardier and Frederick Colligan the radar operator.
The Simon crew flew perhaps two missions with the 446th. The last mission was to Rostock on August 25, 1944. The 446th lost two planes on this mission. The first plane was lost over the North Sea on the way to the target. All crew members of that plane are still MIA. The Simon plane, however, flew all the way to the target. Exactly when they left the formation is still not clear, but they left the formation with two engines smoking either just before the target or at the target. Once the Simon plane left the formation, they flew north to the Baltic Sea with the intent of flying to Sweden. At some point perhaps just as they started across the Baltic, they turned back and flew right along the coast just west of Rostock. You will see some maps on the Drive where we have tried to figure out their exact route.
The plane flew west then south as the crew bailed out until only the pilot and copilot, Simon and Dzanaj, were left in the plane. At that point the plane was virtually uncontrollable. We believe Dzanaj then bailed out and Simon went down with the plane and was found in the wreckage. Barkell, the navigator had drifted just offshore after he bailed out, and we have located a witness who saw him shot in the water by some locals who rowed out from shore in a boat. His body came ashore many days later and was buried at Warnemunde.
Two other crewmen were shot by local Nazis and their bodies where buried in a sandpit. Later members of a local church at Steffenshagen dug up the bodies and reburied them as unknowns in the church cemetery. We believe those two were Garnett Saint, the nose gunner, and John Dzanaj, the copilot.
After the war, four bodies were recovered from the area. Simon is still listed MIA and we suspect his body could not be identified. One of the hopes of our investigation is to figure out what happened to Simon.
Memorial Day 2013: I am thinking of my father, who survived a different crash with a different crew, and who came home at the end of the war but still died too young--age 57, in 1978. And I am thinking of the men he flew with and those he did not, and all the men and women who have died serving our country. Sending love to all of them, and to Jim Drilling and his dad Lt. John E. Drilling, Ernie Haar and his family (including my Facebook friend Cris Haar Payne); Ed Alexander and his family; the late Lt. Charles Arnett and his family Anna, Paul, David, and others; the beloved Norma and late Lt. Bill Beasley; all the 492nd; and the Band of Cousins including Brian Mahoney, Pat Byrne, and everyone I've met and haven't yet met.
Thanks also to my sister Maureen Rice Onorato and our cousin Thomas Brielmann, for his constant encouragement and following our father's B-24 story so closely.
[the photo at top of page shows Lt. John Simon pinning a medal on my father, Lt. Thomas F. Rice. Going down the page, photos of B-24 Liberators, the air base at North Pickenham, and the Simon Crew with notes penned on the back. So painful to know John Simon died soon after this photo was taken. Love to him and his family.]