Oct 10, 2012 Ned Campbell Uncategorized
The story of how Sheila Vester, Fayetteville-Manlius High School Class of ‘72, was reunited with her father’s military past is unlikely.
It all started in 2001, when Dutch archivist Erwin de Mooij came across some boxes of unknown materials, which he found to be from the wreckage of the Jayhawk — a B-17 bomber that crashed between the Dutch towns of Lisse and Sassenheim on Sept. 26, 1944, during World War II. The plane parts had been archived in 1986 after being unearthed as a bulb field was dug up.
The plane was flying from England to Osnabruk, Germany, on a mission to bomb a railway supply depot, and on its way back to England its nose was blown off by German navy flak. One crew member was fatally wounded in the crash, while the other eight crew members jumped into the lake below; one of them drowned.
“Of the seven survivors, three were caught by Germans and four were hidden by Dutch farmers,” said Vester, a nurse who now lives in Lancaster, N.Y. “And of those three that were caught by Germans, one of them was led on a death march but survived it.”
The Dutch writer Harold Jansen had written a few pages about the crash in his book “Flight 648,” but de Mooij wanted to know more.
“So I wrote a short message on the 457th bomb group website and soon I received an email from the son of the co-pilot and later from the daughter of the ball turret gunner,” he said.
That gunner would have been United States Army Air Corps Sgt. William Goodfellow, Vester’s father, at age 19, had he not shot himself in the hand while cleaning his gun the night before, leaving him in the hospital. Leo Chermack took his place in the mission.
An article in the Sept. 29, 1944, edition of the Eagle Bulletin addressed that Goodfellow was being treated for injuries in a hospital, but said no further details were given, adding: “The word came through a letter written by a buddy, who said Bill was unable to write because of an injury to his hand.”
“My father never made the flight, and I didn’t know that,” Vester said. “But Erwin included my dad because it was his crew, it was all his friends, the guys he flew with. My dad had stories about each and every one of them.”
Goodfellow was a mail carrier for the Fayetteville Post Office for 33 years, and raised three children — Sheila, Cheryl and William Goodfellow III — with his wife Pauline.
De Mooij would eventually find the name “Bill Goodfellow” in a newspaper article about young servicemen who fought in WWII. He then did what he always does when faced with a name and little more: wrote letters to as many people as he could find within the area whose last name was also “Goodfellow” and hoped for someone to respond.
“That someone was Sheila Vester,” de Mooij said.
Vester called de Mooij after hearing from her uncle that de Mooij was investigating the plane crash, which before then she had heard nothing about. She grew up hearing stories about her dad’s time as a B-17 gunner, but he never shared anything too graphic, she said.
“We didn’t know anything about it,” she said.
Vester’s family was one of the last crew members’ families de Mooij was able to track down.
“And how he got a hold of my uncle, I don’t know,” Vester said. “Because ‘Goodfellow’ is kind of a common name out this way. It’s like ‘Smith’ anywhere else.”
At the time, de Mooij hoped the families would teach him something about their fathers’ time in WWII, and hoped to help them find eyewitnesses of the crash in order to provide them with information.
“But one day I thought that I wanted to do more,” he said. “You see, I had been doing presentations for schoolchildren, elderly people, historical societies, etc., and I was shocked that few people knew about this crash.”
“More” ended up being a stone monument erected in the town of Lisse, population 22,000, to honor the flight’s crew members. It all came to fruition with a dedication ceremony on Sept. 15 at a church in Lisse, where 27 descendents of the original flight crew planned to attend. Some of the original townspeople who witnessed the crash were also invited. At the end of the ceremony, a B-25 Mitchell performed a flyby.
Vester called it “the most memorable event I’ve ever been to.”
“We were transported to the church in Lisse by Army vehicles and I chose to ride in the front of an Army Jeep!” she said. “The ride was a beautiful one, through the small town, along narrow cobblestone roads amongst the curious Dutch citizens. I felt as though I had been transported back to 1945! When we arrived at the church, I was surprised to see it surrounded by hundreds of people, media, journalists, cameramen, etc.”
When she walked into the church, the first thing she saw was her father’s portrait, which de Mooij had blown up to poster-size.
“It reminded me of the very reason for being there, and I immediately burst into tears,” she said.
De Mooij couldn’t have been more thrilled to help make it all happen.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am and how honored I have been with a few others to have been able to bring this ultimate tribute to this ‘Greatest Generation,’” he said. “A nearby school will adopt the monument, this way preserving the story and teaching about war and sacrifice.”
The Dutch archivist is helping Harold Jansen, the author of “Flight 648,” write a book about the B-17 crash and crew members.
“The book will be amazing and it will be written in English,” he said. “For me and Harold and for everybody involved it will be a closing of many, many years of research, sharing information and completing separate stories and melting them in one.”
Ned Campbell is the editor of the Eagle Bulletin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.