The B-17 Memorial

In early March 1998 a long-standing resident of Birdbrook, and one who recalls the crash well, Mr. Eddie Pearson, mentioned to the Rector how fitting it would be to remember in the church the victims of the crash.  In late March the Parochial Church Council gladly accepted the idea, and it was decided to explore the possibility of installing a stained-glass window.  It was hoped that it would be possible to trace and contact relatives of the airman, and rekindle parish links with the U.S. thus giving the Millennium celebrations an international dimension. 


 Rector forges U.S. Link for new memorial

Nearly 100 letters have been sent to people in America by the Rev. Michael Hewitt, rector of Ridgewell in the hope of tracing relatives of ten American airmen killed when their plane crashed at Birdbrook in 1944.  Mr. Hewitt said he had now heard from three of the families and one woman, who had been married to one of the airmen, would be travelling from her home in the States for a commemorative church service in Birdbrook on March 26.

A plaque engraved with the names of the men, who were mostly in their late teens or early 20s, will be dedicated at the service.  Mr. Hewitt said he wrote to 95 families in eight different states and was pleased to make contact with some of the families through his letters. 

The men from the 381st Bomber Group at Ridgewell, were in a B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Bailey Hill Farm.  All the crew died.  A representative from the 381st Memorial Association is also expected to travel to the service from America.  The service, and dedication, will be at St. Augustine Church, Birdbrook, at 10am.  The 1451 (Haverhill) ATC will provide the quard of honour.

It was Eddie Pearson, from Birdbrook, who recalled the crash and suggested to Mr. Hewitt that something should be put up in the church to remember the men.  The parochial church council readily agreed.  Mr. Hewitt was pleased with response and said it was always going to be the case that many letters would have to be sent in the hope of contacting the families but if only one person had been in touch it would have beem worthwhile.

Above is from a newspaper cutting given to us by Mary Sare but has no date or source, presume Haverhill Echo.

  Memorial for American airmen

A Church service commemarating ten airmen who lost their lives at Birdbrook during World War Two was held on Sunday.  The Rev. Michael Hewitt, who took the service at St. Augustine Church Birdbrook, paid tribute to the men and unveiled a plaque situated inside the church.

Mr. Hewitt, who is rector at Ridgewell, recently sent out over 90 letters to relatives of the men.  One of the people who replied, Mrs. Bemis from Kansas, whose husband was one of the men who died, attended the service with her daughter.  Mr. Hewitt told the Echo that he felt the presence of Mrs. Bemis "respresented the other nine families".  He also expressed his delight at the number of people who attended which he estimated was over 125.

Fittingly, the service was held just two days after the 56th anniversary of the incident which saw men from the 381st Bomber Group at Ridgewell crash at Bailey Hill Farm


Dorothy Bemis points to the plaque as air training corps cadets, Lois Woods, Bobby Wright and James Grambrell look on.

Above newspaper cutting from Haverhill Echo given to us by Mary Sare.

 Memorial Day to bring closure for Hays woman


Dorothy Bemis remembers World War !! in her Hays home Friday.  Bemis recently attended a memorial service for her husband, Ralph, and the crew of his B-17 bomber near where the plane crashed in Essex, England.

There is at least one Hays woman who has been anticipating this Memorial Day for what seems like an eternity.  Finally, Dorothy Bemis' moment has come.  Fifty-six years after her husband's death in World War II, this is the first Memorial Day that she can claim a sense of closure.

When Japanese soldiers released their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Bemis was a sophomore at Kansas State University.  "Some of the male students came back (after Christmas vacation), but some of them just stayed home because they knew they were going to be drafted," she said.  "By the end of the first semester, it was basically a women's campus."  She remembers working for the college newspaper and "writing obituary after obituary after obituary" - all the while, her sweetheart was studying in the Army Air Force Cadet program.  She added, "Ralph enlisted as soon as Pearl Harbor hit - that way he was ahead of some of the college students that were drafted."



As he pursued his military training, Bemis remained at Kansas State University.  In July of 1943 Ralph and Dorothy Bemis were married in the air base chapel in Enid, Okla.  "We had five months together," she said.  Then, in January 1944, after 2nd Lt. Ralph Bemis' graduation, he was sent into the European Theater.  "After he got his wings, they were pretty sure that they were going to England," she said.  After his first two months in Europe, he was called in as a replacement co-pilot for a mission on March 24, 1944.  "The original co-pilot had reported ill and he was called in to substitute," she recalls.  "The doctors checked them out every morning."

Loaded with a first aid kit, an emergency ration of dried food and some escape tools, Ralph Bemis took the co-pilot's seat aboard the B-17.  He was one of 10 crew men on board that day.  Then something went wrong.  Bemis' plane went down.  There was no survivors of the crash.  At just 23, Bemis was one of the first from Ellis County to die in World War II.  "It was a brand new plane, they had never used it," Dorothy Bemis said.  "They were a new crew; they had only been in for two weeks."  but no matter her justification tools, Bemis, who kept her same last name after she married Robert "Guy" Bemis - her first husband's younger brother - said there had never been a way to combat the horrific thoughts that plagued her.

However, that changed when she received an invitation from a British parish to visit the crash site and be part of a memorial service for the crew of that Flying Fortress.  "They had planned this for two years, but hadn't had any response," she said.  The 381st Bomb Group has an Internet site, and members of this Anglican parish, a group of four neighboring churches in Essex, England, had tried to find next of kin for the American crew that had died within their fields.  "They wanted to do something for the new millennium, and because this was the only plane that crashed in the area of these four churches,"  she said.  Their initial efforts did not find connections to any of the 10 men who lost their lives inside their parish.  But finally, their luck changed.  "I just couldn't believe it," she said as tears welled in her eyes.  At first, she was not sure if she was going to go, "but I'm so glad that my kids made me."


Ironically, a week before her trip, one of her daughters and son-in-law were vacationing in England.  They were able to make special arrangements with the parish to visit the crash site.  "At the site, they found a live bullet just laying there," she said.  "That field had been plowed over all these years."  so one week later, Bemis and another daughter, Faye Palmer, Wichita, flew into Cambridge just days before the official memorial service was to take place at the parish.  While in Cambridge, she visited the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, the place where her husband had first been buried.  His body remained there, part of a group burial, until the war was over and his body was flown to Zachary Taylor Memorial Cemetery in Louisville, Ky.  "We were famous people there," she said.  "People wanted to shake my hand.  I've never had so many hugs and kisses in my life."  She added, "The people there loved the American soldiers."

On March 26, Bemis - the only relative that was able to attend the memorial - was asked to speak about her husband.  She said it was not until she had spent some time with the local people that she could have thought about writing her speech.  "I never trembled.  It was like being with family," she said.  "It was a very touching and warm service."  Throughout her visit, Bemis said there were multiple times that she was awed by her English hosts.  For this particular parish, British rule demands that only the Saint George flag be raised from the church flag pole.  "But they flew the United States flag everyday that we were there.  They had to adapt their flag pole to make it work," she said.  "I said 'won't you get into trouble,' and they felt that this was more important."

Now a granite memorial wall inside the Saint Augustine Birdbrook church, lists the names of the 10-member crew that died near that community.  Historians believe the church dates back to the 11th century.  "Bless their hearts, they don't even have a memorial for the boys who died from their own parish, but that's what they're doing next," she said.  "That granite plaque will be there for another 1,000 years.  It gave me chills one day thinking about it." 


Ralph Bemis is shown in January 1944 just before going to war. 

The above article comes from The Hays Daily News, Sunday, May 28, 2000 and again given to us by Mary Sare.
For more information on the crash click here B-17 Crash

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