Garveston villagers prepare to commemorate American servicemen who died in second world war plane crash
06:30 06 June 2012
They were a dozen young men plucked from communities across America to fight a war on a distant continent, but their tragic deaths left an indelible mark on a mid-Norfolk village.
Now, 68 years after an explosive-laden US B-24 Liberator crashed into an unoccupied cottage in Garveston, near Dereham, residents will today unveil a permanent memorial to the 10 airmen and two firefighters who perished there.
The plane was on the way to Europe to bomb German positions ahead of the D-Day landings, and it had taken off from near North Pickenham airfield at about 5.20pm on a bright and sunny June 4, 1944.
But at about 17,000ft pilot Raymond Sachtleben banked steeply to avoid colliding with another plane, and his Liberator stalled and fell, with engines screaming, to the ground. None of the crew – who were on their ninth mission together - survived.
Firemen Monroe Atchley and Ted Bunalski, based at Shipdham, were off duty when they heard the news and rushed to the scene on the first fire truck, but were killed by exploding bombs while fighting the flames.
One witness was Michael Garrod, then a young boy and now a parish councillor, who proposed the memorial two years ago, anxious to commemorate the event “before it drops out of living memory”.
For two years, a small group led by Tony Cadney raised £4,000 and came to know some of the victims as individuals as their research took them deeper and deeper.
“I think they were just ordinary people doing an extraordinary job. They were the boy next door,” he said.
“One of them, young Ted Bunalski, was the captain of his football team at school and captain of his hockey team. He had a mother who had lost her husband and there were three other sisters.
“His mother did not think he was flying because he was a fireman and he got blown apart by his own bombs. Suddenly she got a telegram that he was dead.
“That’s when you realise each man was an integral part of a community and some of those communities were isolated and some of them were totally shaken by these losses.”
Just two days before the crash, Staff Sgt Paul DeBrular wrote a last, poignant letter to his aunt and uncle with news of a promotion that let him boast he now outranked his three brothers.
He concluded: “When and if I ever get back to Indiana, I’m just going to wait for your invitation to come for a visit and then I’m going to head right for Cromwell and a good long rest.
“I’ll fatten up on your cooking, and a snooze under the two big maples. Just somewhere where there isn’t a lot of rushing about and ceaseless noise.”
Atchley, a firefighter, from Brownsville, Kentucky, had separated from his wife before coming to England, and died without knowing she had borne him a child.
Tony Cadney said: “It’s the biggest thing that has happened to the village, It was the most poignant and obvious contact they had with the second world war. It was the biggest loss of life in the village since the black death.
“[The surviving witnesses] feel their own mortality and I think they feel they have got to leave a mark behind for this very tragic event in their lives because it does affect everybody. There’s something very deep in everybody when there’s a very large loss of life.”
Today, a GI bride from Garveston who witnessed the crash before moving to America, 10 relatives of Staff Sgt DeBrular and an American wartime B-24 pilot will join surviving witnesses and villagers for the memorial’s dedication.
They will be joined by two pilots from RAF Lakenheath and the Air Attaché from the US Embassy, Col Sonny Blinkinsop.
Members of the public are invited to the ceremony, which will take place at 4.30pm in the field behind Garveston village hall.
American Connections, a celebration of Norfolk’s close relationship with America throughout the centuries, will run from July 4 to November’s Thanksgiving Day this year.
To see pictures of the unveiling buy tomorrow’s EDP.