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Family honour airman who died in horror air crash in 1944

PUBLISHED: 17:16 18 December 2019 | UPDATED: 18:31 18 December 2019

John Marx, from the USA, at the cross to commemorate the B24 Liberator crash at Hardwick airfield 75 years ago with the loss of all the crew including his uncle, pilot Robert Marx. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

John Marx, from the USA, at the cross to commemorate the B24 Liberator crash at Hardwick airfield 75 years ago with the loss of all the crew including his uncle, pilot Robert Marx. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2019

In freezing fog 75 years ago today, 11 men died after a horror air crash seconds after take-off in Norfolk - the pilot's family from America are here to remember their sacrifice.

A newspaper cutting telling of the death of pilot Robert Marx, in the B24 Liberator crash at Hardwick airfield. Picture: Colin MannA newspaper cutting telling of the death of pilot Robert Marx, in the B24 Liberator crash at Hardwick airfield. Picture: Colin Mann

They stood at the edge of a waterlogged field, close to the simple wooden cross that linked them to the American pilot who perished along with his 10-strong crew in Norfolk, 75 years ago today.

Family members, friends, supporters, and villagers bowed their heads as they commemorated an unhappy anniversary, one of the worst air crashes in Norfolk's aviation history that took place just a few short days before Christmas in 1944 and a week before the pilot's 23rd birthday.

On a misty morning, pale light filtering through thick cloud, there was only a faint echo of the conditions in which First Lieutenant Robert Marx from 93rd Bomb Group approached the runway at Hardwick Airfield at 10am on December 19 in his B24 Liberator.

Through thick fog, he was forced to make an "instrument take-off" due to the terrible weather. Tasked with supporting American soldiers engaged in the Battle of the Bulge, the plane was carrying 12 500lb bombs.

The B24 Liberator bomber flying, back. Picture: Marx familyThe B24 Liberator bomber flying, back. Picture: Marx family

It was airborne for seconds.

A mile from the runway, the plane smashed into oak trees at Burnt Oak Farm in Alburgh, eight of the 12 bombs exploded and the entire crew of 11 was killed in an instant - other crews taking off from Hardwick had no idea what had happened and continued on their mission, only to be recalled back to base as they approached Belgium.

At the farm, Hugh Goose was 18-months-old and had been watching planes take off from his kitchen window: "My mother told me that suddenly I was blown from one side of the room to the other by the force of the explosion 200 yards away," he said.

"In 1951 when the land close to the crash site was cleared, they found a live 500lb bomb buried in the ground. As children we'd messed around there, jumped on that bump in the ground..."

The memorial cross commemorating the crew of the B24 Liberator American aircraft who were killed when it crashed in fog just after take off at the Hardwick airfield. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe memorial cross commemorating the crew of the B24 Liberator American aircraft who were killed when it crashed in fog just after take off at the Hardwick airfield. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

After the crash and without an enemy to blame for the disaster, the sorrow ran deeper than if the crew had been lost in battle.

Nine of pilot Robert Marx's American family visited Hardwick yesterday to pay their respects at the place where he died: today they will attend his grave at the American Military Cemetery at Cambridge.

Hempnall group Vicar Liz Billett held a service of remembrance and thanks at which Normandy veteran David Woodrow - who owns Airfield Farm at Hardwick - and two of Marx's nephews told the story of the fated flight and laid a wreath at the cross.

John Marx remembers his family talking about Uncle Bob, his father's younger brother: "They spoke of him with high regard. He and my Dad were close in age and they'd been good friends, we grew up knowing that Uncle Bob had been a hero."

Rev Liz Billett leads the memorial service to mark the 75th anniversary of the crashed B24 Liberator, near the crash site at Hardwick airfield, with members of the pilot's family attending from the USA and local people. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYRev Liz Billett leads the memorial service to mark the 75th anniversary of the crashed B24 Liberator, near the crash site at Hardwick airfield, with members of the pilot's family attending from the USA and local people. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The former military man made his first visit in 1992, when he was stationed in Germany, and has researched his uncle's history and discovered what happened in December 1944.

"I felt it was our duty to remember Robert and what he sacrificed for freedom. He means a great deal to all of us. I have visited many times and am always so touched to see how respectful people in Norfolk are and how important this is to them, too."

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Back in Pennsylvania, Robert's mother was preparing for his father Ernest's funeral the next day when a telegram arrived announcing that her son had been killed in action.

The memorial service to mark the 75th anniversary of the crashed B24 Liberator near the crash site at Hardwick airfield, with members of the pilot's family attending from the USA, and some local people. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe memorial service to mark the 75th anniversary of the crashed B24 Liberator near the crash site at Hardwick airfield, with members of the pilot's family attending from the USA, and some local people. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Her boy had been away from home since 1943, had flown 19 missions and been awarded the air medal and two oak leaf clusters: two of her children went on to name their own children Robert.

One, Robert Porter, was making his first trip to Norfolk.

"I feel very emotional, being in the place where the man I am named for died. We are so proud of Robert and it's important that we remember him and the men that died alongside him," he said, "we are a long way from home and he was too. It feels special to be where he was. We will never forget the men who died that day."

David Woodrow, owner of the Airfield Farm at Hardwick, talks about the B24 Liberator crash 75 years ago with the loss of all the crew, during a memorial service at the site. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYDavid Woodrow, owner of the Airfield Farm at Hardwick, talks about the B24 Liberator crash 75 years ago with the loss of all the crew, during a memorial service at the site. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

We will remember them: the men who died after taking off from Hardwick Airfield on December 19 1944.

First Lieutenants John Camp, Henry Fulmer and Robert Marx

John Marx, nephew of the pilot Robert Marx from the USA, talks about the B24 Liberator crash 75 years ago with the loss of all the crew, during a memorial service at the site. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYJohn Marx, nephew of the pilot Robert Marx from the USA, talks about the B24 Liberator crash 75 years ago with the loss of all the crew, during a memorial service at the site. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Second Lieutenant R Locker.

Staff Sergeants Ralph Gifford, Harold Glickman, Robert Hughes, Fred Pettigrew and William Young.

Pilot Robert Marx's family from the USA lay a wreath at the cross which commemorates the B24 Liberator crash at Hardwick airfield 75 years ago, with the loss of all the crew. Robert Marx's great great grandniece, Emma Marx Hinkle; with Robert's nephew, John Marx, second left; Rev Liz Billett; and nephew, Robert Porter. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYPilot Robert Marx's family from the USA lay a wreath at the cross which commemorates the B24 Liberator crash at Hardwick airfield 75 years ago, with the loss of all the crew. Robert Marx's great great grandniece, Emma Marx Hinkle; with Robert's nephew, John Marx, second left; Rev Liz Billett; and nephew, Robert Porter. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Technical sergeants Frank Whitten and Benjamin Wiegand.

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