The Flying Fortress crash at Lude Farm, Penn
12 August, 1944
By Ron Setter
My father took on the tenancy of Lude Farm, Penn in 1931 and I was brought up there. We eventually left the farm after my father’s death in 1973. Parts of the farmhouse were up to 500 years old and there has been some kind of dwelling there since 1243.
When the following event happened, I was 12. I cannot remember the noise of the explosion but I remember a whooshing noise, and the ceiling fell on me as I was getting out of bed. There was only one whole pane of glass left in the entire house. Later the civil defence people helped fix up the farmhouse.
My father saw the plane coming over and the engine on fire. He saw the plane turn 180 degrees, and he thought they were trying to get back to their base.
It may seem odd now, but we were quite isolated during the war and I remember that the American medics that came to the farm to see if they could help the crew were the first black men that I had ever seen.
One of the four huge engines of the plane had fallen about 500 yards away from the crash site — it could easily have fallen on our house, we were lucky.
The area round our farm was (and still is) densely wooded and I remember the American Airforce sent a P38 Lockheed Lightening plane over the area about 11 or 12 the same morning, they were looking for any evidence that any of the men had parachuted from the crashing plane — sadly none of them had.
In those days (before Dutch Elm Disease) there were massive elms round the edge of the field and I saw the propeller of the P38 hit the tops of these trees. Twigs and leaves came down and I saw the plane rock, then they went off and did not come round again.
The wreckage from the crashed B17 Flying Fortress was spread far and wide and when we left the farm in the 70s we were still finding remnants in our fields and hedges.
The whole event made a great impression on me and I have since found out a lot more about the crash and what led up to it. Here is an account I have written…
“TOMAHAWK WARRIOR” A Tribute
On Saturday 12 August 1944, a B17 bomber named “The Tomahawk Warrior” and nine young men came into the history of Penn forever. Many years have gone by — some of the elders of Penn who remembered that day have passed away and a new generation born. They can only read of the sacrifice made by the “Tomahawk Warrior” and her crew.
The nine young men who flew that morning died long before their time on their 25th mission. Only a few more to fly and they would have been going home to loved ones and a full and happy life ahead.
THIS IS THEIR STORY …
The 398 Bomb Group was one of the last to arrive in this country during March 1944. They flew their B17’s from Newfoundland to England to the allotted aerodrome of Nuthampstead near Royston in Herts, where the countryside was very similar to that which surrounds Penn. Their B17 was special to them and, as was usual, the Pilot — Charles Searl named it the “Tomahawk Warrior” after the small town in the USA where he lived. There was a crew of ten to fly her and a skilled ground crew to care for her. The first mission was to Berlin on 19 May. They returned safely and one can only feel that they were relieved and jubilant.
Charles Searl was married with a daughter of 18 months and he and his wife were expecting another addition to the family in July. He was 23 and had enlisted in the Air Force soon after Pearl Harbour. As far as records show none of the other nine crew members were married and their ages ranged from 20 to 27. They had come from many States across the USA — Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington DC, Arkansas, Virginia, Ohio and New York.
The “Tomahawk Warrior” flew many missions including a “D Day” one to targets at Caen and Courseulles, France. Missions were interposed with leave which one supposes they spent in London. Their evenings would be spent at the local Inn just on the edge of the airfield and at Royston the nearest small town. Entertainment would have been laid on at the base along with dances and there must have been invitations from the local population.
By June the “Tomahawk Warrior” had completed 16 missions all with the same crew. July recorded only 5 missions. During this month Charles Searl must have received news of the birth of a second daughter — sadly he was never to see her.
From 1 August the “Tomahawk Warrior” — still with her original crew – flew missions to France and Germany, and on the morning of the 12th were on their 25th to Europe — Versailles, France. The day was dull and overcast with low cloud. Just before take off the 10th member of the crew stepped down from the flight. It has never been sure why. All that is known of him is his name and rank, and after the “Tomahawk Warrior” crashed he was returned to America and so survived the war. No trace of him was ever found.
The crew of nine took off at 06.18. Formation was hazardous with the bad weather as the plane climbed to reach height. By 07.00 the “Tomahawk Warrior” was heading out South East and already in trouble. One engine was seen to be on fire, and as it turned over the town of High Wycombe — to try and return to base — a second engine was seen also on fire. Below in the town was the HQ of the 8th Air Force, most likely monitoring the mission.
It has always been accepted that the pilot was trying to find open ground to attempt a landing when he had no chance of reaching his base or even Bovingdon airfield which was only 10 miles away to the north. He would have seen the populated area he was flying over and realised the devastation the plane would cause if it crashed there.
It skimmed over the farmhouse of Lude Farm and crashed into open fields opposite. “Tomahawk Warrior” and its crew of nine young men ended life in a massive explosion and fire. No one had baled out of the stricken plane and no distress signal was ever traced. They stayed together — comrades now for all eternity. One of the crew was found in the lane and two at the edge of the fields. The rest were identified by their “Dog Tags”. A short entry in official records at their base read, “Take Off — 06.18 hours. 07.20 — No Return.” Such a short epitaph.
No investigation took place as to the reason for the crash. It was just one more casualty of war. General Doolittle, who was at the HQ in High Wycombe visited the scene of the crash later in the day. The field where the “Tomahawk Warrior” died is the same today as it was all those years ago. Beautiful, peaceful, and the seasons come and go. It is an everlasting memorial to duty and sacrifice. They that died need no other.
The following are the names of those that died that morning —
Pilot. Charles Searl from Wisconsin
Co-Pilot. Albert Dion from Massachusetts
Navigator. Saul Kempner from Michigan
Bombadier. Leo Walsh from Washington DC
Radio/Gunner. Cecil Kennedy from Virginia
Engineer/Top Turret Gunner. James Beatty from Arkansas
Ball Turret Gunner. Alfred Bueffel from New York
Right Waist Gunner. Albert Knight from Ohio
Left Waist Gunner. Orville Wilson from Washingotn DC
They were all buried in Cambridge Cemetery, but after the war, in accordance with the wishes of their relatives, eight of them were re-interred in Arlington Cemetery, America. They sleep amongst the highly honoured in America. The one who was left behind — Albert Knight — also with his parent’s wishes — is honoured yearly by the Chiltern Aircraft Research Group on the anniversary of the crash, with flowers and thoughts of the eight lying in their home country.
Each Armistice Day Penn Church remembers them in the service and reads their names out along with others from the village who gave their lives. Small American flags are placed along the path by the church door, each with the name of the “Tomahawk Warriors” crew and usually the Battle Hymn of the Republic is sung in honour.
The Book of Remembrance in Penn Church has their names inscribed In Glorious Memory.
To all who read this tribute …………………..
REMEMBER ……………… They gave their lives just as bravely and in sacrifice for peace, just as those who were lost on and over the battlefields of Europe.