Crash of the Lucky Lady - Research
by Glenn T. Purdy (+ 1996)
Last summer, Jean and I took a two week vacation in Europe and we were able to locate the farm field in France where "Lucky Lady" crash landed on Christmas Eve of 1944.
We departed from Detroit on July 15th and after a 6½ flight across the Atlantic in a Boeing 747 aircraft, we landed at Amsterdam, Netherlands, about 6.30 A.M. the next day. After visiting Amsterdam for two days, we took a boat cruise down the Rhine River, and on into Switzerland.
One of our over night stops was at Strasburg, France at an area known as Elsass-Lothringen (Alsace Lorraine). After making a brief visit of this old and beautiful city with its many canals and bridges, we rented a small Renault car and drove approximately 96 kms via a new toll expressway to the town of Sarre Union; and from there to the small town of Sarralbe, and then to the farm field in which we ditched, wich is about five kilometers north west of Sarralbe.
Going back 38 years, we landed wheels up, headed southeast into the wind on a long steady upgrade with a gravel road to the right and a large forest angling in from the left. The field was bare but plowed and we landed with the furrows. The bombbay doors were open, the bottom turret was down and the guns pointed downward and to the rear.
The gravel road is now paved with asphalt and the field grows wheat. The forest is a state forest which hasn't changed except that the trees are 38 years older.
Upon returning the five kilometers from the field we landed in, Jean and I passed an inn and tavern on the edge of town. I drove past the inn, being anxious to get back to the ship but Jean insisted that I should turn around and see if anyone in the tavern remembered the landing. I thought that stopping would be a waste of time but I did eventually make a "U" turn and went in and introduced myself to the tavern keeper who did not speak English, only French and Germany, as did four other customers playing cards at a nearby table.
To communicate I took a sheet of paper and drew a crude sketch of a B-17, wrote the year 1944, sang a few bars of "Jingle Bells" and swooped my hand down toward the floor. Some big smiles developed ... so I knew at least two of the men knew what I was trying to say. I invited the tavern keeper to return to the field with me and he showed me exactly where the plane touched down and where it came to a final resting spot. We skidded a very short distance.
Rather than return to Sarralbe, he motioned to go in the opposite direction for 3 kilometers, which we did and we stopped at a cross road community of 5 or 6 farmhouses with large barns and sheds. In France the farmers live in small communities and travel out to their adjoining fields.
The tavern keeper knocked on the door at a very nice stone farmhouse with geraniums on the porch and finally Madam Schmidt, age 82, came to the door. I don't know what he told her but a smile came to her face. He said that there were particles and pointed to the barn. The tavern keeper, Madam Schmidt, Jean and I proceded into the barn but it was almost 9:30 P.M. at night, the dwilight was getting very dim, and we could not see what Madam Schmidt was searching for. I later learned that they still had pieces of the airplane in storage and she wanted to give me something they had saved, as a souvenir. She also suggested that we return the next day, but that was not possible.
As darness sat in, we returned to the inn and tavern and by this time, approximately 20 people were in the inn and the 14 year old son and the 17 year old daughter of the innkeeper could speak English and acted as interpreters. We learned that on the New Year's Eve, following our Christmas Eve landing, a mortar shell hit the inn with 30 people inside but no was hit, although several were injured.
Via our young interpreters, one elderly farmer said that he saw our plane land and later took pictures which he would try to locate and relay to me. Three different people claimed they had photographs of the plane so I gave them our adress. I had never expected to do anything more then to locate the field, and the idea of meeting people who remembered the incident and photographs, had never entered my mind. It pays to listen to Jean.
After arriving home on Friday evening, July 30, 1982, I wondered if I would ever hear from any of these people, for after the excitement of the moment they might put a adress away and possibly forget about it. Upon returning from work on Monday evening, August 9th, I was pleased to find a letter from the innkeeper which included a Xerox type copy of a photograph of "Lucky Lady" sitting in the field. In this picture, all four engines have been removed, the front plastic nose seciton has been removed along with the tail rudder and several other parts.
He also adviced that he ordered photo prints fromt the old negatives, which would be much clearer and he would mail them later. He also advised that he visited Madam Schmidt in her barn the following day and found that she still had the tail section in the barn. This is hard to imagine and perhaps he means the rudder section from the tail.
From the discussions with the patrons of the tavern, it appeared that several farmers worked together to dismantle the aircraft and remove it from the field and that possibly several people took various pieces of the plane. Perhaps we will find out later how the plane was actually removed from the field as I belief it weighed around 80,000 lbs.
I was always impressed with the fact that a B-17 cost our government a little over a quarter of a million dollars each, back in those days; however, a major overhaul on one commercial jet engine today costs that much.
Jean and I were invited to stay over night at the inn and we had a difficult time explaining to the people why we must return to the ship and continue on our cruise down the Rhine. I believe that we did promise to return some day.
We left the inn at Saaralbe at approximately 10:30 P.M. for our ship on the river Rhine at Strasbourg. Reversing our steps and getting back to the ship is a separate story in itself.
After returning home, I received a letter from the Hotel Sutter and our crew was invited to return to Sarralbe, France, next summer as guest of the people of Sarralbe.
On August 10, 1982, I wrote to Mr. Sutter, the innkeeper and thanked him for the kind invitation, advising that I would contact the crew and see if a reunion was possible. I told them that if enough people could participate, we might want to delay, the "get together", until the 40 reunion of our crew, which would be the summer of 1984. I also explained that it was extremely expensive for Americans to fly to Europe. Because of this, we could compromise and hold our first reunion in the U.S.A.
To refresh your memory about the mission, the Germans had broken through the American lines about 10 days to two weeks before the flight and the "Battle of the Bulge" was well underway. No bombing flights in support of our army had been undertaken for approximately two weeks because of extremely bad weather.