Family of US airman killed by crash on UK farm visit site 77 years on

Family of US airman killed when his bomber ploughed into English farm visit crash site after it is discovered 77 years on

  • Lieutenant William Montgomery has been lost since the bomber came down
  • B-24 Liberator ploughed into an English farm near Arundel, West Sussex in 1944
  • His family spoke of how they valued importance of seeing the site 77 years on
  • Visited in honour of Lt Montgomery’s brother John who never heard the truth 
  • Excavations in 2019 and 2021 found human remains likely to be Lt Montgomery’s
  • Remains of Sgt John Holoka, another not found, may also have been discovered

The family of a US airman who was killed when his bomber ploughed into an English farm have visited the crash site where the tragedy unfolded after it was discovered 77 years later.

Lieutenant William Montgomery has been lost ever since his B-24 Liberator came crashing down on land near Arundel, West Sussex, in June 1944 but his family have valued the importance of visiting the site.

They revealed that they visited in honour of Lt Mongomery’s brother John who never found out what had actually happened.

The bomber had been shot up by anti-aircraft flak during an attack on a German airfield in northern France. 

It limped back across the English Channel before it began losing height off the Sussex coast.

Seven of the ten-man crew bailed out of the bomber while 24-year-old Lt Montgomery, co-pilot John Crowther and engineers, Sgt John Holoka remained on board to try and recover the situation.

But the stricken plane would crash into a ball of flames just minutes later. Sgt Crowther’s body was discovered at a later time but his fellow soldiers were never to be seen again.

Tracey Kirchoff, the great niece of Lt Montogomery, paid her respects to her late relative and laid flowers at the site. 

Miss Kirchhoff, from North Carolina, explained her grandfather, Tom, was fighting with the US Army in Europe at the time he was told his brother was missing in action.

She said: ‘This visit is so important to me and my family. In part, I’m doing this for my grandfather – William’s brother, John – who never knew what had happened to William.

‘He was just told that they thought he’d gone down in the English Channel. He never knew. That makes me so sad, because he died in 2010 – not knowing.

The family of Lieutenant William Montgomery (circled) have visited the site where the US airman was killed after his bomber came crashing down onto an English farm

Tracey Kirchoff (pictured), the great niece of Lt Montgomery, valued the importance of visiting the site in honour of the airman’s brother John, who never found out what actually happened

There have been two excavations in 2019 (pictured) and 2021 where along with mangled wreckage, human remains likely to be of Lt Montgomery and Sgt Holoka were found

‘And knowing where he fell, and that somebody was looking for his brother, would have meant so much to him.’

Amateur historian Andy Saunders had looked into the fate of the bomber in the 1970s and found the most likely location was the Arundel farm.

But nothing was done until about ten years ago when he happened to mention it to an officer with the US Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) at a conference.

Their research prompted two excavations in 2019 and 2021 where along with the mangled wreckage, human remains were also found.

Although these are still being DNA tested in the US, they are almost certainly the remains of Lt Montgomery and Sgt Holoka.  

Archaeologists embarked on a mission to search the land where the bomber landed in Arundel, West Sussex


Lt Montgomery and Sgt Holoka are the only two members of the ten-man crew that set off from the base in Halesworth, Suffolk, who are still Missing in Action (MIA)

In fact, Lt Montgomery’s college graduate gold signet ring was also unearthed.

The discoveries have already resulted in a memorial tablet being laid at the crash site. It reads: ‘On the 22nd June 1944 USAF Liberator B24H Liberator crashed in front of thi plaque. Three lives were lost.

‘For our lost heroes, long gone but not forgotten. Your sacrifice ensured the freedom of the world.’

Mrs Kirchhoff met with Mr Saunders when she visited the war grave along with family members who travelled from the US.

They also met with James Seller, the farmer and fellow historian Mark Khan who were members of the archaeological team who excavated the crash site.

Mr Saunders said: ‘There is absolutely no doubt it was their aircraft that crashed at this site.

A B-24 Liberator with the 489th Bombardment Group was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast

Handout photo issued by the US Air Force of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator taken in the 1940s 

‘Apart from William Montogomery’s gold ring, a number of aircraft machine guns were found and the numbers on them matched the numbers on the gun on that same aircraft.

‘The three men would have been contained in the cockpit together at the time of the crash.

‘The human remains there were found on the second excavation could have been all mixed up.

‘There can’t be any absolute certainty until we get the DNA results back but clearly the relatives will hope to be able to hold a proper burial in time. For now, at least they know what happened to these men.

‘This felt like helping the family to some sort of closure. And although the DNA results are not yet confirmed, we now know this was where William died.

‘It was extremely moving and it really felt as though we were giving William back to his family’.

Archaeologists and American Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency staff work to recover the remains of an American bomber crew in 2021

Despite its condition, the pilots and crew managed to nurse the aircraft back to the English coast, but for reasons unknown it crashed in a farmer’s field near Arundel

US veterans with the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR) teamed up with the University of York in 2021 in an effort to recover any human remains from the crash site so that they can be repatriated to America

Lt Montgomery and Sgt Holoka were part of 844 Squadron of the United States Air Force stationed in RAF Halesworth, Suffolk, during the war.

The squadron took part of strategic bombing missions of Normandy before, during and after D-Day.

On June 22, 1944 the ill-fated bomber, which took off from its base at Halesworth, took part in a raid on an airfield near Versailles when it was peppered by flak.

Crew member Lt Demoyne Henderson later wrote in a statement: ‘Just a few seconds after bombs were away we were hit hard by flak. We managed to stay in the vicinity of he formation until the French coast was reached.

‘I went to the flight deck and only one rudder and one elevator was in working order. We were in the rear of the ship until almost at the English coast when the order came to bail out.

‘Just after my chute opened I heard the whine of the plane going down.

‘The first four of us landed about four miles out in the Channel and were rescued quickly. The navigator landed on the beach and the other two landed a mile inland.

‘We were not allowed to visit the plane but it was a total loss.’

The rest of the crew who successfully bailed out were Lt Herbert King, Sgt Joseph Foley, Lt D.M Henderson and Staff Sergeants Edwin Sumner, Pearl Toothman Jnr, Richard Rodriguez and Aaron Roper. 

The 489th Bomb Group and the ‘Arundel Bomber’ that crashed in a farmer’s field in Sussex – killing three on board – after taking flak from German anti-aircraft fire near Paris during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944

The 844th Bombardment Squadron flew strategic bombing missions to Germany in July, and primarily engaged in bombing strategic targets such as factories and oil refineries and airfields in Ludwigshafen, Magdeburg, Brunswick and Saarbrücken among other cities until November 1944.

The squadron dropped food to liberated French and to Allied forces in France during August and September, and carried food and ammunition to the Netherlands later in September.

A B-24 Liberator with that squadron dubbed ‘Johnny Reb’ was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast.

Seven of the 10 crew on board managed to bail out of the plane on its journey back to England, but three – pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr – were killed as it crashed in a farmer’s field near Arundel Castle.

Lieutenant William Montgomery and Sergeant John Crowther were killed in a crash in a farmer’s field near Arundel Castle

Sergeant Crowther’s body was found and repatriated, but nothing was found of the two others apart from Lieutenant Montgomery’s identity bracelet. The crash site was largely forgotten about 2017, when farmer John Sellers – who witnessed the crash as a boy – contacted the authorities. 

Speaking to authorities in June 2017, farmer John Sellers recounted the crash he witnessed as a schoolboy. He said: ‘At about 9pm I had started to get ready for bed when there was a thunderous scream of a plane in a power dive then bump of it hitting the ground. 

‘About 15 minutes later I slipped out and went behind the farm buildings to where I could see the crash site (some 300 yards away). The fireball was long gone out, the only sign was the scorched area of ripening barley in the next field. There was little sign of debris in the grass field, only the dirt around five craters. 

‘There was very little smoke coming from the craters by then. The following morning I walked down the lane past the site some 75 yards away and could hear the ammunition exploding underground. Later that day the farm dog came back in carrying a severed forearm on which was a bracelet, (not dog tags) with a name on. 

‘My father retrieved the arm and removed the bracelet. He arranged for the bracelet to be given to the police. He then buried the arm in the hole where the rest of the remains were.

‘A guard was placed to keep people away whilst the ammunition was still going off from time to time. The holes smouldered for about 10 days before one last flare up and then going out. Once it was safe I took the first chance to inspect the crash site. I found that the plane had come down near vertically, the wings at about 45 degrees to the ditch and fence. 

‘This was confirmed by the digger driver who excavated it in 1974. One wing hit the ground before the other as one side outer wing was crumpled in a slot in the ground, while the other had sheared off and shot some 40 yards across the neighbouring field. I found a piece of wing about 6’x2’, by far the biggest piece of debris on the whole site. 

‘Also there was more small debris collected from the barley field than the grass filed where the plane landed. The pile of debris collected from the grass field grew by about three times when ‘all hands’ were set to clear the the barley field ready to harvest. I would estimate that 90 per cent of the plane ended up in the ground. My father told me at least three of the survivors did manage to get to see the site and speak to him.’

A B-24 Liberator with the 489th Bombardment Group was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast

Mark Khan, a veteran who served in Northern Ireland, helped get the project off the ground after meeting military aviation researcher Andy Saunders at an archaeology conference in Dorking. They discussed the plane crash and as an Arundel resident, Mr Khan was keen to take it further, including extensive research.

He told the West Sussex County Times: ‘The farmer’s dad was a young lad at the time, living in the cottages nearby, so when it crashed he was quickly at the scene. He wrote a first-hand account and there has been extensive research.

‘It is a very evocative story. The bomber was based at Suffolk and was on a mission to Versailles. It was hit over the target and damaged by flak. They lost most of the flying controls but nursed it back in the bomber stream. 

‘They followed a one-way system so they couldn’t go straight back to base. It was a tremendous feat of airmanship.

‘As it neared the English coastline, the pilot gave the order to bail out. As it flew on over Arundel, something happened that caused the aircraft to crash, we don’t know what, and the three remaining crew were killed.’

The 489th Bomb Group was a unit of the United States Air Force that flew tactical missions in support of Allied ground forces in northern France during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.

After training in the United States, the 489th was stationed at Halesworth, Suffolk between April and November 1944 and flew 106 operational missions in their B-24 Liberators. Twenty-six aircraft were lost in combat – including the so-called Arundel Bomber – and a number of aircrew became prisoners of war.

From its first combat mission was to Oldenburg, Germany on May 30, 1944, just prior to the D-Day landings, the crews of the 489th carried out saturation bombing of Nazi-occupied territories before the final Allied breakthrough in July 1944 – and dropped food and ammunition into France and Holland.  

The 489th’s final mission was on November 10, 1944, when the group was then redeployed to the US for training for the Pacific theatre of the war with Japan. However, many of the aircraft and personnel were reassigned to other bombing groups in the 8th Air Force. 

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