A Doomed Liberator and the Gratitude of the Kirby Kids

(View a few more photos for this story here)

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Hurtling down narrow roads and country lanes, I was on my way to Kirby Bedon, five miles south of Norwich, to learn about a crash-landing during the war that had left it’s mark on this small, English village.

I’d met Janet Rush a few years earlier at an open day at the Seething Control Tower museum (one of my favourite places). She’d introduced herself and explained that, as a child, she witnessed a bomber crashing near her house.

2nd Lt. William M. Sherrill

On the 18th August, 1944, crew aboard Broad & High, a B-24H from the 467th Bomb Group were on their way home from a mission to Woippy in France. They’d sustained battle damage, were low on fuel but not far from base when the pilot, Roger L. Leister was forced to crash-land the plane in Kirby Bedon. Some of the crew were killed in the crash and soon after a stone tablet was commissioned by the locals to remember their courage and sacrifice. It is still on display at the village church. I had my camera with me and was on my way to learn more and to attempt some reportage.

Although not far from home I was exploring new territory. Within ten minutes I had arrived. In the dark of a foggy night, I felt like I’d traveled deeper into the sticks, further off the beaten track. I soon found the village hall and added my car to the group parked outside. Approaching the building’s entrance I stopped to peek through an old window. There was a warm glow from inside and already a healthy number of people had gathered. Flags of the USA and UK dotted the room. Janet had called me earlier in the week, out-of-the-blue, to ask If I’d be interested in attending. I was surprised and thrilled that she had remembered me and happily accepted her invitation.

Once inside I made a beeline for her and said hello before taking a few photos of the event with my camera. The room was busy with British villagers, many of them elderly. Bunting lined the walls and ceiling and there were decorations and small flags on the tables. A large stars and stripes with a welcome message to American visitors hung at one end of the room. At the other end sat a couple of tables ready for food. There were two framed pictures, the first was a framed photo of the pilot that day, Roger L. Leister. Then there was a framed sketch of William Sherrill Jnr, the bombardier who was killed in the crash.

I was soon introduced to Woody and Joanne who had flown over from Pennsylvannia to take part in the commemorative celebrations. A U.S army veteran, Woody had worked in electronics for Bell helicopter before retiring from the service. He was over six feet tall, with a grey beard and the top of his head was covered by a stars and stripes bandana. He was easy to spot. Woody’s wife Joanne, had flown over with him and they mingled with the locals all night, swapping stories and expressing their gratitude for all the hard work that had gone into the event. Joanne was Roger Leister’s daughter.

As the food was served I found myself sat on a table with both of them and was a little unsure whether Joanne wanted to talk to me. She seemed distant so I made the first move. What she said made perfect sense: “It’s actually a little overwhelming” I could see that now, the shrine-like, framed picture of her father, all the flags and food and all these people who had turned out to celebrate her father’s piloting skills and remember the men that didn’t make it. And here I was, with my camera and my questions, adding to her overwhelm. I had been to this type of thing before and I realised what a special night it was. Joanne’s Dad was being celebrated for missing the village in 1944 as the plane came down, and the village had come out to show it’s gratitude.

Janet suggested that we head over to the church where the crew and the crash were commemorated and said that someone called Donald would grab the key and let us in. Woody and Joanne joined me and we headed across the cemetery to St. Andrews Church. It turned out that Donald was the first person on the scene that day and had watched the aircraft come down.

Racing to the crash site he managed to clamber into the machine. Inside four of the crew lay dead. They were 2nd Lt. William M. Sherrill (TN), T/Sgt. Darlton W. Pontius (KS), T/Sgt. George Lifschitz (NY) and S/Sgt. Philip A. Snyder (PN). Donald helped the remaining crew get out until local police arrived on the scene and he was given his marching orders. Donald was just fourteen-years-old. As we followed him out into the cemetery he said “I don’t really know anything about the history” but of course, he was there and so I said “But, you are the history!” We entered the church and they posed for photos in front of the memorial tablet. This was the first time Woody and Joanne had met Donald and they said that it felt like they now had “another piece of the puzzle”.

Back inside the village hall everyone gathered for a few words by one of the villagers. Then Woody and Joanne cut the cake made to mark the occasion and posed for photos with Janet. It was obvious that this had been an emotional evening for Joanne. It must have been incredible to her that, all these years on, the Kirby Kids never forgot that day in ’44, when courage, skill and sacrifice prevented a much bigger disaster when the War came to Kirby Bedon.