It was Monday morning, February 21, 1944. At the American Air Base from the 95th BombGroup at Horham, a small village at the east coast of England, around 09.00 AM, ten men climbed aboard of one of the many B-17 bombers. Shortly before, the ten men (in the age from 19 to 28) were told that the target that day would be the plane factory in Brunswick, in the center of Germany. They were also told that they would fly a B-17 nicknamed ‘San Antonio Rose’ that day for the fourth time in a row. Before that they had flown three missions in other B-17’s, so they were about to start on their seventh mission.
Two months before, shortly before Christmas 1943, they had arrived in England. But their adventure had already started long before that. In the course of 1942 the ten men had enlisted and joined the U.S. Army Air Force. Their reasons for enlisting were diverse. Sometimes it was a way to break free from an already marked out future on the farm or in a factory. For many it had to do with the appeal of becoming a pilot, navigator, bombardier or gunner on board of such a mighty bomber or fighter, in an era when flying was reserved for just a happy few. For every young man interested in technology, flying and excitement, the possibility of being behind the controls of such a bomber or fighter was a dream come true. But foremost they decided to enlist because of recent international developments. The German aggression in Europe had meant the end of the freedom of millions, while the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 had shown that the American freedom was also at risk. The ten men of the San Antonio Rose realized that freedom cannot exist when everybody stays on the sideline and looks the other way when effort and sacrifice are needed. And so they decided to stand up for what they believed in: defending freedom and homeland, no matter the consequences.
From the summer of 1942 until the autumn of 1943 they were each separately trained for one of the positions on board of a B-17. Morris Marks was trained to become a pilot. Frank Derenberg had the same training, and was hoping to become a fighter pilot. But during his training he was injured in an aircraft accident, which was not his fault. He had to recover in military hospital for weeks, couldn’t keep up with the rest of his class and ended up becoming a co-pilot on a B-17. Delmar Decker became navigator, George Amberg bombardier. Charles Barnthson was trained to become engineer, Harold Cook a radio-operator. And then there were four men who were trained to become airgunners: Rodney Hines, Barclay Glover, Larry Cuyler and Arden Miner.
In September 1943 those ten men were brought together for the first time at the Rapid City Army Air Base at the heart of America. Here they got to know each other and during a three months training period they were transformed into a solid bomber crew. After their arrival in England they had another period of two months in which they trained as a crew and prepared themselves for their missions above enemy territory. On January 30 they had to abort their first mission because of engine problems before they reached the Dutch coast. In the first half of February they flew five successful missions at targets in France and Germany, from which they returned safely.
But their lucked turned during their mission of February 21, 1944. On their outward journey the San Antonio Rose encountered heavy German FLAK, but by choosing the right route and keeping altitude, the men stayed out of reach of the exploding flak shells. But shortly before reaching their target, one of the engines was hit and the San Antonio Rose began to vibrate vigorously. The situation seemed to get out of control. Morris Marks asked his men if they wanted to bail out, or if they wanted to continue their mission and drop the bombs. The crew chose unanimous to keep on flying, and to their relief they reached Brunswick shortly after. After dropping their bombs pilot Morris Marks was forced to reduce speed in order to stop the vibration. It didn’t take long before the rest of the formation was out of sight. The men of the San Antonio Rose were on their own.
On their way back to Horham, Marks and Derenberg decided to fly at lower altitude, because there was a cloud cover at 14.000 feet. They were hoping to be able to hide their B-17 for the German fighters, who would be all over them once they were in sight. Both pilots had extensive training in flying blind and they needed all their skills to find their way back through the dense clouds. For a long time the men were able to continue their journey without being discovered. But when they reached central Holland the clouds became patchy and finally they ran out of cloud cover. The men suddenly found themselves surrounded by a large number of German fighters. The crew fought courageously, but the fight was unfair and the German Messerschmitts riddled the B-17 with their guns. Many inhabitants from Zegveld saw how the bomber flew over their village and struggled to continue in the direction of De Meije. By that time a second engine had stopped and only one of the gunners – probably Barclay Glover – was firing back at the fighters. The bomber was out of control, continued to climb for a while, but then suddenly made a right angle and pitched nose down. Only gunner Barclay Glover and engineer Charles Barnthson were lucky enough to bail out in time, the others went down with the plane.
The two survivors Barnthson and Glover went to the farm of Cornelis Bol, who sent two boys to get doctor Roskott. The doctor drove both men to his house and took care of their wounds. Shortly afterwards the Germans arrested both crewmembers, and Bol and Roskott were arrested as well. They were both imprisoned for four months, including 2½ months in infamous Kamp Amersfoort. A heavy punishment for showing compassion. A few days after the crash the Germans carried out an excavation, during which three bodies were retrieved. In 1946 there was a second excavation, this time by the American Graves Registration Company, who found the five remaining bodies.
It’s been almost three years since the first time I started reading about the events of February 21, 1944 and the story of the San Antonio Rose. During those years I have made many new friends. Here in Zegveld, where I met a group of people, whom had never forgotten the crew of the bomber and were determined they deserved a monument. They have done so much work to make this unveiling possible and without prejudice to the role of the others, I can fairly state that without Wout Verweij we wouldn’t be standing here today.
I’ve made friends in America: the relatives of the crew members, whom in most cases responded so unbelievably overwhelming at my request for information - a request from a total stranger at the other side of the world -, even if it would bring back painful memories. Without their help we would never know the men behind the names on the monument.
And last but not least, (and I know it may sound strange), the ten crewmembers of the San Antonio Rose became my friends during the those three years. Through the letters, diaries, stories, pictures and documents their families provided, I feel I got to know them personally. Through every letter that co-pilot Frank Derenberg wrote to his sister and in which he told her how much loved his 5-year old niece Marilyn and how much he missed her. Or through the letters that he wrote to his sister in which he expressed his doubt if he would ever find the love of his life and if he would ever be lucky enough to start a family of his own. Or through the diary of Morris Marks, who wrote how disgusted he was with himself because he was convinced he had screwed up his examination. And how happy he was when he was told that he passed his exams nonetheless and he could continue his training. Or when Morris wrote in his journal how many push-ups he could do, or what his time was on the 150 yard dash during athletics. Or the story about navigator Delmar Decker, whom as an 8-year old was walking with his pony and card. When the frightened pony broke the harness and cart, Delmar, always the optimist, said to his aunt: “Now Aunt, don’t be mad. I am sure the cart can be fixed. See …. The ‘steppin up place’ isn’t broken.” But that was about the only thing that wasn’t broken.
These personal stories show us that the ten men from the San Antonio Rose were not just well trained airmen, they were men just like you and me. Men with fears, expectations, wishes and dreams. Dreams that ended suddenly for eight of them at 16.15 PM at February 21, 1944. Dreams that ended suddenly because they were willing to risk their lives for our freedom.
This unveiling is extra special because of the presence of forteen American relatives from three families:
- Del Marks, nephew of pilot Morris Marks, and his wife.
- Marilyn Stults, niece of co-pilot Frank Derenberg and her husband, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren.
- Marion McGormick, sister of navigator Delmar Decker, and her two daughters, son and two sons-in-law.
Their presence at this unveiling is a reminiscent of the fact that the history of Zegveld and the history of the ten American families from the San Antonio Rose will be closely linked forever.
Our friends from the San Antonio Rose: be sure that your sacrifice will never be forgotten. Rest in peace.