The B17 Bomber Crash 1944

Memories of Stan Pierce, Brisbane, Australia

I didn’t know it happened on June 19th 1944. I only found out the actual date 54 years later. It was a beautiful summer’s day. A little haze over the Thames, but I remember it was the first time I was conscious of the blueness of sky. Mum had just called me in from playing cricket with Ginger from next door. We lived at the top of Northfalls Road and around the corner in Marine Parade in front of the seawall. I was bouncing the ball along the path towards the door when I turned to look up at a roaring noise in the sky.

B17 Flying Fortress

There were huge four-engined bombers all in neat formation, cruising in slowly, dozens of them. I know of them now as B17’s. They were American, and so low I could see the blue and white stars underneath their wings. Then as I stood gazing, right above my head, one bomber fell on top of another. No explosive sound but a crunch and a screeching, tearing noise. I was stunned. A wing floated away. A lot of black smoke. One plane fell away, and bits fell off. I have no further memory of it, but the other plane had a more lasting effect. It tipped over, and the nose was looking at me.

I was nine years of age, looking at this huge monster pouring smoke and with four propellers screaming straight at me. I kept staring for maybe three or four seconds and then panicked. I bolted…over the fence…don’t even remember touching it…then across the field next to the house. I can still feel the long grass snatching at my laces, and I must have been screaming because a lady, Mrs. Roberts, mowing her front lawn in the next road shouted at me to come to her. She ran to the gate to grab me, and I turned to see the plane still hurtling down towards the roof of our house as little white puffs of what looked like cotton wool floated away from the plane. Mum and my three younger brothers were in the house. Dad was out on the mud digging for bait. Somehow, the plane pulled out of the dive a few hundred feet above the house, roared off across the island and came round back again over the seawall to keep away from the houses and was climbing away up again and curved round and appeared to try to land on the mud but went up on its nose and exploded.

A little while later as the crowds gathered, I saw one of the men who had baled out walking along the seawall wearing white overalls. I would have sworn then that he was nine feet tall, but I was only about three feet myself. I thought he was a Martian. He walked along the wall with us, carrying his helmet, and I remember I walked behind him and had some fascination with his helmet and his furry boots. I heard him speaking in a strange accent to the grown-ups. I had never seen a film, and there was no television then, so I just gawked at this giant man from the sky.

One of the crew had landed his parachute in the water out by the lighthouse. A tug went right past him, and then a few seconds later turned round and went back to pick him up. Lots of people gathered up at the point and some army people from the huts that used to be at the roundabout were there. Two men came across the mud carrying a stretcher with a blanket over it. A body had been thrown out 100 yards from the plane. Dad came home looking a bit grey-faced and quiet. The plane had gone over his head before it hit the cockle bed. It was an eventful day for a young lad

I never thought about this accident much over the next 53 years. I grew up and did what everyone else does and got on with life. Then one day last year, I was pottering around in the garden doing nothing in particular. Straight out of the blue, the scene came back into my head like a video rerun. There was the crash…the plane came down…it went round and up over the water…and he was climbing…and, for the first time in 53 years I thought ‘Why didn’t the pilot bale out? He was over the water, and he could have gotten out and let the plane drop on the mud.’

The Crew of B17.l-r:Louis W Schulte (drowned), Leroy J Monk, Richard W Andrews, next man did not fly, William H Farmer, Leonard F Gibbs. Sitting: Edwrd N Sadler (killed) Co-Pilot Fred S Kauffman (Missing), Jack L Gray, Pilot Lloyd Burns.

Then I started to count. I remember seeing four, or five parachutes…the pilot added up to six. Then the awful truth hit me, the pilot had men in there and couldn’t leave them. I had read that B17’s had 9 or 10 crew. He had not only saved my mother and brothers from incineration but had others in the plane to try and save. I am 62 years of age and found myself just bursting into tears over the bravery of the man. The thought of him doing what he did had a shattering effect. I tried to hide down the back of the garden so no-one would ask damned stupid questions. Something that happened in 1944 had come back to haunt me, night after night. I kept thinking of the pilot’s mother. It was wartime. She would just get that awful buff telegram saying her son was killed in action and not knowing what he had done to save us. I knew I had to know who he was.

I got on to the Internet and asked around the groups where the world-war two air force men meet. One day someone saw my plea for help about the Canvey accident and put me in touch with Gary Foulger on the island. He had researched it thoroughly and had even got the Council to put up a commemorative plaque in the High Street for the men. From his information I was able to contact the 379th Bomb Group Association in America, and I have now found out that four of the men who baled out are still alive.

Because I learned from Gary Foulger’s research that the pilot, Lt. Lloyd Burns, had baled out and was picked up from the water by the marines at Holehaven, I, like everyone else as it turned out, thought that the miraculous effort to pull the falling plane away from the houses was carried out by the co-pilot Fred Kauffman. Because so many people had witnessed this accident and had been impressed with the effort to get the plane away from the houses, some Canvey people had contacted the commanding officer at Kimbolton at the time and asked him to convey their thoughts to the family of the co-pilot. But, there was a nagging feeling that something about the story was wrong because I couldn’t imagine a pilot leaving his plane until everyone was out. I wrote to Lt. Lloyd Burns at his home in Georgia. He is now 73 years old and a retired obstetrician /gynecologist who still zooms around the skies in ultra light aircraft as a hobby. From his letter and phone conversation and the verbatim reports made by the crew at the time, I patched the timing of events together.

On that fateful day, they had dropped their bombs on the V1 rocket site near Calais and turned for home. Over the channel, his co-pilot Fred Kauffman asked him, Lt. Burns, if he could swap seats and get some ‘First Pilot’ experience. They had never done this before, but Burns thought it would be a good thing for Kauffman to get the experience. Lt. Burns, at only 19 years of age, and one of the youngest B17 pilots to join up, had only one more mission to do before he could go home. So he got up, and they swapped seats. They passed the white cliffs of Dover, over the orchards of Kent and could see the Thames shimmering below. Kimbolton was ahead and only minutes away. They were seeing England without fog and rain for a change.

Canvey War Memorial

Above and behind them another pilot, Lt. Ramacitti, was having trouble with his plane. He was seen to be weaving about. It had been his first bombing mission. They had all been shot at over the site, and something was wrong with one of Ramcitti’s engines. They were losing power. The bombardier shouted to Ramcitti through the intercom that they were too close to the plane below. It was too late.

Lt. Burns writes “the plane hit us right on top of Lt. Kauffman, killing him instantly. I grabbed the controls, and it was obvious that they had no effect on the attitude of our aircraft- as if everything was disconnected- and that bale-out was necessary. I tried to arouse Fred, but it was obvious that he was dead.”

At the moment I was staring up at the planes overhead, Len Gibbs, the engineer-gunner had an earache and had just climbed down from the top Plexiglas gun turret. At that instant Lt. Ramcitti’s plane fell on them, smashing the turret and spewing the pieces around and knocking the engineer to the floor. The top of the cockpit was crushed in, and the radio room squashed down but with enough room for the radio operator, Leroy Monk, to squeeze out and put his parachute on before he dived out.

The bombardier Jack Gray was sitting up in the clear bomb-aimer’s nose-cone when the shock of the crash popped the nose off and it flew away, and he was looking into space without his parachute on! he had to scramble backwards into the plane and make for his parachute, put it on, and as he went to the door to bale out he looked back to see the navigator Ed Sadler fumbling with his ‘chute and facing the nose, then he dived out. The ball-turret gunner Bill Farmer looked around and saw things popping off the walls, realized everything was coming apart…and jumped.

Richard Andrews was usually the waist-gunner, but this day he was in the tail end, luckily with its own escape hatch – he jumped.

Louis Schulte, the tail gunner got out too, but when he hit the water he drowned. Len Gibbs, the engineer and then Burns the pilot baled out and were fished out of the water with the others by the marines

Close up of the B-17 memorial plaque

As for the men in the other plane with the wing off, they were doomed from that moment. The crash had jammed the escape hatch. How do I know? The one survivor from that plane, bombardier Theo. Chronopolos. He was thrown out into the air when the plane broke in half as it spun down. Can you imagine that? He blacked out in the crash and found himself falling through the air! As the plane he was in crashed on top of the other plane; the wing flew off (I saw it float away). The escape door jammed.

Theo. Says in his report:

“I grabbed my ‘chute and started to buckle it on. The navigator was fumbling with his ‘chute. I started to go for the escape hatch. The engineer and co-pilot were already there trying to open it, but the door was jammed. Then we went into a spin. The next thing I remember was another crash, and I thought that we had hit the ground, but we hadn’t. I blacked out and when I came to, I was falling free. I opened my ‘chute and blacked out again. On the way down I saw a ship spinning down. It was in two pieces and three engines were on fire.”

Theo. was badly injured in the fall. All the others in that plane were killed when the fuselage hit the mud on the All-Hallows side.

The display at the Thames Aviation Museum, Coalhouse Fort

Everyone thought that day when the stretcher was brought over the mud-flats down at the point that it was the pilot they brought out. I remember my dad saying so to my mother. But it wasn’t. The body was the navigator Ed Sadler. For some reason, he didn’t jump out, and it cost him his life.

As Lloyd Burns told me in his letter, an uncontrolled plane can behave in strange ways. The laws of aerodynamics had played a peculiar effect on a plunging aircraft, making it appear as though someone were pulling it away from the houses. My family’s life had been saved by the sheer accident of wind pressure on the wings when the plane was at a certain angle above the house. The engines were still roaring away and took it away over the island. This is what everybody saw. But, there was no-one flying it!

Display at the Thames Aviation Museum, Coalhouse Fort

Three days later Burns was sent up again (no counselling). Twenty-five times he hauled those B17’s into the air full of bombs and nine other men…over a carpet of flak…there and back…and got away with it…against all the odds…and was still only 19 years of age. That was his tour of duty over, and they sent him home. But, he didn’t think he’d done enough! He did a short flying course on the huge B 29s and was sent to Tinian Island in the Pacific and bombed Japan. He piloted the decoy plane on the day the Enola Gay went up to bomb Hiroshima.

For him, the decision to swap seats with his friend has eaten into his heart all his life. He still cries over it. Would things have been any different if he hadn’t swapped over? How would you like to live with that? The myth that had built up over his co-pilot was understandable, because no information was given out about him at the time.

I remember when I did eventually come into the house that day, my mum told me to go right back outside again and pull out all the grass-seed spikes that had stuck to my socks when running for my life before I could have any tea. She was completely oblivious to what had happened above the house and the fright I’d had.
You would think a young lad would never shut up about such a dramatic event like I had seen that day, but I never said a thing. I think I was ashamed of being frightened and running away. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t think about it for 53 years, but the time-bomb in my head had started to tick.
Stan. Brisbane

See the page ‘Relics recovered from B17 crash’here

Comments about this page

  • I was hooked reading this story, I felt I was there watching the B17 coming down. My Grandfather Fred Moss told me he watched the B17 come down from the Hill at Leigh-on-Sea. I may be the person who put Stan onto Gary, I believe via my old Guestbook on
    I would like to thank Jan for publishing thse wonderful stories, lets hope Stan or his family get in touch with us here.

    By David Bullock (05/06/2008)
  • Hooked?! Yes, the perfect description. As a kid {early 1970’s} I used to go down with a plank of wood to Canvey point at low tide and look for bits, by using the plank to stop me sinking into the mud. I have a couple of bits, a canon shell as keep sakes.

    When I read this I began to realise the horror of the events. Maybe the shell I have can be sent to one of the survivors?

    By Toby Larkin (01/12/2008)
  • What memories this story brought back to me. I was only four going on five at the time but recall my father rushed into our bungalow vividly describing how airmen with parachutes had landing close to the Island. I had no idea what he was talking about but the look on his face has stuck in my mind.

    By Shirley Thomas (12/01/2009)
  • Hi im Gary Foulgers daughter, I was around and helping him with my sister chelsea foulger when he was re-uniting the soldiers from the B17, I spent my child hood at col – house fort and had amazing day when the memorial plack was put up on canvey Island,

    I want to say it makes me smile that we still have people like my dad around today to make us remember those who fought our war,
    LOVE YOU DAD, xxx

    By Jodie foulger (02/04/2009)
  • Many thanks to people like Gary Foulger, who bothered in earnest, to allow us all to never forget the sacrifices made, by those brave airmen.

    By Nigel Somerville (12/05/2009)
  • My uncle, Cecil Tognazzini, was one of the men killed in this crash, and they never recovered his body. My father was his only brother, and is now 91. I will show him this web page (I’m sure he will be most interested), and hope to be able to acquire close-up photos of the Canvey War Memorial or the Thames Aviation Museum displays. I tried to find my uncle’s name in the images on this page, but could not.

    By Anne Tognazzini (19/07/2009)
  • Hello there, I am a lecturer at SEEVIC College in Benfleet, and a group of my students recently performed a community piece at the Canvey Heritage. This piece was based on the The B17 Bomber Crash 1944, and the students interpreted this through dance, drama, and music. The performance was very successful, and the students worked very hard and also sensitively towards producing a performance piece that deals with such a sad yet heroic and fascinating event. We will be holding a showcase of the students work, where this piece will be performed in our college theatre. If you would like to come and see it, we would welcome you as an audience. Please email me on the address below for details. Many Thanks, Madeleine Page.

    By Madeleine Page (11/05/2010)
  • I’m the granddaughter of Richard Andrews, one of the survivors of Heavenly Body II. Thank you very much to the people of Canvey who were kind and generous towards my grandfather after the crash! I am beyond grateful to know three amazing men of Heavenly Body II…Richard Andrews, William Farmer, and Lloyd Burns! Their heroics will always inspire me!

    By Emily Tarbox (26/07/2010)
  • I’ve always believed it would be fitting when memorials are errected to have WWII AAF re enactors to represent and to act as a guard of honour on such occasions.

    By Lee Prescott (14/08/2010)
  • I am one of the daughters of Richard Andrews, now the only surviving member of Heavenly Body II. My husband, David, and I will be attending the Remembrance Service on June 21, 2014 on Canvey Island. We look forward to meeting all the wonderful people who have helped to keep alive the memory of those men who lost their lives so many years ago in the crash of Heavenly Body II. I know my father would love to be there, but it’s a trip that is impossible for him and my mother to make. I look forward to meeting David Thorndike to thank him personally for keeping in touch with my father through letters and emails and sending him the DVD that was made when a memorial plaque, honoring these World War II Airmen, was placed at the War Memorial on Canvey Island. Thank you, Barbara Tarbox

    By Barbara Tarbox (08/05/2014)
  • Thank you Barbara. I hope I get to meet you. I will pass on your message to David who is not on the internet. Give my regards to your father, I always enjoyed receiving his emails. I have a copy of that email and shall hopefully be adding it to the website before the event in June.

    By Janet Penn (08/05/2014)
  • Message passed on to David.

    By Janet Penn (09/05/2014)
  • May 12, 2014 – My name is David Tarbox, the husband of Barbara (nee Andrews) Tarbox and son-in-law of Richard Andrews the only living crew member of the B-17 “Heavenly Body II” that was commanded by Lt Lloyd Burns.  The man Janet Penn refers to in her recounting above (“…I saw one of the men who had baled out walking along the seawall wearing white overalls.”) is Richard Andrews.  He still vividly recalls that fateful day and all the events before, during and after and is very happy that both crews are being so wonderfully remembered.  He still remembers well the concerned welcome he received from the people who lived near where he scaled the seawall to get off the mud flats and on to dry land and the wonderful care and attention they gave him until he could be evacuated.  You are very kind, generous and wonderful people.

    By David Tarbox (12/05/2014)
  • It is Stan Pearce’s memories David not mine.

    By Janet Penn (12/05/2014)
  • I am the grandson of Leroy John Monk. I would like to thank everyone that added information about this story. I was too young for my grandfather tell me any stories about the war. He died when I was about 10 years old. I love hearing stories about my grandfather, and the brace men that served with him. It really makes me proud to have his name and very proud to be free because of men like him

    By Jesse Leroy Monk (25/11/2016)
  • What a wonderful remembrance of a horrible situation that could have been so much worse was it not for luck. We colonialists are thankful for the friendship, kinship and goodwill of our British cousins.

    By LTC(R) GREGORY DAVIS (04/12/2022)

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