Thursday, November 07, 2013

They, Too, Were Heroes

With Veterans Day approaching, many stories in the media tell us about the actions of heroic military personnel who were crippled or killed facing enemy fire. Some interesting tales are repeated year after year and circulated widely. But others emerge only long after the event when an enterprising historian publishes a previously untold tale.

Lieutenant Charles J. Searl, a World War II pilot, bore a family name familiar to most residents of my hometown of Tomahawk, Wisconsin.  Bronsted-Searl Post 93, American Legion, has been active in veteran’s affairs and community service work since shortly after Armistice Day (now Veterans Day in the U.S.) ended World War I. My father was an active member of the post for more than 40 years. I played baseball for two seasons on a team sponsored by the post. One of my most treasured possessions is a trophy awarded by the Legionnaires for achievements in high school.

Yet all I knew about the post name was that “Bronsted” was killed in World War I , and “Searl” died in World War II.  I knew that because my father told me. I believe some Tomahawk natives with fewer ties to the local American Legion group had no inkling about the origins of the name.

Just a few weeks ago, Lt. Searl’s story appeared on the internet, posted by a Tomahawk resident on Facebook. The Tomahawk Leader carried a similar story this week. The story didn’t originate in Tomahawk, or Wisconsin, or anywhere else in the U.S. An Englishman, Ronald M. Setter, compiled “B-17 ‘Tomahawk Warrior’ A Tribute to Charles J. Searl and Crew.”  Mr. Setter made the story very personal, including ages and home states of all the crew members and some speculation about how they might have spent their off-duty time in the village of Royston, near the airfield where they were based.
Lt. Searl (top row, third from left) and the other crew members with "The Tomahawk Warrior"

Exercising a pilot’s privilege, Lt. Searl named the B-17 heavy bomber he flew after his hometown. “The Tomahawk Warrior,” with its original crew of 10, flew 24 missions to France and Germany, including one on D-Day, after it arrived at the Nuthampstead airbase in March 1944. On August 12, the plane took off for the 25th mission, one it did not complete.

A 25th mission might convey the idea to some that the crew of “The Tomahawk Warrior” would be safe permanently when they returned, but that probably was not the case, and Mr. Setter does not make that claim. American bomber crews suffered horrendous losses early in their participation in mainland European bombing raids. During the first three months (1941) the typical crew completed only 8 to 12 missions before their plane was shot down or disabled.

Apparently to boost flyer morale, the Eighth U.S. Army Air Force decreed that finishing 25 missions in a heavy bomber constituted a “completed tour of duty” and the crew could stand down. I know that happened sometimes, because a Tomahawk resident who lived on our street was sent back to state-side duty after his bomber safely completed 25 missions. However, histories tell us the “25 mission rule” was extended to 30, 35, or more depending on circumstances. By the time “The Tomahawk Warrior” arrived fairly late in the aerial campaign, fighter plane cover was much improved and German resistance was diminished. So, claiming that the “Warrior” crew might have been on its last mission on August 12 would add drama to the story, but probably would not be true.

On Saturday, August 12, 1944, without one crew member who was left behind for unknown reasons, “The Tomahawk Warrior” took off for a bombing run to Versailles, France. Less than an hour later one engine caught fire, and Searl turned over the town of High Wycombe to return to base. Another engine was observed to be on fire.

Mr. Setter wrote, “It has always been accepted that the pilot was trying to find open ground to attempt a landing when he had no chance of reaching his base or even Bovingdon airfield, which was only ten miles away to the north. He would have seen the populated area he was flying over and realized the devastation the plane would cause if it crashed there. It skimmed over the farmhouse of Lude Farm and crashed into open fields opposite. ‘Tomahawk Warrior’ and its crew of nine young men ended life in a massive explosion and fire. No one had bailed out of the stricken plane and no distress signal was ever traced. They stayed together, comrades now for all eternity. . . A short entry in official records at their base read: Takeoff 0618 hours, 0720 no return.”

To my knowledge, no special ceremonies have been held in the U.S. to mark the end of “The Tomahawk Warrior” and its crew. However, the remarkable part of their story is that the Brits in the area (Penn) where Lt. Searl apparently made every effort to avoid terrible crash damage have never forgotten.

Each Armistice Day, a special service at Penn Church honors the American flyers. Their names are read along with men from the village who gave their lives. Usually, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is sung during the service. Small American flags, each with the name of a crew member, are placed with British flags along the path to the church door. The Book of Remembrance in Penn Church has the American as well as the British military names inscribed in memory of their sacrifice.
At Penn Church, the crew of "The Tomahawk Warrior" are not forgotten

Mr. Setter concludes his story: “To all who read this tribute, remember . . . they gave their lives just as bravely and in sacrifice for peace, just as those who were lost on and over the battlefields of Europe.”

Charles J. Searl, age 23, left behind a wife and two small daughters. None of the other crew members was married. Their ages ranged from 20 to 27. 

9 comments: said...

So long ago now and so sad. How many remember Armistice Day any more? Happy to hear you still honor fallen heroes. Dianne

PiedType said...

The Greatest Generation. Today's young people have no idea ...

Big John said...

It's nice to know that my fellow Brits still honour those brave Americans.

Dick Klade said...

I think they may well deserve that label, Pied. Just now getting around to reading "The Greatest Generation," by Tom Brokaw. It is packed with inspiring stories of people who overcame various forms of adversity.

Gigi Kahn-Bowles said...

Thank you for sharing. Wonderful to know that they are still honored like that.
Gigi Kahn-Bowles

Kay said...

Thank you for writing this post about the brave sacrifice these men made. I've been watching Foyle's War on Netflix now for a couple of months and it's very interesting to see the interaction between the British and the Americans.

Unknown said...

Charles searl is my grandpa. Thank you so much for sharing this story

Anonymous said...

Do any photographs exist of the B-17 " Tomahawk Warrior"?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, just to clarify, do any photgraphs exist of the B-17 " Tomahawk Warrior", apart from the photo of the crew standing in front of the nose, shown at the start of the story? Thanks very much if anyone can direct me to a source.