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US Family to visit Grandfather’s WW2 Cornwall Crash Site
Floyd Henry Keller's B-24 Bomber crashed near St Mawgan in Cornwall, 1943. His family are visiting the UK on March 11
An American family is traveling to Cornwall, UK next week to visit the crash site of a US Air Force B-24 Liberator Bomber which came down near St Mawgan during the Second World War. The crash of the Ole Faithful took place on 21 December, 1943, at just after 2:30am, costing the lives of half of its 8 man crew. Sgt Roby Altizer, Lt Col. George M. MacNicol, Major E. F. Drake and Major Harry G. Bowers died in the accident, whilst the four survivors were Capt. Charles L. Hobbs, 2nd Lt. Rudolph P. Wilderman, Private Paul A. Baker and 1st Lt. Floyd Henry Keller.
Just over 75 years later, after conducting research into the incident, Keller's family will be visiting the crash site of the Bomber next week to learn more about the incident. It was Keller's granddaughter, Kami Beaty, who began investigating the history after a visit to Normandy, France. As Kami explains, "We visited Normandy as a family a few years ago and became deeply invested in the stories of the soldiers who our guide was bringing to life for us as we traced their steps and got a faint idea of what they endured and accomplished. And these were strangers, not someone we knew or loved. Knowing that my own grandfather too was part of that larger story inspired me to begin digging into the details of his service, which eventually led us to a small hillside on a farm in the Cornish countryside.
"If my Grandfather hadn’t survived that day, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation because our family wouldn't exist. And if all of the men on the plane that day had never put their lives on the line in the first place, we likewise wouldn’t be having this conversation because it is their sacrifice that won us the freedoms we now enjoy. To see the site where my grandfather nearly lost his life and where several brave men did sacrifice theirs that day will be a powerful reminder not to take those freedoms for granted, and a deeply personal reminder not to take the ones you love for granted. My grandfather is no longer with us, but if he was I would thank him and tell him that I love him and am proud to be his granddaughter."
Larry Keller, Floyd's son, also explained what the ocassion will mean to him. "A little over 75 years ago, the man that would become my father laid injured and unconscious in a stranger’s field, in a foreign nation, in the middle of the night on a cold and raining December morning. He survived. Four of his brothers in arms did not. How he got from rural northwest Oklahoma to a farmer’s field in Cornwall England is part of my family’s history, much of which I will never know. To see the place where this man’s life could have ended, probably should have ended, will be a humbling and emotional experience. My regret is that we did not get to bring my father back here before his death. How did he survive? Why was there no fire? Who provided aid to him? Why did he live when others did not? These and many other questions that I’d like to know the answers. But we will get one answer, where did it happen so many years ago? And for that answer, we make this journey."
Kami, who has been compiling a narrative of the incident, explained more about the circumstances of the crash. "During early December, 1943, Keller and other crew members ferried several high-ranking officers to England. These officers included Lieutenant Colonel George M. MacNicol, Commanding Officer of the 82nd Fighter Group, who was in England to advise the Eighth Air Force on the utilization of its P-38s, which were just entering service there. Major Harry Grimshaw Bowers, an Intelligence Officer with the 12th Air Force, had previously gone ashore in the invasion of North Africa and participated in the landings on Sicily and Italy, and with this experience was no doubt in England to help plan for the invasion of northern France. Major Edward Francis Drake, a third officer summoned to England for these meetings, had been serving with the Intelligence Division of the AAF for 16 months in North Africa, during which time he gathered valuable information that resulted in a successful attack on the German airbase at Foggia, Italy.
"Keller and other crew members spent several weeks in London while the intelligence officers attended a series of meetings. At the conclusion of the meetings, the group was set to return to Italy. On December 21, 1943, they boarded their aircraft, a B-24 originally named “Ole-Faithful,” at the RAF at St. Mawgan to depart England. They took off at 2:29 a.m. and the pilot immediately began experiencing mechanical difficulties with the instruments and lighting. Witnesses reported hearing the engines running considerably faster than normal and the aircraft tilted into a slight left bank. The plane crashed into a hillside on Tresassick Farm (approximately 1.5 miles south of the runway) at 2:32 a.m. Keller recalled the plane skimming a rock fence or hedging, resulting in the bottom of the plane being sheered off, and skidding up a hillside. Four of eight passengers aboard did not survive the crash. The pilot, Captain Charles M. Hobbs, recalled walking around after the crash, finding and collecting bodies, and popping a parachute to cover the bodies before himself passing out.
"Keller, Hobbs, and two other crew members - 2nd Lieutenant Rudolph Wildermann (co-pilot) and Private Paul A. Baker - survived, but all were hospitalized for several months with extensive injuries. The remaining crew member, Sergeant Roby Altizer, perished in the crash, as did all three of the high-ranking officers onboard - Lt. Col. MacNicol, Maj. Bowers, and Maj. Drake. During his time as a pilot, Lieutenant Colonel MacNicol had earned the designation of “strafing ace," having destroyed five enemy aircraft on the ground, as well as one aerial (damaged) claim. Major Bowers left his civilian job as a lawyer in 1940 to become an intelligence officer in the AAF; he recruited his friend, Captain Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (later Supreme Court Justice) to join the 12th Air Force’s intelligence staff. Major Drake was a 1932 Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, and left behind a wife, Virginia Elvira Trowbridge, and son, Frederick (in 1945, Elvira married Alden Kingsland Sibley, also a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, who was on General Eisenhower’s staff during the planning of the invasion of Normandy and was an aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt).
"Keller sustained multiple injuries, including fractured ribs, vertebra, heel, and scapula, as well as internal damage to his kidney. He was hospitalized until April 30, 1944, but eventually recovered fully, and was the only survivor of the crash who was ever restored to flying duty. For his service during World War II, he was awarded the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and the European Theater of Operations ribbon with two battle stars. After the war, Keller had a career in the US Air Force as an electronics counter measures officer, electronics instructor, and as a pharmacist. In 1951, he married Mildred Falls (born 1926), an Air Force nurse, and they had two sons, Gerry (born 1952) and Larry (born 1953). In the mid-1950s, Keller served four years assigned in England and Spangdalem, West Germany, as an electronics countermeasures officer flying surveillance down the Iron Curtain. He retired from the Air Force as a Major in 1962."
The BBC, fresh from a breathtaking broadcast of the USAF Flypast over Sheffield to honor the 10 men of the B-17 Bomber Mi Amigo, will be documenting the visit of Floyd Keller's family to the UK next week. BBC Spotlight (The regional news segment show for South West England) will broadcast a report on the family's visit on March 12th. The report will be broadcast on BBC Spotlight's segments during BBC Breakfast on BBC One, as well as during BBC Spotlight at lunchtime (1:30pm) and a longer report in the evening (6:30pm). If you're not in the South West of England, you'll be able to stream the report on BBC iPlayer on/after March 12th, or check out the BBC Spotlight homepage.
Thank you to Kami Beaty and Larry Keller to their contributions for this article.