Shouldn’t Someone Look For Jo & His Crew?

At precisely thirty-five minutes past eleven on the night of January 23rd 1944 it was bloomin’ chilly and, if you were still up and outside, you would have been able to see the warm plumes of your breath in the cold, still night air. A fine sparkling frost coated the countryside and the occasional cock pheasant called from the numerous small copses in the locality. If you lived in or near the village of Shingay in Cambridgeshire and you looked up into the night sky you might well have wondered what that aeroplane was doing just circling round and round. Exactly two minutes later, making the time now eleven thirty seven, you would have witnessed the aeroplane – or at least heard it – enter a very steep dive. After a few seconds, hearing the engines start to scream, you might have thought “come on guys pull out of that.” At eleven thirty eight it would have become clear that the steep dive had been terminal for both aircraft and anyone inside it as a colossal explosion shook the window panes in local houses and a massive billowing orange fireball lit up the surrounding countryside.

Shingay is near to Bassingbourn and the sounds of aeroplanes during the war was not uncommon in those days. The huge B17s lumbering at low level must surely have been an awesome sight. Sometimes, with my passion, I look at large mature trees in the area thinking “wow you were alive when the B17s were doing that.” Earlier on in the war Wellington bombers had been based there, and also at nearby Steeple Morden, and had attracted the attention of several German night fighter attacks. So crashes in the district as a result of being shot down or a mechanical failure (or crew misjudgment) were not unusual. As an experienced aviation archaeologist I know that, emotionally, all incidents that involve loss of aircrew lives are the same when it comes to the pain for the relatives and close families of those involved. That’s pretty obvious. However, some incidents interest me more than others. This particular incident at Shingay is one that has aroused my curiosity. So let’s have a look at what type of aircraft was involved here and who the men were inside it.

The plane was a B24H Liberator that belonged to the highly specialist 814th Bomb Squadron that was part of the 482nd Bomb Group. The serial number of this particular aircraft was 42- 7672 and that night it had been flying as a Pathfinder, testing top secret and advanced radar equipment, prior to a mission. It was piloted by one Captain Joseph Avendano Jr, a highly decorated individual who had previously flown on the famous Ploesti Oilfield Raid in Romania and had been widely recognised for his wartime exploits.

Snapshot of Ploesti Raid Crew

This fame had led to him being featured on the front cover of a wartime issue of Time Magazine. The crew on board that perilous night were:

 

Captain Joseph Avendano (Silver Star, DFC and Air medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters)

Second Lt Charles Howard

First Lt Chester McGahan

Second Lt Julius Seibel

Technical Sergeant Harry S. Parks

Staff Sergeant Carl H. Jean.

Picture of Captain Joe Avendano

There is some evidence to indicate that an un-named “stow away” was also on board this plane. Or it might be that wartime records do not specify the H2S Radar operator due to confidentiality. So there might be an unknown seventh member of this aircrew.

The flight plan was officially scheduled from Alconbury to Kings Lynn then over to Peterborough and finally back to Alconbury. So, at the time of the crash, the Liberator does seem to have been somewhat off course. It is possible that the crew experienced severe icing high up in the cold sky, which may explain the round and round flight path, and then perhaps structural or control surface failure caused the plane to dive to the ground. Back at Alconbury the crew’s progress for the duration had been monitored over the radio by Lt Colonel John Roche – once the testing was complete, the last transmission from them stated they were heading back to base. One hour later a report came in to say the Liberator had crashed. Next morning Lt Colonel Roche drove to the crash site. The scene was one of total devastation. Sections of Liberator had been blasted for a great distance over the countryside but the main impact point consisted of a forty-foot crater that was some twenty-five feet deep. There were no survivors.

I first heard of this crash some thirty years ago. In the ensuing years I have researched the incident as best I could for my book “War Torn Skies Cambridgeshire.” During this research I actually made contact with a relative of Jo Avendano who was very interested in the work I was doing. It’s always humbling and a true honour to make contact with relatives. Sadly, they often allow you a peek into the highly personal family experiences of such tragedies. About twenty five years ago I heard that someone had – several years before – conducted a small excavation by hand on the site and had to stop at around ten feet as the mass of compressed aircraft wreckage proved impenetrable. Allegedly, during this investigation two dog tags were unearthed, along with considerable evidence of human remains. Apparently nothing was reported (it was before the Protection of Military Remains Act) and, as far as I know, that’s the only excavation ever conducted on the site. Certainly this type of severe crash would mean that, if it were investigated later, human remains would very likely be found.

I visited Madingley American cemetery and saw that Jo Avendano and two members of this crew were interred in a single grave. This is not unusual in a severe incident when body remains are shattered and, in many cases, totally indistinguishable – it makes sense to bury comrades together. I have not been able to establish the whereabouts of other crewmembers, or indeed to even confirm if they were ever recovered. The old wartime adage of “you came into the world weighing seven pounds and that’s all we need to find of you to send you out of it,” was unfortunately true in this case. But just whose remains might they be? I made contact with several other crewmembers’ relatives and then wondered if it would be possible to invite them over to witness the possible excavation of the Liberator. This would be a big operation and would require some complex permissions. Unfortunately, whilst some permissions were forthcoming, others were not and although I battled my case there is only so much one can do.

My original aim was to recover any remains of the Liberator for static displays in museums and, if human remains were encountered, to deal with them in a respectful way by following the established legal processes, which would likely have culminated in a funeral. But nothing ever came of it. In the last decade I have obtained permission to metal detect in the surrounding fields (but not from the farmer on whose land the crash site is situated) and over the years I have found several small pieces of airframe. Some of these are weathered terribly and just crumble whilst others are amazingly in an almost “just left the factory” condition. Whether these were blasted into the area I found them or were perhaps discarded seven decades ago by looting, souvenir-hungry school children is of course debatable.

Aircraft Remains of B24 Liberator Bomber

Two days ago I found yet another piece of Liberator 42-7672 in almost pristine condition over half a mile away from the crash site. It’s so perfect it still has paint on it after seventy years and seems to have avoided agricultural equipment damage. This tiny find once again got me thinking about that long ago incident…

Fragment of B24 Liberator Bomber

Supposing the rumours that I heard concerning that first dig were true. Even after so long, is it morally correct that, deep in a bleak Cambridgeshire field, lie the shattered remains of six (or seven) Allied airmen? Excavation of such a crash site requires a licence from the MOD, however it’s unlikely one would be granted in this instance – for the sole reason that human remains could very likely be encountered. Of course one could argue that, as those remains already have a registered grave, well that should be that. That’s true, but is it really the right conclusion? It seems to me that the law and a lack of concern or awareness condemns the remains of this crew to stay in this locality in perpetuity.

Now I know that there are many more pressing issues in the modern world, but men like these shaped our current reality, no matter what we have done with it since. It’s not about me singling out a famous wartime pilot because of his status and feeling he deserves remembrance – or his family, closure – any more than any other aircrew member or military service personnel. Just as in thousands of other aircraft incidents these men gave their lives doing what they felt had to be done. If they were still alive today no doubt they would probably say “we are not heroes, just doing our required jobs at a certain time.” I know this situation is slightly controversial, but I do think it’s wrong. At the time Britain was at war, these men were dead, so there was only a limited amount of time to clear up before returning once again to the ongoing business of war. But it’s been seventy years now and I believe we owe these men a huge debt. A debt that I think should partially, albeit very inadequately, be repaid by at least looking to see if their remains are still there.

As a metal detectorist, I’m aware that the past is the past and all that, but is it morally correct that we wait until a new housing estate or supermarket crops up, developers locate the aircraft remains and those of its crew and then uncaringly excavate them quickly because they are simply in the way. After a few more decades would anyone even know what has been found? I believe the way to often look at such cases is to make it personal – for example, imagine that the partial or complete remains of your brother, father or uncle still lie buried in a remote field after seven decades and no one had made any effort to locate or retrieve them. How would you feel? Would you not at least want someone to investigate? Because in all fairness I know I would.

Note: Lt Colonel John Roche who had monitored the B24’s flight progress all those years ago in 1944 actually met Jo Avendano’s nephew in 2002. At the meeting Colonel Roche was shown a letter that he had written to the Avendano family some weeks after the crash. In this letter Colonel Roche had written : “Joe could have gone home, but he felt that he would be neglecting his duty to rid the world of these enemies. He was a real soldier, who had done more than his fair share, we can say that it was fellows or soldiers such as Joe that really did the job.”

 

Lt Colonel John Roche passed away in 2007 aged 90 years.

Thanks to Joe Avenadano Duran and Sam Eriz in the USA for supplying additional details.

 

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About Julian Evan-Hart
Julian is from Hertfordshire, England and has always been interested in fossils and antiquities. Julian has written a number of books on metal detecting, and is an avid user of Minelab products.

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