The bronze memorial plaque weight about 50 pounds. When I took it from the small boat bobbing in the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Corsica, I sank like a rock and thudded onto the sea floor.
Mustering all my strength, I half-swam, half-walked the heavy plaque to the sunken B-17 bomber resting upright on the bottom. As I did, I thought about Armand Sedgeley, who had survived the plane’s crash, and about the French war hero who had sat next to me at the luncheon for veterans and dignitaries. He had been wearing the French Legion of Honor and special Commander’s Cross; in the war he had lost a leg and an arm and an eye.
The main body of the B-17 was virtually intact, although its nose had been sheared off in the crash landing, and the tail section, carrying the tail gunner, had never been found. I lugged the plaque to the cockpit, breathing heavily through my dive regulator. I unzipped my wetsuit, the rush of cold water chilling me, and unfurled the American flag. Then I opened the vial of holy water and let it mix with the sea where the three American airmen had lost their lives.
In that moment the circle was complete. What had begun as an act of fate when I had discovered the dead aviator’s dog tag after its 50 years buried at sea completed a journey of tragedy, death and eventual good fortune. It was also a moment that wove together the lives of people from different continents, nations and generations.
“We were over Verona when we got attacked,” the 73-year-old Sedgeley recalled. Second Lieutenant Sedgeley was the bombardier aboard the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress that day—one of the 4,750 B-17s lost in combat. Built to perform precision bombing against the Germans, B-17s dropped more than 640,000 tons of bombs on European targets. The airborne chariots of war could carry a 20,000-pound bomb load, flew at speeds over 300 miles per hour, and were surrounded with machineguns in the waist, upper turret, lower turret, tail and chin turrets. More than 12,700 were manufactured during the war. Sedgeley, as bombardier, rode in the forward snoot of the plane.
Sedgeley had been a 21-year-old aviator in 1943 when he was assigned to gunnery school and became part of a 10-member crew that flew missions out of North Africa. In November 1943, Sedgeley’s squadron was moved to Italy. By February 14, 1944, Sedgeley and his crew, who already crashed two B-17s, took off for a bomb run over railroad marshaling yards in Verona.
Aircraft 31044 was on the extreme left wing of a seven-ship company front, Sedgeley reported later. “I had my sight set up and was trying to pick up the target. We had been on the bomb run three minutes when I looked up from the bomb sight and saw two fighters flying toward us at 11 o’clock, low. When the two fighters got in range, I saw they were Messerschmitt ME-109s and started firing at them, but I did not observe any change in their altitude and they kept flying in the same direction passing below and just left of the nose. The tail gunner kept calling off fighters at 6 o’clock and he started firing. The next thing I heard was the tail gunner calling that his guns were out.”
When Sedgeley’s squadron, which had not yet dropped any bombs, turned A/C 31044 swung wide out of formation. “The next thing that came over the inter phone,” he reported, “was the tail gunner’s voice saying that he was dying. I immediately salvoed my bombs because I thought of the danger we were in. At the same time I could hear the guns of our ship firing and saw 20 mm bursting all around the nose while I was looking for enemy fighters. I know that we were being hit from the rear because the nose was full of smoke and dust.”
Sedgeley had his turn at the German fighters when one came around the right wing, flying parallel with the B-17. “As he got about even with the nose, he made a left turn and started toward the nose of 31044. I had been following the Me. 109 in my sight of the chin turret just before he turned. I started firing while he turned and kept firing until he exploded.”
Two Allied P-47 fighter planes appeared, and the Germans broke off their attack. The B-17 was still at 21,000 feet when the Allied fighters left them, so Sedgeley gave his oxygen mask to the navigator. The bombardier then went to the cockpit to get morphine from the pilot. When he left the cockpit and headed to the radio room, he saw the radio operator lying face down. Sedgeley rolled him over and saw the bullet wound in the eye, the badly shot up legs.
“I left the radio room,” the bombardier recalled, “and went to the waits, where I saw the left waist gunner sitting down in pain. I saw a small bruise on the left gunner’s eyebrow but thought he was only unconscious.” Sedgeley and the ball turret gunner carried this man to the radio room where it was warmer. Sedgeley took off the man’s flak suit and unfastened his electric suit. Then, Sedgeley recalled, “I discovered a bullet wound that entered his chest and another larger hole in his belly. I left him as dead.”
Sedgeley returned to the right waist gunner. “He had several 20 mm flak wounds in his legs but no serious injuries were discovered. I tried to give him morphine but he said he felt okay. I put some sulphur drugs on his leg wounds and left him.”
Sedgeley then went to the tail, where he found the gunner lying on the floor “still conscious but bleeding so much that the floor was covered.” Sedgeley gave the gunner a shot of morphine and uncovered his legs; hit directly by gunfire, they had been almost severed. “I tried to move him out of the tail but could not. I tried to stop the flow of blood but could not. I covered him well with flying jackets and kept working on the tourniquet,” Sedgeley reported. “He went unconscious after a short time and I believe that he died.”
By this time the B-17 was approaching Corsica, which was occupied by Allied forces. The pilot, Second Lieutenant Frank Chaplick, diverted to the island, hoping to land on an airfield being finished near Calvi. With the number four engine knocked out and number two and three superchargers out, 20 mm bullet holes in the nacelles of number two engine, with three dead and dying crewmen and others injured, the pilot had all he could do to bring his aircraft across the Mediterranean from Verona to Caliv.
“Had quite a time keeping ship on course due to trim controls being shot out,” Chaplick later reported. Chaplick, in fact, was flying with one arm and no oxygen. “On initial attack,” he explained, “I was hit by 20 mm and flying glass, causing my hand to become numb and making flying very difficult with only one hand.” In his report, Chaplick later commended Sedgeley for dumping his bombs early in the attack. Gunfire had ripped through the bomb bay, Chaplick noted. “If bombs had been in the ship, it probably would have exploded.”
The pilot later explained, “I tried making a landing on the field, but due to high mountains and conditions of aircraft I was unable to land or even crash land on field. So I thought it best to ditch aircraft in bay close to shore.”
The B-17 crashed into the sea about 100 yards in front of the rocks of the old fortified citadel looming above. As the plane hit tail first, the tail section broke off. The bomber sank, but its buoyancy brought it back to the surface. Sedgeley activated the emergency radio key that transmitted an automatic distress signal. While the surviving crew escaped in inflatable life rafts and were picked up by a British Air Sea Rescue unit, the three dead were left and went down with the aircraft.
The bodies of the radio operator, Technical Sergeant Robert H. Householder, and gunners Staff Sergeants George J. Murphy and Tony Duca remained entombed inside the sunken bomber. The tail section and tail gunner were never found. The war went on. The dead were left underwater, their bodies disintegrating right where Sedgeley had left them.
As sport scuba diving became popular in the 1960s, local divers began exploring the wreckage of the sunken B-17 Flying Fortress. Fifty-caliber shells, machine guns and other artifacts were recovered. A local diver took aluminum oxygen cylinders and human bones from the aircraft in 1963; in 1964 U.S. military authorities asked that diver if he would cooperate in recovering the remains inside the B-17. The diver and French gendarmes brought up bone fragments and a wallet containing a dog tag belonging to waist gunner George Murphy. After a mortuary report was issued, the matter was closed. Others took what souvenirs they wanted, including a club of German divers who were stopped by French authorities for sawing off machine guns and propeller blades.
Still, the B-17 remained a popular and beautiful dive site. Bright red and orange sponges now cover the aircraft, lobsters inhabit the motor cowlings, brightly colored fish swim inside the fuselage. The plan has become a special attraction and home for marine life and is a good stie to study Mediterranean marine ecosystems. The water, about 100 feet deep where the plane lies, is clean and clear, and the aircraft’s nose points directly at the rocks facing the citadel of Calvi.
Once, filming marine life on the B-17, I entered the fuselage and fanned at the sand that had settled inside the aluminum hull. When I lifted away a protruding piece of wooden carton, a small ampoule of iodine lay in the sand. Thinking it was the plane’s first aid kit, I fanned again and a small object flipped up off the bottom. Even in the silt it was clear the object was a discolored dog tag belonging to Technical Sergeant Robert H. Householder, the radio operator killed at his post.
Finding that small dog tag and ampoule of iodine after so many years and after so many thousands of divers scavenged the underwater wreckage seems a miracle to me, a fellow countryman of the long dead aviators. The discovery launched a three-year search to uncover details about the crew and their families.
But letters to the address on the dog tag were returned to sender; the rural rout in Wellington, Colorado, had been discontinued as a post office address. Correspondence to the postmaster, mayor and chief of police in the rural community got no reply. Directory assistance provided the listing for the name Householder in the area, but correspondence to them went unanswered. Letters to the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force likewise met with frustrating failure of communication.
Finally, shortly before by departure for Corsica to conduct an annual underwater film festival and scientific symposium, the Pentagon called. Air Force Captain Jim Gates had been shredding secret documents when he came across my letter to the secretary of the Air Force asking for information about the owner of the dog tag and the crew. “Has anyone from the Air Force helped you on this?” Captain Gates asked. When he learned of the futility of my search and my desire to have a memorial ceremony honoring the B-17 crew, he agreed to help.
Within hours Captain Gates located three surviving crew members. But the 50th anniversary commemorations already had been held at the beaches in Normandy. The Air Force and the other U.S Armed Services had already closed their books on honoring World War II servicemen.
Still, in the few days remaining before my departure for Corsica, the survivors were contacted to determine their ability and willingness to travel to Calvi. A bronze plaque was designed in cooperation with the Boeing Aircraft Company, which remains justly proud of its creation of the B-17. The plaque casting was ordered and President Bill Clinton agreed to provide a special message for the event.
Pilot Chaplick’s brother became gravely ill and Chaplick could not leave Maine, but the bombardier, Armand Sedgeley, who lived just outside Denver, wanted to go. The Air Force, however, would not provide transportation for the veterans and little time remained to travel on a commercial flight which, at this late date, would be prohibitively expensive for an elderly retired person. But a reporter at the Denver Post, enthusiastic about the story, wrote a front-page article, and within hours the chief training pilot for United Airlines called, offering Sedgeley and his 47-year-old son free tickets to the Calvi ceremony. And the newspaper reporter received a call from the deceased radio operator’s brother.
Everything was happening at the last minute. The American authorities wanted to know who would be the highest-ranking French military official at the ceremony so they could send an officer of equivalent rank. The French military authorities wanted to know who was coming and who would be the highest-ranking American military officer. By the time I left New York for Corsica, the bronze plaque had arrived from the foundry in Ohio, the U.S. Air Force was sending a commanding officer from the Ramstein, Germany, Air Base, and President Clinton’s personal message was arriving in the nick of time.
The dignitaries began to arrive. On September 25, 1995, the protocol captain from Ramstein Air Base, accompanied by the U.S. Air Force’s Elite Color Guard; the sous préfet de Calvi, France’s equivalent of the governor, who had trained with American forces as Ramstein and served 12 years as a parachutist; Calvi’s mayor; the commander of the French Foreign Legion; the minister of Veteran’s Affairs; the French War Veterans; the French Gendarmerie who had recovered one of the .50-caliber machine guns from the sunken aircraft; the president of the Corsican Diving Association; and many others with ties to the event all gathered at Calvi’s Memorial to the War Dead.
There could be no better place. Corsica had been a center for resistance during the war. Freed from occupation, Corsica was used as a foothold to free the continent. Even the word for French resistance, “Maquis,” derives from the tangle of bushes in the Corsican mountains where resistance fighters, “Maquisards,” hid.
The events were extraordinary. In the capital city of Ajaccio, the mayor made a ceremonious entry between drummers of an Imperial Guard and unveiled the plaque with the commander of French land forces on the island. A woman whose father was killed as head of the resistance asked if she could embrace Sedgeley for her father. A veteran, who had been on rifle duty at the lighthouse and saw the B-17 go down, introduced himself to Sedgeley. The surviving bombardier was welcomed as a hero at a local school. He received a book on Corsica’s liberation from a French veteran who had been held prisoner by the Germans for two years, escaped and returned to France via Switzerland to fight again. He had been gravely wounded, losing an arm and a leg. And Air Force Colonel Dale Myeyerrose presented the sous préfet with his own parachutist wings in an exchange of fraternal sentiment between comrades in arms.
These rich moments celebrating the independence of Corsican will, pride in their homeland and the deep-rooted passion for freedom made the memorial events on land and underwater majestic and moving. That the father of diving, 90-year-old Philippe Tailliez, who long ago taught Jacques-Yves Cousteau to dive, returned to Coriscan waters added as special dimension and symbolism to the event—the last 50th anniversary memorial to World War II and remembrance of the ultimate price paid by so many to ensure freedom.