Case File # 4             

Case Title: Collateral Damage on Drop Zone "C"

Subject: Strafing of German medics and Dutch civilians in a marked ambulance by US Army Air Corps

Date: September 17th, 1944

Location: Son, Holland

 

Introduction:

In several accounts in historical literature, an incident on the edge of the Drop- and Landing Zones at Son is described. They all tell of a sad case of collateral damage. On Sunday September 17th 1944, The US Army Air Corps targeted all suspicious activities on and around the areas that would be the scene of enormous airborne landings, later that day. An ambulance with Dutch civilians was strafed by accident.

 

1) Hart's account

On page 128 in "Four Stars of Hell" by Captain Laurence Critchell in the Chapter "Going Dutch" we read the experiences of David Hart of the 501st Regimental Headquarters Company. Hart had a fractured arm in England prior to Operation Market Garden and was ordered by the regimental surgeon not to jump into Holland. Instead he was able to catch a glider ride to Landing Zone "W" near Son: "Emerging from the forest, he found himself at the edge of the glider field. It was empty of human beings. On the road at the side, however, was a German car with three persons sitting in it, one of them a woman. The fire that had destroyed the machine was still licking up in little tongues of flame around the rubber tires, and when Hart approached, he saw that three figures sitting in the car had been burned to death. They were naked. Their bodies were shriveled and black; and out of their skulls drifted faint wisps of blue smoke.
He gazed unemotionally at the dead people and moved on.
"

 

2) Bowen's account
"Fighting with the Screaming Eagles" is the title of the book in which Robert M. Bowen of "C" Co./401 Glider Infantry Regiment (3rd Bn of the 327th Regiment, 101st) writes his experiences. In the Chapter "Windmills and Wooden Shoes" on page 87 we read: "Lieutenant Armstrong got orders to move the company to the battalion assembly area. We found a track through a field with high grass on either side on the edge of the LZ and took off [...]We passed a German ambulance on the side of a trail and two young dead medics lying in the road by it. They seemed to be sleeping, sprawled spread-eagled in the track. Our fighter planes had killed them."

After regrouping the company on the edge of the LZ, Bowen continues: "We got orders to move. The enemy was reported to be moving across our front to cut off the 501st, which was fighting in Son. We returned the way we had come, past the wrecked ambulance with the dead medics. They were unrecognizable, mashed to bloody pulps by passing jeeps and trucks, which had come in by glider. My stomach turned as I passed."

 

3) Burgett's account

In "The road to Arnhem" Donald R. Burgett of "A"Co./506th wrote his experiences in World War Two. From page 32 on, we read in the Chapter "Operation Market" what happened shortly after his parachute landing on Drop Zone "C" near Son : "We followed a two-track dirt road alongside a deep, wide ditch that had some water in the bottom. It was dry in some places and up to the knees with water in other spots. We followed the road, walking on the left side in the direction of Zon. We could see the Zoenche Forest in the not too far distance.[...] Derek \"Doc" Saint, our medic, joined us in our walk. Men were headed toward the forest , coming from across the open fields as though pouring through a funnel. [...] Back along the ditch we came to a small wooden bridge. It was just large enough for one vehicle or farm wagon to pass over at a time. We turned left there and a short way up the road saw the remains of a bombed ambulance. It had taken a close hit of a five-hundred pound bomb, catching fire and burning the four occupants to a char. I suspect from the closeness of the bomb strike and the condition of the wreckage that the occupants were killed instantly by the blast.
One badly charred body lay on the ground just outside the driver's door. Another burned body sat grotesquely in the front passenger seat, while two others lay outside, also badly burned. This was the work of one of the fighter-bombers that had bombed and strafed the DZ just before our arrival. The ambulance was clearly marked with red crosses on a white field on the sides and top. We couldn't understand why it had been targeted and destroyed. The only explanation we could think of was that our fighter-bomber pilots had been ordered to destroy all suspected enemy gun emplacements and all vehicles in the area.
"

 

4) Barnes's account
In George Koskimaki's "Hell's Highway" the Chapter "Glider Lifts" we read the experiences of Lieutenant Henry Barnes, a medical evacuation officer for the 326th Airborne Medical Company. He came in by glider on Landing Zone "W". On page 75 we read what happened to Hart after his glider landed intact: "I heard shots ring out, [...]. I ran forward, dropping near a bundle on the ground. I hid behind it trying to figure where the shots were coming from.
I couldn't believe it. We had arrived safely. I felt like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Just then a loud voice cut through my thoughts.
"A major walking by on the way to his assembly area shouted, 'Damn it, Barnes, you haven't been here five minutes and already you got yourself a girl!' Puzzled, I followed his wave and looked at the bundle I was lying near. Sure enough, it was the remains of a Dutch girl, almost unrecognizable, almost blown apart.
"Near us could be discerned the remains of a small German car with a tiny Red Cross on the windshield. Also, there were the bodies of two German soldiers and another Dutch girl. It seems they were parked here in the same woods, about 1300 P.M. sitting in the car, when their 'necking' was ended with he anti-personnel bombs and machine gun bullets that the Air Corps used to clean out our landing zone - and I had chosen a corpse to hide behind.
"

 

 5) Van Overvelt's account
The real story behind the Dutch women and the German ambulance is on page 27 of George Koskimaki’s "Hell's Highway" in the Chapter "Liberation: "In an interview with Marienus de Visser, 88 year old brother of Piet de Visser, who died on September 17, 1944, Lisa van Overvelt sent this information: "On Saturday, 16 of September, 1944, the Dutch police got instructions from the Germans to post all houses in Son and Bruegel and order the men to come to the canal to dig foxholes. Most of them refused to work for the enemy and hid in the woods. This was repeated again on Sunday, the 17th of September. So, when the bombardment started on the morning of the 17th, many Dutchmen were hidden in the woods, including Piet de Visser and his comrade Henk Scheepens. During one of the bombing and strafing runs, Piet de Visser was hit on the side of the head near the brain by shrapnel. He fell to the ground. He was seriously wounded. His friend, Henk Scheepens, who was unhurt, hastened back to the home of the Vissers in Son and told Piet’s wife what had happened to her husband. She was terribly frightened but knew that she had to do something quickly. She went to Nell Peynburg and these two women went to the Germans and managed to get a Red Cross car. A younger brother of policeman Baak accompanied the two women in the car with three German soldiers. One soldier rode on the side of the car with his gun, ready in anticipation of an attack. They sped along the woods in the direction to which Scheepens guided them. Just as they had reached the spot where de Visser lay wounded, another strafing run started. An incendiary bomb hit the ambulance. It started burning. The three Dutch people and two of the German Red Cross soldiers burned and died instantly. Piet de Visser died that evening. A daughter and a son were left without mother or father."

 

6) Baak's account

Policeman Norbertus HJ Baak, mentioned in the previous account, was interviewed for Cornelius Ryan's book A Bridge Too Far. Baak was 33 years old and head of the Dutch police in Son in 1944. After the war he stayed with the police. His account is on record in the Manuscript Collection of the Ohio University Library. It is filed in Box 125, Folder 11. His account: "German troops in and around Son consisted of standard troops, of the usual age and battle ready. In the early afternoon of Sunday September 17th 1944, the Allies started bombing the woods of Son, South of the Son Heath. Fragmentation bombs that went off on the ground and exploded horizontally. The plan was to clear the woods of Germans, but civilians had fled to the woods also and some of them fell victim to the bombing. One of them was my 18 year old  brother Jo(hannes). Jo was at the edge of the woods with a wounded man. He wanted to get help. Jo stopped a German Red Cross ambulance. A few seconds later everything was hit by a bomb and pulverized. There were two air strikes, shortly after each other, some time later American paratroopers jumped from their planes."

 

Analysis
In conclusion, there are six known accounts of the incident. Whereas Lt Barnes tries to reduce the blame on the Air Corps by stating that the ambulance only had a small Red Cross painted on it and also erroneously accuses the Dutch victims of fraternizing with the Germans, the other accounts clearly express grief about what happened.


We have not come upon photographic evidence of the targeted ambulance. There are however, several known photographs of paratroopers leaving the Drop- and Landing Zones near Son on the described dirt track. None show the shot up ambulance. What the objects, silhouetted in the background of the picture with the pipe-smoking Dutch Army liaison are, can not be established. They probably are jeeps. The silhouette may also be the ambulance, however.

One year after the incident the people of Son held a spontaneous parade in honor of the men who died while they were forced to dig foxholes for the Germans. Men carrying shovels to represent the foxhole diggers, marched across the Bailey Bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Son in September 1945:

One of this website's regular advisors is Erwin Janssen of Eerde, The Netherlands. Erwin (r.) can be seen here showing Battle detective Tom (l.) around the Eerde battlefield from the scaffolding around the outside of the restored windmill of Eerde:

(Click for an enlargement)

Erwin reminded us of the fact that the bridge across Wilhelmina Canal in Son, blown up on the 17th of September 1944, is an exact same version of the Bridge at Koningshoeven, a suburb of the Dutch city of Tilburg. We made some comparisons:

(Click for enlargementw)


These are the obituaries for the victims of the strafing runs in a local newspaper:

(Click for an enlargement)

Battledetective visited the old cemetery at Son. This cemetery has only old graves, as a new community cemetery was created several decades ago. This new cemetery, by the way, is located in the vicinity of the former US Military Cemetery (see Battle Study # 2).
On the old graveyard, we found the grave marker of Piet de Visser and Piet’s wife Petronella van den Aalst.

The grave monument’'s inscription reads:

“Here rest
our loved parents
PETRUS de VISSER
St Oedenrode 25 3 1896
PETRONELLA vd AALST
7 12 1903
Both exp. at Son
17 9 1944”

This would conclude the sad story behind a weathered gave marker, if it weren't for an update submitted by Mr. Jurgen Swinkels of Zijtaart, near Veghel, through our online contact form. On June 21s, 2007 Swinkels wrote about the second (middle) picture in the paragraph Analysis in this Case File:

 

"This one is taken at the edge of the [Wilhelmina] Canal close to the location where Joe Mann was Killed in Action, approximately between the highway [the A2 Netherlands motorway] at Best and the Destructor factory. In the picture is Jim Norene of "G"-Co./502nd. Hence, this picture is not taken at the edge of the LZ & DZ. My best friend Theo Pijnenburg, who unfortunately has passed away, had told me where the ambulance stood when it was hit and burned out. Petronella Van Aalst was his grandmother."

 

This is a picture of Theo Pijnenburg, pictured as a very young boy at the edge of the Drop Zone in Son on the 17th of September 1944:

The soldiers are of the same group as pictured in the left corner of the third picture of paratroopers on a dirt track, posted above.

 

Jurgen offered us to show the location. An invitation we gladly accepted. 

On Wednesday evening, July 11th 2007 we went to the location.

 

This is the site on World War Two US Army Map "Oirschot, Holland 1:25000, Sheet 18 S.W.":

 

 

Jurgen gave us the coordinates of the site of the ambulance and this is the

location seen through  the satellite camera's of Google EarthTM today:

 

(click on the image to enlarge)

 

 

Zooming in on that exact spot on

an aerial photograph taken on Sunday the 17th of September 1944

shortly after the paratrooper and glider landings

(by using the still existing edge of the Sonsche Forest and some dirt tracks in it, as reference points),

we can see soil being uprooted by strafing gunfire:

 

(click on the image to enlarge)

 

Because no objects can be see seen near the Southern most strafing marks, we leave open the possibility that the square object in the middle of the fields is a vehicle.

 

On this enlarged aerial photograph

(which is clearly taken on a later time because of the hospital cross made from

aerial recognition panels and the moved glider)

from author Karel Margry's "Market Garden Then & Now"

we see the same object but smaller and  a bit obscured.

 

(click on the image to enlarge)

 

It was our working hypothesis that this was the actual location of the ambulance just minutes after the landings and on a later time. The ambulance is smaller in the later photograph from burning out and it may be obscured by the smoke billowing from it. 

 

(click on the image to enlarge)

 

We asked "A"Co./506th Veteran Donald R. Burgett about his view of this lcation. This is what he replied on the 15th of July 2007:

"I have examined your photo. What you have is a small white gabled roof tool shed. It has nothing to do with the bomb destroyed ambulance near the Zoench Forest. I was among the first to pass the ambulance and view the dead outside and inside the vehicle at very close range, within inches.

I have been in and through enough combat to recognize what happened and what caused it. Usually I can look at a shell strike and tell if it were high or low trajectory, the approximate size of the shell and from which direction the shell came in from. The ambulance was almost a direct hit, not quite, all occupants were killed instantly by the initial blast, their bodies then burned by the resulting fire. There were large red crosses painted on both sides and the top of the ambulance.

The object in your aerial photo is definitely a gabled roof shed. I spent many many years as a residential home builder and a private pilot of light aircraft. Put the two together and there you have it.

I have been back to work on my fifth book after a couple of years off for personal reasons, and had already planned to include that incident again as I did in my first book on Holland but more elaborate.

Good fortune on your further research, Donald R. Burgett
"

 

Closer research of the aerial picture revealed another object which may have been the ambulance:

 

(click on the images to enlarge)

           

 

This location seemed even more likely to us, because:

1)  It is just a few hundred yards East of where Jurgen said one of the victim’s grandchildren pointed where the ambulance was.
2)  It is in the middle of the dirt track, the paratroopers of 1st Bn /506th had to walk on in Eastern direction to go to Son (Burgett wrote: “We turned left there and a short way up the road saw the remains of a bombed ambulance”)
3)  It has lot of vehicle tracks leading to it, possibly from jeeps unloaded from gliders, making it fit in Bowen’s second quote (“We returned the way we had come, past the wrecked ambulance with the dead medics. They were unrecognizable, mashed to bloody pulps by passing jeeps and trucks, which had come in by glider.”).
4) There are objects lying in the road next to the bigger object. These objects may be bodies
 

We asked Mr. Burgett again to look at these pictures and on the 23rd of July 2007, he wrote:

 

"In the photos there seems to be two figures of something fairly close together, one behind the other on a two track road. [...] The photos are not clear enough for me to make positive ID on bodies in and out of the ambulance or other factors that I am still fully aware of, having been there at that time. I certainly would not make positive comment at this time that the figures in the photos are that of that particular ambulance, 17 Sept. 1944, based on the poor quality of the photos.

Regrettably I fear I can be of no further help in your quest at this time, unless you come up with very clear concise aerial and/or ground close up photos that I can positively ID.
"

 

This is an impression of the location today. Jurgen indicated the location that Theo Pijnenburg had pointed to him more than once as the spot where his grand-mother was killed. We marked the spot and took some shots of the current situation. The dirt track at the edge of the Sonsche Forest is only partially left, behind the grassy ridges framing the new Australia Laan in Son.

(click on the images to enlarge)

Thanks, Jurgen, for your contribution to this Case File!
June 11th, 2009 Update
Through our contact form we received this message:

"Tom

I just found your story today and wanted to let you know it has been helpful for me in closing a story. I am the son of John Anthony DeVisser who is the son of Petrus and Petronella deVisser in the story. My father was 7 years old when this happened. He has since passed away
[...]. My aunt Dora (the daughter you mention in the story) passed away in 1976. My Aunt married a US service man and moved [to] the US and my father followed shortly after in the early 50's. Henk Scheepens had a son also named Henk who was my father's best friend. We keep in touch with Henk currently.

This has helped me put together many of the pieces of this awful day. My father because of his age and presumably the tragic nature of the incident didn’t share very much of this. Henk came to the US in 1992 and gave us some account of what took place. I assume he had a better knowledge of the events being that his father was around longer to share the details of that day. I had remembered the events slightly differently for example that my Grandfather was in the ambulance.

I would love to find out more if possible and perhaps share information with you if interested. Please contact me if you would.

My father had been back to Son and St Oedenrode in the 70's and again in 1994 and 1998 before he passed. I plan to make my first trip there hopefully in the fall and would for obvious reasons want to visit the site.

Thank you again for helping to fill in a very important piece in my family's history.
Peter J. DeVisser"


In subsequent e-mails Peter asked us for a translation of the Dutch obituaries which we translated as follows:

"In Your God-worshipping prayers are recommended
PETRUS DE VISSER
born in St. Oedenrode 25 March 1898, deceased through a faithful accident in Son, strengthened by the Holy Oiling
and his wife
PETRONELLA v.d. AALST
born in Nistelrode 7 December 1903, diseased through a faithful accident in Son.
[handwritten: 17 September 1944]
Precious children and family. Suddenly we were taken away from You.
The council decisions of God can be understood by no human. Bow your head with respect and do not complain to God. We ask one thing of You, that thy keep commemorating us in Your prayers and do not forget us.
LET US PRAY:
Dismiss, Lord, the souls of Your servants of the shackles of sin, so that they may relive in the glory of resurrection with Your Holy and Chosen ones. Through Jesus Christ Your Son our Lord. Amen.
----
Printer P. van Lieshout, Eindhoven

Commemorate in Your prayers the Soul of the Late
PETRONELLA v.d. HEIJDEN
Widow of
Willem Pijnenburg
born in St. Oedenrode 20 May 1884, diseased through a sad accident in Son 17 September 1944.
Every one, who serves You, o Lord, is insured, that his life, when it is put to the test, will also be crowned, that he who will be oppressed will be freed, and that he who will be chastised, may take refuge to Your compassion . Tob. 3.21
My children, the Lord will listen to You in days of oppression, the Name of Jacob’s God will protect You. He will send You help from the holy place en will protect You from Sion.
Serve the Lord with sincerity and seek to do what is pleasant to Him. Love each other with brotherly love. Pr. [Ecl.] 19.2.3. Tob. 14.5. Rom. 12.10
Our Father – Hail.
They rest in peace.
----
Printer P. van Lieshout, Eindhoven
"


Peter also sent us a photograph of his father kneeling in front of the gravesite:

We put Peter in contact with Jurgen Swinkels and Peter forwarded e-mails to Henk Scheepens who wrote us this:
"Hello, Tom

Peter de Visser is a mutual acquaintance of us.
In 1996 my wife and I paid a visit to Peter’s parents in America.
Peter’s parents have visited us in Son several times.
Peter’s father (deceased in the mean time) used to be the boy next door.
My father and his grandfather were in the Zonsche Forest when a bombing raid took place on September 17th 1944.
Today, I am 74 years old and therefore I can tell much about it.
[...]
Greetings,
Henk Scheepens
[...] Son [...]"
[translated from e-mail message in Dutch]

Later Henk wrote:
" Hello Tom

Some years ago, on request by the newspaper of Son named De Brug
[The Bridge], I wrote an article about the liberation of Son and problems that arose for the De Visser Family as a result from it. I want to send the article to you [...].
Sincerely,
Henk Scheepens.

We received a copy of the article on June 18th:

(click to open original article in Dutch)

Translation:

"D-Day
I gladly fulfill the request of "De Brug" to write an eyewitness account about the Operation Market Garden. Despite me being 9 years young, I lived through this period very consciously, and therefore September 17th 1944 will always stay in my memory.
Where the dispensary drugstore is today, I was born in 1935. In front of our home on Dorps Straat number A106, today named Nieuw Straat, my father was arrested by the Germans on September 15th 1944. Together with my neighbor Piet de Visser, he had to help dig an 88 millimeter canon in, near the Aloysius boy’s school. After this job my father and neighbor Piet were told that they had to report again on Saturday morning to dig foxholes near the bridge of Son across Wilhelmina Canal. They disliked doing this and the entire Saturday they hid in a large oak thicket on Bos Laan. In order not to fall into the arms of German soldiers my father and neighbor Piet went to the Zonsche Forest before the crack of dawn on Sunday morning September 17th. They had brought enough food with them. Piet even brought a small jug of home brewed 'genever' and two shot glasses with them. In the vicinity of the Old Lake my father and Piet were surprised by a bombing raid. Quickly they both dove into a deep ditch. When the last bomb had fallen, because of the smoke, they thought that the whole of Son was on fire. On their way home they were caught in a second bombing raid. This time they only had a small ditch at their disposal. During this action Piet caught shrapnel in his head. My father had to leave his friend and neighbor behind to get help. When Nel, Piet's wife, was informed of the accident she and her neighbor's wife Nel Peijnenburg, stopped a German Red Cross car, with the request to drive to the place of the tragedy. Quickly the neighbors, together with three German soldiers, rode to the spot in the Zonsche Forest that my father had indicated. When they were almost there, the Red Cross car was hit by an incendiary bomb. All passengers perished. Piet died that same night in the Sisters convent. Daughter Dora and son Jan de Visser survived without parents. Dora later married an American soldier and migrated, like Jan, to America.
During the 50th anniversary of the liberation in 1994, Jan de Visser, together with his American wife Ann, paid a visit to his hometown. Unfortunately Jan, and his sister Dora, have died.
During the landing on Sunday afternoon September 17th we were in the air raid shelter of the Peijnenburg Family with four families. This well supported air raid shelter was dug along Zand Straat, across from today’s elementary school De Harlekijn. When the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division emerged from the woods after the landing, we were curious and, despite all danger, left our shelter. My father got a carton of cigarettes from an American while I was thinking it was a loaf of "ginger bread".
At a few hundred meters from our air raid shelter, in the garden of the sanatorium (today's Zonhove) fierce fighting took place and the Americans suffered tens of casualties. The image of these victims being transported in open trucks to the temporary American Cemetery on the Waterhoef farm, is still in my memory.
One may not always agree with today's American politics, but the fact that so many young Americans gave their lives to liberate us and that the American Marshall Aid has been the first step to the wealth in which we live today, may NEVER be forgotten.
Henk Scheepens"
[handwritten: P.S. Next November Peter DeVisser and his mother will come to Son.]

June 19th, 2009 Update
Based on our earlier analysis, comparing aerial photographs with recent satellite images, we visited the spot, of which we are confident that it is where the ambulance was hit. The tree line and the dirt track in the woods are still much the same except that an earthen mound is dumped on the end of the track. The mound runs along a new road named Gentiaan Laan. It is part of what the Dutch call a "whisper wall" [fluistermuur], intended to prevent traffic noise pollution in residential areas and probably sits on top of the exact spot:

(click on the images to enlarge)

November 7th, 2009 Update

Peter DeVisser, grandson of both Peter and Petronella DeVisser, visited The Netherlands with his Mother, this year November. They were the guests of Henk Scheepens of Son.
Battle Detective Tom guided Peter, his Mother and Henk to the location of which we concluded last June that it  must be the location of the accidental strafing of the ambulance which killed Peter's grandfather and grandmother:

(click on the images to enlarge)
1 2 3 4 5

1 & 2 Peter DeVisser on top of the man-made dirt mount of which we have concluded that it sits on top of the location where the ambulance was shot and burned out.
Peter's Mother and Henk Scheepens are in the back ground in the forest lane.
3
Peter and Tom in front of the dirt mount.
4
In front of the dirt track in the woods which is still in the same location.
5
Peter, his Mother and Henk Scheepens in the woods of Son (named "Zonsche Forest" in many American military accounts).

 

 

 

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