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728 airmen retrieve history

Reserve citizen airmen with the 728th Airlift Squadron pose for a group photo at the memorial of the Lucky Lady B-17 crash at on May 27, 2023, Midwoud, Netherlands. Netherlands. Photo credit: Senior Airman Ann Butler

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD - "I had picked up my mic to say we're going to have to get out of here, and the ship exploded. I don't know, to this day, if that bomb exploded, flak hit us or what ... the next thing I knew I was floating around in the air." said 2nd Lt. Cecil Belton, the sole survivor of the Lucky Lady.

On Jan. 20, 1945, The Lucky Lady, part of the 728th Bomber Squadron (BS), now the 728th Airlift Squadron (AS) at McChord Field, was on her return flight to England after a bombing run over Germany, when she encountered unexpected flak and enemy aircraft. She took severe damage, two engines were not functioning, a hydraulic leak, and at least one bomb from her payload was still hanging in the bomb bay. Slowly she lost altitude, then the Lucky Lady exploded over the Netherlands and went down near the village of Midwoud.

It was expected to be a routine mission or a mission where flak and enemy fighters would not be a factor. Instead, the 728th ran into heavy German flak which struck many in the squadron, but the Lucky Lady seemed to have taken more damage than others.

Of the nine crew members aboard, only the pilot, Belton, survived after being thrown from the plane during the explosion. The remaining crew either were still inside the Lucky Lady or were thrown out, unable to deploy their parachutes.

The locals of Midwoud and Oostwoud wasted no time reaching the Lucky Lady's crash site. As the fire died down and they could get closer to the wreck, they collected the remains of the men from the aircraft and Belton was discovered a short distance away in another farmer's field.

While Belton was taken to a nearby Dutch Resistance safe house, the remains of the eight crew members were taken and hidden, until a few days later when they could be buried in the church yard in secret.

Fast forward 78 years since the crash, and the town of Midwoud is still honoring the legacy and spirit of the Lucky Lady and her crew. They all remained memorialized in the small village and the crash site a place of honor and remembrance.

After years of planning and coordination, on May 27, 2023, the 728th AS went back to the crash site, pay their respects to their lost brethren, heard the stories of the Dutch Resistance and of Belton, and received a piece of the Lucky Lady that survived, the tail wheel.

"I'm amazed when a plan comes together. What astounded me about our trip to the Netherlands, was how against so many odds, a group of airmen from the 728 AS and 446 AW, townsfolk from the small Dutch community of Midwoud, a historian, and one B-17 pilot's daughter, convened in Dutch farmer's field after over three years of planning." said Maj. Derek Van De Wege, a C-17 pilot with the 728th AS.

The tailwheel had been used as a wheelbarrow wheel for generations at the farm of the crash site, until one local man, Willem Renooji, took interest in the crew and history of the Lucky Lady, starting a years-long journey of trying to return the wheel back to America.

In 2020 Renooji sent the then commander of the 728th AS, Lt. Col. Michael Masuda, a letter asking if there were any possible ways that they could give the tail wheel back to the squadron, Masuda was immediately onboard.

From there, he along with Master Sgt. Kyle Harris, 728th AS loadmaster, started trying to figure out a way to get the 728th AS to the Netherlands to retrieve the wheel and pay homage to the Lucky Lady and her crew.

Unfortunately, COVID put a slow down on the trip, but Harris stayed in contact with Renooji through email and committed to making this trip happen.

During that time, the 728th AS went through a change of command but after hearing about the letter and the idea to bring this small piece of history home, Lt. Col. Dan Arneson, the current 728th AS commander, committed just as strongly to make the trip happen.

After years of planning, making connections, and research, in May of 2023 the 728th finally made their way to the Netherlands, met Renooj, saw the memorial to the crew of the Lucky Lady and received the tailwheel back from the local village and the farmer who has had it all these years.

"The 728th Airlift Squadron B-17 repatriation mission to bring home the tailwheel of the Lucky Lady was one of the most memorable experiences in my 20 year career in the Air Force. It was a humbling experience to stand in the crash site of the Lucky Lady which was operated by 728th Bombardment Squadron members. We're so thankful that the memory of the Lucky Lady and all of the crew members are carried on. We will cherish the tailwheel and proudly display it in our squadron heritage room to remind us of the sacrifices made by so many who have served before us." said Arneson.

Though the few years of delay weren't ideal, it allowed the 728th AS to source the story out even farther, eventually finding the daughter, Claudia, of one of the crew members who died in the crash.

Thanks to fundraising efforts from the 728th AS, Claudia was able to meet the 728th AS in the Netherlands and be a part of the experience and ceremony. She had never been to the crash site where she lost her father before.

"It was touching to see how many people contributed to the fundraising to allow her to make this trip, and it was profoundly impactful to witness her seeing the site where her father gave his life for the liberation of Holland for the first time. I think it's safe to say that she's forever part of the 728th. It's really been an honor helping to bring some sort of closure to her and her father's story and make that connection between Claudia and our squadron." said Harris

During their trip, members of the 728th AS also attended the Memorial Day service that was held at the Netherlands American Cemetery on May 28, 2023.

The service, along with similar ones, were held all across Europe as a way of honoring and mourning the nearly 70,000 U.S. military personnel buried at American Battle Monument Commission cemeteries on European soil.

"While many units have connections to World War II, few will ever have the opportunity to honor that connection as the 728th has. The 728th utilized a truly rare opportunity to experience their unit's history first-hand and provide a tangible piece of that history for the squadron to honor and maintain." Said Evan Muxen, the historian of the 446th Airlift Wing.

After two days of events and ceremonies, the 728th AS said goodbye to their friends from the Netherlands and headed back to their squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord with the tailwheel from the Lucky Lady in tow.

Once back the 728th AS put the tail wheel on display in their squadron, memorializing the sacrifice of the eight crewmembers who lost their lives fighting for freedom and continuing to tell their story to generations of Reserve citizen airmen to come.

"Now, the tailwheel of the "Lucky Lady" stands in the 728 AS as a symbol of how even an ocean can't separate people who share a common belief. I feel blessed to have been a part of this experience and I'm incredibly grateful for those who came before us." said Van De Wege.

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