Courage and honor revisited | Belgium’s WWII ghost plane

In 2004, Islander Dr. David Wolter and Jean-Noel Bienfait at the Museum of Flight. Bienfait is the son of the man who discovered the plane. - File Photo
In 2004, Islander Dr. David Wolter and Jean-Noel Bienfait at the Museum of Flight. Bienfait is the son of the man who discovered the plane.
— image credit: File Photo

This story about incredible bravery in the face of sure death reads like a Hollywood screen play. Yet it is true. Islander David Wolter survived abandoning a crippled plane over Europe in WWII despite amazing odds. Equally amazing were the people who found the plane and never gave up looking for its lost crew. This story was first published in the Mercer Island Reporter on July 28, 2004.

With his firm handshake and steady gaze, you can believe that Dr. David Wolter parachuted from a doomed Air Force bomber into the gray winter skies over Europe and survived.

But Wolter, a longtime Island resident and obstetrician, only recently found out the fate of the aircraft that he and his fellow crewmen were forced to abandon over Belgium during some of the fiercest fighting of World War II.

It was cold, windy and snowing on March 4, 1944, when Air Force 2nd Lt. Wolter was in the cockpit of a Boeing B-17 streaking across northern Europe to Berlin for what was to be the first daylight bombing raid of the German capital. He was just 20 years old.

The daring raid was to have included a huge force of more than 700 aircraft, but the attack was canceled due to worsening weather. The 29 planes of the 95th Squadron, including the B-17 co-piloted by Lt. Wolter, did not receive the transmission.

The B-17 continued on toward Berlin, into the teeth of a blowing storm. But as they reached the city, the mistake became painfully apparent. Without the shock and awe of hundreds of aircraft, there were just a handful. The fury of the Nazis was just focused on the few.

After releasing its armament on the city, the aircraft was hit and badly damaged. The 95th turned back toward England, but were strafed repeatedly by the German Luftwaffe in pursuit. The situation on Wolter’s plane was dire. The bomb bay doors had been blown open and two of the four engines were out. The fuel tank had been hit and the oxygen system was dead.

Inside the aircraft, it was frigid. Two members of the ten-person crew were seriously injured. The pilots did not know where they were. Without oxygen they had to fly low over the rural countryside, risking detection and anti-aircraft fire. They were rapidly running out of fuel.

“Were we afraid? Of course we were afraid,” Wolter said of the flight. “We had been afraid all day.”

Without navigation, the pilots considered their options. Wolter thought they might just have enough fuel to make it back across the channel to England. Luckily, he said, he was overruled.

They decided they had to abandon the plane.

They turned off the two remaining Wright Cyclone 1800-horsepower engines, clipped the parachutes onto their chest harnesses and then, one by one, leapt into the darkening sky, leaving the crippled plane to crash.

Landing on the frozen ground, Wolter injured his ankle. Neither he nor any of the crew had ever parachuted before. Alone, he limped through the snow to a hedge to hide while he tried to get his bearings.

During that first hour, he said he thought about what happened to the plane. But it was the center of its own drama unfolding just two miles away. It became a mystery that fueled the imagination of the local people in the Mons region of Belgium for nearly 60 years.

Francis Xavier Bienfait, 19, was working in a field near the village of Saint Symporien, Belgium. The young man was in hiding, working on his brother’s remote farm to avoid being conscripted by the Germans. Looking up from his work that cold afternoon, he saw a huge aircraft gliding silently to the ground. As he watched one of the airplane’s wings dipped dangerously and sheared off the roof of a house nearby.

Incredibly, it landed wheels-down in an open field, then spun a sharp U-turn, pivoting on the wing that hit the ground first. Bienfait, known to everyone as FX, ran to the plane, being the first to reach it. He scrambled inside the plane and found it strangely intact. He found blood but no sign of the crew. He was puzzled but had the presence of mind to grab the all-important logbook from the cockpit. He pried out a control gauge for himself. He later smuggled the book to the local leaders of the French Resistance.

He named it the “Ghost Plane.”

The people of rural Belgium had likely never seen anything like it. The charcoal-colored, 74-foot long, 27-ton Boeing B-17 was dubbed “The Flying Fortress.” And for good reason. It carried 6,000 pounds of explosives, 13 machine guns and had a wingspan of over 100 feet. The plane had cost $275,000 to build in the 1930s — the equivalent of more than $4 million today. According to Jean-Noel Bienfiat, the son of FX, hundreds of local people had seen the plane as it descended, and came running. Hearing that is was a U.S. plane, members of the Resistance hurried to reach it before the crew could be captured by the Nazis. They knew they had little time. But again, they found no one.

Then, nearly as quickly as the mysterious plane arrived, it was gone again. Nazi soldiers came within hours to dismantle the plane, which is similar in size to today’s Boeing 737. They finished the job in just a few days. It was shipped in pieces to Germany. Its fate there remains unknown.

As the years passed, the townspeople often wondered what happened to the crew. Many had kept relics from the crash site. Its story became a rich and enduring chapter of local lore. FX remained in the town and went on to become the city consul. His children grew up hearing the story of the ghost plane.

“He told me the story many, many times,” his son Jean-Noel explained. “Over time, it became ‘his’ B-17.”

But without a photograph with the all-important serial number of the aircraft, the mystery of the crew and their fate could not be solved.

Nearly 60 years later, a school assignment finally brought the mystery to an end. Jean-Noel had suggested solving the mystery to his own son as a topic for a school project.

Jean-Noel had himself searched unsuccessfully for clues to the fate of the crew, but with the advent of the Internet, it finally became possible. Surprisingly, a photograph taken of the plane before it had been dismantled was in the hands of a local historian. The all-important tail number was in plain view. Finally, they had the information they needed.

Soon afterward, Wolter received an e-mail from Belgium. Like the people on the ground there, neither he nor the other crew members had ever found out what had happened to their plane.

“We were all concerned about what happened to the plane,” he said of the crew, all but one of whom made it back home after the war. “We did not know what happened. We wondered if someone on the ground was hurt.”

Wolter, however, had little time to worry about it after his fateful leap from the plane. On that first winter afternoon on the ground, he found safety when he was taken in by two local families. He soon moved on across Europe, where he was later captured and interrogated by German forces. He was imprisoned and finally released in April of 1945.

In 2004, the town of Saint Symporien decided to invite the crew of the airplane for a weekend of festivities to coincide with the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Three of the crew members attended. They were feted by the community for an unforgettable weekend topped off by the arrival from Paris of the “Pink Lady,” perhaps the last flyable B-17 aircraft in the world. Dignitaries, scientists and school children came to meet the crew and see the aircraft. The event was covered by the three national television stations in France.

The still-youthful Wolter, with his white crew cut, is a former chief of staff at Overlake Hospital who estimates he has delivered more than 7,000 babies in his career. He said the town gave them quite a reception.

“The best part of the story was to meet the people who found the plane,” he said. “In going there, we made such wonderful friend. I was truly overwhelmed.”

Jean-Noel and his family visited the Wolter family on Mercer Island in July 2004. The visited the Museum of Flight, where they were able to inspect a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter on display. Perhaps it too, they mused, was in the sky over Europe on that snowy March day so long ago.

Epilogue: Dr. Wolter still resides on Mercer Island surrounded by family and friends. His beloved wife, Jolly, died several months ago. He still walks or exercises each day and can often be found having coffee with friends at the Community Center at Mercer View.

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