Shot down over occupied France: How a Utah Guardsmen searches for answers to his family’s World War 2 legac
By Tech. Sgt. John Winn, 151st Air Refueling Wing
/ Published March 19, 2019
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- It was around 8 a.m. when they began their approach. Shortly before getting to their target, anti-aircraft fire ripped between the number one and two engines. Badly damaged, the crippled bomber had to leave the formation.
Along with the aircraft, B-17 pilot 1st. Lt. George “Frankie” Wilson, Jr was also badly injured. With on-board communications down, co-pilot Lt. Vernon C. Atkinson, went to tell the crew that they would have to bail out. As the crew began jumping out, Wilson quickly realized that he was too injured to jump from the incapacitated plane. Wilson went down with the plane, ensuring the crew had ample time to jump, while avoiding significant landmarks on the ground. On July 8, 1944, the heavily armed bomber exploded into an empty field in northern France.
In June of 1944, World War 2 had come to a head. Allied Forces had just landed at Normandy and the German Luftwaffe had successfully launched its first V-1 rockets from coastal France to England. Rudimentary in their design and with a crude form of a guidance system, the flying bombs exploded indiscriminately.
Less than a month after the first V-1’s were launched, Lt. George “Frankie” Wilson, Jr of the 398th Bomb Group along with his nine-man crew boarded one of 23 B-17s on a mission to destroy a V-1 rocket site near Humières, France. This would be the crew’s third flying mission together in the European front to push Hitler’s forces off the northern coast of France and to stop the barrage of rocket attacks on London.
The details of the crews departure from the aircraft and subsequent capture by German soldiers was relatively unknown. Along with the limited knowledge of those that were captured, was the rescue of one crew by members of the French resistance until Sonni Bornemeier and her husband Erik, a member of the Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Medical Group, Detachment 1, began digging deeper into the events that transpired that morning.
In May 2018, while the Bornemeirer family was celebrating Memorial Day the way they typically do, watching Band of Brothers and other war films, they collectively decided this was a story they wanted to know more about. “Right then and there we started this quest,” said Erik Bornemeier “Lucky for us, we live in an age of technology and the internet that we just typed his name in and just started searching on the internet to see what we could find.”
To the Bornemeier’s amazement, details that would become the catalyst of this larger than life story of “Uncle George” and his fateful crash began to emerge. Through the discovery of a Missing Crew Report, they were able to discover more of the specifics of the mission. The MCR included certain aspects of the mission, location and personnel involved. They also acquired a KU report, the German equivalent of an event log which noted the location of the crash as well as the capture of several of the crew members.
“There were no details of where the crash was...and what happened to George” said Erik Bornemeier “At the end of the war...they did a really good job trying to find where these soldiers had been buried, but in Georges case, there were things that didn’t get done in full detail.”
Bornemeier contacted local French journalist Pierre Vion, who also goes by the pseudonym “Le Gobelin du Tenwar,” with the hope that he could get the word out about his quest for answers. That night, Vion wrote a story and put it out on social media. To his amazement, several people who were able to recount that day came forward, including a local farmer who recalled stories his father had told about a plane crashing into their field during the war. “He gave great details about how every time he farmed, he’d pull up metal and pieces,” said Bornemeier “not only had he been told stories about the crash, but he’d seen actual physical remain of a crash.”
With a strong belief that the plane had crashed somewhere near the town of Monchy-Cayeux, France, Tech. Sgt. Erik Bornemeier decided to make plans to travel to France to attempt to locate the crash site.
Bornemeier would soon be travelling to Morocco for a 2-week humanitarian exercise, part of a joint state partnership program where the Utah National Guard and Kingdom of Morocco conduct military-to-military training. Bornemeier's leadership approved the travel request to take leave en-route before returning home to Utah.
The trip to France would potentially be the closest anyone from Bornemeier’s family had been to George since his disappearance during the war.
This story is the first part of an ongoing series.