Editor's note: Paul Butterworth, of Newnan, Ga., who is a relative of Minot pilot 1st Lt. Harry W. Eck, and Eric Coloney in June visited the site in Germany where Eck crashed when the B-17G Flying Fortress that he was flying was shot down and crashed during World War II. Butterworth and Coloney are former military pilots and retired Delta Airlines pilots. The crash site is about a two-hour drive northeast of Frankfurt, Germany. Butterworth has extensively researched information about Eck and the crash In August 2012, Eck's remains were interred at Fort Snelling National Cemetery at St. Paul, Minn. Prior, Eck's remains and the remains of three other crew members were identified by U.S. officials and then returned to their families for burials with full military honors. The crew members had been buried by German forces in a cemetery in Neusadt, Germany. Of the nine crew members in the crash, one survived. Eck, a native of Minot, was the son of the late Harry B. Eck, a longtime Minot businessman, and the late Hilma Eck. He was the stepson of the late Gertrude "Tillie" Eck of Minot. Lt. Eck completed 20 or more bombing missions before the fatal mission on Sept. 13, 1944. Memorial services for Lt. Eck were held in Minot in May 1946. A Veterans Administration marker for him is located in the Eck family plot in Rosehill Memorial Park in Minot. The Dakota Territory Air Museum in Minot has a new exhibit about 1st Lt. Eck with information from Butterworth.
Following is Butterworth's account of their visit:
From all reports, Mag the Hag II, the B-17G being flown by Harry that fateful day, was attacked by Me-109s, had an engine knocked out, and left the formation after dropping their bombs. Harry took up a course heading toward England, but with an engine knocked out and possibly on fire, he knew a return to England was impossible. As German fighters pounced on the crippled Fortress, he began to look for a place to land. A German youth on the ground witnessed the approach of the burning Fortress as Harry first circled the small village of Gerstungen and then the burg of Neustadt. I am proud of the fact that he, as pilot in command of that bomber, did all he could to keep his airplane in the air so that his crew could bail out (which three of them did) and, perhaps more importantly, tried to find a place to crash land his bomber without needlessly taking the lives of German civilians.
This is the memorial pond that Herr Wagner built. When it was built has not been determined.
He tried to land the crippled bomber in a field to the east of the Werra River and the north-south railway line that is still there. Reports indicate he eventually lost control of the bomber and the aircraft crashed just after passing over mile marker 184.8 on the railroad. Women from the village fought the fire with water taken from the Werra River. The remains of the crew and pieces of their flying equipment were subsequently buried by slave labor in the village's cemetery. It is from that cemetery that JPAC (U.S. Joint Pow/MIA) recovered the remains, some of which were subsequently identified through DNA testing.
We found the village on the afternoon of Monday, June 24. Using printed copies of the overhead photographs, we found the street from which we could orient ourselves. We immediately saw the railroad tracks and kilometer marker 184.8 and the general location of where this memorial pond was. The trees and foliage have increased considerably since the pictures were taken, and it took a few minutes of looking. We were cognizant of the fact that we might be trespassing on private property; the village street was eerily quiet.
My friend thought he saw something next to the railroad track nestled in-between trees. I started walking from the street to the railroad marker along a hedge that separated one plot of land from another. When I got to the end of the hedge . . . I saw it. A small pond did exist where we thought it was. There was a bench and a table set up, almost as if it was a place of reflection.
It was surreal being there. Here I was at the spot where 1st Lt. Harry Eck and most of his crew, died. The men in the crew picture his mother had given me back in the late 1950s, a picture I had looked at many times as I dreamed of being a pilot, died where I was standing. It was memorable, and I wish my mother (Harry's cousin) was still alive to enjoy this moment with me.
My friend's father flew P-51s with the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces) during World War II and his son is currently flying F-16s, therefore as is the case with my family, he understood the significance of what we were looking at that Monday afternoon. He can converse in German and so as I spent some time at the pond, he walked down the street looking for names. And he found a "Wagner" on a house. This was the same name as the man who reportedly built the memorial pond. He knocked on the front door, but it remained unanswered. It would have indeed been interesting to see if it was the same family and if the current residents knew the story of the crash of Mag the Hag II.