THE QUEST by Erwin Janssen of the Airborne Committee Eerde (The Netherlands)
In the rural countryside of the Netherlands lays the village of Eerde. The little town is visited a lot by veterans of the 101st Airborne Division and their families.
The Screaming Eagles of the 501 Parachute Infantry Regiment had a rendezvous with destiny in this village in the September days of 1944.
In those days Eerde was the scene of bitter fighting and a lot of personal dramas took place in the area. The windmill on the edge of the village
is still a remainder of that fierce fighting. Next to the windmill, the monument to the 501 PIR attracts visitors interested in the liberation of the south of The Netherlands.
This is the place where Operation Market Garden truly began and where it had its most critical moments. The Airborne Committee Eerde and the Eerde Windmill Foundation
are two organisations who make sure the history of oppression and liberation will not be forgotten by generations to come.
Sometimes a visit by relatives of paratroopers of the 501 PIR to our town leads to an extraordinary quest ...
Let me take you back to May 2004, just another day. Suddenly the cell phone rings and Jos van der Doelen, chairman of the Airborne Committee, asks me if I
could hurry to the mill, because a young man and woman, both Americans, are asking for information. A few moments later I meet Craig and Jane Stanton.
Craig pointed at the nameplates on the mill and related how his uncle, Carman S. Ladner, was among the casualties.
Carman is listed as MIA and until then it was not known why. Craig said he was killed by the explosion of an ammunition truck. The puzzle was solved immediately.
There was only one location in our village where such an event took place. When I asked him if his uncle died September 24th, he confirmed. In the afternoon we
visited the spot where the truck had exploded at the farm of the Van der Pol family. Although Craig never knew his uncle, he had strong emotions which reflected on me.
That day I showed them around in our region and at night we had to say goodbye.
A week later I received an email with a picture of Carman, a young handsome man in his early twenties. One of the names on our windmill, now suddenly had a face and
became a person. Craig had told me the family was still in touch with Carman´s fiancé and she still attended the Ladner family reunions. He had attached a picture of the
last family reunion where he posed with his uncles fiancé … Elaine Smith. In our next emails we discussed the best options of how to get Elaine to The Netherlands and
visit the spot where she had lost the love of her life. Caught by the story, a quest had started: to find out what happened exactly at the farm that day and to ensure a visit
by Elaine to that location.
After action reports, written and oral accounts by locals, discussions with George Koskimaki and Mark Bando slowly solved the puzzle step by step. Although different
sources mention 8 to 12 casualties, only 6 can be positively identified as casualties of the explosion. Among them Carman Ladner, who was on top of the fully exposed
truck passing ammunition down when the vehicle was hit by a shell from a German tank on the opposite side of the railroad track, causing the ammunition to explode.
Carman's death was instant, he never knew what hit him. In September that year, Craig visited us again when we celebrated the 60th anniversary of operation Market
Garden. Craig´s bond with Eerde had become strong and we became good friends. I am not a superstitious person but I have witnessed more than once that some
things are meant to be, cannot be explained, and are directed beyond our control. My friendship to Craig is one of them, and I am glad about it.
Operation Torch, a 10-day tour organised by The Screaming Eagles of WWII Foundation, jumped off at Friday 15 September 2006 when the participants landed at
Schiphol airport near Amsterdam. The group was called "The Pathfinders" because they were the first to make this trip specifically orientated on Operation Market
Garden and the siege of Bastogne. Everyone in this group had their own motivations to make the trip, but above all it became a group of friends.
Among the participants was an older fragile but classy lady, Elaine Smith. We first met her at the welcome party on the 15th. She was very surprised to see us,
because she hadn't expected to see us until the 17th of September. Here she also met Bob Hunter, Bert Collier and John Primerano Picture of Bob, Bert and
John who all served in the same Regiment as Carman. Elaine sang Lily Marlène by Marlene Dietrich Picture 3966B with the Big Band "The Zendmasters".
Elaine showed us she was not fragile at all, as she could be found on the dance floor most of the time. She was really the highlight that night! Looking at her
enjoying the evening my thoughts drifted off to the farm, to that crucial day 24th September 1944.
We had made preparations in Eerde, an ammunition truck at the same spot, photographs and the complete story. How would she react? Would she be
able to deal with her emotions? Would I be able to deal with my emotions?… The quest was coming to fulfilment.
The story is continued by Elaine Smith, fiancé of Carman S. Ladner (501 PIR):
September 17, 2006, was the day that Operation Torch brought our tour group to the town of Eerde! We started at the windmill, pausing to pay our respects
at the outside wall bearing the plaques that list the names of the fallen heroes who died in Eerde…young men with the 501st Parachute Infantry. Some of us
were seeking the one name that we needed to see recorded for the ages. We visited the museum and its WWII treasures from the long-ago past. We chatted
with three veterans of the 501st as they mingled with the group. Seeing them brought quiet tears…knowing that they returned these 62 years after the
fighting…wondering what their stories might be, yet not wanting to stir painful memories by asking.
My feeling at that place was that of gratitude…gratitude that the people of that small town respected our soldiers so much that they reserved a special place
in their town to memorialize them throughout the years to come. These many, many years have passed since our paratroopers dropped from the sky and
gave the Dutch people a new hope of freedom…and the people still remember!
And then, it was time to go to the spot where CPL Carman S. Ladner died.
Erwin and I walked slowly, without talking, up the road to the driveway which had led to a farmhouse in 1944. I had pictured the place where the truck
exploded to be a forgotten, remote area, overgrown with weeds and grass…like the edge of a field. Instead, we turned to walk up a brick-paved driveway…and
beheld a huge vintage Army truck parked there!! (Later, Dennis would tell me that it was about 20 feet long and 9 feet hight!).Erwin had created a scene of reality
that I could never have imagined.Immediately, it was 1944 to me. I could envision the truck filled with boxes of ammunition…men jumping out of the truck
to unload it…as it might have been on that fatal day. It took my breath away.
My feelings at that moment were of total awe.
At the end of the driveway…instead of the solitude and silent hush that I had expected near an old, deserted farmhouse…there stood a lovely home. A handsome young
father and mother were waiting to greet us with smiles and outstretched hands. Children were darting about playfully. Two other women joined the group. One held a child
in her arms. Petra had given me a bouquet of mixed flowers to leave at the place Carman died. Instead, I asked each child to choose one. Each chose a colored flower and
I kept a rose (which I brought home, dried and placed before Carman's photograph). This left an all-white bouquet.
My feelings changed from awe to joy at seeing the young couple and their friends…and the children…in that beautiful setting.
Someone's strong arms helped me climb up into the truck. I sat behind the steering wheel for a while, alone, imagining the activity of the day…
It would have been September 24, 1944…exactly a week after the troopers landed on Dutch soil…a week of fighting. I seemed to hear the voices of the
men who could not know that unloading the ammunition from that monster truck would be their last earthly assignment. Even as I write this, and every time
I think about it…I cease breathing for a time at the very thought of it all.
My feeling was incredible sadness, coupled with a "Thank You" to God for allowing me to touch a vehicle at that place that would finally give me a tangible sense of
a bit of the past.
Again, strong arms lifted me out of the truck and down to the ground, and I asked the person with those strong arms to place the white bouquet on the truck's
steering wheel. It seemed the thing to do. (I remember that Carman loved flowers and even planned to open a florist shop when he came home.) He would have
wanted me to give some to the children.
We then walked to the rear of the truck, where Erwin had arranged a tribute:
A photograph of Carman and a picture he had designed. A wood-toned frame - 9"x12"- held an aerial view of the very area where we were standing! Superimposed on that
background were six squares with the names and Army Serial Numbers at the bottom of each…for the six men who died when the truck exploded. Four of the spaces held
photos of the trooper identified. Two did not. I am looking at the picture as I write. It tells a story of its own…all in a wood-toned frame.
The members of the tour group and the friends from the farm gathered at the truck to hear Erwin's story. He then shared the facts that his research had revealed.
He described the fighting in the area, giving a concept of what happened there in 1944. He said the truck was not hidden in any way, and that a German tank
had sighted it when passing nearby, blasting it with such force that the explosion was heard four miles away…even above the noise of intense fighting in that area.
He said that Carman was on top of the truck, passing ammunition down to the men below. (I was hearing this for the first time. I am thankful that Erwin was the
one who told me.) He added that with an explosion of that magnitude, Carman was killed instantly. There were no remains. Thus, he is listed: Missing in Action.
It is comforting to know that he did not see death coming and did not feel pain. It was instant. I find it difficult to imagine him here in one moment…and nowhere the
next. In time I will be able to rationalize it all and accept the reality.
As Erwin's message ended, my feeling was a sense of deep, deep loss…yet I knew a certain comfort in hearing the truth and the intimate circumstances
from a friend…after so many years of wondering about those last minutes of life.
I then spoke briefly, reading a few lines that Carman had written in his second letter to me, dated November 23, 1943. It read:
|"I love the
paratroops, although we know that if we ever…and we will…go over, chances
are that 90% of us will never come back. We know that,
but it doesn't bother us. We are trained just for special missions, and
we know even though we may get 'knocked off', maybe we saved a few hundred
That is why we are Paratroopers."
It was as though he had written his own eulogy almost a year before he died. I added a few words of my own, something like:
"I felt the Dutch people and the 501st PIR veterans needed to hear his words. The people need to know that the young men who gave
their lives were prepared to do that at all costs. The veterans who hear his words today know what he meant, because they shared his
willingness to die. They may be thinking about what they were doing here 62 years ago…and WHY. Seeing the children here today answers that question.
It was for future generations."
The three veterans that I mentioned earlier were standing in the front row. I embraced each of them. They were wiping away unashamed tears
with the back of their hands.
I had the feeling of being uplifted…in having been able to read something that Carman had written to me at the beginning of our love affair…something
he had written in 1943 that had reached the hearts of the people who heard it that day…September 17, 2006.
Again, it was time to return to town for the ceremonies at the Memorial to the 501st PIR in Eerde. I did not want to leave that beautiful, quiet place.
My feelings were not of death and loss. It was a strange feeling of liberation…for me. If you ask what made it so, I can only say: It was the parents who
lived in that home. It was the two women who came to share the moment. It was the children playing, running so freely around the yard. It was the
presence of my newly-found friends in the tour group. It was Carman's photo in the back of an Army truck. It was the pictures of three of the men who
were with him that day. It was the hugs. It was the tears. It was Erwin.
As I turned to look at the truck one last time, my feelings were of love…and life…and living. It was a sense of the future…and each tomorrow.
In my mind, I saw the fabled bird from Egyptian tradition…the Phoenix, who was consumed by fire and rose again from its own ashes. The Phoenix is a
symbol of immortality. And I knew that Carman…like the Phoenix…was also consumed by fire…rising from his own ashes to join the legion of the 101st Airborne
heroes gone before…waiting for him in the sky.
The day had not yet ended. The tour group returned to Eerde to attend the ceremonies at the 501st Parachute Infantry Memorial, near the windmill, honoring the
75 men who died in that town. Again, it was September 17th…the same date and the same day, a Sunday…as in 1944 when the troopers landed on Dutch soil in
many strategic towns and cities in Holland. These townsfolk have been repeating the observation of their liberation on that date for 62 years. Many people had
gathered…all standing in a semi-circle facing the Memorial…quietly waiting to pay honor to their heroes. They were a mixed group of all ages…4 generations of
people. Some of them had lived at the time of the fighting and still remember the oppression under the occupation forces of a neighbor country for five long years.
This last unique group had told their stories loud and clear to the succeeding generations. And those generations had listened to the stories…picked up and
carried the torch.
From their viewpoint, this is what the waiting people saw: The Memorial stands strong and sturdy in its chosen spot. When facing it, you see the American
flag on the left and the Netherlands flag on the right. The background for this beautiful tribute is so perfect…a carpet of green grass and small trees (not lofty)
separate earth from blue sky. (One can imagine it to be the perfect setting for an airborne landing.) The marker bears the blue shoulder patch of the 501st
Parachute Inantry…on a huge orb of stone.
The inscription below reads:
17 SEPT 1944
The ceremonies begin and one by one, several people walk to the monument, escorted by a young student, to place a floral arrangement. Flowers now
bank this altar of remembrance. I cannot name the speakers in any order. They were all strangers to me and I knew not their names. I do remember the
first was Col. Paul T. Calbos, Army Attache at the United States Embassy. Every speaker was impressive…their message, their manner and their presentation.
Representing the local school, young students…boys and girls…stepped to the dais to read their meaningful messages in tribute. I was especially impressed by
these young people and their words. I was the last to speak. I told them that Carman Ladner was a member of the 501st, killed in their town on
September 24, 1944, and read the lines from his letter as I had to the group earlier that day.
My words were much the same as they been earlier.
Several people came to me later to say, "Hello", and exchange a few words. They had appreciated my simple message and I counted all of them my friends.
To the Dutch people: My
feelings at the close of the ceremony were of overwhelming pride in the
Dutch people of every age who honor our American veterans so faithfully
year after year.
Pride in seeing the American flag standing proudly beside your own country's
banner. Pride in knowing that you have not forgotten our men who came to
give hope to a
small, peaceful country that could not stand against a stronger one armed
for plunder. Pride that your children walk in your footsteps…to the same
drumbeat and heartbeat
as yours, all because you have told them stories of the past…not as mere
legend, but as vital reality. Pride in the achievement and legacy of your
WWII historians, who continue to keep the reality alive. Since I have not
know oppression in my country, I can only imagine what it was like for
you. We did not see suffering as graphically then as we do today.
Now that I understand better, I can feel your joy when our paratroopers
dropped from the sky…almost as though their parachutes were the gossamer
wings of angels.
Imagine…a sky filled with descending angels! I was in the Netherlands only
ten days. In that brief time, I learned to love your people and your land.
My son was right when he told me before I left home,
"Mom, if you go, you will
not want to leave." I will always remember that I came as a stranger to
a foreign land and was warmed by your friendliness and your smiles. I have
been home only a few days, and I am ready to return to Holland.
2006 Elaine Smith