Search for Buried Combat Wings Brings Home Living Memory of Fallen Comrade
Bernerd Harding presented with a model of a B-24, the aircraft he flew when he was shot down. The model was a gift from the Friends of Aviation based in Klein Quenstedt, Germany, where he was captured.
Bernerd Harding takes flight with Dr. Uli Huecke to scout out the likely air path that took him to Klein Quenstedt, where he landed with his parachute.
October 1, 2009 — On July 7, 1944, Bernerd Harding found himself floating under a parachute canopy after bailing out of his stricken B-24 bomber over eastern Germany. He landed in a field near Klein Quenstedt, Germany, and was immediately captured by local townspeople. He was held in the cellar of a farmhouse for about an hour with other American airmen from downed planes. It was there that he buried the wings off his uniform to conceal his rank. Last month Harding returned to that village to search for his wings after his stepson, Peter Kelley, encouraged him to go.
The first time Harding was in Klein Quenstedt, he didn’t stay long as the German military soon moved the captured airman to Frankfurt for interrogation; then onto Barth where he was held at Stalag Luft I for the remainder of the war. “I didn’t have time,” Harding said. “In fact, there were three farmers there, two with pitch forks and one with a gun, before I even got my parachute taken off.”
Sixty-five years later, a warmer reception awaited Harding and his family as they spent time searching for the buried wings. Dr. Uli Huecke, a physician based in the area who had helped Harding arrange the trip, served as tour guide and translator. Huecke even took Harding for a plane ride, hoping to recreate the perspective that Harding had that day in 1944. A researcher named “Gunter” conducted some extensive background research about the planes involved in the mission that day. “He actually took us to the spot where Bernie’s plane ended up going down, after he bailed,” Kelley said of Gunter. The only fatality in Harding’s crew was the waist gunner, who was the first to land and was shot by the mayor of the local town. Harding was able to view that location as well. Despite four likely houses identified by Heucke, the wings were never located.
During the visit to Klein Quenstadt, Harding spoke with the Friends of Aviation (FOA), a local group of which Huecke is a member. Some of the people at the presentation were teenagers the day Harding was shot down, including one who had taken a bracelet from Airman Jack Glenn (not a part of Harding’s crew) who had been killed. The man returned the bracelet to Harding in hopes that he would take it back to Glenn’s family in the United States. On that day in 1944, Harding was asked to move Glenn’s body from a cart to the ground outside the house where he was being held.
According to Harding, Glenn’s sister lives near Kelley in Alaska, and the bracelet had been delivered to her “just a few days ago, so that mission has been completed,” Harding said.
The mission of healing has been accomplished, too, as one FOA member asked to give Harding a hug after his presentation. Harding obliged and said, “Well, you know what? I’m glad we’re both on the same side now. And he appreciated that.” Also last month, Harding was able to complete one last mission as the Collings Foundation provided him with a ride in its B-24, the first time he had flown in one since he was shot down.
EAA Radio: Listen to an Interview with Bernerd Harding