Tomahawk Warrior crew and wreckage

Tomahawk Warrior – How A WW2 Bomber Crash Left A Lifetime Memory

The tragic story of how a B-17 crash had a profound impact on those who witnessed it.

Tomahawk Warrior crew and wreckage

Amid the onslaught of World War 2, explosions, bombings and aircraft crashing to the ground would have been a familiar sight to civilians the length and breadth of Britain.

But for those who witnessed such things, each individual experience of these horrific events would have been enough to leave a lifetime memory, a story that could be told and retold for the rest of their lives, and passed down to generations within families.

Here is one such story – a plane crash in an otherwise anonymous field in the Buckinghamshire countryside, an event that has proved to be as vivid today as it was at the time for at least one eyewitness from 1944.

The Story Of The Tomahawk Warrior

As a boy, David E Huntley had already survived The Blitz.

Loudwater near High Wycombe, to the west of London, became his new home in March 1944 when he was sent away to live with his aunt.

Buzzbombs had just begun striking the capital when he left, and his aunt’s cottage was deemed safer than the home he left behind in London.

Yet he very easily could have been killed by an explosion that was far larger than any single German bomb.

Early on the morning of 12 August 1944, David was in bed when he heard the enormous roar of a plane hurtling overhead, just above his aunt’s cottage.

As he recalls in his blog post ‘B-17 Crash August 12, 1944’:

“Early one morning just as it was getting light, a plane roared overhead flying extremely low with its engines spluttering and in less than a minute a massive explosion rocked the building and the whole area. My brother Bob and step brother Tom said there was a plane crash, and we should all get up out of bed, and go to investigate.”

Loudwater lies to the east of High Wycombe, and both are in a valley, with hills to the north leading to the nearby villages of Penn and Tylers Green in Buckinghamshire.

It was up into Penn that David and his brothers ran, along roads and then pathways to a country lane running alongside a place called Lude Farm.

Someone already at Lude Farm was Ron Setter, whose own memory of the crash is recounted in another blog entitled, ‘The Flying Fortress crash at Lude Farm, Penn’.

Ron was a 12-year-old boy at the time, his father having taken on the tenancy of Lude Farm in the 1930s.

He too heard an enormous whooshing sound just overhead, and says that the ceiling fell in on him as he was getting out of bed.

He also recounts that his father was outside and witnessed a B-17 come in, and that, as it turned 180 degrees, presumably trying to return to base, it had an engine on fire.

In fact, according to the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association, it probably had two of its four engines on fire by that point, and this must have been why it crashed (though no exact cause was ever established.)

B-17 Flying Fortress
A B-17 Flying Fortress 'Memphis Belle' at Biggin Hill Airshow (picture: MOD)

The 398th was one of the last American bomb groups to arrive in the UK as part of the Anglo-American effort to bomb Nazi-occupied Europe. The group had flown over from Newfoundland and reached their base at Nuthampstead in Hertfordshire in March 1944.

During the air war over Europe, the British flew their missions at night and the Americans during the day, a division of labour that made sense given that American Flying Fortresses had far more machine guns for fending off enemy fighters than British Lancasters did.

One of the B-17 Flying Fortresses in the 398th Bomb Group was dubbed ‘Tomahawk Warrior’ by its pilot, 23-year-old Charles J Searl.

Searl and his men, who were aged from 20 to 27, flew their first mission to Berlin and back on 19 May 1944.

They also flew a mission to bomb targets in Caen and Courseulles, France, in support of the D-Day landings in June of that year.

B-17 Flying Fortress
Pieces from the downed B-17 in possession of Ian James of the Nuthampstead Airfield Museum, with a sight from the ball turret on the left and a piece of the plane’s tail section on the right (images: writer’s collection)

By August 12, they were ready to commence their 25th mission, which was to be a German target in Versailles. This meant they would have only had a few more to complete before being allowed to return home to the US.

As well as the pilot, 2 Lt Charles Searl, also aboard the plane that day was the co-pilot 2 Lieutenant Albert L Dion, from Massachusetts; the navigator 2 Lieutenant Saul J Kempner, from Michigan; the plane’s bombardier 2 Lieutenant Leo C Walsh, from Washington DC; the radio operator and gunner Sergeant Cecil E Kennedy, from Virginia; the engineer and gunner Staff Sergeant James A Beaty from Arkansas; as well as the gunners Sergeant Alfred Bueffel from New York, Sergeant Albert W Knight, from Ohio, and Sergeant Orville M Wilson, also from Washington DC.

They had all taken off from the airfield at Nuthampstead at 6:18 that morning, and by 7am the Flying Fortress was already beset with problems, with first one engine and then a second one ablaze by the time it was over High Wycombe.

The headquarters of the US 8th Army Air Force lay just below, and Bovingdon airfield was 10-minutes’ flight time away.

But with two engines on fire, a basic aircraft weight of over 36,000 lbs, along with a maximum bomb weight of 5,000 lbs and all the fuel aboard for a long mission, it was not possible to crash land anywhere but in the vicinity of Wycombe.

Twenty-three-year-old 2 Lieutenant Charles Searl had a wife and two young daughters back in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, his hometown that he had named his plane after. Perhaps he was thinking of them as he wrestled desperately with the controls, trying desperately to keep it in the air just a little longer.

Or perhaps his mind was fixated entirely on avoiding a crash landing in a populated area. He may have thought of Tomahawk and its 3,000-plus residents; he almost certainly did think of High Wycombe and its 13,000 residents just below him.

In the 35 to 40 seconds it took the plane to hurtle at a likely speed of 150 miles an hour from over David Huntley’s aunt’s cottage to Lude Farm, Searl and probably his co-pilot Albert Dion did all they could to avoid hitting people on the ground.

Though In doing so, the B-17 narrowly missed the farmhouse in which Ron Setter was lying in bed.

Ron’s father saw the it wheel around in the sky and then come in. It must have then narrowly avoided the tall Dutch Elms that bordered the farm at the time, and then plunged into a field across from the farmhouse.

The explosion was immense, and anyone living in and around High Wycombe at the time reputedly remembers it.

As noted above, David Huntley recalls the blast being so violent it rocked his aunt’s cottage and it was felt over the whole area.

Meanwhile, Ron Setter says there was only one pane of glass left unbroken in the farmhouse, and the shockwave is said to have been so powerful that it warped the metal running along the farm’s barn roof.

Tomahawk Warrior crew and wreckage
The warped roof still visible at Lude Farm in Penn (picture: writer’s collection)

A little while later, David Huntley and his brothers made it to Lude Farm:

“We ran up the hill of Derehams Lane toward where the crash occurred and it was there I saw the remains of a plane virtually unrecognizable as a plane at all! There were people running around with galvanized metal tubs picking up bloody body parts, and I re-call parachute silk being used to cover bodies or remains. As an almost nine year old it made a deep impression upon me. My brothers were trying to shield me from the gruesome scene although I had seen plenty of wartime in London.”

This, though, as David admits in his blog, was bigger than a typical bomb blast from the The Blitz, and the authorities who arrived on the scene were quick not only to cover the remains of the airmen, but also to usher David and brothers away.

They were obviously right to have done so. Ron Setter recalls that the body of one airman ended up in a nearby lane, the sight of which, particularly up close, might have been more shocking than the remnants of the crash seen from a slight distance.

Years later, after having spent decades reflecting on the events of that day, David Huntley has said:

“We must remember Lt. Charles Searl and his crew who bravely diverted his plane that morning so that we could enjoy the fruits of freedom from an oppressive government had the Nazis prevailed.”

Charles Searl and his crew are indeed remembered, being memorialised each Remembrance Day at Penn Church nearby the crash site, along with local soldiers who died in the World Wars.

Though as it turns out, not all of the Tomahawk Warrior crew members died that day.

There was a tenth man who would ordinarily have been the tail gunner, Sergeant F A Snyder, but as the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association explains, he was not on the flight that morning. It is not known why.

He also survived the war as a whole, and returned home to the US, though at present nothing else is known of him.

What is known is that David Huntley also moved to the US in the years after the war, but the memory of the Tomahawk Warrior crew never left him and has spent a number of years working on a book about them.

Entitled ‘Tomahawk Warrior: A Final Hour’, it is due out in 2022. Though, as he explained at an event about the crash in Penn recently, new details about the story continue to emerge, details he hopes to include in the book.

B-17 Flying Fortress
David E Huntley at the Royal Standard pub in Penn and at the memorial plaque located in Lude Farm (pictures: writer’s collection)

After the crash, the bodies of the nine crew were buried in Cambridge Cemetery, where the body of one of them - Right Waist Gunner Albert W Knight – remains to this day.

The remains of the other eight men were returned to the US at the request of their family members, and they now lie beneath a memorial to the crew in Arlington Cemetery.

Pictures of that memorial and of Albert Knight’s grave are visible today on a memorial plaque placed in the field where their B-17 crashed.

A scenic part of the Chilterns, one could consider the field itself to be a kind of memorial. As Ron Setter says in his blog:

“The field where the ‘Tomahawk Warrior’ died is the same today as it was all those years ago. Beautiful, peaceful, and the seasons come and go. It is an everlasting memorial to duty and sacrifice. They that died need no other.”

Thanks to David E Huntley for assistance with this article and watch out for his book on the Tomahawk Warrior. Some aspects of the Tomahawk Warrior story currently within the public domain are not factually correct, and David's book will clarify much about the crash - at the same time, it will also be a human story about the crew members who were sadly lost that day.

Thanks also to Ian James of the Nuthampstead Airfield Museum for access to historical pieces of wreckage related to the crash.

Cover image: Items from the Tomahawk Warrior crash site and a picture of her crew, courtesy of Ian James of the Nuthampstead Airfield Museum (picture: writer’s collection)

Drone footage above is of the memorial plaque in the field where the Tomahawk Warrior crew died - donated anonymously and given to honour their wartime sacrifice.

B-17 Flying Fortress
Fields at Lude Farm where the B-17 crashed (picture: writer’s collection)

Does your family still share a story of an incident they witnessed from World War Two? Perhaps one that is frequently recounted at family gatherings?

Let us know your memories, or a story passed on from an older generation at [email protected]