Overhead view of memorial to 'Cole Crew,' members of the 306 Bomb Group whose plane was shot down in Beek, Netherlands in WWII.
November 08, 2017TRI-CITY AREA — Like a thread unraveling in the tapestry of life, Sue Linton's journey began with a dusty box of old letters.
The retired Imlay City elementary school teacher discovered the box after her dad, Robert Folk, died. She was helping her mom, Doris, move into a smaller home. It was 1999, and Sue was intrigued by the boxes' contents.
"What are all these letters," she asked.
"Oh, they're from World War II," her mom replied. "Throw them away."
"I can't throw them away, they're letters grandma saved," Sue replied.
"Okay, then," Doris Folk answered. "Don't look at them until after I'm gone."
Army Air Corps Tech Sgt. Robert D. Folk.
Doris and Robert Folk married in July of 1943, just four months before Robert was sent off to war. Neither had any idea of the fate that awaited him, nor how the past and the present would meet 74 years later to the day in a little town in the Netherlands by the name of Beek.
Doris Folk passed away in 2005. Honoring her mom's wishes, Sue waited until then to sort through the contents of the box.
The letters—both the volume and the contents—were stunning.
Sue's dad, Tech Sgt. Robert Folk, was a member of the 306 Bomb Group known as the 'Cole Crew,', which flew B-17s out of Thurleigh, England.
On October 14, 1943, the plane was shot down in Beek. Four members of the crew perished. Six survived and were taken as Prisoners of War. Robert Folk was one of them.
The tragedy could have been much worse. Knowing the plane was going down, 24-year-old 1st Pilot Lt. Vernon K. Cole deliberately steered the aircraft away from the center of Beek, where hundreds of its inhabitants could have been killed. Cole ended up being blown out of the plane and landed in a nearby town.
Robert Folk was knocked out of the plane as well. In the blow, he lost consciousness and fell to the earth. He landed in a field in Belgium, right near the border of the Netherlands. When Robert came to, he ran to a wooded area, where he hid out for three days. He was met by members of the underground, who offered to help him remain hidden.
A Dutch farmer ended up taking Robert into his home. The farmer's wife fed him, but later became too frightened to continue to shield Robert. Though the farmer wanted to continue to help the young soldier, his wife turned him in. They had been threatened with death if the Germans discovered they were hiding an American soldier.
On December 19, 1943, Robert's family was notified that he was a prisoner of war. They received the first letter from him in March of the following year. Robert didn't receive any letters from anyone until July of 1944. He remained a POW for two years.
Sue had no idea of all that her father had endured. Like others in his generation, Robert didn't dwell on it.
"My dad never talked about the war," Sue says. "When I began reading the letters I was amazed at how personal they got with each other, every one of the writers mentioned how they'd get together after the war, how they needed to maintain a relationship but they didn't."
A grateful historian
Last October, Sue was contacted by a member of the 306 Bomb Group, who had been in contact with a man named Roy Gottgens. Gottgens' home town is Beek in the Netherlands, and he was so grateful for the Americans' intervention, and for the pilot's skill in preventing a bigger disaster in his town.
When he noticed that the pilot's name was missing from a memorial statute the that honored all those who died in the war, Gottgens began his quest to right a wrong.
"He said 'I have to honor this man,'" Sue says. "And so he began his hunt for all the information he could gather about the 306 Bomb crew.
Using social media and all he could gather from the 306 Bomb Group, Gottgens contacted Sue and asked if she was Robert Folk's daughter.
Dick Folk and Sue Linton at the Cole Crew memorial in Beek, Netherlands.
He didn't know he'd hit a gold mine with Sue's treasure trove of letters.
Connecting the dots
Fueled by Gottgens' passion, Sue began her own journey to find living relatives of her dad's crew. She also used social media and the internet, and made dozens of phone calls. Gottgens was in the process of creating a memorial to Cole's crew. Ever grateful, Gottgens was determined to honor the Americans who helped liberate his country. He wrote a 28-page essay titled "Thunder in Heaven
14 October 1943: The second air raid on Schwein-furt. The experiences of the American crew of Lt. Cole."
An excerpt from the introduction reads as follows:
"As a 66 years 'young' citizen of Holland, I belong to the happy 'after 2nd world war' generation, who is enjoying a free and prosperous life. I do not know what a war is, except from what I read or see on TV. This means that Europe and my country are at peace during almost 75 years now. There is no generation in Europe like mine, who has experienced such a long period without a major internal conflict.
"How different was the situation in May 1940. My country was taken by the German army in only 4 days. We were not able to resist the massive and effective war machine of Nazi Germany. "Consequently, we were occupied for 5 years. Forced labor in Germany, extermination of the Jews, no freedom of speech, no free education or voting and German..."
Gratitude in 3-D
With contributions from the businesses and residents of Beek, Gottgens' memorial concept began to take shape.
With the help of Sue and others, some 31 descendants of Cole's crew gathered in Beek on October 14, 2017 for its official dedication.
Sue and her brother Dick were there for the special event, as were dozens of dignitaries from the Netherlands and the United States. Every branch of the U.S. and Dutch military was represented at the memorial service, including Beek's young students. Members of the Beek Foundation, including Gottgens, were also on hand for the event.
"The Beek foundation has been instrumental in educating people about what happened during World War II," Sue says.
Along with the dedication, guests and visitors were treated to a luncheon, dinner, and a veterans concert at night.
Sue says one of the many special moments included a speech from a Beek resident who was just 10 years old when the plane went down. Another woman spoke of finding a hat of one of the crew members, and thinking he had died she wrote to the New York Times. It was later discovered that the man was still alive, and his hat was returned to him.
"It's overwhelming," Sue says. "The reverence and gratitude they feel for the Americans and what we had done there is just remarkable."
Sue spoke at the memorial ceremony as well, sharing her appreciation for her dad and all those who served in the war. Crediting writer Stephen Ambrose, Sue began with the question "To whom do I owe thanks that I should live in such opportunity."
"This group of men sacrificed so much, fought, bled and some died," she said. "They fought for a reason, so we could live. They've given us the freedom to make something of our own lives. This memorial remembers not only those in the Cole crew, but all the men and women who gave so much in World War II."
Sue says there are more than 3,400 names in the American cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands. There are also some 8,400-plus graves where American soldiers lie, each one adopted by a Dutch family.
"There are 500 people on a waiting list to adopt a grave," Sue says. "It's just amazing."
Sue says the reverence for the American soldiers expressed by the Dutch and other Europeans gives her pause.
"To see what these people are doing gives you a whole new perspective," she says. "What they're teaching their children, we don't teach that in a lot of our schools. We don't teach what these men and women went through.
"Tom Brokaw coined the phrase 'The Greatest Generation,' and he was right," she says. "They really were."
To read Roy Gottgens' 'Thunder in Heaven' essay, click here
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.