Tears flow as heroism recalled
Fresh Kiwi tears have fallen on German soil in a moving ceremony to mark the actions of the crew of a doomed World War II bomber that included three Nelson men.
Pilot Ernest Stanley Wilkinson, originally from Brightwater, was hailed a hero for steering the burning British bomber, hit by enemy flak, away from the village of Schwanheim in September 1943.
The aftermath that for some has lingered for decades was finally laid to rest at a ceremony in the village overnight New Zealand time.
"I just feel as though lots of pieces of the puzzle have come together. It's been a life-changing experience," Rob Treacher said from Schwanheim this morning.
His father, RNZAF Flight Sergeant Neil Treacher, who grew up in Nelson, survived the crash which killed Mr Wilkinson and three others.
Rob Treacher was among a small group of New Zealanders with links to the tragedy who joined others from Australia, France and England for the civic ceremony in the south west German village.
Marahau orchardist Will Simes was there representing his father, Flight Sergeant Gordon Simes of Nelson, who was navigator on board the 75 Squadron Stirling bomber. He also survived the crash, and was held a prisoner of war until 1945.
Will Simes was presented a special gift – his father's flying helmet and map case, which had been held by a villager since the crash.
"It's all very overwhelming. The whole town has been in support of this," Mr Simes said this morning.
He plans to bring back the map case and helmet, plus a knife that belonged to his father but he was unsure how he would get it through Customs.
He learned through the villagers, who were children at the time and who found his father's mapcase, that it had also contained a sandwich.
"Dad had taken a snack with him on that flight."
The event was marked by speeches from Schwanheim mayor Herbert Schwarzmuller and a message from New Zealand ambassador to Germany Peter Rider.
The letter was read on his behalf by leader of the team that unearthed remnants of the crashed bomber a year ago, Uwe Benkel, assisted by Rob Treacher.
Mr Rider said that World War II gave rise to many unsung stories of heroism and sacrifice, and also helped forge unexpected bonds of friendship. "For the citizens of Schwanheim, events on 6 September 1943 will always tie them to Nelson in far-away New Zealand," Mr Rider said.
Mr Treacher and sister Janne Hennah of Tauranga made a last-minute decision to travel to Germany, after he initially said it would not be possible to attend.
He has grown up in the shadow of his father's suicide, who never recovered emotionally from the war.
Neil Treacher had tried to save a trapped gunner from the burning plane before he was forced to bail out. He was held a prisoner of war, and eventually returned to New Zealand but committed suicide in 1968. A photograph of the airman he could not save was found with his body.
"There were a lot of mixed emotions. I felt incredibly sad, and happy too – it's hard to describe.
"The love and level of reconciliation shown by the people of this region was unfathomable. The ceremony was an incredible event – there were tears, there was applause and people listened intently to the speeches," Mr Treacher said.
The pilot, also know as Tom Wilkinson, was represented at the event by Paul Dallimore and his wife Christelle Dallimore, the daughter of Nelson woman Pixie Sanders who was Mr Wilkinson's cousin. The Dallimores said in a message sent to the Nelson Mail that the "selfless act of unification by the people of Schwanheim gives us more reason to remember the brave sacrifice made by others."
The aircraft's remains were unearthed a year ago by researchers Mr Benkel, Roland Gotz and Lorenz Steigner who also organised and led the ceremony.
They began their research in 2007, which led to the discovery that some villagers had kept parts of the aircraft and crew artefacts all those years.
Will Simes said his father, who died earlier this year, was able to reconcile what happened.
"Contact from Roland and Uwe and messages from the village provided a great deal of peace for my father."
Mr Benkel said today the ceremony was "unbelieveable".
"It was wonderful. It was great. The speeches were incredible and yes, people cried."
The story of the Schwanheim crash unearthed by the bomber's discovery a year ago will feature in the Weekend section of the Nelson Mail this Saturday.
The Nelson Mail