Growing up in the Netherlands, Bart Smeets had heard the stories of the day the American warplane crashed on his grandfather's farm near the border with Germany.
His mother would tell him how the twin-engine C-47 Skytrain was hit by a German antiaircraft blitz and crashed in a ball of fire on Sept. 17, 1944 -- eight months before the end of World War II in Europe.
Thirteen 82nd Airborne paratroopers bailed out safely. The 14th, Pvt. Ralph P. Bellesfield of Allentown, didn't make it. The four- man crew perished as well.
Though they were unknown soldiers, the townspeople of Groot- Linden buried the Americans in the church yard at St. Lambertus Catholic Church on Sept. 20, 1944.
"I always wondered who the soldiers were," says Smeets, "and who were the families they left behind."
Out of respect to the fallen Americans, the 36-year-old human relations manager undertook a mission to contact the families of the five servicemen who died in the liberation of his country.
Using the Internet white pages and Google.com, Smeets, from the Netherlands, located the families -- including Bellesfield's brother, 84-year-old Albert Bellesfield of Allentown.
Research by Smeets and the Rev. Gerard Thuring, a Dutch World War II historian, tell a compelling story of an Allentown soldier's brief but heroic involvement in World War II.
Their findings coincide with articles that appeared in The Morning Call and Evening Chronicle in the 1940s.
Steelworker, biker, paratrooper
Ralph Bellesfield was working at Bethlehem Steel when, at age 19, he was inducted into the Army in February 1943. He ran with the Salisbury Motorcycle Club and, not surprisingly, chose the physically demanding and dangerous life of a paratrooper.
Bellesfield hit the beach in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, with Company A, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
WSAN Radio heralded Bellesfield's battlefield exploits, which apparently included the North African and Middle Eastern campaigns, on its "Salute to Servicemen" on Aug. 19, 1944.
Stationed in Ireland for a time, Bellesfield was transferred to England in preparation for the invasion of the Netherlands.
Bellesfield was aboard Army Air Corps aircraft No. 20, dubbed "Satan's Fate," when it left the runway at Langar Airfield in England for a 12-hour flight to Drop Zone T Groesbeek: Wylerbaan Road.
Mission: Take "Devil's Hill," a Nazi outpost 5 miles from the German border, and hold it until relief arrives.
A few miles from the drop zone, the C-47 was hit by intensive antiaircraft flak. First Lt. Jim Martin, a muscular Georgian with a Clark Gable mustache, kept his burning plane in formation until Lt. John Foley's paratroopers had jumped. Eyewitnesses said the plane's wing crumbled and the plane fell into a field on Piet Martens' farm, on the outskirts of Groot-Linden.
Bellesfield, the last paratrooper to jump, was found dangling from the mangled fuselage by the strings of his parachute. Unlike the crew, whose charred remains were unrecognizable, Bellesfield's body was not burned.
"We can only speculate as to what happened," concludes Smeets, who first heard the story as a teenager 20 years ago. "Either there was some sort of problem with the jump, or he was wounded and couldn't complete his jump."
Paul and Helen Bellesfield got word that their son was missing in action about a month after the plane went down. The next day, amid their grief, they sent another son -- 25-year-old Albert -- off to war. A third son, Daniel, 18, was already aboard a Navy warship in the Pacific Ocean.
The War Department cable simply said of Bellesfield, "He was not seen on the drop zone after the jump by members of his group."
Christmas and New Year's passed with no word on the fate of the missing paratrooper. The family's hope was raised when, in February 1945, the Evening Chronicle ran what was described as "one of the most dramatic pictures of the war."
Filed by the Army Signal Corps, the widely circulated photo was of a paratrooper on a "one-man sortie" on the Holland-Belgian front.
"No fear is expressed in the face of a local paratrooper as he advances, well-armed toward a barbed-wire barricade," said the photo caption. The soldier was, the caption said, covered by a buddy with a .30-caliber machine gun.
From an enlarged photo supplied by Acme News Pictures, the Bellesfields positively identified the soldier in the photo as their son, Ralph.
Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day passed with no further word on Bellesfield's whereabouts.
On Sept. 18, 1945 -- a year and a day after he was declared MIA - - the U.S. adjutant general's office informed the Bellesfields that their son had been killed in action.
The news photo showing Bellesfield alive -- months after he went down with the plane -- remains a mystery.
Smeets insists Pvt. Ralph P. Bellesfield was buried in St. Lambertus cemetery. He theorizes that the photo was taken before Bellesfield's last mission but not released until after his death.
Thuring's research, published by the Liberation Museum at Groesbeek, indicates Bellesfield was positively identified by the Army Quartermaster Grave Registration Company on March 8, 1946. Bellesfield's remains were exhumed and buried in the U. S. Military Cemetery Ardennes, Neuville-en-Condroz, Belgium.
The only one of the five Americans who could be positively identified, Bellesfield's remains were returned to Allentown in 1949. He is buried in St. Mark's Cemetery in Allentown.
The remains of Lt. Martin and his C-47 crew are buried in a common grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Mo. They are: 1st Lt. Walter A. Voight of Red Rock, Texas, co- pilot; Staff Sgt. Vernon C. Kassekert of St. Paul, Minn., crew chief; and Staff Sgt. Anthony P. Biondo of Akron, Ohio, radio operator.
Posthumously, Bellesfield was awarded a Purple Heart. He held a Bronze Star, the Netherlands Orange Lanyard, the French Fourragere and the World War II Victory Medal. He was awarded European, African and Middle Eastern campaign medals, and bronze service stars from the Normandy and Rhineland campaigns.
Bellesfield held marksmanship medals on the carbine rifle, submachine gun, machine gun and mortar.
Liberators still remembered
Nearly six decades after they died, the American liberators are remembered in Groot-Linden. Their names are engraved on a monument in the town square.
Every Sept. 17, the anniversary of the crash, residents lay floral wreaths as the monument -- much the same as Memorial Day. Dutch veterans gather to pay tribute, and a trumpeter sounds "The Last Post."
In 1983, when the town first learned the identity of the downed Americans, a marching band played the American national anthem, while the American, British and Dutch flags flew at half staff.
In September, the town erected a plaque to Pvt. Ralph P. Bellesfield. His name is engraved beneath a depiction of the "AA" airborne emblem.
Louis Grather of Coopersburg, Ralph Bellesfield's nephew, had known bits and pieces of his uncle's fate. He recalled his grandparents talking about it when he was a child. He was eager to know more, and he thanked Smeets and Thuring for filling in the blanks.
"I'm most impressed at how the Dutch people keep the memory of my uncle and his fellow GIs," said Grather, a retired Agere Systems technician. Carolyn Ambrose, Bellesfield's niece, wished that her grandparents could have known the respect with which their son is remembered abroad.
"It would have meant so much to them," said Ambrose, who treasures a St. Patrick's Day card Ralph Bellesfield sent his mother in March 1944.
Albert Bellesfield, Ralph's older brother, is ailing and could not be interviewed, family members said.
Though he never knew Bellesfield, Smeets feels a connection to the Allentown steelworker-turned-paratrooper.
"He was a big strong fellow," says Smeets. "It's a shame, he died too young."
Knowing the details of what happened that fateful day in 1944, Smeets hopes, will provide a measure of comfort to the families of the fallen Americans.
"It's taken a long, long time," he says, "but there are no secrets anymore."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times