On the glacial plain just north of the High Tatras Mountains that separates Poland from Slovakia is the village of Koniówka. Unlike the surrounding foothills with their ski slopes and second-home villas for the wealthy of Poland and Russia, Koniówka is remarkable for only two things. It’s flat and everywhere else is not, and on 13 September 1944 an American B-17 Flying Fortress crashed nearby.
The crash was probably the most noteworthy event in the village’s history since the Tartar invasion.
The villagers have not forgotten.
There are two large plaques outside the volunteer fire hall that commemorate the event, naming each airman who landed near the village. There’s a photo taken by a Home Army partisan of the vertical stabilizer after the crash clearly showing 46412’s identification.
Inside the fire hall, there’s a special room. It’s as if it’s a shrine, like the Madonnas that dot Polish villages. The room holds parts from the plane with descriptions in Polish. There’s a starter-motor lying on the floor. It could have been–and likely was–manufactured by Delco-Remy in Anderson, Indiana. I’d seen many like it when I worked in that factory decades after the war.
The B-17 never made it back to its Italian base. Two Me-109s set upon it as it made its way toward the mountains. (They shot down one, according to the plane’s navigator.)
All 10 crewmembers survived the crash, parachuting to relative safety. The crew landed in a wide sweeping arc as the plane circled the plain around Koniówka.
Pilot Everett Robson jumped last. He landed only 300 meters from his plane. He chose to drop his men near Koniówka rather than in the mountains. This decision almost led to fisticuffs with his copilot in the cockpit, but he ordered everyone out. At 26 he was the “old man” of the group.
Robson took his plane into the clouds so the following Messerschmitts wouldn’t see the men jump and shoot them on the way down. According to the English translation of the events, the Nazi aircraft pulled away and didn’t pursue their quarry to the ground.
Eleven of the men were quickly found by the partisans and spirited away to the mountains. Robson wasn’t as lucky and on 27 September he was captured by the Nazis and sent to a Stalag in Germany. He was fortunate that he wasn’t executed on the spot.
Robson survived the stalag and the war. He never talked about it to his family. They knew little of his wartime exploits.
Robson’s niece knew of the crash and the town. Details of that day and what followed remained largely unknown until Boguslaw Zieba published a book in Polish and English on the subject titled simply Blechhammer. In his research, he contacted Robson’s niece to learn more. He also contacted as many survivors of the crash as he could find.
As a result of Zeiba’s contact, Robson’s niece knew where the village was located. She was traveling near there with a Rick Steves tour group and thought she and her husband could rent a car and drive to the crash site. That didn’t happen, but she told the tour guide about her uncle and the tour guide and her driver made an executive decision to detour to the village on the route south from Krakow through the Tatras.
Leaving the main highway, the tour bus navigated down smaller and smaller roads. The weight limit on the bridges gradually lessened as we went on until we finally reached the fire hall.
It was an emotional moment when the bus pulled into the fire hall and unloaded its American passengers. It was 27 September 2019, coincidentally the 75th anniversary of the very date Robson was taken prisoner by the Nazis.
Our reception committee of one motioned for us to follow him as he showed us the way to the third-floor room cum shrine. It was a powerful moment for all of us to see the pieces of the wreckage and to know the story that went with it and the young men who were the fortunate ones that survived the war.
There were descriptions of the flight, its target, and what happened there in that tiny town near the border. It could have ended badly, but it didn’t.
While waiting to board the bus to continue our journey, an old babushka walked by and excitedly explained–something–to us in Polish. We’ll never know what she said, but we have a good idea it was to tell us of the day the Americans landed.