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On July 14th and 15th, 2001, the crash site of the Sunrise Serenade was excavated near Brussels, Belgium. This plane was leading a formation to a target of last resort on May 1, 1944, when it was hit several times by flak originating from the Schaarbeek Railroad Yards which they had just bombed.



Digging for anything that can be found 57 years later.

This excavation has long been the focus of Belgian aviation archeologist Cynrick de Decker. Since the crash site was located very near to a famous castle, the occupants were at first reluctant to give permission to de Decker and the Belgian Aviation Historical Association (BAHA) to excavate the site. After many years of negotiations a dig was finally approved.


The navigator, John J. McGrath, and the bombardier, George D. Griffin, sign books.
Recovery team leader Cynrik de Decker is at right.

The excavation was kept secret so that the grounds would not be trampled by curious onlookers. Invited guests, including a full TV crew, did, however, number approximately 200 people. Representing the crew of the Sunrise Serenade were the navigator, John J. McGrath, and the bombardier, George D. Griffin. A nephew of the ball turret gunner and a grandson of the tail gunner were also present. During the excavation it poured rain, but that did not stop the excavation team from fulfilling their task since they had rented a crane and backhoe for the scheduled days. The Sunrise Serenade had actually broken into two pieces before it struck the ground, having the front end hitting near the castle.



The rainy day did not halt the excavation from taking place.

German documents described the crash as 100% destroyed. Some pieces were dug up from nearly 20 deep. A flight suit, flare pistol, 4 loaded machine guns, a pair of boots, along with hundreds of other items such as the engines, pieces of aluminum, plexi-glass, etc., were also recovered. Three full dump truck loads of plane pieces were hauled to a nearby car wash and rinsed off and classified.



Truck loads of pieces were taken away and cleaned.

One very special piece recovered from the site was the part of the nose panel which still had its olive drab color and the stenciled serial number 42-37949 on it.



The correct serial number (42-37949) proves they have the right plane.

Two other members of the Sunrise Serenade, John Brown (waist gunner) and Andy Senetsky (radioman) are also still living, but did not make the trip to Belgium. John Brown had jokingly said that if anyone found a pair of boots they would be his. It was well known among the crew that Brown was the only member of the crew who had hurriedly left the plane without his boots after they were hit by flak. The finding of his boots amidst the wreckage during the excavation was too ironic.



One of the massive 1200-HP, 9-cylinder Wright "Cyclone" engines.

McGrath and Griffin were treated royally by the Belgians at the castle, and many eyewitnesses of the crash provided stories. People told of the plane billowing with smoke and crashing so near to the castle that many thought the castle itself had been hit. The fire in the surrounding trees burned into the night. A young man was riding his horse near the area when the plane spooked his horse, sending him to the ground. He broke his hip and never fully recovered. He was present during the dig and still walks with a cane. Another older gentleman came into the castle carrying a flak helmet with flowers in it. His father had found Lt. Smedley who had been thrown from the plane before it crashed and had removed his helmet upon finding his body. The Belgian History Channel (VRT) is currently making a documentary of the final flight and of the excavation. It is scheduled to appear on Belgian television sometime in the year 2002.


Photos on this page are courtesy of John J. McGrath and George D. Griffin.


Additional photos of the crash site can be seen by going to this web site: www.ibelgique.com/Aviher/Sun/Page.html




© 2001 by Blue Mound Press.
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