It’s been more than 70 years since 1st Lt. Merl Schroeder’s B-17 went down in Holland after a bombing run. His remains, and those of half his crew, were never found.
On Sunday, Memorial Day in Holland, Deborah Schröder placed a bouquet of flowers against a wall that bears his name — and 1,721 others — in the American Cemetery in the village of Margraten. It’s called the Wall of the Missing.
Schröder “adopted” Lt. Schroeder 11 months ago as part of a program the village established after World War II to honor the American aviators and soldiers who liberated their region from the Nazis.
Since she received her adoption certificate — and was shocked to find the pilot’s name was so similar to hers — she has worked avidly to learn more about Merl Leroy Schroeder.
She has unearthed many details: The dates he was born and (presumably) killed, where his father worked in Caldwell and even the serial number on the B-17F he piloted on the day he went missing. But she hungers for a sense of the man behind the name on the wall and, hopefully, the chance to connect with family members or others who knew him.
OUTLINES OF A LIFE
Schröder scoured online resources, including ArmyAirForces.com, connecting with veterans and others who offered information, research tips and links to other resources.
She started reading books about the air war over Europe, getting glimpses of what bomber crews experienced: the extreme cold, unpressurized cabins requiring oxygen masks, the near-constant threat of German anti-aircraft guns.
She made contact with the families of two of Schroeder’s crew members, learning more about the unit and getting a photo of the 10-man crew that put a face to the man she was researching.
She submitted a request for Schroeder’s personnel records, and although some had been destroyed in a 1973 fire, the National Archives and Records Administration furnished two documents including the Missing Air Crew Report.
From myriad sources, she cobbled together the outlines of Schroeder’s life.
Merl Schroeder was born Dec. 5, 1920, in Fullerton, Neb., to George and Bethel Schroeder. The family, including Merl’s little brother, George T., moved to Broken Bow before leaving Nebraska to settle in Idaho sometime between 1935 and 1940. George Sr. managed the Veltex gas station that then stood at 924 Cleveland Blvd., Caldwell, Schröder said.
The family apparently lived around the corner from the station at 410 S. 10th — a block now taken up by a Bank of the Cascades and a Kelly-Moore Paints.
Schroeder was commissioned as a second lieutenant on March 10, 1943, and received his pilot’s wings the same day. Then he learned how to fly the bomber dubbed the Flying Fortress.
In September, 22-year-old Schroeder and his crew were assigned to the 96th Bomb Group (Heavy), 337th Bomb Squadron at Snetterton Heath, Norfolk, in the east of England. Today the site is a race car track.
Together the 10-man crew flew more than 15 bombing missions over enemy territory, most likely using various B-17s.
On Dec. 16, 1943, Schroeder piloted a B-17F with the serial number 42-30860.
Returning from a mission to Bremen, Germany, they were nearing the Dutch coast when a U.S. bomber flying nearby was hit by flak and exploded. The wreckage tore into Schroeder’s aircraft, crippling it.
None of the crewmen survived. Remains of five were recovered and identified. The others, including Schroeder, were never found.
A CULTURE OF GRATITUDE
Schröder grew up in Heerlen, 7 miles from Margraten in the Netherlands’ southeast. She was fascinated by her grandfather’s stories about the great war and the day in September 1944 when Americans liberated the area.
“All of this has made a very deep impression on the village,” Schröder said. “Their farmlands were turned into a cemetery for their liberators, to whom they felt so indebted. It was horrible to see how many young men would never be going home again.”
At one time, more than 18,000 soldiers and aviators were buried there, until many U.S. families chose to repatriate their loved ones’ bodies after the war, Schröder said. Now 8,301 are buried at the permanent American Cemetery, plus the 1,722 names on the Wall of the Missing.
An adoption program for the fallen was started shortly after the war, with adopters pledging to care for and regularly visit the graves. Later the program was extended to the many MIAs, and that’s what Schröder signed up for. All of the graves have been adopted — there’s a waiting list — as have most of the missing. A special foundation administers the program.
Schröder now lives in Hagen, Germany, with her husband and two young sons. So far she has made the 200-mile round-trip to Margraten six times to lay flowers by the Wall of the Missing and honor Schroeder’s memory.
Her sons, ages 2 and 5, are a big part of her motivation.
“Someday I will have to tell them about the war,” she said. “Just showing them the cemetery wouldn’t be enough, since the amount of crosses and other markers is too overwhelming.
“By adopting one soldier, and hopefully learning as much about him as possible, I will be able to tell them the story of a man who came from a faraway country and gave everything so that they can be free. And the more I know about him, the more I will be able to honor him.
“I hope that when I’m old, (my sons) will visit him every now and then and think about him.”
CAN YOU HELP?
Deborah Schröder would love to hear from any relatives or friends of Merl Schroeder, or anyone else who can help flesh out her understanding of the MIA pilot. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.