I just found this story about a pilot from WWII that gave his own life to save a church and school. The pilot is also from my hometown.


Mercer honored in Belgium

Published: Thursday, June 12, 2008 1:22 PM CDT

Erin Smith, Staff Writer

A Bladenboro native and World War II hero was honored on May 22 in Tournai, Belgium, with a monument dedicated in his memory.

Some family members of Robert “Bob” Mercer was present when the monument in the memory of Mercer and his crew was dedicated. Velma Sanders, niece of Mercer; her daughter and granddaughter; and Eddie and Katherine Lennon attended the unveiling.

Sanders wrote in an e-mail to the Journal that she was not fortunate enough to have known her uncle personally.

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“I was born in April 1945, right after Uncle Bob died and right before the war ended in May 1945,” said Sanders. “I don’t think the Charlie Mercer family was the same after the loss.”

Jacques De Ceuninck, who witnessed the B-17’s crash as a child, planned the monument and contacted Mercer’s family about the project. After several years of planning, the monument is finally a reality.

Mercer was flying a B-17 bomber on a mission over Duisburg when the plane was struck with “flak,” three of which hit the plane underneath of the cockpit.

Mercer attempted to land in Brussels, but he was ordered instead to go to Merville, France. The plane began to vibrate and the number two engine began to burn. According to accounts, Mercer ordered his crew out of the plane while fighting the controls. The crew managed to get safely out of the plane while Mercer died in the ensuing crash.

Mercer managed to guide the stricken bomber away from the village of Tournai and avoid crashing into a school and church, which could have been devastating to the village. De Ceuninck witnessed the crash as a child and had one more surprise for the family during the ceremony.

De Ceuninck presented the family with a burned silk map salvaged from the remains of Mercer’s plane in January 1948.

Beverly Bryant of Bladenboro and Myrtle Jolly of Lumberton, Mercer’s nieces, were unable to attend the ceremonies in Belgium. They told the Journal the entire family felt it important that someone should attend.

“I learned second-hand about the tribute the Belgian government and people were planning to bestow upon Uncle Bob. The communications came primarily from my sisters in Bladenboro,” said Sanders.

She told the Journal she isn’t a traveling person, but the idea of attending the ceremony was an enticing one.

Initially, Sanders’ daughter, Melissa Brown and Jolly’s daughter, Joy Bisesi, were discussing going until Bisesi became ill and her doctors advised her against the trip. The family became more insistent that Sanders make the trip and finally she relented and agreed to the trip.

According to Sanders, the trip was very exciting and the ceremony very emotional for all involved. She and her daughter and granddaughter were allowed to participate in a wreath laying ceremony and her granddaughter gave a speech she had written in French and her cousin also gave a moving thank you speech, said Sanders.

During the unveiling of the monument, Sanders said she was invited to stand on one side of the monument and the mayor of Tournai stood on the other and they both pulled a ribbon that attached to an American flag that unveiled the monument.

“My cousin stood to my left side and we joined arms and wept to see such a tribute,” said Sanders.

Following the emotional ceremony, Sanders and her family members visited with members of the Tournai village who recalled their uncle.

“I spoke with an older gentleman. He told me that he was an eyewitness of the crash and how grateful he and his family were that their village, church and school was spared, but how sad they were that in order for that to happen that Uncle Bob lost his life,” said Sanders.

Though they were unable to attend, Bryant and Jolly also said they felt the monument was very special.

“It means his memory is still alive. I get teary-eyed thinking about it,” Bryant said of the monument.

Myrtle Jolly recalled how clever Mercer was in school. She has a copy of a test on the superlatives he had to take in high school.

“In high school there were 27 superlatives. He got a lot of them correct,” said Jolly proudly showing the document.

Mercer has been featured in the book, “Tom’s War,” written by James T. Hammond. In the book, an entire chapter dedicated to Mercer recounts the story of the flight and its crash. The family supplied artifacts and information to Hammond for the chapter.
This also reminds me of an email I got just after 9/11. It was from a fellow cp'er that lived in Belgium. He told me that his grandparents told him many stories of how brave the American soldiers were. He practically thanked me for their bravery and for them fighting for their country. I was never more proud to be an American as I was when I read that email.

I got the chance to travel to Belgium not long after that to meet him. I must say that Belgium is one of the greatest countries on Earth. All of the people I met there were extremely friendly. That means a lot when you're in a country and don't speak their language.