A few years ago, I wrote a blog for Remembrance Day about my mother’s first marriage during World War 2.
Robert Durham and Mary Oxenford married on January 23, 1943 in Abington Pigotts, near Cambridge England. Just over four months later, Bob was transferred to squadron 12. On June 12, Bob’s plane took off from the base. It was shot down over Northern Holland. Bob and the crew were reported missing.
My mother insisted that Bob came to her in a dream. He stood before her and said, “Don’t worry Mary, I’m all right.” That was when she knew he was dead. All the crew except one died and Bob was one of the dead, his body lost in the North Sea. Bob was given a Distinguished Flying Medal, posthumously.
Shortly after my husband died in May of 2021, I received an email from Martin Visser of the Netherlands. He had read my blog and asked me if I had any more information about Robert Durham, such as a picture of the crew in front of the plane they flew. My older daughter said I shouldn’t answer back as it was probably a money scam.
My husband loved genealogy and I knew he would have been like a dog with a bone, looking for a picture and more info about Bob Durham. I answered the email.
Martin Visser told me that Bob Durham’s body had washed ashore on the coast of Holland along with parts of the plane, near a town called Egmond aan Zee and was buried in the local cemetery at Bergen. A local man, Cor Van Pel who was recommended for the job by the Germans kept a list of all the dead airmen and the Dutch residents took the bodies away to to bury.
Bob was buried under a gravestone marked for an unknown soldier. Although he was found wearing his life vest which had his name, the government of the Netherlands is very strict about putting a name on a war grave. Sometimes airmen traded life jackets so it may not have been Bob. There was also the problem that the insignia on the life jacket was not the same as Bob’s rank in the wedding picture.
Martin Visser is part of a group of Dutch men who voluntarily track down the relatives of airmen and soldiers who died in World War 2 in order to find the proof to identify them and give their grave a name. They still search 77 years after the war ended. Incredible.
I could not find a picture of Bob Durham and his plane, but I did contact the British War office and was able to get Bob’s records even though I am not biologically related. The archivist was very happy to help in following up for a missing airman. The records showed that the insignia on Bob’s life vest was correct. He had been promoted after the wedding. My cousin, through an internet search, has since found a picture of the squadron in front of a plane. Unfortunately Bob wasn’t in it although he was listed as a member. It might be enough. Unfortunately, the British government represented by the Common War Graves Comity does not allow DNA research on soldiers from World War 2.
In early September of this year, I took a river cruise along the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam. I arranged to visit Bob Durham’s grave. I took with me a bouquet of flowers purchased in a local Amsterdam supermarket. I was met at the nearby train station by Martin Visser and two of the other researchers. As well as hunting for proof of identity of fallen soldiers, they also run a small museum located in a German bunker, look after the local lighthouse and rescue those in trouble at sea. All voluntary.
They drove me to the cemetery and I, feeling very moved, placed the flowers in a vase on Bob Durham’s grave. I gave a prayer and thought about how happy my Mother would have been if she was still alive, to know that Bob had been found.
For more that 77 years after the second world war, the Dutch go above and beyond to honour war dead who died fighting to free the Netherlands and defeat the Nazis. Not only do they still hope to name the dead, they are also hoping to create a memorial with the names of the unkown at the beach in Egmond aan Zee.
Each school child has a grave that they personally look after. On Christmas Eve, the local people come to the Bergen cemetery and light a candle at each grave of the war dead. I am hoping Martin will send me some pictures this Christmas. Bob Durham is not only no longer missing, his grave is loved and cared for.
Lest We Forget.