After 60 years, the last thing Lee Lamar expected to receive was an email from an archaeologist in Croatia with this message:
“If you left a bomber in Croatia in World War II, I have the pieces if you want to come and get them.”
Lamar, then 86 and living in Overland Park, couldn’t believe that someone had found the wreckage of his B-24 bomber, called Bottoms Up, near where he had bailed out when the plane was hit by a German anti-aircraft shell on Nov. 18, 1944. The plane plummeted to the Earth near Krvavici in what was then called Pula — at that time under German occupation.
After eluding the German army for 24 hours, Lamar, the co-pilot of the 10-man plane, was captured and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war, along with three of his crewmates.
After the camp was liberated by the Russian army in 1945, Lamar never flew another mission. But he always wondered what happened to the remains of his plane.
In 2007, he got his answer from a Croatian archaeologist who fought in the Balkan War during the 1990s. When Luka Bekic discovered the plane’s remains while on a dig, he felt compelled to try to find out what happened to the crew.Fly to Croatia
Once contacted by Bekic, Lamar’s next step was to fly to Croatia and claim his lost plane — and perhaps reclaim some of his lost history.
Lamar’s adventures as a pilot during World War II and his return to Croatia to revisit the site of his last mission was documented in a 2011 book written by Dennis Okerstrom, a professor of English at Park University in Parkville, Mo.
“The Final Mission of Bottoms Up: A World War II Pilot’s Story” is the story of Lamar’s last mission and his journey with Okerstrom back to Croatia more than 60 years later to gain closure and meet the people who had helped eight members of his crew escape German capture.
Lamar and Okerstrom spoke during a brown-bag luncheon Tuesday at the Visitors Center Auditorium at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene.Farm boy from Missouri
Lamar grew up a farm boy from Faucett, Mo., and joined the U.S. Army Air Force Reserve in 1942. He was called to active duty in February 1943, assigned to the 460th Bomb Group. He had flown 21 missions before being shot down that fateful November day.
Lamar was stationed at an air base in southern Italy, and the Nov. 18 bombing raid was supposed to just be a “milk run” — or a routine bombing mission on a German airfield in occupied northern Italy.
The B-24 was flying along the coastline of the Adriatic Sea toward its target when it was hit.
Next thing they knew, the plane was plummeting 3 miles to the Earth and had to be abandoned.
Okerstrom was told the story after meeting Lamar at an air show in Olathe, and Okerstrom invited Lamar to speak to one of his university classes. When Lamar told him about being contacted by the Croatian archaeologist, the journalist in Okerstrom knew he had a great story.
“I went to the university, and they said if you can turn it into a class, we’ll pay for the trip,” he said.
Okerstrom, Lamar and members of Lamar’s family made the trip to Croatia in August 2007.
Once there, Lamar was able to see what was left of his plane on a table Bekic had set up to place the parts — mostly small scraps and pieces of charred metal.
Lamar also spent several days trying to locate the parachute he’d buried after landing in enemy territory, but he had no luck. Later, he discovered it had been recovered during the war by a Croatian boy who’d taken the parachute to his mother. Not wanting it to be discovered by the Germans, the mother had cut it into pieces to make shirts and blouses for her family.
Okerstrom said that while the book is specifically about the adventures of Lamar and his crew, it also pays tribute to a generation that volunteered for military service and bravely fought through a horrible, costly world war.
“Tom Brokaw called them ‘The Greatest Generation,’” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s true, but they were a great generation.”
Lamar said all of the crewmen on that last fateful flight of Bottoms Up survived the war but some never got over the trauma of what they went through.
“One of them had nightmares all his life,” he said. “When he died, his last words were, ‘We’re going down, we’re going down.’ ”